In one of my more ill thought out moments I ventured one summer across Western Europe. Alone and by foot, with the suitably clichéd image of a young man in his 20s, guitar over one shoulder and thumb in the air on a motorway slip road, cemented cerebrally into the consciousness of the drivers who refused to pick me up. In hindsight, perhaps their apprehension had something to do with the more prominent cerebral image of gory news stories, and the possible use of a guitar string as a deadly weapon.
It was an all too important adventure for me. Since reading Kerouac’s On The Road at fourteen I, like countless others before me, had a dying thirst for the road that Kerouac had highlighted as an alternative to, as William Burroughs put it, “the alienation, the restlessness and the dissatisfaction” of a static existence. It wasn’t 1947. There were no box-cars. ‘The Road’ as Kerouac knew it had been paved over and replaced with something quite different. Miles Davis and Charlie Parker were dead. Kerouac, Cassady and Ginsberg themselves had fallen into mythology and it’s hard to believe they were ever even real. The romanticism of the old road remained, though, and sometime in the afternoon I found myself in Amsterdam.
From Amsterdam I made my way south, sleeping under bridges, outside train stations and for a couple of nights in Madrid underneath an escalator. I had very little money from the outset. I busked my way from Amsterdam to Paris and gave up when the weather got too hot further south. In some forgotten village in the south of France my stomach began to sound like Kerouac’s freight train. I hadn’t eaten properly since a midnight soup kitchen in Paris. I had been a vegetarian for years, and though the prospect of physically eating meat never really repulsed me I nevertheless considered its moral implications vulgar. The right to take the life of another sentient creature wasn’t something I believed mankind to possess, despite our collective faith in the butcher’s knife. It seemed hypocritical to me. Much in the same way I found it hypocritical for a Texan court to punish a murderer with murder – is not the moral distinction of “murder is wrong” somewhat corrupted? It was at this point, in this village of chipped paint and broken window-shutters, that I was forced to reconsider my own morals.
Outside a train station café where a beer was a hideously overpriced five Euros, the table where a moustachioed businessman sat waiting for a train to Paris was vacated with an abrupt glance at a watch and an important stride to the platform. I replaced him straight away and, picking up his half-smoked cigarette from the ashtray, examined the banquet laid before me. Gingerly I prodded at the suspicious sandwich and found, to my initial dismay, it was a croque monsieur – a sort of toasted cheese and ham sandwich, only more French. I remember sitting there holding it between my eyes in incredulous apprehension. Studying it like a laboratory specimen. My stomach growled at it like a wild animal confronting its prey. I’d like to say I agonised over the decision, but in reality the decision was made for me. I wolfed the thing down in seconds and continued with the cigarette.
I ate well for the rest of my trip. Shortly afterwards I got to Spain, a country whose entire culinary culture seems founded upon ham. Upon returning to England I went back to my comparatively dull diet of lentils and string beans. I took back with me though the realisation that eating meat cannot simply always be considered immoral without considering the circumstances. If I were to leave that sandwich, what then? I’d go hungry and it would be thrown away. Were I an Inuit living in the brutal Alaskan winter, where would I be without a perfectly justifiable diet of fresh fish? A blanket statement like “eating meat is immoral” is illogical as it removes the morally justifiable notion of necessity. Certainly, in my life in Britain I have no necessity to eat meat. There are no nutrients it gives me that I can’t get from other things on supermarket shelves that didn’t require the loss of a life, and the same applies for the rest of our society. For that reason alone our society should be vegetarian through obligation to the preservation of life. The very fact we have the rational power to distinguish between right and wrong in the first place gives us that obligation. The ability to be vegetarian, though, is a virtuous luxury; something we can only afford because our supermarket shelves are well-stocked. This is something I never would have realised, had I not eaten that sandwich.