Read transcript of Ep 15: Liberation

Follow this link to hear the episode & read the show notes. Transcription by Amy Carpenter.

[Car horn. White noise from distant traffic etc.]

Ian:

We’re in the middle of London within sight of the British Museum, just next to a glass, stone and concrete office block. And carved into its wall there’s a tribute to the “Women’s Freedom League”, worked for equality between men and women from its headquarters on this site.

Let’s go back to 1944. The British Museum is still damaged from the Blitz. The building next to us is four storeys of utilitarian brick with stone embellishments.

And the Women’s Freedom League is just one of the radical causes here. There’s a vegetarian café called The Attic Club, presumably on the top floor. And there, in November ’44, a woodwork teacher called Donald Watson gathers a half-dozen vegetarians who’ve decided to avoid all animal products, the world’s first vegan society in embryo.

They are the fringe of the fringe. Yet in a single lifetime, vegetarianism will become a mainstream choice in much of the West, with veganism hard on its heels.

In this final episode of our radio history of vegetarianism, we enter living memory with visits to a life-long vegan born in 1951, an early cooperative wholefood shop, and in New Delhi, a vegan Indian politician.

As well as hearing archive clips and experts in vegetarianism, both East and West, to help us understand just how the world gets from there to here.

[Traffic noise fades into Theme – music with sound of gongs]

Ian [as narrator]:

Vegetarianism: The Story So Far, with me Ian McDonald. Episode 15: Liberation.

[Theme ends]

[Background noise echoes inside a building.]

Ian

Let’s delve into this wartime milieu of feminists and food reformers. Dr Samantha Calvert wrote the Vegan Society’s official history, and I met her at one of the few places those pioneers knew that’s left standing, just across from London’s Euston railway station.

[to Calvert] We’re in Friends House in London, the British headquarters of the Quakers. Neoclassical columns, plastered around modernist stonework and 1920s brickwork. Now the new Vegan Society came here for almost all its general meetings during its first decade. Why?

Dr Samantha Calvert:

Well, there’s been a long connection between vegetarianism and Quakerism. But I think Friends House where we are now would have been attractive to the Vegan Society, because also somewhere that provided rooms for meetings which would have been quite a friendly environment for vegans.

Quakers are often vegetarians today, maybe 30% of Quakers would be vegetarians. And their peace testimony, their concern for passivism I think would have been something that would have been attractive to Donald Watson who was himself a conscientious objector.

Even at the time of the Vegan Society’s meetings here in the ’40s and ’50s, the catering here would have allowed for vegetarianism, and also for a, what they called a fruit-plate. So it would have been a convivial place really for vegans to meet.

Ian:

Let’s go down to the restaurant, to the basement, where we’ll be a little out of everybody’s way.

Calvert:

Ok then.

Ian [as narrator]:

Of course, vegetarians have been discussing dairy products for generations. We’ve met Victorians who didn’t consider dairy products vegetarian, including the sacred socialist Concordites; the French anarchist végétaliens, and going right back to the middle ages, the Arab-Syrian poet Abu al-‘Ala’ al-Ma’arri, and the order of the Elect of the Manichaeans.

Calvert:

From 1909 to 1912, there was a lively discussion in the pages of the Vegetarian Society’s journal, about the idea of whether or not one should eat dairy products.

[Piano music begins in background]

Mr A W Duncan [actor reading]:

As long as we drink milk, eat butter and cheese, or use leather, we are taking part in the slaughter and …

Joseph Lebolo-Carey [actor reading]:

When the cows are old or too badly diseased to be further milked, they become the butcher’s …

CP Newcombe [actor reading]:

Cannot have eggs without also having on your hands a number of male birds, which you must kill.

Ian:

Writing from India there’s Narsi Ram, from the…

Narsi Ram [actor reading]:

Animals’ Friend Society, Punjab.

Ian: 

He defends Hindu farmers, saying there’s milk for calves and humans to share.

Narsi Ram:

When a mother cow is domesticated and caressed by supplying her with all the necessaries of life, as if she were a very member of the family, the usual quantity of the cow’s milk is much increased.

Ian:

Dr Florence Sexton, one of Scotland’s first women physicians and a trained dairy farmer, suggests cows have a comfortable existence. And, unlike Ram, she defends killing the male calves.

Florence Sexton [actor reading]:

Newly born babies, whether human or animals, have no consciousness, and it cannot therefore be cruel to destroy them.

Ian:

Some familiar names take part in this debate. Anna Bonus, the niece of famous 19th Century feminist mystic anti-vivisection physician, Dr Anna Bonus Kingsford, speaks up for cows.

Alice Bonus [actor reading]:

It must involve some slaughter, I think, and some suffering to the cows and calves.

Ian:

So does the simple lifer from last show, Dugald Semple, who is already experimenting with veganism.

Dugald Semple:

Eggs were meant to produce chickens and not omelettes; and cow’s milk is a perfect food for a calf, but most assuredly not for a human being.

Ian:

The editor, Alfred Cornelius Newcombe, is more concerned about hygiene than animals.

Alfred Cornelius Newcombe [actor reading]:

Eggs and milk when carefully selected, are pure foods….They have not been through the wear and tear of life and, therefore, do not contain the broken down tissues, the refuse of the body which is so objectionable a component of every piece of flesh which a meat eater swallows.

