How the posh ruined eating for everyone
There are two ways to eat soup: correctly or properly.
A good example of the first is a Victorian explorer. See him tumbling out of the tundra and into the tent, where a billy can of soup simmers on the stove. He hunkers over the hot soup, gripping the spoon in his fist and slurps the thin liquid into his mouth, a fast as possible. In his other hand he grasps a heel of bread, which he uses to sop up more of his meal.
The correct way to eat soup is with gusto. After all, everyone loves soup.
For the second, remember any Jane Austen adaptation you’ve ever watched. Behind the gaiety and splendour lies a world of pinched, paranoid social frenzy. One’s behaviour is monitored for evidence of deviance. Not like today, where perhaps bringing a motorbike to the table would be seen as a step too far. Jane Austen novels make it plain: an ill-timed giggle or grabbing the wrong fork means instant opprobrium.
The Regency period was a high point for the art of tutting. Meals maybe grand, but are fraught with dangerous secret meanings. Eating soup properly means that each mouthful is a slow punishment. The eater must battle against their natural inclinations and instead use a method of soup consumption that is antipathetic towards enjoying the food.
The proper way to eat soup is built on a set of rigid, implacable instructions. To breech these would be disaster. Using a special spoon, one pushes the soup in the bowl away from you, before depositing the liquid into your mouth, from the edge of the utensil.
There are also maxims for retrieving the dregs from the bottom of the bowl. A normal people would run a crust of bread through the small puddle to catch the last drops. The proper way requires you to tilt the bowl away from you, obscuring your view of the soup and making it harder to find.
The reason for this?
The counter intuitive excuse for eating soup properly, is that it avoids embarrassing spills, saving ties and shirt fronts. Unfortunately, if you have eaten more than one bowl of soup in your life,you will realise that this is bunkum. This pseudo-explanation has been retrofitted to the practice as a way of stopping questions like:
‘Can’t I just eat the soup normally?’
Whatever contrived reasons the arbiters of soup may try and give, the real reason the proper way to eat soup is so tricky is because it is part of the divisive practice known as etiquette.
No bum to cheese action, please
Here we need to make a distinction between etiquette and manners. Everyone should have good manners. This simply means being able to move food from plate to mouth to stomach without causing feelings of disgust in other diners. ‘Manners’ consists of simple rules of thumb, such as:
- Eat with your mouth closed
- Don’t eat baked beans with your fingers
- Don’t scratch your arse and then pick up the cheese.
While we all need to be taught these precepts, they need little tutelage. I learned not to eat cereals with my mouth open from my cousin Matthew. We were small, I had slept over at my Aunty’s house and we were eating breakfast while watching cartoons. A rare treat for me. I also had a bowl of Ricicles; an even rarer treat as my mother did not serve pre-sweetened breakfast food to her children.
‘Eurgh, that’s gross,’ my cousin commented as I champed through a large bowl of sugar-coated rice crispies, my mouth working the cereals into a paste, with the grim, mechanical efficiency of a rubbish truck compactor.
Matthew advised me to ‘Close your bloody mouth when you eat.’ Despite my initial scepticism that this was possible, small amounts of experimentation showed me that I was capable of enjoying all sorts of foods while keeping the action of mastication a closely guarded secret, behind sealed lips. In fact, it turned out to be a sensible and entirely workable way to consume food.
Using a special spoon to move soup away from your mouth is not a dining tip that small children can imparted to one another. It is based on a complicated set of diktats, devised purely because they are so contrary to how you would choose to eat soup, left to your own devices.
There is no benefit for either the eater or their audience. It is an entirely unnatural action. However, the proponents of the spoon-away-from-you rule would have you believe that this is an entirely more pleasant way to enjoy broths, chowders and bouillons. This is like amateur triathletes trying to persuade you that you should join their next 30 km jog.
While manners exist to make sure that you eating something is a pleasant experience for everyone, etiquette and its arcane rules for consuming soup are about dividing people through subtle and ingenious ways.
The difference lies in how simple the rules are. Manners are taught in seconds:
‘Don’t chew with your mouth open.’
Boredom breeds manners
Meanwhile, the rules of etiquette were borne from idleness and boredom. They then became an invisible wall to separate the clique: those who know the rules and those who don’t.
For etiquette to exist, you need a life that is devoid of any meaningful employment. That means wealth. Busy people, by which I mean poor people, are not interested in the proper direction of travel for cutlery. They have other things to worry about, like ploughing, crop rotation and rickets. Even those who don’t have jobs are busy fighting off starvation, which is a full time job in itself.
With nothing to do, the rich needed to fill their time. Extending mealtimes as long as possible is a great way to munch into all those blank, pointless hours. Modern people are content with the standard three meals and maybe two packets of crisps and a Mars bar. Historically, the wealthy needed to invent different meal times.
By creating as many opportunities to eat as possible, the aristocracy avoided triggering existential crisis, brought on by critical boredom. In fact, inventing different mealtimes became a job in itself. Simply for want of anything better to do, the moneyed classes created elevenses, tea and supper.
