Taking a new step in what we call life
Spanish lad travels to agricultural camp in Yorkshire, UK, to take job of a dead farmhand in World War 2. A government scheme: campers mostly students of several nationalities, 1953. Timid, he meets girls, falls in love with blonde Swede who leaves
Taking a new step in what we call life
Fernando García Izquierdo
Indeed time wears wings, as they say, and now that I am about to write concerning one of the most interesting periods of my life, I often say to myself, fixing on occasion my eyes on the mirror, after shaving for instance.
“What!! are those tired eyes I see, the same ones so alive and green that once began to observe life in Madrid, after the Civil War; and the outside Spain, long long ago?” A young man, inexperienced and rather taciturn that, almost by chance, arrived in a damp, tumultous atmosphere of the spring of 1953, in London where two million people were celebrating what they called “Coronation Day.”
Journey to the Yorkshire Moors.
I spent the night in a place, south of London, called Chigwell Camp, mainly occupied by young people, girls and boys: some, like me, coming from a foreign country.
I had retired to my tent and the lights went off when I was seated on my bunk, sorting papers and other things. I got out a small torch from my haversack, and went on reckoning for a few more minutes.
… a few French francs, one Pound Sterling and coins, as well as travellers-cheques.
… I looked at my passport: all the visas were there: exit, entry, transit, and all kinds of permits and authorisations. and then, the one I was trying to check.
… On page thirteen of my green-covered Passport, the desired British Entry Visa, issued the previous day.
… with the following disclaimer, which I had perused at least a dozen times.
…“Permitted to land on condition that the holder does not accept any employment, paid or unpaid, other than agricultural employment at a specified Volunteer Agricultural Camp, and does not remain in the United Kingdom longer than two months.”
Volunteer Agricultural Camps scheme.
Many British young had died during the second world
war all around the world, in North Africa, the Near East, South Asia, the Pacific, etc. On the Continent it was a real butchery. Imagine that when attacking the already dying Third Reich, trying to occupy the Ruhr, these same British regiments received superior orders to advance very slowly, so as to make sure the patents of invention (there were thousands of factories in the region) were preserved.
Secondly, when the war was finished in 1945 tens of thousands of farmhands in Great Britain instantly became factory hands: a new scheme was neded. Foreign students were allowed to enter and work in Britain on farmlands.
The journey to Yorkshire.
The following day, my haversack buckled on my back and, using the unbelievably difficult London Underground for a person who did not speak the languge, I reached a street in the City called Green Street, from where the students’ agency “Allied Circle” worked. They checked my papers and registered my name once more, and I was sent to a “volunteer agricultural camp” near York.
Again I took the underground and on arrival, after a very long journey, at a place called Edgware, which I had been told was, for me, the northernmost point of the Metropolis (for I had told them I was hitch-hiking), I came out and was surprised to see that I was still in London.
All sorts of people moving about, rushing, loitering, pacing, running, or staying put on corners, apparently waiting, searching, hoping for something to happen, standing by shop windows, forming long queues for the double-decker bus. Many big and small four-wheeled vehicles.
I was walking along, lifting my right arm in the air, asking for a lift. The air was warm and sunny. I now knew I would be able to withstand the journey, the weight and other hazards, if it did not last more than eight hours. As for the long walks, I was wearing good boots; and I might get long lifts, which would compensate. In effect, after a long time during which I only obtained short lifts and I still thought to be tramping through London suburbs, a young couple offered me a really long one; and when I was waving goodbye from the road, sorry not to have exchanged a few words, I was in the countryside.
Fish and chips.
I had just traversed the village on foot and purchased, in a shop which was also a restaurant, something to have on the road before going on, when I had a most strange agreeable experience. I went to sit down on a bench in the sun and had begun dipping my fingers in the greasy paper-bag, taking a chip to my mouth, then a piece of fried cod, when I heard the sound of a piano, the most sublime piece of music I had heard in my life.
I gazed at the window from where the music came (I would remember this moment all my life, but that day in that village, at twenty-three, I was still a child retaining not enough.) So months later I would get to know that that music was called “the Pastorale”, but at that point I was only an ignoramus, a poor chap. But full of feeling.
… I came to think that an angel from heaven was playing the piano, behind that window, for me alone.
… I dreamt and was full of joy, imagining a pretty young woman, blonde, blue-eyed.
Again on the road.
From then on I had mostly long lifts. You could find then in Britain some nationals who spoke French. Nothing else. I was however lucky that one man offered me a lift, who spoke Spanish and we had a long conversation. He told me he was going to Leeds. On arriving there, he drove to the Railway Station and actually bougt me a ticket to York, explaining what I had to do, the hour at which the train passed, etc.
