At 6 a.m. on a Thursday morning in November it was completely dark outside, but the butcher’s shop was strip-lit and the raw meat area was full of busy young men. It was difficult to see exactly what they were doing – the men were large and they were moving quickly in a small crowded space. It looked like the two closest to me were mincing and bagging mince. Richard, myself and Richard’s son William went upstairs to the office. You’ll be safer upstairs, Richard said. Richard is the boss.
At the top of the stairs was a sign saying CHANGE WORK WEAR WHEN DIRTY, and a room with ten to twenty shoes thrown out of their pairs on the floor. Almost all of them were Nike trainers. There were also piles of folded spare white coats. Richard saw me looking at the shoes and grinned. They all come in in all their trendy shoes, he said with relish. He glanced at my own shoes which were of course Nike trainers, and then he said practically, and more kindly: Well, you have to really or they’d be covered in fat.
The office had the atmosphere of a room that wasn’t often used. Next to the computer keyboard there was a butcher’s hat, white and brimmed, made out of a lightweight netting material a bit like medical gauze, and there was a stained cleaver. There was a broken electronic scale on the side, and in the corner, a large monitor split into four CCTV screens, each one flickering slightly: it seemed to be breathing. One camera was trained on a bin in the back yard.
Richard leaned against a freezer and his son sat at the desk. The boy had two years left at school, but he was spending half term working in the shop.
I told him that I was a novelist and I wanted to know more about animals. That seemed to be enough information…
Richard asked me what I wanted, why I was there. I told him that I was a novelist and I wanted to know more about animals. That seemed to be enough information for him – he didn’t ask for more. He planned to write a book himself, actually. Not a storybook, he said, looking at me shrewdly. A book about cuts of meat. Richard said that it was not going to have a politically correct title: The Housewife’s Guide to Cuts of Meat. But apparently there’s no such thing as housewives these days, Richard said, giving me another shrewd look.
I asked Richard what was preventing him from writing his book. Time, he said.
We discussed the state of the meat industry, and I asked Richard if he worried about vegetarianism and the regular dribs of news saying that red meat is bad for the human body.
Richard shrugged. He caught my eye: Do you drink?
I said yes.
Are you a vegetarian?
I shook my head.
Do you smoke?
I said no.
Well there’s plenty of people that do, said Richard. And they know it’s bad for them – a pint, a cigarette or a bacon sandwich – but people will still do it because they enjoy it. This is what we’re like, isn’t it. It’s what we’re like.
I believed him. I asked whether there was any particular challenge to his business, thinking we were still talking about humans and animals – or meat – but Richard replied without hesitation: Recruitment. No-body wants to be a butcher.
I was surprised. I told Richard that I’d recently moved from East London, where it seemed that all of us who weren’t freelancing were training to be artisan butchers. Richard raised his eyebrows and told me: It hasn’t come North. His vacancies were advertised in the local paper. Richard received few responses, and the respondents do not tend to be what he called normal people.
What are they then?
William looked up and said, clearly, Brave.
Richard spoke over him: Big boisterous and noisy. You’ve got to get on with things. We have some women working here – well, we’ve got Eileen but she’s not really a woman, she’s a woman if you know what I mean. She butchers her own pigs. Butchers are people that just get on with it.
When we went downstairs I thought I could see what he meant. I have rarely seen a room so busy with people who are actually working, hard, with no fuss. There was an unexpected calm hanging over the large young men rapidly butchering raw meat at dawn. They were absorbed in their work. It was early, I hadn’t slept much, and part of me wanted to lie down under the stainless steel counter and go to sleep. I spoke to the men briefly. None of them fretted about the animals – they live a good life – but one man said that he used to have pet lambs at home when he was a child. Sometimes he had two or three tiny sheep sleeping in his bed at night. (Another man said: I bet you did, and all the others laughed.) I asked whether it was a problem for him, working here, cutting up lamb chops, and he shook his head. There’s no confusion is what he said.
The ground floor of the building was partitioned into three chambers that opened onto one another. The shop front, with the counter with cooked meats. Behind that was the largest room, the raw meat room, and behind that the back room where they did the actual butchering. Carcasses came into the back room on Tuesdays. They were butchered into what Richard called the primal cuts, and then the same parts of different individual animals were dealt with. Eight pig’s legs on the table together – like carving up a monster.
