In 1948, “Fat” Uncle Frank (it was an era less concerned with physical sensitivities) nearly wiped out our entire family with some mushrooms he’d found in a nearby field. I wasn’t even born at the time, so my very existence is entirely down to my grandmother’s quick reactions. Apparently she came into the kitchen just in time to toss them out of the frying pan and into the fire.
The story, with graphic details, has since been passed down the generations. Even to this day, the Eddison family’s enjoyment of mushrooms is always tempered by a fear of severe stomach cramps, terrifying hallucinations, chronic renal failure and death.
That is why, unlike “Fat” Uncle Frank, I always pick my mushrooms from the shelves of supermarkets. If they are grown intensively, without natural light and under sterile conditions, so be it. At least they’re not poisonous.
I am reminded of this story when Miss Jones whispers, “Ah, look at them; they’re like little mushrooms, aren’t they?” We are heading towards the exit at the end of a rather busy teaching day, and notice that in every classroom, a small huddle of children are at study. As the light of day fades reluctantly towards evening, Year 6 children continue to toil under pale neon.
Soon the next crop of key stage 2 Sats results will be gathered in, and everyone is redoubling their efforts to make it a good one. To reap maximum marks, practice test papers are broken down into their constituent parts and painstakingly reassembled. Techniques for the efficient cultivation of desired pupil outcomes are practised. The demand to get ever-bumper harvests out of increasingly infertile soil has never been greater. No stone in the field of learning is left unturned or with blood still inside it.
In the back garden of his council house in Sheffield, my granddad grew vegetables until the early 1960s. Only when osteoarthritis crippled his hands and poor circulation left him unable to walk did he give it up. My mother told me that he turned his garden into an allotment during the war, to supplement their food supply in an era of rationing. Later, he found it was the best way to keep from under my grandma’s feet.
At school, we have a gardening club, but what the children grow there isn’t like the stuff their parents buy from the supermarket. It’s usually dirty, often undersized and occasionally humorously misshapen.
“This potato looks like you, Mr Eddison,” said a grinning Jason one afternoon. “That funny bit that sticks out is your nose.” The resemblance had been further enhanced by someone other than Jason attaching my reading glasses to it with sticky tape.
However, unlike what the children grow in gardening club, supermarket fresh food is no laughing matter. For the big supermarkets, it is simply inconceivable that their fruit and vegetables should fail to meet the proper standards of appearance when they arrive in the nation’s shopping trolleys.
Dull homogeneity and blandness of taste are a small price to pay to avoid the misshapen, the undersized or the just plain humorous. Even if it does mean that a third of what our farmers produce ends up in landfill.
Steve Eddison teaches at Arbourthorne Community Primary School in Sheffield