… or Baa if you are a traditionalist. Yes, it’s the time of year when the hills are alive to the sound of bleating. On a trip to the torrid southern slopes of Cheshire last week, we encountered sheep who have already been shorn. Here in the more arctic regions of England, no self-respecting sheep or human has been foolish enough to cast any clouts just yet, and everyone is grimly hanging on in full wool and waiting for the promised summer time. Impressively coiffed or newly-shaved, the chief difference between lambs and their Mammas seems to be that one is enchanting and the other is stoically dull; in life, at least. How about in books?
The ovine clan has provided few heroes and heroines. Yes, yes, Shaun the sheep; but (a) he’s an animated bit of Plasticine rather than a fictional hero and (b) he is a man (or ram) who cannot even spell his own name. I bow to no-one in my admiration for Nick Park and all his works, but Shaun? Really? Could we not be trusted to cope with Sean? There are the exceptionally dim sheep in Dick King-Smith’s utterly delightful The Sheep-Pig, the unnerving little stalker who followed Mary to school according to the nursery rhyme, and the object of doggy attention in Joan Lingard’s Morag and the Lamb. Most popular in the long-suffering NorthernReader stronghold when KatePonders was a very small person was Silly Sheep, which is by Eric Hill and Alan Ahlberg and amused its intended readership an awful lot more than it did the designated reader – especially after repeated re-readings.
Lewis Carroll clearly knew a thing or two about sheep when he created the really rather sinister knitting ewe in Through the Looking-Glass. You will recall that the White Queen metamorphoses into an elderly sheep in the middle of a conversation with Alice. Not only that, but the setting shifts and wobbles every bit as precariously, briefly taking on the shape of a shop before re-assembling itself as a rowing boat on the water and then becoming a shop again. Not much of a surprise that so many academic careers have been happily spent within the confines of the Alice books. I’m sure there are reams of scholarly papers, and even quite possibly whole hefty tomes, devoted to this episode alone. All I’m going to say here is that I stand in awe, as ever, at Carroll’s – well, what is it? Inventive genius or sublime revelation? – in choosing, of all the animals in the world, a sheep for this unsettling transmogrification. It’s the eyes, I think, that give sheep that ineluctable sense of the alien. In its dreamlike and hallucinatory quality, the ‘Wool and Water’ chapter of Through the Looking Glass’ feels almost Blakean. Disappointing, then, that William Blake’s own foray into the world of allegorical sheep, ‘The Lamb’, is so comparatively pedestrian. It seems to prefigure the cotton-wool world of the nineteenth-century nursery and to surrender wild imagination in favour of a docile conformity to Christian evangelism. Read, instead ‘The Tyger’, its counterpart from the Songs of Experience.
Bonnie Nadzam doesn’t, on the surface of her debut novel, Lamb, seem over-burdened with the freight of religious significance of her protagonist’s name. But, as you read on in this tale of an American dystopia, and armed with the NorthernReader First Law of Literary Criticism – which is, as you know, that There’s Always an Essay in Names – it just might strike you that there is a sacrificial element to David Lamb’s grim journey.
But revenons à nos moutons. And in Britain, as hommage to the Norman conquests, sheep hang out in fields and mutton beguiles on tables. Ridiculously out of fashion (but now – hurray! – being championed by the Prince of Wales), mutton and hogget is what we should be demanding when supermarkets try to fob us off with spindly New Zealand lamb. Make your way sharpish to your nearest proper butcher and ask, politely but persistently, for good local sheep-meat. Flushed with success, you might find Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s The River Cottage Meat Book to be your kitchen companion of choice. Our copy was carefully selected from the shelf some years ago by the resident Labrador and … customised; but it is still readable and much-used. I expect there are umpteen recipe books devoted entirely to lamb, but in truth few of us who cook use more than the trusted handful of, in our opinions at least, Indispensable Cookery Books (Fearnley-Whittingstall, Elizabeth David and Claudia Roden, in our case).