Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Sanitising sex on the shop floor

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Back in 1976 I was appointed to a quango with the unlikely nomenclature of The Sawdust Working Party Committee. This unit was set up by the government who had decided in their wisdom that it needed to ban sawdust from butcher’s shop floors.

The entrenched little men from the Health Department had carefully scrutinised the sawdust and had decreed that it was chock full of organisms and that these little beasties were scampering up the legs of our benches, landing on the cutting area and then cunningly dropping onto the mincers and sausage machines and were eventually causing havoc in people’s stomachs. Meat eaters’ stomachs that is, vegetarians, a rarity back then, were of course, immune.

According to the Health Department, people were writhing around in pain and dying like flies. Actually I just made that last bit up, but it was panic stations all round and sawdust on butcher’s shop floors had now replaced the North Vietnamese as public enemy number one.

Of course we butchers saw it quite differently. Sawdust to us was irreplaceable. Our floors were particularly treacherous because during the day they got covered in fat and water, a lethal mix. Sawdust soaked up the excess moisture and rendered the surface skid proof. We liberally sprinkled sawdust around daily like you would feed your chooks.

To be fair, the government of the day did have some sympathy for our cause, hence they set up The Sawdust Working Party Committee; three Health Department boffins plus three master butchers selected to represent the north, mid and southern regions of New Zealand. I represented the central region. 

Three health department officials across the table from three intransigent meat retailers resulted in stalemate, so the then Minister of Health, Air-Commodore Frank Gill, called us to his office to see if he could overcome the impasse.

TV reporters were outside the minister’s office as we left and were eager for a comment, but we were advised to make no response. We looked wistfully at the cameramen, knowing that this might well be our first and last chance at a moment of fame, but we opted to do as we were told.

Poor Mr. Gill had no such advice. He approached the camera and told N.Z viewers and eventually the world that there were some problems because butchers had orgasms on their floors.

The media had a field day. It made headlines internationally and Tom Scott, who back then wrote an accompanying story with his cartoons in The Listener, arguably concocted the masterpiece of his career.

Of course we butchers were the butt of some rather uncouth jokes and banter in the ensuing weeks, but we had been giving it for years so I guess it was only fair to now be on the receiving end.

Other cartoonists besides Scott made use of their skills to chronicle our activities at ground level and “on the shop floor” took on a totally new meaning.

In 1976 there were 15 butchers’ shops in Masterton, now there are just two. However we have three funeral homes when in the sawdust era one sufficed.

There’s a message here somewhere.

“Health is what my friends are always drinking to before they fall down.” - Phyllis Diller.


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