My mum and dad considered themselves animal lovers. In old black and white photographs there are pictures of a teenage Shirley either holding a black and white cat to her side, kneeling down beside a dog or – in one, beaming at a seaside photographer as a baby monkey clings for dear life to her black and white swimsuit.
My dad grew up in the wilds of Dorset, surrounded by animals on farms and in every picture of the handsome, smiling Ted, he has a Collie or a German Shepherd by his side. Except for the ones where he’s wearing an army uniform. The first job my dad ever had was as a butcher’s boy, bicycling the hills and downs of Beaminster and surrounding areas with meat orders in his massive baskets… something I’d now liken to a kind of funeral director. One that encourages the congregation to eat the deceased. But I digress. Back to the happy black and whiteness…
Growing up we always had a pet on the go. Dogs were a given. Budgies. And in our teens, my brother and I were conceded a gerbil each. Perversely, these ‘cute little girls’ turned out to be of opposite sexes and we had to buy a second cage to quell the rampant ‘chats’ they were determined to entertain us with during Tomorrow’s World.
Mother had a bird table. She hung nets of lard pricked with seeds from the eaves of dad’s shed for the Blue Tits she spent hours watching from the kitchen window, cooing over. She left balled up bits of old wool and twine out along the fence so the birds could collect it to line their nests with in the winter. She kept an Observers Book of Garden Birds by the sink so she could tell dad which ones she’d spotted during the day. And on Sundays she’d rub fat over a dead one, roast it and carve it up for our lunch.
I never questioned it. Well, you don’t, do you? Not when it’s been the absolute norm your entire life. Meat and two veg. Dad’s a butcher. He brings offcuts and cheap cuts home every evening for the sole purpose of giving the veg on our plates something to feel inferior to.
During school holidays my brother and I used to ‘help out’ at his Butcher shop in the village. On Wednesday half day closing, the lorry would arrive from the slaughterhouse with the carcasses the shop had ordered, and I’d actually watch with a kind of proud satisfaction as dad backed himself up to the end of the lorry and waited for half a cow/sheep/pig to be placed onto his white overalls so he could haul it through the sawdusted tiles of the shop to the rear where the cold store was.
It didn’t dawn on me that these ‘sides’ of meat were dead animals. No one told us and we never thought to ask. Although I do remember asking mother once why my meat was called ‘lamb’ when ‘my’ lambs were cute little white fluffy leaping things in fields at Easter. I was told that was ‘just a name for it’. Like ‘ham’ was another name for ‘pork’ (at no time was an actual pig ever mentioned).
During school dinners I remember a teacher standing at the head of each table, making sure that all the children ate everything on their plates; gristle, fat and whatever else included. We were made to swallow things we couldn’t chew and show the teacher our empty mouths which put me off fatty meat for life. Anything with veins, lines of white or tubes in it made me gag at the sight. Just as the daily half pint of milk had always made me queasy. The only way I’d drink milk was if it was sweetened with Nesquik or turned into custard or rice pudding.
On holidays in Dorset (when cows and sheep positively littered the fields and gave the country a beautiful sound as well as sight) we’d often have to stop to let a farmer cross the road with his herd of cows, and I’d watch with revolting fascination as the cows’ udders hung swollen and heavy making their journey look cumbersome and painful as they struggled to walk with these stretched and veiny bags between their legs. I remember asking Dad how come they didn’t explode with so much milk inside them and was told that this was what farmers were for – to make sure that didn’t happen and to ensure the cows were milked twice a day without fail or else the cows would get sick. In those days I actually felt a huge sense of regard for the farmers; they were like heroes to these poor animals who, if left alone, would surely explode in their fields with the amount of milk they were making. Thank goodness for farmers or else where would the world be!
My dad taught me how to string sausages at his butcher shop; how to slide intestines over the metal spout to prevent them drying out; how to curl each lentgh around my fingers and thread them together in threes or fours. I was so proud of my achievements! I learnt how to press beefburgers (Eric Morecambe ordered his from dad’s shop); how to pluck turkeys at Christmas… and I’d watch, rapt, as he swung his cleaver down over a rack of ribs – noticing a similar gleam in the eye of the lady customer he was swinging it for. There are so many double entendres where butchery and housewives are concerned and it was only when I was older that I realised how suggestive my dad asking his next customer if she’d seen anything she fancied for the weekend – truly was. And don’t get me started on chipolatas versus the Bedfordshire Banger.
We were always watching animal documentaries. David Attenborough was a kind of silent uncle in our living room once a week, and yet still there were hacked up pieces of dead ones in our fridge and freezer which would be cooked and fed to us at every meal, every day.
It was the norm. Unquestioned. Unchallenged. To not ‘fancy a beefburger’ or salivate over a roasted chicken would have invited wrath and taunts of being a bit weird; making a fuss. For the sake of not wanting to draw attention to ourselves, I guess we just kept quiet and believed that what we were doing was entirely normal. Besides, everyone else was doing it. Let’s not upset the applecart.
And speaking of apples, my parents had an allotment – because our back garden was small and in an case, filled with mother’s fancy fuschias, bird tables and other accoutrements meant to encourage wildlife (I know, the irony). On warm evenings we would pack up dad’s squeaky, wonky wheelbarrow with long-handles spades, dobbers, forks, twine, sticks and pricked-out plants, and trundle it through the streets to the allotments ready to tend the ground where our vegetables grew. And, oh, what vegetables they were…you really cannot beat home grown.
I never thought about it until recently, but we always ALWAYS knew where our carrots, potatoes, greens, reds and every colour in between came from; after all we watched it grow. We planted it, tended, fed, tweaked, plucked, trimmed, pulled, washed and sliced these lovingly cultivated fruits which we made appreciative noises over when we forked them into our mouths at the dinner table. The men would discuss which plants had done better that season; which ones they’d try and grow next, and the women would chat about how they’d cooked this one and that one, and what they wanted to try out next.
But not once did I hear a single comment on the welfare, life, or death of any of the pieces of meat we were sitting in front of. Of course words like ‘tender’ ‘succulent’, ‘moist’, ‘juicy’ etc were prevalent and centred around the preparation and cooking of – but no thought was given whatsoever for the animal whose life had been cut short in order to satisfy the taste buds of those sitting around the table and eating them.
As if they didn’t count. Didn’t have feelings, faces, hearts, minds or family themselves.
*This post was brought to you after I walked the puppy this morning and we came across the farmer’s spaniel having a lot of fun running and leaping about with one of his gorgeous lambs. Puppy and lamb rubbed noses through the fence and I came away with such a heavy heart knowing that the number pinned to his ear means he has less than a week of life left – and he has SO much in him.