Ian:

But a Mr Hunter, of Stirling, looks to the future.

Mr Hunter [actor reading]:

Personally I use very little of these animal products. I am only on the way. In a few generations we may succeed in living on a purer and more humane diet.

Ian:

The dairy discussion recurs in the magazine again in the mid ’30s, and again in the early ’40s, and that time it gathers momentum. In 1944, a handful of non-dairy vegetarians get organised.

Calvert:

Donald Watson is probably the most well-known. He was the person who edited the magazine for the first two years.

Ian:

This is Donald Watson, interviewed in 2002 at the age of 92 by the then Vegan Society chair George Rodger.

Donald Watson [archive recording]:

Year or two before the Society was formed, I was corresponding with a very small number of people scattered far and wide.

Ian [to Calvert]:

Who are these people in terms of social class and background?

Calvert:

Reasonably well-educated people, but not people of great wealth or position in society. There’s certainly no one who’s titled, for example, as a patron or anything like that.

In fact if anything I suppose people like Donald Watson were anti-establishment. He was a conscientious objector which would have been pretty unusual at the time.

Ian [as narrator]:

In April, at the Croydon Vegetarian Society, south London, Donald Watson proposes a motion against dairy products and only two or three people disagree. This debate probably brought together a lot of like-minded people, and it was organised and chaired by one Elsie Shrigley.

Calvert:

Elsie Shrigley taught piano at one point. Later on she marries a dentist and she helps in his surgery.

Ian [as narrator]:

Elsie will stay on the organising committee until she dies in 1978.

Donald’s seconder, Fay, is a 40-something widow from a vegetarian family who manages the Attic Club. Seven weeks later, she marries a fellow activist, Allan Henderson.

Calvert:

Mr Henderson would later go on to be the first employee of the Society. He was a sort of a paid secretary.

Ian [as narrator]:

The goal is to organise a section within the Vegetarian Society and its newsletter.

Calvert:

The Vegetarian Society refused them space in their journal. And had that request been accepted, they would have been a subgroup within the Vegetarian Society.

Ian [as narrator]:

So one Sunday in November, the 5th says Elsie, core activists gather in Fay Henderson’s Attic Club.

Calvert:

I think there probably is a sense that the war is coming to its close, and that the end of the war is not that far away. So I suppose there must be beginnings of a mood of optimism I think.

Ian [as narrator]:

But what to call themselves?

Watson:

I did appeal to my readers to suggest what the name might be. And I had a list of very bizarre suggestions.

Calvert:

The suggestion from the Hendersons was that the Society might be called All-Vega. And the magazine All-Vegan. And from that, Donald Watson created the name, vegan.

And I think that came from probably the restaurant that was owned by Walter Fleiss and his wife in central London at the time, which was called Veega.

Ian:

You might remember the Fleisses from last show as socialist refugees from Nazi Germany.

Watson:

I settled for the word vegan, which was immediately accepted. And over the years, became part of our language.

Ian [as narrator]:

By the end of 1945, The Vegan Society is properly constituted, and the Hendersons and others can begin to share Donald Watson’s burden.

Watson:

I was the secretary, the treasurer, the auditor, and the banker. Not that we’d ever very much to bank.

Calvert:

Really from the same month of November 1944 they produced a quarterly magazine that’s still produced under the same name, “The Vegan”. That contained recipes, also consumer information. They were quite early on involved in checking which manufacturers were producing products that were vegan.

Ian:

By the end of the ’40s, The Vegan Magazine is landing in several hundred homes around Britain. What’s life like for the those grassroots pioneers? Let’s visit one of those homes, in Wimbledon in West London.

[Birdsong]

Ian [to Cluer]:

So this has been in the family since…

Edwin Cluer:

… 1929. My grandfather bought the house, and it’s been in the family ever since.

[Door creaking]

Lovely creak on this door.

Ian [as narrator]:  

Edwin Cluer still lives in the home he grew up in, [door creaks] and in the corner of the cluttered front room, there are cupboards painted with wildflowers.

[to Cluer] a decorated set of cupboards with the initials, A R C, M C, and 1950.

Cluer:

Oh yes. And both my parents made that actually. It’s… Dad made the woodwork and painted it cream, and then mum did the artwork on it. And that’s 1950 that one. Just a year before I was born [laughs].

Ian [to Cluer]:

And M C is Mabel Cluer…

Cluer:

That’s right.

Ian:

… and A R C is…

Cluer:

It’s Alan Roland Cluer.

Ian [as narrator]:

Alan went vegetarian as a teenager after World War One, but Mabel was another second generation vegetarian. Her dad went veg as a teen in 1897.

Cluer:

My mum and dad, they actually met at a vegetarian guest-house in the Lake District which was run by Mrs Isabel James, you might have heard of her. She and my mum and a few others, they did a lot of early cookery demonstrations and cookery courses.

Ian [as narrator]:

Vegetarian guest-houses are definitely a thing, particularly in England’s picturesque Lake District. Fay Henderson ran one in the ’30s, and Fay and Allan run another one in the ’40s. It’s the fresh air, sandals, and life reform movement that we talked about last episode.

