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Memoirs of a Cotswold Vet
By Ivor Smith
The History PressCopyright © 2011 Ivor Smith
All rights reserved.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN A COTSWOLD VILLAGE
The telephone rang in the old farmhouse. My wife, Angela, picked it up and a few moments later called to me in the garden.
'Ive, can you have a word with Mr Pitt from Poole Keynes? He thinks he might need you to calve a cow.'
'Okay. With you in a minute Ange', I yelled back, and left my spade upright in the soggy soil. I was thinking that it never seemed to stop raining around here.
This was the call I had been dreading. It was September 1966. I had been a qualified veterinary surgeon for eight weeks and the principal of the practice had decided that I could probably be trusted to run the place for a few hours on my own. Just in case there was a total catastrophe, he had given me several numbers where I might be able to get in touch with him. One was the local rugby club. One was a pub. One was a hotel/pub. I was uncertain about the fourth.
I picked up the phone and said hello to Mr Pitt and sorry we hadn't met before. He apologised for bothering me on a Saturday afternoon. The compliments exchanged, Farmer Pitt explained that the cow in question was due to calve: she had been straining for a couple of hours but was making no progress.
'I've had a feel inside', he volunteered, as farmers do on these occasions, 'and I can only feel an 'ead.'
'Lord, I hope I can feel a bit more than that', I thought to myself. 'I'll be with you as soon as I can Mr Pitt', I told the farmer. 'I'll be about twenty minutes.'
Everything I could possibly need on this assignment was checked three times. I hoped my client would provide the soap and towel. Off I roared in the practice's muddy blue Ford Cortina. Less than twenty minutes later I stood nobly in my rubber calving gown behind my patient; my arms and the rear end of the cow were swathed in soap. Now was the moment of bubbly truth. My hand explored the unknown.
Like Farmer Pitt I too could feel a head, and what's more I could also feel a foot, well, one foot anyway. With a bit more soap and a lot of slippery lubricant my hand slid around the calf and down to the missing backward-pointing leg. A slim clean rope was passed round the calf's fetlock, and gentle traction, with my hand cupping the foot to protect the wall of the uterus, brought the limb to its proper position. After that it was plain sailing. With a rope round the other leg and a few hefty pulls, the calf slid into our world.
As I scrubbed up in cold water, I glowed inside with satisfaction watching the little heifer calf suckling from her mum. Not bad for a first attempt. I believe the sentiments applied to both of us.
'No, I won't stop for a drink Mr Pitt, but thanks anyway.'
Back in the car, with headlights and swishing windscreen wipers on, and heading for our Crudwell farmhouse home, my thoughts travelled back to the events of the last decade. So much had happened. I pondered upon the ups and downs that we had already experienced. 'Well, the last ten years have been damned hard going but I think I'm going to enjoy this job', I said out loud. I'm sure I'm not the only person in the world who talks to himself.
Forty years on and I have rarely regretted that momentous decision to become a vet. In truth I don't think there was ever a single momentous occasion. As a Gloucester youngster I grew up with animals of all shapes and sizes, courtesy of very tolerant parents, and I think that the idea of spending my life working with them probably grew with me. At one stage our home was shared by the obligatory dog and cat of course, but also in attendance were the pet mice, hamsters, guinea pigs, a rabbit, tropical fish, cold water fish, pond fish, frogs, newts and slow-worms. I bet I've missed somebody out.
Disaster struck in late 1947. Many people still associate that year with a dreadful winter and snowdrifts that appeared mountainous to youngsters. The spectacular floods that followed the melting of the snow added to the miseries of many local folk, but, in true British fashion and more than a bit of Gloucester humour, the adversities, as usual, were overcome.
My problems were a bit different. A few weeks before Christmas I developed an illness that almost put an end to me. My medical records state I had polio-meningitis, and at one stage it was touch and go, so they say. Nobody knew how I became infected, but just in case it originated from one of our menagerie of animals, the doctors instructed my father to have all my pets put to sleep. Only my dog was spared. She was Nellie.
I have no idea why anyone would want to call their dog Nellie but when dad brought her home she came with a name, and for many happy years old Nel was a prominent member of our family. Most of the time I thought this black and white sort of Border Collie cross was the most popular member of the family. Seeing her face on the wintry side of the hospital ward window on Christmas Day certainly cheered me up. Perhaps soon they might let me go home, and I couldn't wait to get better and be with her. Walks with Nel on Robinswood Hill would never be the same again. There was no doubt in my mind she would be my best mate forever, and she was – until my thirteenth birthday anyway.
Had the events of that year initiated the vet vocation journey? Who knows? I can only say that if I close my eyes I can recall countless details of that very strange time in my life.
