In Praise of Hemp

In Praise of Hemp

(Published in the Sunday Times, 19/10/14)

In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar a marauding mob scour the city for the Emperor’s assassins. They chance upon Cinna the Poet, namesake of one the conspirators. On being asked his name, fatally he replies ‘Cinna’ at which point the First Citizen cries ‘tear him to pieces; he’s a conspirator’.

Understandably vexed Cinna wails: ‘I am Cinna the poet; I am Cinna the poet’. One of the mob responds: ‘It is no matter, his name’s Cinna; pluck but his name out of his heart, and turn him going.’ And that was the end of the unforunate Cinna the poet.

What could we have learned about this indignant chap if the mob had not descended? Perhaps, through his presumably mellifluous verse we would have gained great insight into human nature. Poor Cinna the poet’s crime was to have the wrong name, and he winds up in historical limbo in a box marked ‘fictional potential’.

Alas a similar fate seems to have befallen hemp a crop variety with unrivalled versatility. A guilty name has brought undeserved suspicion. Hemp’s failing is that it comes from the Cannabis family, varieties of which are strongly associated with loafer students and malcontent adolescents.

Innocent Hemp with tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) levels insufficient to get any kind of Rasta party started was caught in the hysteria against reefer madness. Farmers are effectively prohibited from growing it in the United States, and a certain taboo might exist here too. Our UK neighbours are not so wary: commercial growing began in earnest in the 1990s, and one farm in Northern Ireland has grown it since the seventeenth century.

This wonder crop offers an incredible array of uses: serving as a nutritious foodstuff, a fibre for rope, clothing and other materials; a building material that produces concrete-like blocks; an alternative to petroleum-based plastics (BMW among others are now using it in their cars). It can also be made into paper: ironically, the US declaration of independence was signed on it. Its US opponents should put that in their pipes and smoke it, so to speak.

The nutritional potential of hemp is impressive as it contains a full profile of the essential amino acids. It can also be rendered into a milk, prepared as a tea and its flour can be used in baking – one of the contestants on last year’s the Great British Bake Off used it in a cake mixture. Hemp oil is renowned for its healthy properties, containing 80% essential fatty acids – vital to our health – only a small proportion of which is saturated fat.

The last Teagasc study into Hemp conducted in 2007 concentrated on the oil and the fibre, but not the seed. According to their findings one acre of hemp yields an average of 700 pounds of grain, which can be pressed into 50 gallons of oil and 530 pounds of meal. That same acre will also produce an average of 5,300 of straw which can be transformed into about 1,300 pounds of fibre.

Despite Ireland having a climate suited (and set to become more so with climate change) to the production of this crop none is grown on an industrial scale. The main problem for potential Irish hemp farmers is the absence of a processing plant to dehull the seed in order to get at the inner kernel.

One food producer Deidre Collins of M. D. Dee’s Wholefoods indicated that she is paying €8000 a ton to a German company for hulled organic hempseed. She would be delighted to support local farmers and provide local employment but there is no option of doing so as things stand. Naturally any extra transport costs have to be born by consumers of her healthy meat-free sausages and other plant-based products.

The absence of Irish hemp is symptomatic of a deeper malaise in Irish agriculture which is dangerously reliant on external subsidies that reinforce an environmentally egregious and unsustainable system of food production which keep the cost of healthy plant food for human consumption at unnecessarily high prices.

It strikes me that one solution to the impasse would be to adopt the approach of the French agronomist Parmentier who was responsible for making the humble potato acceptable to his suspicious countrymen and women.

As a prisoner of war of the Prussians in the 1760s he subsisted happily on a diet of potatoes for some time. On being released he was determined to make them acceptable in his native land. His first task was to end the prohibition on cultivation as their consumption had been associated with leprosy. The Paris Faculty of Medicine finally declared them edible in 1772.

Next he began a marketing drive that would impress any contemporary practitioner. First he used product placement to associate them with the rich and famous, his masterstroke however was to have armed guards surround fields of ripe hemp just outside Paris. But the guards were ordered to accept even the slightest bribe to leave their posts. Soon potatoes were all the rage. French cuisine would not be the same without them.

It would seem that hemp needs a similar makeover allowing Irish farmers, food producers and manufactures to avail of this wonder crop, and thereby rescue it from the anonymous fate of Cinna the poet.

In Defence of Kundera’s Absurdity

(Published in Village Magazine, November/December 2015)

Portentousness is the word that best describes most Anglo-American literary criticism. The canon seems to demand erudition and a knowing hauteur loaded with an impression of being slightly jaded by the cocktail party circuit. That at least is the tone favoured by the Times Literary Supplement whose reviewers tend to devour books as A. A. Gill does restaurants.

Attending functions when I wrote for The London Magazine (a lesser breed of the same genus) I encountered a few of London’s bottom-feeding literati, one of whom I bitterly recall communally ordering wine that adorned a list purely to capture the foolish largesse of a patron. Here one of Dr Johnson’s aphorisms seems apposite: “criticism is a study by which men grow important and formidable at very small expense.” Best to go Dutch at such soirees.

