Farming feature: Retired auctioneer Neil Lanham and his tales at the bend in the road
- Credit: Archant
Neil Lanham, 76, is a retired auctioneer who has been fascinated all his life by the folk traditions and colourful metaphorical language of his native Suffolk. His interest has led to a unique collection of recordings and DVDs which provide a window onto a vanishing world, as SARAH CHAMBERS found out.
‘Mother couldn’t go past a bend in the road without a story about it,” begins Neil Lanham.
Neil, now aged 76, is a one-man treasure trove of cultural life, and remains fascinated by the lives of rural folk. The bend in the road is an apt metaphor for his own tendency to veer off course when recounting his own colourful story.
He is still adding to his remarkable collection of recordings of a people who live in our midst and possess a store of half-forgotten songs, stories and sayings from Suffolk’s rich rural past.
The books he has written and DVDs he has made fill the ancient two-storey Gig House at the back of his home in Botesdale on the county’s northern-most edge.
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He is full of stories, and every tale takes him off on a tangent from which he will return, trying to re-find his place, as we attempt to weave a path through his life.
“I would not live anywhere else,” says Neil of his Suffolk roots. “We moved up here (Botesdale) because there’s more what I call natural people.”
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Neil and his sister were brought up on stories from the agricultural depression and from the farm. His father died in 1943 when he was just five. His mother, Ruby Alleston, was a natural storyteller. He grew up on Redhouse Farm, at Boxford, near Sudbury, where her father, Charlie, lived. Even 60 or 70 years on, he has vivid memories of the farmworkers who worked the land.
“I went a bit backwards in my education and hated school and all I wanted to do was be out on the farm with the old boys. I learned that if you give them respect, you’ll learn things. If you look down on them, you won’t get anything. My mother had been brought up on this farm and she was full of stories,” he recalls. “We had stories all day long, mainly about the agricultural depression and we put her stories into a book: ‘There’s a story that my mother told...’”
They were stories from a resilient and lively people who carried on in spite of the hardships. The story of a people of which Neil remains in awe.
“My mother had moved around with my father and she actually lived in St Neots and later at Newmarket. She didn’t marry until she was 30 and she was on the farm and she was full of stories about the incredible hardships of the agricultural depression of the 30s.”
Later, in the early 1960s, Neil went to the Cambridge Folk Festival and was struck by the familiarity of what he heard. He was instantly smitten by the sounds and the words.
“I didn’t know what folk songs were but I heard them singing songs that my mother sang when she was washing up. They had learned them from books and mother had learned them from old boys out in the fields. That interested me in the oral tradition. It changed my whole way of thinking. I realised that nothing comes out of a book. Things come off people first, and the spoken word comes first, and that we should only ever consider writing as an assist - which is flying in the face of academia.”
His mother was the eldest daughter and very capable. Her youngest sibling was Neil’s Uncle Tickles who had hardly been off the farm and was “a real character”.
His grandmother still cured hams, there was a cow for the house to provide milk and dairy products and lively mealtimes where everyone sat down together.
“There were stories every mealtime. I was brought up on stories of the land. I can hear my grandfather coming out with a story.” He found his own native language was full of metaphor, invented by metaphorical minds.
“Suffolk people had a totally metaphorical language. Everyone had a nickname which is a metaphor, every tool had another name. The language was rich in its description.”
Gentle mockery was part-and-parcel of rural life. Neil uses the example of a farmer jokingly describing a neighbour’s thistle-filled field: ‘He’s got thistles there I could lean a bike up against.’ And he recalls a practical joker who put up a sign reading ‘Pick your own poppies for free’ on a farmer’s fence.
“It was described by someone called Walter Benjamin as ‘hilarious wisdom’,” he explains.
“They had proverbs, but they didn’t call them proverbs, they were sayings. And this is very relevant to farms: ‘I went to my wheat in May, and came away not very gay, I went to my wheat in June and came away whistling a tune.’ It tells you: ‘Don’t worry if your wheat doesn’t look much in May, it’ll get better in June.’” Throughout most of his life, Neil has carried a notebook and written down what people have said, keen to preserve it for posterity.
“This is what I love, the language. My mother would say: ‘Come in if you are good-looking.’”
“The saying they had here in this area was: ‘Can your mother skin a rabbit?’ The reply would be: ‘Skin and all for ninepence.’”
My mother would say: ‘Let me know when the cow’s calved.’
Another fellow would say: ‘Thank your mother for the eggs,’ because you would never go empty-handed.
At the age of eight, Neil was sent off to a boarding school in Huntingdonshire in hand-me-down clothes. It was a struggle for the family to afford it, but it had been his father’s wish. He hated it, and wanted to get back in the fields.
“I got caned heavily which made me more determined to do things my way,” he says.
His mother decided, as they hadn’t the money to buy land, that Neil should become an auctioneer and sent him to a firm in Cambridge to learn the trade. He started on large machinery sales at Grain & Chalk, now Cheffins in Cambridge, and spent a year at the College of Estate Management in London. Later, he joined Spear & Sons auction centre, recently bought by Clarke & Simpson, at Campsea Ashe.
“I used to be there at 7am booking in pigs. Michael Spear would sell the cattle. I would end up selling the furniture and the produce and then the timber. Then we had a 20-minute meal and we had to work every account out by hand and every commission and if you were finished by 10.30pm you were lucky. That was on a Monday. It was a good market.
“I loved it there. It was a rural idyll. If you went to the pub someone would be ribbing you about the price of pigs.”
He was still in his early 20s when was offered a job at agricultural firm Charles Boardman & Son, Haverhill.
“I went there in January 1962. In June 1962, Mr Boardman died. I was still very young and green but I managed it and I bought it in 1963, so I was on my own in 1963,” he says.
“But what I’m more proud of is in the first three years I was in business, as well as expanding the firm, I collected 600 Suffolk folk songs from the oral tradition. Nearly every valuation I went on I usually brought the conversation around with the farm were there any old boys that might still know any of the old songs.”
Neil recalls how, when he was about seven, a Suffolk Punch foal was born on the farm. “I saw all this gore around a hedge. It was the afterbirth of this foal. Someone told me at a later date it was the old horseman’s custom to spread the afterbirth on a blackthorn hedge and this custom was pagan in its origin. The belief was that as the young green leaves grow through the afterbirth so the foal would survive.
“When I started later recording horsemen I asked them about it and they all knew about it. One of them said to me that I still throw the afterbirth in the ditch because all the old horsemen said: ‘Bury the afterbirth and you’ll bury the foal’.”
He adds: “Being brought up with the ones on the farm helped me to know their culture and what they were like. It helped me going round with the songs because you have to show you are genuine and really one of them, so I used to put my big car up the road.”
Neil expanded the business into Clare and Bury St Edmunds and started a commercial department and a fine art department. He employed around 20 staff. Around 1975, having become fed up with estate agency, he sold it up and decided to concentrate on antiques.
His business, Boardman Fine Art Auctioneers, would hold sales in the town hall in Clare, including some of the largest sales of period oak furniture in the country.
In 2000, he decided to retire and spend more time on his first love, recording oral culture. “Theirs was a natural mindset, ours has been altered by artificial devices,” he says. For more on Neil’s recordings, visit www.traditionsofsuffolk.com.