10th July, 2021. Some Thoughts on Cows, Paperbacks, and How Things Work.

I see a wonderful newspaper cutting about a farmer and the weather and marrowfat peas, and this leads to a conversation with a stranger about the seriousness of food production and how tough farming is. (I think the farmers never get enough credit. They are too often caricatured as big, bloated agribosses, tearing out the hedgerows and killing the bees, or out-of-date yokels with ten sheep and no teeth. All right, I’m exaggerating a bit, but I do see stereotypes and they are nothing like the farmers I know.) 

At the exact same time, I get a question about why my latest book is not available in paperback. This is always asked with enthusiasm and love: people really adore papery books and don’t enjoy so much the rather soulless reading on the screen. But it feels like a blow to me every time, and I have to go into long explanations about how London publishers don’t want horse books, so I have to publish the Happy Horse series myself, and the complications of getting the formatting right for a paperback edition are beyond me, and I’ve give five jobs, so I just stick with the e-book because there is no time. And after that I feel exhausted and slightly sullen, knowing that I have not been my best self.

And suddenly, in my head, these two things came together, and I thought: nobody knows where anything comes from any more.

The people ask about the paperback because they have absolutely no clue about how a book gets out into the world. It’s just there, and they want to read it, and they’d like it in a paper version, and since they’ve been told for years that choice is everything and the consumer is queen and king and emperor of all, it doesn’t occur to them that this might not be instantly possible.

And on the other side of it, the people don’t appear to have much thought or respect for the farmers because food just is, on every supermarket shelf, all the time. Food is there; it has no connection with someone praying to the weather gods or not being able to sleep at night because their back is in spasm from eighteen hours on the tractor or going slowly bankrupt as margins are eroded to nothing.

I think two things are happening – in dear old Blighty and possibly in other parts of the industrialised world. I think that the rush to the cities has left people disconnected from the land, which is a huge, huge schoolroom of cause and effect, and I think the rush of technology has made us, insensibly, entitled.

I very, very rarely use the universal We; I think it’s so presumptuous and also confusing. Which we are you referring to? But in this case, I think it might be pretty much all of us modern humans. I like to believe that I take nothing for granted and that I am grateful for everything, from horses to rain, but I was enraged yesterday when I went to the local Co-Op and found that their freezers were out of order so that I could not get any chips. I had a craving for steak and chips for my Friday night treat and there were just pathetic signs saying something like ‘We are aware of the problem.’ Well, then fix it, I yelled in my head. So that I can have chips!

The especially worrying thing is that I hardly ever eat frozen chips. I mostly cook everything from scratch, because that’s what my old mum taught me. And I could have easily got some ordinary potatoes and taken them home and fried them. But no, I wanted the proper chip, those really thin ones that I can’t produce at home, and I wanted them now, and it was my Friday night and how dare the stupid freezers not work?

I had to go home and give myself a stern talking to. That was pure, undilute, screaming entitlement. That was a three-year-old throwing a tantrum. I want something, so how dare the machine be broken? How dare it?

You will all have had this feeling when you press a button on your computer and the wrong thing happens. There’s endless buffering or the page simply won’t show up or the file won’t open. Think of the fierce rage that comes upon you. I couldn’t make my At The Races subscription work during the Royal Meeting at Ascot, and there appeared to be no way of getting in touch with a human and asking them about this, and I now loathe At The Races with an unquenchable loathing. I don’t care that they are probably a very nice group of people doing nothing more than getting the racing to the fans who love it: because they did not give me what I wanted during that crucial week in June, I am in a state of bitter resentment. And I like to think that I am a fairly nice and decent person. (Apparently I need to do some work on this.)

What I mean is that we moderns live in a society where everything is promised to us, now. All the advertisers talk about things being instant and fast. Everything is available at the touch of a button or the flick of a mouse. You don’t even have to go so far as buying stuff. Everything in your house is equally instant – you press a button and there is light; you turn a tap and there is hot water; you flip a switch and there is heat. Of course contemporary humans have become conditioned to entitlement; our brains don’t have the software to wait, to appreciate, to wonder. I pay lip service to the fact that the internet is a miracle, but I spend more emotional energy getting livid when it does’t work properly.

Then combine this with the whole not knowing where things come from schtick, and you see that Houston may have a problem.

I’ve heard stories for years about children not understanding that the milk they drink the supermarket comes from cows. They make a quite breathtaking category error: they put milk in the category ‘carton’ not the category ‘cow’. They don’t think any further back than the container and the supermarket shelf; they make no connection to green fields, and slow, blinking livestock, and someone who has to man the milking parlour every day. I suspect that even if the children do know about the cows, there is very little thought for the sheer complexity and effort it takes to get that milk from cow’s udder somewhere in Northumberland or Wales to a table in Balham. Milk exists, it doesn’t cost much, and who cares how it got here? 

I’ve always been quite shocked about these stories and thought they could not be true, but now I think they are. I’m shocked because I grew up on a farm, and animals and countryside mean something to me, and I suppose I’m also shocked because I think there are things that everyone should know, and cows making milk is one of those.

And I sit here, and I think about the worrying consequences of an entitled society not knowing how things work. It means that demands are going to get more and more impossible. If people don’t understand the mechanics of something – how laws are made, for example, or how butter exists – they are going to feel perfectly happy in harbouring unreasonable expectations. They are likely to get furious when their demands aren’t met, just like I get furious when the computer goes on the blink. This frustration can lead to all kinds of weird tribalisms and populisms and quite a lot of the mess we are in. 

So, I get from a farming report and a paperback book to the state of the nation in one easy leap. That’s not bad for a Saturday. This is a half-finished thought, an incomplete theory. But I think there is something there. I do think that all of us really do need to know more about how things work. (Including ourselves.) And now I’m going to go away and remind myself that I need to stamp out my nascent sense of entitlement before it turns me into a monster. Sometimes the freezers are broken because freezers are complicated things; sometimes, there will not be chips for tea. 

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