The last time I ate a McDonald's hamburger, I was violently sick later that same night. That was when I was eight years old. Since then, avoiding McDonald's has been not so much a conscious decision as a self-preservative instinct. The mind may forget nauseous trauma, but the body never does. When, aged 18, I drove around America with a friend, steering clear of McDonald's wasn't always easy. After a day on the road the prospect of instant sustenance, for not much money, seemed appealing. This being America, however, alternatives invariably lay close at hand, and I ate more Burger King Whoppers on that trip than I care to remember.
By and large I have come to regard my exclusion from the Republic of the Golden Arches as a blessing. Ronald McDonald, the company's sinister clown mascot, has never had any hold over me. I was freshly reminded of my good fortune the other day when I watched the anti-McDonald's documentary McLibel, which has just been released as a full-length feature, a shorter version having been shown on TV last year. One of the film's most powerful scenes is a covert video recording of an appearance by Ronald McDonald at a children's fun day. As excited children gather around the grinning clown, who is handing out stickers, I was reminded of nothing so much as a paedophile priming his victims by doling out sweeties.
The film, a sort of British counterpart to Super Size Me, tells the story of two activists, Helen Steel and Dave Morris, who took on McDonald's in the courts - something that few people had ever dared do. In 1990, McDonald's issued libel writs against both of them after they had been involved in an anti-McDonald's leaflet campaign. Rather than retract their allegations, they stood their ground. McDonald's took them to court, and there followed a three-year trial, the longest in English legal history. Its outcome was inconclusive: the judge upheld some of the McDonald's complaints, but not others. However, it turned into a huge PR disaster for the corporation, and helped ensure that it would think twice about suing anyone else for libel. It is now possible to criticise McDonald's openly, where previously it seemed that it wasn't. In effect, Steel and Morris's stubbornness cleared the way for the anti-fast-food movement, and everything good that has come from it.
Rather than embracing their celebrity activist status, Steel and Morris remain self-effacing. They have gone back to doing what they used to do - campaigning on local issues (they are now protesting against an arms factory in Brighton). Their story, brilliantly captured in Franny Armstrong's film, is a genuinely inspiring tale of how, in our increasingly standardised world, people who stand up for their principles can make a difference.