Friday, 28 May 2021

My Small Country Living (1984) by Jeanine McMullen



Jeanine McMullen and I are complete opposites. I like animals, which is why I don’t have any. I think they are best left to themselves. Above all I do not think animals are humans in disguise. Jeanine McMullen feels a strong need to surround herself with animals, even though by her own account she is an amateur and is often not equipped to look after them. Most of het animals are „ characters”, who „plot against her or put on acts” (most of the humans she meets are larger than life too).
Having said that I must admit I enjoyed these books: she is a good writer. I especially liked the glimpses she gives of her early life in Australia, with her mother, who worked as a nurse in the Outback. I wish she had given us more of those and of her life before becoming a broadcaster. Her obituary states she was a teacher and dancer, too. It made me curious about the rest of her life.

In her first book she tells the story of the impulse buy of a smallholding on a visit to Wales, and of her efforts to interest her bosses at the BBC in a radio programme on the subject. At first she shares the farm with „The Artist” who moves to live there full time, while Jeanine works in London, traveling to Wales in the weekends.
In 1975 she and The Artist separate. Jeanine moves to the cottage permanently, and later her mother, known as Mrs P joins her.  Although friends advise her to sell the cottage, Jeanine decides to stick it out, which means years of struggling to pay the bills. She is fortunate in having extremely nice neighbours, one of whom even moves in a few months to help her.
At the start of the story she owns several dogs, then she rapidly acquires homing pigeons, a rabbit, hedgehogs, chickens, ducks, geese, goats, pigs and a cart horse. They all come with special instructions, so to speak. Like Dolores the goat who wreaks havoc everywhere she goes: „ She was in truth the embodiment of every prejudice against the goat and she committed every single crime that legend lays at its door. But she did it with such zest, with such glory in her own wickedness and with so much joy in the sheer wonder of being alive that it seems impossible there had ever been a time when she hadn’t been effectively wrecking our peace and property”.
She meets vet Bertie Ellis: „ a battered red Mini, dragging its exhaust pipe noisily behind it, came to a halt at the gate. A face, adorned with round, granny glasses and a pair of luxuriant mutton-chop whiskers, appeared out of the window: I’m Ellis, it announced”. On his first visit Bertie tells her that her horse Doli, despite displaying all the symptoms is not in foal. „ She’s been having you on, the old sod." (…) I didn’t know who to hate most, Doli or Bertie.
The cottage is damp and droughty, and difficult to heat. Jeanine does not see her way to making any improvements, partly because of her finances and partly, as she quotes C.S.Lewis, because „nature laid on me from birth the utter incapacity to make anything”. She just adapts to her primitive surroundings.
In one of the final chapters her pig Magnolia, ill with peritonitis,  is put down by vet Bertie, who uses a very strong anaesthetic. The pig is buried on the farm.
Some months later she finds her whippet Merlin in a coma. He only just survives. It turns out he had been eating from the dead pig, which was not buried deep enough.
Even though her free lance work has virtually dried up, Jeanine keeps hoping to produce her programme on country life: „ the single most important thing I had learned, though, was that everyone who actually survives country life has a story to tell. I no longer wanted to do a programme about the happy peasant tilling his soil; I wanted to get on tape people like the men who drive the massive machines along tortuous lanes and down suicidal slopes to collect garbage from remote villages and farms, or the postmen who struggle through floods and snow and over icy roads to get the latest circulars safely delivered (…) As I worked and worried and walked in the wood, ideas for the programme multiplied. At the the same time, however, the memory of me as a professional broadcaster was fading fast, along with my credibility for the producers. So, as the programme took firmer shape in my mind, it became more and more obvious that I could no longer afford to stay in the place which would have given it birth… My earnings had dropped to a level which wouldn’t even service the mortgage…"
A totally unexpected legacy from her father in Australia puts her back on her feet financially. A year later she once again pitches her idea for a programme and this time she gets to make it. It went on to become a very popular programme on Radio 4. She also wrote two more books (which I will cover in later posts).

