Project Fear May Be Over, But Reality Is Much More Frightening


If any proof were needed of the Leave campaign’s main raison d’être, you only have to look at Boris Johnson’s latest column in the Telegraph.

In a bid for the keys to Number 10 that has been on the cards since he first stepped out in front of camera crews to announce his epiphanic volte face on Europe a few months ago, he sets out a scenario that includes a relationship with the EU that appears remarkably similar to the one we have now.

The most startling pledge is that, as PM, he will maintain our membership of the single market. Hardly surprising given that the economic impact of Thursday’s vote has reverberated through the markets and continues to shred what little hope there is that we can avert another recession in the coming months.

Even that great elder statesman of British-bulldogism, Nigel Farage, has announced that we’re headed for another downturn, although of course he says any connection with us slamming the lid to the EU cookie jar firmly down on our own bruised fingers is purely coincidental.

What Johnson doesn’t seem to highlight in his column is the salient point that membership of the single market carries with it the requirement to allow free movement between member states.

In what seems to be a muddled version of the Norway option, he appears to be proposing we accept what amounts to the current status quo on border controls. Considering this was painted as one of the core evils of our EU membership, one has to wonder at his true motivations.

The future that Johnson seems to see is a Europe who will be our friends with benefits. Except without most of the benefits. As many predicted before the vote, we’ll be left having to accept many of the EU’s regulations and pre-requisites, with no say in how they’re administered.

His apparent insouciance over something, that prior to the vote, he was well and truly out of his pram about is revealing. Proof, if any were needed, that his involvement in the campaign was little more than a cynical shortcut to the premiership. In short, he’s gambled all our futures on his own ambition.

Taken with clarification from other key members of the Leave campaign that the apocryphal £350m a week that we are supposed to be saving from abandoning Europe will probably not be spent on the things they claimed it would, it’s looking like much of the argument for Brexit was based, at best, on ambitious kite flying and, at worst, on outright lies.

There’s been understandable concern from many areas that were in receipt of large amounts of EU subsidy that the government will commit to match this funding in a post EU Britain. A situation that should henceforth form part of any dictionary definition of self abuse, considering areas such as Sunderland, Cornwall and most of Wales voted in favour of sawing off the branch they were all standing on.

With both main Westminster parties in total disarray, it appears that Boris is trying to ever so carefully put the genie back in the bottle. Like the old saying goes – ‘be careful what you wish for, as you might just get it’.

In his usual style he throws about plenty of verbal chaff, talking about “destroying coils of EU bureaucracy” which sounds rather poetic whilst giving very little indication of a real plan. A plan that we now know was never written, because in his heart of hearts he never expected to need one.

The marked reluctance on behalf of what’s left of the government to trigger Article 50 seems to suggest they’re also well and truly out of their depth. But unfortunately we’re all in the water with them now.

It’s worth noting that since he became heir apparent to the keys of the kingdom, Boris’s characteristic bombast has been decidedly absent. Is this him trying on the clothes of senior statesman, or does he realise that now he’s rocked the boat, his life jacket has quite a few holes in it?


I spent the best part of two days on social media asking one simple question of those who voted leave : “What’s the plan?”. There was very little clarity beyond whistling in the dark and jingoistic fervour.

Plenty of people told me to ‘get over it’ and accept democracy. The overall proposition was that this was akin to a TV talent competition and the Remainers had ‘lost’. Yet none of the winners were able to tell me what their prize actually was. Very few seemed to see my concern about our future as anything other than sour grapes.

There was a repeated mantra that we don’t have to do anything in haste. That there was plenty of time to take stock. A quaint belief that the politicians would guide us through the uncertainty. Uncertainty they triggered by their own inability to guide us in the first place.

As a growing number of people publicly and privately express regret at having voted to leave, it seems that to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive. Especially when you’re on a mystery tour that may not be as magical as you were led to believe.

Yes we can delay any formal moves towards leaving the union pretty much indefinitely , but in the meantime markets will fall, investment will stall, prices and unemployment will rise and uncertainty and instability will eat away at what’s left of our deceptively shaky economy.

But that was all just ‘project fear’ and Boris has announced that we’re done with all that fearmongering now.

He may well be right, but if he’s to become our new undemocratically imposed head bureaucrat, we may also be about to realise that reality can be much more frightening than even our wildest imaginings.

We Shouldn’t Let the Immigration Debate Decide Our Place in Europe


So here it is. After years of campaigning and complaining, manoeuvring and cajoling, half-truths and good old fashioned British pig-headedness, the moaning masses of middle England have finally got their referendum.

I say ‘their’ referendum because this isn’t being staged at great expense for those of us who want to stay part of Europe. It’s not even for those who don’t really give a toss either way.

It’s certainly not for those more outward looking souls, who appreciate the many advantages of being a member of the European club. The easy movement between states (yes that does apply to us as well as all those annoying refugees and migrants) and the free transport of goods. Funding for urban and industrial renewal. Numerous environmental improvements to beaches, rivers and the countryside, including controls on things like GMOs. Human rights, animal rights, consumer rights. Cheaper phone charges and easier and cheaper travel and currency exchange. Social welfare protection and labour rights, and a panoply of other advantages that most people take for granted and will miss when they’re gone.

No, it’s a referendum for misguided and ill-informed little-Englanders, draped in Union flags, firm in the belief of two world wars and one world cup and certain the word ‘Great’ attached to Britain means something other than the first letter on a sticker they slap on the back of their booze cruise charabang, just to remind those envious foreigners that they were unlucky enough to be born on inferior soil.

But moreover, it’s a referendum for politicians who have been looking at continental Europe down the wrong end of the telescope for so long now, they just don’t realise how small this country has become on the world stage. A myopic concern about how much money we pay to Europe and a studied ignorance of the huge returns our EU membership generates.

