Working By Torchlight

Labour, Literature, & Listening

Bah Humbug

by Kit Munro

I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.

It was another day of shearing, this time for Scarfie Shearing, a little contracting business I have. Not only do I shear sheep on the family farm, but very occasionally I shear sheep for money.

Scarfie Shearing mostly operates on the coast at a place called Waitati and inland on the Taieri Plain.

Quite often it is shearing the sheep out in the paddock with a portable machine. Although occasionally I have to use blades, as I did the other day, when there was a fairly major breakdown.

The place I was working at this day has an old woolshed and had about 250 sheep to shear; ewes and lambs.


It was great fun, the locals are funny as, and while the shed is only hanging together by memory I have worked in rougher.


I yarned quite a bit of the day while I worked, My rouseabout, a cheeky chap called Hiata, at one point opined that “it must be hard on you shearers y’know”. I asked him why he thought that and he said “cause you can’t talk about your feelings”. I told him that I had feelings almost every other day and was more than happy to talk about them.

When I wasn’t getting all emotional on it and yarning I listened to A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Despite it being probably the worst time of year to listen to it…

The descriptions of London winter did something to alleviate the heat of the woolshed on a summers day. If nothing else A Christmas Carol is Dickens at his best.  A Christmas Carol has been quoted to death but here are a two that jumped out at me.

I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off, one by one, until the master passion, Gain, engrosses you.


Oh, a wonderful pudding! Bob Cratchit said, and calmly too, that he regarded it as the greatest success achieved by Mrs. Cratchit since their marriage. Mrs. Cratchit said that now the weight was off her mind, she would confess she had had her doubts about the quantity of flour. Everybody had something to say about it, but nobody said or thought it was at all a small pudding for a large family. It would have been flat heresy to do so. Any Cratchit would have blushed to hint at such a thing.

I found my copy of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens here.


A desperate search for wealth

by Kit Munro

…it is far. But there is no journey upon this earth that a man may not make if he sets his heart to it. There is nothing, Umbopa, that he cannot do, there are no mountains he may not climb, there are no deserts he cannot cross, save a mountain and a desert of which you are spared the knowledge, if love leads him and he holds his life in his hands counting it as nothing, ready to keep it or lose it as Heaven above may order.

H Rider Haggard

The hogget shearing is done finally. After being held up by rain we got there in the end. The young sheep are now all shorn, every one. It will be a nervous few weeks until they have grown enough wool to be able to cope with cold weather. Until then they are kept in sheltered paddocks, with plenty of trees, so they can escape the elements.

So once again from this…

…to this

Punctuated with lots of these:

In keeping with my Victorian swash-buckling theme I moved on to listening to King Solomon’s Mines by H Rider Haggard. The story is kind of like Erewhon by Samuel Butler, but with less jurisprudence.

Alllan Quartamain is a great sort of hero. A chap who has nothing going for him except being a great hunter and an even better shot. Not that I am a huge fan of hunting myself but you can appreciate his stoicism:

It is a hard thing when one has shot sixty-five lions or more, as I have in the course of my life, that the sixty-sixth should chew your leg like a quid of tobacco. It breaks the routine of the thing, and putting other considerations aside, I am an orderly man and don’t like that.

I found my copy of King Solomon’s Mines by H Rider Haggard here. If anyone knows of another place this audiobook is available please let me know in the comments below.

[Guest Post from Garybuie’s Blog]

by Christine

I think that there’s nothing better than relaxing with a proper book, but obviously a day of normal pursuits doesn’t offer the possibility of such indulgencies. And then along comes Kit with his idea of ‘reading’ while we work! Admittedly, hurtling around at the height of the bed and breakfast season, tending to guests’, ducks’, chickens’ and vegetables’ needs, my brain is cluttered enough without listening to a story too! But recently, while taking up my paint-brushes once more as a winter pastime, although I’m a lover of the simple ambient sounds of life going on around me, I sometimes fancy a bit more of an accompaniment to my efforts. On the whole the radio irritates me, so I usually put some music on. I’ll maybe last for a couple of CDs then I’m back to square one. Except now there’s new potential out there!

