LIVING AS an evacuee in the year 1940 and having passed the usual exams at a local high school, my parents were faced with the problem of what to do with me. Through various contacts, I was packed off to a dairy farm in Dorset. Together with two other girls of a similar age, I laboured as a farm hand from 3.45am until about 6pm, with an hour to rest after lunch. The food was good, the pay terrible at 12 shillings a fortnight and I used the one-day off every other week, for catching up on sleep.
We cared for a large herd of Ayrshire cattle, humped endless gallons of milk from byre to dairy in two-and-a-half gallon buckets – one in each hand. Hundredweight sacks of feed were transported on our shoulders and, 48 hours later, the residue pushed in large wheelbarrows to the dung heap, in what felt like an endless conveyor belt of misery.
A Scots foreman ruled us and, on occasions, demanded ‘Squires Rights’ of the other wenches, leading to certain privileges to which I was not privy. Having gone for him with a two handed saw at his first overture, I was left in peace, but this laid me open to a certain amount of discrimination.
As general dogsbody, I was relegated to an isolation shed where newly calved cows with retained placentas were milked. Half a brick would be tied to the offending item and, as I sat on a stool against the animal’s side, I was liable either to be kicked or banged over the head. Sometimes a filthy hoof would get past my guard to land in the half full bucket of milk, turning its contents into sickly brown soup fit only for the gutter. One day my patience snapped and, as I clouted the offending beast on its backside, the farmer appeared at the door. Having received a week’s notice, I collected up the dismembered wooden stool and finished the job in hand.
I would not be missed because the woman who owned the farm also had a hand in spiriting Jewish refugees out of Germany. The able bodied were put to work on her land until their future was decided, much to the mistrust of other locals. In their paranoia, they suspected these youngsters of spying and aiding the enemy, confirmed in their suspicions when the nearest market town was bombed. However, one night, as we took our turn on fire watch duty, a lone bomber dropped a cluster of high explosives right behind the cow byre, going some way to absolving the owner of crimes against the state.
With farming in my blood – discovered in the course of researching past generations – it was a surprise to find that, although what had been their land is now covered by a housing estate, the old farmhouse belonging to my paternal great grandmother is still occupied.
Further backtracking showed that ancestors on my mother’s side were clockmakers driven from France during The Massacre of St. Bartholomew, and even today their timepieces continue to sell well at auction. Tracing antecedents has a fascination mixed with apprehension. Unknown skeletons in the cupboard and ancient records of family black sheep, whose genes may remain in one’s chromosomes, give much food for thought and certainly discourage false pride.
Although genetic study has opened some doors, there is still much to learn about the diversity of life on earth. Since the 19th century, when Darwin advanced his theory of evolution and, 100 years later, Nobel prize winners Crick and Watson unveiled the structure of DNA with the help of x-ray diffraction, biophysicists have finally lifted the lid of Pandora’s Box. The 21st century, demanding for ‘bigger, better, cheaper and more quickly’ by gene manipulation, has pre-empted natural selection. Some changes are no longer tested by the natural passage of time with its built-in safety factor.
Then, there is cloning. First Dolly: but a successful human clone can only be a matter of time. This makes asexual reproduction possible and opens the door to eugenics as practised in Hitler’s Germany in his search for a super race. No wonder Darwin came up against such opposition from the Christian Church. If God created the earth and set life in motion, surely what followed has not been left entirely to chance, but continues with His divine guidance, while we retain the liberty to make a mess of things.
The arrival of two pairs of swans in Lagos, one black and one white yet of the same species, illustrates for me the need to take care when trying to interfere with the building bricks of living things. Although white swans originated from the eastern hemisphere, today they are found all over the world. Black Swans are peculiar to Australia, having adapted to the climate of that continent, which millions of years ago broke off from the eastern land mass. It is likely they share the same rootstock as their white cousins, but natural selection has made them as they are today. Gene altered species may not stand the test of time and the outcome remains to be seen.