Roundabout: or, The Life of a Spit-Roasting Dog

When I was young, gerbils were my preferred rodent.

As a teenager I always had a cage on the corner of the room with a couple of four-pawed long-tailed occupants for whom frenzy was a way of life.

Of course exercising a gerbil is simply not the same as a dog: one cannot attach a gerbil to a leash and run him up to the park .

And so each cage was furnished with the equivalent of one of those travellators I see at Heathrow airport: a perfectly circular wheel on which tiny legs can run the requisite miles every night. Roundandroundandroundandround.

Before one runs to purchase such a miraculous solution to any problems of rodent fitness, though, it is worth bearing one aspect of its operation in mind: it is infernally noisy.

You would park your head on a pillow, thanking your lucky stars for twelve hours of blessed rest, and then the wheel would start: industry in microcosm, energy and economy expressed in the relentless grinding and squeaking of a wheel. I recall gettign up one night to tie the wheel to the cage. That’ll learn you, I admonished my pitter-pattererers telepathically, returning to the pillow assured of slumber.

The racket as the creatures got to work on the cord was deafening. Within twenty minutes they had despatched any impediment to their exercise and were trundling industriously once again.

Make no mistake. A gerbil is just one huge three-year auditory headache.

My love of excess has drawn me to a wonderful little study by the Department of Anatomy at the University of Kuopio, Finland. Snappily entitled ‘Training a large number of laboratory mice using running wheels and analysing running behaviour by use of a computer-assisted system’, one of its chief boasts is that it investigated the behaviour of 21 young male mice.

The mice, the article reports,  ran four to five kilometres a day at an average speed of 23 miles per hour, and spent three hours running each day. This took place during the hours of darkness.

A frenetic existence.

However, not all wheel-turners break the sound barrier.

Ever since ancient China, horses have been turning wheels for men. Harnessed to cogs which turn great shafts, they can be used for threshing and grinding grain. A slow and laborious existence: one such mill has been preserved here in the UK. A Northumberland farm which had not used it since the 1830s donated it to the Beamish Museum. Four horses would have been tethered to it and worked day in, day out.

Of course there would have been good masters, and there would have been doubtful ones. If we only have one existence here on this earth, I would not choose to spend it pulling a wheel to make a man rich. Let us hope there were mashed oats and kind words at the end of the day.

Horses are not the only ones whose labour would have been useful to our forebears.

Here in the UK we have been treated to a rather wonderful set of programmes over the last month or so. Their presenter is a charismatic ambassador for our history. Lucy Worsley is the chief curator of the historic royal palaces: and she’s taken time out to research and present a set of programmes called “If Walls Could Talk”.

Each week, she has taken a different room of the house, tracking its history from early times to the present day. This week was the turn of the kitchen.

She doesn’t sit back and listen to experts: she tries out the old methods for herself. Thus she bathed like a Georgian when it was the turn of the bathroom: and she tested the first ever technique for a working closet using cherry tomatoes for solids.

This week we heard about a wheel turner with a difference: the Turnspit dog.

Turnspits became possible when iron grates were invented to keep wood and coal off the stone floor. The fire would be set into a wall, and a simple mechanism connected the spit, which turned the meat over an open fire, to a little wheel in the adjacent wall. A dog was bred with short, strong legs which would turn the wheel, freeing human hands to do other work.

Dr Worsley, in her own inimitable style, commissioned border terrier Coco to turn the only remaining turnspit mechanism in the country: at The George Inn, in Wiltshire.

A bemused Coco gave it her best shot: but her legs were long, and the spit was heavy. After some serious reconstruction she was rewarded with a piece of mutton which she helped to cook.

I wonder if her little stout-legged ancestors received the same pay?

The roundabout has been a way of life for so many working animals and many at leisure. Still, in parts of the world, they play a vital part, going round and round, day in and day out.

Let us hope, like Coco, they receive recompense for such a roundabout existence.


30 thoughts on “Roundabout: or, The Life of a Spit-Roasting Dog

  1. Wonderful post, Kate.

    Early settlers used dogs here in the colonies for the same purpose. Then, when they tired of having them in the house, they persuaded them to leave the kitchen by tossing Hush Puppies into the yard:

    The name “hushpuppies” is often attributed to hunters, fishermen or other cooks who would fry some basic cornmeal mixture (possibly that they had been bread-coating or battering their own food with) and feed it to their dogs to “hush the puppies” during cook-outs or fish-fries. Also, runaway slaves would feed them to the guard dogs of their owners in order to “hush the puppies”.

    1. I have often thought we might harness the exuberance of a gerbil without unduly inconveniencing it, Sidey, to create a little electricity. I wonder how many gerbils it takes to light a bulb?

    2. OR . . . we could generate electricity (and burn calories) by riding our stationary bikes in the kitchen to power the kettle or the toaster.

      That’s what Ed Bagley, Jr. does. . . . Mr. Green!

  2. Kate, you so amaze we with these posts…you’ve inspired me to take a creative non-fiction course this summer online…never to muster you talents, I’m certain, but I hope to learn how to weave a roundabout in theme~

    1. Angela, what a lovely comment: your poetry inspires the same in me. A newspaper company spent three years training me, and subs have been honing my work ever since so if I don’t write properly I have absolutely no excuse whatsoever 😀 Hope you enjoy the non-fiction course! Sounds fabulous!

  3. 23 mph? 4-5 km a day? I’d no idea mice work quite that hard – sure puts me to shame… 😉 BTW, I was amused to note that the Finnish study considered 21 subjects (lab mice) “a large number” (and in the title of the paper, no less) – I doubt I could have gotten away with calling that anything more than “a preliminary study involving a small sample of…”

      1. Takes me back to my childhood. Pa would come in and sit down to watch the 6pm news… and we’d go in and sit with him as this came on, along with a variety of others, just before that.

        Rhubarb and Custard… do you remember that one?

  4. Texas State University in San Marcos has a Calories to Kilowatts program: elliptical machines at the student recreation center were fitted with power generators so when students work out, the energy they produce is converted to electrical energy, which goes back into the building’s electrical system. They call it the “world’s largest human power generator.” Maybe that’s the solution to both the energy crisis and the obesity epidemic. Gerbils stay in pretty good condition.

  5. We love gerbils in our house (and all seven were buried with honour in the back garden).

    You can actually walk them on a lead if the gerbil lets you. The Hub did just that. I must see if I can find the photos.

  6. I never had gerbils, but I had a hamster in my dorm room one year in college, and I understand about the nocturnal din. To try to get some peace and quiet, I started putting my hamster in her plastic exercise ball at night, with the ball nestled between some towels in my closet – with the door open, of course. It was quieter, but I didn’t bargain for the effect of those sharp little teeth on plastic which was now nicely wedged into one spot for hours at a time. One morning as I awoke and opened my eyes, I found a hamster staring at me from her comfortable perch on my chest.

  7. Fancy that…I wondered what the title meant, Kate 🙂 On our recent visit to the Beaumont Wine farm in the Western Cape we were treated to a tour of the 200-year-old water mill that operates to this day (grinding wheat) – mainly for curiosity’s sake, but nevertheless functional. Quite something to see!

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