Dundee Was A Mate Of Mine



As a kid I had always helped my Dad with any stone work at the family home. He was one of those men that taught you things without you knowing it at the time and it was these early years that gave me my love of stone that has stayed with me through life. People who spend their lives in farming, fishing and quarrying always feel connected to the planet which we inhabit. They continue a task that was started many generations before. Craftsmen will pass on their skills generously so that the next generation can carry the task forward.  My early interest was developed when, after getting work on a local farm during school holidays,  I was taken under the wing of a master drystone waller. Although Jim was inclined to be of miserable nature and spoke little he was certainly the best of teachers. For a long time I wasn't allowed to touch the outside walling stones and was apprenticed to putting the fillers into the centre of the wall, sorting the stones out, digging and general labouring.  Occasionally I would try to position a choice stone onto the wall front while his back was turned but no…  without word it would be flicked back off the wall and the apprentice was put back in his place.  In those days the old farming crafts held true to their traditions. Pick axe, shovel, hammer and set line were your tools. Anything techno was banned, It would interfere with the craft, ancient and practised around the world but with regional styles and customs that must be adhered to if you are to earn the right to call yourself a waller. I once suggested that we take a radio with us for the day for the entertainment. Jim talked in scowls,  I got the definitely no scowl. Years later I was walling along a roadside and a Land Rover pulled up.  Out got an old timer of about 80 years old, it was Old Jim. You could have knocked me down with a feather. By heck, he spoke more in the following 15 minutes than in all the 2 years that he had spent teaching me. But this time he was talking to a fellow waller which, to him, made the difference!

It was as Cowboy the Drystone Waller that I took on the job of rebuilding a tumbled gap on the entrance driveway to a farm on the hills above Bradford.  The locals call it “Up the Mountain”. A high flat hill south west of the city, a mountain by pure definition but no more than a good mole hill compared to the northern fells. In fairness to the locals it is breezy (they call it blowing a gale), standing directly in the path of the winds that blow from the Derbyshire hills which are visible in the far distance on a clear day. It was no more than a good day’s work. I had been on the previous afternoon and prepared the site for walling.  “Ridding out” or “ragging out” is the waller's term.  I wanted the job finished and paid up before moving on to a more northern and far more appealing job.

Sunday woke up with a clear, bright and sunny attitude. Enjoying a black coffee, I watched as the sun shook off the duvet in the east. The sky was high and clear. It was going to turn into a warm summer day.  I would be right today in just my denim jacket and hat. There would be no bad weather before nightfall.   Picking up the bag that held my walling gear I set off up the track to the work site. By 9 O’clock in the morning I had the footings in and there was nearly 2 foot in height of new wall. Whilst sitting on my ankles, enjoying a well earned fag and admiring my good work, I noticed the fox skirting the wall at the top of the paddock.  It was out late. They are usually back in the den well before daylight. There was barking from the yard at the top of the track.  Strange that they had remained quiet to my own noise but yet barked at the silent fox as it disappeared from view into the undergrowth. The farmer had given up livestock in favour of renting the grassland for equestrian use. It was a more guaranteed living I suppose. His wife bred Rhodesian Ridgebacks as her own venture. I had met the two dogs on a previous visit; not to shake hands, it was a moe distant introduction. They were chained at kennels in the yard, providing security as well as income from breeding. A sensible man checked the length of the chain before passing. If he judged it wrong he wouldn't be playing pool in the centre pocket again. What I wasn't aware of was that, on hearing the noise and unaware of my presence, the farmer had let the dogs loose for their “Sunday” stroll.

It was as I stood up that they came lolloping down the track. Considering my affection for my gluteus maximus,  attempting to out run the pair would be fool hardy and the wall wasn't yet high enough to afford any protection. Lowering the hat brim so as to not threaten the pair with the eyes, dropping the hands to my sides as a gun man would I waited their arrival. At about 10 yards distance they broke gait and started to slowAs they circled my legs and sniffed at my fingers their tails dropped accompanied by my own heart beat.  The dog left first, walked over to the wall, cocked his leg on my handiwork, walked to the right hand edge and sat, bolt upright looking back at me. The bitch took up a similar station as I stepped forward to resume work. So they remained for the next hour. Every time I selected my next stone they seemed to approve my choice. I was suddenly the apprentice again. Then, obviously reassured that I knew my craft,  they left.  It was another good hour passed before I had my next visitor, by which time the day was warm and the wall had progressed nicely to waist height. 

Young Mat, the farmer’s grandson was pedalling his bike furiously up the lane.  He was about 8 years old and his parents had the farm cottage on the bottom road.  He pedalled with the energy that only eight year old’s have. Head down low with chin near the handle bars he rammed each foot down in turn,  the bicycle swaying in the opposite direction to his body. Mat didn't use brakes. He’d explained it to me once, it was something to do with religion or girlie or some other 8 year old lore. Arriving with all the urgency of a dispatch rider he flung his steed to the ground and collapsed on his back with both feet in the air, blowing and saying “Phew” a lot.
“G’day Mat.”
“Nah then” he replied.
I continued walling  not wanting to interrupt his recovery. Eventually he sat up and with legs spread, bent double at the waist, started to draw a map or scientific diagram with a stone on the dust of the track in front of him. I did not ask. It was his business. Time passed.
“You’re a good worker, you are!” he said, mission completed and squinting at me against the now bright sun,

“Mi faither will give you work. He alus wants good men”.
The silence lengthened again.

“That’s mighty decent of you Mat but I've a bit to get by on yet a while”. I  said with a wink.
He went back to his secret drawings in the dust, rechecking its exactness and accuracy.

“Thing is… I've got this problem see.”  
I put the walling hammer down, I’d earned another bacca anyhow. Avoiding the drawing of national importance I squatted on my heels in front of him and recovered my smokes tin from the denim jacket pocket.  He waited until the cigarette was rolled and lit before he continued. At 8 this kid knew the order of things.

“There’s this girl see, in my class at school. Chloe and she’s supposed to be my girlfriend”

“Uh huh!”

“But then Jason, supposed to be my best mate ain't he, but last week he kissed Chloe in the playground!”
I tipped the hat brim back, examined the delivery end of the cigarette for lumps of wood in the tobacco and considered. The kid had a big problem.

“What do you think I should do about it? That’s the thing”
“Well pal as I see it, a girl’s one thing but a mate? Now that’s a whole different can of beans. There’s many a good girl about but good mates are hard to come by these times”.
He went back to his mission with the pebble and diagram of national importance, frowning intently. I decided to leave him to reach his conclusion and rose to resume work,
“There’s just one thing…” I looked back at him, “You won’t tell any of them grown ups about this will you. Promise?”
“Na mate, I won’t tell none of them grown ups!”
Grinning he jumped up and grabbed the bike and set off down the lane. After about 40 yards his steed spun round in a 360 slide/barrel roll, flogged in retreat and hauled to a stop. It was an impressive demonstration.  The trainers hit the dust as he anchored on, obliterating the diagram in the dust on which the future of the human race depended.
“Forgot to tell you” he said grinning, “I saw that film you were in, watched it last week with my Dad. I liked the bit where you walked on the backs of those people at the train station!”