Butchering words

A friend of mine, fond of fashioning his own brand of aphorism, announced one day, after what he claimed had been a long period of research, ‘butchers are much given to bullshit.’

It was actually said with some affection and, unlike most of his other putatively pungent reflections on the cosmos, this one struck me as having some truth.

Butchers tend to be rather jolly blokes (they are almost invariably blokes) with a ready line of patter, chitchat, jokes, small talk, wisdom, footy gossip and observations.

This is because, unlike their retail brethren, butchers need to fill silences which might otherwise be punctuated by the  slash of the cleaver, the crunch of bone, the whine of saw, the splat of soft tissue and pulpy organs, the secretive but noticeable oozing of blood. Butchers’ endless verbalising—their ‘bullshit’—distracts us from all this and turns what might have been a gory, vegetarian-inducing experience into a kind of theatre.

This is why, when I first entered the village’s sole boucherie, I did so with certain anticipation. What would be the Gallic butcher’s manifestation of his trade’s verbal embroidery?

At first, I was disappointed. My opening gambit—an enquiry about chicken filets—elicited an unequivocal Non and silence. Taken aback, and being taken aback often happens in a foreign language, I asked for some pâte de campagne and left it at that. But my second visit was much more successful.

Monsieur Leclos, the butcher, is a big man, perhaps in his mid thirties. His white apron covers a vast area of chest and stomach. His face is large, its features pronounced and definite. Heavy black eyebrows make him look as if he’s ill-tempered and scowling, but bronze tips through his thick mop of black hair suggest a more playful nature. Still, it’s heavy going again until he refers to me as Anglais and I correct him: Je suis Australien, I say.

Had I seen La Coupe du Monde de Rugby? Absolument, I lie. (Well, I saw the semis and the final on telly.) He has a heavy local accent: he corrects my pronunciation of Australien to Australienne which makes me female; he calls les Francais, his team, les Franci; when we get round to talking about wine, as we inevitably do, vin becomes ving. But it is le Roogby that is his great interest and passion. With blade poised above the three large chicken legs that he is to cut each in half for the pot au feu, he anatomises les Franci and their faults.

They are not strong enough, he says, too easily brushed aside. I tell him that many Australians had hoped for an Australia–France final in the interests of attractive rugby. Brilliant, yes, concedes M. Leclos, wonderful to watch. But, his face contorts as he searches for an image, comme les oiseaux. Like flitting birds. Whack. The cleaver halves the first of the birds’ legs on his block. He moves aside the two pieces, positions the next one and, with weapon again airborne, says the Australians, the New Zealanders, even recently the English, train hard. The Australians, he says, what do they do as soon as a Coupe du Monde de Roogby has ended, win or lose? He waves an interrogative cleaver at my chin. ‘Je ne sais pas,’ I answer dutifully, but I can guess.

They start training again for the next one, says M. Leclos and his savage emphasis dismembers another chicken leg.

‘Et les Franci? Ils vont en vacance,’ he says with derision, making it sound as if the vacation lasts three and a half years. This hardly sounds fair to me, and I try to tell him how well regarded the French had been for their attitude to the game, and how disappointing was the philosophy of the conquering Anglais.

But he is scarcely listening. He has wrapped the meat and is contemplating the till, the drawer of which has sprung open and is nudging his generous midriff. He looks at me, glances out the window to the narrow street, and takes a deep breath. When les Franci lost the semi final—his voice is full of import, like the first rustle of the mistral—I was sick, he says. ‘J’avais mal a l’estomac.’

I embark on a sympathetic anecdote to show that a sick feeling in the stomach is a condition associated almost continuously with following my team, which plays les règles Australiens, a game, I add proudly, that we Australians invented.

‘Ca ne m’interesse pas.’ He is very dismissive about anything to do with football, which to him means soccer. What is the secret of the Australians, he asks and then tells me. ‘Les Australiens sont Cool’ he says, handing me my parcel with a triumphant flourish. ‘Vous comprennez Cool?’

But now he must retire to the back of the shop to watch a Roogby match between Toulouse and Edinburgh. Each side has five internationals playing. He is expecting a memorable Toulouse victory over les Écossais. I wish him bon jeu and leave.

In Le Figaro the following morning, I see that Toulouse won 33–nil. I can’t wait to discuss it with him. In the manner of butchers everywhere, he will speculate, reflect, pronounce, report, conclude. It will take a roast of porc, some veau à morilles, half a dozen saucissons and a tranche of pâte to analyse the game. 

Brian Matthews is a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Victoria University, presently living and working in France.



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