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Introduction from Falling For It: The Apprenticeship

Born sucking a piece of grass, I was programmed for a rustic role. Forestry chose me when I left school and, after a compatible and lasting relationship, I have been left a legacy. This "inheritance", I hasten to add, does not show up on bank statements; it comes in other forms. But, regrets I do not harbour; I am a wealthy man.

With an enquiring mind, an alert eye and a pricked ear, I have worked through the seasons, harvesting the rewards of my vocation; and after more than three decades in the woods - I am rich with tales to tell.

Particularly vivid in my mind are the first three years of my working life, when I was introduced to forestry and the rural ways on an estate in Northumberland.

I remember the work, its interest and challenge; the estate, with its lingering traces of feudalism, and the wildlife with which we co-existed - but mostly, I recall the characters I was privileged to meet - all of them, true countrymen.

Often, when recounting incidents of interest, I have been asked to explain exactly what I mean by "true countrymen". This seemingly reasonable question has repeatedly left me sinking in a peat bog of my own making - alas, there is no simple definition. The complex diversity of this sadly dwindling breed is so great that qualification is virtually impossible. At least it was until recently.

A countrywoman invited a city-dwelling male friend to spend Christmas with her in the tranquillity that only Northumberland can offer. It would be peaceful (she knew the jet fighters were grounded to have their silencers polished), and a complete change for her guest. The preparations were almost over - but the final touch was missing.

"I'm just going out to get some berried holly", said the hostess to her guest as she donned her coat. This apparently simple announcement drew her friend's eyes away from the television, and with a thoughtful look he asked the question that, finally, has given me the elusive answer I sought: A "true countryman" knows where to dig for berried holly.

It is guilt at the indecent hoard of rustic experiences I have amassed in the course of my life that has shamed me into sharing them. I can no longer sleep with the burden.

This is the story of my first three years at work; and, if you enjoy reading it one-tenth as much as I enjoyed living it, the effort in writing it will have been worthwhile. Happy reading.

Reviews of Falling For It: The Apprenticeship

Review by John Wyatt

This book is very enjoyable light reading. It is about the days of the axe and crosscut, when the advent of chainsaws was received with incredulity. Some of us old enough, know what it was like to handle those first heavy monsters and how they cut by friction until the technique of saw sharpening was mastered, but Geoff Surtees took to the new machine well.

He tells us of his youthful experiences and feelings over his first three years in Northumberland, when he entered forestry with enthusiasm and learned that its happiness was largely being a member of a team (what he calls "the fraternity of true countrymen"; learning from the experienced and enjoying the diverting verbal exchanges over lunch time ‘bait’). He also learnt that forestry did not entirely offer the romantic life he anticipated: nursery work, particularly weeding - a grim drudgery; cutting Christmas trees in snow and ice - an ordeal; the sawmill - a place of fear. The experience is told with relish and a keen sense of humour. Surtees draws the characters with perception and affection.

This is one of those rare entertaining books that is readable more than once.

Farmer’s Weekly

Sixteen-year-old Geoff Surtees began working as a woodman on a Northumberland estate in 1959. His ambition was to be a forester.

Covering just the first three years of his career, the subject of his autobiography is not perhaps the most glamorous or exciting, but it is written so competently that the reader’s interest is immediately engaged.

Mr Surtees draws sensitive and often humorous character sketches of his colleagues. Joe, for example, who cooked bacon, egg and fried bread on an open fire with the aid of only a shovel and a stick. The author observes that the mid-rib on a shovel has little to do with the design of the tool, but that its true function is "... to keep eggs neatly separated while they fry".

The story tells us what it was like to be a boy coming to terms with being a man and doing a man’s job. When he started work, trees were cut with axes and crosscut saws, but the advent of the chainsaw in the early 1960s changed all that.

This little piece of social history is described with confidence, and its ‘readability’ owes much to the recollection of conversation and dialect.

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