Taking on Pig Business

Tracy Worcester's fight against the excesses of industrial pig farming reaches Brussels.

Tracy Worcester has spent years campaigning against intensive pig farming -- see her powerful and disturbing film Pig Business on YouTube here -- and she has now taken her fight to Brussels.

Today, she and an alliance of MEPs are presenting evidence that European taxpayers are subsidising industrial farming -- and squeezing out more responsible, smaller-scale farms -- despite the worries over its effects on our health.

It all makes for grisly reading (put down your bacon buttie/sausage sandwich/lentil and pancetta soup before reading on). First, there's excessive antibiotic use. Flies and cockroaches around pig farms have been found to be resistant to the antibiotics routinely used there and the fear is that transmission to humans is also a possibility.

Then there was the scandal in Germany in January over cancer-causing chemicals (called dioxins) that were found in pig and chicken feed. This caused the closure of 1,000 pig and poultry farms and the destruction of 100,000 eggs, in an effort to stop the dioxins entering the food chain. Somewhat unhelpfully, one of the manufacturers involved was found to have hidden the full list of outlets it supplied, which one minister described as "a scandal within the scandal".

Finally, and perhaps most worryingly to animal welfare campaigners, research by the European Union suggests that 67 per cent of European pigs are housed in substandard, fully slatted systems, without straw in which to root, and up to 90 per cent have their tails docked illegally. Castration without anaesthetic and clipping of teeth also take place.

This (and more) has convinced a group of MEPs to use this summer's scheduled reforms to the Common Agricultural Policy to push for the greater regulation of pig farming and an end to subsidies for intensive farms. They have six "big asks", which include better labelling on pork products, higher welfare standards and a ban on prophylactic antibiotic use. There's also the small but important suggestion that all local and national bodies use only "high-welfare pork".

Pigs might not be the easiest animals to love but they're highly intelligent and therefore highly stressed by being kept in cramped, antisocial conditions. As it stands, farms that have high welfare standards are at a competitive disadvantage because the pork they produce costs more.

And, as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall says here, that includes all British farms, because our welfare standards are higher than those of other countries. EU subsidies go to less well-regulated farms in places such as Poland and Romania, so we're paying to undermine our own progressive stance on welfare.

The EU has the power to change that. As Tracy Worcester puts it:

Now, lawmakers can decide for themselves if this industry should be allowed to continue to flood the EU with 'cheap', polluting, dangerous, socially and economically destructive and low welfare meat, while EU small farmers, who respect higher environmental, animal welfare and health standards, are struggling to survive.

If you're short of time, there's a ten-minute version of "Pig Business" available here.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Photo: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder