Overseas readers may not know this, but in recent weeks it has emerged that leading supermarkets and fast-food chains in the UK have inadvertently been stocking beef products such as burgers and lasagne which are, in fact, anything up to 100% horse-meat. The cynic in me wants to put that "inadvertently" in quotes, but their shock and surprise does seem genuine enough. French readers, of course, are shrugging their shoulders and wondering what all the fuss is about.
Now, last weekend, I could cheerfully have brained (with a family-size frozen lasagne) any number of Tesco customers, all wandering around the store asking -- in the sort of loud, self-satisfied voice that only morons are blessed with -- where the "Shergar burgers" might be located.* Chuckle! As so often, I was bemused by the unloveliness of much of the indigenous population of Shirley and Millbrook, Southampton. It's quite striking. I mean, I'm no oil painting, as they say, but Saturday morning in the Tebourba Way Tesco can be quite the freak show. There's a photo-project there for someone, but not me, thanks very much.
But back to the meat. What was particularly weird was the way the horse-meat was discovered. It seems the likes of Burger King are suspicious enough of their suppliers that they routinely DNA-test their burgers. Blimey! It seems equine DNA had started turning up, mainly in the "meat filler product" (some sort of protein-bone-and-fat slurry prepared from offcuts and used to fill the gaps between bits of actual meat) supplied from Poland.
Well, I don't know about you, but the concept of "meat filler" is quite revolting enough, never mind what species is/are being ground up to provide it. Given the proven edibility of actual horse-meat, you'd have thought the use of such a substance in food intended for human consumption would be the bigger scandal, but no.
There's clearly a major taboo at work here. Of course, the attitude to animals in general on these islands is a source of amusement and perplexity to the wider world. Donkey sanctuaries and Pet Rescue Centres really do exist here. No, really! Why, it's as if the British thought animals had souls, and were not just meat-machines which we, as God's Top Species, are free to use and abuse as we see fit. I doubt there's another country in the world where the question "Do goldfish have feelings?" would figure on a university philosophy exam paper.
But the horse taboo is a deep and genuine one. I suspect there must be pagan, atavistic religious feelings at work. There is, after all, nowhere else in the world where images like the ones below have been created, and preserved, for hundreds -- and, in the case of Uffington, thousands -- of years.
Eric Ravilious, Westbury White Horse, 1939
Eric Ravilious, Uffington White Horse, 1939
I had never before considered there might be ambiguity in the expression, "I'm so hungry I could eat a horse!" I think I'd always assumed it was a quantitative thing: I'm so hungry, I could eat something as big as a horse! After all, horses are often invoked whenever coarseness, large size or inedibility are concerned: horse-chestnut, horse-laugh, horse-mushroom, horse-radish, etc. But maybe it's really qualitative: I'm so hungry, I could break thousands of years of taboo, and eat ... a horse! After all, there's quite a taboo around eating lots of things, but when hunger bites, it's been demonstrated repeatedly that we'll tuck in to pretty much anything, including each other.
Though I'd have to be pretty damned hungry indeed ever to eat a meat-filler burger from a fast-food chain.
[N.B. for anyone who has ever doubted the wisdom of "burning in the corners and edges" of a photograph, check out what Ravilious has done in those two watercolours. See how it helps to stabilize and focus the composition, though he may have overdone it a little on the Uffington picture.]
* Again, for overseas readers: Shergar was a famous Irish racehorse who had a very short but blazing career in 1981, who was put out to stud and then kidnapped, never to be seen again, in 1983. He is the Lord Lucan of the horse world. Lord Lucan, yet again for overseas readers... Oh, look it up.