View from the Bridge: 4
by John Morrison
4: Passive smugness
Unseasonably warm April weather is making Milltown bloom with flowers. The first swallows are here, recuperating after their long flight north. The trees, only half in leaf, are full of newly-arrived songbirds. The willow warbler's cadence evokes the summer days to come almost as vividly as the sighting of the first ice cream van. As he hurtles round another blind bend on two wheels, the Ice Cream Man works his chime. It is Greensleeves, played on what sounds like a Rolf Harris Stylophone and then blasted out at migraine-inducing volume to the blameless folk of Milltown.
And if the ice cream man is on his rounds, the first tourists can't be far behind. Milltown is quite a tourist honeypot these days, a fact which begs just one question. Why?
After all, we have none of those stately homes built by over-privileged aristocrats whose wealth derived from licking William the Conqueror's boots to most timely effect. All we have are the grand houses built by 19th century mill-owners. Not content with grinding the faces of the poor into the dirt, they built their ostentatious gritstone palaces on the hills above Milltown, just to aggravate even further the mill-workers cooped up in their unsanitary little Milltown hovels.
Some of these houses have been thoughtfully 'saved for the nation' by the jack-booted custodians of the National Trust. The descendent of these same mill-workers can now pay once again to see what their ancestors 'bought' so dearly, with their youth, their health and their lives. So that's alright then.
From the vantage of his tiny office at the top of the town hall, the Tourism Officer gazes down over his domain: a dense pattern of tiled roofs, broken up by the saw-tooth profile of the old mills, and the few mill chimneys that still remain. He is busy reinventing Milltown's chequered past, and persuading those with time on their hands, and money in their pockets, to spend them both in this unpretentious little Pennine town.
On sunny weekends the town fills up with tourists. Armed with brochures presenting a picture of Milltown that has all the authenticity of a Hovis advert, they wander the streets looking for something to do. Since the closure of the Museum of Torture and Atrocities, we have few attractions that will keep fractious children amused for a couple of hours.
So what do we have? Well, there's the canal, a handful of tea-shops and a plethora of gift-shops. A strange concept, gifts. Things you give to other people that you really wouldn't thank them for giving to you. But visitors still need to acknowledge the momentous fact that they've been to Milltown. So thoughts turn, naturally enough, to souvenirs made in Taiwan and wonky hand-thrown pottery. Couldn't we encourage potters to cut out the middle-man and just throw their deformed offerings straight into a skip?
Some visitors presumably see Milltown as a sort of safari Park, with hippies instead of wild animals. You can watch them grazing, engaging in mating rituals and ignoring explicit instructions to keep off the grass.
* * *
Milltown, being full of old hippies, has more than its fair share of vegetarians. For some reason it's never enough for vegetarians just to stop eating meat. No, they've got to be smug bastards as well. No problem finding where your veggie friends live: just look for the house with a visible aura of sanctity around it.
Some vegetarians think it's OK to eat fish. But has anyone polled the fish on this subject? Would you prefer a) to be caught by the gills, suffocate slowly and end up as a boil-in-the-bag Cod in Parsley Sauce meal for one, or b) swim around with your mates and die of old age?
Concerned carnivores who want to salve their consciences can buy 'conservation grade' meat. They will feel better, apparently, knowing that the animals they eat have enjoyed meaningful lives.
Each 'conservation grade' cut of meat carries a label, giving a brief history of the animal's life, pet-name (if any) and those endearing characteristics that had marked it out from the common herd. The 'conservation grade' charter promises that the animal will never have been spoken to in a gruff or threatening manner, and will have enjoyed at least three peak sexual experiences with the partner of its choice.
The end, when it came, is vouchsafed to have been both quick and painless: a lethal injection administered to the soothing strain of Mantovani strings. Deceased animals are given a short, non-denominational funeral service, before being sliced up into the bloodless, shrink-wrapped cuts neatly displayed on the supermarket shelves.
The expression 'the nearer the bone, the sweeter the meat' is put to the test as each carcass is then blasted with high-pressure hoses to recover every last bit of goodness: gristle, fat, cartilage, mucus and snot, as well as less savoury bodily fluids. These choice ingredients are ground to a fine slurry, mixed with belly-button fluff and formed into beefburger patties. So the thought occurs: what exactly goes into those budget burgers?
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