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Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Friends and Neighbours

     If you live in suburbia, the odds are that you do not know the people at the end of the street. If you do, it is probably because you both have children, for children, being more natural animals than adults, quickly find age mates with which to socialise, and their parents are forced to follow suit. I could write a long dissertation on the loneliness of the crowd, and the terrible atomisation of society in the big city, but it wouldn't be completely accurate. It is true that, in large urban areas people can fall through the cracks, but most of us are not socially isolated. It is just that the dominance of the automobile has allowed the network of work, church, social club, and family activities to extend over wide distances. We have just as many social links as before, but just not within our immediate neighbourhood.
     On the other hand, the rural community in which my mother grew up extended over equally wide distances, but it was a close knit community. Everybody knew everybody else, by reputation, if not by direct contact. When a new teacher arrived in the area, everyone soon knew everything about him: what sort of family he had, what his recreations might be, how often he went to the pub, and anything else which might impact on his ability to be a proper role model for their precious children. I also never ceased to be amazed at how, 50, 60, even 70 years after my mother left the farm, she could bring up in casual conversation the names of people she knew at the time. I only ever managed to record a few. Perhaps they will suffice.
     We will start with the farm hands. They came and went according to agricultural necessity. My grandfather might have employed two or three at any one time. They stayed in a "shed", though their former quarters were never pointed out to me when I visited the place as a boy. Some of them went home on Sundays. Obviously, this sort of work would have provided an excellent opportunity for a teenaged boy or young man to get a toehold on the financial ladder, but the life of a casual agricultural labourer must have been rather precarious. Employment was available for only a limited time, and often the workmen were forced to be itinerant. Not everybody who carried a swag was a loafer. In those days there was no holiday pay, overtime, or long service leave.
     The hired hand whose name always arose in conversation was Larry O'Shannessy. He was a bachelor, who had once come into a legacy and, instead of using it as seed capital, lived a life of idleness staying in a hotel until the money ran out. Ultimately, he was forced to go on a pension, which meant he was "no good for his country" in Grandpa's estimation. But, apart from the occasional lapse of a weekend bender, he was very reliable, and would be employed for extended periods - even six months at a time - in successive years.
     Larry worked various other farms as well, in particular, that of the Lindsays, which must have been some distance away, because the Dennises never met them. The Lindsay children were really terrific, according to Larry; they were clever, they were expert horsemen, they were good at practically everything. "It got to the stage," said Mum, "that we really hated those Lindsay kids, even though we had never met them."
     Eventually, when she was older, she did happen to meet one of the Lindsays, who told her an interesting story. "Larry O'Shannessy was always talking about how wonderful the Dennis kids were. You know, it got to the stage where we really hated those Dennises, even though we had never met them."

     Then there was the time the word went out: "Kitty Kees has fleas!" Kitty was a girl who one day turned up at school with an infestation of what sounds like head lice, but which Mum always referred to as "fleas". You could see the little vermin running up and down her hair. In the natural course of progression, they quickly spread to most of her associates. At last, in frustration, the Dennis parents cured their children by washing their hair in sheep dip - something which is unlikely to be recommended by modern physicians.
    
     Of course, no community would be complete without the village idiot or, in this case, the district idiot. "Poor old Bert McCarthy had no brains," Mum always used to say. He was about the same age as Aunt Lil ie seven years younger than Mum, and suffered from Down's syndrome. They must have lived nearby, because the McCarthies used to collect the Dennis's mail at the same time as their own.

     For the final anecdote, you need to know the method of producing jam jars in the old days. Jars were not as common as nowadays, so the usual procedure was to take an empty bottle, and tie around it a rag soaked in kerosene. The rag would then be set on fire, and promptly immersed in a receptacle of cold water. The sudden contraction brought on by the change from heat to cold would cause the top of the bottle to fall off with a clean break. After that, it was necessary only to fill the "jar" with home-made jam, and seal it with greaseproof paper bound around the edges with string.
     Now, enter Thelma Cheney [chee-nee] and her brother, from a family "too poor even for cow cockies". My grandmother claimed the name originated in England, although it sounded Chinese, but my own mother claimed they looked rather oriental. In any case, she sneaked a look at their report cards, and confirmed her suspicion that they were of limited intelligence. They must have been because, having watched their elders doing the jam-jar-making trick, they decided, "Why don't we see whether we can get our heads to drop off the same way?" Why anyone would want to make one's own head drop off is anyone's guess, but it obviously wasn't a terrible lot of use to either of them. So, they went out to where a trough of water stood for the fowls to drink, soaked some rags in kerosene, tied them around their necks, and got out the matches for an experiment to give the phrase, "losing your head" a whole new, literal meaning. Of course, the experiment failed, and the first one to try it came back to school with a bandage around his or her neck.

     Now, before we return to life on the farm, let us take a look at a few of the interesting characters in the family.
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