You have probably got lovely memories of Saturdays with your dad when you were a kid. Most people do. Why not? It’s the weekend – time for fun! A bit of fishing, some dad-and-lad Airfix kit-making on a rainy afternoon, or perhaps you went to the match and stood on a milk crate while your old man steadied you against the heaving crowd. Maybe you went trainspotting together – I’m not judging. It doesn’t matter. It was just you and your dad, off doing all those Hovis advert things together. Golden days.
My Saturdays were a little different. My dad was there all right, but instead of handing me a Bovril and the match-day programme, he’d be more likely to toss three or four frozen legs of pork – heavy, rock-hard with crystals of frozen blood digging into your skin _ off his van and into my arms while I stood swaying in November drizzle, with all 4ft-nothing of me ready to buckle at the knees (“Hold on, don’t be so bloody wet, you can carry one more”). I’d stagger into our butcher’s shop in Blessington Road, Anfield, Liverpool – a stone’s throw away from the football ground – then dump them in one of the Stygian walk-in fridges, the frozen meat tearing my numbed arms as it was put down. Then I’d turn around for the next lot.
Or I’d be on cleaning duties, down on my knees with bleach and brushes in an open backyard that hadn’t changed since Queen Victoria died. Every now and then, a roar would come over the rooftops as 45,000 people acknowledged that Liverpool FC, then the supreme force in European football, had put yet another hapless visiting team to the sword. A few hundred yards away, my very own schoolmates were witnessing at first hand my team’s moment of imperial splendour. I, on the other hand, was cleaning cat turds out of a grid. By hand.
The stated purpose of this torture was to teach me the value of work. From 1979 until 1984, I worked as a Saturday lad in the shop and on the delivery van with my dad Stan or, as the neon sign in the window introduced him: NS Harrison, High-Class Family Butcher. My two younger brothers followed suit when they too turned 12 and were judged ready to face the challenges that man is heir to. I started on £1 a day.
It was horrible. I would scrub a week’s rotten blood off the splintered wooden boards that acted as shelves in the fridges, and then do it all over again a week later. I’d carry bleeding boxes of beef and liver back and forth like a zombie. You can’t hide in pressured situations, so my natural ineptitude revealed itself. On my 13th birthday, I tried to shortcut the irksome chore of cleaning a week’s decaying rubbish out of the yard by chucking a bucket of boiling bleach at it. It hit the wall, splashed back over me and I reeled, howling and blinded, back into the shop. “Get back in the yard, you’re frightening the customers,” they said, before reluctantly sending me to the eye hospital. On another occasion, I managed to upend four gallons of liquid smoky-bacon flavouring over myself. For a short time, I acquired the ochre tan later in demand among Liverpool womenfolk, and I briefly became popular with dogs.
Yet for all the misery — the cold, the rain, the endless country music on the radio, the fact that I was missing everything — and to my amazement, I began to quite like going to the shop. I’d come home on a Saturday night more dog-tired than I’ve ever been in my life, but in the knowledge that I’d done something none of my friends could do. I’d feel righteously knackered. And I began to see another side to my dad. I watched this unimposing character use coaxing and relentless effort to keep four shops, all with their varying degrees of rough neighbourhood and awkward employees, running relatively smoothly as Liverpool’s local economy went down the pan. He would usually be first in and last out. As trade got worse (I never remember it getting better), our house went on the line as well as the shops. But the customers and suppliers and staff (when they weren’t moaning) all said the same thing: you can trust Stan.
With 30 years of hindsight, I can see the idea wasn’t just to teach me and my brothers about the dignity of labour: it was to scare the living hell out of us by showing us how gruelling real, arduous, physical work can be. For years, the shop hung over us as a bloody example of the worst that could possibly happen. Whenever I had doubts about a university course or hit a rocky patch in freelance writing, my dad would flash a death’s head grin. “Never mind. And,” he’d say, “there’s always a place for you in the family firm…”
Which was, of course, the last thing either of us wanted.
But you wonder, don’t you? What if it had gone the other way? What if I’d knuckled down and made the effort, or what if the writing just hadn’t worked out? Meat is fashionable now, part of the whole dirty burger, craft brew, don’t-barbecue-what-you-can-kill craze for handcrafted authenticity. These days, I live in London, in Hackney, where the old blood-and-sawdust local butcher is being displaced by hipper operations, heavier on tattoos than on giving you a pound of good stewing beef at a decent price.
