Recently someone, incredulous to discover I am a croquet player but, despite this, feigning polite interest, asked me when I started to play.  I gave my usual answer about how, in about 1975, a friend dragged me out onto a croquet lawn and introduced me to the game.  ‘Ah’, said the enquirer, ‘that explains it; a mid-life crisis’.

It has never occurred to me to attribute my initiation into croquet playing to a mid-life crisis but, now that it has been suggested, I can quite see that this is a feasible explanation.  And now, with the benefit of masses of hindsight, I realise that starting to play croquet was not the only strange thing I did in 1975; on a whim, and never having had anything to do with cows before, I put myself on a City & Guilds Milk Production day-release course.  

See what I mean about a mid-life crisis?  Other men buy a Ferrari and have an affair but I took up croquet and started milking cows!       

As it turned out, the City & Guilds course, chosen only because it fell on a Friday – my easiest day for sloping off – was fascinating.  In the morning we had lectures on animal husbandry (well, cow husbandry really) and the afternoons were given over to practical work.  In particular we practised disbudding (see below), castration three different ways (another story) and, of course, milking.  Naturally we had to pass proficiency tests along the way.

One of the first proficiency tests was disbudding.  This is when the buds that would grow into horns are burnt off with an instrument a bit like a soldering iron.  I remember the routine well; you catch an unsuspecting calf; get a colleague to restrain it; fill a syringe with anaesthetic; expel the air; run your thumbnail up the channel that runs from the corner of the calves’ eye to its ear; locate the junction about half way along; insert the needle; push the plunger; wait five minutes; prick the bud with a  pin and, if the animal doesn’t flinch, burn off the bud; if it jumps, give the poor thing some more anaesthetic.  Repeat this sequence of steps for the bud on the other side.

We had practised this routine numerous times – in fact it became rather boring.  Then the day came for the proficiency test.  A man wearing a white coat, carrying the inevitable clip board, arrived.  He was our external examiner.   

When my turn came to go through the familiar routine I felt unexpectedly nervous.  Under the gaze of the examiner, I ran my thumb up the familiar channel, found the right spot, put the needle in and pushed the plunger.  My thumb instantly became numb and I realised that, in my confusion, I had inserted the needle into the top of my own thumb!  Thankfully the examiner was busy making a note about the last person’s performance, so I surreptitiously withdrew the needle and put the small amount of anaesthetic that remained into the poor beast.  As I waited for the mandatory five minutes to pass, first my hand, and then my whole arm, became fizzy then numb.  Of course, the calf jumped when I reapplied the pin. The examiner was puzzled but told me to carry on regardless. 

Quite undeservedly I passed the proficiency test (good thing calves can’t talk!) but my left arm stayed numb for the rest of the day.  That evening I played croquet and, despite having a fizzy arm, managed to win.

After my mid-life crisis, I returned to ‘normal’ life, i.e. bringing up kids and earning money to pay the mortgage, and became a lapsed croquet player/herdsman.  About 20 years later I resumed my croquet playing but I never returned to milking cows.  However, I still look fondly, even knowledgably, at herds of Friesians grazing in green fields.   


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