After enjoying without entirely comprehending the Franco-Czech author Milan Kundera’s latest book The Festival of Insignificance I noticed a review of it by Michael Hoffman in the Time Literary Supplement. Notwithstanding the mortal sin of referring to another’s review, Hoffman’s excoriation was so venomous that I was inspired to share my own reaction. His article culminates in the assessment that: “It reads like something one of Kundera’s enemies might have written, and passed off as his”. This was a hatchet job of Viking proportions.

Prior to casually dismembering the corpse with the grubby gusto of a journalist on a junket, he dismisses the oeuvre of one of the most original novelists of the last century in surprisingly gastronomic terms as: “addictive, moreish, still fresh, thin textured, a little unsatisfying (perhaps that goes with their addictiveness) and obvious.” It was as if Gill had been asked to assess Nando’s menu.

Perhaps Kundera’s real crime in the eyes of many of the Anglo-American literary elite is to have declared himself a French author, and written a number of novels in that language. With some foundation French culture is now roundly dismissed as decadent and trapped in recollection of past glory, although Michel Houellebecq makes a virtue of this. The idea of an unadulterated émigré Czech writer is far more appealing, but, like Samuel Beckett, Kundera has found expression in the language of his adopted country, and his work may be more interesting for that cross-fertilization.

Like all good (it is hasty to ascribe greatness at this historical juncture) writers of fiction, Kundera shines a light on universal human traits. Eschewing conventional structure in favour of fractured tales, the reader is left to draw his own conclusions. As in real life, grand narratives are not apparent but overlapping, quotidian sequences. Within that schema he distils ideas that shines an elusive light on eternal truths. This might be the addictive quality Hoffman describes but really the compulsion arises from sublime observations on the human experience seemingly obvious but actually quite original.

My favourite example remains his exposition on litost, in the Book of Laughter and Forgetting:

“Litost is an untranslatable Czech word. Its first syllable, which is long and stressed, sounds like the wail of an abandoned dog. As for the meaning of this word, I have looked in vain in other languages for an equivalent, though I find it difficult to imagine how anyone can understand the human soul without it …”

Kundera expands on its meaning by way of anecdote.

She was madly in love with him and tactfully swam as slowly as he did. But when their swim was coming to an end, she wanted to give her athletic instincts a few moments’ free rein and headed for the opposite bank at a rapid crawl. The student [the boy] made an effort to swim faster too and swallowed water. Feeling humbled, his physical inferiority laid bare, he felt litost. He recalled his sickly childhood, lacking in physical exercise and friends and spent under the constant gaze of his mother’s overfond eye, and fell into despair about himself and his life. They walked back to the city together in silence on a country road. Wounded and humiliated, he felt an irresistible desire to hit her.…and then he slapped her face.”

Acute awareness of what he does grudgingly translate as: “a state of torment brought upon by the realization of one’s inadequacy or misery,” helps us understand the origin of so much anger and the antidote to it. Kundera turns an isolated word in a minor European language into a near-universal susceptibility. In literature a mark of genius is to make the original seem obvious. We become one with the writer.

Kundera’s most recent work does leave an impression of incompleteness compared to previous more substantial novels but certainly not to the extent of Hoffman’s outlandish assessment. It contains a number of powerful insights: first there is his development of the archetype of the Narcissus that might serve as a lesson to some clever men who cannot understand how an objective of desire resists their advances.

He writes:

‘When a brilliant fellow tries to seduce a woman, she has the sense she’s entering a kind of competition. She feels obliged to shine, to not give herself without some resistance. Whereas insignificance sets her free. Spares her the need for vigilance. Requires no presence of mind. Makes her incautious, and thus more easily accessible …

The Narcissus on the other hand is not proud:

‘A proud man has disdain for other people, he undervalues them. The Narcissus overvalues them, because in every person’s eyes he sees his own image, and wants to embellish it. So he takes care of all his mirrors.

The Narcissus is thus reduced to a person of little significance, the unlikely partner, his skill like that of a successful spy who gets under the covers almost unobserved. He the subject sees a reflection of himself in the object of his desire, and his interlocutor is content with that unchallenging proposition. Kundera fails to say if this works both ways.

Like many of his novels The Festival of Insignificance meanders. Characters pop in and out without a complete picture of anyone emerging: like the failed actor who along with a friend develops a pseudo-Pakistani language complete with a grammatical structure to make his job as a waiter less tedious; then there is a character who for no particular reason tells a friend that he is dying from cancer; we also meet a woman who is saved from suicide and in the process accidentally takes the life of her saviour.

Much of the book defies simple interpretation especially the surreal closing sequence. Perhaps in his dotage Kundera is simply telling us to revel in absurdity, the main forum of which is joking with friends, confiding at one point “in my unbeliever’s dictionary, only one word is sacred: friendship”. One of his characters says: “We’ve known for a long time that it was no longer possible to overturn this world, nor reshape it, nor head off its dangerous headlong rush. There’s been only one possible resistance: to not take it seriously.” We might consider this a sign of his Kundera’s decadence, but for Czechs of his generation humour could be an act of defiance against a totalitarian state.

