Thursday, March 6, 2014

19 Soustons

What a fantastic summer that was.

We caught the train from Nottingham to the rugby and farming heart of Southern France. We took up a summer of seasonal farm work.

At the end of the few months there I had to hitch hike half the way to Paris back as I'd spent too much in the wine fund and couldn't afford a complete return ticket. I thumbed it to Bordeaux, starting at dawn. I was both grateful and worried about the woman who picked me up and "took me home for breakfast." It turned out fine. Aye.

I was young, I was virile, I was free. We were students, the unemployed, temporary workers, hedonists. What united us was we were skint but were up for a slog in a foreign field.  We were to get paid for "Maize Castrating." Maize castrating is pulling the tops out of the four rows of maize plants so only the row left sows its airborn seed. To be fair, I didn't really give a toss about the reason for the work. I was glad there was work and every week we got enough to cover costs and fun.

Soustons and farm work was an opportunity to experience, first hand, the type of hop picking work  George Orwell had written of in the 1930s. It was also a chance to experience some of Ernest Hemmingway's bull culture. I could get both in the sunny homeland of Camus. There can't be much wrong with that.

In the morning we worked. In the late afternoon we hitched to the beach. In the evening we drank in the village and hiked back to camp in the small hours. On Bastille Day we festivaled with the locals and were invited to participate in the bull games in their local bull fighting arena. It would have been rude not to. Oiled with more wine we played the local rugby team at various games (five a side football, pursuit bicycling, touch rugby, that sort of game) in the ring, while a bull ran around with us to add to the excitement. Only a few of us were tossed about and injured. The casualties were suffered later in the evening as more and more wine and almagnac flowed for our Anglais bull fighters.

I'll make offer no apologies for lifting the sharp, pithy, Orwell hop-picking narrative near word for word - and written up so perfectly in "A Clergyman's Daughter" - as a skeleton for this page. At 20 I was still an Orwell officianado and I lived a fair deal of my student life drawing on his words.

"IT WAS remarkable how easily I settled down to the routine of maize-castrating. After only a week of it I ranked as an expert castrator, and felt as though I had been castrating maize all my life.

"It was exhausting, it kept us on our feet seven hours a day, and we were dropping with dehydration by one o'clock in the afternoon, but it needed no kind of skill. Quite a third of the pickers in the camp were as new to the job as myself. Some of the boys had come down from the employment exchanges in Glasgow's and Tyneside's housing estates with not the dimmest idea of what maize was like, how we castrated them, or why.

"One day on a Soustons maize castration farm was very like another except Bastille Day weekend. On most mornings, at half past five and pre dawn, we'd each feel the frame shake on our stinking, sweaty, cramped tents, and we would crawl out of our sleeping nests to begin searching for a half presentable tee shirt and a near clean pair of boxer shorts. The chaotic reveille was accompanied with curses of "Debout ! Debout !" from the supervisor. Having screamed himself hoarse Farmer Jacques' lackie would wait next to the Citroen van, his yellow smoker's fingers tapping the hood.

"Ten minutes later twenty four youthful lads and girls were packed as mackerel into the back of the van. We set out for the fields, many miles-and-a-half drive through the French lanes, with our heads throbbing from too much wine the night before. On rare occasions we were allowed to stop for a poor soul to chunder out the back door. Other days needed a detour into Soustons town to pick up those that had not made it back to the camp and were still snoozing on pallet tables in the town square.

"It was scorching hot by eight o'clock on those July mornings, the eastern sky brightening from a deep mid blue to a dazzling bright white, but at six the maize tops held a sheen of icy cold dew. The maize were divided up into horizon touching plantations that Virginian tobacco growers would have gasped at.

"Twenty castrators or thereabouts, under one hardened French foreman, castrated Jacques' complete estate that summer, one field at a time.

"The maize plants grew five to six to seven feet high, though this year it was slightly less as the weather had been somewhat odd. The tall stems were lined up across the fields. Four rows of weaklings, to be castrated, to each row of proud untouchables, that were sacred and were not to be knackered.

"As soon as we arrived we were set up alongside the rows and ordered to march, and castrate. Into the rows two feet apart each castrator advanced, in shorts, tee shirt, and at the start of the day a raincoat - to protect us from chilly dew. Later our kagoules came off and silly little hats went on - to fend off the sun. Bare feet or wearing trainers, it did not matter with such fine and sandy soil.

"Only the taller castrators like me could see their fellow's heads bobbing through the rippling fields. The shorter pluckers, with arms raised above their shoulders as they tugged out the offending genitalia could only see down through their own lane to the hedgerows at the work's end.

"An hour after our start we would appear out from the row ends like ghosts in that baseball film that Kevin Costner bloke was in (slight deviation from George Orwell here), when him and his wife lived in the middle of nowhere, in a film I have forgotten the name of it, errrr, ummm, errrr, "They Will Come" was it? Yeah, that will do, we would appear like the ghosts from a Kevin Cistner baseball film. (And back to Orwell we go...) Hungover ghosts, quiet white shadows.

"Public embarrassments followed the completion of each row as the foremen would throw at any offending castrator’s feet the weakling maize heads that were missed or only half removed. These chastisements affected who was chosen for additional work later in the season. Piece rates were the order of the day. French francs paid to the equivalent of one bottle of three star red wine / plonk per hour spent in the field. Seven days a week. This was not bad when totalled up over one and a half months. It was sufficient to drink ourselves blind every night and to rest lazy and sunburn our shoulders at the nearby beach each afternoon.

"From six till midday we were castrating, castrating, castrating, in a sort of passion of work, which grew stronger and stronger as the hours advanced, to get each row done and shift our bodies closer to an afternoon on the ocean shore, and an evening in Soustons' taverns.”

There. Orwell's Kent hop picking transplanted to Ian's Souston's maize castrating. I'm sure he wouldn't mind.

I'll need to re-read my Hemmingway before I write the section on the bull games.

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