While extraneous meals waste some time, it takes no effort at all to complete each one. This is especially true for people who aren’t doing any of the cooking and don’t wash up afterwards. This means that each meal needs to be complicated further, to stretch it out as long as possible. Eating slowly is an option, but hot food goes cold; cold food gets warm; no one likes a skin on their gravy.
It is much easier to add more courses. A two course lunch takes up much more time than a sandwich and a bottle of pop. Add a salad and meat course, and your midday meal is slipping into mid-afternoon without even trying.
Another way to increase the amount of time a meal takes is by adding unnecessary intricacies. It is possible to eat several servings using the same utensils. Unlike spanners, knives and forks have a pretty universal functionality. As do spoons.
By increasing the number of pieces of cutlery needed, the process of clearing the table between courses takes ages. There’s a horde of invisible lackeys up to their armpits in suds, so having seventeen forks per meal isn’t a problem. It also means the manhours required to heave all of this metalwork off the table is pushing lunch well into early evening.
What is left? Surely there can’t be any other ways to add unnecessary minutes onto a meal? Unless of course, you make the act of eating as difficult as possible. This is achieved by imposing arbitrary rules as to how each piece of food should make its journey to between the teeth.
Our explorer ate his soup in a way that guaranteed he could deliver the largest amount of hot liquid sustenance to his stomach in the shortest time possible. For the genteel rich, this would mean extra time grappling with the emptiness and despondency at the heart of an indolent life.
Their response: etiquette. These intricate and pointless rules for how to approach each foodstuff start life as a way to stretch out the barren, empty hours. But they are soon codified by ritual and become entrenched in the process of eating. They are now the proper way of doing things.
Slurpin’ is verboten
The rules are now a secret code known only to a small, select group. They are a way of telling who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them’. Soup-eating is only a small part of a larger set of strictures that the idle rich then set about teaching their children. As these rules are subtle and multifarious, you need to create special schools. Vast amounts of time are then spent learning the rules. After expensively honing their skills, the children are tested using society balls and other social engagements.
The process is ongoing, until the act of pushing one’s soup away from you is an unconscious act. More so, to not push the soup in the opposite direction to intended travel is shocking and repugnant. If you are unsure if you had an expensive education, ask yourself if you’ve ever gasped at someone picking up a fish knife during the meat course?
Here, the second element of soup delivery – bringing the broth to your lips, to tip the liquid between them, instead of ramming the spoon down your gullet – makes it almost impossible not to slurp the soup. Yet, the rules say that consumption of soup should be as soundless as a quiet day in a mime school.
Outsiders may be able to ape the motion of spoon through soup. They quickly reveal their lack of breeding by making a noise like storm drains unblocking as they suck the stuff off their cutlery.
Peas: the secret to business success
As power began to shift from the aristocracy to the bourgeois, the new ruling class wanted to mimic the pretensions of the old elite. What clearer signal could exit than adopting the icons and symbols of wealth. While money buys large houses, it does not bestow legitimacy in the same way as learning the secret signs by which the rich identify each other. This was how etiquette began its journey through the social scale.
Unfortunately, there are so many of these rules that faking it and fitting in will never really work. Despite the Sisyphean task of succeeding at complicated eating rituals, the middle classes persevered. In fact, they became the ruthless enforcers of ‘proper’ eating. Without the luxury of time and leisure, rules are communicated quickly. As any middle class person knows gossip, ridicule and back-biting are the only way for people to learn how to behave.
I once had to sit with my best friend through an anguish-filled meal where he was taught to eat peas the ‘proper way’. This involves holding the fork with the tines facing downward and smushing the peas onto them, in the hope that enough cling on to make it worth the fork making a trip to the mouth.
The easiest way to eat peas is obviously smoother them in tomato sauce and use the upward bend of the fork’s tines to scoop a healthy portion off the plate and straight between your chompers.
The constant fear that you will be caught out as an oik still persists. My best friend’s lesson in pea-eating being a case in point. Unlike me, he’ll never be embarrassed if the Lord Mayor asks him to a pea feast. This is the intention of the lesson: that he’d be prepared in any situation where the possibility of social disgrace loomed. Despite my Google search throwing up no instances of a career ruined by poor vegetable management, the threat is always there.
My friend’s ongoing success in his career, must surely be a sign that his early indoctrination in personal food delivery has harvested some results.
Not that my family was immune. For instance, we owned lots of different types of spoons. Not just the big three (soup, dinner and tea), but jam, grapefruit, coffee and pickle, as well.
Our vintage pickle spoon is a personal favourite. It has a wide bowl, perfect for scooping onions out of a jar, with wide perforations that let vinegar escape. As well as being a pleasing piece of design, my deft handling of it over the years means that I am well set should I ever have to fish a pickled egg out of a jar for a passing dignitary.
Middle class mania about their perceived place in society, how to protect that position from those underneath, while mercilessly toadying to those above, means that merely taking a mouthful of mulligatawny is a political act. Like a roomful of cynics all trying to catch a magician out, every muscle twitch and flinch is examined by your audience to betray the tiniest waiver or clue that reveals something of the bigger picture.