For lurking in the background is the figure of Joseph Stalin of whom we gain glimpses, apparently, from the memoirs of Khrushchev, though it would not be beyond Kundera to make this all up. In his account Stalin spends much of his time humiliating his entourage for his amusement especially the unfortunate Kalinin. But he discovered at a certain point: “nobody around him any longer knew what a joke is.” And in Kundera’s view: “that’s the beginning of a whole new period of history.”

As a Czech born in 1929 and living in that country until 1975 Kundera cannot escape that shadow of Stalinism. He himself had his academic career impeded in the 1950s. He may embrace his less troubled new home but the memory of that fearful epoch cannot be dismissed. The “whole new period of history” are those decades when lightness and frivolity were lost. Perhaps he’s saying that we must uphold that in the face of all the hypocrisy today.

In this short book there are various themes that a reader might be drawn to. Ignored in this review is the attention he pays to the significance of the sexualisation of the navel or how humanity is divided into apologisers and those whose instinct is to go on the attack. There is plenty to muse on and its disembowelment is misplaced.

Moreover, it seems perverse for a critic to read the oeuvre of a writer seemingly with the intention of devouring it, as a defence council would a prosecution case in a court of law. To earn a living critics are compelled to read a book, view a film or eat in a restaurant, but many turn it into an unedifying blood sport.

The poet and scholar Kathleen Raine wrote in Defending Ancient Springs: “The power to perceive the beautiful arises from a quality of consciousness: something forever inaccessible to the apparatus criticus, which can be manipulated by persons who do not possess this quality at all”. She adds that: “At best scholarship, by placing in our hands knowledge which we should not otherwise possess, can fit us to read the works of the poets, to decipher what they have written.” Sadly literary criticism is often a platform for the unbridled ego. Kundera’s latest novel attests to the untamed imagination of the author.

Large scale immigration requires ‘the nation’ to be redefined

(Published in Metro Eireann, 2007)

‘Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel’ (Samuel Johnson, 1709-1784)

Provisional census figures indicate that the there are approximately 400,000 non-nationals living in this country. Coping with such a level of diversity is a new challenge for the indigenous population of a peripheral island historically removed from the European mainstream, une isle derriere une isle as a French historian once put it. To date most of the new entrants have come from other EU states, but if, as seems likely, our economy continues to grow, increased numbers will arrive from elsewhere.

In order to achieve successful integration we may need to learn from other states in the Union, in particular Britain, where a model of multiculturalism prevails, and France where a different policy – that of assimilation, has been pursued. In 2005 both countries experienced serious incidents, civil disturbance in France and the terrorist attacks of July 7th in Britain, which called into question the efficacy of their respective policies. To achieve a peaceful transition, in this country, from a relatively homogenous society to one that is successfully cosmopolitan, it will be vital to strike the right balance between respecting diversity and encouraging integration.

The Immigration Residence and Protection Bill 2007

In a recent address to the Law Society the Tanaiste, and Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Michael McDowell revealed the legislative response, in the shape of the Immigration Residence and Protection Bill 2007, the government will make to the large scale immigration of recent years.

In his speech, McDowell also explored how we identify ourselves, a theme which has been put in sharp focus by the pronouncements of the leader of the opposition, Enda Kenny, to the effect that we are a ‘Celtic and Christian’ people, which, apparently, makes us ‘understand better than most the special challenges of immigration and integrating new communities’. In an international climate which features a perceived ‘clash of civilisations’ to define ‘the Irish’, an increasingly diverse population, in racial and religious terms can, at best, be regarded as naïve, and at worst provocative. Mr McDowell, to his credit, repudiates the Fine Gael leader’s simplistic characterisation and instead advocates a ‘republican’ model rooted in ‘diversities of identities and traditions’.

The Minister also adds to the lexicon of Irish historiography by coining the terms ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Irish to distinguish between the indigenous population and new arrivals, many of whom will become citizens. One letter-writer to a national newspaper complained that, by analogy, an Irish person living in England could be referred to as ‘New English’, suggesting that this would be entirely unsatisfactory. This, however, is more testament to the stunted level of integration in Britain; the McDowell definition suggests that ‘Irishness’ is not the sole preserve of indigenes.

McDowell argues that there is little a government can do to promote integration: ‘[T]he breadth of the approach to this issue internationally suggests that integration policy and objectives are not particularly tied to legislative diktat’. He does, however, envisage some form of citizenship test: ‘[Citizenship] should perhaps be conferred only on those who can demonstrate that they have a minimum level of understanding of the nation and state to which those duties are owed and a minimum capacity to interact linguistically with the other citizens of the state’. The legal basis for a language test might be difficult to find in a country where the Constitution defines Irish as the ‘first national language’. Would immigrants be required to learn Irish? This approach evokes memories of Norman Tebbit’s absurd ‘cricket test’ for immigrants to Britain. The idea appears misguided; such an examination might demand a level of knowledge from a new immigrant that many a native would not attain.

Island Refuge

From independence, this state did not welcome foreign intrusion. Notably, Jewish refugees were not offered sanctuary during the Second World War. This reluctance can be explained by the efforts of a newly emerged governing elite to forge an unvarying national identity based on language and Catholic values.

The arrival of exoticism from abroad, in any shape or form, was not encouraged, especially while the country’s population continued to be drained by emigration, and resources were scarce. Cead Mile Failte would be extended so long as foreigners remained foreigners, admiring us from afar, or ideally, providing us with tourist dollars.