Richard’s son stocked the fridges with mince, steak, diced pork, sausages, bacon, ham. The meat was too far down the production line to be readily identifiable as a part of an animal’s body. The shop began to fill up with pre-breakfast customers buying chunks of meat. Richard served them himself. A white man, dressed in his suit for work, asked tentatively to have six chicken legs and then mumbled something I couldn’t catch. I heard Richard’s reply: Aye so six legs cut in half then.
The man assented, and there was a slightly awkward pause, after which he said, as if he was confessing something of an embarrassing nature, that the chicken legs were for a kind of casserole called a tagine.
The woman behind him: Steak please, ribeye, three pieces, not so thin.
When Richard brought it back she picked up the steak in its white plastic bag, and then put it back down on the counter, satisfied with the weight. She asked Richard: Are we working in pounds then, or…?
Richard said: Whatever you like, love.
The woman looked relieved: I’ll have half a pound then of mince.
Between customers, we talked about the butchers’ favourite meat. Richard: Beef. Steak. Steak and chips. William agreed: Yes, he said. Beef – steak – and chips. His tone was solemn, informing me of a fact rather than an opinion.
We discussed the price of beef, which was higher than it had been for a while. We’ve got people giving a thousand pounds for store cattle, Richard said, and our supplier’s got three hundred. (Store cattle are cows you buy grown rather than breeding them yourself.) Richard looked up and out over the counter, through the window to the outside. It was beginning to get light, the sky was pale blue and the rain had stopped but the roads were still wet. Richard used the word imagine for, I think, the first and only time. He said: Imagine having three hundred grand walking around that could die. The idea was beautiful and disturbing to him.
The boundary between the raw and the cooked side of the butcher’s shop was strictly observed. Dry white chickens were loaded from the back by someone on raw, and extracted later in the day, brown and wet, by the person posted to the cooked side. Benny, on the cooked side, had been at the shop for twenty-six years. I asked him what his favourite meat was and he told me it was beef – steak – and chips.
Benny was cutting ham on a large stainless steel machine. Frizzles of pink meat frayed off the edges and fell onto the counter like hairdresser’s clippings. Benny seemed more bemused by my presence than the others. Perhaps he was uncomfortable with someone giving attention to his work, perhaps he was just diffident. He answered each of my questions with a wry smile that suggested he might have said something else. When I asked him what kind of ham he was cutting he gave me a look and said: Boiled ham. When I asked him what the best seller was he said: Boiled ham. When I asked him whether he saw animals differently, since becoming a butcher, he thought for a while, turned the question over in his mind, flopping a packet of ham from hand to hand. Then he said: No.
After another long pause he said in a rush: Maybe that was why I became a butcher though.
A few days after I visited the butchers I had a very different conversation with a woman called Gina, a green criminologist.
Gina and I drank herbal tea in a café on the campus of the university at which we both work, in central Newcastle. She was softly spoken but there was something curt and tough about her, the more so because of her apparent delicacy. Gina was a campaigner for animal rights. But she was not sentimental.
She asked me who I was, and I explained that I taught in the English department – Shakespeare – that I was a writer, that I was also running a research project, shadowing and interviewing people who have some particular knowledge about the lives of animals. I want to look at a human animal at different scales, I said: as a part of all life on earth; as an animal species and as an individual. When I say animal, I am talking about the real body of a living thing – your body, as much as anything – and how it moves as an individual, as a species and as a part of life. I explained that I wanted to find out what the human animal has become – how we see our bodies, now, when we are all over the place. You are stuck in your body right here, but in a technical way you could be said to be in India and Iraq, you are in the sky causing storms, and you are in the sea herding whales towards the beach. You probably don’t feel your body in those places: it is as if you have two distinct bodies. You have an individual body in which you exist, eat, sleep and go about your day-to-day life. You also have a second body which has an impact on foreign countries and on whales.
Falcons are smuggled with their eyelids stitched together in cardboard tubes or suitcases… One in ten will survive.
