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Who says real men have to eat meat?

LET'S GET the first bit out of the way quickly. I am a vegetarian. I have been since I was 14, when a distinctly Eighties kind of dissent bubbled through my soul, and I decided that the meat industry was a central part of the global capitalist plot.

However, endowed with a very English sense of propriety, I have always thought of my herbivorousness as a strictly personal business: not for me the shouty, didactic ways of the average veal crate protester. You can eat the bloodiest steak imaginable in my company, and I won't even blink.

That said, of any time during the 15 years for which I have forsworn meat, this last week should have allowed me to feel triumphant. Indeed, as revelations about the dung-strewn practices of European cattle farmers have piled up, everything in me has wanted to triumph in their shame and my superiority. But the words won't come out. My vegetarianism is still a burden to be stoically carried rather than evangelically publicised.

The problem isn't etiquette, but the fact that I'm a man. I'm regularly the subject of hushed taunts in restaurants. I order my cruelty-free pub lunches in the quietest voice imaginable. Professional "awaydays" - which register an unnervingly high testosterone count - find me apologising for being such an inconvenience and making self-deprecating tofu jokes.

When the idealised New Man evaporated into irrelevance, we saw proud male vegetarianism disappear with him. I once suffered the privations of the meatless lifestyle with an almost macho sense of pride; indeed, in the corners of the sixth form common room where the veggies tended to assemble, males were in a clear majority.

Then, as of about 1994, even some of my left wing friends started accusing me of borderline effeminacy. Previously, I had only borne bafflement and ridicule in the darkest corners of Middle England - now even West London feels like the stamping ground of meat-loving fundamentalists.

The cultural signs of the backlash were obvious. Loaded magazine's key icon was a huge bacon sandwich, and the new spate of laddish heroes - the Gallaghers, Beckham et al - were hardly partial to quorn turnovers. Even my erstwhile veggie role models had gone back to the butcher's.

I was shocked when I was sent to interview Paul Weller for the New Musical Express. Though he once had espoused the cause of animal rights, I had to sit with him in an Irish roadside cafe and watch him eat a plate of lamb chops ("I think vegetarians hate themselves," he told me).

Now, we find that British men - with seemingly genetic inevitability - are secretly addicted to pork pies. Contrary to all their market research, Tesco are shifting thousands upon thousands, and men are to blame.

Simultaneously, vegetarianism has become the preserve of a rather mumsy new stereotype - witness Carla Lane, Chrissie Hynde and Linda McCartney. Earlier this year, I went to the memorial concert organised in Linda's honour. That night, for all the male-dominated musical fun, the Albert Hall was a hotbed of a very menopausal kind of radicalism. Even at the younger end of the age range, women dominate: according to the requisite statistics, the vast majority of new vegetarian converts are teenage girls.

All of which leaves me desperately seeking reasons for the meat-free lifestyle that somehow square with traditional masculinity. And I think I've found one: I'm staying vegetarian not because of shit-eating cattle, veal crates or ecological imbalance, but to show that my willpower is beyond threat and my cackling friends can get stuffed. Now, is that manly enough?