Times have obviously changed, the policy of autarky; the goal of self-sufficiency belongs to the past, we swim in the global economic maelstrom. It took some time to get there but now we serve as an exemplar to other post colonial states; the star pupil of the EU, brash and self-confident. While the boom depended in the early stages on the young population, since the turn of the century we have come to rely on foreign labour.

The relative opulence of virtual full employment counters a prevailing inclination towards begrudgery among the ‘Old Irish’, and also means that the new arrivals have, in general, avoided poverty. Further, as the majority have come from other European states, most of the ‘New Irish’ share cultural traits common to the ‘Old’, not to mention similar pigmentation. These factors have defused the threat of xenophobic political movements emerging. However, with birth rates at historic lows across the EU, and with the likelihood that the economies of Eastern European will improve as community membership takes effect, demand for labour will be filled from elsewhere if our economic success is to be sustained. This will bring increased immigration of peoples from countries with traditions and lifestyles more divergent to our own.


In Europe, it is possible to identify two main approaches to immigration; the British model of multiculturalism, and the French alternative of assimilation, neither of which have proved entirely successful.

In Britain, the issue of immigration came to the fore in the 1960s, most memorably in Enoch Powell’s speech predicting ‘Rivers of Blood’. The doomsday scenario has certainly not come to pass, although there have been numerous incidents along the way; race riots, the infamous Stephen Lawrence murder, and more recently the modest rise of the BNP and UKIP.

The main thrust of successive British government policy has been to deter discrimination. The Race Relations Acts (1965-2000) provide a legislative scheme for ensuring equality of treatment in areas such as employment, education, and housing. Further, a long liberal tradition has allowed immigrants, stretching back to Karl Marx, to freely express their opinions. Indeed, during the 1980s and 1990s ‘Londonistan’ emerged as a place of intellectual ferment for Islamists. This has been offered as an explanation for why Britain had not been subjected to attack by Islamic terrorists before the events of July 7th 2005 shattered the delicate modus vivendi.

Stemming perhaps from colonial experience, the British approach has been to identify various ethnic or religious blocks and patronise their leadership. However, the attempt to define, and to an extent control, ‘ethnic’ groups often generates confusion; for example in the ethnic coding for the 2001 census; ‘Muslim’ is offered as an ‘ethnic’ category under the heading ‘Asian’, while ‘Jewish’ (another religious category) falls under the heading ‘White’, with ‘Arab’ (are Jews and Arabs not supposed to both be Semites?) defined under ‘Chinese or Other’. The point is that ethnicity is a malleable concept, subject to change according to individual whim.

The British Home Office patronises various groups such as the Muslim Council of Britain (which is provided with financial support), as representatives of religious or ethnic blocks. But it is not always the case that individuals are satisfied to be represented by so-called ‘community leaders’, or that these often self-appointed individuals accurately reflect the views of their ‘community’; recently, a group of Jews in Britain came together to launch Independent Jewish Voices, an organisation opposed to the policies of Israel which are supported by the long-standing Board of Deputies of British Jews.

Anyone who has lived in London can testify to a level of alienation not experienced in other large cities. A trip on the Tube offers a parade of withdrawn faces. Tolerance can often lapse into a superficial political correctness, while communities stick to themselves.

Acknowledgement from social commentators and politicians that all is not well in multicultural Britain is beginning. In a recent article in The Guardian (1/2/07) Timothy Garton Ash wrote that the reality of multi-culturalism is ‘one of far-reaching alienation among young British Muslims. In an NOP poll last year, less than half of British Muslims interviewed identified Britain as “my country”.’ The situation in many communities of Afro-Caribbean descent is also a cause for concern, as gun crime reaches alarming proportions.

One source of the difficulties is the existence of an entrenched class system that encourages segregation. The effect of this is reinforced by colonial traditions that frowned upon miscegenation (cohabitation or marriage between different races); Britain is more mosaic than melting pot, and global currents enlarge the cracks.

Political Islam lays emphasis on the umma, the Islamic community, to the exclusion of ethnic or national identities. Social stratification has provided a breeding ground for this ideology, especially in the North of England ravaged by Thatcherism. Added to this social discontent, the foreign policy of the British government, strongly associated with what is perceived as a U.S ‘crusade’ against Islam, has created serious tensions that culminated in the suicide attacks of July 7th, 2005 which marked a new chapter in inter-communal relations. Currently relations are frosty, and much could depend on the foreign policy that emerges from the Blairite abdication.

The tradition of tolerance in Britain is to be admired, but the rigid stratification of ‘ethnic’ groups is increasingly a cause for alarm among politicians and social commentators in that country. Successive governments have tended to ignore the challenge of integration, giving rise to a situation where it would be fair to ask how many people would see themselves as ‘British’ as opposed to any of the other competing identities.

Veiled Threats

French colonisation developed by contrast, a policy of Assimilation (although Association was practised in later colonies such as Morrocco and Syria). The objective was to mould Frenchmen out of the native populations and there was no such taboo around miscegenation as under British colonisation. Indeed, the more sensual French tended to celebrate the native, perhaps most memorably in Gauguin’s depictions of Tahitian life.

