Writer and broadcaster

Butcher’s bloody window row: a sign of our over sanitised times. The Week

SUDBURY in Suffolk isn’t often in the news, let alone on Newsnight. At first I thought they’d got the wrong Sudbury and meant the one in London or Derbyshire, or maybe even Canada. But no, Sudbury, Suffolk, birthplace of Gainsborough and near to where I live, was being discussed because of a row over the window display at the local butcher’s.

Apparently JBS Family Butchers is too “butchery” and some locals had been upset at the display of dead animals in the window – whole, un-skinned rabbits, pigs’ heads, I think even deer.

They had complained to the Suffolk Free Press , saying it was so upsetting that they couldn’t even walk past anymore. The children were afraid, and no doubt if they’d had horses, they’d have been frightened too. Hopefully they’ll never go to Ruse and Son in Long Melford; this has its own abattoir.

In fear of a public boycott, JBS decided last Friday to end an age-old tradition and take down the display of carcasses for the sake of neighbouring businesses.

Roger Kelsey, chief executive of the National Federation of Meat and Food Traders, thought it was “townies” who had complained. “So-called rural Suffolk,” he was quoted as saying in the Daily Mail, “will have large number of townies with weekend retreats… who may be importing their values into the community.”

Kelsey is wrong. Sudbury is not the sort of place to have ‘weekenders’. People live there, and a large number have done so all of their lives. This is not Southwold or Aldeburgh, or even Lavenham, all of which do have more weekenders. Sudbury isn’t like that.

And anyway, Sudbury is a market town and every Thursday and Saturday, when the stallholders comes to town, Coleman the butchers, which, by the way, makes the best sausages and keeps its own actual cows (four legs, moos) on the meadows, puts up a display of dead rabbits and wild birds. My children stroke them.

Very ordinary people around here go shooting and eat what they catch. A brace of pheasant is still an acceptable present to bring to a table. So this isn’t about townies coming in and getting all pearl-clutching at seeing dead animals, this is a small example of a larger malaise, which is that reality is getting too damn real.

A comment piece in The Times yesterday [talking about the Sudbury butcher’s] said: “The more sanitised retailers can make such items, the happier I am”.

Animals are an obvious, vivid example of wanting to not really think about where things come from. But it’s not just food: it’s everything.

Online retail has sanitised the entire process of shopping: no picking up of fruit or veg, no talking to anyone behind a counter, no flicking through a book. (I once read a comment on Amazon that said: “Wouldn’t it be great if there was somewhere you could go and rent books so you didn’t have to buy them” to which someone replied: “Yes, they’re called libraries and the books are free to borrow.”)

Credit cards have washed our hands of handling, or even having to count out, cash. And if we do accidentally touch cash, we can sanitise ourselves with hand gel.

Birth has become sanitised, so it’s less blood and faeces and OMG! vaginas, and more overalls, blue hats and machines. Death? It’s so sanitised most people haven’t seen a dead body, let alone touched one. Talking? Talking is something you do via text and if you’re in an argument you email the other person in a passive aggressive way and if that doesn’t work you talk to them via a mediator.

We have a wet wipe for almost every stage of our lives, every part of the body. We even have wipes to wipe the screens we now look at the world through.

In my day job, I speak to a lot of psychotherapists. “December,” one told me “is a dry month [not many clients], everyone is wrapped up in the fantasy of Christmas. January is when we start getting the calls, this is when reality sets in.”

Fantasy is lovely and I think essential at times; but the more divorced one becomes from reality the greater the pain at reconnecting.

Happily, the butcher in Sudbury is getting overwhelming support for the reinstatement of its dead animal display. More than 1,600 people have signed a petition. You can join the realists here. · 

First published in The Week on 26th February 2014.