Autumn 1997 | What A Difference A Day Makes – Ian McKellen
Those of us born in Britain in 1939 have a dietary advantage over succeeding generations. We were fed, unless living on a farm, with only wartime rations, which by today’s standards might be thought unhealthily meagre. On Saturdays, when we stocked up for the week, my mother blended the butter, the margarine and the top of the milk into a spreading paste which only lasted till Thursday.
Then it was dry bread until the following weekend. Similarly with meat. We managed a roast on Saturday lunch; which was served cold on Sunday after morning church, then ran out in a shepherd’s pie on Mondays.
Perhaps that’s why, post-war, I never developed a taste for steaks, chops or fish. Or was it rather a distaste for the slaughter of baa-lambs, Moo-cows, bunny-rabbits, quack-ducks and chuckey hens? Dead flesh only ever seemed really appetising when it was disguised by mincing or hidden by pastry or batter. I preferred corned beef, sardines or salmon scraped out of their cans and mashed into sandwiches with no signs of their living shape left.
Then came the day that made the crucial difference. I looked down from my terrace hanging over the Thames one morning. It was low tide and there, stranded on the pebbles, was a four-legged corpse – hairless, white and bloated. Was it a calf or a sheep or a goat or a dog? I stared at it until the tide rose and washed it away. For 24 hours I was off my food. When I started eating again, I couldn’t face meat – fresh or tinned.
Overnight I was vegetarian and I have been for 15 years or more. I’ve seen the pictures of factory farming and followed the politics of mad cow disease and felt effortlessly superior. Yet it’s not reason or conscience that keeps me off meat and fowl (and these days fish, too) -just a memory of that unidentifiable, decomposing body on the beach.