When I was a boy

September 8th, 2022. By Ben Brown

In this post, the first in a series about reading role models, Ben talks about Joe Doyle, a storyteller who introduced him to the ‘majesty and magic of words’.

My reading role models: Part 1 — Joe Doyle

Joe Doyle was Liverpool Irish, a tall jolly man with round spectacles and a long head, balding on top. His whole face moved when he spoke in his full voice that seemed to love even the taste of words. The way he rolled them around in his mouth of many accents and mysterious intonations before letting them loose to enjoin for effect, to regale with much fanfare, to rejoice and enjoy with a rollicking laugh and a lolly of a song, to pop like the weasel, guffaw like the grandfather Billy Goat Gruff who did for the troll on a trip-trap bridge and earned his greener grasses that seem always to grow on the other side of a story.

Liverpool Irish are a tough lot. Tradition you see. You need to be tough in order to live where you are not wanted. It helps if you can have a laugh while you’re at it. In 1940 England after the evacuation of Dunkirk, there wasn’t really that much you could laugh about.

‘Except’, Joe said, ‘for a mad little man with a funny little moustache who couldn’t seem to talk without shouting.’

‘Do you know,’ he would confide, as if sharing a secret.

‘I think Mr Hitler was deaf as a dumpling. Good God you could hear the man bellowing clear across the English Channel. Poor chap can’t hear himself talking you see. Very important to a certain type of fellow — to hear the sound of his own voice — rrrresonating within the emptiness of his own self-important little head.’

Mr Hitler was probably roaring his displeasure at the carnage Joe and the rest of his squad of commandos had inflicted the night before in a cross-Channel raid into occupied France, destroying anything they could find with a swastika on it before dashing back home to Old Blighty on a ridiculously fast motor torpedo boat made out of wood for a breakfast mug of tea and a puff or two on his pipe.

The majesty and magic of words

Joe Doyle, this gentle, eccentric tobacco farmer, was a highly trained and extremely effective killer in his younger days. He was also a wonderful storyteller, who delighted in the majesty and magic of words. It was at the Doyle dinner table one Sunday evening after a supper of corned beef sandwiches and cake, that I first began to understand the deeply philosophical implications latent within the whacky worlds of Theodore Seuss Geisel as delivered by a Liverpool Irishman half a world and a lifetime away from the worst that men can do.

The Motueka River
The Motueka River. Image credit: Mot-21 by Jason Blair. Flickr. Some rights reserved: CC BY 2.0. Image cropped.

The Motueka River is a taniwha they say, a magical being who curls and slips his way from the Tapawera Hills into Abel Tasman’s Bay north west of Nelson. The summers in the Taniwha’s valley are glorious. When I was a boy growing up on the family tobacco farm, the river teamed with long finned eels and brown trout and the alluvial terraces either side that gave onto the hills kept small farms viable and made big farms look rich because tobacco was King and the companies had to pay more than they would have preferred.

Joe Doyle grew less than ten acres and that was enough to keep them happy. Either side of the Doyle farm on the gravelled upper reaches of West Bank Road, two large properties pushed back into the foothills and lower slopes of the Mount Arthur range, sheep and tobacco in the stead of third or fourth generation descendants of the first settler families that broke in the land around Rocky Knob, Sugarloaf and the Pearce Valley run. These were farms inherited by brothers and worked as family concerns.

The Doyles knew nothing of tobacco when they pitched up in the Valley, except what Joe smoked in his pipe. But the general consensus seemed to be, ‘The bloody stuff grows like weeds. An idiot can grow tobacco!’. That’s what the folklore would attest to at any rate. And there were definitely idiots around growing the stuff with reasonable success. Tobacco is a pretty forgiving plant that tells you quite clearly what it needs and when it needs it. So, if the sun is in the sky and the weather gods are in their heavens and all remains right in the world, then yes, even an idiot can grow a crop of tobacco.

Joe Doyle, to me, was a man who seemed to know pretty much anything. The Motueka Valley seemed blessed with many such men when I was growing up. Some of them started out as seasonal workers, like Joe Doyle, like my dad. Ask them — what’s that thing, what does it do, how does it do it? They’ll tell you, often in great detail. Ask them where it came from, how it got there, what happens next. They’re more than happy to illuminate. Ask why this particular cause equals that specific effect, ask them why it doesn’t, just ask them. They’ll know. Or — they’ll know how to find out if they don’t. No such thing as Google in the tobacco days of the Motueka Valley. Just a library in town and a sheer love of reading for the certainty that attended.

Joe Doyle, by his experience, was a man deeply interested in his world, not just the little bit of it in which he found himself. And now, after the war and the killing, he was a farmer. Farmers are among the smartest people ever. They tend to know more than most people expect about more things than most people think. Because you have to, if you’re a farmer. And Joe believed, just like my father, what he didn’t know about anything, he could find out from a book.

Ben revisits Motueka

Ben revisits Motueka in this short video on Stuff: Ben Brown Making Stories.