On My Picnic Button

My panic button was not the only button I lost to the predations of a bird. My picnic button, too, was pecked and snatched and carried away by a crow. For all I know, it might have been the same crew that took my panic button. Perhaps there is a separate piece to be written about lost buttons, for I have lost many buttons, so many, I had not thought crows had undone so many.

My picnic button was an heirloom, as you will probably have guessed. You do not see so many of them these days. They were popular in the interwar years. Their exact purpose is no longer clear, but at the time there was scarce a picnic embarked upon in these isles where a picnic button was not taken along, in the hamper, or in the pocket of one of the picnickers. We will investigate further after I have told you the story of how I came to be in possession of one, until it was cruelly snatched away from me, by a crow.

My uncle Quentin was a world-famous and bad-tempered yet loveable scientist from Kirrin Island. When he died, we found his entire worldly goods stored in four supermarket carrier bags. It was a heteroclite jumble, including the skull of a hare, an envelope from L. Garvin, Honey Merchants, containing grey mullet scales, a cheese box containing a puffin’s beak, together with a Windsor & Newton leaflet containing advice on the control of moth damage to paint brushes, an envelope containing snow bunting feathers, a list of mills from Merionethshire, an envelope containing bits of silver foil (‘from Aunt Ethel’), a book of telephone numbers – containing none, an exercise book containing a hair prescription from a Dr Ferguson of Bromsgrove, a large photo of sheep in a slate pen, various brown envelopes (empty), an envelope containing a single dead prawn, and a picnic button. Curiously, the picnic button apart, this collection of bits and bobs was identical to the contents of the four supermarket carrier bags containing the worldly goods of the late R.S. Thomas and his wife, as noted in Byron Rogers’ biography of the poet. [I am indebted to Nige for alerting me to this.]

After my uncle’s funeral – where, according to his wishes, his corpse was encased in a gigantic wicker man and set ablaze – my siblings and cousins and I divvied up the contents of the carrier bags. We realised, after aligning the items on a baize tabletop and counting them, that their number matched exactly those of us there gathered. So we decided upon a raffle. It was by this means that I acquired the picnic button and bore it away, in a pocket of my Tyrolean sports-casual jacket, which I wore to the funeral in defiance of all etiquette. Everybody else was dressed in the correct black, from head to toe. I like to think Uncle Quentin would have approved of my jacket-decision, for he was a great fan of The Sound Of Music (Robert Wise, 1965), and would softly sing “Edelweiss”, word-imperfect, on the rare occasions when he was not in a bad temper.

As soon as I got home, I took down from the bookcase The Encyclopaedia Of Buttons and read up on my newly acquired picnic button. This is what I discovered:

During the interwar years, no picnic in these isles was complete without a picnic button. One among any complement of picnickers would be designated the buttoneer, and be charged with bringing the picnic button to the picnic. It would either be carried in the hamper or in the buttoneer’s pocket. Written picnic reminiscences are sparse on detail of the button, and today, in the postwar years, there are two rival theories regarding the purpose of the picnic button. These may be scientifically summarised as follows:

The picnic button was always a bright and glittery button, and was placed at edge of the picnic blanket. Its brightness and glitter were designed to attract the attention of, for example, swooping crows or similar picnic predators. It was thought that, dazzled by the button, any swooping crow (or similar) would have its attention distracted from picnic essentials such as cream crackers, sausages, or cans of Squelcho!, which it might otherwise grasp in its savage talons and carry away in flight. Thus a picnic button was very rarely among the items needing to be packed up and loaded on to the brake at the end of the picnic. Keen picnickers of the era kept a huge supply of picnic buttons for this very reason.

This theory has been comprehensively demolished by Wigmarole et al in A Discursive Analysis Of The Picnic Button 1918-1939, wherein it is argued that the picnic button was merely a so-called “spare button” taken to the picnic in case one of the participating ladies’ or gentlemen’s buttons became snagged on a thorn or similar pointy brambly bit of vegetation, and thus loosed, and thus detached, and thus lost, upon the ground, or in a puddle.

Dinsby, the picnic historian, fired back with a broadside arguing that such a button would only have ever been called a spare button, and not a picnic button. At time of writing [1962] the controversy has yet to be resolved.

And fifty years later, that remains the case. All I am able to say on the matter is based on my own experience. The week after Uncle Quentin’s funeral, I went on a picnic in the field where the charred remains of the wicker man still smouldered. I placed my heirloom picnic button on the edge of the picnic blanket. Before I even had time to remove from the hamper the cream crackers and sausages and cans of Squelcho!, down swooped a crow and snatched the button in its beak, and flew away into the wild blue yonder. I have not had the heart to have a picnic since that terrible day.

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