Etiquette is not about enjoying meals, it is a way to discover who should be discretely frisked before leaving, in case they have away with the silverware. In the end, dinner shouldn’t be a roomful of tripwires to navigate through, so next time you have soup, just drinking it out of a mug. It maybe rude, but it’s a darn sight easier.
Questionnaires are the last place you should start. Especially if you’re trying to find out something extraordinary about yourself. In fact, no matter how hard they sell themselves, multiple choice questions can’t give you insights into your own life. Can they?
If it’s an online quiz, then I’m delighted to take it. Especially if it will help me find out which Friends character I’d be (Gunther), or if I’m good at grammar (mostly). Anything that might tell me something about myself that goes beyond the superficial? Sorry, no, my scepticism gauge just shot up to 100.
It was because of work that I first encountered Belbin and the realisation that, no, I wasn’t a completer finisher.
Doctor and monster
If you’ve not come across it before, Belbin is a personality test. It’s full title is The Belbin Self-Perception Inventory. Just as many people mistake Frankenstein to be the monster, it was Meredith Belbin who invented the test. Even though it’s the test not Meredith who wears the moniker.
Under normal circumstance I would have looked at its grand title then done some eye-rolling and hurried past. Much in the same way as you do when you see the guy wearing the Free Hugs T-shirt. After all, questionnaires are about finding out whether a website can guess my star sign from 10 simple questions. (It can’t.)
The position I was in though meant I couldn’t just ignore the test. I had just started a new job and they’d paid a lot of money for the training and tests. Like all good psychological insights, it was mandatory.
There’s no need to worry about your results
Calm should be the order of the day. Whatever you do, don’t try and over analyse these results. The trainer spent a lot of time going through this. Don’t panic. After all, Belbin is designed to tell you where you fit in a team. There’s no good or bad; right or wrong.
Then again, completer finisher was my lowest score. In fact, when I got my results, I had to check if the score had even bothered to turn up on the sheet.
It was official: I’m not good at finishing things.
There is something upsetting about finding that out. worse still, this was an answer that had come from myself. It’s not like when your friend says ‘the worst thing about you’ and you can just turn off.
This message was from deep within me. Not from the bit that knows how to work the coffee machine and loves Rachel. Or that knows ‘They’re waiting for their table over there‘ is correct.
No, this news had shot from my own unconscious. This wasn’t a proclamation from the loud, flashy king. It was a whisper from the hidden adviser who sits behind the throne and mutters in the king’s ear.
What I couldn’t work out was why this little bit of knowledge stung.
Stop me and ask
After all, I finish lots of things. If anyone wanted to stop me in the street and ask me to list something I’ve finished then I could get straight on that. Not top ten, admittedly. Five from the top? OK, it could take a little bit of thinking, but main three. Not. A. Problem.
Finishing matters. It’s achievement. It’s not glory. That’s winning. Finishing is wiping the sweat from your forehead and standing back to admire what you’ve created. Not finishing is losing.
At the risk of sounding like one of those pretend school teachers that the Daily Mail imagine cancel sports day, even coming last isn’t losing. You got there; you did it. Look behind you: those guy scratching their balls on the sofa. they’re the real losers.
Damn. While I was looking the other way, I accidentally became a motivational poster. what next: there’s no ‘I’ in team?
I am a finisher. I am, dammit. My top three things I’ve finished are:
- Moby Dick, by Herman Melville
- Underworld, by Don Delillo
- The Betrothed, by Alessandro Manzoni
OK, it’s good and bad that my top three are all vast novels. It means I read a lot, which is generally good, but is that really the height of my achievement?
Surely, it’s a curtailed life if it’s achievements lie in consuming things other people have created? Also, it denies the longer list of books I have abandoned before the final page.
Or worse, let’s look through my computer’s hard drive. It’s an unholy rabble of deserted and forgotten writing projects.
Don’t go through my hard drive
I’m begging. Don’t try to read any of the two-page plays: the curtain falls with the pistol still not fired. Here, there’s a folder full of execrable verse. A whole folder full of poems, each of them half built. You can see the rafters and there’s no glass in any of the windows. All those novels that taper down to sketches and bullet points. One of them gets as far as ‘Once upon a time’ before deciding better and leaving the reader to fill in the rest for themselves.
Fine, I think. Thanks Belbin, you’re right. Look at that mountain of things that I’ve left undone. Every single thing just left to wind down, like a faulty clock.
Yes, okay. I get the point. (Part of me was desperate to just leave this denunciation here. Sort of on that bum note, with everything loose threads and out of shape. Like a badly made sweater.)
So, when I read my questionnaire results, I knew what that burn was. It was my own sense of failure, presented in full colour, on graph paper. Somehow, I’d set myself a task that I was failing at. I couldn’t finish anything other than three books with large page counts.
But looking at the cases where everything fell off isn’t going to change that. That’s just looking at a whole heap of metaphorical ball scratching. You can’t learn anything from that.
Instead, look at the things you have achieved. There are a few finishing lines that I have managed to cross.
And if you’ve crossed them once, you can cross them again without tapering off. Even if it makes you sound like a motivational poster, every now and again.