However, efforts to integrate native populations ultimately failed, owing perhaps to the exploitation that defines the relationship of coloniser to colonised. This failure was seen most starkly in Algeria, the oldest of French colonies which had been integrated into Metropolitan France, where a brutal war of independence led to the deaths of at least 350,000 (and over twice that number according to Algerian sources) which effectively led to the demise of France as a colonial power, and has caused lasting enmity.

Within France, the state seems to continue a policy of Assimilation towards immigrants most of whom arrived during France’s trente glorieuses, (1945-1974); the thirty years of prosperity that followed the Second World War. In contrast to Britain, the French government does not allow official statistics based on ethnicity or religion to be compiled. Nonetheless, it is estimated there are 6.7 million people of immigrant background.

The absence of statistics cannot, however, mask clear fault lines exemplified vividly by the continued success of the National Front, Europe’s largest avowedly xenophobic party, the leader of which, Jean Marie Le Pen, interestingly, fought in the Algerian War of Independence. Its continued electoral success shows that there are ingrained prejudices in French society directed against those perhaps still considered colonial underlings. Indeed, an analysis of 1999 French census data elicited evidence of significant occupational segregation with immigrants occupying ‘jobs shunned by natives.’

Recent years has seen unemployment hover around 10%, generating discontent, and latterly civil disturbance. Scenes projected by the fictional film La Haine came vividly to life on a massive scale in 2005 as riots erupted in les banlieus causing extensive damage to many French cities, and leading to the declaration of a state of emergency.

Although the Renseignements Generaux (French Intelligence Agency) denied that there was an ‘Islamic factor’ to the riots, the aggressive policy of secularisation, a polite form of Assimilation, has fuelled tension. The ban on the wearing of the hijab (and other religious symbols) in schools allows Islamic militants to portray the state as Islamophobic, but for many in France this has become a fundamental tenet of their republicanism, so it would be almost impossible for any government to change course.

French society is highly politicised, strikes and manifestations seem to occur more regularly than in any other state on the planet. To an extent this is indicative of a healthy body politic, and revealingly, a 2006 survey, conducted by the Pew Research Centre, found that 72% of Muslims in France perceive no conflict between being a devout Muslim and living in a modern society, in contrast to Britain where Muslims split evenly (47% saw a conflict, 49% did not). Furthermore, French foreign policy, particularly the French stance on the U.S. invasion of Iraq, has brought the French government more in step with the views of most immigrants.

Nevertheless, the seeming unwillingness of the state to face up to diversity ignores the frictions in French society, and the ban on the hijab only stokes tensions without achieving any discernable objective. Ultimately, it is likely to be economic factors, especially the prevalence of unemployment, which will define future relations. It also remains to be seen how, if elected, the current Presidential favourite Nicolas Sarkozy, who advocates a more pro-American foreign policy, will effect relations.

Clean Slate

Unlike many other European states, the ‘Old Irish’ can define a relationship with the ‘New’ without the burden of colonisation. Indeed, as colonial subjects, and with a history of emigration, we should begin with a certain empathy with many Third World immigrants. Also, a tradition of neutrality means that this state is unlikely to get involved in foreign misadventures. But initial goodwill, on both sides, could rapidly dissipate.

There are clearly lessons to be learnt from the French and British experiences, and Michael McDowell is disingenuous to contend that the legislature does not have a role in confronting the question of integration. Council estates, and les banlieus have emerged in Britain and France as breeding ground for poverty and crime, allowing terrorism and civil disturbances to flourish. It is crucial for integration that our government pursues housing polices that counter the possibility of such ghettos. Already, socially deprived council estates have engendered a pernicious gangsterism among the ‘Old Irish’. It is surely vital that a like degeneration does not manifest itself among the ‘New Irish’.

Another danger, in the longer term, is that the gulf in wealth between the migrant and native could fuel tensions. An increase in the minimum wage, or further reduction in the lower band of income tax, would have an equalising effect. Otherwise, a neo-colonial relationship could take hold, with immigrants taking on the subaltern roles in Irish society with ‘occupational segregation’ emerging.

From the French experience it is worthwhile to observe the value of instilling in immigrants a sense of pride in the nation. The educational system is crucial to this endeavour. The presence, still, of habit-wearing nuns still teaching in schools, ought deter controversy over the issue of the hijab, but our education system does perhaps require a dose of secularisation; schools run by religious orders are unlikely to be acceptable to many non-Catholic immigrants, and it is important that children from different backgrounds are acclimatised to one another. The bifurcation of Protestants and Catholics in the North of Ireland can perhaps be traced to the segregation of schools there.

Modest Proposal

Article 27 of the Canadian charter reads as follows:

‘This Charter shall be interpreted in a manner consistent with the preservation and enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canadians.’

The Irish Constitution already ‘cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage’; would it not be fitting to amend our Constitution to include a similar endearment towards immigrants?