Sitting in the waiting-room, with the haversack between my legs, it came to happen that I immediately fell asleep. I was awakened by a touch on my knees. Opening my eyes I saw a big, dark element with a baton and Bobby’s Hat facing me: “Move on!! You cannot sleep here,” he screamed.
It was thanks to this policeman that early the following morning I was walking into “Melbourne V. A. C.”
It was like a tall wall with an entrance to a Warden’s Hall and offices with a typewriter and other things, and a staff. The warden, Mr Cobb, registered my arrival and supplied me with the necessary documents and papers. Finally, I transferred to the Warden’s authority the right to use my ration card (which he would procure.) There were big communal kitchens.
I then buckled the haversack on my back and went on my way. There were twelve Nissen huts where the campers lived, and half a dozen bigger timber huts, which I was passing: kitchen, dining hall, recreation hall, etc. There were very few people at that hour, you only saw some isolated individuals here and there and heard the humming of voices.
As a Spaniard I marvelled at the good organisation of the British, and pleased and surprised to enjoy the really good weather we had. The landscape, the scenery I’d been seeing during the journay, though not majestic, was all the time nice, clean and very green.
Looking for my bunk and place.
“Ay, you, boy! look out!”
I looked up and saw, perhaps thirty feet away, a pretty young person calling me, a slender body and a wavy blond hair.
“Not your way,” she answered, pointing her finger to two notices fastened into the lawn.
I understood when I read: FEMALE QUARTERS, MEN’S QUARTERS. She was right; there were two gravel paths starting from this point, and I had taken the wrong one.
At length I reached my Nissen hut, the cylindrical cabin which (with many other items) were legated by the Royal Air Force from the war. There might have been in the camp at that moment about eighty campers; management and staff altogether ten or twelve, with the particularity that those who worked in the kitchen and served the meals were all Lithuanians.
It is well known that, as from around 1944, a great number of citizens from communist eastern European countries ran away to France, Great Britain and beyond. In Melbourne Camp they came from the Baltic. And it was (for me) a god-send. All these people were substantially blonder than the English, and I liked to see the young women attending us, the campers, at meal hours, in the eating hall or hut.
Another thing, among these Lithuanians I came to know one very well. He was a small man, comparatively, and was an excellent musician, who came sometimes to play the piano for us in the Recreation Hall.
Work the Wealth of Nations.
I lived in the Camp the rest of that summer, and would like to tell you what I did, an arduous task, I know, but I shall try. I shall begin in consequence from the beginning: money.
The few pesetas I brought out from Spain converted into travellers’ cheques, lasted of course very little, but I soon saw that thanks to British generosity, I would not lack anything while in Britain. The rent for eating and living in the camp was one guinea a week, and I was soon earning more than a pound a day. That for me was big money.
How I became a farmhand.
The Volunteer Agricultural Camps scheme was put into practice, as I have said, in order to help the farmers, to labour their fields. They were those who paid everyone of us in the evening after work. We were taken to the fields by lorry, green big ex-army trucks (there were three of them); but there could be smaller exploitations around, where the farmer came himself, in his motorcar or utility van to pick the needed labourers.
I’ll now tell you about my first day as an “agricultural English worker”.
Mr Cobb woke me up, and all of us campers, at six as he wandered along, with a thick stick in his hand, producing the noise of a machine-gun on the nissen hut walls. A few moments later we all were entering the long washroom and lavatories... and after half an hour, the big dining hall. After a very substantial breakfast, we all were marching towards the warden’s office entrance, ready to climb into the green ex-army lorries.
On the road to great experience.
The sun shone so brilliantly into the back of the lorry that I had to close my eyes, only an instant…, and when I opened them again, it took me a moment to realise that I was sitting with others on a long wooden plank. An intense ray of light illuminated the row of individuals on the opposite side of the vehicle; and I immediately realised that I was sitting opposite a young woman of eighteen or nineteen of entrancing beauty.
I had been hearing the purring of an engine as we were climbing the hill, and then, without my being able to explain how it happened, I found myself engaged in conversation with that very girl who had told me, some thirty hours earlier, that I had better look where I was going.
… she was telling me with a most tender voice that she came from Lancaster and was presently studying modern languages at Manchester University.
… in return I told her that I was a postgraduate student (Law) from Madrid University, and that I was Spanish and had come to know the country and learn English.
That day it was hoeing.
