Will Self: Now I’m a vegetarian myself, I can say whatever the hell I like about it

The only possible course for the ethical meat-eater is to accept that our diet, in common with so many other of our lifestyle choices, is a matter of what we feel comfortable with, and to leave it at that.

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I have become a vegetarian – inadvertently. Here’s what happened: I went away last weekend to stay with people who eat not the flesh of the kine, so from Friday to Monday neither did I. Then on Monday I came down with a severe stomach bug, so although I haven’t eaten any meat for the rest of the week, nor have I eaten much of anything else either. Granted, this sort of vegetarianism by reason of necessity hardly counts: at least not if you believe that such a diet should be ethically enjoined. It has occurred to me over the past four days that I’ve had some sort of pacific revenge inflicted on me, my herbivorous hosts having detected – although I never said anything – that my belief in their lifestyle choice was less than wholehearted. “Why not,” I imagine them saying to each other, “give the rotten old carnivore a bad case of the trots with a dodgy mushroom? That’ll teach him to ridicule us.”

But I didn’t! I didn’t ridicule you! Don’t you remember? I snaffled up the nasturtiums and the polenta and the cracked wheat and the quinoa as if it were all going out of style. I earnestly engaged with the whys and wherefores of gut flora . . . I helped shell the peas, for Christ’s sake! Actually, I probably shouldn’t have mentioned the C-word, because in my experience ethical vegetarians are seldom Christian; which is understandable, as the central ceremony of this religion involves either symbolic or actual cannibalism. Anyway, now I’ve become a vegetarian I think I’m free to say what the hell I like about the practice, much in the manner Jews are allowed to crack anti-Semitic jokes (a privilege I frequently avail myself of) and black people to say “nigger”.

I remember back in the early Eighties sharing a house with a bunch of fellow students, most of whom were of the herbal persuasion. What used to freak me out about the repasts they prepared was their meaty mimicry: bean burgers, nut roasts and – worst of all – pizzas decorated with roundels of aubergine cut and cooked to resemble slices of pepperoni. There are many disappointments in life, and things are often not what they seem, but to bite into a pizza and get a mouthful of roasted aubergine is enough ironic reversal for any one lifetime. Naturally, I used to debate with these veggies; haven’t we all? It’s a never-ending topic, one calculated to rise on a methane-rich afflatus at any mixed gathering of ham-heads and Brussels sprouts brains.

If the contention is that our present methods of meat production are a disgusting abuse of our fellow creatures, you’d have to be a purblind idiot not to concur. If the contention, further, is that these methods are not environmentally sustainable, and that if we wish to feed a world population which (contra all neoliberal Panglosses) continues to rise, universal vegetarianism is the only workable option, then I say: “Fine! Right!” Because we’ve done brilliantly with encouraging sustainability in all other areas of consumption, now haven’t we? And people are so less greedy when it comes to food than, say, fossil fuels, aren’t they? No, no, such dreams of a brave new meat-free future are just that: dreams. Equally dreamy are those influenced by eastern mysticism who imagine we are entirely what we eat, so that a human species full of arugula would, of necessity, be altruistic. To them there is, was and always be a one-word riposte – Hitler.

But we mustn’t caricature vegetarians (of whom, I think I may have mentioned, I am one). For the most part the perspicacious muesli-munchers I know accept that human beings are omnivorous garbage-heads by nature. One of the best ways to understand who we are, in fact, is to imagine what it would be like if rats were the apex predators. They also accept that in our hunting and gathering past we evolved a complex belief system that honoured rather than despoiled the ecosystems on which we depended. Indeed, the fashion for organic and free-range meat attempts to replicate this belief system within the context of market capitalism. How many times have you read a screed of this form on a packet of dry-cured Wiltshire bacon: “At Sunnybrook Farm our piglets all have names and their own comfy room, and receive a prep-school education before, aged three, being flown club class to Zurich for assisted suicide. We believe this gives their meat a special flavour of reverence. We enjoy it, and hope you will, too.”

And yes, the bacon brought in at Sunny­brook Farm is tasty – but it will never be tasty enough to mask the evil taint of all those de-beaked and de-clawed chickens pumped full of antibiotics, or the veal calves kept penned up in the dark until the poleaxe falls. No, the only possible course for the ethical meat-eater is to accept that our diet, in common with so many other of our lifestyle choices, is a matter of what we feel comfortable with, and to leave it at that. My brother became a vegetarian when he set up a company producing high-end dog food. He told me he was so revolted by visiting abattoirs that he threw away his steak knives. That he continues to manufacture dog food in increasing quantities is a ­testimony to his utter irrationality – and to ours.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 16 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Motherhood Trap