Some of them are hobby operations, little better than a Potemkin Village or Marie Antoinette’s toy farm, but others are fine suppliers of high-quality, ethically-sourced beef, pork and lamb; scrupulous operators who put the anal into artisanal. Could that have been me? Never mind these Johnny-come-latelies with their handlebar moustaches and Futura Bold logos – I’ve got heritage in this game.
So I asked my dad to set me up for a day in a shop. Not his shop – he got out of retail in 1996 and retired altogether in 2006 – but at K&K Meats, a busy local place in Old Roan on the outskirts of Liverpool run by his mate Kenny Hall. Kenny is a big Scouser with gleaming teeth who can talk for England. His shop is a bright and welcoming place. It has to be, because he’s up against the same giant supermarkets that nearly put my dad out of business years ago.
His shop is proof that traceability and consistency are not just luxuries for the farmer’s market crowd, they’re what any regular butcher needs to survive today. A supermarket will cut so many enormous deals at wholesale level that the “best beef” you buy in that reassuring-branded box one week might come from an entirely different supplier the next. Ken gets his Cumberland fell-bred lamb from Lancaster Meats, his Scottish beef from McIntosh-Donald, his pork from Preston Meats and his chicken from AB&S Wholesale in Manchester. Every bit can be traced back to the farm. “When you get a steak off me, it’ll always taste the same,” he says.
“I always say meat’s not sold till you’ve ate it. That’s the guarantee from a proper butcher.” He’s kind of inspiring.
He has been in the business since he was 11 years old, when the milkman he was helping didn’t show up for work, leaving Kenny freezing under an awning outside a butcher’s shop. The manager called him in, Kenny made tea, cleaned up for a day and he never went back to the milk float. By the time he was 14, he was boning out sides of beef – those gigantic halves of a cow carcass that are a demanding job for a grown man – and when he was 16 he was headhunted to work full-time in the shop he now owns.
“It wasn’t the money,” he tells me in between sharpening knives, taking calls from suppliers and directing a hectic shop where his own two sons also work. “I just loved doing it. I love it to this day. It’s all the different things you do, mixing with different characters, keeping your wits about you. The thing is…” and suddenly he goes a bit conspiratorial, “when I was younger, most butchers were rebels. When I was a kid, you’d come out of jail and either work on the lemonade wagon or you’d be a butcher.”
Rebels? That’s one strike against me, then. There is another when it becomes clear that most of the dog work I used to do as a teenager has disappeared. The basic job of cleaning – where a Saturday lad used to learn how to work and put up with being cold, wet and miserable – is now too serious to entrust to a kid. Since the food scares of the Eighties and Nineties, the meat trade has introduced HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point): an exacting hygiene protocol that was originally developed in the Sixties by Nasa to cover food safety on the space programme. Now there are colour-coded cleaning regimes which must be carried out by a qualified adult. Everything is made of stainless steel. No yard work for me today.
Instead, we butcher a lamb, or, more precisely, I watch while Kenny prepares it with a speed and accuracy I can hardly follow. A full lamb is quickly divided by knife and saw into leg, fore and middle, and then jointed. There’s glutinous shank for slow cooking, traditional leg for stuffing, neck chops with their long thin bones that you can grill individually or keep together as a rack or crown roast, larger loin chops with more generous chunks of meat on them, and neck and shank end for stew (or Scouse, because this is Liverpool). There is boned blade end for roasting — the great thing about lamb is you can roast or grill pretty much all of it — and a delicate and prized piece called chump to roast on its own or slice into chump steaks. Kenny bones out the leg and takes off the chump. “This is my favourite, this,” he says. I’m starting to get peckish.
It’s like watching a ninja swordsman at work. As Kenny takes out the chops – knife down between the ribs, saw to go through the backbone, cleaver to cut the rib to fold up the chop – he leaves the kidneys on. “Proper butchers, this,” he says. “People like the kidneys.” The process of turning a whole lamb into a set of perfectly proportioned joints and chops has taken less than 10 minutes.
