I had read some old novels of my father’s about Australia by Ralph Boldrewood. Two of them were Miners Right and The Squatter’s Dream, and there was another about bushrangers. I thought that this would be the right life for me, and I said that I wanted to emigrate to Australia. At that time our neighbours, the Royles, had a pheasant shoot on the Youlston property, and I took part as a beater. There was a sergeant of the New Zealand Army there on leave, and he asked me what I intended doing. When I told him, he said, ‘Why don’t you come to New Zealand? I will get you a job.’ This meant that if I went to New Zealand I would know one person, whereas if I went to Australia I would know no one. That turned the scales in favour of New Zealand, and I now sought for a passage. But passages to New Zealand were very hard to get. All the ships were booked up for a long time to come.
My father answered an advertisement for a boy on a farm in Leicestershire. The job was mine, and I took the train for Coalville, where I worked for seven months for J. G. de Ville. I was paid five shillings a week, and during that seven months de Ville gave me a pair of boots and one half day off to go to the Leicestershire Horse Show between milkings. It was a hard life, especially in winter, getting up in the dark to feed and milk the cows and working all day on jobs such as spreading manure. In the evenings came more milking, and more feeding of calves. I was lonely, and fell back on my dreams. I looked forward every night to getting to sleep, and had wonderful dreams of warm-hearted, friendly people, loveable people, and comfortable living, with nice things to touch and eat. I often dreamed of my cousin Margaret, whom I adored.
I caught ringworm from the calves and could not get rid of the ugly sores, but summer arrived, and life became better. There was a wonderfully fine spell in June; the sun on the young grass, the smell of new-mown hay. Hard work from dawn to dusk induced a feeling of bodily fitness, of lustiness, with a kind of hazy, half-drugged stupor in the brain. De Ville had a daughter, Dorothy, (by his first wife) living with him. She was kind-hearted and amiable and I was madly in love with her. But I knew nothing; I was an oaf who didn’t know what to do, or what to say, and I just had to suffer in silence. De Ville’s second wife, who was part of the household, was not much older. She was a good-looking brunette who kept a tight rein on household affairs.
There was a railway cutting through one part of the farm, where the mainline expresses thundered past without being visible. Whenever I heard them I used to feel lonely with a great homesickness, but precisely for what I did not know. One day while I was hoeing turnips, the airship R.34 passed overhead on, I think, its maiden flight; it looked huge, new and shiny, and it went by slowly. De Ville not being near, I stopped hoeing turnips to watch it until it was out of sight. This was the first aircraft to make the double crossing of the Atlantic. I wonder what I would have said if I had been told by a fortune-teller then that I would be the first holder of the Johnston Memorial Trophy, founded in memory of the navigator of the last airship to be built in England, the R.101, which crashed in France.
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One of the more pleasant jobs on the farm was to drive the milk churns to the station. De Ville had an ex-stallion that had been retired late in life. (I think it was rather like de Ville himself, a tough character, but a hard-goer.) One day, on the way back from the station, I was sitting on the box seat of a flat-bottomed dray to which the stallion was harnessed. I had eleven seventeen-gallon churns, all empty, standing on the dray. There was an ‘improver’ working on a near-by farm, who had also delivered milk in a float with a frisky, fast mare. We started to race home. I was in the lead when we came to a right-angled turn with a large, round stone at the corner of the footpath to keep vehicles off. I was driving with the reins in one hand only, too cocky to use a second hand for turning the corner, and the nearside back wheel went over the boulder. The horse was going as fast as it could trot; I flew through the air, and looked up to the sky to see the milk churns around me like the great bear constellation coming to earth. The churns and I landed together, while the horse set off for home at full gallop. It went clean through two five-bar gates on the farm, and ended up snorting in de Ville’s garden. When I arrived, which was definitely in second place, although I had run as fast as I could over the two-mile track, de Ville was waiting for me. He knocked me down in the dining room and held a chair over my head while he straddled my body. I listened to Dorothy sobbing in the next room out of sight, while wondering if the chair was going to come down or not. There wasn’t anything that I could do that I could think of, and I was quite calm. I think this had an influence on him, and the chair did not descend. Then he gave me an hour to get out of the house with all my belongings. When I left it was midday, and I had already been working or busy about the farm for seven hours. I tried to get trains across country to north Devon. I suppose that I should have taken a train to London, and then another one from there to North Devon, but I did not think of this, and no one suggested it. By midnight I had reached Burton-on-Trent, and was pacing up and down the platform nursing my wrist, which had been bitten by a dog of de Ville’s during all the fracas. There was a rabies scare at the time and when my wrist began to throb I got frightened. I made inquiries, and was directed to a doctor’s house in Burton. I rang the bell but could not make anyone hear. Then I saw a chink of light from a curtained window, and peeped through to see a number of people sitting round a roulette table. I knocked on the window, and they all jumped up and dispersed like a covey of frightened partridges. The doctor came to the door, and very sedately attended to my wrist, dressed it, and said that he thought it would be all right. He sent me away without charging me anything. When I got back to the station, I was immediately grabbed by two plain-clothes detectives who asked me where I had been. It flashed through my mind that they knew the doctor was running a gambling establishment (then strictly illegal), and wanted me to give evidence against him. Having been befriended by the doctor, I refused to say where I had been or why. At last I convinced them that I was only a passenger to Devon and then they told me that there had been some thefts at the station, and that they thought that I was one of the thieves. About dawn I was approaching Exeter where I had to change trains. Unable to keep awake any longer I slept through Exeter and had to work my way back from Cornwall. I did not get home until 2 o’clock in the afternoon. By that time I was tired, and perhaps not as diplomatic as I ought to have been when my father was furious at my turning up suddenly without notice. There was decidedly no fatted calf awaiting a returning prodigal. I tried to get ajob in a garage. I bicycled to Exeter and back one day (90 miles) and interviewed six garage owners, but without success. A few weeks later my father obtained a passage for me in the steerage of a ship going to New Zealand. My brother insisted on travelling down in the train to Plymouth with me to see me off, but he had just deeply offended me by laughing at my wish to have a revolver to take with me to New Zealand. This spoilt the start of the voyage for me.
Looking back, I think that I may not have been fair to my father. I have been told that he was ordered by my grandfather to enter the Church on the old principle of one son each for the Army, the Navy and the Church, but my father himself told me that he had wanted to enter the Church. I think, however, that he was unsuited for it, and that if he had been in some other profession, he would have made his mark. He was continually fighting against his possibly unconscious wishes and using up his nervous energy in a tremendous effort to do the right thing. In the end he became a puritan of the severest kind. One day he reprimanded one of the villagers for being drunk, and this man retorted that it was all very well for the likes of him to talk, because he could keep drink in his house, and have it at any time, whereas a poor man could not afford to do so. The logic of this seems a bit shaky, but it impressed my father so much that he never drank alcohol again, except in the sacramental wine.
In the house he seemed to be disapproving of everything I did, and waiting to squash any enthusiasm. Occasionally he was friendly, and on a bicycle ride or a walk he could be a wonderfully good companion. My happiest memory of him is of one day when we were out for a walk together and he wanted to hold me by the ankles over the side of a bridge so that I could take an egg from a water wagtail’s nest. I wouldn’t let him, and I still remember with regret the whimsical look of disappointment on his face. Building up his collection of birds’ eggs was one of his great hobbies. At that moment he was a fellow human being for me.
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