I was a pupil at Gloucester's Finlay Road School, recognised then as one of the city's leading junior schools. The majority of the children in the school passed 'the Scholarship' exam, later to become known as the 11 plus, and left to go to the grammar school, or any other school of their choice. At this time a strange anomaly was the relative ease of winning a place at a Gloucester grammar school if you lived within the city boundary. It had one of the highest intakes in the country. If you lived outside the boundary the opposite was the case, and it was difficult to get into a grammar school. The unsuccessful pupils went to one of the city's secondary modern schools. There was just one thing wrong with these schools – their description. They were modern but the term 'secondary' erroneously and daftly suggested the pupils were second-class students, to some people anyway. Consequently, there was a high proportion of very bright articulate youngsters at most of the schools.
Life at Finlay Road was an enjoyable time with a wonderful teaching staff that were particularly helpful to me following a nine-month absence recovering from polio-meningitis (if such it was). Sadly, fifty years on, life has not been kind to the school; it has recently been described as an 'underperformer' and, at the time of writing, is 'up for sale' by Gloucestershire County Council. No doubt there is still plenty of the old Gloucester spirit to turn things round.
I left my junior school in 1952 with many happy memories and friends and moved on to the Crypt, Gloucester's oldest grammar school. Founded in 1539, the Crypt was, of course, a lot younger when I attended. Getting to school was fun; we rode our bikes. In fact we seemed to ride our bikes everywhere back then. For many of us this was after we had finished our paper round. Delivering early morning papers was the acknowledged way of having a schoolboy income. The 5s wage did not go far but at least made it possible to invite a girl to the pictures, just in case she didn't offer to pay for herself. Most mornings I was awake enough to glance at the papers' headlines as I pushed them through the letterboxes. One day was paramount; it was indeed the day the music died. That was 3 February 1959. Buddy Holly had been killed in an airplane crash.
There seemed no urgent need for girlfriends in 1952 although we boys talked about them a great deal. Getting to know your new schoolmates seemed sufficiently rewarding for the time being, without knowing of course that some of these boys would become your lifelong friends. Learning French, Latin and Greek all at the same time was daunting but we seemed to cope. Maths, English, history, geography and the sciences were thrown in for good measure. Somehow there was still time to fit in the weekly periods of religious instruction, music and a session in the gym, plus the all-important weekly afternoon of sport.
In our first school year every subject was compulsory, and that included our introduction to the game of rugby football. Our Welsh rugby-international games master, Horace Edwards, must have despaired at his attempts to teach us the new discipline. Most of us had come from junior schools where we had played football with a round ball and were reluctant to change codes. Nevertheless most had been converted within a few weeks. Our school tried its best to make gentlemen of us off the playing field, but permitted us to be hooligans when on it. At the start our skill levels allowed us to do little more than get plastered in mud. Everyone yelling as they got under the tepid shower after a game was a new experience.
The years passed quickly, and no sooner had we taken O-levels than the A-level exams upon which so much depended had arrived. The veterinary schools were happy with my grades and soon it was time to leave. Looking back on my school career, I could not complain about the teaching staff. For me they had done their job. Discipline was rigid, but most of us had benefited as a result, although today some of the methods employed by masters to enforce it would definitely be frowned upon.
For instance, Mr Morris, the woodwork master (who also taught maths) had his own way of ensuring your full concentration in class. Default and he would take you on a 'bicycle ride'. This entailed him grasping your 'sideboards' and twiddling the hair between his fingers in opposite directions. It was uncomfortable but it worked. We quickly learnt to listen and concentrate.
Our French master, Mr Tom Askew, employed his own methods too. At some stage during each lesson at least one boy would be asked, 'Aimez-vous Marie-Anne?' You quickly latched on that Marie-Anne was the big walloping stick our teacher carried. Get the question wrong and your hand was introduced to her personally. Today Mr Askew's teaching methods would be ridiculed and no doubt we would be hearing about impending legal action. Mr Askew, like so many teachers at that time, was, I suppose, an eccentric, but to suggest he was sadistic would be laughable. He was there to teach, and every lad who was fortunate enough to be in his class certainly learnt some French. Fifty years on and I have yet to meet any of his pupils who do not look back if not with approval, then at least with a degree of fondness.
Our Crypt School education was second to none. Every boy had achieved something. We joke today that our school had given us the social skills necessary for us to be welcomed anywhere in the world – at least on the first occasion. Vivat schola Cryptiensis!
My fondest memories of school will always be those of athletics and rugby. I was blessed with the ability to run fast and I left the Crypt possessing the records for both the 100- and 220-yard sprints. This had little to do with training me to become a vet, but friends have frequently wisecracked that this skill must have allowed me to get to the field gate before the bull. On more than one occasion they would be right, and if it wasn't the bull chasing me, it was something else (but, with hand on heart, I don't think it was ever the animal's owner!).
Rugby may have started from reluctant beginnings but it quickly developed into a passion that has remained a part of my life – perhaps I should say our lives, because for better or for worse my wife has always been part of this rugby world.
