Caught by the River

Shadows & Reflections: Neil Sentance

Neil Sentance | 18th December 2016


1963: Dreams of the Old West

The television screen flurries grey as the set warms up, with its familiar faint resinous odour and low hiss. It’s a Sunday in early February 1963, past teatime and now into the slow slide towards the working week. Later that night, Cliff Michelmore, the uncrumpled host of BBC’s Tonight programme, will report on ‘The Big Freeze’, one of Britain’s coldest winters of the twentieth century, thick snow covering the country from Cornwall to Scotland since Boxing Day. That same cloaking snow now drifts over North End farm like a silent home-grown ocean, no hint of brick-red earth beneath. It drifts over the gridded pastures and arable acres, high-yield plains and hollow spinneys, over the black beck and its broken ice sheets, the hispid hedgerows, the ponds and the solid pumps, over the metalled road and the drover tracks, the low fields and the heath, over the dairy shed and the pens of huddled cattle and the high fences, into the mouths of old barns stuffed with frozen straw and up to the cream windowsills to mass behind the back door of the farmhouse.

My mother, just turned seventeen, has soaked in a lukewarm bath and her dark hair is wrapped in a towel. She is now curled up on the settee, comfortable in her black sweater and turn-up jeans, looking, if only she knew it, like a French film starlet. She hears her father come into the kitchen from the stack yard, resting his shovel by the back door, ready to dig his way out in the morning. As he stuffs newspaper into his wet boots and shakes a frosting off his flat cap, she notices through the dining room hatchway how much he resembles the late Hollywood actor Ward Bond, another thick-set and square-shouldered hard-driver. My mother is waiting to watch the star in his role as Major Seth Adams in TV’s Wagon Train – for she, along with her sisters, loves Westerns. As her father goes upstairs to draw his bath, the house is otherwise unusually quiet. Her mother is still in hospital in Nottingham, after the birth of her fifth daughter last Wednesday. Her sisters are all preparing for school tomorrow or are at the chores – Mum has laboured long today, in the house and in the yard, as on any day, and feels no guilt in her hard-earned rest. Granny Holmes, the dinner cooked, the washing up done, left an hour ago – once again she had made a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, a kingly meal out of scrag-ends, a template my mother will make her own. A small table lamp gives the only light. It’s snowing again outside, but only a languid flecking and Mum has a cherished moment of peace to herself.

She has a plate of dripping on toast resting on the arm of the settee. She has risked two bars on the electric fire. She’d prefer Bonanza or Rawhide on the TV, but Wagon Train has grizzly old Ward Bond and it’s the solitude of the front room in a close-packed house that is the big draw. This evening Mum can indulge her passion for the Old West on her own. Years before, Grandad Holmes had flamed this delight for Western tales – he’d be there in his kitchen rocker, his hands cradled on his paunch, as Mum would choose from the dresser crammed with cheap volumes of Zane Grey, Jack Schaeffer and Owen Wister. From then on, the country she played in as a child became the Great Plains and Monument Valley, the chalky Lincoln mesa threaded with muddy gulches, the tinkling River Witham her proxy white-water Rio Grande. The Loveden Hill wapentake became the arroyos of the Arizona Territory, the GNER line was the Pacific Railroad, and on the wide open pasturelands below ranged steers and beeves, and even fanciful bison, haunting the badlands. To see her father and the cowman striding through the great herd in the evening sun – ‘head ’em up and move ’em out’ – was to place her in a cattle-drive in the classic film Red River, John Wayne and Montgomery Clift locked in an oedipal feud on the Chisholm Trail. Homespun tents rigged up between the garden cottonwoods, age-stained the colour of dried tobacco leaves, soon became covered wagons. Farmhands on the distant ridgelines were noble Sioux, honest injuns, restless as seed-heavy tumbleweed. Old ropes were lariats and sometimes also rattlesnakes, coiling out of the brambly chaparral. Even the amiable grime-coated coalman took on the form of Jack Palance, the black-gloved hired gun from Shane, a stone-hearted killer…