Written in response to the daily prompt ‘Taper’.
Women’s hair products used to be obsessed with volume. Each one boasting about its ever increasing achievements in the field of bulk. No self respecting shampoo would dream of taking a shower with a young lady, unless it could make her hair the size of a barrage balloon. Two barrage balloons; three! Just one wash will make your hair swell to a coiffured grandeur fit for a courtier of Louis XIV.
Thankfully that drive for volume has now shrivelled like a punctured souffle. Instead, modern hair products obsess about the nourishment they offer. As the way people eat has changed, so has the respect that advertisers insist we pay to our hair’s dietary needs.
If you were audacious enough, you could have placed something organic in front of 90s hair. I suspect you would have met with a blank look and the flick of a voluminous lock. No, what 90s hair wanted was quantity. For a small additional sum, you could go large. 90s hair wanted the fat.
Herbal Essence is a brand of shampoo named to associate it with organic, vegetable goodness. In the 90s its main concern was that ‘organics’ sounded almost identical to the word ‘orgasmic’. Adverts for this product had more moaning in them than an acrimonious episode of Points of View.
Natural was not important. Excess was. And shampoo wanted you to know it. It sprayed volume, moaning, hot oil at people, like Caligula for follicles.
Now, shampoo is different. It still makes blonds blonder, brunettes shinier. And now, for a small additional charge, it ‘feeds’ your hair. It is nutritious, natural, nourishing.
Shampoo’s urge to place itself as one of the major food groups is because people now care more about where their food comes from. There are thousands of websites that chatter endlessly about the benefits of eating clean. Lifestyle and food are now linked more closely than ever. A stray opinion on dairy can destroy a lifelong friendship. Therefore, shampoo steps up and steals these same ideas for itself.
OK, shampoo has always led on the idea of ‘clean’ for a long time. In fact any claims that shampoo is a cleaning agent are so asinine that this benefit hardly gets mentioned.
The new vocabulary of health and well-being has come from the new food industry. In reality, fast food chains pay lip service to artisan baked bread and reduced food miles.
Behind their farmers’ market facade hides the industrialisation of the food industry. In just the same way, shampoo is still a brew of detergents and perfumes. Yet, its colours are contours continue to become smoother and more soothing. Scientists in laboratories around the world are working double shifts to make sure your hair-cleaner look appealing and colourful enough to be served as a wheatgerm smoothie.
Before, shampoo wanted to be big and brash. Now it wants to be delicious. Shampoo wants to answer your primal urges, it wants you to feel sexy, powerful, hungry. Where next, though, spiritual? Wherever you go, don’t worry, shampoo will be there with you.
Written in response to the Daily Post’s volume prompt.
Curiosity is why you and I own curtains but are irritated that other people own them too. The fact that it is such a driving force behind how we interact means that we’ve really been tarring cats with a brush that, for a long time, we’ve been wielding from deep within the blackest depths of our own personal tar bucket.
Our inquisitiveness is a raw, roaring force that surges within us and means that it is necessary to create its antithesis. This, we named privacy. While each of us is happy to excuse our own nosiness as, at its best, concern or, at its worst, moral outrage, we are equally ardent at erecting as many walls and trapdoors round our own private lives as possible, so that other people’s curiosity, or ‘meddling’, can’t get in. Looked at from this point of view, the whole of human society is an ongoing scuffle as each of us pushes fleets of busy noses out of our affairs, while at the same time desperately jostling to find the tiniest of cracks in someone else’s defences, where we can have a good poke of the snout at what’s going on. This unruly and exhaustive nasal jousting also means that, despite the aphorisms, curiosity is very seldom idle.
Privacy acts as a buttress against all this squirming intrusiveness. Of the two forces, curiosity would appear to be the stronger. For one thing, it has existed in a natural form for far longer than the human species has been laying one bipedal foot in front of the other, in order to have a sneaky peak at what animals the tribe round the corner are painting on their cave walls. Its existence probably extends beyond the point, hundreds of thousands years ago, when primitive Mud Skippers wondered just how different the dry bit was from the wet bit and thus began the terrestrial colonisation of Earth. Whenever curiosity started to sniff around, humans certainly welcomed it into our repertoire of motives with alacrity. Once we had it, we wasted very little time in adapting it to better suit our own purposes. It is perhaps because we are so good at it – or are so trapped in its thrall – that we had to create privacy, to at least try to stay some of curiosity’s new, improved avarice.
Certainly, animals seem to have a hold on their sense of curiosity. Their need to have a quick look under that rock there is balanced with a slice or two of caution, in case ‘under that rock’ turns out to be a bit bitey or stingy. On the other hand they seem oblivious to privacy. For a good example of this, think of your dog’s complete ease at defecating in full view of a bus queue of school children. Compare this to your own bashful adventures to a train bathroom; an experience as fraught with anxiety as if one was attempting to play a trombone without waking a room full of sleeping puff adders. It is your sophisticated idea of yourself as a separate and divisible entity, apart from the whole, that fills the trip to a train bathroom with a dreadful obsession with the reliability of the electronic lock and its disposition towards yawning open to reveal your ablutions to a carriage full of commuters.
