Not long ago, my friend Alex told me that he had just turned vegetarian, mainly to keep his kids happy.
‘Come round mine soon’, I said, with the zeal of the convert. Like many other people you may have encountered in the press and on social media in recent years, I have been on a journey of discovery about vegetarianism.
‘I’ll give you a nice steak’, I continued, and he looked at me nervously. ‘But don’t worry. I’ll make sure you’ve washed the blood out of your beard before you go home’.
You see, unlike many other people who boast on Facebook about their meat-free breakfast, soy latté, and soggy vegan cakes, I’ve decided I’m going to enjoy me some meat.
But let me rewind a little. I understand the arguments for going meat-free. I agree with a lot of them too. I was a vegetarian for almost a decade. I don’t like the idea of animals suffering, I worry about intensive farming practices and the environmental costs of eating too much meat.
But there are complications for me. Some of them philosophical, some of them humane, and some of them more selfish.
My major philosophical awakening about eating meat came when I was deep into my decade as a vegetarian and working on a goat farm in the Ardeche. Like so many farmers before me, I was looking at the animals and thinking: ‘You utter bastards’.
One of the goats had fallen lame and the other animals in the herd had decided to reward her by slowly and systematically killing her. She was standing trembling against a tree while all her erstwhile goat friends took it in turns to charge at her full pelt, heads down. Again and again they would butt her savagely in the flanks. I would try to stop them – but until I could get them home and separate off the poor scapegoat, she faced hell.
And that’s just what happens to goats. Sometimes even before the member of the herd falls ill, the others will take against it and bully it to death.
You could see a basic form of Darwinism at play here, or maybe the meanness of this breed of animal (there’s a reason Satan is often depicted with a goat’s head), or maybe the random cruelty of nature. But the bigger truth is that if I – the goatherd – hadn’t been there to help out, that if I hadn’t been there to intervene that goat, would have faced an agonising and slow death.
There’s an even bigger truth, on top of all that. Without farmers, most pastoral animals would be fucked. Their lives would be full of hunger and fear and generally much shorter. Humans maybe aren’t all that good at looking after animals – but those animals are far worse at looking after themselves. The weather would destroy most of them, never mind predators. The natural world is harsh.
Although, actually, talking about the ‘natural world’ in the European context is a misnomer. Give or take a few hundred acres of old forest, most of our landscape has been shaped by centuries of farming. Some of this landscape is messed up. But plenty of it now supports delicate and unique eco-systems. To give just one example, if we were to stop the ancient practice of sheep farming on the fells of the Lake District in Northern England, we would lose that unique landscape, and the rare plant and insect lives that depend on it.
So, while I know we should all eat less meat – I also think we should at least eat some, and when we do we should respect and savour it.
Which brings me to the more selfish reasons for converting away from vegetarianism. I don’t have a moment of a single moment of conversion that I single out. Rather than that big Joycean epiphany, I have instead a number of smaller revelations. On the way back from a summer on the goat farm, for instance, I ended up in a brasserie in Paris, where there was nothing but meat on the menu. And I thought I might as well go all the way, ordered myself a steak tartare and oh boy, oh boy, oh boy it was like a full orchestral ‘Hallelujah chorus’ with accompanying fireworks going off in my mouth.
There were also all the times that I thought about meat and potato pies. Those of you reading this who have not had the good luck to grow up in a small old-fashioned city in the North Of England like I did should try to imagine winning Euromillions, or scoring the winning goal in a World Cup final, or learning that you’ve just been accepted into Cambridge University. Then heat up that feeling and feed it to yourself on a cold day. That’s how a meat and potato pie tastes. The thought depriving myself this nourishing animal joy eventually became too bleak to contemplate. I began to eat meat again – and I’ve got to tell you I’ve relished every god damn mouthful since. I don’t claim any moral high ground. But I do claim happiness. I suppose I admire my friend Alex’s vegetarianism – but, more than that, I pity him.