Most people who focus on our payment to Brussels like to remind us what else we could do with that money. Yet with a growing national debt, and stubbornly high deficit, any such savings would likely fall into the same black hole as most of the rest of our national finances. Either that or it would go towards servicing the country’s circa £50bn annual interest payments, paid in large part to European banks anyway.

It’s not 1975. The geo-political landscape has changed around us since the last time we decided if we wanted to be a part of Europe. Yes, back in the swinging 70s it was the ‘Common Market’, but by necessity and common interest it’s become more than that. Those advocating some kind of return to a simple trading relationship are ignoring both the reality of our reduced place in the world and the promiscuity of world markets.

Neither is it 1938, even though Cameron’s Chamberlain moment was equally as hollow. Just like his pre-war counterpart, the agreement he reached in Brussels was peripheral and disposable, focussing as it did on the false polemic of immigration and border control.

It was a pantomime, with Donald Tusk and Angela Merkel as the ugly sisters to Cameron’s Cinderella. Shouts of “they’re behind you” were evident from the likes of UKIP and Front National pointing to the ‘hordes’ or ‘swarms’ or ‘bunches’ of ‘migrants’, ‘refugees’ or ‘immigrants’, depending on which description David Cameron and the BBC have alighted on this week.

I totally agree that EU democratic and regulatory processes are in desperate need of reform, but these weren’t the points that Cameron argued. Driven by domestic pressures, piled on by a widening xenophobic rhetoric, he was pushed into a rushed and ill-conceived round of negotiations that resulted in him metaphorically claiming ‘peace in our time’ outside Number 10. It was a performance put on to give him a platform to launch the referendum that we all knew was coming, and the critic’s reviews weren’t great.

Sadly for him, us, and the rest of Europe, this was a missed opportunity that could have sparked a trans-national debate about the real future of the EU and brought about radical changes to shape it into something more even-handed and responsive to the needs of all member states.

But instead, Cameron wasted what could have been his real place in history for the sake of a thumbs up from the likes of Farage, Gove and Galloway whilst gaining little tangible return for the UK, save for some token restrictions on benefit payments to migrants who rarely claim them anyway.

In fact it’s recently been revealed that the UK government has no idea how much immigration costs us, nor how much migrants contribute to our economy. But let’s not let a little thing like lack of facts get in the way of a nicely staked out scapegoat.

And while we’re on the subject of discrimination, we mustn’t forget those hard-pressed city bankers quaking in their handmade brogues, terrified that they may be penalised for being outside the Eurozone. That of course, amid the posturing about immigration, was the main concern for Cameron and his paymasters. Essentially he was in Brussels to fight for the right to discriminate against the poor whilst protecting the interests of the obscenely rich, although of course that wasn’t so eagerly reported.

And there we have it. The crux of all this political, psychological and media-spun mendacity – Corporate interest. Insular businesses seeking to rid themselves of the European interference and regulation that keeps all the rest of us safer and better looked after. The refugee and migrant crises couldn’t have come at a better time for these vested interests to galvanise public opinion in favour of an out vote.

On this flimsiest of pretexts, and on evidence largely pulled out UKIP’s collective backside, we’re potentially going to launch ourselves into one of the biggest national disasters for several generations. The ‘Brexit’ silo mentality that is about as relevant in today’s globally connected society as statutes recorded on vellum.

One of the greatest achievements and advantages of the EU is freedom of movement between states. It’s a harbinger of a future globalised socio-economic system where borders and statehood will be irrelevant. One where the term ‘economic-migrant’ will no longer be a thinly veiled insult, just as it wasn’t when we and other nations economically migrated across the globe centuries ago, annexing and occupying entire countries as we went. In that context, and in view of the Tories much vaunted ‘on your bike’ ethos, I find it perplexing that we now seem to regard our attraction as place of opportunity as a bad thing.

And while we’re on that subject, if I were a British migrant living on the continent I’d be feeling distinctly uncomfortable right now. Especially those who have lived there for longer than 15 years and are inexplicably denied the right to vote in a referendum that may well decide their future.

Those whistling tunes in the dark about independent trade agreements with Europe and other global partners will soon find that our status as the 5th richest nation in the world is built on foundations largely stamped with a CE logo. Already Sterling has plummeted on the news that Boris is heading for the lifeboats.

Much of our apparent wealth is generated by the financial sector and supported by our membership of the EU. Who will want to trade with us as a small individual nation with a growing national debt and a dwindling economic base? No wonder the city was such a key part of Cameron’s negotiations.

The finance sector is pretty much all we have left. We don’t have anything else to trade. China and the USA know this and have already warned us that a UK outside the EU will be of much less interest to them. The US in particular sees our connection with Europe as a valuable conduit into EU financial markets.

Uncoupling ourselves from the EU will be a long, painful and essentially irreversible process. We won’t wake up one day and see bluebirds over the white cliffs and a land of milk and honey for all. It will take years of debate, legal dispute and the unpicking of labyrinthine systems of regulation woven into our own statutory frameworks. A drawn out and retrograde process, during which I believe we’ll slowly come to see the folly of our ways.

And once we’ve closed our borders and thumbed our noses at one of the biggest trading blocs on the planet, it will be too late to realise that we’re now more of a Pekinese than a bulldog. An isle not so much sceptred as septic, poisoned by our own arrogance and bigotry, left entirely at the mercy of a broken political system where wealth goes one way, and protection is only there for those who can afford it.

As Britain shrivels into, at best, a tawdry tax haven in perpetual serfdom to a rich elite, we’ll come to the sad realisation that we’ve been sold a Jerusalem built on false promises and false flags. I wonder if border controls and apocryphal straight bananas will seem quite so important then.