Mr Cob had put up a notice on the passage by his office, informing us: Here hoeing, all the morning, so and so… Here mucking, old stables, etc., etc.
This or something similar happened every morning, and every morning there was (there) great tumult on the national road, outside the warden’s office, among the trucks and other vehicles, usually parked there until all the campers had disappeared in “their search for gold”, and with them the pollution temporally infecting the air.
At a cross-roads’ I noticed that my lorry was going towards Market-Wheaton on the way to Selby. Happily my girlfriend was on the same truck as me. That is, we had arranged to be together.
… we were left on the side of a large field of young green wheat, resplandecent in the sunshine. My girl was near me.
… I knew I couldn’t call her so. In Spain I had never had a “novia”. I’d never had a penny for inviting anyone even for a coffee.
Starting our agricultural job.
Now I knew what hoeing meant. A man came to our encounter, eight campers. He supplied us with eight long hoes, and we entered the field, following him (who became or guide and leader). By midday we had cleared of weeds approximately half the field; another man, driving a utility-truck, had brought our lunch and a large urn of tea (with twelve aluminium cups). I was in seventh heaven and for an evil reason.
… and she was with me, speaking very slowly to help my comprehension. I was learning her language very quickly.
… the landscape was nice. I saw a small copse of young silver birches nearby and suggested we eat there.
… but there was not in me an entirely honest intention, and she turned to me saying that I looked naughty like a cat stealing the cream.
… and yet, and yet, in the pride of her purity, she answered positively and we had our lunch together among the trees.
It is my own history.
The V.A. C. scheme may be a mere detail in the immense map of British History. It is important for me to speak of Melbourne Camp, because it was there that I ceased to be a boy and became a man. I lived there, I worked from there and I was very happy.
As I have already say, impressions that now come to my mind and may mean little to others; “hoeing”, “harvesting” “mucking” and a thousand more. They entered my mind when I was working with my hands. I hope I do not bore you.
What I want to say is that I laboured a few hours a day, was paid for it, and was happy.
And I was called ‘an alien’.
Of course, I am not going to speak now to you of all the jobs I did, anticipating on the V. A. C. scheme; they were many and almost infinitely varied, never anyone pushing you and always in fresh air.
When the job was completed (and always much before dusk) we went to the camp in the ex-army lorries.
… we campers were fatigued but very cheerful. At least I was. The lorry was driven (most times) by a blond Lithuanian. All of them were escapees from the Soviet Union and seemed to me to form a tribe apart, inside the camp’s territory.
… the driver was at that hour doing the runs of our different places of employment, ‘in toto’ about twelve campers.
… all that terrain had held from 1939 to 1945 several R.A.F. bases, fantastic small aerodromes.
… two German Campers from Cologne, as usual, began swearing in their language, as we reached this point.
… suddenly, sometimes, another of our lorries from the camp entered the ancient air-field from another road.
… and the two vehicles were at once racing at a hundred per hour, and we the campers began to encourage them most enthusiastically…
Going to the Country Pub.
The little road to the village was pretty, both sides being green and full of daisies, buttercups and dandelions. We sang, marching with our arms linked, girls and boys, occupying the whole width on the macadamised road.
To tell the truth, most of the time only Franco Manzoni was singing; the rest of us were imitating him. He came from Venice, but he was marvellous, singing Neapolitan songs.
From the moment of initiating the march at the camp’s entrance we could see the public house, right at the top of the hill, grand and beautiful, almost entirely hiding the village, which lay behind the glamorous noisy place.
As we went into the public house, we met people with whom we used to work in the fields, or otherwise were familiar, and they received us with enthusiasm. An old lady in a colourful cotton dress and wearing a bonnet with artificial flowers, sat at an old piano thumping the keys and singing what I took to be a popular ditty; at times turning her back, to utter magnificently the refrain, which was enthusiastically repeated by the public.
… I see my girlfriend, who had been directed to another table with some Swedes, also singing, and I move exaggeratedly my lips, sending a silent message through the air: “I love you!”
… she frowns and turns to talk to one of the Swedish campers, whom I know well: his name is Ingvar Guvtansson.
… another country ditty is sung, everybody lifting their glasses; and I have been drinking so much already that I’m
acting like a child, baby talking.
… she catches me at it, and I see her beautiful red lips curving up to send me a silent message through the greatly polluted air: “you’re cheating!”
… music and love and sociability, and gallons of warm beer. We all have lifted our glasses again and I think I have begun to learn the language. Oh, lovely reverie!
The way back to the camp.
