It’s 6:00 am on a February morning. The air is chill as I slip out from beneath warm blankets. Ice has formed inside the window pane of my bedroom and I scrape it away to peer into the darkness at the frosted world beyond. It is 1960. I am fourteen years old.
Outside our front door lies a bundle of newspapers, dropped by the newsagent’s van. I will take them in, sort them on the kitchen table into an order to fit into my canvas bag, then I will take the bicycle from the back shed and set off on my ‘round’ of the country lanes that I cover every morning.
I don’t remember how many customers I had. They were farmers for the most part, and villagers whose working hub was the nearby town. Few travelled far, in those days. As a rule they were tolerant, kind people who suffered their news in wet and dilapidated condition on rainy days with little complaint. The canvas bag did its best, but it rarely succeeded in keeping the Daily Mails and The Times, the Mirrors or the Manchester Guardians completely dry. I hated wet Sundays. Sunday ‘papers were so heavy with supplements and extras I sometimes had to make two runs to spread the weight.
Dogs persist in my memories of those days – more, perhaps, than people. Ralph was a Border Collie who helped drive his master’s cow herd to milking about the time I came past. His method for asserting his authority was to leap up and swing on the tail of the rearmost cow. Heavy with milk, the matron would half-heartedly flail a backward foot, but she never really seemed to mind. When he wasn’t working he sat on the wall next to the road. Ralph expected to be petted.
The architect at the end of the road owned a Great Dane: the dog knew I regarded him with sufficient terror (he stood nearly as tall as I) to employ avoidance tactics whenever possible – there was a long path to negotiate before his owner’s letter-box, and he looked forward to my daily visits with enthusiasm. I was his favourite game. Picture my young self, if you will, anxiously peering over the front gate to make sure the coast, as it were, was clear. Picture the Great Dane hiding behind a rose bush of generous dimensions, watching as I stole stealthily up the path, slipped his master’s newspaper through the letterbox, and turned to beat my fast retreat, at which point he would stroll almost casually out onto the path, cutting off my route to safety. Our eyes would meet. I swear by the curl of his lip he was laughing. That dog had the deepest, most spine-chilling bark I have heard before or since. I called him Baskerville; I don’t recall his real name.
Puttie was a Highland Terrier, a ‘Westie’. Puttie’s owner, a nice comfortable lady, taught him to come to the front gate and collect his mistress’s ‘paper. She accompanied him the first time to reassure me that Puttie knew what to do and it was all right to lean over and give him the rolled-up ‘paper.
“Are you sure?” I asked her.
“Yes, certain, dear. He’s very clever, you know.”
So I did. I leaned over and delivered the newspaper into his jaws. Puttie received it with enthusiasm, thereafter proving he was also very fast on his feet. Seconds later, after he had disappeared behind the house, there came the first sounds of shredding.
“I expect he’s just taken it inside,” his owner explained, although she didn’t sound convinced.
That was an exercise never to be repeated. I was told subsequently by nice lady’s son that Puttie not only took the newspaper indoors, but scattered bits of it around every room in the house. He also defended it with vigour, while it still had entity, resisting any attempt to take it from him.
My ‘paper round paid me, as I recall, fourteen shillings a week. It filled the two hours before our school bus came to take us over the hills to the local seat of learning. It kept my own personal wolf from the door in the winter months, became a chore in summer when there was farm work to be done – potato raising, fruit picking, harvesting, in the evenings. By and large they were good days, when a ‘child’ of twelve, thirteen or fourteen could ride the hay wain home, pitch straw with forks or (my favourite) ride the sled behind the bailer. Farmers were mean paymasters, but we learned to work for our living. We were respectful, a little fearful, and we were strong.
Then, in Britain, some might say the downward spiral began. One day in a town called Minehead a beat bobby sought to discipline a miscreant teen by giving him a clip behind the ear. In those days that kind of correction was common enough, I had been on the receiving end of a stout policeman’s severity once or twice myself. It was simple, it was effective, and nobody died. It nipped a thousand potential lives of crime in the bud. The parents of that boy sued the police and won. The beat bobby was a beat bobby no more, the constabulary paid up, thereby setting a precedent from which have sprung countless opportunist law suits, ranks of ambulance-chasing lawyers and a Health and Safety culture with which every former bastion of authority must ingratiate itself for fear of damage claims and destroyed careers.
No more the hay wain rides, the thrusting of bales from the sled. Even paper rounds are suspect now, and besides, those who might have earned from them are too busy throwing bricks at policemen, intimidating their teachers, or roving the streets in gangs. You might disagree with me, in fact I’m pretty sure most of my fellow bloggers will, when I suggest that whenever we try to subvert the natural order of things by law we make them worse. In the cocoon of my modern life I do occasionally reflect in this fashion. Today I decided to share.
Featured Image by Sergey Mikeev from Unsplash
Image of Great Dane by Keenan Barber from Unsplash
West Highland Terrier by Sharon Tay from Unsplash