I’m not one of those hi-tech people who are in possession of an iPod however, so how do I get to listen to a story then? There used to be story tapes when our kids were young and I know that there are CDs, but they’re impractically cumbersome. Lucky for me that I have a husband who works for part of the week in our local library, so who better to know what’s available on the audio book front; something called ‘Playaway’ apparently, a pre-loaded, digital audio book, about the size of matchbox. Perfect!

So last week, I hot-footed (Well, hot-carred at least) my way to the library to pick up a couple of these wee wonders, as well as several proper books too of course! So, whilst tackling my new painting of Hamie, one of our cats, I had a story to listen to; My Life with George by Judith Summers, recommended by an enthusiastic librarian. It’s about the arrival of a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel into the lives of a recently doubly bereaved family. Not my usual choice of book I have to say, being more of a cat person than a doggy one, but George’s antics are quite entertaining and there’s a cat briefly in the mix too!

Next I moved onto The Woodcutter by Reginald Hill. This is certainly a more absorbing story than the last one and has me gripped! I also completed my portrait of Hamie and have now moved onto a pencil drawing of a sheep’s skull with lots of fiddly bits which will occupy me for quite some time, which is great as this book lasts for almost seventeen hours!

Wolf Hadden’s life was a fairytale – successful businessman and adored husband. But a knock on the door one morning ends it all. Universally reviled, thrown into prison, Wolf retreats into silence. Seven years later Wolf begins to talk to the prison psychiatrist and receives parole to return home. But there’s a mysterious period in Wolf’s past when he was known as the Woodcutter. Now the Woodcutter is back, looking for truth and revenge.

[Garybuie’s Blog]

If only they had downloadable audiobooks in the 1940s…

by Kit Munro

Whether or not a mob of sheep can be mustered largely depends on the size of the mob. It is not often that a mob of sheep is too large. As a boy, when wool was king, I remember my parents moving a mob of nearly one thousand wethers. Even a fairly average musterer with a team of dogs can move a lot larger mob than that. However, a mob of sheep can be too small to move. One thousand sheep will behave much the same as one hundred. But 3 sheep will not behave the same as thirty.

As Murray Ball once wrote “the only thing harder than trying to control a mob of steers is trying to control one steer”.

So, it is easier if the numbers of sheep are particularly small to transport them rather than make them walk under their own steam. Take these two wayward rams today for example:

Carting them back in the granny lifter (the thing that a granny uses to lift sheep, not a thing used to lift grannies) is much easier than getting the sheepdog to try and control them.

Carting two sheep in the granny lifter is not as fun as mustering them

I don’t usually listen to a book that I had already read but today I have been listening to A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute. I had read it years ago, but my co-worker wanted an audiobook version of it so I thought I might as well make use of it. It has a bit of everything; war, romance, adventure, crocodile shoes, and poddy-dodging. The story jumps back and forth between London, Malaysia, and Australia.

A Town Like Alice describes two types of work that I think would have been perfect for audiobook listening:

Working in a rice paddy:

As soon as they became accustomed to the novelty of working ankle-deep in mud and water they did not find the work exacting, and presently they were seized with an ambition to show the village that white mems could do as much work as Malay women, or more….

Working in these fields is not unpleasant when you get accustomed to it. There are worse things to do in a very hot country than to put on a large conical sun-hat of plaited palm leaves and take off most of your clothes, and play about with mud and water, damming and diverting little trickling streams.

And working in a shoe factory:

The monotony was irksome to the older girls who had left school for some years, or who had never been to school at all. She tried to help them by ordering an automatic changing gramophone from Cairns, with a supply of records; the music certainly intrigued and amused the whole of Willstown and may have helped the older girls a little, but not much.

If only those poor folk had talking books. Still I suppose gossip and camaraderie would have hopefully kept boredom at bay…

I found my copy of a Town Like Alice by Nevile Shute here. If anyone knows of another place this audiobook is available please let me know in the comments below.

Kidnapping, shearing, and grinding. In that order…

by Kit Munro

Like most lads that have been country-bred, I had a great opinion of my shrewdness.