I have succeeded in convincing her to come down alone with me on the road, back to the camp. The publican was emptying the establishment, as always, at an indecently early hour.
I don’t know how it’s happened, but we’re descending the camp linking arms amorously, singing and looking at one another.
… she insists we’d to stop to hear the crowing of the frogs around a pond. And we have to run away like surprised burglars, as we see a light illuminating one window in a contiguous farmhouse.
… we stop out of breath at the bottom of the hill. And we are on the peak of an old Roman bridge over an unused canal. We could see an old lock in the distance under a full moon, which now illuminated the whole canal, full of reeds on both sides.
All that was terrain well known to me, perhaps to her too: I had swum there some evenings with other campers; and I was so stupefied and short of moral sense at that moment, that I got her by the shoulder and suggested that we swam in the nude under the moonlight. “We can do it,” I added, “if we walk to the lock.”
In turn, she touched me on my shoulder, and flashing her blue eyes on mine, she said : “Please, let’s continue.” She made to go.
Whether furious or ashamed - I don’t know -, I followed her, crossing the narrow road, and stopped short once more, the still low moon on my back: it was a drawing on Indian ink what I was now seeing, an arch built by the Romans so long ago, its reflection of the shiny water, a multiplicity of reeds on either side. I had to run to meet up with her.
We might have reached, that night, the camp shortly before ten; for the Recreation Hall was open. I heard the sound of a piano.
“It is Brahms,” she said.
I knew it was a Lithuanian playing, the chief cook.
“It’s Vitas,” I said, “He always plays at this hour.”
Hoeing weeding, mucking, harvesting.
In fact it was for me much more than that (that first sojourn at Melbourne Camp); I had sometimes, in Spain, gone to my mother’s village and done some harvesting. Now, on the East Reading of Yorkshire, I was learning new things, and was earning all the time my own living, pounds, shillings and pence. I was in charge of my own life for the first time.
And getting to know interesting people.
There were some middle-aged campers, usually divorced men seeking to escape an obligation or two… debts or paying alimony. Usually they were socialists, or revolting against society, unsuccessful artists. It is difficult now to tell you, but I know I learned much from them, art and politics, government and law.
“¡Hijo! Tú antes no eras así! ¿quién te ha cambiado?” I would hear my mother henceforward all the time.
“Agricultural” in those northern fields meant much more than what it sometimes did in my mother’s “Tierra de Campos.”
It meant, ‘inter alia’ trucks, tractors, big harvesters, modern combined machines, indeed the industrial revolution, which had never touched Spain. I was surprised that it was “los ingleses” who took over the task of paying for my dental work, the ‘VICK VAPOUR RUB’ I consumed. One day I broke my glasses because I was so stupid as to wear “Truman” lenses, and it was too flimsy a system… And the State paid for everything.
Welfare System, free Schooling, nationalised British Transport, so prevalent when I went hitch-hiking on the road. And then, transnational corporations. All so different from the country where I’d lived all my life. I seemed to have come from another planet; the German campers, among whom I had made some good friends, boasted of being wealthier at home than “in here”.
“Then,” I said to myself (of course, exaggerating a bit), “los alemanes son cien veces más ricos que nosotros.”
The Swedes too were privileged.
Wealthier in any case than other nations. Their purpose on registering with the volunteer agricultural camps scheme was to perfect their already good English. They used to stay only for one “sojourn”, which was a pity, for they were all rather nice.
Latins and Greeks had another more clearly defined purpose, which was to accumulate some pounds sterling… and “linger”, not only to stay all summer, but beyond.
Swedes arriving from Newcastle.
It was Claude, a French lad from Paris, who told me: “A party of Swedish students will be arriving at about six.” He also said, with a flick of his fingers: “Swedish girls, you know? They are easy, the most advanced on free love in the whole ot Europe.
Mr Cobb himself was fetching them. He’d gone out in a lorry at 5 p.m. and indeed at six about eleven or twelve Swedes were descending, from the said army-truck, on the cemented parking, at the camp’s entrance.
They were all blond, and all wore a white-and-blue navy cap with the word Uppsala on. The girls were adorable and both boys and girls ever so friendly.
Two came to live in my own hut: one of them was called Ingvar and the other’s name was Sven (from Katrineholm - I corresponded with them for some time after that.) The names of the other five boys living in the Nissen hut have now come to mind; they were Richard, a German, Michel, a Frenchman, an Australian called Armstrong, a Scot called Kilty and an Italian we all called Spaghetti because he was tall and thin.
