A small intro, before the main event.
I’ve always loved the saying “Fine Words Butter No Parsnips.” On a whim I decided to use it as a blog post title, with no idea what to write about. And then, on another whim, decided to challenge a few dozen other tea bloggers to use the same title, this week. I hope that many of them are linked in the comments below.
It also came to my attention that tea blogger @lahikmajoe – Ken McBeth Knowles – has actually used this as a blog title in the distant past. Well done, Ken.
So, I thought of all the clever metaphorical ways to build the saying into a blog post, and in the end, decided to just cheat with a serious of fictional pieces about actual parsnips, left unbuttered. I don’t know if that is necessarily a great idea, but it’s a bit too late in this whole process to be worrying about that.
So, where were we? Buttering parsnips, that’s where we were…
I recall, back in about 1630 or thereabouts, we were gathered in the scullery, it was the maids, the valets and I, and the butler was giving us a right dressing down.
“Her Ladyship is absolutely livid, and I am also inclined to be of that state. And I expressly know who it is that is burdened with the responsibility for this calumny.”
Over the rim of my cup, I saw him swivel his head to stare directly at me. And point.
“You. You are the responsible party, Sir.”
I thought it best not to respond.
“You take to spending all of your time with that cup in your hand, drinking that Chinee muck, and now, we’ve run out of butter. There be enough milk to be churned, but are you churning it? No!”
He narrowed his eyes.
“You speak of churning. You speak of the finest of butters. But when? After your cup of tay, you say, or maybe after another. And the result: Unbuttered Parsnips”.
I stared into my cup, seeking solace.
Do you remember, Clementine, how you slapped my face in 1662 in the Vauxhall Tea Gardens? When you opened the picnic basket and found just empty teacups?
And yet, what was so wrong of my plan? Sure, I had promised a salmagundi, some collops, some bread, some eggs, some buttered parsnips. But then I thought of another plan, to wander arm in arm, sustaining ourselves on the sweet nectar of our love and the vibrant taste of some excellent tea.
And yet, from that moment henceforth, in over 30 years I have never again gazed upon your person, with the memories that press in on me of your hard-set, retreating back as you stalked away, your parasol bolt upright, pointing to the Heavens as though to bring God’s judgement down upon me.
I flicked cigarette ash from the balcony as you confronted me with your anger, your blazing eyes so like the fireworks in the distance. “These men go tomorrow to the Somme. You, of all of us, know the horror that entails. And yet, you refuse to meet with them?”
I knew that speaking would work against me. I chose not to.
“Your fine words, Bertrand? What of them? You write and you write and they hold you up as a hero. As a war correspondent. As the man who tamed whole Boer regiments and now holds the nation spellbound with his typewriter.”
“And yet, when the time comes to meet them in person and bolster their courage, to firm up their mettle, to add your rich, warmth like best butter to the root vegetables of their raw courage, I find you here.”
“Smoking. Leaning. And drinking your damn tea!”
Winnie loomed up through the gloom of the bunker. He was not impressed.
“What sort of man are you, Browne?”.
I blinked. The question seemed rhetorical.
“I have six secret advisors. Not sixty. Not six hundred. Six. I can count them on one hand, er, … when my hand is holding a cigar. You are part of the most privileged group in Britain.”
“You sit down here, deciding how this nation rations its food. If a man is hungry in Kent, it’s your doing. If a farmer has two spare apples in Somerset, it’s your job to make sure there’s not a housewife in Fyfe, waiting for her husband to come back from a raid over Dresden, who is going hungry.”
“And you write such wonderful reports about the splendid job you are doing.”
He paused and I jumped in.
“Winnie, old chap… I…”.
The pause ended, and if anything, he looked more apoplectic.
“Don’t you ‘Winnie’ me, you reprobate, I’m your Prime Minister. And here’s the evidence I am putting to you.”
“This chit is for an entire crop of parsnips that should be in Dorking. They are in Colchester”.
“And this one is for a shipping container of butter, also bound for Dorking. But for some reason, in a barn in Flintshire”.
“Any idea what you were doing whilst these vital supplies where going astray?”
I merely shook my head.