Robert Louis Stevenson

Another day shearing sheep. Today it was the hoggets. The hoggets are the sheep that are one year old. So they are pretty much the equivalent of teenagers. Of all the merinos on the farm, the hoggets have the finest wool. While the wool is better, the shearing is harder. They are never as fast to shear as the older sheep. Hoggets seem to grow wool in more places. They are also sticky, there seems to be more grease, or lanolin I suppose.

Today, while shearing I have been reading Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson. Just a little bit of Tartan Noir: Scottish Crime Fiction. In the preface Stevenson writes:

…it is more honest to confess how little I am touched by the desire of accuracy. This is no furniture for the scholar’s library….

Despite this, Kidnapped is still a good way to be introduced to Scotland and Scottish history; the Highlands, the Jacobites, and gratuitous use of the word daft. It is also, once I got used to the Scottish brogue, terribly exciting. People are run through. Murders are attempted, with some success. There is even kidnapping.

The tool I use to shear the sheep is called a handpiece. On the handpiece are fitted a comb and a cutter, these are the bits that cut the wool. The comb and cutter go blunt regularly. They do cut an awful lot of wool after all. A cutter will last about twenty minutes, a comb will last an hour. Although, how long the gear lasts does depend on how sandy, daggy or dirty the sheep are.

So, by the end of an 8 hour day, I have used 24 cutters and 8 combs. These combs and cutters all need cleaning since they are each covered with grease from the wool. They also need sharpening. I sharpen with a grinder.

Grinding a cutter

Grinding a comb

This all takes about forty minutes. While I can listen to an audiobook while cleaning the combs and cutters I do not listen while grinding. I have mentioned in earlier posts that some jobs are too much fun to listen to audiobooks, while others are too dangerous. Grinding the gear is one of the latter jobs.

It is not that grinding is that dangerous. It is just that the grinder spins very, very fast. I have a healthy respect for the grinder, which translates as; I am extremely bloody scared of it.

Despite my fear, while grinding I was able to mull over something that I read today in Kidnapped:

…I had not been many days shut up with them before I began to be ashamed of my first judgement, when I had drawn away from them at the Ferry pier, as though they had been unclean beasts. No class of man is altogether bad; but each has its own faults and virtues; and these shipmates of mine were no exception to the rule. Rough they were, sure enough; and bad, I suppose; but they had many virtues. They were kind when it occurred to them, simple even beyond the simplicity of a country lad like me, and had some glimmerings of honesty.

I found my copy of Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson here. If anyone knows of another place this audiobook is available please let me know in the comments below.

Motorbikes and Mao: dancing and standing

by Kit Munro

Without really knowing how it happened, I found myself acting as a security guard at the Hampton Downs racetrack for a motorbike event. This job consisted of standing, rooted to the spot, outside a pub near the racetrack. Actually this pub was inside the circle of the track so I had a good view of the action.

I had to tell the bikies (motorbike enthusiasts) that they were not allowed to take their drinks with them when they left the pub, else the racetrack would loose its liquor license. The weather was atrocious, nobody really wanted to drink outside, so over the four hours of the job I only had to warn about twenty people. They were all very good about it. In fact, the rougher and harder they looked the more polite they seemed. Some of the roughest looking folk even commiserated with me over having such an awful job, although the job did not seem that bad to me.

The only downside to the job would have been the boredom, I had no interest in watching motorbikes go round in circles for four hours.

Here I am, feeling uncomfortable in pants, shoes and vest. At least I am a world away…in a tiny village in northern China.

Naturally, I had secreted my ipod and headphones in my uniform. On the ipod, were loaded three new books. I decided to start Mao’s Last Dancer by Li Cunxin.

If I had felt sorry for myself (which I didn’t) at having the bad luck to be stuck at a race track in the pouring rain, dealing with bikies,  then the first few chapters of this book would have given me a little perspective.

I had heard about these two major events in 20th century China, The Great Leap Forward and The Cultural Revolution, from history at school. However, aside from knowing that they happened, and that they were pretty rough going, that was about all I knew.

