Tag Archives: Farming Press

The thing about Britain

BRITAIN AT WAR The 1990 poll tax riots in Trafalgar Square.
BRITAIN AT WAR The 1990 poll tax riots in London’s Trafalgar Square.

TOWARDS the end of my second year working for United News and Media, the staff received news that our company was in the final stages of broad economic reforms that would cut right through the Farming Press office at Ipswich.

Signs of this began when an all-staff memorandum indicated that only one bottle of wine was permitted at business lunches, a message met with glee from people like us who worked at the fringes of this multinational company and had no idea we could even put wine on the company tab!

Perhaps it was our new-found business-lunch rights that finally tipped the company into financial free-fall? I doubt it, because it turned out the mechanics of change were underway years before my position was ever advertised.

By the end of 1997 the writing was on the wall. With no new employees since I’d started, I was faced with being ‘last on, first off’. So I took stock, decided it was time, for many reasons, to return to Australia, and accepted an offer of voluntary redundancy.

Having lived in a permanent state of debt for five years, my payout would be enough to buy a one-way ticket home and pay off my credit card. It was an easy decision to make.

NO SOCIETY LADY Baroness Thatcher on the newly opened M25 Motorway in 1986.
NO SOCIETY LADY Baroness Thatcher on the newly opened M25 Motorway in 1986.

Being part of a folding company was the last in a long list of eye-opening experiences of living in Great Britain’s economy.

The late Baroness Thatcher made no secret of not believing in society, which seemed to stand in the way of her penchant for the free market.

Having landed first in Yorkshire and then South London, I experienced life first-hand in territories where Thatcherism had left its mark on formerly cohesive and supportive communities.

I would later say, with regularity, that everything I learnt about economics and politics I learnt from living in Britain, simply because I joined the ranks of everyday people trying to earn a living in the immediate post-Thatcher years.

Here are some other observations about Britain in the 1990s:-

No-one could afford a day out at the beach. In Australia we call this a human right, but in England day-trippers were faced with whopping public transport costs. Few people I knew could afford cars, but a one-way train ticket for the short trip to London from Ipswich was well over twenty pounds for one person. This was solely due to the privatisation of every possible segment of the railways – one company owned the carriage, another the rails, another the station, and they all wanted to profit from ticket sales. A similar journey in Australia still costs far less than half that, twenty years later.

When buying an electrical appliance, the cable cost extra. What better way to gouge a bit of extra profit than to make the mains cable of most electrical appliances a separate item the customer must buy to use the equipment?

The country was full of criminals. Speaking as a citizen of the nation invaded to set up the penal colony of New South Wales, I have to say the common sight of colleagues being marched out of the office by a pair of police officers says a lot about the British criminal disposition as opposed to the Australian. These were never ‘bad’ people, they were just trying to keep their family afloat in the economy. Every single company I worked for contained employees who were on the take, and I don’t just mean the toilet paper.

Many people were closeted. Perhaps it’s a case of like attracting like, but most men I became friends with in England turned out to be gay. From the married father of two to the tough-as-nails London busker, they all came tumbling out of the closet in the wake of my own coming out. It was an eye opener about the choices faced by the British male under the infamous Section 28 of Britain’s Local Government Act, which embedded disapproval of gay lifestyle and relationships into the country’s law. For a nation which had decriminalised homosexuality in 1967, this was a mean-spirited regulation which was seen by many as a knee-jerk reaction to the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s.

British food was crap. When you think about the proximity of Britain to the fresh produce of continental Europe, the lack of affordable nutritious food was a terrible side effect of euro-phobia and economic rationalism, and an indictment on the ‘Grocer’s Daughter’ who had contributed to the scarcity. The only ‘fresh’ fruit and veg I saw in my first month were lumpy potatoes, mouldy onions, and bunches of silverbeet, withered and pricey. Most people I knew ate everything out of tins, and ‘boil in the bag’ meals were the norm.

You could still sense the war. People would still queue uncomplainingly for things that were freely available in other western nations. Avoidable diseases were still common in England’s north, and childhood mortality was higher-than-average.

