I really enjoyed reading the obituary of George Scales, as my own father was a farm worker and as a child we lived in tied cottages and my parents experienced the sheer awfulness of most farmers when it came to the way they treated their workers.
My Dad worked on the farm next to the one mentioned in this obituary and for a time we lived in a tied cottage opposite Coopersale Hall Farm
Farmworker, socialist and witty columnist for his union’s paper.
Monday September 17, 2007
George Scales, who has died aged 87, was an arable farmworker. He was also an elegant, witty writer, a socialist, and a trade unionist. Some of his best ideas and phrases came to him while at the wheel of his tractor, and he kept a pencil and notebook in his boots. That evening, lovingly honed and polished, they would form the basis of short and perfectly formed letters for the farming and national press, and eventually for his column in the farmworkers’ trade union paper, the Landworker.
He completely lacked the rural worker’s traditional respect for authority. A Christian farmer’s respect for the Sabbath, combined with the same man’s determination that his workers should put in seven days a week at harvest time, inspired this typical Scales verse: When praising the Lord for his harvest, remember / The sinners who gathered it in / For if it were left to the pure and the holy / We would all be excessively thin.
George was born in a tied cottage in Hertfordshire, from which his family was evicted when he was a child. He wrote in one of his Landworker columns that he was not sure which was the greater drawback, the tied cottage or his Church of England school. “I’d abolish them both. Rent books, not hymn books, I say.” In 1939, “I went into the army and some silly bugger started a war,” so he spent the next four years lifting mines. It was, though he always downplayed it, skilled and dangerous work, but he remained a private. “They said he ought to be in the awkward squad,” says his wife Doris. “He was a very awkward and interesting man.”
“Back in civvy street and out of a job,” he wrote, “I fell easy prey to a local farmer on the prowl for cheap labour.” This man taught him two things: “How well farmers stick together, and how they hate their workers doing the same.”
From 1958 he worked at Coopersale Hall Farm in Essex, until he was made redundant in 1983 at the age of 63 because, despite his roadside protests, the farm was demolished to make way for the M11/M25 interchange. By that time a blizzard of letters to Farmers Weekly, the Times and the West Essex Gazette had made him something of a spokesman for the rural poor.
But his favourite outlet was the Landworker. At first he was distrusted at the union’s headquarters, for his irreverence extended to the union’s leadership. When I became editor of the Landworker in 1978, the general secretary, Reg Bottini (obituary, May 28 1999), warned me about the cantankerous serial letter writer from Essex. My first letter from George was in verse: Dear Brother Francis Beckett, will you give a solemn pledge / Not to print so many pictures of our handsome leader Reg?
After a time, with a new general secretary, I asked him to write a regular column, which we called Weighing Up. There are highly paid newspaper columnists who could not match his professionalism, reliability, and ability to startle. His copy arrived on time and to length, needing virtually no editing, and he always found a new and interesting way of looking at his subject: never any prefabricated opinions or phrases from George. It was a monthly dose of witty invective against farmers, employers, governments, anyone who failed to act properly towards the men and women who tilled the land. But there was gentler stuff too, such as his argument with Doris about whether their son should be christened. George the atheist said: “He’s half mine, you know.” Doris replied: “I’ll christen my half. You do what you want with yours.”
After he was made redundant, he took on gardening work until he was 80, when he finally retired.
He was an atheist, but just in case he was wrong, he prepared his first complaint for the afterlife: Arriving in Heaven a little bit late / He said to St Peter as he passed through the gate: / “The funeral benefit I got was so small / “I could hardly afford the fare here at all. / “If inflation continues, it grieves me to tell, / “My mates won’t be coming, they’ll be going to Hell.”
A selection of his columns appears in Weighing Up, published by Journeyman Press, 1988. He is survived by Doris and their son Stephen.
· Lionel George Scales, farmworker, writer and union activist, born April 2 1920; died August 12 2007