To read about it from the perspective of one of the countless millions of poor, who saw the consequences of these events, was difficult, but important.

Mao’s Last Dancer also shows the changing face of China in the mid-20th Century:

Cunsang was lucky to have survived his first week in the Li family. When he was only a few days old, there was an accident. Two of the bigger brothers were playing, stacking up chairs, and the chairs crashed down upon Cunsang’s head. He started having seizures. My mother took him immediately to the hospital where the doctor told her that he most likely had brain damage, but was too young to have any treatment. All my mother could do was take him home.

For several days he did not feed, he cried nonstop and the seizures continued. Finally, in desperation, my mother wrapped him in a little handmade blanket, took him out into the snow, and left him on the Northern Hill, close by our village. She thought somebody with magic power might save him. She cried all the way home.

My father’s mother, Na-na, came by later to check on her new grandson. Na-na was a kind, tiny little woman. When she found the baby missing, she begged my crying mother to tell her where he was. Eventually she did, and Na-na rushed on her crippled, bound feet to the Northern Hill. She found Cunsang and took him home. He was blue all over, nearly frozen to death, and had a severe fever for several days. But then, miraculously, Cunsang stopped crying. The seizures ended and he seemed to recover.

He too grew up with the rest of his brothers in that crowded house, and my mother eventually came to be known as “that lucky woman with seven sons.”

I found my copy of Mao’s Last Dancer by Li Cunxin here.If anyone knows of another place this audiobook is available please let me know in the comments below.

Frost fighting with The Help

by Kit Munro

Are audiobook aficionados stereotyped? Maggie Gram thinks so, in her essay “listening to books” she writes:

I thought about starting this essay by insisting that I listen to audio books for work, so that I could not be mistaken for that other kind of person, that kind of person who listens audio books because it brings her some kind of unsophisticated pleasure. I am not, I wanted you to know, your Aunt Paula. My kitchen is not decorated with rooster towel racks and rooster potholders and rooster trim. I am a very serious person.

“[S]ome kind of unsophisticated pleasure”? Oh well. I listen to audiobooks for unsophisticated pleasure. I hope no one minds.

To reduce the level of sophistication of my pleasure even more I have been listening to The Help by Kathryn Stockett. Another black mark against me according to Maggie Gram:

It would be a long time before your Aunt Paula started listening to The Help in her car.

And yes, I have been listening to The Help in my car. Well sort of, I have been listening in my Ute, while frost fighting.

The Help is a bestseller. Set in the civil rights era, it revolves around people who were basically servants. I cringe at my use of the word servant, but I can think of no better word to describe the awful way many of these women were treated.

The Help has received a great deal of criticism. However, for an introduction to Jim Crow, Civil Rights and the deep south in the 1960s,  it is adequate enough. Most importantly though, The Help is an easy read. That is what is required for an audiobook that is going to be listened to while frost fighting.

Frost fighting is probably one of the physically easiest jobs on the farm, but it is also one of the most stressful. In the wee small hours of the night the entire grape harvest hangs in the balance. If the shoots  on the vines freeze, they die. Taking with them the tiny specks that will become bunches of grapes. The months and months of pruning and wrapping (see here and here) could be wasted, the entire years income could be gone in a couple of hours.

It has happened before.

To fight the frost, on MoonRaker vineyard we have two pretty impressive machines called, rather grandly, wind machines. One in each of the two blocks. They sort of look like wind turbines, but smaller and green. Rather than harvesting wind, they make it.

This is the wind machine in the front paddock roaring in to life, thirty minutes or so before the sunlight hits the grapes. It was turned on late because the temperature only plummeted just before dawn. This wind machine is a half sized one, well the blade is full size but its “trunk” is half the height of a normal wind machine. The blade seems very close when it is turned on.  It moves very, very fast.

Sometimes the temperature approaches freezing much earlier in the night. Occasionally as early as 10pm. When that happens these frost machines go all night and we stay up all night with them. Waiting and hoping that nothing will go wrong and that the wind machines will generate enough wind to raise the temperature just enough to stop the frost settling on the vines. If the wind machines are not enough to raise the temperature then the frost pots are lit.