The Swedish students joined in the camp life marvellously.
Another thing about them was that they all were excellent dancers. In the Recreation Hall, when they intervened, I would have said they were professional dancers.
I felt sorry for myself, at never having learned to dance!
My pretty Swedish girl
And for me the arrival of the Swedish students meant the arrival of Barbro. I remember the first time we went out together. She told me she had never known a Spaniard, and I think she felt as proud of being seen with me as I felt at going to eat with her at the dining hall or marching anywhere with her, so blond a girl!.
We got quite knowlegeable on the use of buses and went once together to York, sight-seeing, where the Cathedal was subsiding. I read in Melboune Camp, in English, for the first time, Don Quijote, having moved by bus, this time to borrow from the public library in Beverly, a small town more towards the North Sea.
In my opinion there are few so entrancing experiences as when you contemplate the nordic seas, in summer, from the cliffs. Said experience I often had, thanks to having passed months as a camper in Melbourne Camp, when one or other of the ex-army lorries took us to the beach at Scarborough or Filey.
I took Barbro with me, as soon as we got off the lorry, the campers quickly dispersing (with instructions to meet there at a quarter past six) and we two choosing to prowl around, observing, analysing.
“Learning,” she said, “in order to have something to relate when you return home. Uppsala!!”
“Only,” I was thinking to myself, “I shall not return home!”
We had been strolling for a while along the wild green cliff that goes from Bridlington heights down to a very rough sea, white and blue and dark green.
I don’t know what lies I told her, but I remember that I talked a lot. We sat at the very edge of the cliff, and my green feline eyes were again fixed on her, two beautiful suntanned legs, dangling over the abyss; and she simply laughed at me; unless that was the way Swedish girls smiled, pushing her golden curls from her eyes with her hand all the time, for there was a strong marine breeze.
It was at her suggestion that we sat down precisely there, not mine: she opened her big handbag. I drank some soda-water and started eating the sandwiches we had bought on the extraordinarily animated narrow path going up from Scarborough beach.
Barbro was the least tall of the Swedish girls, who were all fairhaired and pretty. I glanced at her suntanned legs, asking myself where that beautiful suntan might come from?
She burst out laughing again, clutching her legs with both hands.
A moment later we both were drinking and eating our ‘tea’, a flock of seagulls watching us, actually as if they were floating in the air, very near the cliff, and Barbro, an animal-lover, threw small pieces of bread to the birds.
Oh, God Allmighty! Might she have never done it!! We were surrounded by legions of screeching maritime birds which unceremoniously deprived us of part of our food.
She only laughed happily and looked so pretty, and I saw the seagulls finally flying away from us.
We did reach the green lorry on time.
And we were on the road at dusk, Franco and Eva were sitting opposite us, two rows of campers tired and happy.
And I don’t know if I had fallen in love with my Swedish girl; I remember that a week later I was embarked with Franco Manzoni on the train to Newcastle, on which port we saw, waving goodbye to us, “our girls”.
“Look well at them,” said Franco, “for it is the last time you see your Barbro.”
It isn’t the last time, I nearly cry.
Once more I was losing short-lived frendships. Natural in a volunteer agricultural camp, now about to close. In two weeks Melbourne Camp would be closing for the season.
I am too sentimental, almost at the end of my “camino en la tierra”, and still have not come anywhere. So many new friends, all the time! “Good-bye and good luck!”
An aging nervous big boy. What sort of good luck has been mine? Oh, yes! I know now! When I bought in a shop in Pocklington… or I wouldn’t be suffering! this excellent blue pullover, knitted in Guernesy.
I see a sunny golden landscape, but what a horrible wind. If I had possessed a camera I would have taken a couple of photos.
In my hand there is an airletter. It comes from Alberto, one of my brothers. He’s telling me about our father.
“Fernando, you are his favourite, same eyes! You know he loves us very sentimentally.”
“Why are you doing this to him? Do you know that he is now working for the Santander Governor, one of the biggest ‘falangistas’ de nuestra nación. You could also join the Party. Indeed, he has already prepared everyting for you.
And are you going to act so wrongly, insistently? What? to be a mere worker all your life?”
Our youngest brother, Santiago, also signed the letter.
I was trembling, I don’t know why.
The idea that I should become a Fascist in order to succeed in life made my furious, but about my future what I should do, return to Spain or not, what new step I should take now in life? I had no idea!
It was quickly getting dark. I was paralysed; but there was still some sense left in me.
At length, I got up and slowly plodded the way back to the bus-shelter.
I was desperate, almost in tears.