This is a copy of a post published on my regular Huffington Post page.  You can read and comment on it there too at

If You Take Civil Rights Seriously, Don’t Make A Joke Of Animal Abuse

Civil-Rights-LawIt’s a fairly well-worn assertion that the behaviour of spree murderers often relates to them torturing or killing small animals in their earlier years. It’s been shown that numerous serial killers got started in their chosen profession by offing a few local pooches and maybe microwaving a cat or two.

For some time now there’s been a worrying increase in the level of violence used against domestic animals by law enforcement officers in the USA. These individuals have casually unloaded on everything from family dogs to a litter of feral kittens dispatched by an officer whilst consoling a group of traumatised children with the comforting news that he was sending them all to ‘kitty heaven’.

Some people might say that in the same way as serial killers become inured to violence, some US police departments have developed a similar offhand attitude towards lethal force.  If you can kill a small animal with apparent impunity, how does that feed into your behaviour when you’re confronted by a potential felon?  Certainly some of the video evidence seems to suggest that a shoot first and then shoot another 14 times pattern of behaviour is emerging.  In my opinion it points to a police service that’s becoming more out of control by the day.

As an animal rights advocate, I can’t help but see this as a part of the landscape of what many are now calling the American Spring. When the use of firearms against defenceless animals becomes commonplace, it puts the apparently unceremonious shooting of Michael Brown into a rather different context.  You can’t help but watch the video above and relate it to the equally distressing use of firearms in situations like this or this.

vicksdogsIt’s depressing though that some well known black entertainers don’t share the same outrage against members of their own community displaying the same gateway behaviour. Comments from a few years ago made by such black luminaries as Chris Rock and Steve Harvey, around the time of the imprisonment of the former football star Michael Vick, have been re-surfacing lately as part of moral relativism argument about the treatment of black citizens.

Vick was jailed over dog fighting charges in 2007 after the Bad Newz Kennels investigation, where he was found to be behind an illegal dog fighting ring and closely involved with the animal abuse inherent in that pastime.

[Edit – I’ve since been informed that Vick was actually prosecuted for tax infringements surrounding his business activities – possibly relating to dogfighting – and not for operating the Bad Newz Kennels themselves]

During one charming video vignette referring to Vick’s imprisonment, Mr Rock suggested that raping his dog would be OK by him, while fellow stand-up Steve Harvey explained in some detail how he thought Vick’s treatment of dogs was somehow justified because of the police shooting of a Sean Bell a couple of years earlier.

In some ways I agree with Harvey. There is a huge disconnect if the abuse of animals is treated as more important than that of a human being, because it’s not. It’s equally as serious. Both abuses should have been treated in the same way and the perpetrators prosecuted.

Of course the comments made during his stage appearance were deliberately intended to shock. He was quite rightly angry and wanted to convey that to the audience. His shouts of “F*** them dogs!” certainly got him plenty of whoops and fist pumps, probably in same way some unreconstructed comedians would have got a standing ovation for an easy-win racist gag 40 years ago.

But the premise that some forms of violence and abuse are acceptable, or not serious enough to warrant a custodial sentence, is just the same argument being tacitly forwarded by those defending the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson.

It’s a the familiar proposition of prejudice. You count for less because you’re the wrong colour, the wrong sex, the wrong religion, the wrong sexuality, are disabled, or have more than two legs and a penchant for lampposts. It’s a phenomenon known to animal rights campaigners as speciesism, and it’s every bit as pernicious as sexism and racism. There’s even a movie about it.

speciesism_sticker-p217264424060693690qjcl_400The right not to be victimised or belittled because of your race, sex, religion or physical form is something most civilised people have accepted as a given. That expectation of respect and the freedom to live your life in peace should not be determined by the colour of your skin any more than what genome you happen to belong to. Once you accept that the value of a life fits somewhere on a sliding scale, you leave your own life open to be placed on that slippery slope by someone who maybe doesn’t share your opinion of it’s worth.

Animal rights today are probably where civil rights were 150 years ago. Those treating the subjugation of animals as a joke now would do well to remember that. After all, as we’ve seen recently in the USA, as well as in many other parts of the world, de-humanisation and the suppression of empathy are the facilitators of intolerance and prejudice.

Leonardo Da Vinci once said “The time will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals as they now look upon the murder of men.” I’d say that time was overdue.

Eating On The Hoof

330px-Points_of_a_horseWhen is a story not a story?  When it becomes a scandal.

The dictionary definition of a scandal is “A publicised incident that brings about disgrace or offends the moral sensibilities of society”

At what point an incident becomes a ‘scandal’ seems rather indefinite.  Perhaps it’s the number of times it makes the headlines, or just how serious an impact it has on people’s lives.  Sometimes it’s just that the epithet is arbitrarily added to something to make it more newsworthy.  It can of course just be a lot of fuss about something everyone knew was happening anyway, but chose to ignore until they’re unavoidable.

One thing’s for sure.  Scandals wake us up, press the reset button, make us stop and think.

So it is with The Horsemeat Scandal.  A story that seems to be running and running in the UK right now. Cue the inevitable joke about the 3.30 at Heydock Park or perhaps the 2 ‘o’clock at Newbury which I’m not going to make.  Except I just did.

For anyone that doesn’t already know the background, the revelation that some processed beef products on sale in the UK and Ireland contained things other than cow came after The Food Safety Authority of Ireland carried out a targeted study.  Certain percentages of horse and pig DNA were initially found in Tesco value burgers and in some meals sold though some fast food chains.  As the testing continued, a growing number of other products were found to contain alarming amounts of equine tissue, culminating a few days ago with the discovery that Findus Beef Lasagne had in fact been made with 100% geegee for at least the past 6 months.

Since then we’ve been treated to a seemingly daily diet of meaty exposes covering everything from pig DNA found in halal meals served to prison inmates, to the even more delicious fact that the man behind the Findus label is apparently a keen polo player and horse lover.  It doesn’t say how he likes them cooked though.


