My First Job: Nina Bawden, author, was a farm labourer in the Second World War

'I preferred the pigs to the sheep'

"The war barely touched us," recalls Nina Bawden, recalling her student days. "We had grown up with it." The children in her novels Carrie's War and Keeping Henry share this relaxed approach. It was not until the end of six decades of peace that sudden death came out of thin air. In 2002 her husband was killed instantly and she was seriously injured in the Potters Bar crash. She survived, to be movingly portrayed as one of the characters in the David Hare play The Permanent Way, and to write Dear Austen, a powerful polemic addressed to her late husband, the former BBC World Service supremo Austen Kark.

In school and university holidays during the early Forties, Nina worked as a farm labourer, first for free on the Welsh farm where she was staying and then for wages at a larger farm. She was paid a shilling(5p) per hour, which was more than the official Land Girls; this was because of her highly exaggerated claim to be fluent in Italian and therefore an interpreter for the foreign prisoners-of-war. If she told the Italian POWs what to do in a couple of words and then burst into tears, they leapt to it.

"I was tremendously happy. It was absolutely lovely to 'calve' a cow; I loved ploughing and harrowing." This was ploughing practically out of Gray's Elegy, using a "pram plough" pulled by a horse. "I helped with the harvest."

She learnt that sheep are bright enough to recognise faces: "When I came back from university, they would all run towards me. I liked the sheep well enough but I was fonder of the pigs, which I would clean out."

These days humans have largely been replaced by machinery but the farms then contained almost the equivalent of the cast of The Archers. As well as the farm's family, there would be someone to look after the cows, someone to look after the pigs and, in many cases, an Italian prisoner-of-war who actually lived on the premises, unlike the German POWs, who went back to their camp at night. "I would hate to live in the country," she declares, "unless I was living on a farm."

What would she have missed if she hadn't been a farmer's girl? "I would have missed going to Oxford," she replies instantly. "I think I got in because I wrote an essay for the entrance exam on The Future of Farm Subsidies, which no one else would have done."

At Somerville College she used to argue about politics with one Margaret Roberts, later Thatcher. The railways, of course, were to be privatised by Thatcher's successor, John Major, but that was decades away.

Nina Bawden's latest novel is 'The Ruffian on the Stair' (Virago, £6.99)

jonty@jonathansale.com

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