Rising Tide

Fortunately, no significant racist or xenophobic political movements have emerged in this state; in contrast to many other European countries where, in recent years, political parties advocating stringent controls on immigration have grown in popularity, and have even entered into ruling coalitions. For all its faults, the melting pot of U.S. society has been far more accommodating to immigrants. Perhaps Europe’s inability to integrate immigrants is best explained by how, with France perhaps excepted, pride in the nation is generally bound up with attachment to a particular ethnic background, or volk. There is an urgent need to repudiate this conflation, and re-appraise this understanding of the ‘nation’. The views of Dominique Schnapper of the Constitutional Council of France are endorsed: ‘The Classical concept of the nation is that of an entity which, opposed to the ethnic group, affirms itself as an open community, the will to live together expressing itself by the acceptance of a unified public domain which transcends all particularisms.’

If we define ourselves as a ‘Celtic and Christian’ people we embrace an exclusive “particularism” that will exclude immigrants. Michael McDowell’s definition of the ‘Old Irish’ and ‘New Irish’ is helpful, as Irishness ceases to be exclusive. Nonetheless, the state should refrain from a heavy-handed Assimilation, allowing for the celebration of other cultures, not just our own. It is also important that this government move beyond rhetoric and adopt policies that will smooth the process of creating an “open community”.

The Thin End of a Hamburger-Shaped Wedge

(London Magazine, October/November, 2011)

While we ourselves are the living graves of murdered beasts, how can we expect any ideal conditions on this earth?

– George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)

The appearance in men’s lives of domestic animals as a reserve of meat and energy, proved to be a continuing originality of the West

– Fernand Braudel (1902-1985)

Last year I paid an illuminating visit to a French food market in Libourne, outside Bordeaux. At the entrance, among teeming ‘fruits of the sea’, a proud fisherman unfurled a bag of writhing eels. They bore contorted visages that betokened awareness of a fate involving slow-cooking in red wine to form Matelote – a delicacy in those parts.

The real action, however, was to be found inside at the butchers’ stalls. No inanimate chicken breast here; instead, whole birds with patches of unplucked feathers and proud heads nuzzled demurely against one another. Not far away lay a ghoulish array of tongues – mostly cow, but also of pig – arranged in apparent homage to The Rolling Stones’s Forty Licks album. It is startling how long they are. I began to anthropomorphise, roll my own, and, recalling a buried fondness, gulped nervously at karmic prospects.

Next I came to a wild-eyed horse-meat seller who whinnied disconcertingly before launching into enthusiastic instructions on how to stew his, to me repellent, meat. It looked like beef and I wondered whether it should be accompanied by horseradish. Then I felt nauseous at instinctive gourmandising.

On a certain level it was a house of horrors, not dissimilar to the triumphal marches of antiquity in which vanquished warriors were paraded incages through dusty streets en route to ritual execution. Yet the apparent necrophilia of the market stall is a tourist attraction and a flowering of France’s gastronomic tradition that prizes the sometimes brutal terroir of ingredients.

As a consequence, vegetarians are often regarded by the French as po- faced ascetics, removed from the pleasure of dishes like foie gras, coq au vin or confit de canard which define regional identities, forge family bonds, and channel culinary skill. A refusal to eat meat is almost taboo in France, a contempt that may be traced to the Albigensian Crusade of the thirteenth century when heretical Cathars were identified by their refusal to consume flesh.

Les Rosbifs

Britain has a different relationship with meat. Early urbanisation disconnected most from agriculture, and industrial packaging sanitises it; the ubiquitous chicken breast is dissociated from its animal origins. Indeed, an encounter with a blood vessel can serve as an alarming – horrific to some – reminder that this flesh was once living, and not unlike our own.

Just as we are removed from the brutality of war so the abattoir is out of sight. We receive reports of foreign conflicts in news clips of laser- guided weapons that leave puff balls of smoke on infra-red landscapes, and we are quite detached from its shocking reality. Similarly we rarely encounter any hint of the squawk and screech of production-line killing. Even once-ubiquitous butcher shops are now a quaint presence on the cityscape as supermarket-packaging draws us one stage further from the bloody business.

Of course nowadays even the French do most of their shopping in vast, quite sanitised hypermarchés, while a new generation of British ‘foodies’ usually embrace the brutality of meat. Unusually, a few weeks ago I witnessed a succession of rabbits being decapitated in Oxford’s fashionable Covered Market. I recalled Uncle Monty’s sensitivity in Withnail and I (1987) when he revealed: ‘As a youth I would weep in butchers’ shops’.

Apparently, the French consumer is more desensitised to the reality of meat-eating than her English counterpart.

A tendency to ignore the animal origin of meat in Britain is furthered by a linguistic disjunction between the words for most meat, like beef, and the animal from which it derives, e.g. cattle. Only in unusual (reindeer), taboo (horse) or, oddly, immature animals (lamb, chicken) do we find correspondence. In contrast the Frenchmouton and porc identify both the meat and the animal, but as loan-words these were adopted in English only for the comestible meats: pork and mutton. The original Old English terms for pig and sheep are little changed. In part this disconnection is the legacy of the Norman conquest of 1066. The words beef (boeuf) and veal (veau) also derive from French. The conventional explanation is that the vanquished Anglo-Saxons tended the animals while the tiny minority of French-speaking Anglo-Normans ate them. This linguistic separation casts a long shadow, and reveals how little meat was actually eaten.