Cluer:

Open air is part of the story. I don’t know how many people know the Lake District very much, but there’s a river which runs through a grass mere. It’s called the River Rothay, and one of my names is after that river, River Rothay.

Ian:

Near where they met.

Cluer:

Yeah.

Ian [as narrator]:

So Alan and Mabel get married in ’46, move here, and start a family.

Cluer:

And it was actually my sister who precipitated the change to veganism.

Because she was having a milk supplement as a baby, and they decided when they go on holiday, not to take the bottle because she was drinking out of a cup. She refused to have the milk out of a cup, she didn’t want it out of a cup.

Mum and dad thought, well, we’ve been thinking about it for some time, why don’t we just go vegan at that point.

Ian [as narrator]:

The Vegan Society features them as a thriving vegan family.

Cluer:

Oh, vegan mothers and children.

Ian:

Yes.

Cluer:

Yeah. Cos my mum wrote one of the articles in that booklet. And there’s a picture of my sister and me back to back.

Ian:

So I’m really curious about you, what you remember growing up as a vegan.

Cluer:

Yes. In those days I didn’t really go and think of myself as a “vegan”. I mean, I… we thought of ourselves as a vegetarian family. We were vegan, but, erm…

Ian [as narrator]:

Though the Cluers have the pre-packaged nut meats we sampled last show, there aren’t yet any commercial plant milks for little Edwin to put on his breakfast.

Cluer:

Oh, well dad actually made the cashew milk. He sort of got water, and cashews in a liquidiser, and just churned it until it was milk. It was very nice actually. It’s…

Ian [as narrator}:

We’ll return to the Cluer family later. But not all the vegans are thriving. Samantha Calvert.

[Piano music begins in background]

Samantha Calvert:

By the 1950s, we’re seeing Some vegans becoming ill. Things like irritability and depression, muscular weakness, fatigue, backache, numbness or tingling of hands and feet.

Ian [as narrator]:

If you’re trying to prove the health of a vegan diet to the world, it’s hard to think of anything worse. One vegan couple’s visit to the physician, in Edinburgh in 1951, is reported in the British Medical Journal.

Dr Alexander Guthrie Badenoch [actor reading]:

Both informed me of pain in back and limbs, and informed me that members were accustomed to describe “the vegan back”… Both improved on a vegetarian diet.

Ian:

They even allude to several sudden deaths. That year, the Vegan Society lose two executive members to illness and two to death, including, unexpectedly, the society’s president. Now their symptoms, and as far as we know causes, are quite different, but it must be feeding rumours, and feeling like a movement in crisis.

Calvert:

Writing in the Vegetarian News, Doctor CP Pink records that he’s seen patients whose health has broken down after following a vegan diet for a period of five to fifteen years.

Dr CP Pink [actor reading]:

A few seriously so.

Ian:

Dr Pink was a vice president of the Vegan Society in the ’40s, probably the only physician linked to it. He’s a theosophist. He runs a London maternity hospital along food reform lines, starting children off on vegetarian or even vegan diets.

Pink:

So we are faced with successes and failures.

Ian:

Unfortunately, The Vegan Society’s initial response, from Muriel Drake, the wife of someone who was at the Attic Club meeting, is to explain the illness in natural hygiene terms, suggesting sufferers lacked a gentle transition to veganism, or enough raw food, or even the right spiritual frame of mind.

In February ’52 scientists meet at Dr Pink’s hospital, including Dr Frank Wokes – a biochemist specialising in vitamins from an old vegetarian family. Fortunately, their most obvious guess is also the right one.

Alexander Guthrie Badenoch [actor reading]:

Both also received injections of vitamin B12.

Ian:

B12 was only isolated in 1948 – as it happens, mainly by another vegetarian and theosophist called Lester Smith.

By the end of ’52, the vegetarian magazines are publishing health warnings against veganism. But the scientists have been adopted into the Vegan Society’s Health Group.

And B12 can be brewed up from bacteria cheaply and easily, like beer.

Watson:

And that’s why vegan proprietary products now are fortified with vitamin B12.

Calvert:

I think it’s important to say though, today though, that this isn’t really an issue for vegans anymore, providing people have adequate B12, either through fortified foods in their diet, or by taking a vitamin B12 tablet.

Ian:

B12 will become a trivial footnote. In the 21st Century, the official line from dietetic organisations will be that a well-planned vegan diet is healthful and can lower disease risk.

Meanwhile, small local groups spring up around the world, and in 1960, the energetic American Jay Dinshah sets up a proper national American Vegan Society.

Jay Dinshah [archive recording]:

Actually, veganism is predominantly based on harmlessness.

Ian:

“Harmlessness” is how Dinshah translates “Ahimsa”, the Indian concept of non-violence with which we began the whole series. His society uses the word “ahimsa” a lot – motto, magazine title, et cetera.

Jay’s father was Indian, and he was raised vegetarian, but he was also inspired by Gandhi and Western humanitarians like Albert Schweitzer.

Dinshah:

Trying to live by the golden rule, that we should treat animals, and other human beings certainly, pretty much the way we would like them to treat us.

