Moo closer: presenter Michael Mosley
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Cattle royale: why red meat should be a treat

Chicken is permitted to remain on the all-you-can-eat buffet, even if it has been produced in a vast shed containing 54,000 birds. Ditto mussels.

Should I Eat Meat?
BBC2

Michael Mosley’s latest two-part documentary series, Should I Eat Meat? (18 and 20 August, 9pm), covered some drearily familiar territory. It took him a full hour to provide us, in essence, with the advice that the American foodie academic Michael Pollan previously reduced to just seven words (“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants”) and yet another to reveal that our ever-growing taste for beef is unsustainable. (Most of us know by now that cattle produce massive amounts of planet-warming methane but this didn’t stop Mosley from measuring their belches and farts with a hand-held device more often used to detect emissions from ropy gas fires.) Yawning and restless, I found my mind frequently wandering to such important matters as Mosley’s hairstyle, the shape of his mouth and the likely size of the royalties he has received for his bestselling book The Fast Diet.

Still, there was one eye-popping interlude, particularly for cow-phobes (striding through fields, I’m always convinced that I will be trampled to death like the lecherous Nicholas Hardiment in the Posy Simmonds comic Tamara Drewe). In the second film, Mosley visited yet another white-coated scientist. This one was trying to discover more about the digestive systems of ruminants. In a shed, there stood a cow. It was a perfectly ordinary brown cow, or so it seemed at first. On closer inspection, however, it was revealed to have a substantial porthole in its left flank. Yes, a porthole. The scientist approached the cow, which was contentedly munching its way through a bucket of hay. From the porthole, he then removed a rubber plug, thus providing us with a clear view of the cow’s rumen (the first and largest of its stomachs), inside which there churned and pulsated a hot, green mass of partially digested hay. Ugh! It was like watching a living, breathing washing machine, only minus the Daz, the Comfort and the clean knickers.

Mosley, as ever eager to join in, slipped a long, plastic glove on to his right arm, reached in and duly pulled out a hefty plug of the green stuff. “There’s quite a smell,” he said, wrinkling his nose prettily. At this point, I expected the animal to give him a good kick. Alas, the cow was unperturbed. Its tail swished mildly; its jaw continued doggedly to move from side to side. Not even so much as a “moo” was forthcoming. Mosley then set off to visit a “concentrated animal-feeding operation” somewhere in the American Midwest. Thanks to its vast scale, I now found myself in full-blown nightmare territory. It was as if he had unaccountably landed on a planet populated entirely by cattle. All those doleful, black eyes staring out at him . . . Faced with such a prospect in the Peak District, I would have no option but to lock myself in the nearest pub and telephone for an air ambulance.

Lately, Mosley has been all about giving advice. It’s not only the “5:2 diet” we have to thank (or blame) him for; he has also helped to popularise the three-minute-long exercise regime known as “high-intensity training”. No wonder the Daily Mail can’t get enough of him. So, what did he have for us on the meat front? It came down to this: if we want to prolong our lives and that of the planet, we should eat less red meat. It should be a treat, as it was for our grandparents. Chicken, though, is permitted to remain on the all-you-can-eat buffet, even if it has been produced in a vast shed containing 54,000 birds (Mosley was weirdly unworried by the experience of visiting such a farm). Ditto mussels.

If you’re a Mosley follower and are worrying about what all this means in practice, then don’t. You only eat properly five days a week anyway. This is going to be a cinch! Used wisely, a decent-sized chicken will last four days. First, you roast it. Then you use the leftovers in a risotto, a pilaf, or even a pie. Finally, with the bones, you make a hearty soup. Your daily exercise can be completed in less time than it takes to boil an egg, so you will easily have the energy for all this cooking. On the fifth day, you may fry yourself a tiny steak and feel wonderfully holy, your new cheekbones glowing with piety and conviction, just like the ever-sagacious Mosley’s. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, What the Beatles did for Britain

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era