Monday Motivation: The butcher of St Neots
St Neots, a small town straddling the River Great Ouse a few locks down from Bedford, holds a market every Thursday in the town square. It was the site, in July 1648, of a pitched battle between Royalists, supporters of Charles I, and Parliamentary troops, the Roundheads.
There’s no sign of enmity between opposing factions today, although it’s true that this section of Cambridgeshire bucked the trend established in the rest of the county and voted to leave the EU in the fateful Brexit referendum seven years ago.
After the enforced isolation of Covid, and a two year hiatus during which we gutted our narrowboat Patience, and rebuilt it from the floor up, we were celebrating our return to the river with a week-long cruise.
Our first overnight stop was against the grassy bank of a small riverine island where we were surrounded, on the water, by flowering lilies, and on the island by a constant chorus of birdsong.
St Neots was our next stop. We crossed the bridge from our mooring on the far side of the river and made our way to the town square. Stalls had been erected selling everything from cheese to electric mobility scooters. Shoppers foraged among the shelves of a second-hand book store. Old men took the sun on benches, and customers crowded the tables of the Café Nero at one end of the square.
But the market was dominated by a large refrigerated vehicle, custom-built to display a wide variety of cuts of meat.
In addition to various printed notices advertising rolled beef, rump steak, and so on, there were also hand-written signs featuring a series of idiosyncratically spelled offers: BUFFERLOW WINGS, for instance, are available at £20. SMOKEY JOE CHICKIN PORTIONS rub shoulders with another placard offering a BRECKFAST PACK containing LOTS OF GAMON STEAKS, A PACK OF BACON AND PORK SAUSAGE.
All of this, though, was merely the stage for the star of the show. The proprietor, a burly man in his forties, stood behind his counter high above the ground, dressed in a traditional striped butcher’s apron, and wearing a mic connected to an effective public address system.
“Here we have the most delicious cut of sirloin, ladies and gents,” he said with infectious enthusiasm. “I’m giving it away for just twenty pound.” Then he lowered his voice and added, confidentially, “But for just thirty, I’ll give you two. Now, you can’t ask for better than that.”
And on and on he went. “You, young lady, you look like a passable cook,” he said, eyeing a white-haired woman perched on a mobility scooter. “Close your eyes and imagine this on your dinner table…”
When we set out to write a story of some description – a short story, a novel, a memoir – we take great care to ensure that we have the meat and potatoes necessary to fashion a decent meal. We might imagine that that’s enough to satisfy our readers.
The sirloin and chicken and pork that the butcher of St Neots had laid out on the counters in his refrigerated truck were, I’m sure, pretty standard fare. It took the magic of his performance to transform it into something truly desirable. He recognised that people enjoy being entertained, they enjoy drama, they relish surprises. He was happy to take on the persona of a carnival barker to attract the crowds – and sell his goods.
And by the end of the day that is precisely what he’d done.
Of course the story you’ve devised is as solid as you can make it. But now you have to work out how to make the characters as memorable as possible, the twists and turns of the tale as unexpected as they are surprising. And you have to approach each scene with this thought in mind: how do I write this as entertainingly as I can?
P.S. Early landowners in St Neots – then known as Eynesbury – realised that in order to attract visitors to the local priory, (and spend their money at local hostelries) they needed a unique selling proposition. “If only,” they mused, “we could somehow get our hands on the bones of a saint.” Holy relics were all the rage in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. “We’d become the focus of pilgrimages,” they said. One of them had connections with a priory in Cornwall which was willing to give them the all the bones except for an arm, which they held back, of St Neot, a ninth century monk with a sparkling reputation. The bones were put on display in Eynesbury, the word soon got out, and pilgrims flocked to the priory which became rich and famous as a result, and the town became known as St Neots. Another lively example of showmanship in action.