Why sheep? As a small boy, that thought sometimes occurred to me after a Church of Scotland service. In a Presbyterian dies irae, the Minister would have proclaimed the Son of Man’s intention to divide mankind into sheep and goats on the Day of Judgment. Afterwards, my parents explained that the goats were the bad guys. That struck me as odd. Goats were much more interesting than sheep. I often found it hard to get my head around the pastoral elements of Christianity. Most children are made to wriggle with embarrassment as their elders re-tell some charming incident from earlier years. In my case, it was an aunt trying to explain about the Good Shepherd. I had thought that she was talking about shepherd’s pie. Not an anima naturaliter Christiana.
Whatever the status of the Lamb of God, we have a pastoral duty to eat as many lambs as possible, to rescue them from the indignity of becoming sheep. That said, we also need a fair few sheep, to turn into mutton. Hardly anyone eats enough of it. Cold mutton — has there ever been a greater contrast between such a discouraging name and so delicious a taste?
Lambs can create sentimental issues. As a little boy, a friend of mine, who became a fierce and formidable soldier, helped to look after a couple of motherless lambs. Although it was a touching spectacle, original sin was on the march. Those lambs had already been christened: saddle and chops. One day, they were gone. It was explained to James that they had skipped off to play with the other lambs, but that he could wave to them in the field. Cruel elder siblings disillusioned him. He would be meeting his lambs again — at lunchtime on Sunday.
Rabbits can cause similar problems. Sweet, easily digestible and nourishing, bunny is perfect fare for the littlies. It is also as cheap as cartridges. So a rabbit diet for the young eases the budget for a decent Burgundy to accompany the Agnus Dei at the grown-ups’ end — as long as Beatrix Potter does not weigh too heavily on the juvenile conscience. A New Statesman competition once required entrants to add a black twist to a children’s tale. The winner was as follows: ‘Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter — jolly tasty they were too.’
In French supermarkets, as you walk past the meat section (who would buy meat in a French supermarket?) you will see the cardboard cow’s face to steer you towards beef, pig for pork — and a brace of ears for Brer Rabbit. Imagine that in an English supermarket. There would be children crying, bunny-huggers howling, protestors breaking the windows. chairmen and CEOs apologising on every news programme. They do order some things better in France.
I thought of lambs and shepherds the other day. It was at the armagnac stage of lunch, and the talk was of heaven and hell. Could we be certain that it was all a myth, and what the devil — as it were — would one do if it turned out to be true? Sheep to the right, off to taste pre-phylloxera first growths. Goats to the left, off for sulphur and brimstone, hors d’age. Someone suggested skulking behind a coven of C of E bishops wondering whether they could cop a plea of invincible ignorance. I looked smug. I had done a Good Deed.
It happened while I was staying with a friend, who was briefly taken ill. His son proved to be an admirable deputy host: the only fault, very much on the right side. Charles asked me if there was enough wine and I suggested a couple of bottles of red for the cheese. He went off to the cellar and came back with two bottles — of ’89 Latour.
I sent them back to the cellar. If that was not heaven-worthy behaviour, the whole of theology is meaningless.