There are no butchers’ shops near us in Richmond and when a meal has to be special and the menu demands, we almost always buy our meat at a butcher a tube ride away. Being served from a selection of the highest quality products by people who know and love their business is a real treat. What’s more, the staff clearly enjoy working at the shop, indeed personnel so rarely change that swapping news is de rigueur.
For months now, Noel, who has served me for over twenty years, has been asking if he could have a copy of my second book – “As I see It”. He had bought the first – “In the Fullness of Time” – and wanted to read more.
Recently, I made a special visit to oblige. At the front of the queue, I presented him with a copy and with the broadest of smiles he thanked me and asked how much it would cost. In a mischievous frame of mind I suggested he pay in kind, and pointed to a tray of merguez sausages beneath the counter. Shop-made and filled with hot spicy lamb they are some of my favourites. He lent over and picked out twelve (see illustration): ten were for the book, one for my signature and one for the dedication and, without weighing them, wrapped them up and passed them over. I duly wrote a note on the title page and left delighted, dreaming of a taste that I first discovered on my honeymoon in Morocco in the late 1960s. This blog was prompted by this money-free exchange.
In reality, the exchange of ‘goods and services’ amongst friends and close acquaintances is widespread, not to say universal. Indeed, until money was invented – nearly 6000 years ago by Crœsus to be precise – it was by exchanges that business was usually done.
Although no money passes hands, there will be some notion of equivalence; so for years we exchanged a morning’s childcare twice a week and likewise baby-sitting sessions. Sometimes value is more formally involved; some people belong to groups in which tokens are used with, for example, an hour of gardening exchanged for an hour of housework. There are also many exchanges that happen solely on a basis of friendship and where no specific “return” is expected. During lockdown, shopping for neighbours or taking in their deliveries was normal. In other instances the deal just involves an exchange of kindness; each week Rohan visits and helps a much-loved friend who is almost 100 – Rohan would baulk at any notion of getting something in return.
Added to all these there are exchanges that arise by chance and develop into something quasi contractual, and the sausage incident reminded me of just such a relationship. It happened forty years ago and involved Vivie and her plumber husband Brian who were close friends living nearby.
One day, just as I was leaving for work, Vivie phoned to ask for some advice, in fact for a second opinion. It was to be Brian’s first day back at work after months recovering from an accident. He, however, was resistant, refusing to get out of bed – he had a tummy ache. The GP had said that there was little wrong and Vivie concurred, believing it was just a case of ‘man flu’ and certainly not serious enough to keep him at home.
I arrived at their house to find Brian upstairs in bed with a fever and looking tense and miserable. After a chat to clarify matters I started to examine his tummy but it was difficult. The problem was not just that he was tender over his appendix area, but that the muscles across his abdomen were rock hard and wouldn’t relax – the tell-tale signs of the protective reflex (“guarding”) that occurs when someone has peritonitis. I sympathised with Brian and suggested that rather than go to work it would be better if he went to hospital.
At the bottom of the stairs I borrowed their phone to call for an ambulance telling an apprehensive Vivie that I thought it was not “man flu” but a ruptured appendix.
As I cycled to work, the ambulance with Brian inside and its blue light flashing on top, sped past. Later I learned that within hours he had had an operation to resolve the problem. After that, Brian and I came to an agreement – if ever he or his family needed medical advice they should phone me up and, by way of an exchange, if ever we needed help with plumbing he would give us priority. This arrangement lasted until they returned home to New Zealand years later.
As I see it, reciprocal arrangements in which friends and close acquaintances help one another is part of what human beings are about. But just as goods and services shared in this way bring us together – the use of money somehow tends to keep us apart!
The illustration is a photo of the twelve merguez sausages (on the right) that Noel gave me as payment in kind for a signed copy of As I see it.
For helping write this blog, I would like to thank Marcio, Noel, Vivie, Rohan and Vivien