My ancestors were fellmen. I’ve just discovered this. No, I haven’t been pouring over dusty annals at the local registry office or going google-eyed on Genes Reunited. No, I've far more pressing things to do than digging up dubious links to Scott of the Antarctic. It's my Uncle John who's got the ancestor addiction. You know, the one who fed the penguins at Chessington Zoo?
Well recently, he’s come over all family tree, likely as not induced by taking early retirement from the gas board. Mum imparts his latest findings as I tuck into a bowl of lentil soup at my favourite vegan cafe.
Now I don’t know what you’re imagining, but I’m seeing fells: windswept moorland, Heathcliff, great open expanses, swathes of purple heather and the Bronte sisters running amok. But then Mum puts down her spoon and tells me 'fell' means 'pelt' and my great great greats skinned animals for a living.
‘Keep your voice down, Mum,’ I hiss, glancing over my shoulder at the woman behind the counter who's dusting down her falafel. ‘I’ll lose my column!’
Fortunately, it seems the revelation's gone unnoticed.
That night, though, I lie awake. I toss and turn. I wrestle with the duvet. I stare at the bar of street light on the wall.
What if there’s bloodlust in my DNA? What if I’m fated to a career in the slaughterhouse? What if I start looking at the sheep in the field by the sports centre in a whole new way?
I sit up, turn on my bedside light and shiver. On the bedside table is a copy of Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder. It's the lesser known book that comes before Little House on the Prairie and I got it out from the library to read at bedtimes with Saffy. Except it's not bedtime reading.
The book starts with a graphic account of butchering a pig for winter, which, whilst making my stomach churn, did a good job reminding me of provenance: where things come from; what they were before they got to you and me. And in our 'packaged product' consumer lives we all need reminding of that.
Have you ever asked yourself what happened to the animal before it got to your fridge? How the cocoa worker harvested your daily chocolate fix? How your trainers were made? Who made them? Was that person safe? Happy? Where did all the waste chemicals go?
All of us are two (or two thousand) steps removed from the processes that provide the things we use, wear and eat every day. If we weren’t we’d change our shopping habits.
So as I switch off the light, turn over, and go to sleep, I tell myself Uncle John's gruesome discoveries aren’t quite so bad after all. At least my rellys were in touch with land and livestock. They knew the truth of things.