Jeanine does not give exact details as to the location of her cottage. Online, I found references to Llyn-y-Far-Fach.
Her obituary refers to her home in Llanddeusant.
She died  on 9th February 2010 at tha age of 73.The funeral was at the Parish Church of St Simon and St Jude, Llanddeusant.

Thursday, 20 May 2021

Ruth Janette Ruck and Ty Mawr

You can have a look inside Ty Mawr (now a holiday let), Ruth Janette Ruck's former home here

The story of both house and inhabitants can be found here

The farm is now owned by her son, John Orkney-Work. 

This interesting community site offers a description of a walk taking you past Carneddi farm.

Friday, 14 May 2021


While cleaning containers I found two acorns, which must have been put there by birds. Intriguing, as I don't know of any oak trees near my home. Anyway, I now have two tiny ones in a pot!

Sunday, 2 May 2021

Hill Farm Story by Ruth Janette Ruck

Published five years after Place of Stones, this is a happy book.  While it remains hard to make a living on a small Welsh mountain farm (the first chapter is called „Making a Living Where a Rat Wouldn’t”), in her writing Ruth focuses on the joys of living where she does.
In one of the first chapters Ruth describes her wedding to Paul, who started working for the Ruck family some years before. It is a wonderful party, with the whole village taking part.
„In the first few days of married life I experienced a moment of panic. I wondered how to manage this small household, make good meals and keep the cottage clean, without expending extra time and money on doing it; there seems so little of either to spare. But Paul had no fixed ideas about what was women’s work and what was not. He could cook or wield a teacloth as the need arose and together we quickly finished the housework and were ready to go outside. Our expenses were few; there was paraffin for lighting and bottled gas for the stove, but the fire cost us next to nothing. The rates were only 6 pounds a year. We produced a good part of our own food and so we managed; my problem solved itself with a workable compromise.”


In the first chapter Ruth looks back on how she and her family started farming at Carneddi, copying other farmers’ work and relying on the help of two neighbours. One „took us under his wing and we were immensely grateful for the never-failing help and kindness which he gave. If he thought we were going wrong, he told us so: he hated to see mistakes and muddle, particularly where sheep were concerned. If we needed anything, from advice to a cup of tea or the loan of a plough, it was ours for the asking”.
She also tells the story of how she came to write her first book, filling exercise books when she can find the time. It takes nearly 3 years to finish. She is overjoyed to find it accepted by a publisher. After starting her second book their hen house is made into a writing hut.
She goes on to describe the day to day life on the farm: the sheep, the dogs, the decision to keep ponies and to enter them in shows;  and the joy Paul and Ruth find in mountain climbing.
They extend the farm by buying neighbouring farms and stock.


During the first months of 1963 the weather turns extremely cold:  "Washing froze stiff as a board within five minutes of its being hung on the line. The last of the kale in the field turned to green glass and shattered into fragments when we tried to cut it. The tap in the cowshed froze but we had given up swilling the floor several day earlier for fear of the cows slipping on the ice. I carried hatching eggs indoors in case they should freeze too.”
I was ten years old in 1963 and in The Netherlands the weather was similarly cold. Strangely I have no recollection of it, though our house must have been extremely cold as at that time we only had a heater in the living room. 1963 is also the winter that Dervla Murphy, one of my favourite authors, started her cycling trip to India. You can find the story in Full Tilt. I always wondered why she started her journey then, only to arrive in Pakistan and India in the extreme summer heat. She later said she had so often fantasized about this trip, that when she got her chance, she just could not wait.
Anyway, back to Ruth: she ends the book with a postscript: „It should be told because it gave a new perspective to our life. In the early summer of 1965 I began to wonder if I were pregnant”. She is, and Ann Jacquetta is born on 14 January. „ I look back on that time as one of the happiest of my life. (…) On January 24th, the day on which our baby was due to be born, we brought her home to the cottage in the mountains.