Gina nodded briefly and explained her background. She was raised on a farm in Ohio. After graduating from university, she worked for a natural history centre, and then for Cincinnati zoo. She had a couple of experiences in her early career that made her think. In the back rooms of the natural history centre at which she worked in Cincinnati there were mice who were being raised to feed the birds of prey. Living stressful lives in close proximity to many others, many of the mice developed large tumours, and one day someone who was talking to Gina picked up a diseased creature and without pausing in her sentence thwacked it by its tail into the desk to put it out of its misery; likewise, Gina continued, while working at the zoo, she saw how many of the creatures lived most of the year in small underground concrete bunkers, because they weren’t equipped for the harsh Ohio winters. During this time, the female gorillas who were enrolled on a breeding programme were put through IVF while living in such bunkers.
It’s my understanding that fertility treatment can be a gruelling process for humans, and I asked Gina whether it’s the same for a gorilla. Yes, she said. At the zoo she saw pathological behaviours exhibited by the caged animals. Pacing, inertia and self-harm.
Gina quit the zoo and joined the police. For a while she worked in a maximum security jail, and then became a deputy sheriff. Then she joined the UN Peacekeeping Corps and moved abroad. Later, having worked with animals, and for the police, her two professional lives were drawn together when she began to research green crime: environmental offences of all kinds, from dogfighting to the corporate theft of natural resources from local communities. Gina specialized in wildlife crime. The only wildlife crime unit in the UK had recently been closed: animal crime is not a priority for any national force on earth, although some countries (Gina mentioned Switzerland) campaign for primates to be afforded the rights of a living body which possesses itself, currently called human rights. But most legal systems do not regard animals as living things. Gina said: Officially speaking they are possessions, of a state if not of an individual.
As an academic whose reputation rested on an informed and impartial judgement, Gina had to monitor her public position: Criminologists have to learn to pose themselves in a non-accusatory way, she said. She confessed that she found it difficult to maintain this studied neutrality when looking at the luxury goods industry. Iguana are skinned alive for handbags: Reptiles fall outside of our empathy, Gina said dispassionately. Falcons are smuggled with their eyelids stitched together in cardboard tubes or suitcases on trains, coming overland from Russia to the Middle East. (Transport officials are bribed to allow the birds through.) One in ten will survive.
To know the geography of green crime is to know a geography of race and wealth: The traffic of animals is human traffic.
Gina’s work involved gathering testimony and combing through records to uncover the evidence. She economically recounted a few cases. Leopards and silver foxes that were kept illegally as pets in luxury apartments. Fur auctions in St Petersburg where there were many more pelts for sale than there were permits given to trappers. Raptor chicks in their nests in rural Scotland which have been assigned 24-hour police guards to protect them from poachers. Diseased bush-meat in English street markets. Gina told me that there are videos on YouTube of orangutans, mother and baby, screaming through the flames when the trees they were in were set alight in intensive slash-and-burn farming for palm oil, and stated in her matter-of-fact way that these videos caused her to cry. Palm oil, she said, is in everybody.
There were a lot of stories. I asked Gina: If you were writing your own story of an animal life, as you see it, where would that life be? She suggested following the journey of a trafficked animal from one side of the earth to another.
It was an interesting idea to me. One issue, I suggested, with taking this approach would be the question of anthropomorphism – a novel about a jaguar transported from Managua to Hamburg, say, would be read as a novel about a human migrant. In a sense, Gina replied, this confusion is a central theory of green criminology. The geography of wildlife exploitation maps pretty much directly onto the geography of human exploitation. We can trace the same paths over the globe: they are the routes along which money flows.
When Gina worked in the Peacekeeping Corps, her earliest criminological work involved the enslavement and forced migration of vulnerable women in former Eastern Bloc states. I asked her whether there was any link between human trade and that of wildlife. Yes, to know the geography of green crime is to know a geography of race and wealth: The traffic of animals is human traffic.
Meeting Richard and then Gina in the same week exposed two different visions of life on earth, of how humans, animals and individual bodies inhabit the world.