Ian:

These pioneers are laying the groundwork, not just about health but basic necessities, such as – at least for Brits – what to put in your tea.

Watson:

Some of the early efforts were pretty crude. But it was not until 1965 that my great friend Arthur Ling felt able to market an acceptable alternative to cow’s milk.

Ian:

Whilst the global vegan movement probably numbers in the very low thousands.

Julia Twigg:

I think veganism in the early ’60s is still an extraordinary minority view, even within vegetarianism. Vegans are seen as difficult, more extreme. And certainly from the point of view of mainstream society they scarcely exist at all.

Ian [as narrator]:

That’s Professor Julia Twigg, sociologist of the history of vegetarianism, in her office at the University of Kent at Canterbury. Meanwhile, animal farming intensifies, and animals face worse abuses.

Richard Ryder [archive recording]:

The major cruelties of the 20th Century are animal experimentation, factory farming, the increased exploitation of wildlife. All these things were allowed to develop and get worse, and nobody really challenged them.

Ian:

That’s philosopher Richard Ryder, speaking in 2001. He’s best known for coining the word “speciesism” for when people try to ignore the suffering of other animals by saying “but they’re not human” as if that affects the ability to suffer.

Ryder:

Nothing much happened in Europe until the 1960s and the 1970s.

Ian:

The reaction against intensive farming begins in 1964, when the Quaker Ruth Harrison publishes Animal Machines.

Ruth Harrison [actor reading]:

I am going to discuss a new type of farming, of production line methods applied to the rearing of animals, of animals living out their lives in darkness and immobility, without a sight of the sun.

Twigg: 

The sort of evidence that she exposed of what was happening, in battery hens, in forms of animal husbandry, in crates for calves, these sorts of things, touched a nerve I think.

Ryder:

And we saw this revival of concern about the moral relationship between humans and non-humans.

There was a group of us in Oxford that began to write on the subject, people like Brigid Brophy and the Godlovitches, and…

And we published a book in 1971 on the philosophical issues involved. And this was the first publication on the philosophical level in the English language for 50 years at least.

And it began to take off. And then Peter Singer came along, and he exported the idea to America, where it took off there, with his very good book “Animal Liberation”.

Twigg:

And he manages through his work, not just to touch a sort of wider populace, also he puts onto the agenda of classic philosophy in university departments these kind of issues. Concerns about animals are now a mainstream topic within ethics courses within a philosophy degree.

Ian [as narrator]:

Some of these figures, like Ruth Harrison, centre their attention on cruel practices and aren’t strictly vegetarian. But many people read these books and go vegetarian or vegan.

And on top of this, a social revolution carries vegetarianism towards the mainstream.

[Song beings]

Song:

“Peace and love and harmony” [continues in background]

Twigg:

It’s actually the very late ’60s and into the ’70s, that’s when this all happens.

Song:

“… the summer of love!” [continues in background]

Ian [as narrator]:

In California, aging Nature Boys contribute their music and vegetarianism to the new Hippie movement. One Gypsy Boots, for example has been popularising brown rice, soya bean stew, and smoothies since the ’50s, and he sings at the Monterey festival that begins the summer of love.

Twigg:

And it’s a set of social and cultural movements that draw on some of the old associations that have always been there with vegetarianism. Things like Indian spirituality or left-wing politics of a utopian type.

And it also gets linked with new ideas about nature and the natural, the green movement, environmentalism. These are all part of what buoys up vegetarianism and takes it to a new popularity.

Cluer:

We all of us as a family, we had a feeling that it was the coming thing that more and more people were becoming vegetarian.

Ian [as narrator]:

Edwin Cluer’s dining room in Wimbledon was still festooned with pictures and mementoes from his mother’s funeral.

Cluer:

When she went to hospital and things, the doctor said “you’re doing well for 102” or whatever it was. “So, I’ve been vegetarian all my life”, she said. [Ian and Cluer laugh]

Ian [as narrator]:

Like this photograph of one of her vegan cooking demonstrations.

Cluer:

It always makes me laughs this picture, because it’s like Mum overfeeding me. I’ve got a plate of food and she’s offering me a whole lot more [laughs].

Ian [to Cluer]:

Yeah, my mum does that.

Cluer:

[Laughs]

Ian [as narrator]:

There are leaflets from their exhibitions in the local community centre; and they show this shift in vegetarianism.

Cluer:

Mum and Dad started the Wimbledon Vegetarian Society in 1956.

Ian [as narrator]:

The 1961 exhibition shows a film that’s dedicated to the old puritan Sylvester Graham, and promotes fasting over medicine.

Cluer:

And there’s another vegetarian exhibition in 1975.

Ian [to Cluer]:

With “Diet for a small planet” as the film they’re showing.  [Flickering sound of old film reel]

[as narrator] This is the film version of a massively influential book that reinvigorates environmental vegetarianism.

Francis Moore Lappé argues that meat doesn’t just damage the environment, but diverts crops to farm animals and away from the starving poor.

Francis Moore Lappé [archive recording]:

…That if it takes three and a half acres to provide a meat-and-milk based diet, and we only have an acre per person in the world, we all can’t eat the meat-and-milk based diet that we have in America today.

