When my dad wrote his column for 21st July 1979, the country was experiencing the effects of a global oil crisis following the Iranian Revolution, which had begun in early 1978 and ended on 11th February 1979 when the monarchy was toppled and an Islamic republic was established.
During the revolution, Iranian oil output fell dramatically, and the problem was exacerbated by large companies stockpiling supplies for fear of further uprisings.
Our TV screens and newspapers showed of lines of motorists queuing at petrol stations to fill up their tanks. Rural industries relied heavily on petrol, oil and diesel, and some resorted to the old ways of agriculture, using horses and cattle for transportation and farm work.
One of the countryside retailers most dependant on fuel was of course the local garage. The first forecourt attached to a supermarket was opened by Asda in Halifax in 1967, and Tesco and Sainsbury’s followed suit in 1974. Despite that, in 1979, they were still few and far between, so in rural areas, we relied on small independent garages to fill up our vehicles.
In my home village we had our own petrol station owned by a couple of characters straight out of an episode of Heartbeat. Sisters Minnie and Fanny Benson were a much-loved local institution, and had run the garage since the 1950s after inheriting it from their father. I’m sure many readers will remember, or still come across, these kinds of people who to outsiders might seem rather eccentric, but when you grow up with them, you just accept them as part of the fabric of country life.
As a child, Minnie and Fanny and their little garage were as familiar to me as my own back garden. They had always just been there and played a pivotal role in the community. They were Jacks (or should that be Jills?) of all trades, and could probably have turned their hands to just about anything. They delivered the papers, and would help out with all manner of odd-jobs if asked to. Of the two, Fanny was the most mechanically minded, and was proficient in a mind-boggling array of practical tasks which, especially back in the 1970s, were traditionally associated with men. She offered a bike-puncture repair service for 10p, and could fix any other bike-related problem. She also drove the school bus, operated a taxi service, and was the parish bell-ringer, as well as church warden. She chopped up wood and sold it for kindling, and the Bensons sold vegetables they had grown in their garden and eggs from their own chickens.
The pair were a familiar sight around the village, with Fanny always in her blue mac, boots, and a woolly hat, while Minnie wore a similar mac and boots, but was always in a skirt. They were particularly known for their posse of border collies that were forever by their sides. They had a succession of them, and no less than three when I was a child. The funny thing was, all of them were called Lassie. It didn’t seem odd to me at the time and it was only as an adult that it dawned on me how quirky it was. My mum recalls Dad once asking Minnie why. “Well, if I shout ‘Lassie!’, they all come.” Now that’s proper Yorkshire logic.
Minnie babysat for many families and most Saturday nights, my parents would go for a drink at the pub across the road, so Minnie would come and sit with us. I used to beg her to let Fanny bring the dogs down, so usually, much to my delight, about half way through the evening, she would turn up with one of them in tow. They always let me stay up later than I was supposed to, but eventually I’d have to go to bed and whichever Lassie it was would come upstairs too. My mum groaned inwardly when Minnie would later tell her, “Aye, Lassie loves that bed o’ yours.”
It was my late sister Tricia who told a rather amusing story that has led to a phrase sticking in my head ever since. She was working in public relations and was discussing some business with a client. They got on to the subject of Minnie and Fanny, and how people like them played an essential role in the community. “Yes,” said the client, “Every village needs a Fanny.”
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