“Going To Work On A Yak” by Braintree’s Mark Holtom

Most of us have family stories that get told and retold down the years, passed on through generations. For Mark Holtom, these stories were so wild that they took on a life of their own.


His father, Giles, could spin a yarn like no other, and Mark has now collected these stories and published his father’s memoirs, appropriately titled “Going To Work On A Yak”. We chatted to Mark Holtom to find out more.


What first prompted you to write this memoir?

My father was in the Royal Army Veterinary Corps. In this capacity he travelled to 46 different countries. In each of these he encountered strange situations and people. In later life, after the army, Giles became a farrier, coming third in the world championships and achieving a level that only 149 people had ever achieved before him (in over 300 years). When I was a little boy, he would regale us with stories of his travels and adventures.

The book is told in an oral style, much the same way as Giles told me these stories, from when my brothers and I were children, sitting at the dinner table.

The stories were wild, imaginative and exciting. I believed them because – well, I was seven at the time, and he was my dad. It was only in later life, when I retold the stories to other people, that I realised their inherent lack of believability.

“Tell us about the baby elephant,” I would demand. “No, the one about the emperor’s lion,” countered my brother. Usually Giles would tell us about something totally different which had just occurred to him. “Did I tell you about when I was arrested as a spy?” he would start.

In later life, Giles wrote his own memoirs but they stopped at age 13 or so. My brothers and I were upset because we wanted him to write about this adventures. Sadly, he died before he got around to doing this, so, one day, I thought that I would set about doing this myself.


Was it emotional going back through your father’s life?

The one emotional thing is a family revelation that I share on the last page of the book. It was the answer to a question that I had for over 50 years, which my father answered a few months before his death.

It was interesting because I thought I knew everything about Giles, and then found out lots of things that I didn’t know.

Giles made a lot of notes and wrote down quite a bit in preparation for his own book, so I was able to go through these and pick up on stories and information that I didn’t have. I also discussed and shared my drafts with several people who knew Giles, from my brothers to his surviving army comrades. They gave me feedback and corrections, along with more information that I didn’t have previously.


Do you have a favourite story about your father that you discovered?

My favourite story is the circumstances of how Giles went behind the Iron Curtain, and was then arrested, by the Americans, as a spy. The story itself is long and convoluted and takes up a couple of chapters in the book. Here is one short family story you might find interesting:

Octavius Smee’s Visit To London.

Most villages had a woman who was the local expert at treating illnesses with plants and berries, etc. Some of them were thought of as witches, and probably thought of themselves as a witch as well.

Gainsford End had one such who lived next to the forge where Giles did his apprenticeship. Her name was Winn Smee (Winifred). She was married to Oc Smee (Octavius), and they had three sons, Ted Smee (Edward), Will Smee (Wilfred), and Bill Smee (William).  These names were something to conjure with and were always used together i.e. “Willsmee” or “Ocksmee”

Ocksmee only ever left the village for the local town, Halstead, and that no more than a couple of times a year.

One time, he went by train to London as a treat. It was promoted as a special day trip at a cheap rate, and he took it.

On returning from London, as he walked home that night, he called in the village pub for a pint to tell us all about his exciting trip.  Everyone from the village must have gone at various times in the evening to hear his story, which was told and retold, every time a new person entered the pub.

The main thing that Ocksmee was excited about was that you didn’t get wet in London, as it was covered over in glass, just like an enormous greenhouse.

It was only later, after he had travelled a bit himself, that Giles realised that, during his trip, Ocksmee had not even left Liverpool Street Station. Of course he had been misled because the station itself was bigger than their village and had a lot more shops inside it than there were within ten miles of Gainsford End.


How did your family respond to the book? 

My brothers both liked the book, but it is funny as their memories often differed from my own, and I had to check and review a lot based on their input.


Do you have any more writing projects on the horizon?

I have a couple of ideas for books, one of which would be a film script of the adventures of my Great Uncle Wag (whose story is told in short in the book).


CommunityAd has a copy of Mark Holtom’s book to

give away to one lucky reader, so to be in with a chance to win,

send an email to [email protected]

Closing date for this competition is 29th April.


Going To Work On A Yak by Mark Holtom is also available to buy from Amazon and Audible.

by Alice Smales

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