The Toad's Leg Will Keep You Safe
A rare outing last night to have a substantial meal with some alcohol and a bit of time among some art. We took ourselves down to HOME, Manchester's latest arts hub success story, the evolution of the legendary Cornerhouse cinema. Usually a place buzzing like the proverbial Manchester bee, now just doing the best it can in spite of everything. They've managed to get their theatre and cinema programmes up and running again, and they have the luxury of a spacious restaurant and bar for their lockdown-approved food provision. We were there, predominantly, to scoot around their art gallery, which has reopened with a new exhibition this weekend. It is a triptych of three solo exhibitions united by their use of illustration and their themes relevant to the current situation: Mike S Redmond and Faye Coral Johnson's Bubbling Pitch - a series of feverish and lively dream-like sketches, Joy Yamusangie's Blue Glass Fortunes - a striking exploration of the Congolese diaspora in modern Britain, and Nick Burton's Our Plague Year - an lockdown-commissioned comic strip about the Black Death in the village of Eyam in Derbyshire. This latter was particularly compelling as it is a work-in-progress that will continue on as long as our current pandemic. The panels on display were brilliantly sad, funny, and poignant, with Burton reflecting many of our present day concerns around isolation, our relationships with others, as well as our superstitions and conspiracy theories. It was also, quite simply, a fun experience to read a comic in an art gallery. Felt like a natural marriage of forms.
I snapped the above panel as my meaningful animal encounter for the day. In it, a local doctor prepares a charm for a young girl which involves the use of a toad's leg. The child's mother says: Edith, hush. The toad's leg will keep you safe. It made me chuckle, as much of the comic did, but it also made me think of how we have related animals to our current disease. Thankfully, we no longer go around lopping off toad legs to make tinctures and talismans (well; as far as I am aware), but one thing we have started to lose sight of is the zoonotic origin of the coronavirus. Scientists seem pretty sure that COVID made the leap from bats, possibly to pangolins, and then to humans via the infamous wet market of Wuhan. This has become public knowledge, and most folks will probably have some idea that the disease bounced over from the animal world, but there seems to be very little interrogation of the whys and wherefores of such a transaction. According to the BBC, the UN have warned that our relentless project to irreversibly alter our climate towards apocalypse is only making this zoonosis worse, while our practices of woeful animal welfare standards don't help either.
For this perky vegan, it always boils down our toxic addiction to meat and dairy which we seem to believe is some sort of birth right or important initiation into humanhood. Of course, if I was to click my fingers and turn everyone vegan overnight it would cause untold levels of chaos and economic destruction, but I did have a tiny hope at the beginning of this pandemic that it might just be the thing that triggers a seismic shift in our collective attitude to eating animals. Perhaps for some it has, and the recent cultural revolution of veganism doesn't appear to be slowing down, but as we strolled into the restaurant of HOME last night there was a strong scent of dead fish from the nearest table and plenty of meat options glistening on the menu. I get it, of course; the social and cultural psyche of a pandemic is too complex and too immediately human for serious discussions around animal welfare and consumption to have a place. We need PPE, we need ventilators, we need support for mental health, we need to make sure that people don't go hungry through the winter. But it is often the case when faced with a global situation that animals are the first to get thrown out of the mental windows.
Barton's Our Plague Year really brings home how much we've changed as a species, and how much has absolutely stayed the same. Beneath all our advances in science, and our globalisation of the planet, and our posthuman/cyborg connectivity, we are still human beings and our brains are the same fleshy lumps that were in the heads of the villagers of Eyam in 1666. We might laugh at the idea of using a toad's leg to ward off an aggressive virus, but our psychological understanding of the animal-human situation has not really evolved all that much further. I wonder what we might have made of it if the infection had transferred from a Labrador to a war veteran in the modern day Eyam, or from an urban bat to a suburban badger to a farmyard cow to a plate in a Manchester restaurant. How would we think of ourselves then?