Narrative commitment

Many years ago, I was accused by a colleague of trying to turn everything into a narrative – well, man is the story-telling ape (among other less complimentary epithets). Some of this urge is now sublimated through this very blog, but the urge remains strong.  I was recently reminded of one of the longest running of my personal narratives and have decided to regale you, poor reader, with the story.

I have not drunk milk since I was roughly eleven years old and, until fairly recently, as an adult only had it in the house if I was expecting visitors (and had remembered that most people expect milk to be available).  This can be traced back to an incident which occurred on my first French exchange trip to Boulogne.  The word ‘exchange’ is used in an unusual way here as my own body and that of a French youth of similar age were never actually swapped – at the time of all the exchanges (between three and four), our two bodies shared a residence: either his parents’ house or mine.

I was ‘exchanged’ at an abnormally young age as I was relatively good at French (compared to my fellow secondary modern students) and my French teacher (actually English) lacked issue of his own.  His counterpart, an English teacher (actually French) in France had a son my age and so he found himself in need of a suitable ‘swap’ – and I was apparently the best available option.  So, armed with a few verbs, limited vocabulary and whatever I had gleaned from Longman’s Audio-Visual French (and the doings of Marie-France, Jean-Paul and Claudette), I found myself as a guest of a French family in exotic Boulogne (well, it was exotic to me – but then I’d never left the mainland UK before).

Veiled as it is by the mists of time, I seem to recall that this whole Fish-out-of-water scenario went reasonably well and I managed to resist the urge to bring a flick-knife back into the UK (the very pinnacle of criminality back in 1978).  I do remember that my one-and-only attempt to play golf occurred on one of these trips – but clearly it was not successful enough for me to ever repeat it.  I also recall that the French students of English were obsessed by the relative merits of the words ‘shall’ and ‘will’ in sentence construction and I fear I could offer little in the way of enlightenment.

However, the relevance to today’s tale comes at meal-times.  At this stage, I had little experience of foreign food (though given this was 1970s Britain, you might think that anything would be an improvement on my local cuisine) but mostly handled the French offerings somewhat successfully.  My only major issue was with the mashed potatoes, which were not at all to my liking – and some measure of my disgust must have become apparent to my hosts.  Madame revealed that their creation involved milk, and so latching onto a convenient excuse ‘revealed’ that I didn’t like milk.  This was not, at the time, a true statement – but I felt it offered a polite route to a mashed potato-free diet without causing offence.

To maintain this fiction, I had to ensure I was never caught actually consuming milk while staying in Boulogne or when my French counterpart was staying with me in Kent.  Such is my level of commitment to this particular lie that from that day to this (almost forty years later), I have never drunk milk: well, you never know who might be watching and could carry word back to the staff of the Lycée Mariette.

Over time, the lie became true and I soon found milk to be nauseating – especially when warmed.  I consumed my breakfast cereal ‘moistened’ with the aid of yoghurt – which, in a cost-saving measure, my mother made at home.  This would often go a little fizzy, but I would still be expected to use it (in some ways, I came to prefer it): I have now come to realise that I may have been putting kefir on my cereal and so was probably slightly inebriated for a portion of my secondary school life.  After leaving home for university, I stopped drinking tea to further expunge milk from my diet.  Later, I realised that tea could be consumed black and so have returned to enjoying an infusion of the dried leaves of Camilla sinensis.  Today, I am even able to tolerate milk in my porridge and cocoa – but tend to go for a heavily-skimmed version which is, frankly, more water than milk.  At no stage did my invented antipathy towards milk spread to other dairy products – i.e. cheese, cream and yoghurt – which I have always loved and consumed in quantity.

I think what this story tells us is that ‘Yes, I will lie to you’ but that I will really commit to that falsehood.  You have been warned!


3 thoughts on “Narrative commitment

  1. matathew says:

    Presumably the French milk incident took place back in the days when all French bottled milk was sterilised, and tasted nothing like the pasteurised stuff which we have long been drinking in your country. So, with hindsight, would have been easier (and only mildly offensive) to say that you didn’t like sterilised milk? Maybe I have missed the point and it was the potatoes that tasted horrible.

    But moving on, and sorry to bring this up again, you once told me that you were a competent user of a stapler, which was a lie, but you didn’t commit to the lie on that occasion…

  2. Stuart Ffoulkes says:

    I’m pretty sure that the eleven-year-old me had very little idea of the difference between sterilised and pasteurised milk – or that a different approach to reducing lactic infection pertained on the two sides of La Manche. I still have no idea whether the milk was to blame, it was merely a convenient excuse at the time. Worryingly, this post has been read by someone in France – so my terrible secret may be out!

    I’ll admit that I may have confused enthusiasm with competence – and I would certainly wish to avoid claiming that my commitment to an untruth will always be effective. In the milk scenario, commitment readily translated into success: whereas in the more complex sphere of envelope sealing, it merely delivered more spirited failure. But, I think we should probably all learn to better appreciate the spirited failure.

  3. matathew says:

    Your enthusiastic contribution to the good work of the SCuM that day will continue to be appreciated. Fortunately all necessary remedial work was carried out before the packages were released to the ferocious predators who surrounded us.

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