From the beginning of 1957, most Friday nights found me with a group of my classmates at the local youth club. These were the exciting days of Bill Haley, Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly. It hadn't taken me long to spot a very attractive fourteen-year-old young lady with a fashionable long ponytail, and the teenage crush followed. Her name was Angela. There was a bonus attraction. I knew via a good school pal who happened to be going out with her elder sister that their family owned one of the biggest televisions in the village. So on a cold Friday night in February, after a couple of hours of rocking and bopping, and knowing that England were taking on France at Twickenham the following afternoon, I chatted my way into joining them in their lounge the next day to watch the game on their big black and white box. I reckon you could say it was a successful first date – England won 9 points to 3. We could never have guessed on that occasion that we would still be watching rugby games on television together fifty years later.
During my final year at school I went for interviews at three veterinary schools in England. My third interview was at the University of Liverpool's Faculty of Veterinary Science. At the head of the table was seated the Dean, John George Wright, an eminent professor of veterinary medicine and surgery. I was asked to sit, and faced him at the other end. Between us sat six professors and other veterinary academic icons. JG, as he was affectionately known throughout the profession, welcomed me, made several humorous comments relating to what he already knew about me, and immediately put me at ease. The next half-hour flashed by and I hoped I had said enough to impress. I had, it seemed, and after a few moments conferring with the academics, the head of the table offered me a place. In 1960 the places, as now, were like gold dust, and to this day I cannot believe what came next.
'Thank you, sir', I replied, 'but I'd like to think about it.'
It was a moment of madness and must have made me seem remarkably cocky. It wasn't meant to sound as though I was playing hard to get, and I am sure I was simply thinking of the provisional place that one of the other schools had offered me. It took the entire group by surprise, myself included, and for a moment I wondered who would be the first to fall off his chair. It was my first real lesson that there are some things in life you just never say, and it could have meant the end of my veterinary career before it had even started. Perhaps the dignitaries were amused by my faux pas for, as promised, the treasured offer arrived in the post two days later. I only needed two minutes to consider the offer while I looked for my pen, then signed the acceptance form and ran to the nearest postbox.
My university career began later that year, but first there was a long summer holiday to get through. It was not a holiday in the usual sense. The urgency was to get a job. Any old job would do. The next five years would be hard going on a meagre income. But help was at hand via a friend. The friend in this case was one Keith Russell, a school pal I had grown up with. His dad, Wally, was an ex-Army serviceman who continued the war fighting in the scrum for Gloucester's Coney Hill Rugby Club. From Monday to Friday he was the general foreman of a well-known local building company. From time to time building things didn't go to plan and in fact some things went disastrously wrong, but Wally was always there to sort the problems out. Why they arose in the first place he never explained but that's another story, and it was all part of my education.
For the next three months I became a Gloucester navvy, digging, shovelling, mixing and wheel barrowing. My partners in crime were literally that. They were three local lads who had served time for burglary and freely admitted it. One morning, while we sat on old boxes and bags of cement enjoying our ten-minute tea break, one of my new mates pulled out some crumpled old cuttings from his wallet. They had been taken from the Gloucester Citizen and were reports with pictures of various 'jobs' that they could personally relate to. My initial reaction was one of disbelief but the situation became almost comical as they started to criticise the paper's crime reporter for getting his facts wrong! Ironically, we were working at the time in Gloucester's historic Westgate Street, refurbishing and rebuilding the Court Houses and Rooms. Naively, I thought it strange that they were on such familiar terms with the local uniformed police, and they were happy to introduce me to the plain-clothed detectives to whom they chatted informally. It took me a while to realise that they were established customers of the force.
Work on the building site was physically demanding, and we had targets to meet. We were a team and in some way the challenge had a bonding effect. It is interesting to note that, twenty-five years later, one of our gang was to become a regular sheep-farming client of my practice, for whom I have high regard.
October soon arrived and at last I was in Liverpool ready to begin the veterinary adventure. It took just a short while to adjust to the big city and northern life. I quickly made new friends and the Faculty of Veterinary Science just as quickly made it clear that the course we had embarked on was going to be increasingly demanding. We attended formal lectures five-and-a-half days a week interspersed with practical work. The twenty-nine lads and six female students in our year were split into groups of three for the practical sessions. For most of the time I was in the company of Roger Salmon and Nigel Sladen. We are still close friends today, having survived what seemed an eternal veterinary course together. Until their recent retirement, both Roger and Nigel spent their veterinary careers in Lancashire practices, though not the same one. Perhaps they should have, for during our years of studying veterinary anatomy, one had dissected the left side of a horse, the other the right. We concluded that eventually, to be fair to the client, they should go into practice together, so that when asked to visit an ailing horse, the practice receptionist could ask, 'Which side of the horse seems to be the problem?'
Excerpted from Memoirs of a Cotswold Vet by Ivor Smith. Copyright © 2011 Ivor Smith. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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