“Well, here’s a clue. It’s a docket for a delivery of 100 pounds of tea.”
“And the delivery address is your house”.
I remember Johnny’s face when we found this place. Hidden away, no-one knew it was there.
He convinced Leslie, who had just inherited it from her grandparents, to drop out of college, to join us. And to sign the the house and gardens over to us.
Johnny’s buddy got all four of us into the Winterland, not to see Chuck Berry, who was headlining, but the opening act: The Grateful Dead.
After the Dead finished, we were buzzing and we walked and walked and walked.
And then we were here. The old house. The stables. The fields. The walled-off garden. And so help me, two cows.
That spring, we worked as we’d never worked before. Heck, most of us had never worked before.
We collected the milk and drank it, we churned some into butter.
We planted vegetables. Johnny had this theory that planting them all together worked best, so we had cabbages and tomatoes and broccoli and carrots and parsnips all in joyously contrived spirals and pentagrams. As the plants came forth, it was less about food and more about art.
But the loving care that Johnny took was part of the charm, and before long, the original four had swelled to a dozen or so.
And then, after a trip down to Ashbury, Johnny bought home Mandy.
Mandy bought a new emphasis. On loving everyone, all the time. All night, all day.
And she also bought with her huge quantities of acid. Her brother was the main man in the Haight-Ashbury area, it seems.
I never took it, I never wanted to be that out of control. And I tired of Mandy in no time.
But Johnny? Johnny seemed to melt. He tripped. He stayed tripped.
And in between, he sat in the garden, staring at the vegetables. Staring at the remaining cow after one perished when a tripper let it out on the road.
Johnny was our guru. When Johnny’s infectious energy had been stilled, all of us lost ours as well. Whilst the others tripped, I drank oolong. Endless cups of ooling, while the vegetables rotted into the ground and the milk remained unchurned.
By the time the Dead returned to play the Carousel a year later, Johnny had faded, the dream was over, and I went back to college to become a teacher.
Oolong remains my only connection to those days so long ago.
I sipped my Lord Petersham as I waited for the others.
Silently they filed in.
“It’s a decade and a half since we formed this company, just before the new millennium kicked off” said Connor, looking around the table.
“And we’ve survived downturns – in fact we’ve thrived as we’ve bought up distressed farmers and agri-businesses. We’ve never let a division go under.”
“But the butter business is no longer sustainable. We have to cut them loose. I’ve found a buyer out of Argentina to take it a good price. And sadly, this means Dennis will be leaving the Board, and the company, as his division folds.”
I wanted to object. I wanted to say that we promised those villagers jobs when we tore down half their village and replaced it with processing plant a few years ago. I wanted to point out that Dennis had dedicated every waking moment to the Company, at a terrible personal cost. But I am a coward, and my own division of vegetable growing would be safe, I hoped.
“This then gives us a problem with our line of roasted, buttered and frozen vegetables. We can’t afford them without the cheap butter.”
He looked at me: “Sorry, Christina, you’re out.”
I looked and listened, but no-one would catch my eye, and no-one uttered any fine words to save me.
I’m now the oldest, and since Boris passed yesterday, the only one on board who saw old Earth.
The children of the Ark gathered at my feet. Their parents and their grandparents, and in some cases great-grandparents, were born out here, in the vastness of space, as we sped toward our new home. A new home still two dozen years’ distant, a new home I doubted I’d see.
It’s my duty now.
I spoke of Earth, and how we had corrupted it. And how we few were all that were left. Of the war of 2115, and how there was nothing left to fight over. And no way to live upon the once green surface.
“But we have hope.”, I finished staring at children ranging from rapt to bored. “We have cargo holds full of hope”.
“We have the DNA of trees and plants and animals. All of them. Well, most of them.”
“And when we arrive, we will bring forth such a paradise, where people learn to love each other and the planet.”
“And we will no longer live off nutrient-dense ship’s rations, but grow things under the sun and in the soil.”
“Whilst we gaze upon the forests and the antelopes, the farms and the horses, the carefully built cities and the endless plain, we will live, and love, and be content.”
“We’ll sip tea, and munch on buttered parsnips, and tell the stories we need to remember.”