Book Review by Steve Matthews of Bookends
The Understanding: The Shepherd, the Poacher, the Molecatcher: Rural Tales of Northumberland by Roger Robson. Bookcase. £10
Roger Robson is securely rooted in his family’s past in rural Northumberland. His father, a molecatcher and wrestler, was one of nine children. His mother was also one of nine. As a child, of a Sunday afternoon, visiting relatives he “was taken to a world of paraffin lamps, earth closets, Clydesdale horses, freshly laid eggs, salty bacon hanging on a hook in the kitchen rafters, big gardens, full of taties, and always the telling of old stories over and over again”.
And even after seven decades, and a university degree and a life teaching, it is those old stories, of life on the farm, of the markets and the shows, of the sheep, the cattle and the pigs, of the poaching and the wrestling, that still people his imagination.
His is a world as rich as the wonderful Northumbrian engravings by Thomas Bewick that illustrate his text and as fertile as the family photographs that adorn the stories.
Anty Robson, white flowing beard, waistcoat and bowler hat, was listening to James Collier, the new gamekeeper on the Breamish, boasting about his prowess in catching moles. Anty asked, “Wud you be interested in seeing how aa catch moudies” With those words, Arty watched the pulsing soil, squeaked through his teeth and reached down and grabbed the mole out of the earth. Eight miles away, higher up the same river that Collier so boastfully protected, Geordie Armstrong saw some trout swim under a rock. He “raised his mell above his head and banged it down on the nearest stones as hard as possible”. Four stunned trout floated to the surface and Geordie had his supper ready for his friend Artie.
In “Digging Deep” a molecatcher buries a murderer’s leg.
In Callally School the teacher was feared rather than respected. In Netherwitton, Mr Robinson respected his pupils and they respected him.
In 1911, thirteen year old Roger Robson, with thirty wooden moletraps festooned around his neck, was swooping down Heiferlaw Bank on his bike ready for a week’s mole-catching. “So, that was how he came to live poor, proud and happy, catching moudies for another seventy years.”
There are a dozen stories, part reminiscence, part folk-tale, part just what was said round those big farmhouse fires in years gone by. All are beautifully crafted, simple, sensitive, honest, not nostalgic, recording with deep affection a way of life that has gone for ever.
Roger Robson remembers: “His wife, Jessie, wore clogs and a big pinny. She fed the hens, the pig, the calf, the men, the bairns and him.” And he remembers summers when “the sky is laced finely together by skylarks’ song”.
These are wonderful stories, beautifully told.