Aside from the understandable plethora of horsey related jokes and parody pack shots, I have to admit I’ve found it all increasingly amusing.  Not that I’m happy to hear that yet another animal has entered the factory food chain, but I can’t help cracking a wry smile at the copious hand wringing and open mouthed shock that has resulted from people finding out that the mashed up dead flesh they were eating was actually from a different carcass to the one they thought.  Just what difference it makes seems to be a question that’s left hanging in the air.

Reasons to be fearful

The first excuse for carnivorous hypocrisy seems to centre around the food safety argument.  The fact that the companies that supplied one kind of meat when they said it was another doesn’t exactly fill you full of confidence that they give a toss about what else is in it as they pull the wool/yak pelt/dog skin over the unsuspecting consumer’s eyes.

Today we hear that much of the dodgy meat came via a tortuous supply line made up of disparate companies leading back to parts of eastern Europe not exactly renowned for their care and sensitivity over human or animal rights.  In some ways though there’s a brutal honesty in that.  The understanding that if people are prepared to eat the remains of an over-exploited, abused animal, they probably can’t afford to be choosy about which bit of moral high ground they set up camp on.

To be fair, there’s also genuine concern over the fact that many of these horses were probably sick and/or dead at the time they entered the food chain.  Indeed I’ve heard stories ago about unscrupulous horse dealers buying animals from owners who believed they were being sent to sanctuaries, rather than a backstreet abattoir.

Although that’s yet to be verified, there’s documentary evidence of 70,000 sick and crippled horses being illegally shipped out of Ireland, destined for tables in Europe.  Not only is that an animal welfare disaster, the concern is that if these were indeed old and unwell nags, there is a chance that their flesh could be laced with drugs not licensed to enter the human food chain, the most worrying of these being the potentially carcinogenic drug Phenylbutazone.

imagesHowever, as people fight back barely controlled hysterical nausea about drugs in the food that they wolf down with reckless abandon, they seem happy to ignore warnings that have been around for decades about the concoctions and chemicals found in your average slab of beef, chicken, pork or sheep.

One of the biggest dangers is the routine application of prophylactic anti-biotics to animals destined for the dinner table. A common practice for many years, this is done for a number of reasons, only some of them to do with the animal’s general health.  While the prime motivation is to reduce the chances of the animal getting sick, one necessity for this treatment is the crowded living conditions of many animals in the intensive meat and dairy industry.  The second, even less palatable reason is the fact that these drugs increase body mass and yield. In the USA for example, the meat and dairy industry now consumes a staggering 80% of all anti-biotics produced.  This has already been shown to produce resistant strains of bacteria in the animals themselves and the likelihood of this being passed on to anyone eating them is thought to be more than likely.

Other drugs and chemicals that have been found in meat and dairy products over the years include everything from meat tenderisers injected into animals shortly before slaughter, artificially introduced hormones used to increase milk yields, various extenders and fillers, right down to naturally occurring hormones in milk and stress hormones released by animals about to be killed.  In that context the idea that a small trace amount of a drug, may be in a meal you may have eaten seems a little over cautious to me.

In some respects the consumption of horse meat could be seen as a positive health food in comparison to some of the substances that pass for meat on the supermarket shelves and fast food counters these days.  Burger King frantically took out a full page newspaper adverts apologising for the use of horse meat in some of its products, yet the now infamous ‘pink slime’ was once a staple of several high street burger chains in the USA.

Mechanically recovered meat or MRM has been outed by many a TV expose as a barely edible slop, in my opinion unworthy to be flushed down the nearest public sewer.  Yet it, and other prosaically named products such as beef trim (scraps left after the main cuts are taken) and ‘lean finely textured beef’ or LFTB (connective tissue, sinews, digestive tract) continues to be a source of cheap meat filler in many products.  Just check the ingredients list in certain ‘value’ meals next time you’re shopping.

Makes a slice of diseased shire horse sound like fine dining doesn’t it?

Not that we should scoff at scoffing these products, as they are making the best use of all the parts of an animal that was slaughtered to provide them. But as the pressure mounts  to provide meat at a fixed cost for inclusion in low priced ready meals, it’s little wonder that suppliers pushed to the limit will use any material that they can pass off as meat to fulfil these demands.  How much of a leap is it from describing an eyelid or sinew as ‘lean beef’ to throwing a horse or pig, or whatever else happens to be scuttling by, into the mincer?

We’re safe in the EU/UK though right?


Yes of course we in the EU and UK may have better standards of food manufacture and supply than those nasty US food conglomerates, but let’s not forget that most food manufacturers are global these days, and many of them are based in The States anyway.

Big food companies get away with what they can, driven by their need for profit and the consumer’s demand for cheap meat.  It’s a not-very-virtuous circle that’s never going to be broken while these companies enjoy the huge lobbying power they currently wield.  Findus for example allegedly knew a week before they announced it that their lasagne contained 100% horse.  Were they keeping the bad news from us for our own good do you think?

The other way most of this can be avoided to some extent is by eating only organic meat but that’s probably not an option if you’re in the position where financial constraints force you to the discount end of the meat trade for your principal source of affordable protein.

The other option of course would be a vegan diet, something which would also keep you out of harm’s way when the next processed food revelation hits the headlines in a few months.  It may also be cheaper in the long run that relying on meat.  Maybe you think that’s an extreme reaction.  Perhaps eating food with ingredients you have no knowledge of, or control over, is a moderate course of action in the circumstances.

Telling porky pies

Another source of indignation is that all this passing off of dobbin-burgers is a gross misrepresentation or food fraud.  This presumably runs along the idea that if Findus had labelled their beef lasagne as horse lasagne we’d not be too put out.  This again sidesteps the fact that if all manufacturers listed all the contents of the processed food that they produce they’d probably need very much larger packets.

The fact is though that most food manufacturers do everything they can to avoid telling you what’s really in their products.  As the horse meat fiasco highlights very clearly, what the eye doesn’t see, the heart doesn’t grieve over.

