Dirt, meat and death: a city childhood.


I am what one historian calls post-domestic.  Unless you are a hill farmer, or a herder (in which case you are an anachronism, which won’t come as a surprise since making a living in either of those ways is very difficult) so are you.  It isn’t just that I was born in the mid-twentieth century in the dead centre of a great city.  It isn’t just that I’m Jewish and almost by definition urban. My grandparents came from the shtetl: they were traders, furriers, tailors, but at some point they must have ridden horses, or used them to pull carts.  They would have kept chickens and killed them under the watchful eye of the rabbi.  My mother, although born in London in 1912, knew how to singe and dress chickens that came, head and feet on, insides inside, from the kosher butcher.  Even so, the children of immigrants like my parents put the shtetls behind them as much as possible.  Their old people were old world embarrassments, for all that they had made the bold journey from a hostile middle Europe to unknown and far-away city centres.

Neat, clean clothes confirmed how far we had come from the old country.  My mother was adept at defining a lady.  A lady always wears pale gloves, carries a clean handkerchief.  A lady does not mess with dirtying nature, except in the kitchen to prepare it to look other than what it was by chopping and cooking, and, I would like to suppose, sometimes at least, in bed.  My mother and father both fled into the urbane.  When I was young we lived in a centrally-heated block of flats, a man way down in the basement stoked the boiler, another man came every week and took the dirty sheets and brought them back washed and ironed.  My ladylike gloves were white.  We had a little more to prove, but I don’t think we were exceptional among the many families of the Fifties: the goal was to achieve and hang on to respectability.  Falling over was frowned on, not just because you hurt yourself, but because it dirtied you up: stuff from the pavement on your clothes, blood, no longer contained, staining those nice neat socks and handkerchiefs. We walked or went on buses or taxis to shops or to the park, where children have to be taken.  Russell Square, a small patch of green in central London, or the larger patch of Regent’s Park in the other direction.  When I was old enough – seven or eight I went alone or with friends.  But be careful not to sit on the grass without putting something down first.  Those patches of unpaved earth were what Americans call it: dirt.  Near enough to nature to be reminiscent of  countryside.

My mother spent her days dusting and polishing and cleaning, but our flat was so small, I can’t imagine how it occupied her for more than half an hour a day.  She washed herself and me as if we spent our lives in dark and dusty tunnels.  Especially down there, in the animal – the natural – the private – parts.  Not that they had much opportunity to get dirty – clean knickers every morning and careful lessons in how to wipe yourself after urinating or defecating.  My mother was prepared to confront the dirty animal but only to ensure that it never, never got a hold on our existence.  My father shaved with a strap-sharpened razor, left a manicured garden of moustache on his upper lip, forced his wavy hair flat on his head with a hair cream and splashed more scented stuff on him to keep the smell of body at bay.  But according to my mother, he was not as fastidious as she was in matter of washing or in matters of other people’s natural parts.  My mother abhorred his washing and sexual behaviours as ‘filthy’.  Good things were ‘nice’, bad things were ‘not nice’.  Clean was ‘nice and clean’.  Good was not making a mess of the clothes that were specifically chosen to show how much we were not people of the countryside.  My woollen vests, in the days when we could still afford them, came from shops in ‘Brussels’ not from Belgium where they kept the sheep.  Clean knickers and a clean private part were, as mothers everywhere explained, in case of an accident on the street, not impossible in an urban environment and public, in order to show those who assisted us or pronounced us dead how far we were from country dirtiness.  Post-domestic.

Dogs, cats and birds encountered on the streets were always to be ignored and avoided. But there were exceptions. The great masses of starlings in central London at that time were a sight to see, worth stopping and looking up at, swarming in their thousands on the roof of the National Gallery in the late afternoons and taking off simultaneously in a fluttering, shrieking cloud that swooped all of a piece across the London sky.  And I regularly fed the pigeons in Trafalgar Square which stood ravenously on my hands, shoulders and head to get at the corn on my open palm.  A strange anomaly of urban animal-loving.  Now they are flying rats, filthy, disease-ridden.  They have been hounded out of Trafalgar Square and are shot in the dead of night to discourage their presence on public buildings and under bridges.  But I have a photograph of my mother and me with pigeons perched on our heads and shoulders, and my mother smiling quite benignly.