Meat eating is less enshrined in the English psyche. In the nineteenth century a puritanical aversion to fatally French-inspired gastronomy meant any talk of food was considered dangerously sensual. Meat, with two veg, was the national staple but its popularity derived from its being perceived as ‘filling’ and nutritious. English food was so self-consciously plain that, in the second part of the twentieth century, foreign cuisines were rapidly embraced. Vegetarianism, while unusual, is not controversial as it can be in France.

In recent times a ‘foodie’ movement of celebrity chefs has attempted to alter the national relationship with food, meat in particular. Stately, plump Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, the self-styled diabolic Gordon Ramsay and the slick marketing empire that is Jamie Oliver, have extolled the gastronomic value of meat. The descendents of the victors at the Battle of Agincourt have determined that the French blood-and-guts-approach should be embraced. The factory farm has been eschewed in favour of a pastoral idyll in which seasonality and provenance are the buzz words.

Energy Deficits

My grandmother kept hens on a small scale in the west of Ireland. She would say that ‘every hen dies in debt’, meaning the cost of feeding them, even offset by the addition of household scraps, outweighed any saving on egg expenditure. But she continued to tend them until near her death because hens allowed to roam freely produce eggs with vividly orange yolks that surpass in taste anything produced in industrial-agriculture (the description ‘free range’ found on many egg packets is simply untrue).

Canny Granny Armstrong recognised that her energy inputs outweighed the energy output of her eggs. The factory farm could produce eggs more efficiently, but industrial-agriculture contends with the same deficit.

All animals draw their nutrition from plant-life which photosynthesises; but the converted energy of animal by-products never equates to the energy value of the plant-matter prior to consumption. There are, it is true, marginal landscapes and grasslands unsuited to field crops where ruminants may graze without encroaching on yields from arable land. But most ruminants, especially cattle, are now fattened in feeding lots, mainly consuming grains previously reserved for humans. Less than twenty percent of the corn maize grown in the US is eaten by humans; much of it is fed to cattle even though its acidity leaves them sick with indigestion. The energy-deficit of beef is particularly bad: an energy input to protein output ratio of fifty-four to one normally applies. Consequently, according to a UN report from 2006, cattle-rearing generates more greenhouse gases than driving cars: as well as the methane that is produced in their intestines, most grain fed to animals is grown using artificial fertilisers, the production of which is dependent on natural gas.

Cattle, however, play a crucial role in traditional agriculture due to the manure they provide which restores nitrogen to the soil. Also, their hoof indentations assist the growth of new grass. Oxen once provided crucial energy for ploughing. Between man, beast and grass varieties there has been a fruitful co-evolution that once operated sustainably. The industrial- farming model, by contrast, involves a specialisation in which grain-fed livestock are limited to one single use: food production.

The energy inefficiency of beef is recognised by ‘primitive’ pastoral societies such as the Gaelic Irish prior to the Tudor conquest, and the present-day Masai Mara in Kenya. Cattle are slaughtered only in extremis; instead they extract milk, or blood more rarely. Most famously the cow is sacred to Hindus. The historic popularity of veal in Europe is explained by the male’s inability to yield milk. Scarce fodder from productive dairy cows would have to be diverted in order to bring the male to maturity. Killing the fatted calf was a necessity as well as a rare aristocratic treat.

The challenge of allowing much of the Western world to eat meat and other animal by-products at almost every meal has been achieved by two means: first by increasing the yields on arable land with artificial fertilisation, pesticides, and genetic selection and (occasionally) engineering, and, second, through deforestation. In the last century the Amazon jungle has been radically reduced, but the same process occurred in once-forested Europe. Continued growth in global population and, more importantly, the increasing spread of the modern meat-heavy Western diet motivates further encroachment with unknown consequences. However, any environmental Armageddon can be averted if eating habits change. Research by Cornell University (1997) established that if livestock were restricted to grasslands the United States could feed 800 million people, with no nutritional deficit.

Delusions of Grandeur

In the hierarchical societies of feudal Europe, despite the population being a tiny proportion of current levels (England’s population is reckoned to have been between 1.4 and 1.9 million in 1086 at the time of the Book of Doomsday, compared to fifty million today), meat was usually reserved for the aristocracy. Only in the wake of the Black Death (1348-1350), when as much as a half of Europe’s population was wiped out, did its consumption increase at all social levels before receding as populations grew in the sixteenth century.

Slaughtering an animal foreclosed an important agricultural resource and a steady supply of food; the only exception was the pig which was raised exclusively for meat. But in the past pork was a rarity for all but the nobility, and deployed sparingly. As late as 1852 a travellers’ guide for Tarn in the south-west of France recorded how the poorer peasants greased their vegetable diets with a little lard in a small bag which they plunged briefly in the cooking pot and used over and over for as long as it would last.

Along with the increased productivity of European agriculture, where Holland led the way in the early modern period, the colonisation of the Americas held out the possibility of increased meat consumption. The desire for a diet heavy in animal by-products motivated the continuous expansion of European settlement, at the expense of the indigenous population. According to Deborah Valenze, in ‘the bestiary of the New World … [a]nimal protein was always the subtext of early colonial braggadocio’. Cowboys staked a claim to the land with their choice of food. The railroads allowed city dwellers to partake in the edible bounty.