Horses are our friends

I think if most people were honest about their misgivings, it’s the idea that they’ve been eating Black Beauty or My Little Pony that’s really twisting their stomachs.  One comment at the time the story first broke called on us as a nation of animal lovers to consider the horse in a different light to other food animals.  This seemed predicated on the idea that it had been present in many armed conflicts and had been the dream companion pet of many a pre-pubescent young girl.

Victoria Spicer, editor of Horse & Country TV probably summed up what she saw as the national mood on the subject very concisely

“..The idea is revolting to the majority of horse lovers [..] For many horse owners, eating horsemeat is as repulsive a concept as eating cat or dog – I for one would never knowingly eat horse, and yet it seems that this may have inadvertently been the case.  As a nation of animal lovers, we must ensure that this sort of mistreatment in slaughterhouses never happens again…The horse has been an integral part of Britain’s history and culture, and we owe our equine friends much more than this.”

The fact that ‘traditional’ food animals had been giving up their lives, freedoms and comforts to keep the rest of us alive for millennia seems to be par for the course for Vicky.  Also the knowledge that the fate of many horses in the racing and horse breeding fraternity is not exactly assured has apparently not made a dent on her self assurance, or on her ordered views on which animals should be treated as “freinds” and presumably which we can ignore as walking fast food.

So as a non meat eater I find the whole Horesgate saga quite a bit more fascinating than I probably should.  Not that I’m feeling at all smug about not really being touched by the whole thing.  I’m not naive enough to think there won’t be some way that the bought-in products that I eat can’t be adulterated by a supplier out to make a quick buck.  But there are very few ways that you can mess with a fresh carrot, especially if you grow it yourself.

No, what I find bemusing about the current furore is the fact that people who eat meat are having to re-evaluate their hitherto matter of fact relationship with cheap meat.  Not only have they found that they can’t be assured that what they put into their mouths and stomachs is exactly what they thought it was, they now have to consider why that makes a difference.

Perhaps they may even look at a horse and a cow and begin to see the light of realisation dawning in the far distance.  Or maybe they’ll just put it down to another passing scandal and assume everything will be all right again in the future.  Just like it was after BSE in cattle, Salmonella in eggs, Swine flu, Dioxins and GMOs.

Place your bets

This blasé attitude may well be best epitomised by the betting chain Paddy Power, who are currently running a book on which random animal may be found to have contributed to the national diet next.  Apparently unicorns at 2000 to one.  I wonder what odds they’ll give me on snake or reptile DNA in chicken or pork dishes.  After all everything supposedly tastes of chicken doesn’t it?

Soylent Green Matt DupuisCome to that I seriously wonder if the FSA are already secretly testing for human DNA in some of these products.

If they found it, would they tell us?

Perhaps a question Richard Fleischer already posed in his seminal movie Soylent Green.

Where’s Charlton Heston when we need him most?

Headless Chickens and Mechanical Cows

A busy noodle bar in the heart of Oxford was probably not the best of places for me to loudly expound an admittedly radical proposal to deal current attitudes towards food production in our modern world.

The sideways looks being thrown my way by fellow diners didn’t register with me directly as I proselytised on the merits of my somewhat mechanistic vision for the future of meat and dairy production.  As I rambled on, I did eventually become aware of the slight shuffling on the bench next to me.  My dining companion’s uncomfortable shift of gaze every now and then also gave me a clue that the idea wasn’t exactly going down with those scoffing the chilli beef ramen next to me.

I’m not usually that insensitive.  Perhaps it being the end of a busy day was to blame.  Perhaps the unpronounceable Japanese  beer had gone to my head.  Or perhaps I was past caring about their sensibilities.

Those of you who have bothered to read my previous, somewhat sparse, offerings (it’s been a busy year) will know that I’m 99% vegan.  In fact I’m probably 99.5% now as I move finally to banish eggs from my diet.  I’ve done away with whole eggs now, and avoid most things that contain chicken ovulations, save for the occasional bit of Quorn that I wish they’d sort the recipe out for.   But my one downfall is still mayonnaise, they just haven’t come up with an edible vegan alternative yet and during the period in my dietary epiphany where I was banishing dairy from my plate, I turned to its silken charms as an alternative to butter.  My fully vegan partner has tried all the various alternatives, and so by association have I.  They all taste like industrial lubricants to me, and yes I have tasted a few of those for reasons I won’t go into here.  Anyway, lets just say I’m as near a vegan as dammit right now and hope to be the full Monty within the next few months.  So all you died in the wool veganistas out there can stop tutting and sharpening the pitchforks.  I know, I’m a bad person.

I have once again, as is my custom, digressed….

The inspiration for my idea came from one of numerous videos doing the rounds right now of ducks and geese in the process of providing an essential ingredient for that rare(ish) French inspired delicacy – pate de fois gras.  For those who aren’t familiar with this delight, it’s a fatty slab of meat paste made principally from goose or duck liver which has been enlarged beyond any passing acquaintance with normality by a continual force feeding process known as ‘gavage’.  In olden days this was traditionally carried out by farmer’s wives, jamming the unfortunate goose between her ample thighs and forcibly inserting an implement resembling a cross between a funnel and a coffee grinder down it’s gullet.

This was at least the image that was being sold in the early 90s, the last time I visited the south of France where this practice was being promoted as a delightful local custom.  There were a large array of postcards depicting the scene showing cheerful, ruddy cheeked daughters of the soil, dressed in the obligatory national costume,  turning the handle on these devices, grinding the feed straight into the animal’s gut, bypassing it’s understandable reluctance to cram down three times it’s body weight in feed on a daily basis.   The ultimate goal is to fatten the liver to anything up to 10 times it’s normal size for use as the principal ingredient in the pate.  At that time the practice was billed as being harmless to the geese and not at all unpleasant, even though it quite plainly is.  Effectively the animal is given the liver disease hepatic lipidosis or ‘fatty liver’ more commonly seen in clinically obese humans.  There are many complications associated with such a condition, not least the prospect of liver tumours.  MMMM!  yummy.

