When he was Labour leader Neil Kinnock delivered a resounding speech cautioning the public against the dangers of voting for the Conservatives. “I warn you,” he boomed, “not to be poor. I warn you not to be old. I warn you not to be sick.”
The warnings went unheeded, the ringing Welsh magniloquence died on the air – the Tories were elected. But now is the time to resurrect a little of that oratorical style. With a New Year almost upon us, I warn you not to be a parsnip. Nor a brussels sprout. Don’t even be a baby cauliflower.
Cruelty to vegetables has long been the single most neglected evil in a society otherwise obsessed with seeking out injustice and avoiding at all cost giving offence to anyone save the wretched middle class, whose sole surviving use is to have offence heaped upon it.
However, there comes in any campaign something which the Americans call a “defining moment”, and for vegetables that moment has arrived. After a lifetime in which the mention of his name caused the birds of the air to flutter and fluster and the beasts of the field to start in terror, Roy Hattersley has declared conversion to vegetarianism.
But while fauna may now safely graze, peace cannot settle upon the land, or indeed beneath it, where the lonely carrot does his stuff. Can you imagine a fate more awful than to be speared on a fork, raised over the trembling dewlap, and inserted into the famously productive salivatory organ of the former Member for Birmingham Sparkbrook, whence to embark on a journey through capacious maw and heaving intestine?
Must we stand idly by while whole fields of innocent King Edwards or acres of blameless broccoli are murdered?
I know some of you may say this is ridiculous, that life is too short to waste on the finer feelings of a runner bean. But ours is now a secular society and, as GK Chesterton remarked, when man ceases to believe in God, he does not believe in nothing, he believes in everything. And so it is with us. Cannot a society that accepts without question that cigarettes are the cause of every known mischief from impotence to barmy children, that does not raise an eyebrow at the assertion that a full moon brings on hangovers, crime and pregnancy, find it in its heart to believe that a Waldorf salad is endowed with consciousness?
Prince Charles talks to the vegetables in his garden at Highgrove. He does not confide the nature of the conversation, nor whether he adjusts the subject matter according to the species of his interlocutor. I suspect, however, that he does. Chicory and globe artichokes, for example, come under the broad category of flowers, leaves, stalks and shoots and would respond best to the lyrical side of the prince’s nature – the watercolourist in him. Aubergines and squashes are, strictly speaking, fruits and therefore fun-loving creatures which like nothing better than a saucy pleasantry, possibly quite near the knuckle and therefore concerning Camilla Parker-Bowles. Peas, beans and pimento are, of course, pods and pulses and, as such, would be especially receptive to the royal views on modern architecture. Roots and tubers, such as turnip and beetroot, are almost impossible conversationalists owing not so much to inherent deafness as to being buried beneath the surface.
But fruit or flower, pod or root, all accept without demure the prince’s trenchant stand on genetically modified foods. For, whereas it is perfectly natural for a vegetable to be buried to the oxters in manure, it is completely contrary to nature to cross a tomato with a chinese cabbage. Prince Charles is a good listener – he spends a great deal of his time asking complete strangers what they do – and he must have heard the oft-expressed fear of parsnips haunted by the prospect of having their genes tampered with and waking up to find themselves hybrid swedes, and not very bright ones at that. Vegetables deserve consideration but, unlike the plight of the fox, which arouses the sentiments of the urban intelligentsia, they cannot expect any comfort from New Labour, most of whom subsist on falafel, guacamole and couscous.
It is all a matter of keeping things in proportion. The artichokes of Highgrove meet their end having conversed with a prince and therefore content. And, unlike the barbaric French, we do not hunt truffles with pigs, (all right, truffles are fungi, not vegetables, but who would put it past the French to chase broad beans with dogs?) Mass slaughter, however, is to be deplored, but such would be the inevitable effect of Hattersley’s turning from meat and fixing his hungry gaze on plantlife.
There is, however, hope. Lord Hattersley says that if, when he next goes to a football match, he “bumps into a man with scarves tied to his wrist and barmy army tattoos on his biceps who says something offensive about my eating habits, the temptation to prove that vegetarians aren’t wimps might be irresistible.”
Given the certain outcome of such a conflict, a million tubers would breathe a sigh of relief and sleep soundly in their beds.