[Clattering sound]

Cluer:

Honestly don’t know what I’m going to do with these things.

Ian [as narrator]:

Going through his Mabel’s artwork, we came across the banners she made for the 50th anniversary of husband Alan’s health food shop.

Cluer:

Mum did the window dressing and all that display stuff.

Ian [to Cluer]: 

1934 to 1984.

Cluer:

Now, this is the album of Dad’s shop, with the notices that we just looked at.

Ian:

Hmm. Lots of jars of…

Cluer:

All kinds of stuff, yeah. Mum did some beautiful labels on these things. Whole cashews, Jordan almonds…

Ian:

Mabel grew up with her own father’s health food shops in Manchester. I even came across his article encouraging others to follow suit in the 1912 Vegetarian Messenger, next to the arguments about dairy.

Cluer:

That was in the Manchester area of course.

Ian [as narrator]:

These have been the backbone of Western vegetarianism since the late 19th Century. But with the ’60s counterculture a new kind of wholefood store emerges, steeped in egalitarian and co-operative ways of living and working. And I visited one of Britain’s first.

Automated Train Announcement:

We have now arrived at Cambridge.

Ian:

In the back garden of Arjuna Wholefoods, Les and George told me about working there in the ’70s.

George:

Is that a tray of pizza I see hanging out of the kitchen window?

[laughter]

Les:

You fancy that, George?

[laughter]

George: 

Arjuna is rather a hub for different strands of social activity. So, Mill Road was considered as a sort of alternative centre to the historic, rather academic city centre. A number of different groups used us as a contact point, so the window was always full of posters.

Les:

I was involved in the gay movement, and I knew that Arjuna had people who were gay in the workforce, and that there were gay publications on sale here.

Ian [as narrator]:

David Jarvis wrote the history of Arjuna Wholefoods, and in the front of the shop, he described how it began.

David Jarvis:

They got hold of the premises in ’69 but they didn’t open till 1970. But in 1970 this room we’re standing in was a wholefood restaurant. That’s how they started. So what they had was two large tables which were kind of hand-crafted by local craftsmen.

And people would sit on benches, and you would get maybe 12 to 20 people sort of sitting around. And they would be having food that they wouldn’t get anywhere else in Cambridge. And it was very busy, it was always very busy, very popular.

Ian [as narrator]:

This is where the earthenware-and-bare-wood restaurant look comes from.

Jarvis:

Well it was simple, and it was very attractive. And it felt more natural.

Ian:

Julia Twigg.

Twigg:

And the style of vegetarian eating that becomes dominant in this period is very much a wholefood style. It’s not quite as structured as traditional meat and two veg on the plate, it’s often a sort of more diffuse style of food.

Ian [as narrator]:

The stairs to the top floors are decorated with old photographs.

Jarvis:

Maybe that’s around mid to late ’70s, yeah.

Ian [to Jarvis]:

It’s a photo of somebody with proper John Lennon glasses and George Harrison beard.

Jarvis:

Yep. He was known as George number two. We’ve spoken to George number one earlier. Everything looks right like they’re piled up high on the shelves, and some large tubs of items there, tubs of things.

Before he worked at Arjuna, I think in about 1974, he went to America and he stayed at a couple of kind of communes and co-operatives.

Ian [to Jarvis]:

The best known commune of the era was called “The Farm”.

Jarvis:

Yes, he worked on The Farm. I mean, it was the one that he’d heard of, the big one. So he went there and he worked on there, and came back evangelised, really, by, you know, what he saw, and what… So he came back and joined Arjuna and tried to make the same thing happen here.

Ian [as narrator]:

I can only give you a parochial English sample of a counterculture that’s happening all around the developed world. In the tradition of communal living and co-operative working, the upstairs rooms only become offices and store-rooms later.

Jarvis:

And you would have two Arjuna workers living upstairs.

Ian [to Jarvis] :

So we’ve got people living up above the shop…

Jarvis:

And working in the shop during the day, yeah.

Ian [to Jarvis]:

Some of the people who were here had taken part in a commune near Cambridge.

Jarvis:

That’s right, they set up Parsonage Farm, which was also the place where the seeds were sown for establishing Suma, in… another giant co-op now… in the North of England. And the founder of Suma, Reg Taylor, he worked here in 1971.

Ian [as narrator]:

Suma becomes the biggest vegetarian wholefood wholesaler in Britain. So I caught Reg Taylor between trains in the northern English city of Leeds, and he told me about his hippy trail to vegetarianism.

Reg Taylor:

I became aware that there’s a potential for a different level of awareness in consciousness, through taking drugs. I wanted to achieve that naturally, through spiritual practice. And that search led me firstly to what’s called transcendental meditation, taught by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and then Guru Maharaji.

Ian:

Maharaji is just one of the many Eastern religious leaders and movements who gain followers in the West. Like many of them he’s from one of the vegetarian strands we’ve met in previous shows, in his case monotheistic Arya Samaj. In the Hare Krishna’s case, all-singing all-dancing Gaudiya Vaishnavism.

And, like the transcendentalists and theosophists before them, there’s a broad interest in the East; like the name Arjuna from Indian mythology.