Feeding time

Feeding time

As with most such foodstuffs, an increase in the market for foi gras could only be achieved by making it cheaper, which in turn necessitated an increase in production and a decrease in costs.   As a result both geese and ducks now have their internal organs pressed into service in factory farms where the cumbersome hand grinder has been replaced by an industrial feeding nozzle hanging from the ceiling, attached to a large hopper of feed.  The aforementioned videos show workers ramming this pipe down the necks of the birds and administering a carefully measured dose of food.   In some places the birds are kept loose in small pens and have to be grabbed by the workers first.  Their terror of the feeding pipe and what one can only imagine is a frightening and, at best, uncomfortable process is plainly apparent.  They flinch and duck trying to get away from the inevitable thrice daily ritual.  It’s a pitiful sight.  A spectacle only eclipsed by other scenes in windowless factories where the poor animals are held closely confined in small cages with only their necks and heads sticking out.   Workers move along the assembly lines going about their business with practised detachment.  It’s done quickly and without much ceremony.  After all there are thousands of ‘production units’ in this facility, there’s no time for niceties.  The birds eye the feeding tube with the same obvious dread, but this time they have nowhere to run.  They can only thrash around and fruitlessly try to avoid what’s coming.  Many of them have signs of injury probably sustained during these struggles.  In one particularly harrowing image a bird has part of it’s lower beak snapped off.  It hangs at a grotesque angle, as redundant an appendage as the rest of it’s body, save for it’s precious liver.  In the final scenes of these videos we see the birds killed, often in an inhumane and matter of fact way.  Their supposed painless dispatching bungled, many of them suffer to the end.  An end you’re glad to see bring some release from a miserable existence.

Now I try hard not to be a preachy almost-vegan, so my apologies if any of this is a bit graphic.  The above description isn’t there as an attempt to shock or appal anyone who eats meat,  I assume that anyone with any vestige of humanity, omnivore or herbivore, would be sickened by it anyway.   No one wants to see suffering in any creature.  No one who exists within the bounds of what we would call ‘normal’ anyway.  Although I must admit that if you could bring yourself to eat foi gras after seeing one of these videos I’d probably not have you on my Christmas card list.  No, this is an extreme example of the life of a food animal.  It’s one that touched me more than many I’ve seen, I think because the poor bird has absolutely no life outside of its daily regime of abuse.  Maybe also, because of all animals, a bird is usually characterised as having the most freedom.  Geese in particular fly great distances every year around the far reaches of our planet, usually in large social groups, how much more then does it’s life of usury confinement symbolise?

Foi gras is still something that few people eat, so I doubt that many people reading this will be complicit in any of the above mistreatment.  Nevertheless it represents a reduction of existence that many of our fellow creatures live out as their place in the national food chain.  Most of them don’t have lives as bad as a cooped up, three times a day tortured, bird but they are all restricted and used to varying degrees,  and most of them don’t live out a full life term.  To me that’s a shocking reality that I don’t want to be a part of.  You, dear reader, will have to make up your own mind and I hope you will at least give it some thought.

But what these images did bring home to me in a crystalline form was the reductionist nature of animal husbandry.  The fact that a food animal’s wants, desires and its thoughts are secondary to it’s existence.  Something in most cases to be dealt with as a side issue, perhaps only as a practical necessity in keeping it alive and productive.  Or maybe that just makes those involved in the process of looking after them feel better about what they do.

So what is my brilliantly simple idea to end animal suffering in the food chain?  My answer to the dichotomy between fair treatment of animals and the need for industrial quantities of flesh and bodily excretions demanded by the world?

Well… it’s animals without heads.  More to the point, without brains or a higher nervous system.  Being headless would probably cover both of those requirements adequately, but if the old noodle were retained for aesthetic or practical reasons, I wouldn’t argue.  The idea would be for animals to be engineered, either genetically or in vitro to be born headless or brainless, kept alive by artificial life support systems until their bodies and/or organs are ‘ripe’.


I’ll admit it’s an extreme, somewhat bizarre idea, but it’s also a pragmatic one.  I’d also argue that it’s not much more radical than what we have now.  If you boil down the processes involved in intensive meat and dairy farming, is it any more extreme than the numerous mechanisms and contrivances that are now used to produce animal derived food?  From the milking machine to the veal crate – the mega dairy to mechanised abattoirs that can kill tens of thousands of animals a day.  Hasn’t the nature of the animals themselves become irrelevant as they’re reduced nothing more than an integral part of a production machine?

In which case why not isolate the parts of the animals needed for the production process : their bodies?  A food animal’s brain is redundant, except as a part of what keeps it alive.  But we now have the technology to circumvent that, as we do all the time in hospital coma wards.  With no brains animals aren’t sentient, with no sentience there can be no pain, no fear, no boredom, no missing of a life they’ll never have.  This would be the ultimate cruelty free meat or dairy.  No need to fudge your sensibilities with claims of ‘organic’ or ‘free range’.  Just plug the bodies into life support systems, pour the feed in via tubes and maybe use some kind of artificial stimulation to build muscle tone.

There are already plans to create meat in vitro.  Basically animal muscle grown in vats which would apparently be indistinguishable from that carved from a once living body.  Even so, phrases like ‘Frankenstein meat’ abound with many a hardened carnivore vowing never to touch the stuff.  Non-sentient meat would be the perfect solution.  Especially in cases where the body parts required are not muscle but other tissues such as liver or kidneys or excretions which can’t be grown artificially.