The tenant paid the council rates, not the landlord. Thatcher’s infamous poll tax was well and truly in place when I became a renter in London, and my Yorkshire flatmates showed me the clever ways their parents taught them to avoid the payment as long as was possible. Often, it was the catalyst for moving house.

No-one answered their front door. Due to avoiding paying the poll tax (see above) and the TV licensing charges (see below), I was always under strict instructions from every flatmate I ever had to never open the door to a knocking visitor in case it was someone coming to collect taxes. I was once fooled by the TV license man when he pretended he was delivering a parcel to the first floor flat I shared in Lewisham. He launched himself through the front door into the foyer, and I had to pretend I was a visiting friend who had no idea if the flat had a television or not. Luckily I had some acting training under my belt.

MEN IN SUITS The notorious TV License man and his Doctor Who-like scanner.
MEN IN SUITS The notorious TV License man and his Doctor Who-like ‘scanner’.

It cost a lot to watch the tele. A hefty annual television license fee comes with the pleasure of tuning in to the BBC, oh, and all the other channels who would appear to be doing quite well already with all the advertising revenue they’re getting from the endless commercials, of course. The jury is still out on whether the mysterious vans driving around Britain’s streets are capable of telling who is receiving a TV signal are real, or some kind of psychological warfare. It’s all very Doctor Who. Another reason to avoid answering the front door (see above).

This list is cursory and might seem glib. But it’s also true. I will always remember many colleagues in Britain who worked long hours for the same very low rate of pay I was on, only they had mouths to feed and backs to clothe. I don’t know how they did it, but most worked with a ready smile and by doing without luxuries that most people in Australia take completely for granted.

But I also recall how few of them thought it was worth getting off their backsides on election day and voting.

By May Day 1997 Tony Blair seemed determined to sweep away two decades of Thatcherism, convincing the nation of the merits of ‘New Labor’. I can remember where I was when I heard the news – working on location in the Yorkshire Dales. Never had I experienced such a sense of palpable hope and imminent change amongst the British as I did across that summer. Princess Diana’s death knocked most of that energy out of the British only a few short months later, but I witnessed the brief smile on the nation’s face.

Ever since I returned home I have been vocal about the P-word. Privatisation has not spread its destructive fingers into every Australian industry, yet. I know what an impact it will have on that day trip to the beach if public transport is ever extensively privatised in a nation where long distances are the norm.

I will be eternally grateful for the support I received to travel overseas in the first place, but ‘travel’ is a great distraction. Living and working in another country, for more than a stint fruit picking, is what I call an education.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Katy Cropper – showgirl shepherdess


THE first time I met Katy Cropper and her champion Border Collie Trim, we were screen-testing both for a program about Katy’s dog training techniques.

With her slightly wild edge, Katy Cropper belongs to the outdoors, and is at her most focussed when working with a team of sheepdogs to lift a flock from the far edge of a field and bring it back, in a majestic manner, right to her feet.

She’s also got a winning smile, and, as a friend of mine who watched the screen test said, a “great set of pins”. So we edited the footage into a ten-minute clip, and played it on rotation at The Royal Show in Warwickshire in the summer of 1996.

The crowds that gathered to watch showed us we’d chosen a very popular subject, and so we got the green light to capture the story of Katy’s new trainee sheepdog – Splash – over the next two trialling seasons.

Scheduling eighteen months of filming with Katy turned out to be a great way to tour the rural counties of England, simply because this successful (and often controversial) shepherdess never stays in one place for very long.

The first woman to win the prestigious BBC sheepdog handling title One Man and His Dog, Katy led us on a merry chase through some of the most beautiful farmland between Yorkshire, the Lake District, Gloucestershire, and The Midlands.

The only time I was guaranteed of finding Katy where I expected her was for her scheduled appearance at the Royal Show the following year. At other times I would anticipate a call from wherever she was working at the time, and she would give me detailed directions to which field on which farm she’d be shepherding on which day.

True to form, Katy was always there waiting and ready, decked-out in her latest take on what I’ll call ‘sexy-tweed’. When asked about what she is really like (and I was asked a lot over the years), I came to describe Katy Cropper as a combination of Toad of Toad Hall, and Sarah Duchess of York – she’s got boundless energy to burn, she sometimes gets into a bit of a pickle, and she’s usually kitted-out a bit like a country gent.