Twigg:

As always, it’s a selective look at Indian spirituality. I mean, there’s no interest in castes, there’s no interest in many of the aspects of Indian religion. There are often quite a diffused set of ideas, that are partly Buddhist, partly Hindu.

Ian:

Reg told me about the meeting in the summer of 1975 where several restaurants and shops agreed he’d be their wholesaler.

Taylor: 

Bringing people together from different wholefood co-operative businesses around the north of England, these were I guess mostly what you’d call ex-hippies. [laughs] Or even not even ex- hippies.

Ian [to Taylor]:

It’s the ’70s, and the people who grew up in the first summer of love and stuck with it, are now trying to put those ideas into action.

Taylor:

Correct. Yeah, absolutely.

Ian:

What was the status of vegetarian mock-meats at Suma?

Taylor:

We had mixed feelings about textured vegetable protein, which was the main sort of vegetarian meat substitutes that were available at the time. We were certainly against stocking them originally, because there were other alternatives like miso.

Ian [as narrator]:

That’s a Japanese fermented soy paste with a savoury flavour.

Twigg: 

No, they wanted a different style of food, as well as non-meat, and they didn’t want that kind of mimicking, as it were.

Ian:

In ’77, Reg hands Suma over to a co-operative. In the decades since ’68, London’s vegetarian restaurants have more than tripled, to the numbers familiar in the 21st Century.

But not everyone agrees about mock meats.

[Rap music begins and continues in background]

Unnamed rapper:

“No meat… Vegeburgers, they really are a treat”

Ian:

Gregory Sams coins the word Vegeburger in 1982, for this product, and yes, Suma sell them.

Taylor:

Suma’s a far broader church these days [laughs].

Rapper:

“Vegeburgers, they’re in your store. Just have one and you do it some more. Real eats. Do it.”

Ian:

The rest of the world doesn’t spend the 20th Century standing still. The Eastern groups that attract Westerners – like Hare Krishnas – are first and foremost movements in their own countries.

In Japan, the Macrobiotic diet, based on Zen Buddhist ideas, became popular in the ’30s and is mostly vegetarian.

Some Rastafarians follow an ‘Ital diet that’s vegetarian or even vegan – possibly because of Jamaican Indian influences during the movement’s beginnings, or perhaps because of their respect for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, with its vegan fasts.

And from the ’60s, some African Americans who identify with the Biblical Hebrews, adopt the vegan diet of Eden, some of them even settling in Israel.

For China, it’s a turbulent century.

Vincent Goossaert:

Would you like more tea?

Ian:

Yes please.

[as narrator] You might remember that when I was in Paris I met China expert Vincent Goossaert, to talk about China’s long tradition of religious vows of vegetarianism, temporary and permanent. He told me that, starting in the early 20th century, Chinese vegetarianism started to incorporate Western ideas.

Goossaert:

The merchants that really worked as go-between between the Western trading firms and the local economic environment, some of them were devout, very pious Buddhist. They were vegetarian themselves.

But they were very open to Western ideas about medicine and science. And this traditional focus on purity and not eating meat, but at the same time extremely open to scientific argument in favour of vegetarianism.

We have very interesting pamphlets mixing classical Buddhist texts and modern medical arguments in favour of vegetarianism, and blending them together.

Ian:

Some of these lay Buddhists set up vegetarian restaurants.

Goossaert:

So these urban vegetarian restaurants from the 1910s, ’20s and ’30s, were quite important. They are quite well-known, and they were the direct ancestors of some of the famous vegetarian restaurants now.

Ian [as narrator]:

Many new religious movements emerged from the chaos of the 1930s.

Goossaert:

Probably the most important now is the Yiguandao. So the Yiguandao is now spread worldwide. It’s strongest in Taiwan, and most of the vegetarian restaurants in Taiwan are run by members of the Yiguandao, because they are all strictly vegetarian, and also teetotal.

But they tend to run small, like buffet, cheap, simple, no-frills vegetarian restaurants. Which are nice places, you can have very cheap and good vegetarian meal.

Ian:

If you’ve heard The Vegan Option episode about my travels in southeast Asia, you’ll know those cheap Chinese vegetarian restaurants kept me really well fed. You can download it on The Vegan Option dot org or iTunes, or any podcast archive.

One new east Asian religious movement – Supreme Master – runs scores of vegan restaurants around the world. It combines a south Indian meditation technique with a broadly Buddhist theology.

The situation is much more complicated in the Republic of India. In previous shows, we’ve discovered how, as vegetarianism spread throughout Indian society, it became more of an issue of purity, and caste, and tradition.

Maneka Gandhi:

I grew up in an army officer’s family. And in the army, meat eating is taken for granted. It’s just food on the table.

Ian:

India’s best known advocate for vegetarianism and veganism is a national politician with an incredible life story. I met Maneka Gandhi in her home in central Delhi, though I’m afraid I had to ask her to shush away her noisy dogs before we could talk.

Maneka Gandhi:

So when I got married I was 18 years old. And my husband said to me, he said, “I can’t bear this anymore. The whole day you bleat on about animal welfare, and at night you eat the animal.”

And until then it hadn’t even occurred to me that I was eating meat. So, I really was quite shocked. In fact, I was drinking consomme soup and I spilt it and burnt myself here, which is a permanent mark. I never tasted it again after that, just left it.

Ian:

Her husband was Sanjay Gandhi, no relation of the Mahatma, but heir apparent to the dynasty that dominates India’s secular Congress party.

Then one June day in 1980, practising flying stunts, he crashed and died.

And then Maneka fell out with her mother in law the prime minister.  And threw herself into politics and animal advocacy.

Maneka Gandhi:

So the vegetarian movement can only be a very strong, vibrant movement if you can make them understand that this vegetarianism and non-vegetarianism has both to be related to animals, and not to food.

So that was where I came in. And I made everybody see that what you are eating is an animal. Or what you’re not eating is an animal. And how to do it that way.

Ian:

As opinionated as that sounds to me, I asked other activists, and they agreed – she made the running.

In politics, she sides against her estranged relatives in Congress, with the nationalist BJP.

Maneka Gandhi:

In fact in India, it’s the left that do all the killing. In India there’s no left and no right, it’s a crazy mix up.

But the communist parties are the ones that believe in killing by divine right. They’re savagely, murderously, meat-eating. Because they believe that it’s a function of secularism.

In India, secularism is measured by how much you eat meat and how much you don’t. If you don’t eat meat, you’re considered rabidly Hindu.

Ian:

To get an independent view about that, I went to Brunel University in London and anthropologist Dr James Staples. He began with the straightforward ethical vegetarianism.

Dr James Staples:

Where people see the production of meat as being damaging to the environment. And there’s that kind of new strand which has come through.

There’s also been with economic liberalisation, a kind of contrary strand, which is about people seeing meat as being an index of modernity or cosmopolitanism.

At the same time you also have this new strand of Indian nationalism which has risen in the last decade or so, under the current BJP government, but which is also opposed to the Dalit movement.

Ian [as narrator]:

Dalits are at the bottom of the caste system.

Staples:

Which supports the right of Dalit people to eat meat, to eat beef in particular, which is the one which is being clamped down on by the nationalist government. So I think there are lots of complicated things all going on at the same time and competing with one another.

Ian:

Animal activism can be caught between being seen as a Western movement accusing Indians of cruelty; and a sectarian movement denigrating Muslims and Dalits. Maneka leads the main homegrown group, steering a course between those.

Maneka Gandhi:

The first thing I did was to start a shelter, when I was 23 years old. And then finally I started a TV show in the late 80s called Heads & Tails, where we showed you how a chicken becomes a chicken sandwich. And how a pig turns into ham. And it was a very violent show. And it turned thousands and thousands of people vegetarian.

Because we only had one channel in India, that was the National channel, and everybody watched it. And I had… And this was a weekly show. When the movement started growing, we started growing. I made a group called People for Animals, which is now the largest animal welfare group in India. We have 36 shelters now.

Ian [as narrator]:

Founded in 1994, it compares to the big Western animal advocacy groups, to which we’ll get in a moment.

Maneka Gandhi:

Every time we do something, we do a lot. For instance, the red and green dot.

Ian [to Maneka]::

I have seen those.

Maneka Gandhi:

On packaged goods. Yeah. Now that was brought by me in 2000.

Ian:

To explain, green means vegetarian.

Maneka Gandhi:

Green means vegetarian, and red means non-vegetarian. But when I brought that in, there was again a huge backlash.

So a whole lot of sweets, for instance, are gelatine-based. So they had to have then the red dot. But a lot of things that were pretending to be vegetarian had actually got meat in them. So they got caught as well.

Ian [as narrator]:

It took until 2011 for those labels to become obligatory. Our chat was during the 2014 Indian general election, which returned Maneka and the BJP to government. And we’ll return to India at the end of the show.

People for Animals in India was set up after several Western organisations were already combining different types of activism – from vegetarian and vegan advocacy to welfare reforms, rescues, and shelters.

The Vegetarian Information Service begins in America in ’76, developing into the Farm Animal Rights Movement. Animal Aid begins in Britain  in ’77. Most famously, PETA was set up in 1980 by Alex Pacheco and Ingrid Newkirk.

The social standing of vegetarianism in much of the West is, by the end of the century, transformed. Julia Twigg.

Twigg:

And that’s a really big change that takes place in the late 20th Century. Mainstream restaurants start to have vegetarian options pretty well across the board. And that’s something that’s very new. Up until the late 20th Century, a vegetarian option as a main course in a restaurant would have been a very unusual thing, not to be expected.

But so many people dining out would be dining out with someone who’s a vegetarian, people will have a member of their family who are vegetarian. And so restaurants get onto understanding that they need to be able to provide a vegetarian option.

Ian:

Looking back, Professor Twigg sees vegetarianism advancing in steps, along with other countercultural ideas.

Twigg:

I think vegetarianism rises and falls periodically in Western culture, and has done so for the past couple of hundred years. It did it in the 1880s, in the inter-war period, in the 1960s and ’70s.

And it’s often in association with a whole set of other ideas. And those sets of idea are in Western culture, and recur periodically. But in addition to that, there’s also I think a longer term trajectory of growth. So each time we get one of these upsurges, like the ’60s and ’70s, things don’t die back wholly.

