At the weekend, Malcolm expended some idle moments reflecting on a passing comment by Nich Starling, the admirable Norfolk Blogger.
Starling had been intrigued, and rightly repulsed by the story of the teeny matador and his six butchered calves. He chose to introduce the story by animadverting to an equally nauseating one from his home turf. Here is the original of that, as retailed by the BBC:
Five youths arrested over the death of a heavily pregnant ewe who was kicked and stabbed with a pitchfork in Norfolk have been released on police bail.
The sheep was taken from Polka Road, Wells-next-the-Sea, and dragged through the town before its body was dumped in a wheelie bin.
Police arrested the five teenage boys in the early hours of Sunday after following a trail of blood.
The boys have been released on bail pending further inquiries.
Malcolm in no way sought to exculpate. He did want to explain, and understand. In part, this was provoked by memories of having run across just that field, on the daily way to catch the train to school.
So, for the record, here’s the edited and improved reprise.
Once upon a time, the youth of Wells faced real challenges.
They could go out onto the marshes, with a sharp eye on the tide, squelching their wellies through the sea-lavender and samphire. And knowing that they were doing something dangerous.
In those days (early 1950s), the local constabulary would bicycle up from Church Plain to the old Primary School. The address would go something on these lines:
“I know your Mawtha tells yew not a gow on the marshes. And I know yew do. What I wanna tell yew is, if yew see any wires or stuff sticking out, don’t chew pull at ‘em. Roight?”
This, of course, was before the days of dodgy gents in Rovers and Wolseleys, offering lollipops and rides home.
The constable’s point was a real one. Those marshes had been under the flight-path out of several USAAF war-time bases. If the aircraft wasn’t going to make the round-trip, the bomb-load was jettisoned — and, as far as Malcolm ventures a guess, still there. Later, as a hole in a field south of Wells once evidenced, Sculthorpe RB-47s allegedly took to doing the same trick with nukes.
As for blood sports, the youth of Wells then had a choice.
In late July and early August, they could each cut a stick and stand around the cornfield. As the reaper-binder reached the centre of the field, the rabbits made a run for it. The young ‘uns stood round the perimeter, coursed and hoped to kill the fleeing rabbits: woe betide any youth not fast and effective enough — it was bunny or severe mockery. A successful hunter-gatherer then slit one leporine rear leg, passed the other through it, attached the corpse to the end of his stick, and carried the trophy home.
Rabbiting added to the protein intake for a fair number of that post-war generation: the sport ended when the farmers imported myxomotosis. the rabbits no longer had a sporting or Darwinian chance.
Then there was Malcolm’s neighbour and mate Barry, a.k.a. “Salts”. He invariably wore a long overcoat, with his hands deep in the pockets. Malcolm recalls watching “Salts” take a partridge on the wing, a single balletic movement involving catapult and a ball-bearing. Silent. Deadly. The game was in the poacher’s pocket within seconds. No-one else the wiser.
Or the young could hunt down grey squirrels. Take the tail to the police station and receive a bounty of half-a-crown. A good return on that eighteen-penny catapult bought at Thurgar’s.
Sheep rustling (or the odd deer from the Holkham estate), was not unknown either.
Oh, and when the abattoir on Ramm’s Marsh was slaughtering, Wells harbour was red with the blood.
That was then. Malcolm, sitting now in his centrally-heated, well-fed bourgeois repletion, invites all and sundry to review the modern demographics and statistics for Wells. It might explain a bit of creative poaching (though not, let Malcolm repeat) gratuitous alcohol-fuelled cruelty.
Wells is the nearest thing Norfolk currently has to a gulag.
There are three roads out, plus the B1105 “Dry Road” — the quickest route, but least convenient: it is dry because, for ten miles to Fakenham, there are no pubs.
Mrs Self’s top-class at Wells County Primary, which included the young Malcolm, were a highly-talented cohort. Half of them “passed” the 11+, and went on to Fakenham Grammar. From there to higher education and professions. Few returned. They had taken those roads out.
For much of the rest, the bulldozer and “slum-clearance” came. At the time this was a welcome re-development. Many of those long, narrow Yards and Lanes, which had been there since Danish times, were excised surgically. In retrospect, if “they” had left them, the two-ups, two-downs of the Yards would be as desirable as (and a lot more affordable than) Mermaid Street in Rye . But “they” knew better.
“They” then pulled away the ladder, pulled the plug on that grammar-school escape route. “They” mechanised farming, killed off whelking, and so deprived Wells of its natural employments: consider the town badge (which quarters sheaves of corn and cockle shells) for that. Beeching saw to transport: today, over a quarter of Wells-folk still have no private transport. Yes, one can catch the occasional bus out of town; but the last return is about six in the evening.
In return, “they” gave second-homes and yotties. That did for affordable housing, and provided plenty of room for envious comparisons.
When did hope, too, take the Dry Road?
Recently OCSI did a survey on Wells, as an exemplar of rural deprivation, using 2006 statistics.
Wells today is smaller than at any previous historical moment. This is especially so for the young: barely 12½% of the population of Wells is up to age 16, when the national percentage is around 20%. The over-65s are twice the national average. Take out the professional commuters, and “elementary occupations” (nice one, OCSI!) are pretty well all that is left.
One of the most telling of those cold statistics is the Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index (IDACI): in Wells it was 21½% — over a third above the national figure.
As for employment, well — that’s a good one. What’s the biggest single employment in Wells? Yes! Shops! And after that? Hotels and catering! nearly 15%. That’s a good, all-year-round occupation on the North Norfolk coast, right? Especially in February. And the fifth main employment is … wait for it! … estate agencies. Hmm, well, let’s not mention that in the present climate.
Now, Nich Starling is (as Malcolm was) a teacher. Both must be taken aback that over 40+% of the population of Wells lacks any educational qualifications at all. Nobody should rush to look it up: that’s a full third above national averages.
Nich and Malcolm are both political. Malcolm remembers the great President Bartlet’s magnificent ex-tempore speech on the virtue of education. It’s relevant to a dead sheep. It’s there on YouTube:
For those who haven’t passed this way before, the context is the aftermath of a Columbine-style atrocity. Bartlet preaches, even using a text from Psalm 30:5: “Joy cometh in the morning”:
Thank you. “Joy cometh in the morning,” scripture tells us. I hope so. I don’t know if life would be worth living if it didn’t. And I don’t yet know who set off the bomb at Kennison State. I don’t know if it’s one person or ten, and I don’t know what they want. All I know for sure, all I know for certain, is that they weren’t born wanting to do this. There’s evil in the world. There’ll always be, and we can’t do anything about that. But there’s violence in our schools, too much mayhem in our culture and we can do something about that. There’s not enough character, discipline, and depth in our classrooms. There aren’t enough teachers in our classrooms. [applause] There isn’t nearly enough, not nearly enough, not nearly enough money in our classrooms, and we can do something about that. We’re not doing nearly enough, not nearly enough to teach our children well. And we can do better, and we must do better, and we will do better. And we will start this moment today! They weren’t born wanting to do this.
To which Malcolm, and all good liberals, would surely intone: “Amen!”