Predictably, her indefinability has seen Katy cop plenty of flack over the years – anyone who enters a sheepdog trial with a three-legged border collie, or appears in a trialling event in a two-piece bikini, or who tilts at any male-dominated, traditionalist world like sheepdog handling, is going to be the butt of jokes and barbs.

But Katy struck me as a great survivor who has overcome a few hurdles that would have stopped many others. She is steeped in the hedgerows and country pubs of England’s heritage, using phrases like “crow pie” and “the sun always shines on the righteous”, and all the traditional sheepdog commands like “that’ll do” and “bide there”. She’s rarely seen without her shepherd’s crook, and has a great collection of hats.

At her Royal Show appearance, Katy also showed a touch of Madonna, with her wireless microphone and her showgirl streak.

She arrived with a horse float full of animals – dogs, ducks, turkeys, pigs, a pony, and sheep, of course. The dogs, not fully animal in Katy’s world, were up front in the truck, and they helped her set-up the routine.

At that time in her retirement, Katy’s most famous dog, the predominantly white-faced Trim, followed Katy around and checked on all the details of the hurdles and fences. If something wasn’t right quite right, Katy looked to Trim to let her know.

Katy’s performance is a mish-mash of herded ducks, a range of fine dog handling and herding techniques, and an over-reaching sense of fun, which is why I think some country traditionalists could take or leave Katy Cropper, whereas city folk can’t get enough of her.

Splash progressed through her monthly filming sessions into a contender for a range of nursery trials, and it was there that we got a first-hand look at how the whole sheepdog trialling world works. There are so many events throughout the country that you can enter one in the morning, then drive over the range for another one at lunch time.

In between, your dog (and you) can go from a loser to a winner, and that’s exactly what happened to Katy and Splash in our program One Woman and Her Dog.

I raved so much about the special energy of female Border Collies that eventually I was tipped-off about one which needed a home. Five years later, I saved another from the pound. Fifteen years on, both my girls are still with me, and have made me look like a great dog trainer, simply because Border Collies are just so intelligent.

The rest of my training tricks I learnt from Katy Cropper.

Mind you, even though I say “that’ll do” and “bide there” to my dogs, I’ve never unleashed them on a flock of sheep in a field the size of ten football ovals. Katy Cropper has, and despite what you think about her, she knows how to train sheepdogs to bring in the sheep.

One Woman and her Dog was released by United News & Media but is currently unavailable to buy. It is occasionally available on eBay and kept in the collection of Australia’s National Library.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.


Dearborn, death & American dreams

NEON DREAMS The Henry Ford Museum, Detroit.
NEON DREAMS The Henry Ford Museum, Detroit.

A Writer’s Midwestern adventure.

SEEKING the childhood haunts of farming icon Henry Ford, on arrival in the great city of Detroit, we (me, a cameraman and a presenter) headed not for Motown (unfortunately) but to the city fringe and the Dearborn area.

There, the Motor City puts on a veneer of rural respectability, but on the many occasions we got lost in our hired Buick, street upon street of homely clapboard stoops in everyday neighbourhoods revealed themselves, where no-one cared much for Ford and the quiet revolutions he spearheaded.

All that is on ostentatious display at the Henry Ford Museum, our first port of call.

It would be hard to name a more complete exhibition anywhere in the world. As an entrée to life in the American heartland, this place is the veritable cherry on the pie.

Acres of halls burst with memorabilia on a huge scale – the neon sign display must be the world’s best, and there’s an entire Holiday Inn which was moved brick-by-brick as an homage to the original American road trip.

A Museum staffer showed us to another building on the far side of the exterior exhibition (filled with entire villages – Ford loved the whole brick-by-brick thing), where he pulled-up a garage door and trundled a rather strange looking machine into the daylight.

This was Henry Ford’s 1907 ‘Automotive Plow’ – the prototype for the mass-produced Fordson tractor.

This tractor changed farming practices dramatically after centuries of hard labour and heavy horses. Ford didn’t invent it, but he made it affordable for most.

MAN OF EXTREMES Henry Ford and his wife in his first car.
MAN OF EXTREMES Henry Ford and his wife in his first car.