These turn the wind machine from a fan in to a giant heater. Neither turning the wind machine on, nor lighting the frost pots are hard, or time consuming jobs. Basically all that there is to do is wait while everything hangs in the balance. And so, like your Aunt Paula, I listen to an audiobook. This unsophisticated pleasure makes a very long night bearable.

And then, after working all day then fighting frost all night, words cannot describe the pleasure the sight of the first sunlight hitting the hill tops  brings.

I found my copy of Kathryn Stockett’s The Help here. If anyone knows of another place this audiobook is available please let me know in the comments below.

A pressing job and listening to a Homage to Catalonia

by Kit Munro

After the sheep have been shorn and the wool sorted in to its various grades and stacked in these bins it needs to be pressed in to bales. It cannot be transported by each individual fleece. Instead we compact 100 fleeces or so in to a single bale.

While shearing, the pressing is not a presssing (sorry) job. The shed can hold enough wool without it having to be compacted too regularly. So the job is put off. And put off. And put off. Occasionally we cannot put the pressing off until tomorrow anymore and it needs to be done.

Today was one of those days.

Most woolsheds have hydraulic presses for compacting the wool. Some have mechanical ones that require the force to be provided with levers. The press here is one of those. Of all the woolsheds I have worked in this press is the oldest. It is also the funnest. It is like a weights machine, but with a point.

First the wool is tramped into the press, using the legs.

Then the two sides of the press are joined together.

Then the wool is compacted from one side of the press to the other. Using nothing more advanced than two levers.

Leaving the wool from two boxes in one…

There is a lot of force on those levers, despite the fact that the only thing being squeezed out of the wool is air. The woolpress might be over 100 years old but it does the job.

Yesterday and today the book I listened to was Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell. This is a journalistic type novel and details Orwell’s experience fighting in the Spanish Civil War. It is a bit confusing with all the different factions, but then I suppose that is the nature of civil wars.

There was one part of the book that felt particularly relevant to what I was doing. Here Orwell describes a nature of the Spanish psyche that he found both infuriating and endearing:

Every foreigner who served in the militia spent his first few weeks in learning to love the Spaniards and in being exasperated by certain of their characteristics…… The one Spanish word that no foreigner can avoid learning is Manana – ‘tomorrow’ (literally, ‘the morning’). Whenever it is conceivably possible, the business of today is put off until manana. This is so notorious that even the Spaniards themselves joke about it. In Spain nothing, from a meal to a battle, ever happens at the appointed time As a general rule things happen late, but just occasionally – just so that you shan’t even be able to depend on their happening late – they happen too early. A train which is due to leave at eight will normally leave between nine and ten, but perhaps once a week, thanks to some whim of the engine-driver it leaves at half past seven.

I think I should like to go to Spain one day.

Using that summer job to improve your grades

by Kit Munro

If you are studying at a University and you have to work over the summer holidays there is a way –if you are lucky enough to have the right job– to turn those Summer months spent doing a boring job into A+ after A+.

A comment on this blog the other day provided me with the idea:

I spent most of my uni break working in a vineyard…never have I tired of an iPod playlist so quickly. Working outside was such a lovely change though and it really does help to realise how lucky you are to work in such a beautiful place:)


Let us assume that Anon is studying English. Lets also assume that she is studying at the University of Otago, one of only three Universities on the Island I live on. Anon, because of her Scottish heritage and a weakness for CSI, Sherlock, and Hercule Poirot has decided to study, ENGL260 Special Topic: Tartan Noir: Scottish Crime Fiction. Lets finally assume that Anon has decided to work in a vineyard again.

Anon could listen to her ipod playlist again, but I think there is a better idea.

