Will Self: Holy cow!

PsychoGeography: Once again the British cattle industry was near-annihilated

Saturday 27 September 2008 00:00 BST
(Drawing by Ralph Steadman)

I well remember sitting at a bar in Logan Airport, Boston, and watching the great cattledammerung of the mid-1990s on a flickering TV: mechanical grabbers lifting up tons of twitching steak tartare and dropping it into enormous trenches. It looked like the smorgasbord of the Devil himself. Ruminating over a few fluid ounces of Miller Lite, it occurred to me that this could well be The End. But no, because in '01, I found myself walking across the causeway to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, shod penitently in £1,300 calf leather walking boots, while behind me a 30 mile swathe of the Northumbrian coast was visible in the sunlight: the smoke from scores of death barbeques wavering up into the heavens, as once again the British cattle industry was near-annihilated.

My companion on this walk was a PR flak from the local tourist board who had cynical things to say about the local farming community: "There's an awful lot of coming-and-going at night despite the quarantine," he contended. "If a herd hasn't got Foot and Mouth, the farmer just sends out for some – 'cause let's face it, the compensation is worth more than the cattle." These attitudes simply go to show quite how far town and country have been divorced from one another in the modern era. Urbanites simply don't understand the relationship that conscientious and caring farmers have towards their livestock.

It's to counteract such ignorance that Dr Thurm Angstrom has set up his new "Cattle Boutique Outreach Programme". Dr Angstrom's weighty tome Sweaty Hearth: Transliterating Domestic Space in the Age of Climate Change, was the surprise summer reading hit of two years ago, and since then the lanky and hirsute climate scientist has carved out a lucrative media career for himself. His appearances on Newsnight – buck-naked save for an Amerindian penis sheath – have become legendary, while his documentary series Doc Deracination – in which he visits a different tribe of indigenes every week, then introduces them to the delights of KFC bucket meals and reality television – garnered record ratings.

Meeting with Dr Angstrom in his palatial penthouse office at Reading University's Department of Comparative Environmental Science, I asked him: what was the Outreach Programme all about? "Simple, really," he lowed. "To persuade affluent gastronomes to get closer to cattle, I've persuaded dairy farmers to make field and stall space available."


"That's right, for weekends and short breaks. The, ah, guests, will come and live as cattle for a few days, savouring the delights of the farmyard – grazing, getting milked, and so forth. That way they can see how much farmers value their livestock."

"This is absurd, Dr Angstrom, you can't seriously imagine that people are going to want to spend their leisure time on all fours in muddy fields?"

"Oh, I assure you, they will when they realise the amount of pampering there is on British farms. Many prime cattle have their own en suite quarters, and are fed hand-picked spinach and radiccio by beautiful dairymaids. On the Prince of Wales's Wiltshire farm – and he is a founder member of the Programme – all cows get a daily massage and a full facial. Besides, what could be healthier than the al fresco lifestyle! To say nothing of the, ah, amorous opportunities."

I detected a hidden agenda in all of this, and subtly probed the deranged academic: "There's a hidden agenda in all this, isn't there Dr Angstrom?"

He wasn't in the least fazed: "Of course. You can't seriously imagine that the current state of affairs, whereby a cow in the first world has a bigger environmental footprint than a human in the third can be allowed to persist? They're eating all the grain, taking up all the space, to say nothing of all that horrid methane they expel from their bony rumps! No! Enough is enough! If BSE and Foot and Mouth weren't sufficient to persuade these crazed carnivores that they had to do without their precious beef, then – how do you say it in English – if they won't beat them, they must join them!"

"Are you proposing that British cattle be culled and replaced with middle-class foodies?"

"The existing cattle will be fed to the dogs, yes, and then the dogs will be fed to the cats, and then the cats to the rats, then the rats to the bats ..."

"Aren't you worried about zoonosis?"

"Nothing scares me – nothing! And when the pastures are empty they will be restocked. The British are stupid, yes? Overweight, yes? They like to stand around all day and talk about the price of their houses, yes? Well – why not do it in a field? In Scandinavia already there are many people living contented lives as cows – you do not hear much complaining."

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