I accept that as a society we’re very unlikely to ever become universally vegetarian by choice, let alone vegan.  Man has eaten meat for millennia.  It’s attraction is obviously a part of the human condition.  As a former meat eater I understand why the majority of the population crave it.  So rather than wait for whatever social change is needed to bring about a shift in attitudes and diet, why not use our other obsession, that with technology, to take suffering and guilt out of the use of animals for food?

And if while they’re at it, some boffin come up with an egg free mayonnaise that tastes like, well mayonnaise,  that would be nice too.

If you think you’re right, you’re probably wrong

When I was 13 I became a fanatical Baptist.  It only lasted 6 months, but in that time  I went to a Baptist church, I was re-baptised, I waved my hands in the air, I praised the Lord,  I cried in rapture.  It was expected of me.  It changed my life, but not in the way that was intended.

This wasn’t born from some innate religious leaning, even though I had been packed off to Sunday school from the age of 5.  Admittedly that had been by parents who were less endowed with religious fervour than they were keen on a bit of peace and quiet on a Sunday afternoon, but it did give me a grounding in the mysterious movements of The Lord.

No, as a pubescent teenager I had in fact been dragged into something akin to a cult.  It wasn’t quite up to the standard of The Moonies, we didn’t hoard weapons in a secluded desert hideout, that might at least have given me some street cred for this little confessional.  But it was all orchestrated by a single rather crazed individual.  A particularly unprincipled religious education teacher, who by today’s standards would’ve been sacked before making the front page of whatever lurid Sunday tabloid was in circulation at the time.

Looking back on it with the jaded gaze of a psychology graduate I can see how we fell for it all.  Impressionable youngsters in our formative years, looking for a group to belong to.  Peer pressure pushing just ahead of the tsunami of freshly brewed hormones.  Once one or two of my immediate contemporaries had joined the group the rest of us became eager to do the same.  It really wasn’t much more than a fan club, except with a celeb in the form of a 2000 year old deity, with escape from eternal damnation as his main USP.

Members of the club got to buy books such as The Living Bible.  Same as the regular tome but with the ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ replaced by a slightly hipper English idiom.  In fact I’ve still got mine somewhere, emblazoned with stickers prosthelytizing  various bits of scripture in soundbite form.  I had posters to put on my bedroom wall, next to the one of Suzi Quatro.  Frankly it was all bordering on hippy philosophy.  After all it was the 70s and Jesus Christ Superstar was all the rage.  Not that we approved of that show you understand, it ended before the resurrection dontcha know?

If I’m honest I spent most of my time in the company of these zealots feeling very out of place.  I remember being consumed with self doubt that I hadn’t connected with God, something at the time that was referred to as your “personal relationship”.  I tried, but found it hard to relate to a metaphysical being whom I saw no real evidence for.  On the upside I’m told I became a model citizen during my tenure in la la land, and always handed in my homework on time.  That’s probably the one virtue I could have done with hanging on to into later life.

I can’t really condemn my teacher now for what she did.  She was convinced of the correctness of her actions whilst indoctrinating a group of us impressionable pupils into her private little fiefdom.  To be honest I can’t even remember her name, although I remember the church in South London that I think had better remain nameless.  It’s forever burned into my memory like a scene from The Exorcist, except with better music and not as much head spinning and puking.

Oddly enough, members of our congregation protested outside cinemas when that movie was released. It was seen as glamorising the whole possession myth.  Something that baptists believe in as something of a given.  Many of them at the time could be heard babbling away ‘in tongues’ at various points of intense prayer or during sermons.  It was very much frowned upon and I was told in no uncertain terms that if I ever felt the urge to break into a bit of ethereal multilingualism myself, I should probably put a sock in it.

Somewhat ironically, that period of my life coalesced later in my fuzzy memory as an experience roughly akin to The Exorcist storyline.  In fact the most vivid flashbacks I had of the events within those hallowed walls were inspired by a visit to a church in Mexico where the local indigenous religion had been mixed with Catholicism into a rather scary amalgam of effigies and poultry sacrifice.  I should say that inspired by all this hocus pocus my later ‘religious’ leanings moved into areas such as spiritualism and Satanism, but the less said about those brief dalliances the better.

In hindsight it’s like I was another person.  In fact at that time I probably was.  It was a formative experience that I far from regret, and something that in a twist of irony changed my attitude towards all religion and profoundly established a personal view on life that I have to this day.

Up until that point I, like so many people, never questioned the existence of God.  As I said, I went to Sunday school and church (I was in a local church choir), I folded my hands and I went through the motions just like I’d been taught to do from an early age.  I genuflected, I sang hymns in assembly and if you’d asked me what my religion was, I would have answered C of E without hesitation.  Not unlike a lot of people I still see now when I’m obliged to step into a house of worship at weddings and funerals.

The most valuable lesson I took away from my times with that church was a realisation that we are all hostage to our own beliefs.  Probably the defining point for me, and the reason I left it all behind, was when I asked during one of the frequent visits we had from missionaries, why our religion was any more valid than those of the ‘heathen’ societies they had been tasked to convert.

Conversion of non-believers was one of the highest goals we were all set at the time.  It was a bit like earning Nectar points, although it more often earned me a good kicking round the back of the sports hall for not having enough sense not to preach to those more given to head-buts than godhead.

If anything good came out of these futile farragos it’s probably that they set me up with many of the sales skills I came to rely on in adulthood.  After all, if you can nearly persuade someone of the existence of god, you can most likely sell them anything.

Questioning this stuff wasn’t actively encouraged, but then as now, I never did know when to shut the fuck up.  My subsequent ostracisation by the other less picky believers probably marked my slide from grace into the miserable infidel I am today.  My brief religious fervour was finally and ignominiously ended when I had to make a choice between going to church one Sunday or going to see the movie Westworld with my dad.  Westworld won.  I have to admit that Yul Brynner still has the look of Satan’s disciple about him.

