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Feather's Miscellany: On Breaking Wind

John Waddington-Feather tackles a subject which, though rarely discussed, is hard to ignore.

Flatulence is blissful relief to its maker, but nauseous to its receiver. And the older we grow, the more we are prone to flatulence, or ‘farting’ in the vernacular. It seems that in old age, as we steadily drift into our second childhood, flatulence is one of the symptoms. It’s not a subject I write about often; nevertheless I thought I’d pen a tale or two about it now – just for fun.

For some time I lived with the Arabs in Sudan where flatulency is commonplace, the result of widespread dysentery and other bowel-wrenching diseases. Emanating from the herds of flea-bitten camels and their owners, wind was always in the air in Sudan. Indeed, after a meal as guest in an Arab tent one was expected to belch as a sign of having enjoyed one’s meal. Not to have done so would have been impolite. In Arab company I was never impolite while I was there.

However, in the West we are embarrassed by any breaking of wind – top or bottom. Babies and very young children are excepted, of course. When they break wind it is the prelude to more drastic action; a warning signal to their carers.

Not so in adulthood, where it is not the done thing to break or bring up wind in public. One has to retire discreetly or if that can’t be done, to hang on in agony or break wind silently then look accusingly at some else.

Which brings me to my first tale, which concerns a society dinner hosted by an elderly duchess, who was very deaf and suffered badly from flatulence. She’d no idea she farted loudly. At this particular dinner, she was surrounded by foreign diplomats and after eating, she began breaking wind at regular intervals. The first time it happened, the French ambassador stood up graciously and to save the old lady any embarrassment took the blame. “Excusez-moi, madam. I’m very sorry,” he said and left the table.

After the main course, she let fly again, louder than ever, and the English ambassador, a gentleman to the core, got to his feet and said; “I’m awfully sorry, my lady,” and left the room.

When the sweet had been eaten she let go a real ripper, which had the entire table looking in her direction. Gallant as ever, the American ambassador stood up and before he left said: “Say, ma’am, have this one on me.”

On the same theme, at one Old Boys’ Re-union after-dinner speech, my old headmaster, whom I’d always regarded as a dry old stick, redeemed himself by telling the story of a young couple in pre-motoring days, who went for a ride one fine Spring morning in a pony-and-trap. The couple were in high spirits, but the poor pony had been stabled all winter and fed on bran, so was full of wind. As they trotted merrily along, the pony suddenly began breaking wind more and more, which embarrassed the young man greatly. He was madly in love with the girl and at length just had to apologise. “Dearest, I’m terribly sorry about the pony,” he said.

“Oh, thank goodness for that, darling,” came back the reply. “For the moment, I thought it was you.”

Geoffrey Chaucer, that master of medieval verse and narrative, graphically describes an enormous emission of wind in his “Miller’s Tale” in “The Canterbury Tales”; so loud it sounded like a thunderclap; which reminds me of a true story from the time I taught in Sudan at the University of Khartoum.

I lodged in the suburbs of the city in an outlying Arab village called Kober, and used to cycle to work early in the morning while it was still cool. En route I went by a power station which was being built, and every morning I passed a group of labourers taking their breakfast break, giving the usual greeting “Sala’am alekum”, “Peace be with you,” as I cycled by. There were half a dozen or so squatting on the ground round a huge metal bowl, eating their meal with their right hand and unleavened bread from the communal bowl and chattering away in Arabic.

A little way off stood their overseer, eating separately to show rank, I suppose. He was also dressed differently. He wore Western trousers and shirt, but the traditional Imay, a long strip of cotton cloth wound round and round his head. The labourers all wore long traditional Arab robes, gelebias, and the Imay.

One morning as I passed, the overseer let fly the loudest fart I’ve ever heard. It resonated so loudly across the desert it stopped me dead in my tracks and before I knew what I was doing, I exclaimed in Arabic, “Elhamdu lilla!” “Heaven be praised!”

It must have seemed so incongruous to the labourers for they stopped eating and stared at me, before rolling about laughing helplessly in the sand, but instead of joining in the laughter, the overseer hurried away embarrassed to his little hut.

Each time I cycled by after that the gang of workmen added, “Elhamdu lilla” to their Sala’ams. And each time he saw me approaching, the poor overseer would disappear into his hut. And there I’ll end my piece on the breaking of wind before I embarrass someone, who, like the Arab overseer, may not share my sense of humour.

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