Would the Orthodox priest run out of liturgy, would my slender candle (once over a foot long) burn down to my fingers or would the now urgent call of an all-too-human bladder after several cups of coffee cause me to run from the building first. It was a toss-up. I don’t know the exact terminology in the Russian Church, but the Greeks refer to their bishops with the title “despot” and I can well see why. This dear man, though certainly no bishop and doubtless doing his best to hustle us through the funeral service at a decent clip on a cold and humid morning, nevertheless has something slightly despotic about the set and trim of his eyebrows that makes me think he’s going to outlast candle and bladder by a good ten minutes.
To escape the inevitability of death by droning, I try paying attention to the overall effect. As an act of ecclesiastical showmanship, I’ve seen better. The robe is good. We like the robe. The incense is good. Nice smell, very evocative of something or other but I can’t quite say what … incense probably. But it’s a bit like getting Diana Ross with a cough and only one Supreme. This surviving member, a demure looking spinster of the parish, intones a seemingly endless sequence of trancelike, lulling responses as counterpoint to our man’s incremental but far from sufficient increases in speed. The undertaker’s assistants have been looking at their watches for some time. It’s a wonder the deceased, the wife of that Russian acquaintance whose funeral I already covered in some detail in these pages a year or so ago – I never learn – doesn’t spring from her open coffin to urge on the horses. *
What on earth can he be saying? What is there to chant for well over an hour, at a steady rate of knots, on the subject of a generic dead person? It’s not as if he’s eulogizing the late (and now distinctly later) lady in rhapsodic song. Because this isn’t about her; it’s about him and his arbitrary God of long-winded things. He’s reading every word from a liturgical primer of mind-deadening dirges for all occasions. He even makes mistakes: a false start, a misread adjective repeated, a clearing of the throat … while frequently turning aside to give his uninspired assistant clues to the topography. It’s clear that she’s not done many of these, fortunately for her, if not for us.
But the Russians, you’ve got to give them credit. It’s no wonder they can survive six months of numbing winter and the works of Dostoyevsky. There are all the usual suspects here: the unbelievably curvaceous girls in heels and fur-trimmed dresses, the chunky body builders in their shiny suits, the babushkas who look as if they might have a whole family of wooden dolls concealed within their iron-curtained underwear, the chain-smoking intellectuals with their stooping diffidence and unconvincing hair ... all of them seem to have plenty of stamina for this stuff and more. Finally we get the signal. Our despot turns to the assembly and seems to berate them personally for a few minutes, there is even a gesture or two (other than liturgical paraphernalia being shaken and waved about) toward the tiny form in the big coffin who was until now, or so it seems to me (ignorant outsider), at risk of being completely forgotten. Assistants open the eastern doors and we begin to process from the chapel to the cemetery. The end is nigh … not! For once at the graveside a new rigmarole commences, more chanting, more responses, several more minutes before we each get to tip our trowel full of earth and pay our respects to the family.
Later on we all repair to Katyinka’s (she’ll be getting married next year, but I’ve known her since she was eight, hence the diminutive) to try out an extraordinary panoply of Russian dishes traditionally eaten on such occasions: festive rice, blintz, borscht, piroszhki bread, brioche … all served and eaten solely with a spoon. There is some arcane reason for this – not to prod the dead back into life by accident with a fork? To avoid serious knife injury if a family feud erupts after the vodka? – but no one present can tell me what it is. The mists of time are a convenient excuse for cultural illiteracy. Anyway, there I am, nursing a delicious plate of goulash with sour cream and trying to explain to my hosts that I shan’t eat much as I slightly overdid on my first fresh lamb meal of the year last night. Harker has a connection to a small farmer. Actually he’s quite a large farmer but the farm is small and produces wonderful grass-fed lamb. “My” lamb, Eric, was slaughtered yesterday. The same evening I was already enjoying a wonderful Irish stew made with all the little scraggy bits that it didn’t seem worthwhile labelling for the freezer. Eric did not die in vain. I am deeply appreciative of his sacrifice. I would recommend him to anyone, even entrenched vegetarians (he was herbivore, after all) as a departure from supermarket fodder. I might not like the idea of green eggs, but ham (or in this case, lamb) is very appealing, Sam-I-am! And so I found myself, using my Sam-I-am poetic licence to extol the virtues of a form of cuisine where the plate could hardly be closer to the cradle of food production. Katya wasn’t buying it. She has a soft heart, or so she insists, and can only eat meat if it has no identity. For me, that is the cruellest cut of all and supports a faceless and exploitative system of agro business and industrial livestock processing.
