My friend Jonny told me a nice story the other day about his seven-year-old son, who coincidentally has the same forenames - Jacob Alexander - as my own seven-year-old. Moreover, as both Jacobs like to point out, they also have the same Shrek pyjamas. Spooky!
Anyway, Jonny's son Jacob came home from school recently and was asked by his parents what he had learnt. He said that his teacher had told his class the Old Testament story of Joseph, he of the Technicolor dreamcoat. He explained solemnly that Joseph had been put in jail by the Egyptians, but released because he was the only person in the land who could interpret Pharoah's strange dreams, which included one about seven thin cows eating seven fat cows. Joseph was able to tell Pharoah that this dream meant Egypt would enjoy seven years of plenty, followed by seven years of famine, and that to survive the long famine the people must put aside plenty of grain during the time of prosperity. So impressed was Pharoah that he made Joseph his Prime Minister, and sure enough the next 14 years followed exactly the pattern that Joseph had predicted.
According to Jonny, young Jacob told this story beautifully. It had obviously captured his imagination and he seemed to understand every nuance of it. But that night, as he was being put to bed, he said that he was puzzled about something. "What's that, darling?" said Catherine, his mum. "You know Joseph in the Bible," said Jacob. "Well, I still don't really understand why his family were badgers."
Catherine suppressed the urge to laugh. "I don't think they were badgers, darling. What makes you say that?" "Because that's what Mrs Jackson told us," replied Jacob, indignantly. "Your people will have seven good years, Joseph told Pharoah, followed by seven badgers."
It is tempting to file this story under the charming things children say, along with my own Jacob's innocent query the other day about the James Blunt album Back to Bedlam, which his sister plays all the time. "Why," he asked us, "is it called the same as what you say to me when I sometimes come downstairs at night - 'back to bed, lamb'?"
But actually it is an example of something more profound than that, an example of a condition that grows less acute with age, but never really leaves us. It is the impression we give of knowing a subject absolutely, and yet our knowledge turns out to be built on foundations of sand, based on a whopping misapprehension.
Heaven knows, I am prey to this condition myself in relation to farming, animal husbandry and lots of other subjects about which I have tried to gain knowledge since settling in the countryside. But actually it is a friend of ours, Annie, whose "Jacob syndrome" came to mind this week.
We recently had our golden retriever Fergus castrated, before he got to the stage reached by our previous retriever Milo, who disgraced us on the eve of last year's Docklow fête. The twentysomething girlfriend of the son of a distinguished parish councillor had got down on her hands and knees to play with our Jack Russell, only to be pinned to the ground and repeatedly rogered by an excited Milo. When finally I prised him off, I apologised profusely to the young woman and then to the parish councillor, who said drily: "It's all right. You can have first choice of the puppies."
A few days later we duly had Milo's testicles removed and have followed suit with Fergus before something similar happens again, but Jane reminded me that when Annie - a mother of three - heard about Milo's operation, she expressed the hope that he would recover more quickly than I had from the same procedure a couple of months previously. "But Brian wasn't castrated, he had a vasectomy," Jane said, laughing. "Oh," said Annie, looking puzzled. "Isn't it the same thing?"
See what I mean about misapprehension? When young Jacob heard about Joseph, he pictured a badger. And when Annie heard about me having the snip, she pictured a eunuch.
'Tales of the Country', by Brian Viner, is out now in paperback (Simon & Schuster £7.99)Reuse content