The Voodoo Boards

Every family has its own slang. Some are extensions of baby talk – I was known as Boofy for some time even after I learned to make other noises – but others are more practical. At least I think so.

Several years ago Penny and I visited friends in Italy. For some reason I wanted to know the Italian for ‘hut’– it’s ‘baracca,’ I can exclusively reveal. At the time we were wearing those thin waterproof jackets that can be rolled up. Mine smelled badly of creosote, which is, of course, often used to treat huts and sheds. By what seemed an obvious process of association, in our household ‘baracca’ came to describe the roll-up waterproof coat thing. If I say ’have you got your baracca?’ to Penny or my sons, they will immediately know what I mean. It would be both incorrect and pretentious to use the word in an English sentence to describe a hut; but used to describe a coat, it’s fine. It’s also short and its harsh consonants sound well when we’re shouting at the boys to put their baraccas on, or castigating them for having lost them.

Another phrase results from our living on the mighty River Lambourn. The back door is perhaps six feet higher than the river bed. Between the two is a path and a sloping bank. Soon after our return from the baracca trip it became clear that the bank was being rapidly eroded and that anything we planted was as likely to take root ten miles downstream as in our garden. It also seemed worth trying to stop my sons, then quite young, from falling into the river. The plan was to put posts on the edge of the river with horizontal boards to protect the bank and, above these, a fence to protect the children.

It might be easier if I drew a picture. No, it wouldn’t. The only thing I can draw is an elephant from the back and even then I have to explain what it is. All you need to grasp is the idea of about 40 feet of horizontal planks separating a sloping earth bank from a river.

One obvious problem was that planks in this situation will get wet and rot. Penny heard somewhere that horse manure was an excellent and environmentally-friendly way of preserving them (better even than the above-mentioned creosote). Horse manure isn’t hard to find in the Lambourn valley so we thought we’d give it a try.

At this time our friends from Italy arrived to stay with us. Were there any tasks they could help us with? Steve asked.

Yes, I said, there were.

“You’ve got to be joking,” he said once I’d explained. Not at all, I replied, and showed him the three buckets of fresh horse poo we’d collected, most from Pat Murphy’s yard and some from the road when the favourite for the 3.15 at Doncaster and his friends had trotted past that morning.

“Come on,” I said. “It’ll be fun.”

For some reason we’d also arranged for a recently-qualified landscape gardener to come that weekend to help arrange and plant some new shrubs on the bank. That Saturday morning in April thus saw five of us hard at work – me and the gardener with trowels, plants and sheets of membrane on one side of the fence and Steve and Gisela knee-deep in water each with a bucket of horse manure on the other and Penny performing some vague overseeing role while also cooking, telephoning and generally multi-tasking, like she does.

Communication between all of us in this close and unusual situation were complicated by the language barrier. Steve, Gisela and I had three languages between us but not in common. Steve had English and Italian but no French; Gisela Italian and French but no English; and me English and French but no Italian (apart from ‘baracca’, which only gets you so far). Nothing we said could be shared without at least one translation. The unseasonable sunshine, the bizarre task, the smell of the manure and the odd pauses in the conversation created a strangely dreamy atmosphere.

“This is like some kind of dam’ cotton-pickin’ misery thing,”  said Steve, who was from North Carolina, in his best southern drawl. He picked up another handful of manure and slapped it onto the post. “We doin’ voodoo shit here. Hell, next thing we gonna be sacrifin’ a cockerel.”

“Ooo-yer,” I said. “We makin’ voodoo.”

“You betta believe it, boy. We makin’ voodoo down by the river.”

Gisela asked if we could explain, in either of the languages she understood, what the hell we were talking about. Neither of us was able to do so.

A couple of minutes later, we started singing. I don’t know what it is about repetitive manual tasks – I was digging up clumps of celandine at the time – but it makes music come into the head pretty fast. Next thing I knew we were bawling out some cod spiritual/gospel thing, the magic we were conjuring up flowing through our fingers and into the boards.

Gisela got the gist of the thing and joined in with some slightly operatic verses about god-knows-what. The harmonies didn’t always come off but volume and enthusiasm can in some happy circumstances conquer this problem, or seem to. What any passers-by must have thought was going on I wouldn’t like to say. ‘Slap’ went the horse manure on the boards. ‘Yee-ho’ went the response.

So there it was. By lunchtime we’d finished this strange task. They became known as voodoo boards and have been ever since.

Many years later at a dinner party the talk turned to DIY projects and mishaps. “One of the things we have to do,” I said, “is put some more manure on the voodoo boards.”

There was a stunned silence. The sentence suggested either that I was incredibly drunk or that I’d started to describe, for no obvious reason, a print union’s initiation ceremony. I explained as briefly as I could but realised I’d slightly lost the sympathy of the group. These private family names are just that. Expose them to a wider public and they make everyone seem foolish – you for having them, them for being reminded of even more ridiculous ones of their own. I’m taking a bit of a gamble by mentioning them here at all.

More years went past. The river rose and fell, as it does. The voodoo boards spent part of their lives submerged, others dried out in the autumn sun. This isn’t good for wood. A recent examination (the river being dry) proved something I’d long suspected but refused to face, that many of the voodoo boards had disappeared altogether. Thanks perhaps to the manure, perhaps to the strong river magic from our singing, they’d lasted a lot longer than the person who’d put them in had predicted. Yet at George Harrison reminds us, all things must pass, even voodoo boards.

The river normally comes back in early January and flows until September. Any work thus had to be done soon if the bank wasn’t going to be washed away. This left me with two problems.

To replace voodoo boards you need wood. You also need someone to help you.

John the cabinet-make opposite recommended Barlow’s in Hermitage. I phoned them, slightly nervous as I wasn’t really sure what I needed and was expecting to get sneered at. They couldn’t have been more helpful. The guy also recommended some really serious bolts to fix the existing posts to the extensions. I had a look at the photos on their site. “You could fasten two rhinoceroses together with these,” I suggested.

“Something like that,” he agreed.

I then needed some help in getting them up. David Baden from Shefford had recently advertised his services in Penny Post so I gave him a call. He also couldn’t have been more helpful. With a job like this it’s a good idea to discuss how it’s going to be done with the person who’s actually going to be doing it with you rather than taking hypothetical advice from someone who’s going to vanish as soon as the tools come out. His advice was sound, we made the plan and cracked on with it. The next day they were up. They’re still up, not always the case with things I’m involved with making. Not a day too soon, either, as the river has since come back, oozing mysteriously out of the ground like it does at this time of year.

The final task is to get the horse manure applied. I haven’t yet told my sons that they’ll be doing this. They’ll argue and grumble but I’ll just explain that they’re voodoo boards and so they have to have horse manure rubbed into them. It’s the way things are – end of. So, into the river with you and let’s start singing.

(The black object you can see in the top left of the photo that looks a bit like an aircraft carrier is a mink trap. Why do we have a mink trap? All is revealed in this story, A Life of Crime.)

Brian Quinn
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