Katyinka reproaches me with my indifference to Eric’s fate, a lamb I had more or less been on terms of intimacy with (we had exchanged head-butts) and I reproach her with her indifference to the conspicuous silence (to human ears, at least) of all the calves, chicks and piglets of the world, whose skin, bones and feathers are blasted apart with pressure hoses before being gravity separated and ground up for fodder or cheap burgers and sausages of tasteless ubiquity. Eric, I inform her, never had to suffer in love, nor in hate, neither from sunburn, measles nor humiliation. Eric never had to go to the dentist to have his root canals gouged, never had to fail a French exam or his driving test or flunk out of law school or be unconvincing at the piano or in bed or at work or be told that he’s too old or too fat for something. He never had to make a choice between three unprepossessing electoral candidates and their equally unconvincing parties; he never had to read anyone’s review of his first novel, never had to endure a meal to a soundtrack of Johnny Hallyday. No, Eric led a brief and idyllic life in a beautiful meadow with his mummy and a friendly flock. Later on he gambolled freely around a mountainside for a few months with a dozen of his pals. One day they all got into a trailer behind the Land Rover and drove round to see Sam-I-am, licensed butcher, who spoke to them gently before taking them one by one through a pair of doors and a rubber curtain to a place where something very fast, stunning and unexpected occurred of which none of them had even the slightest inkling either before or after. And now Eric is in my freezer and I thank the Lord for him each time I prepare a meal, without need of long-winded liturgy, clergy, candles or incense. Eric lived the only life he could possibly have in this world, in the best kind of way. For had he not that life, he could have had none other: ‘tis better to have lived and lost than never to have lived at all.
I was struck by the following lines of Plutarch, recently quoted at me by a friend in that irritating, holier-than-thou manner that is so often a feature of modern discourse on ethical issues … arrested not so much by their reason and philosophical balance, as by their surprising lack of it:
“For my part I rather wonder both by what accident and in what state of soul or mind the first man touched his mouth to gore and brought his lips to the flesh of a dead creature, he who set forth tables of dead, stale bodies and ventured to call food and nourishment the parts that had a little before bellowed and cried, moved and lived.”
Ah, Mr Plutarch, as a rhetorician you should know when to avoid the rhetorical question, namely when it is most easily riposted in a manner not to your liking. That “first man” was probably suffering from dire protein deficiency and either lived in some fruitless desert, some barren upland or some northern clime where winter robbed him regularly of other forms of sustenance. He had observed the behaviour of the higher animals in the food chain. He naturally ascribed courage and power to the mountain lion, strength and hardiness to the bear, strategy and fidelity to the wolf, cunning and flexibility to the fox, speed and insight to the owl, loftiness and grandeur to the eagle. He ascribed none of these virtues to the goat, the sheep or the ox and thought little of them. “Surely”, he reasoned, “by imitating the behaviour of these skilful hunters I can gain some of their edge, some of their talent, virtue and advantage in a cruel world. It is clear that superior creatures eat lesser ones and benefit mightily therefrom.”
And with regard to the “gore” that the philosopher abhors, there is little gore on a modern table and, even in the time of Plutarch, the preparation of food was already marked by science and artistry. Neither is that which is set on the table “stale”, unless it is allowed to get that way. Curiously, while finding the killing and preparing of meat repugnant, the philosopher goes on to contend, not unjustly, that people who insist on eating meat should at the least be prepared to kill it themselves. In other words, and here I agree with him, we should take ethical responsibility for our dietary choices. However, he then spoils it by suggesting, in a rather adolescent diatribe, that even this is only valid if they tear at their humble prey with their bare hands and teeth as wild creatures do, without the aid of knives, spears or bows, thus giving up any advantage evolution has bestowed on them. What unreasonable talk for a man of reason!
Now, if Mr Plutarch has not noticed it, then I am loath to bring it to his attention all these millennia later, but humankind generally seeks to distinguish itself by its “humanity”, one element of which is the avoidance of unnecessary suffering and another of which is the making of all manner of tools and aids to facilitate and render life more agreeable and even death more palatable. In other words, assuming responsibility for ones dietary choices must imply, for this particular carnivore, that the entire process is made as humane as possible. Plutarch misses the point. He is so keen to teach us a dirty lesson in reality that he forgets his original premise, which was the avoidance of loathsome and cruel behaviour:
“The obligations of law and equity apply only to mankind, but kindness and benevolence should be extended to the creatures of every species, and these will flow from the breast of a true man, as streams that issue from the living fountain.”
I think we can all agree on that, but I think we can also agree that the significant word here is “should” not must
. I will not force green eggs and ham on anyone, but neither am I ready to have others force their culinary morality on me. Eric and his friends will continue to have their brief lives, the only lives that are possible for them. They may safely graze awhile, for I come armed with a spoon this time and shall do them no harm.
© Edwin Drood
, November 2013
See I’m late, I’m late, Edwin Drood's Column, 8 June 2010
Illustration: "Eric the lamb" by © David John