Rat pie

October 6 2014

[The writer] could remember […] how in March 1897, on a visit to some friends of his family’s towards the end of his eighth year, he had broken out into exclamations of dissentient surprise when one of the grown-up people present had begun to expatiate on the goodness, abundance, and variety of the fare on a Transatlantic voyage from which he had just landed. The listening child could not accept a statement that was irreconcilable with what he had heard, time and again, straight from the mouth of his own great-uncle Harry [old post], who was then still alive and who surely must be regarded as a greater authority, considering that he had been, not just a passenger on his own ship, but her captain. The child was never tired of hearing the old man telling how the mouldy taste of ship’s biscuit was welcomely relieved by the sharp taste of a weevil when the eater’s teeth happened to bite through one of the biscuit’s living occupants, and how, when captain and crew from time to time lost patience with their fellow-travellers the rats, they would entertain themselves by organizing a rat hunt which would bring them in tasty rat-pie to supplement for the next few days their dull normal fare of salt beef and plum duff. These, the child knew for certain, were the facts, so this talk of high feeding on board ship could be nothing but a mendaciously spun traveller’s yarn; and it was a revelation to him when the present traveller, just ashore from one of the Cunard or White Star liners of the day, explained good-humouredly, to the child who had been calling his veracity in question, that there had been a good deal of change in the conditions of sea-travel during the thirty-one years that had gone by since Captain Henry Toynbee’s retirement from the sea in A.D. 1866. Thanks to this convincing explanation of the discrepancy which had startled the child’s mind, it dawned upon it for the first time that human affairs were on the move, and that this movement might run so fast as to produce sensational changes within the span of a single lifetime.

A Study of History, Vol X, OUP, 1954

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