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Writing Animals: Pigskin

For a long while I tried to keep my gastronomical inclinations out of my animal stories after deeming meat-eating too obvious a target and too sensitive a topic. The world of animal welfare and representation extends far beyond the abattoir in many different directions and inflections, and the vegetarian battleground tends to dominate discussions. But, beast that it is, I couldn’t avoid it forever.

On January 1st 2016 I segued neatly from three years of vegetarianism into full-on vegan, helped along by a swell of veganism both nationally with Veganuary, and locally with my vegan fiancé and a clan of vegan best mates. With such gorgeous support, I’ve had an exceptionally easy time of it. All it took was the discovery of how to easily obtain replacements for Snickers (Oreos) and cheese and onion crisps (Cheese and Onion Ten Acre crisps) and the rest fell smoothly into place. As with vegetarianism, my palette actually broadened as I took to the kitchen and began to discover new possibilities with tofu, tempeh, seitan, seaweed and chickpeas, buoyed by our discovery of Isa Chandra Moskowitz and her exceptional vegan recipes. I now have a mental map of vegan Manchester, knowing where I can visit for a full vegan menu, or decent vegan options, or chains who have successfully adopted veganism without any fuss or recoil. Being a vegan in 2016 Manchester is well easy mate.

But, of course, making such a wholesale change in my diet was bound to filter into my fictions and it burst out, whole hog if you like, into one of the most horrific and disturbing pieces I’ve ever had the displeasure to produce. Such is the passion that we have about the things we do and don’t eat. Pigskin, published last week in issue 55 of Black Static (TTA Press), began from a vegan impulse and boiled over into mania as soon as words hit the page. I remember the moment it first began to form.

On the way into work, there’s one of those horrible burger van things that serve the very worst meat in the very worst bread to half-awake commuters on Manchester’s Oxford Road. I clearly remember walking past it one day, not long into Veganuary, and smelling its bacon sizzling away. One of the classic questions a veggie/vegan will endure, alongside the protein thing, is ‘But don’t you miss bacon?’. For a serious veggie, it’s not quite the right question. I could, for a long while, appreciate the scent of sizzling bacon as something pleasant, but I have long disconnected that ‘scentsation’ with the desire – or need – to taste and consume it. Having said that, I will happily enjoy fake bacon, or a salty-meat alternative equivalent (like a well prepared piece of tempeh, for example), but the knowledge that the strip of flesh which constitutes bacon was once a living pig, and the attendant ethical impulse I’ve welded to that knowledge, kick starts a revulsion which totally overrides any notion of ‘missing’ bacon, or the authentic experience of its actual taste. Conversely, knowing a fake bacon strip wasn’t pig, makes it taste a whole lot better. Knowledge is power.

Passing that van and its meat-smokes, I began to have this internal debate with the archetypal anti-vegan and countered by reconstituting bacon back into its more revolting form: pig skin. Do you enjoy eating pig skin? Of course, bacon isn’t actually pig skin, but it sort of looks and feels like it could be, and it certainly isn’t far removed from that reality. Simultaneously, in the dark recesses of story-forming part of my head, I could see a pig with skin made of bacon, and the first line of the horror story was formed: ‘Pig was born with skin made of bacon.’

From there, Pigskin grew to become a tale about animal products in general, beyond meat towards dairy, fabric and, ultimately, to perverted ideology. The (un)natural setting for such explorations became the modern farm. Not the idyllic primary-colours farms of our infant picture books, but the rusted, dystopian, liminal space of the sort of farmland you might find yourself hurrying through on a country walk. Large imposing buildings. Abandoned machinery. Persistent scent of manure. Not grass and hedges. Metals and troughs.

Ultimately Pigskin becomes a critique of this disconnect from fantasy and reality which dictates meat-eating, exemplified in the imagery farms in children’s picture books (and McDonalds adverts, and product packaging) compared to a real farm in real life. From day one we kid ourselves into accepting the fate of animals through hyper-pacified imagery which couldn’t be further removed from reality. And yet it persists, held firm by the dictatorship of our taste buds and the superglue of communal consumption.

The eating of meat, and the use of animals for other products, is not likely to see an end any time soon, or ever. But the occasional humbling reminder of the mental gap employed to cover up the moment of slaughter might guide us towards a more humane approach, or a reduction at least. In the meantime, if you are reading this and thinking of giving vegetarianism or veganism a go, do it. With the right approach, it’s flippin' well easy mate. Well easy.

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