Doesn’t this all beg a question, though? Why do we need to defend ourselves against curiosity? After all, curiosity is what got us to the moon, meant Britain adopted curry as its national dish, and discovered DNA and exactly what the twisty little bugger was up to. ‘I wonder what it’s like up there?’ curiosity says. ‘What is cardamon, anyhow?’ ‘Why does my youngest look exactly like my friend Graham?’ But you see that’s curiosity’s public face. It’s the collection of good causes curiosity desperately quotes at you, when you catch it browsing through the folder of Downton Abbey erotica that you’ve composed under the pen name EarlCrawleyLoveSponge342.
You see, it is only where we have secrets that suddenly we need privacy to shield them from all that boundless curiosity that’s bouncing round the world, putting its muzzle into every crotch it can find and having a sniff.
After all, what are secrets other than the expressions of your heart’s desires; your true self, naked and raw, blinking in the cruel light? Who wouldn’t want to protect that small, shivering child from the razor-like glare of the world? Even those who, to quote Bob Dylan, have got ‘no secrets to conceal’ cannot free themselves from being pursued by curiosity’s snuffling nose. Reality TV stars, whose stock in trade is that they are open books, and fill the world with the pitiless unceasing yammering of their every thought, are not immune.
One would think that curiosity would lose interest in them fairly quickly, as it already knows that Kayleigh and Jo-Jo have been seeing each other behind Zee-man’s back (as would Zee-man, if he watched the show). But the reverse is true. After all, once these individuals start down the existential path of being nothing more than a series of noisy public exposures, everyone suddenly longs to know more. Even after numerous incidents of scrofulous public nudity and yelling, the priapic snouts of Paparazzi cameras still stalk them from nightclub to Gala dinner to private beach resort. Journalists paw through their rubbish, like tramps with expense accounts. No matter what they reveal, our curiosity is there, begging for more. It’s as if, with every revelation, we think ‘if they are willing to tell us this, what aren’t they saying? ‘ One can only assume that, as a society, we have tacitly agreed that we need these fatuous absurdities to distract curiosity, while everyone else goes about our business in peace. That they serve a similar function to throwing fish heads into the sea to distract sharks.
If that’s how curiosity treats people who really don’t have anything worth hiding, think what it would do with the rest of us! No wonder each of us shoves that secret life away from the world and no matter how pure or noble, we treat the expressions of our own hearts with the same distaste as if they were a cheese sandwich that has been left to fester under a teenager’s bed.
That said, the miserable truth of the matter is that, once revealed, your dark secrets will prove to be as boring and anodyne as your public life. Curiosity isn’t bothered that you bury these pennies as if they were gold, it only cares that you are hoarding them. The Wizard of Oz is an old man behind a curtain. It is the curtain that makes him powerful, once that has been pulled back, he is as tediously human as Dorothy. But while the curtain of privacy hangs over the secret, terrible thing that you do in private – something anomic and perverse, like eating cheese with chocolate, scratching your bum and then sniffing your fingers, or worse, composing poetry – you will hear the terrible tick, tick, tick of curiosity’s claws passing the other side of that draped velvet curtain.
And how horrifying will it be when the fabric is ripped back, the curtain hooks rattling against the rail? Ah, well that would be telling.
(This was written in response to The Daily Post subject Privacy: https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/privacy/)
“Your sheep’s dead.”
We’d get that call regularly – phone calls or people popping round to the house in order to break the sad news.
“Oh, okay. Thanks for letting us know. Which one is it?” whichever family member answered the phone or door would ask.
“The big one.”
By which they meant Igor. He was old when we bought him, traded down to smaller and smaller farms as his age increased, until he arrived with us. He begrudgingly ambled down the ramp of a small horse trailer to examine his new domain: five fields blotched with gorse bushes, and 50 ewes of varying ages and states of ill health.
“I give him a month,” the farmer we’d bought him from said. By which he meant before Igor turned hooves upward and we’d have to drag his bulk back onto a horse trailer and send him off with the Knacker Man.
Although he was old, Igor was by no means decrepit. He had the pugnacious look that elderly East End gangsters acquire: nose flattened, ears chewed; the broad, lumpen face of an old fighter who’s been hit plenty of times but never been put down on the canvas.
He eyed each of us suspiciously, his bulk braced, ready for a show of ovine force. He didn’t last a month. He lasted six years. After all, the work he’d been contracted in to do, which was servicing the 50 ewes, was far from hard. Away from a larger flock, he was the only ram, and the more advanced age of our sheep meant he was not having to participate in the more demanding task of chasing and seducing shy maidens. This was an easy gig for the old bruiser.
At the top of lane that leads to the farm, there is a small triangle of grass and stinging nettles that we rented. This is where Igor lived with some of the more ancient ladies who enjoyed a softer, slower pace of life, away from the main flock. It is perhaps best to think of this pasture as a sheep retirement home. Igor was put here to prevent unplanned pregnancies in the younger ewes. (He may have been old, but Igor showed a dedication to his work.)
