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Fine words butter no parsnips

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What a mad idea. Imagine trying to scrape words off the page with a knife and spread them on your root vegetable. Www.phrases.org.uk tells us it dates from the 17th century when mashed parsnips were an English staple and so dull they needed ‘buttering up’. It was such a common cookery trick that the English were called butter-stinkers by the Japanese.

The saying is a great leveller for writers. After a morning chewing away at the computer and – if you’re lucky – producing a few pages that seem to work, it’s easy to feel ridiculously successful, as if you’ve climbed Everest on your elbows or struck oil beneath the compost heap. And conversely, if the few pages don’t work, it’s a comfort to know that your parsnips are sitting there no less buttered.

Pushing the literal veg to the side of the plate, the metaphor begs a big question. If words count for little and it’s action that really matters, what’s the point of reading and writing, stories and poems?

Two places to test that question are hospitals and prisons where people are often stripped of trivial concerns to face brutal realities. You might think that finding a rhyme for Tuesday would be the last thing to interest you after having your appendix out, or worse. And who wants to write a poem about the mother they see once a month and feel they’ve failed unforgivably?

Working in both places, I’ve been amazed to see how reading and writing can lift and encourage people. Some sick children and  prisoners may not be the most confident readers and writers but the images they inspire can bring hope and confidence. One woman prisoner wrote such a vivid poem describing her daughter getting ready for school you could see the five year-old buttoning her coat wrongly in the hall. A sad, poorly boy grinned beyond his ears as he wrote about the dog that was waiting for him at home. Words are free and freeing in the most restricted surroundings.

History knows that. Togas and powdered wigs have come and gone but we’ve been telling stories since our cave days and writing them down for more than five thousand years, long before the first parsnip was buttered.

MacNamara King small parsnip

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