For Gina, animals exist in the background of a blurry video taken on a phone. These animals are uncovered by patient research, are located in paperwork and images, records and testimony, and these are the places from which they vanish. She discovers bodies by doing sums: there are more mink pelts than there are fur permits. When Gina is looking for bodies, she looks into her computer: at spreadsheets, quarantine records or scans of travel documents. She scrutinises diagrams which represent the movement of bodies in different formal structures, bar graphs and pie charts and arrows which show the directions of movement – like weather fronts or like capital – around the globe. All of Gina’s creatures are always moving.
By contrast, for Richard, animals exist right in front of you, in flesh and blood. He knows his creatures inside out: an afterbirth in the straw, hot milk dripping out of the mother’s swollen body, a head pushing against other heads at feeding time, wiry hairs caught on the scratching post, heels digging in when you try to drive it up the ramp, compacted mud stamped out from between the trotters, the shit pouring out, the stunned flesh, the stiff flesh, the boiled ham. Pink threads on the shop floor. Sandwiches. You eat what’s put in front of you.
To me, Richard and Gina seemed strangely similar. They were both deeply involved with what they were doing, and there was something brutal about them both. Richard, clearly – the bloody cleaver by his keyboard. But Gina was more brutal than Richard: she had a cool professional relationship with violence on a scale which you and I cannot even picture. People choose what to look at.
They wouldn’t agree on the ways in which a human should relate to an animal, or the ways in which other animals exist in relation to human lives. Gina saw crossover happening in all areas – the borders being breached between bodies, nations and species; one individual flows into another and comes out on the other side.
In the butcher’s shop there is a useful distinction between two legs of meat. One is pork and one is human: you don’t get far by questioning this.
The butcher didn’t think much of that. It was a part of being a butcher, to make sure that borders between species are maintained. In the butcher’s shop there is a useful distinction between two legs of meat. One is pork and one is human: you don’t get far by questioning this. The raw is distinct from the cooked. The pet lamb hasn’t got a problem with the lamb chop. Hygiene certificates are earned with antibacterial spray. Perhaps this is why the boy knew, so clearly, that butchers were people who were brave.
Every living thing has two bodies these days – you are flying into the atmosphere and back down to the ground right now, but you can’t feel it. You breathe something in, and what you breathe out is something else. Your first body is the one belonging to Richard, the place you live in, made out of your own personal skin. Your second body is the body belonging to Gina, a body which is not so solid as the other one, but much larger. This second body is your own literal and physical biological existence – it is a version of you. It is not a concept, it is your own body. The language we have at the moment is weak: we might speak vaguely of global connections; of the emission and circulation of gases; of impacts. And yet, at some microscopic or intangible scale, bodies are breaking into one another. The concept of a global impact is not working for us, and in the meantime, your body has already eaten the distance. Your first body could be sitting alone in a church in the centre of Marseille, but your second body is floating above a pharmaceutical plant on the outskirts of the city, it is inside a freight container in the docks, and it is also thousands of miles away, on a flood plain in Bangladesh, in another man’s lungs. It is understandably difficult to remember that you have anything to do with this second body – your first body is the body you inhabit in your daily life. However, you are alive in both. You have two bodies.
Personally, I do not always find it easy to believe that I have two bodies. In a technical way, I believe in climate change, but I do not much act as if I do. (I take flights.) I don’t really inhabit it. I have never bought a book with Climate Change in the title because I feel that I wouldn’t find anything real inside it. I would like to see real people and real creatures within this reality – not only those who live on drowned islands in the Pacific, but everybody, everywhere – because that, I am told, is the point. We know that even the unconscious patient must be held responsible for the sky outside his operating room. This is every living thing on earth.
I need to find some places where real life and this global truth – the two bodies – come into one another. I want to make the second body come into the first body. I am not going to tell you what to do with your second body or how to use it. The purpose of this book is just to find its real life. I want to incorporate the second body with the first. Because the body exists at different scales, I need to close in on it, starting from its most expansive expression. I want to start by talking about the whole world.
This is an extract from The Second Body by Daisy Hildyard, published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, London, 2017. Copyright © Daisy Hildyard, 2017. Reproduced by permission of Fitzcarraldo Editions.