This lane is small, muddy and narrow, but a fair amount of human traffic – horse riders, farmers and ramblers would all go past each day. Each of them stopping briefly to note the dead sheep and then hurry to our house to report the corpse. Having received the news, one of us would don Wellington boots and wax jacket to trudge the ten minute journey up to the field to check Igor’s vital signs and discover if he’d had finally trotted off to the big meadow in the sky.
Invariably, he would be laying there, a mound of white like a crash-landed cloud, with crows fighting over the big, ugly banquet that his corporeal mass offered. Each of them squawking, flapping and pecking, eager to get past the woollen wrapper and into the meal itself. Whoever had walked up to the field would lean on the gate for a few moments, to see if the massive frame was moving at all. No, it seemed immobile, not even the slow rise and fall of his breathing. Next, you clanged the field gate shut and clomp over the field, while the rest of the small flock took themselves as far away from the two-legged interloper. Even with all this commotion and the alarm of the other sheep, the mound would stay placid. Maybe this time. There was a simple test that still needed to be performed. You place your hand on Igor’s back. Nothing. Then a gentle tap with the toe of your boot on his behind. And then another, a little harder than the first. Then, foot back as if you’re going to take the cup-deciding penalty at Wembley, and…Whack.
The white hummock would snort and slowly shift itself on to its feet. All the time giving you a look that promised a future full of malice and murder, before giving one of his growling, smoker’s cough bleats and returning to his corpse-like sleep. The crows would noisily decamp to nearby trees, ready to play the waiting game again. “Soon, maybe, soon” they shouted at each other.
Back at the house, Mum would shout from the kitchen “This time?”
“No, just sleeping.”
The shearer hated him. Every June it was a contest. On shearing day all of the flock was gathered in our barn. Each sheep is separated from the main body and funnelled through a passage made of gates tied together with baling twine, into a small penned area, where the shearer waited. He, with a Judo master’s precision, then grapples the sheep onto its bottom, its legs sticking out in front of it and a look of confused disgruntlement on its face, like an old matron having to travel to church in a motorcycle side car.
Getting Igor sheared required a group effort. The first year we had him, Dad said to the Shearer “the new ram’s a bit mean, you might need some help.” The shearer smiled the smile of someone who had just been patronised and was now more than happy to throw some patronisation back. He reminded my father of how long he’d been a journeyman shearer of sheep, of his long acquaintance with our family, as well as the other farming families of the area, how he had – with the grace of a martial arts black belt – manhandled literally thousands of sheep, and just because we seemed a little bit awed by our new ram, we were seriously underestimating the skill and knowledge of livestock that he brought with him, along with his motorised shearing machine. With the satisfied air of a man who had done some first class patronising, he took up position next to the wrapped packs of wool and the dangling umbilical of the shearing machine.
We chased Igor down the lane of gates towards the shearer. Igor skidded to a halt on the greasy, dung-smeared wooden boards that acted as flooring in the shearing section. He eyed the shearer, the shearer eyed him back.
“Him,” the shearer whispered.
It could have been professional pride or mere hubris that decided the shearer’s mind. With the resoluteness of the congenitally brittle-boned stepping into a wrestling ring, he put one hand under Igor’s chin, the other on the ram’s back leg and twisted the animal on to its rear. Igor went over and for a second both man and sheep weighed their surprise at this turn of events. Then, with the flick of the shoulder Igor righted himself, flinging the shearer onto the feculent floor. Happy that the natural order had been resumed, Igor stood glowering at us all.
“We usually work in a three person team – two on the legs and one on the head,” my dad said from his place behind the corridor of gates. “Yes, that might be for the best,” the shearer agreed for his new position staring at the shed’s rusty tin ceiling.
Before we continue, I must warn you that Igor did not share any character and motivations that one would recognise as human; sheeply thoughts occupied his sheepish brain. The world of nuance that balances ethics and action, the rainbow state where it is possible for someone to ask ‘Is this the right thing?’ has an ovine population of exactly zero. Sheep and humans inhabit the same space, well sheep live in fields and barns, humans live in the houses next door, but the worlds they populate are different. After the fact, Igor would have given no more thought to the event that I am going to relate now and his role in it. It is up to soft-hearted humans to chronicle his crimes , or indeed to call them crimes at all.
You see, he was a murderer, too.
Every year, just when the weather begins to promise spring, we’d take Igor mumbling and complaining out of the top field and move him to the field with the main flock. It was time for him to earn his keep.
However, Igor may have been as full of seed as a cheap orange, but after a couple of years, he became complacent in his roll of farm stud. If he wasn’t so cussedly vital, we might have suspected his age. Instead, like a king surveying his harem, he had become complacent. He knew that the flock was his alone and was safely so, as he was the undisputed ruler of the farm. With that, he stopped servicing the ewes with his usual alacrity.
A mighty king in his dotage can look back at the sons and daughters he has sired and know he has fulfilled his regal destiny and secured his kingdom. Rams on the other hand, are there to do a job. Albeit, one that comes naturally to them.
