Wednesday, December 27, 2006


"... most people forgot that the very oldest stories are, sooner or latter, about blood."

(Hogfather, Terry Pratchett)

A Revolution is about to happen in Romania.

This is the last Christmas people will legally be allowed to kill pigs by 'sticking' them.

For those who don't know what that means - basically cutting the major blood vessel in the pig's throat whist it is still alive and letting it bleed, slowly and noisily, to death - ostensibly, in order to catch as much of the blood as possible (for black pudding making) as the still beating heart pumps like mad in the extremely distressed and dying porker.

Another view might be that the European Union's animal cruelty laws are about to bang another nail in the coffin of traditional culture and ethnic life styles: Romania joins the Union on the first of January.

The two weekends before Christmas are the traditional 'Pig Killing' days in this part of the world.

I was reminded of this fact Saturday morning when the squeals of the 'first sacrificed' filled the village.

Looking across from the vantage of a hillside location, a number of large fires were being started in courtyards and a heavy haze was settling in the still air. The fires are used to burn off the bristles and to boil the copious amounts of water needed to process the carcass of a full-grown pig. Burning pig flesh and hair soon added pungency to the normal aroma of wood-smoke from domestic fires.

I have become quite used to 'country ways' and have little of the townie's qualms about killing animals for food (or clothing - try living without a fur hat in the cold winter temperatures of Eastern Europe, say -15 degrees Celsius, on an income of under 100 Euros a month which isn't sufficient to buy the petrol-derived-artificial-fabrics 'politically-correct' fashion dictates) but 'The Pig Killing' still makes me angry.

There is no need for it - a bullet (or bolt) in the head and hoisting the dead animal up in order to let the blood drain under gravity is just as effective (but try telling that to the 'we've always done it this way and it tastes better' brigade).

What struck me this year though was the amount of blood wasted - not many people seemed to be collecting it.

As I walked through the village to go and buy supplies of bread and beer I had to step over several streams of blood and water flowing out of the courtyards across and into the channels which run down to the valley's main brook.

A couple of times I had to step through sheets of red which had spread across the muddy road.

Once I passed a rather furtive looking dog – there are a number of mangy village mongrels whose parentage and ownership is somewhat hazy – which had taken possession of a string of guts, and was mixing bouts of furious chewing with dragging its prize to a place of comparative safety.

Another sign, I thought, that the sausages were not being made.

Then my mind went walkabout.

‘Now that’s a sight you won’t see in the centre of Manchester! In fact, when do you see blood in Manchester?’

And, ‘I bet Shakespeare saw blood as a child – in fact, they’d have been sticking pigs at this time of year in Stratford, back then.’

There is a lot of blood in Shakespeare.

Watching death on TV – even real death, in wars and executions (Christmas in Romania is the Ceaucescu-execution-on-TV season too) – is not the same. Blood is distanced. It is contained, without the smell, at the control of a switch.

In films and theatre, nowadays, it is Kensington Gore, and no matter how realistic it seems, the disbelief is suspended and deep inside the spectator’s head, it is not blood. It is not death. And most modern theatregoers have never experienced real blood and death anyway – sanitised hospitals and ‘Brompton Cocktails’ rule.

They used real blood – pig’s blood in fact – at, The Globe.

And there was a daily familiarity with the reality of killing – from childhood.

The children and grandchildren are involved in my village still – keeping the fire going, fetching and carrying, watching.

I am reminded of the drowning kitten poem of Seamus Heaney – Early Purges.

There will always be people who do the ‘dirty work’ – the executioners (and surgeons) – and killing should be humane – but the rest of the world is losing its grasp on one aspect of reality essential and omnipresent: Blood.

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