Meat eating is primarily associated with urban living. Previously this was because towns held the critical mass to consume a large animal before putrefaction set in. Refrigeration arrived only in the late nineteenth century, and accelerated the consumption of meat in technologically advanced cities. As recently as a century ago, the average annual consumption of meat per capita in England was twenty-five kilos, a figure that has risen to eighty kilos today; hence Carolyn Steele’s conclusion that ‘the inexorable rise of burgher and burger go hand in hand’. Meat-eating is now present at all social levels from haute cuisine to kebab shop.

The diet promoted by the original gastronomes, Jean-Anthelm Brillat- Savarin (d.1826) and Grimod de La Reynière (d. 1837), in France evoked pre-Revolutionary aristocratic taste. This meat-heavy diet was equated misleadingly with a traditional rustic one and popularised as ‘French’ food. Fernand Braudel writes: ‘the diet of peasants, that is the vast majority of the population, had nothing in common with the cookery books written for the rich.’

So-called French food was a global hit. The great chef Auguste Escoffier (d.1935) boasted: ‘I have “sown” two thousand chefs all around the world … Think of them as so many seeds planted in virgin soils.’ ‘French’ cuisine became the dominant idiom in Western elite cooking over the course of the nineteenth century and has only latterly been overhauled.

The present English foodie-gastronomy essentially endorses French cuisine, unsurprisingly as most top chefs are trained in that style. The American diet is rejected for its perceived vulgarity. The fabled, pre- modern, edible-landscape of Melton Mowbray pork pies, Cumberland sausages and ten-bird roasts that has emerged in the imaginations of foodies disguises a humbler reality. As late as 1797 Sir Frederick Eden describes in The State of the Poor how farm labourers in the south of England were ‘habituated to the unvarying meal of dry bread and cheese from week’s end to week’s end’.

Doubtless, meat enthusiasts would counter that people should be willing to spend a greater proportion of their income on food, and prize the entirety of an animal. However, this ignores the inescapable impact of widespread meat-heavy diets with population at its current level. It hardly matters whether offal is prepared in posh restaurants or ground into meat patties. Our leading celebrity chefs popularise aristocratic meat-based dishes while maintaining a veneer of environmental-correctness which suggests a rejection of the American consumption model. Nonetheless the selection of choice cuts is the thin end of a hamburger-shaped wedge.

Man the Hunter

There is no reason to suppose that meat tastes better than other foods. Taste is learnt and trends are followed. Braudel observes: ‘fashion governs cooking like fashion. Famous sauces fall into disrepute one day and after that elicit nothing but condescending smiles.’ A gastronome reflects popular taste but also informs it through writing and broadcasting. If you told a Londoner in the wake of World War II that Japanese food would be all the rage today they might laugh at you, or perhaps attack you for sullying the memory of fallen comrades.

Perhaps part of the appeal of meat is that it identifies us with man-the- hunter, even if wild animals are rarely consumed, much less hunted. Men in particular seem to enjoy the experience of the barbecue which, it is often suggested, connects us with hunter ancestors. But hunting came very late in our evolution and only ever formed perhaps one fifth of a pre-agricultural diet. Gathering, usually done by women, was far more important.

Pierre Bourdieu observes of male eating habits: ‘the practical philosophy of the male body as a sort of power, big and strong, with enormous imperative,

brutal needs, which is asserted in every male posture, especially when eating, is also the principle of the division of foods between the sexes … It behoves a man to drink and eat more, and to eat and drink stronger things.’ He continues: ‘Meat, the nourishing food par excellence, strong and strong-making, giving vigour, blood and health, is the dish for the men, who take a second helping.’ This stereotype was confirmed to me by the cover of the Esquire magazine cookbook which I recently noticed in a bookshop. It reads, ‘Eat Like a Man’ and features a huge char-grilled steak on the front cover.

A conventional gesture of maleness suggests that he should order the steak or other large joint of meat, idly flexing his bicep as he points to the menu. This view of maleness is reinforced by the gastronomes and celebrity chefs that inform macho tastes. The male vegetarian is considered an androgynous oddity, and wags recall that Hitler was one.

Nutritionally, however, it is not a requirement for us to consume meat to the present extent. In fact it is positively unhealthy to do so according to important research. This is rarely emphasised by health authorities that seem fearful of offending powerful agri-business. The China Study (2005), a comprehensive epidemiological survey conducted over twenty years, revealed that a vegan, plant-only diet minimises or reverses the development of chronic diseases. Perhaps the lower life-expectancy of men compared to women is explained by a cultural equation of meat with masculinity. Contrary to popular perception, plant proteins abound, and are found in quite surprising sources like potatoes and most grains. The essential amino acids are available in tofu and miso.

Vegetarian food is still viewed as the poor relation, a position derived from the French pioneers of gastronomy who extolled a meat-heavy aristocratic diet. The challenge for a new generation of chefs is to break with convention and make vegetarian food something special, and hopefully gastronome-foodies will endorse their efforts. The recent volte-face of the foremost of carnivore propagandists, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, offers some encouragement.

The Thin End of a Hamburger-Shaped Wedge