If they’re not performing, then there’s no baby lambs coming. And, while sheep don’t know it, unmoved as they are by the year’s trek across the calendar, lambs happen to a timetable. Not as precise as the one trains run on, but its requisites are the same.
Raddle punctuates this timetable. This rectangle of oily crayon, about the size of an old tobacco tin, is fixed on a ram’s chest by way of a harness. As the ram goes about his job, the gummy colouring is rubbed on each ewe’s back, and so the farmer knows when that sheep might be expecting her lambs. Each week the colour is changed. So as he travels from rear end to rear end, the ram leaves an unctuous map of greens, blues and oranges behind him.
In his complacency, Igor crept through the flock like a lazy pointillist. Dots of raddle appeared so slowly we might never get the full picture. At the rate Igor was operating, lambing season would stretch across several years.
To look at him, happy and relaxed, albeit with that underlying mien of anger, it was easy to see that he was asking himself (in his sheeply, non-human way): why should he apply himself with any vigour? After all, who builds warships in peacetime? Who thinks about umbrellas when it’s sunny?
Dad made some phone calls and the next Saturday a Range Rover arrived in the field, pulling a shiny, scrubbed-clean a horsebox.
“Meet Sebastian”, my father said, as he opened the box’s back ramp and let it swing on oiled hinges to the grass.
We’d never had a pedigree ram, a pedigree anything, on the farm before. Our animals were the motley rags of other flocks. The animals that other farmers didn’t have the enthusiasm to take to market were the ones that inevitably ended up grazing our fields. Sebastian trotted from the trailer like a prince, his fleece glowed golden, his manicured hooves making an elegant clip clop noise, instead of the harried clatter that usually accompanied a new animal’s entry to the flock. Sebastian was used to his personal carriage and the oohs and aahs that normally taciturn farmers would utter upon seeing him. We slipped a raddle harness on him, which he accepted with the noble indifference of a lord being dressed by his manservant. With that he trotted out into the field.
For us borrowing Sebastian was a win-win situation. Either the presence of the snotty new ram would throw Igor into a fury of sexual jealousy, whereupon he would propel himself at the ewes’ backs with renewed passion and spiteful abandon. Or Sebastian – the young and vital potentate – would tour the field, bestowing the flock with plump, regal lambs. As a family, we retreated to the fence to see what would happen.
Sebastian, his head held high, trotted further into the field. He assumed the haughty stance of all nobility surveyed his new harem. The ladies all turned to look at him and then went back to slowly cropping the grass. While the elderly flock greeted him with indifference, another gaze scorched across the grass towards him. Igor had spotted his rival. He did not like what he was seeing. To make matters worse, it was some posh git acting like he owned the place.
“Look, look,” my dad said, “he’s seen him.”
Igor lumbered into the centre of the field to face off against his new rival.
The two rams stood 10 yards apart and squared off against each other. Sebastian turned to the ladies, with a look that clearly said ‘Watch this, ladies. I’m going to batter this old…’
Clunk is the same sort of sound you achieve by clapping two big pieces of wood together – a dry, decisive plosive that hurts your ears a little bit when you hear it. It’s also the noise that two sheep skulls make when they make contact, at speed. Igor had seen his moment and took it, he attacked at full speed and head down.
Sebastian’s life as the fêted and rosetted darling of agricultural shows had not prepared him for the kind of dirty brawling that went on in the rougher pastures of Cornwall’s farms. It’s unlikely that he’d even considered the ugly old oik would even dare challenge him. Instead, the fight was what is known in fighting circles as a classic two hitter: Igor hit Sebastian; Sebastian hit the floor.
“Ah”, said my father. At the exact same moment that Igor’s head had connected with Sebastian’s, making that resolute clunk, my father was struck with an equally forceful realisation. Perhaps borrowing a costly pedigree ram might not have been such a good idea after all.
In fact, the prize ram never really recovered. He became listless and somnolent. He visibly drooped; he wouldn’t lift his head, his movements slowed. It became more and more obvious as the days passed that this wasn’t a psychic collapse caused by Sebastian’s swift and embarrassing defeat, but something physical. With that one sucker punch of a headbutt, Igor had shattered something in the other sheep’s brain.
We called the vet, but only to confirm what we already knew: Sebastian was scrambled.
Boxers who have had their brains beaten to mush get around the clock care, physiotherapists scuttle round them; specialists loom, brandishing clipboards reamed with prognosis and test results. Sheep, prize-winning or not, do not. They get loaded on to the van and make the journey from which they never come back. Which is what happened to poor Sebastian.
It maybe tempting to think of him as similar to Archduke Franz Ferdinand on his fateful tour of the Balkans – losing his life because of forces much bigger than he could hope to control or understand. You could think that, but it would be foolish. If there is a lesson to be learned here, it is such singular purpose that it would not apply to the majority of people’s lives. The lesson is a simple one: sheep can be surprisingly dangerous; at least to other sheep.
As for Igor, well in some ways my dad’s plan worked. My father may have indirectly killed a prize ram, but Igor’s murderous attack proved to be a perfect cure we were looking for to solve his regal impotence. His raddle marks spread through the flock like measles spots.
