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Personal Views

Age of innocence

BMJ 1997; 314 doi: (Published 12 April 1997) Cite this as: BMJ 1997;314:1134
  1. Colin Douglas, doctor and novelist
  1. Edinburgh

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    In the 1950s there was great rivalry between the only two sizeable communities in northern Kirkcudbrightshire–perhaps there still is. The background, as usual in such cases, was complex. Our village had been cheated, by them of course, of a charter which would have made us a royal burgh some half a millennium previously. That still rankled. But we now had twice the population of the admittedly tiny royal burgh. And we had a secondary school and a far better football team.

    But the rival village three and a half miles down the valley still had its attractions. Sometimes in the long summer holidays, when local diversions palled, a couple of us used to cycle across on a Wednesday afternoon to watch a regular event that never disappointed its 10 year old spectators.

    In its main street the other village had a butcher's shop. Behind it was a well grazed paddock with a square stone building about the size of a double garage, bleakly and modestly equipped for its purpose. There was running water, electric light, and a selection of hooks and rails attached to the rafters. The floor was concrete, the walls whitewashed and splashed with blood.

    On Wednesday afternoons when the shop was shut the butcher and his two assistants busied themselves in the building at the back. Small boys were not unwelcome, even small boys from the other village, though looking back on it I have a suspicion that girls might have been turned away.

    We knew the butcher and his men because their van came round our village twice a week. Delivering steak, lamb chops, haggis, black pudding, and bacon to our mothers, they were cheerful, efficient, and amusing. On Wednesday afternoons, setting about another aspect of the business, they were no different.

    As I recall it they did the beef first, hauling in from the paddock a steer, its eyes rolling and its legs splayed helplessly forward on the slippery floor. Then they tethered it and the senior man despatched it using a clumsy pistol that sent a bolt a couple of inches into its skull. The poor beast slumped, its troubles suddenly over, and was pulleyed up to hang head down from the rafters. Steel flashed and bright blood drained into an enamel bucket–next week's black pudding. Gutted and flayed before our admiring eyes, animal was made meat in less than half an hour.

    Two or three sheep followed, light relief after the steer. And we could even help. Someone showed me how to connect one end of the detached intestines to the water tap and wash them out for sausage skins. See one, do one; then the satisfaction of a job well done, an adult mystery unravelled.

    By the end of the afternoon the rails were hung with sides of meat, recognisably the kind of stuff that came round in the van. Hosing out the slaughterhouse was a jolly, jokey business with blood, urine, and faeces swirling together down the drain in watery absolution.

    A ritual cleansing of our wellington boots and it was all over. We cycled home. However unimaginable–and for so many reasons–it seems today, that was what we did then. But there wasn't much else to do, and for small boys 40 years ago there were worse ways of passing a summer afternoon in the country.

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