Notes from a niseach

The perils of being a country bumpkin

There were times during my early working years in Glasgow when it would have been all too easy to believe I had the words “Innocent”, “Yokel” or “Country Bumpkin” stamped thick and black upon my forehead.

Perhaps it was my permanently open-mouthed expression that gave the game away. My jaw would fall and gape every time I came across anything that was outside my experience – from an open-topped bus to an Orange march, from a punk(ette) with a kettle serving as her handbag to a skinhead dressed in braces, bovver boots and tight breeks.

Yet most of all, I recall being astonished by the presence of beggars and down-and-outs in the street. The short phrase “Any change, mister?” was enough to make me stumble, stutter and stretch my hand into a pocket for a handful of coins, sprinkling them into an outstretched palm. There were times when I would slip or slink across to the other side of the road rather than face the army of grizzled men who seemed to wait for me in the doorways of tenements. I was all too aware that if they spoke, I would feel compelled to give away my bus-fare rather than suffer the sting of my conscience.

This had the greatest effect on me one weekend I travelled over to Dublin. That early morning near its main rail station, I dragged my suitcase down a street to discover young people sleeping in shop doorways with only a cardboard box to act as their cover from the cold. In these early days of the Thatcher era, it was a sight I had never seen before and I cowered a little before it. (Once I even questioned a nurse who told me that it was an unfortunate consequence of the Irish Catholic concept of the sanctity of the family. No matter how badly children were treated by their parents, they were always returned to them, even those who allowed their offspring to sleep in the nation’s streets.) Little did I imagine that a few years later, however, such experiences would become almost commonplace in this country’s major towns and cities. It would no longer just be grizzled faces that looked up at me expectantly but younger, even more haunted ones; the phrase “Any change, mister?” slipping down a generation or two.

All these journeys – I used to reflect – must have been easier for city-lads. Years spent in urban schools meant they were long used to such sights, having been trained from an early age to keep their eyes on the pavement whenever one of these individuals approached. Their parents had probably told them time and time again – “Don’t give them a penny. They’ll only spend it on Buckfast/Meths/Carlsberg Super-Lager.” And so a stroll down Sauchiehall Street produced few agonies for them, no real dilemmas for their conscience.

Yet for all that their souls were harder on their fellow human-beings, I suspect that there were some ways in which they were softer, gentler than us. For them, there were more perils down a country lane. They were more likely to shiver when they came across the carcass of a dead sheep out on the moor. A wounded seagull or the sight of a poor rabbit infected by myxamatosis near the shoreline might generate a huge host of sleepless nights. They would toss and turn when they imagined that gaze fixing on them, staring as if in accusation that they had the nerve to be still walking around while an animal or bird was lying in agony.

By the stage that we were teenagers, however, such sights had less effect on us. Most of the time, we learned to accept that – within the animal kingdom at least – the dead and wounded were always going to be with us. Gulls could get hurt or damaged and trail a wing. Sheep would get sucked down and swallowed by a bog. Sometimes we even developed a practical approach to animal suffering. Shivering as we did so, some of us even managed to perform a mercy-killing on a disease-infected rabbit, stunning it to death with a stone. And if a dead lamb was lying on croftland, its fleece could be stripped from its carcass and used to deceive a ewe into feeding some other animal other than its own. It was a way of ensuring life could be nurtured and passed onto another of God’s creatures.

In short, it was a utilitarian approach – and one I have been reminded of again in recent weeks. Tell an urban person about the practice of eating young gannet, which I have just written about in my book The Guga Hunters, and their faces will – normally, momentarily – shrivel in disgust and disapproval. Tell an individual from a rural area and there will be a nod of understanding. “What’s the difference between eating birds and eating fish?” they will ask. “Is it because one type of life can be easily seen?”

And this is not because we are numb to the suffering of animals. Instead, we accept it as part of the reality of rural life. While we would condemn those individuals among us who caused needless pain to animals, turning them into the pariahs of the community, we would rarely think of donating money to animal charities, such as the Cats Protection League, Blue Cross, National Animal Welfare Trust. On the other hand, we would give freely to Save the Children, the Red Cross, the Lifeboat Fund . . .

It is a little different in our cities. In Britain today, more money is regularly given – especially in the form of legacies and large donations – to animal charities than those concerned with the welfare of young children. To most rural people, this is a puzzling phenomenom, as if the human race is beginning to care more for animals than their own kind. Perhaps this process begins with the urban school-pupil keeping eyes averted from the beggar they encounter with his hand outstretched on a busy, city street.

If so, I can only be proud of being a country bumpkin, unable to dodge their gaze.

Donald Murray


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