The next year, my father went to market and bought a young ram – something ugly and mean spirited. Igor retired to the top pasture for good. There he stayed for another eighteen months, feigning death and then defying the crows by creaking to his feet again.
Finally, when the boot to the rump stopped working its miracle of revival and he died, journeyman shearers across the region rejoiced. Dad backed the van into Igor’s diminished kingdom and we grunted and heaved his body into the horse trailer. Each of us sweating and groaning to move the impossible lump of wool and cartilage up into the container.
He has old and he was mean – an unrepentant killer. But I like to think that across Cornwall, there are flocks of his ungainly, knobbly-faced progeny, cornering terrified ramblers against hedges, where their cries for help drift away to snag amongst the brambles and blackthorn.
Arguments with my wife usually occur when we are in cars and especially when I am driving. She doesn’t think I am a good driver, so a lot of our angry exchanges are based on this premise: our vehicular deaths brought about by my poor road skills.
Whether this is true or not, I’m not sure. I make mistakes, but to extrapolate this upwards to maniac stunt driver, or downwards toward Mr Magoo style blind incompetence, seem unfair. These are the two sides of the argument:
- Oh my god. Watch out!
- I can see, calm down
A lot of her nervousness will come from the fact that she has changed position from driver to passenger. The passive partner in any journey, your control of the situation is non-existent. You are trusting your life to the skill, concentration and hand/eye coordination of another person. You are wholly controlled by the decisions that this other person makes.
I don’t know what this says about our relationship, that my wife is uneasy trusting my with her life. Whether this is a deader uneasy at my ability to navigate us through life, it only manifests itself during car journeys.
It may be my hope that this mistrust isn’t a symptom of something deeper, that I tend to put her nervousness and nonplussed reactions to my driving style down to a change in her relative position in the car. The passenger seat being closer to the side of the road means that everything from pavements to trees and cyclists looms much more in that side of the windscreen. The green blur of hedgerows rushes past mere metres from your face. For someone who’s used to navigating a journey looking at the centre of the road and the on-coming traffic this new position is disconcerting. You are too close to the side of the road!
In fact, one of her major complaints is ‘You’re too close to the side of the road!”. This injunction to panic is normally delivered when we’re travelling down country lanes. Roadways that, by their very narrow, windy nature mean the side of the road is encroaching, no matter what. To steer away from the road edge on her side of the car would be to introduce the front end of the car to the other edge of the road on my side.
My main fear in country roads is that I will meet oncoming traffic and have to reverse. Because reversing is not a strong point in my driving skills. When I have to, for instance around the occasional corner, maybe even a parallel park, but a 60 second journey backwards as I try to find a passing point – terrifying.
The second contention between my wife and I when I am driving is the distinct difference in our driving styles. That I am happy to drive down hill in a high gear, unless advised by roadside signage that this is a bad idea, fills her with terror. Steep hills are meant to be driven down in third gear or lower. While I concede that this is a much safer option, it’s much less fun. If she knew that occasionally I like to pop the car out of gear and let gravity pull the car down the decline, I imagine that divorce papers would be drawn up. As an aside to other drivers, yes I do realise that this is much more dangerous than other forms of propelling your vehicle downhill, it’s an infrequent treat, like doughnuts: it’s okay once in awhile, but every day and it’s becoming a problem.
The difference in our styles is probably best illustrated with our attitude to parking. My mantra is simple: between the lines is fine. If the car’s a little wonky, so what? As long as I’m not encroaching on other drivers’ space or creating problems for them either accessing or manoeuvring their cars, who cares?
The answer: my wife. She is happy to take the extra…however long it takes…to get the car bang in the middle of the space, equidistant from the white lines on either side. When I am driving, my lackadaisical approach to precision parking causes short bouts of intense shouting and the slamming of car doors when we exit the vehicle. My slapdash attitude to fitting the car perfectly in its allotted spot is partly to do with my reluctance to reverse unless entirely necessary and partly because I just don’t care enough about parking cars to give it the mathematically precise operation that she thinks it deserves.
Sexism dictates that men are good at parking and women bad. You might notice here that the roles are reversed. So does this make me the feminine element of the relationship and my wife the masculine? No. I would say that her need for precision versus my slacker, this-will-do approach reflect appropriate gender responses that people expect in other stereotypical husband/wife, man/woman exchanges.
For instance, the washing up. On the occasions when washing up liquid and water need to be poured and dishes cleaned (we have dishwasher, so this is a rarity), my wife will wash up, rinse the cleaned plates, stack them, let them drain, dry them and return them to their appropriate cupboard. She will them clear the plug hole of of food debris, wipe the sink and side, before returning everything to its allotted place.
I will do…most of that, but definitely miss at least one glass from the washing/rinsing phase. I will also not dry and replace any of the cleaned and dried crockery – I washed up, what more do you want? Meanwhile my food debris removal will be cursory, at best. And even if I did perform an industrial scrub down after washing up, there’s still the bloody glass. How did I miss that, how?
Come to think about it, there’s two things that my wife and I argue about.
Written in response to Daily Prompts: https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/argument/