I like meat. Yet one of the other lifestyle changes that seems to frequently accompany giving up smoking is giving up eating meat. And that’s another thing I haven’t given up either. Somehow or other, for me a meal isn’t a proper meal if it doesn’t contain meat or fish. It’s not that I don’t like quiche and all that, but that I somehow never feel like I’ve had a good, nourishing meal when I eat food that contains no meat. There’s a slight emptiness at the end.
It’s an intuitive thing rather than a rational thing. Because I eat intuitively. I ask myself what I’d like to eat, and something comes to mind. A few weeks back, it was bananas that came to mind one day. So I bought some bananas. Then another time I find I want whole orange juice, or grapefruit. And then a can of smoked mussels. And each time when I buy these things there’s real delight in eating them, as if they’re supplying something that my body is right out of. If I eat more the next day, there’s less pleasure. After a week or so, there’s none.
And it seems to me that the human body should know what it needs, and what foods supply those needs, and must have some way of informing the central nervous system of this. After all, simple sensations of hunger and thirst are clearly part of a feedback system. And maybe that feedback system is much more sophisticated than we think. And that’s what’s putting those ideas about bananas and grapefruit and smoked mussels in my head.
Anyway, somehow or other I seem to need meat. Not much. But definitely some. And this is is usually what I say when conversations come round to food and vegetarianism and all that.
In fact, I’m quite sure that that’s what I said when the conversation around a dinner party table some years back turned to food. The hostess had recently become vegetarian. It wasn’t because she disliked meat. It was just that she could no longer stomach eating something that had been happily gambolling around in a field until the farmer had come and taken it to a slaughterhouse. It was pretty much murder, she thought. And she wanted no part in it any more. Even though she’d cooked a nice chicken dinner for us.
At that point I would have probably come out and asked her whether she didn’t think eating vegetables was murder too. After all, plants are living things too, just like chickens and pigs. There you are, an ear of wheat, growing out on a sunny field, when along comes the farmer with a great big machine, and cuts your head off. And cuts off all of the heads of your friends around you too. Isn’t that murder as well? Isn’t it borderline genocide, in fact?
Vegetarians usually respond to this by saying that plants are ‘different’. They’re just ‘chemical processes’. Or “they don’t have central nervous systems like animals’. So, somehow or other, while it’s not okay to eat animals, it’s okay to eat plants. Ho hum.
Anyway, on this occasion, I spun in a new argument. ‘Do you think it’s okay for tigers to eat meat?’ I asked. And she stiffened up and shot back:
‘They wouldn’t if they knew better!’
They wouldn’t if they knew better. Say it slowly. They. Wouldn’t. If. They. Knew. Better.
I left it at that, but afterwards I imagined her heading out to Africa or India or wherever tigers live, and going into the forest. And how there she found a tiger. And I imagined how she explained to the tiger that it was wrong to eat meat, and that all the deer and gazelles and things it had been eating had, y’know, a right to life. And that life was sacred. And how, after listening to her for a while, the tiger might have said:
‘You’re quite right. I’d never thought of it that way. I’ll give up catching and eating deer right away.’
And then she told the tiger that he should tell all the other tigers that it was wrong to kill and eat other animals. And then, good deed for the day done, she caught a plane back to England.
And back in Africa, the tiger went round telling all the other tigers that it was wrong to eat meat. And they listened to him, and agreed. And the word spread through the forest.
But after a while, the tiger started feeling hungry. And he began to eye passing deer. But he resolutely refused to succumb to the urge to chase them and catch them, now that he knew better, and had given up meat. All it needed was will-power.
And the deer became puzzled at the tiger’s strange behaviour, and one of them came up to the tiger, who was sitting under an oak tree, and asked him why he wasn’t chasing them any more. And the tiger explained. And the deer said,
‘Hey, do you mean it’s wrong for us deer to eat grass and leaves?’
‘Well, they have a right to life too, don’t they?’ the tiger replied. ‘Yet you and your friends come along and tear green bits off them all the time.’
And the deer said, ‘But plants are just chemical processes. They haven’t got a central nervous system like us. They don’t feel things like we do.’
And at this the oak tree above them piped up and said, ‘Waddya mean? How do you know? All I can say is that when you deer and antelope start browsing my foliage, it’s Ouch Ouch Ouch the whole way. But you never listen.’
‘See?’ the tiger said to the deer.
‘I see what you mean,’ the deer said. ‘I hadn’t looked at it that way before. I’ve been very inconsiderate. I’ll stop eating leaves. And I think I’ll tell all my friends to stop too.’
And so all the deer stopped eating grass and leaves, now that they knew better too. And after a while one of the trees asked one of the deer why they’d stopped eating their leaves. And the deer explained about how trees had a right to life, and life was precious, and they shouldn’t have their leaves ripped off by deer and cows and pigs.
And the trees started talking to each other about how they were greedily sucking sunlight out of the sun, and water and carbon dioxide out of the sky. And how they should stop eating the sun and the sky that way, because it was such a mean and inconsiderate thing to do. And because the sun was a living thing too, although they weren’t quite sure.
‘We’re killing the sun,’ they said. ‘And we’re killing the sky.’
And then, because they’d had nothing to eat for weeks, all the tigers started dying one by one. Because eating meat was what kept them alive. And then all the wolves and the jackals died too, because it was the same for them. And then the deer started dying. And the antelopes. And the mice. Because they’d all sworn to stop killing and eating other living things, and they were true to their word, and they had a lot of will-power.
One by one all the animals died. First the meat-eaters, and then the plant-eaters. And then all the sun-eating plants too. Until a few months after my missionary friend had arrived in Africa with her high moral values, everything there was dead. And it was a wasteland and a desert.
And that was the only possible outcome. Once you declare that all life is sacred, and preach this as a universal truth, you just end up killing everything.
But there was an island just off the coast of Africa, separated by a narrow strait from the mainland, which somehow or other hadn’t got the memo about how killing and eating other living critters was wrong. And on this island the trees carried on growing, and the deer kept on eating the leaves on the trees, and the tigers kept on catching and eating the deer.
And when they noticed that all the animals on the other side of the strait were dead, and all the trees too, they swam across. And gradually they repopulated the whole of Africa. Or maybe it was India. And soon it was once again full of trees and deer and tigers, all eating each other without a care in the world.
Which only goes to show that the more you try to stop life killing and eating things, the more it carries on doing exactly that.
And one day, one of the deer was talking to one of the oldest tigers about this and that, and she asked:
‘Do you know why all the trees and animals around here died a while back?’
And the tiger said, ‘Well, I think it was a disease they all got. An epidemic. And it killed them all one by one. Either that or it was another one of those man-made environmental catastrophes we keep having.’
‘So why didn’t we get the disease too on our island?’
‘I’m not sure,’ the tiger replied. ‘But there was a strange thing that happened back then, which probably had nothing to do with it all. One day a tiger swam across the strait from the mainland, and came up and said he wanted to talk to me. And I listened, and he came out with this long palaver about it being all wrong for tigers to catch and eat deer. And how it was an antisocial addiction or something.’
‘Good for him!’ the deer said. ‘I wish there were more tigers like that. I’ve had it up to here with tigers chasing me. Anyway, what did you say?’
‘Well,’ the tiger said. ‘I thought about it for a bit. But after a while I just said to him: No way never. I like meat.’