There is no way on earth I could do any of this. My attempts to help out are pathetic and I’m as bad with the cleaver as I ever was. For a clean cut, you have to bring its heavy blade down firmly in exactly the right spot: the centre of a thin bone like a rib, or the connecting tissue between two bones. Your forearm has to be strong enough to hold it steadily and to make the cut in the right place.
Kenny cuts the bones from lamb chops quickly and precisely, without splinters; when I try, the blade wobbles in the air and the chops look like I’ve hit them with a hammer. “You need practice on this,” he says redundantly. “Lots of practice.” Still, at least I’m fit for the basics of engagements in the butcher’s shop — carting stuff around. Aren’t I?
It’s mid-afternoon and most of the deliveries are in, but some reorganisation of fridges is always required. I grab a box of beef from the shelf, hoik it onto my shoulder and the years and illusions fall away. It’s not the weight, which is just a matter of balance, or the cold, which was kind of refreshing on a hot day. It’s the understanding that in this context, just as it was when I was 11, carrying boxes is pretty much all I’m good for.
Since I left my dad’s employ, I’ve edited magazines and interviewed some of the most famous people in the world. I’ve been harangued by Courtney Love and I’ve written the odd thing that has, in a tiny way, shifted the direction of pop music. Here, I’m just in the way. Some pillock struggling with a cardboard box; the most useless person in the room.
Lurching into the fridge and jamming the box into its designated place, I ask my dad, who’s been watching my efforts with mild amusement, if he ever really thought I’d stay in the job. He just laughs.
“No, I didn’t think you would. You hated it, you weren’t cut out for it. But we were never trying to get you into the business. We were teaching you about work, and what work is really like.” He flashes the death’s head grin again. “We were making a man of you…”
In the back kitchen of the shop, Kenny and Stanley have fallen into the same natter I remember from when I was a kid: chitchat, biz-talk, the gossip of the meat trade, who’s up and who’s down, the warding away of doom by talking about it.
They consider the false nature of the middle-class food revolution. “Jamie Oliver and all these TV chefs only broadcast [about] stuff that’s not selling,” says Kenny. “It’s always scrag end of neck or the knuckle end, stuff that ordinary people don’t want. The FSA must be telling them what do to…”
They discuss how hard it is to get staff like you used to. Young kids are too mollycoddled and the older recruits are too bolshie and concerned about their benefits. Kenny has stuck with the same team for years.
And they talk about bloodcurdling accidents from the old days. The lad in my dad’s shop who decided to grip a lamb to his body while butchering it instead of chopping it on the block, and put the knife through his femoral artery (he nearly died). The old colleague of Kenny’s who used to perform pull-ups in the fridge and ended up hanging by the nose from a steel S-hook. “That’s all gone now,” says Ken, almost wistfully. “Health and safety. You only have accidents if you don’t follow the rules these days. We’ve got stab vests on now, and chain-mail gloves.”
Most of all, they talk about working for yourself. My dad had a proper job once, in an accountant’s office. He was bored stiff. After six weeks, he gave it up and went in with his own father, himself a butcher who owned the shop where 20 years later I’d end up as the Saturday lad. Stan opened his own shop on Utting Avenue, Anfield, on 14 January 1964. My mum and her friends leafletted the area on opening day and they had customers queuing out of the door from the very beginning, drawn in by that neon sign.
They never stopped: from the Sixties when it was impossible not to make money, through the Seventies when the supermarkets arrived, into the Eighties when Liverpool’s economy evaporated and the Nineties when it was all about holding on. They wouldn’t give up, not for bank managers or petty officials or work-to-rule binmen or disloyal staff or anyone else. The reason was simple. “Working for other people?” says Stanley. “I didn’t like that.”
I think this is what I got out of the shop. I can’t butcher a fore of beef or bone out a leg of pork – although I can clean a chicken and link sausages – but I know how to work. Or rather, like my dad, I don’t know how not to work. If I’m idle, I get tetchy and I start to feel guilty.
Most parents dream of their kids taking over the family firm. Mine dreamed of us doing something else. Now two of us are journalists and one is a commercial illustrator. That filthy backyard, those bloodstained boards and my parents’ mind games all worked their trick on us. So now, with the fee from this story, I’m going to take my mum and dad out for a satellite dish-sized steak each. The meat game owes them that, at least.