It is though one of the few abiding fond memories I have of any kind of comradery with my father, being as I was at the time too young to see the movie without his company.  So if nothing else, if god really does exist, he or she gave me that.

But from my questioning of the status quo that had up until that point been drummed into me, I took away a philosophy that right and wrong pretty much depended on your perspective.  That doesn’t mean you have to agree with someone else’s point of view, or even find it valid.  Just that I accept that we all see things from our own place in the world, and in those terms what we do, and in many cases don’t do,  is ‘right’ and could be described as such by others.  In that sense, there is no right and wrong.  Just whatever philosophy is regarded as acceptable at any given moment.  And that’s something that constantly shifts depending on social norms, shared values and political expediency.

It all sounds simple I know.  Something of a truism.  But ask yourself where any of the fundamental groundings you have for concepts you hold to be unshakeable truths have come from.  Try to imagine your life with a different set of beliefs, borne from an entirely alien culture.  Then try to visualise living your life by those values now.  How easy would you find it?  How much does your personal programming stop you from analysing issues on individual merit, rather than knee-jerk conditioning that probably started before you could walk?

I believe that relying on a universal acceptance of concepts such as good and evil are pointless and irrelevant.  In fact I don’t believe in the concept of evil, just that the consequences of misguided and in some cases psychologically irrational behaviour can be construed as being driven by some malevolent force.  It isn’t.  we’re all just animals motivated by wants, needs and beliefs, some of which aren’t very desirable in the social structures within which we live our lives and which are therefore sensible and expedient for us to condemn and outlaw.

It’s a philosophy that has earned me almost as many verbal kickings in adulthood as my days as a teenage mini-missionary.  Most people assume I’m playing devil’s advocate or simply fence sitting, whereas I see it as removing myself from dogma and an intellectualisation of basic drives.

I could of course be entirely wrong in this belief.  The irony hasn’t escaped me that it’s the very same construct that traps me in a logic loop of my own making.  But by standing outside of my humanity and the belief in the superiority of the human experience, I arrive at the same point as I did during those missionary presentations.  Just because you or I have an absolute conviction that our way of thinking is ‘right’ doesn’t mean that we might not be completely wrong.

Perhaps it’s fitting that an involvement with a religious group, something that is by it’s very nature rooted in a strong concept of belief in good and evil, eventually led to a dissipation of those forces in my own perception of the world.

Or maybe I’ve just always been a contrary bastard at heart. God alone knows.

And as we’re not on speaking terms any more, I’ll probably never find out.

My first blog post

Its been a long time coming and, some may say, probably not really worth waiting for.  But here it is.  My first Blog.

That sounds like it should be written in multi-coloured sans serif text with a picture of cartoon rabbit underneath it.  But as I don’t know how to upload images yet, let alone change font styles, you’ll have to visualise it stuck to the notice board in a dusty 1960s primary school form room with proud parents pointing and cooing at their offspring’s new found expressive skills in exactly the way that proud parents probably don’t do these days.

That’s not to say that parents aren’t still proud.  Indeed, judging by the plethora of reality TV shows and new found ways of self broadcast of even the most minor talents, I’d imagine you could probably run a small city off the heat generated by parental pride in modern Britain.  But I’d guess that proud parents in 2012 probably wouldn’t jab fingers at anything created by the beloved fruit of their loins unless it was on an LCD wide-screen, preferably viewed in 3D and probably wrapped in some piece of elegantly designed technology with an ‘i’ prefix.

Those more astute of you will probably glean most of the salient facts about me from the above paragraphs.  Born in the late 50’s (the last months actually), no children, a tendency to see everyday life in a slightly irreverent way, and working on my credentials as a full time curmudgeon, just as soon as I can find a flat cap and a catchphrase that suits me.

But I digress : I do a lot of that as you’ll probably find out if you ever bother to read anything else that I post up here, when and if I get around to it.

But just for clarity, and probably by way of setting out my admittedly muddled aims with this online tome, I’ll simply list the areas of human experience that I’m most interested in.  That way if none of these topics raise even the slightest glimmer of interest in you, you can feel free to click away and watch another episode of an infinitely more engaging snippet on YouTube, update your status on Facebook about what a bloody awful Blog you’ve just been reading, or simply switch the computer off and go and cuddle the cat or something.

My interests :

Psychology (I have 2 degrees in the subject but don’t let that worry you)

Music (I was a musician during the 1980s in several bands.  Never got anywhere myself but I played with a few people that did.  The bastards! I was also involved in the campaign to save BBC 6Music which everyone should really be listening to in the evenings at least)

Retail (I’ve worked in retail most of my life and currently write a column for Retail Week)

Ethics (something I’ve always found fascinating and always worthy of a good verbal punch-up)

Free speech (I’m devoted to it as you may be able to tell – but I also try to be just as devoted to other people’s right to it)

The environment (Quite a recent interest for me I must admit but somewhat informed by the next subject)

Veganism/Vegetarianism (Yes I’m a vegan or at least close to one, as I still sometimes eat eggs – if you prefer, I’m a vegetarian that doesn’t do dairy)

Diet and lifestyle (Again I’m a recent discoverer of the value of both, but don’t worry I still drink too much so I can’t be that evangelical)

Animal and Human rights (I include that as one subject because I don’t believe in discrimination on the grounds of the possession of a beak or more than two legs )

Our increasing reliance on technology and cheap energy (Yes I’m aware of the irony in writing that online)

So there you have it.  Still here?  Great!  Well I hope in that case we can have a lot of interesting exchanges about one or all of these subjects at some point in the journey.  I welcome comments from everyone.  I don’t censor (unless you’re really pushing your luck) and I’m open to most trains of thought.

If I have any one philosophy it’s that you should challenge everything, avoid dogma, and always try to see both sides of an argument.  Well actually that was three philosophies so I’ll add a fourth for good measure.

Always wear a hat.

Thanks for reading