“Why did you become a vegan, Ian?” This is a question that I’ve been asked many times and no doubt I’ll be asked it again, and again… But it’s a perfectly reasonable one and I usually try to make a constructive response.
It didn’t happen overnight and it took around 10 years from my first dabblings with vegetarianism to becoming a fully paid-up vegan. I’d always scorned health-food freaks until there was a sudden explosion of media interest in the subject around 1984 and I began to think about it more carefully. At the time I was boozing regularly, smoking a fair bit as well as having the occasional toot of amphetamine sulphate and it occurred to me that it wouldn’t do any harm to balance out these bad habits with a few good ones. I had a serious accident in August 1984 when I fell off a high window-ledge and so I had plenty of time to mull over my existence while recuperating from all of my injuries. I decided to try to adopt a healthier lifestyle, part of which would be to see if I could cut out eating meat from New Year’s Day 1985.
I hadn’t eaten much meat in my life anyway. I didn’t like the taste, the smell or the look of a lot of it when I was a kid. I attended school dinners for over four years and they used to put a lot of pressure on us to eat our meals, including all kinds of horrible bits of dead animals. I recall one particular occasion vividly – I was nine and a certain male teacher, who clearly never liked me, forced me to eat a large piece of liver. At the age of twelve I stayed for a week at my friend’s grandmother’s house and when she heard that “Ian doesn’t like much meat”, she insisted on giving me loads of it with big bits of fat wobbling all over the place. She was a lovely woman and was only doing what she thought was best for a growing lad but this was typical of grown-ups’ attitudes at that time. Also she was probably showing that she had a decent home i.e. one that could afford to put meat on the table.
I’d never felt happy about animals being killed so that we could eat them. When we were little kids my sister and I visited a farm on Sundays and ‘adopted’ a piglet which we called Roscoe. We were both very sad when we heard he’d got the chop. Another time my dad brought home a dead rabbit and we stared mortified as it hung from the kitchen wall. The next day we ate a meaty meal which my parents rather unconvincingly tried to persuade us was not the rabbit, which had simultaneously disappeared from the wall. I spent a year in rural Queensland in 1982/83 and had helped to raise a flock of ducks, most of whom were throttled, and then consumed by my friends and myself. I believe Lewis Caroll said you should never eat anything to which you’ve been previously introduced. I really felt awful about that and also about catching fish in the creek near our house and watching them die.
So, it was partly for health reasons, partly because I didn’t like meat too much anyway and partly because I didn’t like the idea of killing animals or keeping them in cruel conditions. But there was another reason too – I enjoy making my life more difficult than it is to give myself a bit of a challenge.
So at the beginning of 1985 I cut out the meat I was eating and that was mainly fish, sausages, kebabs and bacon sanies. If you can resist the aroma of a bacon sandwich, then you’ve arrived – I still think they smell great actually. At home it was no problem but if I was at someone else’s house, then at first I’d sometimes just eat what they’d prepared. It can be difficult in this situation as you don’t want to appear rude but I found that if you gave people ample warning, they could sort out a vegetarian alternative. (Wicked hosts of course love to pour meat juices onto veggie platters and observe them being wolfed down with many a compliment.) After a while your coterie of friends and family get used to you and cater accordingly. Personally I don’t mind making a meat or fish meal for someone at my home, though many vegetarians wouldn’t. I never try to preach to anyone about it as that’s a sure way to alienate your listener. A number of people have taken a great deal of interest in my diet and they can see that I’m fit and very healthy so I think that this is the best way to try to affect those around you, if you want to at all that is. “Do you feel any different?” is a question I’m sometimes asked – what kind of daft question is that?
After some years I wondered if I could cut out dairy products too. Some people have asked me why, as you don’t have to kill a cow to get its milk. Well, it’s because cows are artificially inseminated to keep them almost constantly pregnant and not only does this wear them out long before their time but it produces a stream of calves, many of which are reared to produce veal, and I think you know how horrible that used to be. Milk production is of course a lucrative part of this process. With the advent of soya substitutes, I found this easy to do. In case you don’t know, you can buy soya milk, soya cheese, soya margarine and all kinds of soya sausages etc. They’re getting more like the real thing all the time and are currently available in large supermarkets and specialist health food shops. It has to be said though that they are pretty expensive. You can even buy artificial smoky bacon bits. I love crisps, even though they’re far from good for your health, and I do enjoy a nice packet of beef or bacon – they usually haven’t had an animal anywhere near them.
One thing that I’ve seriously got into is reading labels on food products as it’s amazing where bits of animals end up. What goes into many alcoholic drinks is still something of a mystery but I was mortified in late 1993 to discover that Guinness contains something called eisenglass, which is made of fish bladders and is used to filter the brew. My name was almost synonymous with Guinness until that point and it was with much regret that I ceased to drink it. The next time I went to the blood-donors, they wouldn’t accept me because the iron level in my blood was too low. They suggested that I consume iron-rich food and drinks like …Guinness.
Occasionally, usually when I’m abroad, I may consume some meat or dairy product by mistake and I’m not the type to roll around screaming if that happens. In some countries of course the basic idea of vegetarianism isn’t fully understood. In Greece for example waiters will put their hands on their hearts and assure you that the plate of beans before you contains no meat even though it’s clearly had a few hefty spoonfuls of meat-juices lobbed on it somewhere down the line.
Naturally many people take great delight in trying to knock others off what they perceive as pedestals and will enjoy mocking any apparent slips by the holier than thou one. But to me it’s like anything else; you do your best to practise something you believe in. It’s the same as trying to be good in your job, good at a sport, being a good husband/wife/partner, a good parent or a good person. Most people wouldn’t claim to be 100% perfect at any of these but they wouldn’t give up trying either.
Vegetarianism is obviously just some kind of fashion accessory for many people or a way of informing others how wonderful they are – I remember one woman I used to know who managed to get the fact that she was a vegetarian into the first few minutes after meeting someone. Who cares?
My sister was a veggie for a while and so were her two Alsatians. Actually dogs don’t need meat to survive but don’t try this with your cat as cats need a certain enzyme that they can only get from meat.
I don’t buy leather shoes or clothes but wouldn’t refuse to wear them if somebody bought me them – I’m a teacher and my class once clubbed together to buy me a lovely pair of leather brogues. It would have been churlish not to have worn them. If one of them offered me some meaty food though, then I always politely declined. Maybe that seems illogical, but then again vegetarianism itself isn’t really logical either as if you were so worried about killing things, then you wouldn’t kill any bacteria by pouring Domestos down the bog or even moving an inch.
Times must have changed because nobody seems to take the piss out of me any more for being a veggie. There’d always been the inevitable nut-cutlet cracks and comments about how ill most vegetarians look but we’ve ceased to be a tiny minority in this country and more and more children are taking a serious interest in what they eat and where it comes from – I can’t imagine that a sadistic schoolteacher would force a child to eat something repugnant to them these days. Salmonella, mad cow disease and ecoli have also swayed many minds. Most medical experts agree that you should cut down on red meat, reduce your consumption of fatty foods such as butter and cheese, and eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables. So it seems that many factors are pointing to vegetarianism as a source of healthy living and it’s fast becoming a common choice of lifestyle and has ceased to be viewed as an object of scorn and the province of weirdos, as it was in the very recent past.