Mum enjoys the fifty-minute arc of Wagon Train, pleased she’d recognised the guest actor Brandon de Wilde, the kid from Shane, now a slender, querulous young man. She hears the slow heavy tread of her father coming down the stairs – he’ll be wanting the News. She turns off the lamp and a bar of the fire, slips into the cold kitchen and makes a cup of tea. Like Shane, her question is whether to stay or whether to go. Her sonless father works her hard, and she has equalled anything a son could have done, though she is scarce recognised for it. She’s been driving tractors since the age of ten, and milking, raking, baling, gleaning, feeding, tending, shifting, digging, herding, all hours, all weathers. Hauling out the tree stumps on this patch of land is the devil’s own job. She is suffocated with the dust of cultivation. The farmlands are not a mythic playground anymore, more a hardscrabble republic of loneliness. She looks long at her reflection in the dark window, interlaced with the falling snow outside. The kitchen clock seems to have gained again, fifteen minutes at least. Holding the mug of tea, she can feel the calluses on her hands, but it’s not easy to up and ride on through to the next valley.

In the morning she is out soon after first light, while the yellow sky is tinted with long contours of relic white. The farm cats twist around her legs as she closes the gate and sets off to walk a mile through the village, its lanes for weeks gnawed by ice. By the time she reaches the bus stop at the Black Boy pub, the local farmers have been out in cab-less tractors, clearing the sloping road up from the A1. Her knees, covered only with thin nylon stockings, are beginning to chap and her hands are coldly clasping her change purse. On the bus to town, the usually droning diesel engines baffled by the weather, she sits alone near the front, and peers out of the misted windows at the blankness outside. Often the morning trips to work at the valuers and auctioneers are also curdled with a fog like gun smoke, and the day will already seem in tatters. She smiles at the other wan teenagers on the bus, most of whom she’s always known. They know her as a quiet one, but not to be trifled with – the boys in the little village school who had poured slugs and worms over her head long remembered her answering clout, even though they’d never admit they had gone home that day weeping. She’ll give them an old-fashioned look even now. It is still something of an adventure to travel into town. Down the busy High Street, she looks back on the rare trips out with her father as a child, to the pictures or to wrestling bouts, and once, in her smart kilt skirt, to see the antics of Norman Wisdom at the Empire Theatre. As the bus stops, despite herself, she is already thinking of the journey home after work, when she will close her eyes in the mechanical light and listen to the shift of gears and the slow whirr of the wipers, soon to be back in the snow-sagging village, the snug of sisters at home.


A short time later she met my father, a small-town maverick, who impressed her with his ability to jump the queue and get the best seats at the picture house – he knew all the ushers and could call in small favours. Growing up, Mum would gift me love of the Western too. It was one of our many plots of common ground, and still is. It never mattered how often we saw John Wayne battle his demons in The Searchers or Kirk Douglas handle his chestnut mare with cool ease in Lonely are the Brave or Gary Cooper face down the Miller gang in High Noon. With the living room curtains half-drawn, we were rapt with the onscreen drama, each corralled to a quiet outlaw spirit. Today I still think of my mother as a frontierswoman, a clear-sighted Willa Cather heroine on the ‘the shaggy grass country’ of the prairies, uprooted to the tangle-hedged fields of eastern England. She has the true grit of a woman born to hard work, though the sight of Gregory Peck in The Big Country, a displaced sea-captain in the canyons of the West, will see her give that broad gap-toothed smile, the thought that her ship will come in yet. To see her laugh and play with my children, her grandchildren, her loving kindness and self-effacing wish for them be her centre point, is to know she still makes a Garden out of the Desert. She has all the pioneer qualities, honestly come by. She knows the country, all the names of the plants in her garden and in the hedgerow. She is fascinated by birds and is a sage of weather lore. She’s good with animals, but is an unsentimental wrangler. She is the keeper of the homestead and our Rock of all Ages. Willa Cather once wrote of a friend: ‘She is one of the truest artists I ever knew in the keenness and sensitiveness of her enjoyment, in her love of people and her willingness to take pains.’ Words so true of my mother.

For Janet Sentance, on her 70th birthday

Neil Sentance on Caught by the River