Here is the reading list for Scottish Crime Fiction

Walter Scott, ‘The Two Drovers’
Robert Louis Stevenson, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
Robert Louis Stevenson, Kidnapped
Arthur Conan Doyle, selected Sherlock Holmes stories
Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles
John Buchan, The Thirty-Nine Steps
Muriel Spark, The Driver’s Seat
Ian Rankin, Black & Blue
Christopher Brookmyre, One Fine Day in the Middle of the Night
Iain Banks, Complicity
Val McDermid, The Wire in the Blood

Why doesn’t Anon spend her summer in the vineyard reading/listening to these books? Rather than listening to Taylor Swift, Kitty Daisy and Lewis, The Decemberists, or The Black Keys all day she could read these books.

Below is the list with the audiobooks I was able to find on and elsewhere and how many hours these books are.

Walter Scott,The Two Drovers’ (couldn’t find)
Robert Louis Stevenson, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is available here. 3 hours
Robert Louis Stevenson, Kidnapped is available here. 7.5 hours
Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles is available here. 6 hours. The complete Sherlock Holmes is also available here. 71 hours
John Buchan, The Thirty-Nine Steps is available here. 4 hours
Muriel Spark, The Driver’s Seat is available here. 2.5 hours
Ian Rankin, Black & Blue is available here. 13 hours (estimate)
Christopher Brookmyre, One Fine Day in the Middle of the Night (couldn’t find)
Iain Banks, Complicity (couldn’t find)
Val McDermid, The Wire in the Blood is available here. 15 hours

[NB as usual if anyone knows anywhere else these books are available as audiobooks please let me know in the comments below]

If Anon was to spend her time listening to these books and keeping in mind that for Engl 260:

Topics of discussion will include: the character of the detective hero; the role of crime fiction in the construction of national identity; and writing the city in Scottish crime fiction.

It is likely that she will be the most prepared person in the class, after the lecturer. Especially if she listened to these books more than once. Say it takes roughly 120 hours to listen to the 8 texts that are available, if she also intends to read every Sherlock Holmes story, Then, if Anon does 40 hour weeks in the vineyard for three months she could listen to the lot four times.

Going into this course with an intimate knowledge of all these texts on the reading list may not guarantee an A+ but it would, I think, make an A+ a lot more likely.

Do uni students often do this? Get a job over the break that would be compatible with audiobook listening and prepare for their next semesters study by doing all the reading before the course starts? Because if the students are passionate about their studies this is exactly what they should do.

In short, I think this sort of thing

Plus this

Containing these

May equal this


The shearing deadline was met, sort of. And the hairy fifth…

by Kit Munro

The hairy fifth to enslave the State,

To enslave the state, though against his will,

Shall be that idiot whom all despised.

 I, Claudius Robert Graves

Another days shearing. I left the South African theme for a while. Today I have been working/listening my way through I, Claudius by Robert Graves. I, Claudius is a history of the reign of several Caesars –including Augustus, Tiberius and Caligula– of the Roman Empire. It is told from the perspective of Claudius, an accomplished historian, so Graves wrote it as though the Roman historian was writing it.

Claudius did not have much going for him:

I was a very sickly child –‘a very battleground of diseases,’ the doctors said –and perhaps only lived because the diseases could not agree as to which should have the honour of carrying me off.

Poor old Claudius was ridiculed by those around him and probably the best advice he was ever given would not have improved this:

…exagerate your limp, stammer deliberately, sham sickness frequently, let your wits wander, jerk your head, and twitch with your hands on all public or semi-public occasions…

Poor old Claudius did not have much going for him, but he did have a little…

I finished shearing the main mob of ewes today while listening to I, Claudius. The deadline was the 10th of October. This deadline was for finishing the shearing, not the audiobook.

So en masse the sheep  looked like this before I started…

Now, after I have finished, they look like this…

Oh and the reason the deadline was the 10th of October?

That is when these Ewes start lambing:

Although nobody told this guy. This little tacker was born a day early.

The pink stripe was to mark him out. I suspected his mum had abandoned him. When I came back later he was all alone, no sheep near him. Nobody loves him. He may end up as a pet, or maybe another sheep can be tricked in to adopting him.

From humble beginnings eh?

I found my copy of Robert Grave’s I, Claudius here. If anyone knows of another place this audiobook is available please let me know in the comments below. [update I, Claudius is also available at the Book depository: Thanks Indiedyer]