The displays of meat that are too near the bone

Was it 'townie values' or squeamishness that brought an end to a 100-year-old tradition of butchers displaying animal carcasses? Vegetarian Natalie Haynes offers her thoughts

A shift was observed by the World Health Organisation back in 2010. One hundred years ago, just two-tenths of the world's population lived in urban areas. Now, for the first time in history, more people live in cities than in the countryside. And perhaps that begins to explain how city values are being exported to the country.

At least, that's the reason given for a vitriolic campaign against a butcher's shop in Sudbury, in Suffolk. JBS Butchers received anonymous hate mail, provoked by its extravagant window displays. Which, to be fair, look pretty grim to me: a parade of birds hanging beak down, punctuated with clammy-looking pigs' heads.

But they would look grim to me, because I became vegetarian 26 years ago. And at least part of the reason for that was the fact I found it impossible to cope with the image of rabbits kept by my rural, Belgian great-grandmother, and fed by me all summer before the rabbit-man came. He would kill them, skin them, and hang their glistening red corpses around the kitchen. My great-grandmother would laugh at my horror: the rabbits weren't pets, they were food. But back home in Birmingham, I had a pet rabbit, and I couldn't see the difference. Still can't.

So, I've spent years crossing the road to avoid butcher's shops and fishmongers, while I wait for the rest of you to decide that lentils are, in fact, delicious, and join me. It's never occurred to me to write in and complain, because I've always assumed you knew what you were doing. I couldn't wring a chicken's neck, so I don't eat 'em. You may well be made of sterner stuff, so you do. And until someone makes me Queen of the World, butchers won't be outlawed.

But the citizens of Sudbury are sick of the sight of a dead pig walking. And not just pigs. One complainer said, "They even had a line of squirrels across a bar. Who eats squirrel?" Aside from the obvious answer (Elvis), I guess I don't know. But a squirrel isn't very different from a rabbit, in terms of size and cuteness, and plenty of people eat those.

The National Federation of Meat and Food Traders has laid the blame squarely at the door of townies, who moved to the countryside for a better way of life, only to find that way of life staring back at them with glassy eyes through the butcher's window. Now the window display has been taken down, and the Lord of the Flies pig heads replaced with cuts of meat wrapped in cellophane. It doesn't look any less vile to me, but I'm not their target audience.

All of which makes me wonder if it's simple squeamishness, rather than townie values, that are at stake (sorry about the pun. Please don't write in). Plenty of townies will eat offal, after all. It isn't very long ago that people were shocked to discover horsemeat lurking in their lasagne. One thing you can say for an upside-down goose, still covered in feathers in the butcher's window, is that you can definitely see what it is. There are no surreptitious bits of dobbin hiding amid the feathers.

And that seems to be the problem: people still want to eat meat, but some of those people don't want to think about what's involved in that process. Sausages and burgers look so clean, it's easy to imagine they were grown that shape in a lab. But if you don't like the sight of dead animals, come over to the vegetarian camp. I promise that the eye of a potato will never follow you round the room.

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