Friday, February 28, 2014

A short wedding, a long marriage, and a fish

I've contributed to a local high school's half-day marriage conference for Year 10 several times. We've talked about the cost of a wedding, which is reported as being between £15,000 and £20,000 these days. The wedding industry is a lucrative one. When I've said that a minority of couples have been happy to wed on a budget, including buying a second hand wedding dress, several of the more opinionated students didn't think much of the idea. I've told them the story of the wedding that cost shillings, followed by a happy marriage that lasted well over sixty years.

I met an old couple, years ago, who lived in tied accommodation on a Suffolk farm. They'd asked me to conduct a funeral for the wife's sister. Several years later, the wife died, and I visited the husband, by this time very frail, to plan her funeral, and heard how they got married.

Ipswich fishmonger, 1938
They met through their employer, a farmer. He was a farm labourer, she was nursemaid to the farmer's children. One day, working in the yard, he glanced up at a window on the first floor of the house and spied a young women with a lacy cap, looking down at him. "That's the girl I'm going to marry," he said to himself. Her parents were strict Plymouth Brethren and didn't approve of the courtship. In those days you had to be twenty-one to marry without your parents' permission, so they waited. She turned twenty-one one hot summer. They didn't have much money but planned to live with his parents until they could find a place of their own. Their employer gave them the morning off so that they could get married. The register office was in Ipswich, about ten miles away, so they caught the bus into town. Two strangers agreed to be their witnesses at the ceremony. Afterwards, they walked back to the bus depot. It was so hot, they paused at a fishmonger's shop to cool off under the awning next to a marble slab covered in ice and fish. The fishmonger, thinking they were customers, asked what they'd like. They had barely enough money for the bus fare home. It all looks very nice, they said, but no thanks. Bursting with excitement, the new wife couldn't contain herself and said, "We just got married!" "Congratulations!" said the fishmonger, wrapping up a big piece of fish. He handed it to them, saying it was a wedding present. They ate it for supper. Not long afterwards their employer offered them the tied cottage where they spent the rest of their married life and raised their daughter. When he died, soon after his wife, I think he hadn't been able to live without her. The last time I'd seen him, he was lost.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Squeamish shoppers and the butcher's window, vegetarians and the dairy industry

Butcher's Stall with the Flight into Egypt by Pieter Aertsen, 1551.

As an impecunious single parent in the mid-'70s, long before A Girl Called Jack wrote about her supermarket bargain diet, I did my best to provide healthy food on a small budget for myself and my small son. As omnivores, meat was part of it, though it had to be cheap. I grew vegetables, bred rabbits for the pot, and became expert at killing, skinning and disembowelling them. The surplus were sold to a butcher in Oxford Covered Market. A friend often gave me game, when her freezer was full of gifts from a local gamekeeper, mostly pigeons. I was in the middle of plucking some one day, my apron covered with feathers, when there was a knock at the door. My visitor visibly blanched at the sight of my half-plucked pigeon and bloody fingers, and took a couple of steps backwards. If he'd come back another day, when pigeon pie was on the table, he might have sniffed it appreciatively, but the makings didn't appeal to him, and he didn't accept my invitation to have a cup of tea.

I was reminded of this by a story that's been in the news this week, about a butcher's shop in Sudbury that's been forced to remove its window display of game and pig's heads. I could tell you a story about how pigs' heads make good brawn, but that's for another day. A Mr Ben Mowles of Great Cornard has written to the local paper, the Suffolk Free Press:
In reference to Daniel Cudmord’s comments in last week’s Free Press, I too have been disgusted at the needless display of multiple mutilated carcasses on display at JBS Family Butchers in the Borehamgate precinct. I used to take my 12-year-old daughter to Marimba sweet shop but now we avoid the entire precinct as we’d rather not look at bloody severed pigs’ heads when buying sweets.
Poor child! Thanks to her father's over-reaction to the sight of dead animals, she'll probably have a lifelong squeamishness problem to deal with herself.

I have no idea if Mr Mowles is a vegetarian, or if he only eats meat that's been shrink-wrapped for the supermarket. Some of my friends are vegetarian, and I know at least one novice vegan; a nutritionally difficult diet, from what I've heard. The trouble with vegetarians who are repelled by meat is that most of them rely on dairy products for part of their protein intake, and that strikes me as a bit of a cop-out. Even if they only accept organic milk, cheese, butter, cream and yoghurt, do they ever consider how the dairy industry works? Do they consider what happens to male calves, for example? The Jolly Meat Company, one of the butchers in Hadleigh, my nearest town, occasionally sells veal, but it's not popular in the UK. Most people will drink milk from cows but won't eat the calves that have to be born so that the cows will produce milk. Many have been shot at birth, leaving their mothers bellowing in distress. If Mr Mowles and his squeamish ilk are careful to avert their eyes from the reality of meat production (even game that comes from creatures that live a totally natural life), so that their delicate sensibilities shouldn't be upset, they're unlikely to want to think about the welfare of the animals in question. Seems a bit hypocritical to me.

I hope that the Sudbury butchers reinstate their window display, though they might want to leave out the pigs' heads as a compromise. I'm still an omnivore. I eat meat in moderation, including offal, which many are too squeamish to contemplate. It would be good if people in the developed world ate less meat and dairy products, for the sake of the environment and their own health. China is rapidly increasing its meat consumption, which isn't good. If you're a regular carnivore, try only eating meat as a treat - you'll probably feel better for it.

Click here to read about a more humane approach to the welfare of dairy calves.

Click here for some butchers' opinions.

27 Feb: The window display is back, due to "overwhelming public support"

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Some good could come of the floods

Some good could come from the UK floods if they prompt more people to take climate change seriously and agitate to do something about it, including changing their own lifestyles. Most of the recent TV news stories have largely ignored weird weather elsewhere, but it's a global phenomenon. Cameron has surrounded himself with climate change sceptics who all need some remedial science education. If they could take their heads out of their arses long enough to see the error of their ways, it might be possible for the UK to lead the world with action. There are do-nothings in all parties, but the Tories currently have the most power.

Lots of angry people have been filmed blaming the Environment Agency, the government, anyone but themselves, for what's happening. Most seem oblivious of the effect of their own energy consumption, not just for household and motor fuel, but in all the consumer products that are floating off down their gardens. At least they might expect some help from UK emergency services. What about the people of the Pacific Islands, who'll soon lose their homelands due to rising sea levels? They barely have any impact on the climate, yet they're still victims.

The elephant in the room, that no one in power will acknowledge, is over-population. The planet is full. More people = more consumption = more warming. For more on this, go to Population Matters.

If any of this strikes a chord, write or email as many people in power as you can, and keep on doing it. For more on climate change, see my collection of articles in Delicious.
Cartoon by Polyp at