Jonathan Meades: Don't blame poor old Bernard Matthews. We deserve him

Most Britons will go on eating cheaply, greedily and carelessly


They appeared almost overnight in a field in the Wylye valley, east of Warminster. Long, low, prefabricated structures whose shallowly pitched roofs were punctuated by inverted pyramids. These, I was excitedly instructed, represented the future of poultry farming, the future of family lunch.

Chicken would no longer be a parsimoniously carved treat on Sundays when there was an "r" in the month. Turkeys would not be just for Christmas. Want would be a distant memory. There would be plenty of fowl to go with plenty of white goods and plenty of 45rpms.

A decade and a half after the end of the war, the country craved the cheap food it had been promised by Attlee's administration but which had never materialised. The end of meat rationing in the summer of 1954 did not bring with it significant dietary changes. De facto rationing - "shortages" - due to low production and high prices still existed.

Thus there was an eminently sound reason for producing cheap poultry industrially - for "factory farming", which was, initially, a descriptive rather than a pejorative epithet.

Along with keg beer, there was also an eminently sound reason for mass-producing social housing, again employing new, often untried and invariably cheap methods and materials. Quickly erected, vertical human hutches quickly suffered building failures or, at least, failures of maintenance.

The collective perception of neophilia applied to wallop and home was that it was a bad thing. But then intoxication and habitation are more important to the British than the quality (as opposed to quantity) of what we eat.

The bien pensant received opinion about Bernard Matthews may be that every turkey he produces adds to his offences against taste and husbandry. That's a lot of offences.

This smug, bucolic recidivist owns 57farms - an evidently magic figure in the sump area of food production - and sells eight million turkeys per annum. And an overwhelming proportion of the population buys his produce, or produce that is reared by similar methods and which is similarly insipid.

That 160,000 of his turkeys may be destroyed will no doubt come as a blessed release to the wretched creatures who won't be kept waiting all year in conditions that should not be tolerated. But it will make no difference to Bernard's punters, nor to his future fortunes.

The 55 million Britons who have not enjoyed the preposterously bruited gastronomic revolution and ghettoised food fetishisation of the past 20 years will continue to eat cheaply, tastelessly, unhealthily, greedily and, above all, carelessly: it's not an important concern.

The mediation of food in Britain, save by Francine Lawrence and Joanna Blythman, takes no account of the grim, emetic actuality. It is treated as a fashion item, an appendage to British culture, rather than as something which should be central to our life. What we ingest is not a cap we don. There is a connection between the eternal cycles of scares and this frivolous approach which pathetically exculpates itself by pointing to Jamie Oliver, a sort of gastro-Bono contracted to Sainsbury's, who isn't really going to save us from ourselves.

We are, anyway, probably unsaveable. History is against us. The early industrialisation of agriculture, the enclosures and the subsequent scarcity of smallholdings mean that Britain's food production can never emulate the intimate scale and localisation of France where high quality is routinely demanded, pan-global choice is a source of bemusement, culinary novelty is treated with suspicion, and there exists a notion - quite alien to Britain - of correctness in both production and preparation.

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