THE first person I saw wieldng a reporter's notebook was not some whisky-fumed hack chipping away at the coal-face of truth, but the Co-op butcher.
Sent to do the messages on a Saturday morning, I would stand on the sawdust-covered floor and watch as he pulled a mince-flecked stubby pencil from behind his ear, find a corner of his notebook, and start a fresh column of sums as housewives ordered mince, sausages, potted hough and bacon.
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None of your easy post-decimalisation sums either - this was pounds, shillings and pence, and was added up while he simultaneously threw some mince on the scales, chatted to his customers, and barked orders to his apprentice.
In recent years, though, it seemed butchers would go the way of the television rental store and the door-to-door insurance salesman, and fade to a simple memory, as supermarkets undermined the gentler pace of going from shop to shop for your messages. However, a room of white-coated men and women in Glasgow last week convinced me that the slide to oblivion of butchers' shops has halted, thanks to the occasional horse getting into the supermarket supply chain, and the increasing fascination of television cookery shows.
The white-coat wearers were judges in the Smithfield Awards, an annual product evaluation event organised by the Q Guild - Q as in quality - an organisation of elite butchers from across Britain. Pies, burgers, sausages, cooked meats and kitchen-ready meals were being sniffed, chewed, eaten and assessed at the City Of Glasgow College to decide the best in Britain.
Q Guild general manager Sandy Boyd told me there were new butcher shops opening after years of decline. People want to know where their meat is coming from, and the supply chain to your local butcher is a lot shorter than the products flying in to your local supermarket. It is still hard graft, and with a lot of financial outlay to appease the growing list of hygiene laws, but the butchers who innovate, present an attractive shop front and a wide variety of goods are winning customers back.
There are butchers now with their own websites, says Sandy, so that young customers can place orders online from the comfort of home, and pick up the bag of goods as they are passing. The butcher's might still be there, but the stubby pencil is making way for the mouse click.
One of the judges though, retired Kinghorn butcher Harry Devlin, says that having a rapport with your customers is still important. "We have a big caravan park in Kinghorn, and six months of the year we would have visitors from Glasgow and Edinburgh who became customers. I'd write doon 'Mary, red hair' on a bit of paper to remind me, so that when they came back in the shop I could say 'How are you today Mary?'
"I wisnae being false - I always had an interest in the customers, as all good butchers do."
A sense of humour helps as well. When the best-selling book Watership Down, about a colony of rabbits, was made into a successful movie, many a Glasgow butcher put up a sign saying "You've read the book, you've seen the film, now sample the cast."
There was the butcher's in Dennistoun in the 1960s that had a notice on the wall which simply stated "CREFDIT". It allowed the butcher of course, when a puzzled customer said there was no F in Credit, to reply: "Exactly".
Drew McKenzie, at Robert Alexander's butchers in Port Glasgow, has award-winning beef links made from a recipe used by his late grandfather, Bob Alexander, whose shop sign said 'Robert Alexander, Quality Butcher. Noted for our sausages.' Drew told us: "A woman asked him one day, 'Bob, what are your sausages noted for?' "'Well', he says, 'if they wurnae noted, the meat wid come oot the ends'."
Even the great Chic Murray had his gags about going to the butcher's. He once declared: "I was in the butcher's shop and the chap in front of me said, 'A pound a fillet'. Me, being a gambling man, said, 'A pound you don't'."
Amidst the humour there can also be an air of danger. One of the memorable early Taggarts on television was Alex Norton playing a murdering butcher in a shop, which is now the Velvet Elvis diner in Thornwood, Glasgow. The butcher's wife, played by Monica Brady, went missing, and it was assumed she was chopped up. Monica once told me: "It does a lot for the ego to be stopped for weeks after by folk telling me, 'I was certain you were a black pudding'."
Further along Dumbarton Road, at Partick, is my butcher, Kenny Donnelly at Grampian Meats, who tells terrible jokes while advising you on how best to cook his products. His late father, also Kenny, had a great rapport with the Partick housewives, but even his smile faltered when a chap came in and said: "We're putting a bus stop outside your shop, so your awning will have to come down permanently."
"Why not just move the bus stop a few feet to where there are no awnings?" asked Kenny not unreasonably.
"No," said the workie, "the plans say the stop goes here."
"Why," persisted Kenny "are you arguing with the only man in the street who uses meat cleavers professionally?"
The stop was moved.
Actually, retired butcher Harry Devlin tells me that fewer whole carcasses are delivered to butchers and they have less deboning, and head chopping to do. Buckets of blood are no longer a common sight in the shops. But at least the shops are still there, even though the sawdust has been consigned to the dustbin.
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