Veganism is on the rise. Seven per cent of Brits are forsaking meat, fish and dairy for a completely plant-based diet, making my thirty-eight years of vegetarianism look a bit…half-hearted. My decision in 1980 to give up meat was fairly apolitical, made with no understanding of farming or factory processes. It was less about animal rights and more about the yuck factor: I simply didn’t want to chew and swallow any more flesh.
Long before viral videos, animals were separated into two categories: potentially cute/clever/athletic; and sandwich fillers. This compartmentalisation, transmitted culturally from birth, prescribes different emotional responses for confronting different animals. Europeans are disgusted by dog in the Chinese diet yet not by horse in their own. The tiers of desirability into which we rank animals are used to classify them as best friend or bacon; back stage, their own natural hierarchies and behaviours continue much the same as ever.
During the great BSE cattle burning of the 1990s in which millions of cows were incinerated, I could never understand why people - carnivorous people - described the smell as “sickening”, and the stacks of animals as “funeral pyres”. Why not in barbeque terms? Why were the slaughtered masses any worse off than those who were dying one by one inside an abattoir? Cows for a while were seen as doleful, beleaguered beasts whose health had been wrecked by the farming industry’s greed. Of course, it didn’t last and when people felt it was safe to go back to their local Harvester for an all-you-can-eat Sunday roast, they forgot about the plight of poor old Daisy.
In the middle year of my first degree, I shared a house with four friends. There were also two animals in residence: Titian the cat and Caligula the rat. Titian was a big ginger blob that Sharon (an art student) brought home one day and named after the 16th century portraitist who loved to paint redheads. Despite his size, this cat displayed the stealth of a sleeker breed. He liked to quietly nudge open a bedroom door at night, slip in and sit on a sleeping head. This was assisted by the fact that none of us owned a bed frame and had simply placed our mattresses directly onto the floor. Being suffocated by a cat was bad enough, but as the trick was always accompanied by a loud purr of pleasure, I used to dream that I was in a burning helicopter before waking up and finding my hair had turned to fur.
Caligula - named after the tyrannical Roman emperor - was not granted such indulgent roaming rights by his owner, Mike (a drama student). Although quite docile, the rat was mainly cage-bound in an untidy bedroom from where he could look out at the jumble sale clothes, second-hand books and handle-less mugs, and no doubt wonder why the state didn’t increase the student living allowance. (To be fair, this was a time when higher education was mostly free and we were all fairly happy with our lot.) Occasionally, Mike would open the cage and let his pet snoop around the debris and do other ratty things, but only after ensuring that Titian was out on cat business. Considering the other accommodation options - sewers, gutters, bins - I thought Caligula had a pretty good life.
One afternoon, a friend dropped round to see Mike and was re-enacting something that had happened in class. Fretting over an essay in the next room, I could hear that the tale involved much stomping and laughter. At the time, sartorial young males were fans of Dr Marten boots and this particular visitor wore a pair of so-called ox-bloods. The soles’ heaviness gave the storytelling a ghosted reverb along the floorboards, so I could feel as well as hear the sudden silence that followed. I assumed this was also part of the playacting, but then came wailing and shouting, and then more wailing. My door opened and a shame-faced assassin admitted “I’ve killed Caligula”. Out on a room ramble, the rat had been accidentally crushed under two large dancing Docs. Not the ending you’d have predicted for a despot.
Next morning, looking for milk in the fridge (the only fresh goods we kept, since everyone lived on dried soup and Mars Bars), I was momentarily taken aback to see little feet poking out from the hinged ice-box door. It couldn’t be closed because a full-sized rat is somewhat larger than a tray of ice. Mike explained that this was a staging post between death and reincarnation: he just needed some time to find a taxidermist and could we all show some respect by having our tea black? This seemed a reasonable enough request and we all went along with it. The bag of rat eventually disappeared and months passed during which Mike mourned and we commiserated. Then one day, we were invited to welcome back his pet - now stuffed.
There was Caligula on a stand, with his name underneath on a brass plaque. He’d been positioned with two legs on the ground, two legs off, as if in hunting pose, yellow glass eyes searching for prey. He looked more silly than sadistic but no-one laughed. This was an attempt to create a good death from a pointless one. Or so we thought. A week or so later Mike came screaming down the stairs, bellowing at Sharon, a half-eaten rat in his hand. One set of claws was still attached to the platform, one glass eye stared out in surprise. Titian had clearly found something better than just a warm scalp on his evening prowl.
This incident was a lesson for us, still adapting our Punk wardrobes into New Romantic: animals are cruel and self-centred just like nature intended. Everything else is dressing up. It didn’t lead me back to a carnivorous existence (even if a mean critter perhaps deserves mastication), but instead gave me a feeling of magnanimity. Animals will eat each other - and me - without compunction, but as the higher species I have the luxury of choice. Are those people who go the full bean and become vegan therefore the most cultivated of humans?