Archive | July, 2011

How My Grandfather Turned Me Into A Vegetarian.

10 Jul

I became a vegetarian when I was 17. I am now 61 and have not knowingly eaten meat or fish for 44 years. A lot of this was down to my paternal Grandfather – George Arthur Bates. George Arthur, my dad’s dad, was a coal miner and later a steel worker. In his spare time he tilled a large garden and allotment, groaning with fruit and veg and he also ran a small holding ( tiny farm) where he reared pigs and chickens. ( and a pony he had “rescued” from the gypsies.) Thus much of the family’s food was home sourced. It was the small-holding that gave George Arthur his nickname : “Piggy Bates”. My father, Maurice Reuben, inherited this name with all its unfortunate connotations. He may well have experienced a hard time at school because of it. Dad grew up in the 1920’s and 30’s, being quite used to home-produced eggs, ham, bacon and sausages. In the days when a chicken was still regarded as a luxury ( before the mass-production of modern factory-farming), the family would treat themselves to one of their birds on special occasions.

A perceptive friend of mine who shared a few pub meals with my parents and I, noticed that no matter how long dad deliberated over the menu, he always ended up choosing gammon. My friend asked dad whether his choice had something to do with looking after pigs when he was young. Maurice nodded and proceeded to tell us how he used to help his father slaughter pigs, chop them up, salt the pieces of meat to preserve them and then store them in barrels which were kept in the cool of the wash-house. Obviously, this was before the all embracing rule of Health and Safety regulations. I was amazed at this story! It sounded like something from the Middle Ages, yet here was oral testimony of my own father doing it within living memory. “Gammon”, according to the dictionary, is the bottom piece of a flitch of bacon, including the hind leg. A “flitch” is defined as a side of pork, salted and cured. Apparently a flitch was awarded annually at Dunmow in Essex ( near Stansted airport) to any couple proving conjugal harmony for a year and a day. It was hard to imagine my own dad, up to his ankles in blood, gore and salt, working away to preserve meat for the winter. It’s a far cry from visiting a supermarket freezer and picking out a pre-prepared, cellophane- wrapped steak or a packet of frozen sausages.

It was then that I remembered grandad’s gruesome stories. He thought they were hilarious but my sister and I were horrified.One was about a pig he was trying to slaughter by slitting its throat. The pig struggled free and ran squealing down the road at high speed. My grandad pursued it for 5 miles but he never lost his prey because of the thick trail of sticky blood it was leaving in its wake. It finally collapsed, presumably due to loss of blood, and my grandad was then able to finish the job in the middle of the road.

Another story was about chopping a chicken’s head off on the kitchen table and seeing it leap up and run madly around the kitchen minus its head, before it dropped dead. Grandad thought this was a scream but I failed to find the funny side of the tale. I imagine this must be a common phenomenum, as panicking people are often described as being like “headless chickens.”

One Christmas in the mid 1960’s, Grandad Bates presented us with one of his chickens. This was regarded as a treat for us, as birds, whether chicken, goose or turkey, were too expensive for our family to afford. Up to that point we had usually eaten pork for Christmas dinner, presumably from one of grandad’s slaughtered pigs. This time however, we were being “honoured” with a chicken. As I stood by the small holding with my dad, grandad grabbed a chicken, wrung its neck in a flash and gave it to us. My dad was pleased but I was shocked by the casual, unfeeling brutality of the act. A life had been instantly extinguished to provide us with a meal. Ironically we were to celebrate a birth by means of a death!

Up to that point, I don’t think I had really connected the flesh on my plate with the living animal, bird or fish that had so recently roamed the earth. Like many others I suspect, I regarded haddock or a cod as something tasty to eat, not a fish that had been swimming in the sea, while sausages and bacon were part of the “full English” fried breakfast, not a sensitive, intelligent mammal that lived on a farm and that featured in childrens’ story book books with pink flesh and a cute, curly tail.

I suppose I should thank George Arthur for giving me this revelation. It led to me changing my life and becoming a vegetarian. A schoolfriend, Vic, and I started to research the subject. Vic showed me a graphic Sunday supplement article about what happened to animals in our abattoirs. The mass slaughter of animals by shooting metal bolts into their brains was almost too horrifying to read. The article also spoke of the brutalisation of the people doing the constant killing, leading inevitably to further abuse and cruelty. Many years later I was not surprised at all at the secretly filmed footage of workers at a Bernard Matthews turkey farm playing baseball with live birds!

Back in the 60’s Vic and I started asking more and more questions and always came up with depressing answers. In my own family for instance, I found out that Thomas, my maternal Grandfather’s favourite dish, black-pudding, was actually made from congealed pig’s blood! ( yuk!) Meanwhile my old friend, George Arthur, loved tripe, which was not a fish as I first thought but part of a cow’s stomach lining! It seemed that we were all eating dismembered body parts as a matter of routine and thinking nothing of it — steak and KIDNEY pie, LIVER and onions, LEG of lamb etc. My maternal Grandma, Alice, liked to serve TONGUE as part of high tea. Now I fully realized what I had been eating, and was retrospectively horrified and disgusted.

Seeing grandad’s poor chicken lying lifelessly on the kitchen work-surface, its head hanging limply away from its body, was my “Saul on the road to Damacus” moment. From that time on I was not to eat any more meat or fish. Dad invited me to pluck the dead bird and take out its giblets. He was obviously used to this and thought it a routine thing to do. I not only refused to help him but also refused to eat any of it on Christmas day. At first my dad mocked me and mum was concerned that I would fall ill or even die if I didn’t eat any meat. Dad ordered my mum to keep giving me the same piece of meat for every meal until I gave up and ate it. He was trying to be the stern Victorian father, recreating his own upbringing. But this tactic did not work. My mother took pity on me and fed me while dad was at work. However, she did try to trick me by hiding chopped- up sausages in my mashed potatoes!

Later on, my younger brother, Graham, also became a vegetarian, completely independently of me. ( he is 15 years younger.)  I imagine that my poor, bemused parents must have wondered where on earth they had gone wrong. To them, animals, birds and fish were just a source of food for us human-beings. They have never thought that eating meat can be seen as: a moral, ethical, economic or religious issue that one must take a stance on. In this instance, my mum and dad , Maurice and Jessie, form part of the vast majority who don’t think that the taking of a creature’s life is wrong. The majority of people enjoy their powerful position at the top of the food chain without having any trouble from their consciences or feeling any responsibility for the countless lives that have been wiped out on their behalf. We vegetarians believe that the unnecessary ending of any life is wrong and want no part of the industrial scale slaughter that provides meat for the masses. We value our consciences above our stomachs.

But, as you know, becoming a vegetarian means also becoming a part of a tiny minority. This is the reason why for most of my life, I have felt that I have been living in the wrong world, like a square peg in a round hole. Thanks a lot Grandad!