A documentary shown at the Museum detailed Ford’s deep regret that his vehicle production technologies helped inspire the military tank, which tore through troops in the slaughter that was WW1.

Turns out Henry Ford (1863-1947) was not just a farmer and industrialist – he was also a pacifist and a vegetarian. Now that got me interested.

As we left the Museum, a formal line of Presidential vehicles revealed itself, from beautiful carriages to limousines. The last one was roped-off, because people respectfully leant across to touch the rear right passenger door.

I wanted to see why, but the sign explained the patently obvious – this was the car in which President John F. Kennedy was killed. Surprisingly, it had been remodelled and used by other presidents for many years after the assassination.

Quite close by, the upholstered chair in which President Abraham Lincoln was shot to death is also on display.

Such a strange, endearing collection of dreams, death and the pinnacle of farming achievements. The dichotomy says much about the man behind the collection, loved and reviled in equal measure. Say what you want about Henry Ford: he was a collector like no other.

Ford’s early tractors were manufactured the world over, and many have become collectors’ items, so we hit the road in search of them, heading south into the great farming state of Ohio, on the very edge of America’s Midwest.

As we embarked, another journey was just beginning in California. Young high flier, 7-year-old student pilot Jessica Dubroff’s ‘Sea to Shining Sea’ flight was going to rewrite history and make her the youngest person to fly across the United States, assisted by her pilot trainer and her father. The Ohio and Michigan media were anticipating seeing Jessica cross their skies any day now.

Passing through the endless city limits of mighty Cleveland, I checked our itinerary, and realised a colleague back in Suffolk, England, had booked us to do an interview in east Ohio, then travel a day and a half back to Michigan, only to turn around and drive back south into Ohio again. The English have no idea about distances! I grumbled, before calling and asking for the dates to be changed.

Meanwhile, we visited affluent farms where Ford tractors that had not tilled the soil for decades were stored like precious objects in huge, pristine sheds.

We interviewed farmers who ran thousands of head of cattle on prairie-like pastures. Here, my vegetarianism was something even I questioned, since these cows lived a life of liberty, with just their ears tagged before they were set free to graze the hills until it was time to bring them in for slaughter.

We met an Amish man who ran a sawmill entirely without electricity, just a pair of heavy horses who he treated like the precious commodity they were.

LAND OF EXTREMES A traditional Amish buggy makes its way into town (Photo: Ad Meskens).
LAND OF EXTREMES A traditional Amish buggy makes its way into town (Photo: Ad Meskens).

The sight of Amish carriages crossing the landscape in the distance was an eerie link with America’s past. The culture of the Plain People contains the last vestiges of a rural romanticism that every country child can relate to.

In Ohio’s land of abundance, everything was larger than I had ever experienced. To reach the arms of the chairs in restaurants, you needed to put your arms out wide!

Then the nation awoke to terrible news that Jessica Dubroff’s plane had gone down shortly after takeoff from Cheyenne in the state of Wyoming. A brief life cut short. A dream broken in this land of big, record-breaking dreams.

Thankfully our itinerary had been adjusted, but we were asked not to delay – the subjects of our interview back in Michigan were heavily pregnant, due any day now. They couldn’t guarantee what we’d be greeted with. So we completed a long night drive across the border into Portland, Indiana, then back up to Michigan to the city of Flint, home of another great American, film maker Michael Moore.

Flint, and in fact that whole section of Michigan, was emerging from a harsh winter. Nevertheless it’s not just the climate that caused a certain down-at-heel quality.

Unlike the vasty fields of Ohio, that part of Michigan seemed rather poverty-stricken. The farmers were less welcoming and more suspicious of travellers. We got lost a few times, and the idea of knocking on doors and asking for directions was more than a little frightening.

This was long before Michael Moore’s films pricked the conscience of the western world – we were only there to interview a goat breeder.

Her flock of Boer goats was in the process of birthing its next generation, so we waited patiently while the mothers bleated. New life within a toughened landscape brought all the cheer we needed to feel better about Henry Ford’s macabre collection, about Jessica Dubroff’s life cut short, and about ourselves in the midst of a thawing state of disbelief … and more beautiful footage of brand new kids has rarely been captured, I’m sure.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.