Whale Nation: read it, do it!

When planning these posts, my aim was not to comment on writing techniques I’d learned from books, but things: ideas, ways of living, ways of being. So it’s really time to mention the book responsible for a major change in my teens: Whale Nation.

This was the late 80s. Environmentalism was popping up a bit more as a topic. We visited friends, who had a couple of big glossy coffee table books. Both were by Heathcote Williams, combining poetry with hardhitting photography.

One I can’t place now – I think it was to do with rubbish. The other: Whale Nation. The book responsible for me becoming a vegetarian overnight.

I was 14. I read, not just about the plight of whales being hunted (where Williams did a lot of good in raising awareness, and encouraging a ban on whaling), but on principles of land use.

I learned about how much energy goes into keeping a cow for meat production, vs. how much is used for cultivating a crop like soya.

I probably cried a bit – the pictures are pretty bleak in places. And I went downstairs and informed my mother than I was giving up eating meat and fish.

Parents are no doubt readied for their offspring taking up causes in their teens. As the saying goes, ‘Employ a teenager while they still know everything.’

My mother coped well with the announcement – but had already made salami sandwiches for the next day’s packed lunch. Would I eat them?

My first test. I thought about it – and said no. I don’t know who ate the salami sandwiches, but I went off to school next day with cheese. And kept going.

I spent 4 years not eating meat or fish. It got a bit tough at points like Christmas Day, when others were having more interesting meals, and I was on rather dry Linda McCartney items. The products were fine – but I was forgoing gravy, because it was made with meat juices.

I wish I had known at that stage that you could get instant gravy that was vegetarian. Gravy was my main ‘miss’, rather than bacon, which I think is the main thing people generally miss if they give up meat. It would have helped on roast dinner days.

I stopped being a vegetarian when I went to Poland the first time. In a boarding school set up, in a culture which had little understanding of vegetarianism at that point (or at least, the boarding school where I was working), it would have been a case of living on bread and pickled cabbage – or going back to meat.

As it was, there was no meat on Fridays anyway – because it was a Catholic institution. And quite a lot of other meals didn’t include meat or fish, because the school tried to produce as much of its own food as it could.

Before I went to Poland, being a vegetarian happened at a time when I was learning to cook anyway. It probably accelerated the process. And it proved very helpful by the time I was a student, since there was no money to buy meat.

After we got married, and while it was just the two of us, we ate vegetarian every second day. We both cooked it – with Dan still specialising in the spicing side of things. We still love veggie – particularly Middle Eastern type combinations of flavours.

Where am I at now? In a mixed place. We now do eat more meat, and fish, for a variety of reasons to do with balancing the family’s diet.

But the early impact of Whale Nation is still with me. I still cook vegetarian meals, though they are now more treats for the grownups who like tastes like aubergine, kidney beans, and so on.

And, at the start of a new year, I am looking to find ways to shift the balance again – to find more plant-based proteins for the times when I can choose what I eat, for myself.

Books can change the world. And they can change an individual’s world. The reverberations may be different, some twenty years on, but the role of books as a place to call us to take action is still secure.

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