The Times, 3 March 2007


I think I have always been fairly ambivalent about The Dairy Farmers of Britain. This is because I fear milk (being both liquid and opaque, it gives me the creeps. In case you’re wondering, I mostly drink water, and occasionally gin in the mornings). On the other hand, I really like cheese. All cheese. And I’m given to understand that without cows, sheep, a sporadic goat, and the Dairy Farmers of Britain, I would have less of it in my fridge. This happy knowledge puts me way ahead of many thousands of children, according to this week’s DFOB survey. They quizzed 1000 kids, aged between 8 and 15, and discovered that only 3% could tell them that a beefburger came from a cow. 3% of children in the East Midlands (the turophile county, evidently) and 11 % of kids in Wales couldn’t say which animals cheese might come from. A glorious 2% claimed to believe that eggs come from cows. Which they may do, but only if the cow is running a black market operation behind the back of Bernard Matthews.

Now, I tend to be suspicious of any survey involving children, because it seems to me that if I were twelve, and someone appeared with a clipboard and a set of grindingly facile questions, the temptation to make things up would be irresistible, and I would cheerily claim that cheese came from the moon, that eggs were the spawn of pixies, and, if pushed, that Winston Churchill had a minor role in The OC.

But even if they were sincere, I don’t think we should be too worried. Food is confusing – raw potatoes are toxic, cooked ones are chips. Mushrooms won’t kill you (although I make it a policy never to eat anything that grows in the dark), but some fungi, which look exactly like them, will produce a lengthy, agonising death, one of my least favourite kinds. Oysters are food, but occasionally produce jewellery. Two years ago, I discovered, quite by accident, that prawns are grey until you cook them. I haven’t ever eaten a prawn, I never walk down the fish aisle in a supermarket, so I’d always just assumed they were pink, like they are in restaurants. I don’t think I’ve suffered for it, and I can’t imagine the prawns have either. And I found out only today that that lobsters are black until cooked, whereupon they turn red. I consider that a warning, but I suppose if the fact that you’re about to digest a giant wet bug doesn’t put you off, the red danger sign is unlikely to either.

We tend to assume children are ignorant when they don’t know what we know. And yet they almost certainly understand those wheeled trainers, which may be called heelys but I am too old to know for sure. Seeing a child skating, walking, and then skating again, all without any seeming adjustment to their footwear, makes me feel a bit like the savages in King Solomon’s Mines: I can’t explain them, so I’ve decided they must be magic.

And the more I think about this, the more I realise that there’s quite a lot of stuff that many of us don’t know. I can’t tell you the difference between wi-fi and Bluetooth. They’re both wireless, they both convey data, they have a different symbol in the corner of my screen, and that’s all I’ve got. In spite of the fact that a patient scientist has explained the second law of thermodynamics to me really quite slowly, I still don’t see why the heat that comes off the back of a fridge can’t be used, at least in part, to power the fridge. I also don’t get how you can play a game of table tennis on an X-box 360, against someone on the other side of the world, whose every button press is relayed to you instantly. How is that not faster than the speed of light?

And this isn’t just a technology thing. I don’t really believe that the same plant can produce sap which can be turned into a pencil-eraser, a car tyre or fetish gear. My editor confessed yesterday that he doesn’t understand how windows are made. I would have mocked, but then realised I don’t know either. I was 28 before I realised that ponies weren’t the same thing as foals, but were in fact quite separate animals, like zebras. And I read Flambards as a child. I moved house recently, and there are birds outside which aren’t pigeons, magpies, or small brown ones, which I consider to be one breed. I had to ring a friend and ask what they were (jays, apparently).

I think we have to accept, child and adult alike, that there is a limit to the amount of information we can store in our brains at any one time, and we have to pick what we think we’ll need the most. I, for example, have a working knowledge of every episode of Columbo, and an unerring ability to find toast in a seemingly hostile environment. This leaves me no room to understand why there are magnets, or Jeremy Kyle.