Dear Dave

Friday 12 October 2007

Raising townies

Dear Dave,

I come from a very long line of farmers. There's an absolute stack of them (probably literally) buried in the same churchyard in Norfolk. Half of them even have the same name as me. This is a bit freaky when randomly glancing at gravestones, to be honest, but it means that agriculture and husbandry should flow powerfully within my veins.

As if.

I'm slightly agoraphobic, I can't keep the worms in our worm-bin alive and I look at pot-plants and they die. Truth be told, farming was never really my career of choice. It's very fortunate that I'm the second son so I got to run away to the city.

Growing up on a farm, however, I did feel somewhat inadequate as a child because I really didn't know very much about the countryside. I struggled to tell a thrush from a starling or a birch from an oak. It didn't help that the Swallows and Amazons adventure books I was given to read presented this as some kind of moral failure. It turns out, though, that my kids make me look like a born naturalist. Witness the conversation I had with Lewis recently:

"Daddy? What kind of bird is that?" he asked, as we sat in the park.

I glanced where he was pointing. "It's a raven," I said.

"No, it's not." He seemed to think I was pulling his leg. "It's a blackbird."

"Technically, you're right, it is a black bird, but it's not a blackbird."

"Why not?"

"It's a raven."

"No," he said, realising I wasn't joking but now certain I was just plain stupid. "It's a bird and it's black."

"Yeah, but that doesn't make it a blackbird," I said. "Ravens are birds that are black."

"Then what are blackbirds?"

"They're... er... different birds that are black."

"Like that one?" he said, pointing again.

I sighed. "No, that's another raven."

"But why isn't it a blackbird?"

Normal logic wasn't working for me, so I decided to stretch the boundaries. "It's not a raven for the same reason you're not a zebra."

Oddly, this appeared to satisfy him. "Oh, OK," he said and went back to wittering endlessly about Wario. I just shook my head in despair.

I acknowledge that, in my childhood, I didn't know much about the countryside but I like to think I had more of a clue than that. At least I knew where milk came from. (The big vat in the shed across the cattle yard). Scarily, though, this chat was an improvement on the one I had last year with both the boys:

"What is bacon made from?" I asked them.

"Don't be silly," said Lewis, "it's not made of anything." Fraser nodded.

"It's meat. It comes from an animal," I said. This was obviously news to them but I ploughed on anyway. "What kind of animal do you think it comes from?

They shrugged.

"Pigs," I said. "Bacon comes from pigs. How about ham?"

"Cows?" said Fraser, uncertainly.

"Good guess but ham comes from pigs too. Beef comes from cows." Things weren't going as well as I'd hoped. I decided to give them an easy one. "How about chicken? What kind of creature does chicken come from?"

They both looked entirely blank.

"Think about it..." I said.

They continued to look blank. There was a slight sound of whirring cogs and the whiff of burning rubber. Still blank. The answer was apparently beyond them.

"Chicken comes from chickens," I said, giving up.

I wasn't entirely expecting them to argue. "Don't be silly," said Lewis. "You can't eat chickens. They're covered in feathers."

Quite what the other passengers on the train were thinking by then, I can only imagine, but, at that point, I had to admit to myself that my children are townies. They'll grow up to hang around on street corners complaining there is nothing to do. They won't appreciate how lucky they are to be able to go to the shops, or the cinema, or a friend's house, without a forty minute car journey. They'll believe foxes are cuddly and bread grows on trees. I can see it now.

Half of me wants run out and buy a book so I can teach them to tell a chaffinch from a rhododendron. That way I could overcome some of my childhood angst through them. Happily, however, the other half of me just can't be bothered. It's probably for the best.

Now I wonder where they think apples come from (other than the supermarket, obviously). Maybe I should go and experiment some more...

Yours in a woman's world,


PS Just as my children are destined never to be farmers, I had to warn Fraser to never become a soldier the other day. I was examining his hair for lice as he had a bath (there are some going round school) and he just would not move to the side of the tub when I told him. He kept moving to the end. Then, later, when I wanted him to move to the end, he moved to the side. I kept explaining what I meant. I kept pointing. He slid himself all over the place and then had a lie down, all the time justifying how he was following my instructions really.

"Whatever you do, don't join the army," I said, irritably, my back getting sore from all the bending over. "They'll shoot you."


"They'll tell you to do something but you'll do something entirely different and then argue with them. You get shot in the army for doing that."

He wasn't convinced. "What? If you ever don't do what you're told?"

"Well, OK, it depends exactly what you do and I don't know they actually shoot people on their own side any more but they used to. Whatever they do now is probably still pretty bad. Certainly, if they tell you to go and fight someone and you don't, then you'll be in big trouble."

He looked horrified. "But the person might be a good person."

"Uh-huh. This is what I'm saying Fraser, this is what I'm saying..."

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