Down the food route

In his latest blog entry, Malachy Tallack charts the course of food from the field to the freezer

There are those who argue that anyone who is willing to eat meat should also be willing to kill it themselves, and I can certainly understand the logic of that statement. There is a huge degree of pretence in much of the food that is consumed today.

The supermarkets are filled with pre-prepared and packaged meat, to which everything possible has been done to try and disguise the fact that it originated from a living creature. But despite that, I’m quite sure that most carnivores, in the right situation, would kill rather than starve. They would just prefer not to. And I don’t blame them.

Killing an animal is not an enjoyable experience, and anyone who does enjoy it should probably not be allowed near animals in the first place. Nor is it something that should be taken lightly.

I suppose the closer an animal is, in biological terms, to humans, the more difficult it must become to harm it. Swatting a bluebottle or squashing an ant wouldn’t trouble too many people’s consciences; killing a fish to eat would also pose little difficulty for most. But as you climb the evolutionary ladder, it gets more complicated.

Croft lambs from Fair Isle are sent to mainland Shetland to be sold. From there, most will be shipped to Scotland and sent to abattoirs there. The hill lambs however, stay on the isle, and are killed and eaten by the crofters themselves.

To have a freezer full of meat that you can guarantee has had a good life, and that will also taste fantastic, is a huge privilege, and is one of the greatest benefits of crofting. Indeed, it is this self-sufficiency which is meant to be at the heart of the crofting lifestyle. It is unfortunate I suppose, that sheep don’t get themselves ready to be eaten, and that we have to intervene, but that’s just the way it is.

From the field to the freezer is a process of a few days for a lamb. Once dead, it is skinned, gutted and hung for about three days before being cut up, ready to eat or to freeze. The job of getting it ready becomes gradually less unpleasant from beginning to end.

Butchering is pretty easy. By that stage the lamb has become meat, and it is simply a case of learning how to turn a whole carcass into roasts, chops, steaks and stew. Skinning and gutting are not nice jobs. They are messy, time-consuming and not for the weak-stomached. But it is the first part – the killing – which is the difficult bit.

For those who do it as a job, or who have done it every year for many years, I suppose it must become automatic and unquestioned. For me it is neither. And though, in reality, the death itself is quick and painless for the animal, it is a moment that lingers.

In some cultures, taking an animal’s life is an act of great spiritual importance, and many rituals have grown up around it, each marking the event as something significant. In Christianity too, saying grace and giving thanks must serve, in part, as a reminder that this food, this meat, is not to be taken for granted.

For me there is no ritual to be performed, and I would not go so far as to say that it is a spiritual event. But I do recognise something significant in it. And that recognition seems to be enough to satisfy any concerns, and, most importantly, to allow me to enjoy the food that it brings.

Malachy Tallack is 26 and lives in Fair Isle. He is a singer-songwriter, journalist, and editor of the magazine Shetland Life.
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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.