Back in the late 1980’s at the start of my career, it was custom and practice to put trainee auctioneers on to sell feeding and rearing calves. In Penrith market these weekly sales consisted of large numbers of dairy bred black and white bull calves together with a smaller number of beef breed calves which would be bought either to feed on and eventually fatten or keep as herd replacements.
The black and white calves were much in demand for the European export market for veal, with several companies throughout the UK operating this type of business. So a plethora of professional calf buyers would climb in to the ring each Monday morning at Penrith.
My friend and colleague David Jackson was the young auctioneer above me and he had been selling for a few years, starting as a teenager. He had by this time worked his way in to the groove and had a good relationship with the calf buyers, you could say a mutual respect.
Some of the buyers were good to deal with, friendly and approachable. Others were almost tyrannical and would happily use fear and intimidation against any auctioneer in order to gain an advantage. My job week after week was to learn from David by pushing the calves in to the ring for sale or being on the rostrum clerking the sale.
I got to know the buyers quite well. There were some real characters in this field. The Forbes family and the Ross family from just over the border in Scotland were all related. The craic with them was generally good but it didn’t take much for a very short fuse to be lit. If that happened, then all hell could break loose in the ring. Dennis Thwaites and Stanley Mudd were two men who lived locally and knew many of the vendors in the market. They got on with their job quietly.
There were also some buyers who came up from Lancashire, one of whom, as I soon found out could be very volatile. From the very start did not seem to take to me at all. His name was Arty. He could fall out with himself on any day of the week. If he wasn’t shouting at the auctioneer, he might shout at the other buyers.
Within the buying circle in any auction mart, there are certain clicks or relationships whereby the buyers will not bid against one another. In other words they agree that one will stand back for the other if they are bidding. This is common practice in any auction mart. The buyers might just be long standing friends or the companies they buy for have working relationships. You can walk in to any auction ring and if you look carefully you can see little nod or winks between buyers meaning “this one’s for you” or “I’ll have this one”.
In a ring full of buyers you would hope that there is enough competition to ensure that despite any “standing” relationships, there will be at least a couple of bidders that will bid the animals to their full market value. There will always be times in auctioneer’s career when he may not have a full ring of buyers or they have decided collectively to all “stand” for each other. At these times there is great pressure on the auctioneer as he has to then drive the sale and do whatever he can to get the animals to market price. For young auctioneers with little experience this can be particularly daunting. Especially when the buyers are intimidating the auctioneer by trying to drive the prices down, or not letting the auctioneer get the bidding started.
Arty didn’t like me. It was clear to see. He would barely engage with me in the ring and was pretty rude. I always knew the day would come when I would be given the opportunity to sell calves. A few weeks later the chance finally arrived. David had taken a week’s holiday and Monday morning would see my first attempt at selling calves. As soon as I arrived at the market I was nervous. In those days there were three hundred calves or so to sell individually. One thing in my favour was that the demand for these calves was very high. All the buyers needed them which was putting pressure on the different clicks who had to “stand” for their mates but perhaps didn’t want to.
Working against me was Arty, who had already canvassed the rest of the buyers to get them to work with him. His intention, I was told later by another buyer was to have me “off by the stocking tops”, meaning that I they would not bid properly for the calves, break me and purchase the entire sale for a knock down price.
I climbed in to the rostrum clipping the little microphone on to my tie. In my hand was my personal gavel made especially for me by my late Uncle Parker, fashioned from a gnarled piece of hardwood. The first calf entered the ring, a black and white bull calf that I thought might make towards £160.
Immediately Arty was on the attack, grabbing the attention of the buyers, pointing at himself, meaning “leave this to me”.
“Twenty” he shouted “twenty pounds here”.
“One hundred and twenty bid” i shouted and set off to sell the calf.
“whaaat?” shouted Arty “I said twenty pounds and I mean it”. I refused to set off at that ridiculously low figure so I came down a little and then started to work back up again. Gradually other bidders joined in and eventually the calf was knocked down at a sensible price. The sale continued. All the while Arty was chuntering away in my ear, trying to unsettle me. I kept my head down and stuck to the task, all the while feeling pretty miserable thinking “is this how it is going to be for the rest of my career?”
About 100 calves in to the sale Arty decided on a different tack. The custom and practice in the calf ring was to take £2 and £3 increments. In other words a series of bids would go “£90, £92, £95, £98” and so on.
Selling another black and white calf Arty had given the final bid, the calf was knocked down to him at £150, the previous bid being £148. Immediately he started waving his hand in my face. “I only bid you £1 and £1 you will take”. This was show down time and I knew it. There was no way I could take a £1 bid. David Jackson had not done it and neither would any other of the auctioneers. I had to stick to my guns.
“It is £150 Arty and it is staying at £150”. He tried all ways to get me to back down. In the end he completely lost his temper as I refused to budge. Sadly he had backed himself in to a corner.
“Bring the next calf in” I instructed. “Leave the last calf. If Arty doesn’t want it, someone else can have it”. Delivering a final torrent of abuse, Arty left the ring at speed. Keeping deadpan I just continued with the sale. Outwardly I was trying to show some calm, inside I was breaking up, trying not to replay the recent events or question myself whether I had done anything wrong.
The sale was drawing to a close, I had just about got through it. Then the door to the ring burst open and back in came Arty. “Oh no” I thought. “Here we go again”. Instead he just came back in to the ring and stood there quietly.
A few lots later the sale was over. The buyers scurried off to the office to get their bills. I breathed a huge sigh of relief and slowly my heart rate began to fall. At the same time a quiet sense of satisfaction came over me. I had got through it and survived the worst that Arty could throw at me. I had done it once and I could do it again when the chance arose.
Slowly I made my way back to the auction office. As I got there I walked bang in to Arty. I was ready for an almighty bust up yet again. Instead he walked up to me, shook my hand and said, “You really should have taken a £1 bid”. With that he was off out of the auction.
I found out later that he had gone to my boss Richard Morris and asked for me to be removed from the rostrum. Richard backed me to the hilt saying as far as he was concerned, I was in charge of the sale – end of! I always appreciated that.
Perhaps the other buyers had also spoken to Arthur as well, I do not know. However from that day forward we never had a crossed word whenever I sold calves. Some years later when I was the manager at Cockermouth Market he rang me and asked if he could come and buy calves each week. I welcomed him like an old friend and he supported the market regularly until the export calf trade drew to a swift close during the BSE fiasco. Not once was there a wrong word and we often shared a joke in the ring!
Now 29 years have gone by. It is June 2017. Today I am back helping out at Penrith market selling calves, for one day only. There is nothing like the same number of calves to sell but there are still a few professional buyers in the market. The only faces left in the ring from the old days were “young” Andrew Ross and Stephen Pye fron Lancaster. All those years ago they were fresh- faced youths, just out of school. Young Andrew used to come to Penrith to buy calves with his dad, standing in the ring with all the other buyers including Arty.
I haven’t sold calves for years and I thoroughly enjoyed it today. I struck lucky. The calves were in great demand especially the black and whites. There was no “standing” or clicks in the ring. There was also a lot of banter, all good natured. Last Christmas I took part in a charity concert playing my piano and singing. Local farmer Les Armstrong from Kirkoswald delivered a brilliant soliloquy on stage about being a farmer. Les has done much for the farming community fighting our corner in the media and even at government level. Dressed in a tattered old bib and braces and wellies he brought the house down. Part of his act was to decry my piano playing ability which he likened to Les Dawson. “I’ll get you back” I promised. Today Les Armstrong was in the auction selling good quality calves as he regularly does. I hadn’t seen him since Christmas.
“It’s a Belgian Blue” he said entering the ring with his calf.
“No it’s not” I said over the microphone.
“yes it is” he responded more forcefully”.
“It is not”!
“Why? Is the passport wrong or something”? Les began to look vexed.
“No” I replied “We’ve called them British Blues…. for the last ten years”. Revenge is a drink best taken cold. Of course this was all in good fun but I was still pleased to see his calves make a good price. It won’t be long until it Christmas comes around again!
Some of the calf buyers still tried to pull me back but I have learnt a little over the years and just pushed on. I did remember my old pal Arty. One thing was for sure, I wasn’t going to take a £1 bid!