I went with her to the butcher and sat in my pushchair, close to the pale sawdust, looking at dead chickens hanging by the neck from hooks, and slabs of meat being tidied with string into unfleshy shapes that bore no relation to anything that had ever lived.  It was a shop where they neatened death into food.  And it was a kosher butcher, which meant that the meat had been drained of its life blood and prayed over.  Processed away from living creatures as far as it was possible and the processing continued back home in the kitchen.  Salt beef was an oval cylinder tied up with string, fish was filleted and covered in matzo meal batter, liver was chopped into a patė.  Only chickens remained somewhat lifelike, though dead and featherless.  A little bit of bucolic reality.  They even retained their shape and features in the cooking.  Chicken soup, essential Jewish food, was made with the whole chicken, minus the head, including the giblets (gizzard, liver, heart, neck) any unlaid eggs (a special treat, little hard-boiled yolklets), and the feet.  Actually as Chinese as Jewish, but gnawing on a chicken’s claw, all gristle and bone, and being presented with the chewy gizzard, was a weekly childhood happiness.   So my experience of the non-human animal was the smell in the butchers, various unmediated parts of a cooked chicken, close encounters with disease-ridden pests and an appreciation of starlings.


There was, of course, Georgie, the budgie, who had every week to have his cage ritually cleaned, which indicates that my parents were not as harshly averse to animals as I suggest. And once I found a baby bird fallen from a nest in Regent’s Park.  I brought it home to the flat.  My mother, confronted with the poor, helpless, squealing thing, got a saucer of bread soaked in milk and we tried to feed it with tweezers, but it wouldn’t or couldn’t eat, and writhing in our nervous, urban hands, wriggled away and fled at its first opportunity to the darkness and warmth behind the radiator, where it got stuck.  It was a grim nature lesson.  My mother, panicking, as I would now in the same circumstances, tried to tease it and then poke it out with a stick of some kind – a wooden spoon, a fish slice?  The wretched little creature screamed for its own kind, and shrank from the probe, and we wailed and flailed around trying to get at the trapped bird, making it retreat even further into stuckness, and us all the more appalled.  It was doubly in the wrong place.  Not at the foot of a tree under its nest.  Wedged in the space between a far-too-hot metal radiator and the living-room wall.  Eventually, the cheeping stopped.  My mother flapped on the phone to the porters in the entrance hall and one of them arrived to dig out and dispose of the corpse.

It was an experience that was much worse than watching my mother prepare a dead chicken for the pot.  Baby birds, like baby anything else, are fearsomely attractive, with those same big eyes and rounded head that evolution happened upon to make hearts melt.  It was helpless and I rescued it, as I thought, and then it all went terribly wrong.  This was the danger, and always has been with befriended animals, even the ones we call pets. It would not behave as a rescued creature was supposed to behave.  It didn’t understand enough.  It wouldn’t eat, it didn’t love us or trust us, it tried to get away from us, and turned itself from a sweet baby creature into a trapped and dying animal.  A disappointment.  A let-down.  A regret.  Unlike my three stuffed bears who were completely reliable.  Once the baby bird was behind the radiator, I didn’t want it any more.  I only wanted it not to be there, never to have seen it, not to have picked it up.  I knew it wouldn’t survive, and that I hadn’t saved it.  It was a baby thing that I had brought home to die a much worse death than if I had left it alone.  At any rate a death in my presence.  My fault, but its fault, too, for not behaving properly.  For not complying with the rules about humans saving animals; but having a life – a nature – of its own.  I was disgusted by its horrible end in my flat.  As soon as it was stuck behind the radiator, actually, as soon as it refused to eat, I wished it would shut up and die immediately.


This is a version of the beginning of my book What I Don’t Know About Animals. The excerpt was published originally by Drawbridge magazine.