Ian:

But what of veganism? British vegans get their big break in 1976, [TV music begins in background] when the BBC invites the Vegan Society to make a show for their open access slot.

Woman [1976 archive recording]:

Many people are turning to veganism today because so many more could be fed if we ate plant foods direct, instead of feeding them through animals first.

Ian:

The society reports hundreds of phone calls and almost 9000 letters. New recruits add to the tide of advocacy, of what the Cluers were doing – food demonstrations, leafleting, festivals, et cetera. And the easier it gets to be veggie, the fewer vegetarians see veganism as an unattainable ideal.

Twigg:

Once you sort of take on the vegetarian arguments, whether health arguments, moral arguments, environmental arguments, doesn’t happen to everyone but it does make room for a discussion of the vegan argument, which is a sort of a logical progression, really, from vegetarianism.

Ian:

I don’t need to tell you much about the vegan breakthrough of the 21st Century, because we are living through it.

There are aspects that seem familiar from history – like physicians who advance a wholefoods plant-based diet; but now, when it comes to managing diabetes and heart disease; they’re close to the mainstream.

And instead of recommending writings of Porphyry, Shelley or Tolstoy, advocates are more likely to recommend movies like the brutally explicit Earthlings. And instead of veganism being linked to particular churches or asceticism, vegan subcultures range from straight edge to junk food; from crystal healing to rationalists.

And it’s a global connected movement. So let’s end where we began.

[Chatter in crowded room]

A female voice calling out, the organiser:

Ok, hi everyone. Thank you for being at VGF, and also at the demo. Arun’s gonna to show you how to make coffee out of coconut milk.

Ian:

The weekend before I left India, I visited a small vegan festival, in an office block, in a shopping street, in Bengaluru, a.k.a Bangalore.

VGF, by the way, stands for Vegan is Great Fun.

Stalls are selling curry and cake and jewellry – there are talks – it’s like any other small vegan fair I’ve been to.

I wondered what was different about the reception veganism got in India, so I asked Milesh, Susmita, and other members of Bengaluru vegans.

Susmita:

In India, it’s pretty easy, compared to tabling in the West, in New York where we’ve done tabling and demonstrations. People are a lot more receptive here. They are open to it. Again, because of the history of vegetarianism. But then, a lot of times the moment you take a leaflet to somebody, they’re like “Oh, but I’m already vegetarian”. So we have to tell them no, this is also about dairy and the other cruelties involved.

Milesh:

That’s the barrier, with people not wanting to go beyond it. So they’re not able to see what could even be beyond being vegetarian.

Organiser:

And yes, with the religion, again there’s the whole Krishna thing. I’m sure you’ve heard that a million times [Laughs]. You know, like “Oh, Krishna loved butter. Krishna loved ghee. So, oh, you know, it’s religiously ok to do that”.

Ian:

Ghee is the oily part of butter, which is ubiquitous in Indian cooking and even some Hindu ceremonies.

There are now Jains, particularly in the West, who adopt veganism as an expression of their values of ahimsa – nonviolence. But I found less of a religious link here – some were raised vegetarian, some weren’t. Only one credited their upbringing with a nudge towards ahimsa; for most, as Maneka said, food was just a question of family tradition.

Organiser from earlier:

It is that, you know, my ancestors are vegetarian, and great grandfather was vegetarian, then grandparents, and then my parents, and then me. That’s how we’re vegetarian.

Ian:

Like western vegetarians and vegans back to the 1790s, they tend to be political liberals. One runs an activist centre stroke café that sounded a bit like the Attic Club. Another couple, who happened to be from a traditionally vegetarian background didn’t want it broadcast lest my focus on that could come over as caste prejudice.

Overall, their path to veganism wasn’t very different to what I’d hear in London.

[Chatter in background]

Ian:

The original inspiration for you going vegan was…

Male attendee:

Animals. Animal rights.

Ian:

And the source for that was…

Male attendee:

PETA. PETA video.

Female attendee:

And I watched this movie called Earthlings.

Her male partner:

Erm, Her. [Laughs]

Because, I mean, the hen sort of side, because the hen part was kind of clear to me. But again, the turning point I actually said was when she actually forced me to watch Earthlings.

Ian:

PETA, Earthlings, life partners. We could be anywhere. But there was one mention for something Indian.

A different female attendee:

Well, I’ve been vegetarian since I was 12. I just saw slaughter of an animal on this program called “Heads & Tails”, by Mrs Manika Gandhi, that used to come – way back when I was a kid.

So then I just decided that I don’t want any animal to suffer. You know, to satisfy my hunger or to be a bag or a shoe or something. So… and then I got into activism, and then I found out about veganism. I got connected to an animal rights organisation.

Ian [as narrator]:

We’ve come a long way from the thinkers of ancient India and Greece. But the basic concerns aren’t so different – to be healthy, to tread lightly on the earth, and most importantly to spare others harm.

Our actors were Jeremy Hancock, Amy Saul, Brian Roberts, Robert MacDougall, Akshay Dave, Julie Cummings and Sally Beaumont; with music from Saul Rouda, Chaminade performed by Ta-ka-shi Sato, Arvo Pärt performed by Markus Staab, and Robb Masters.

This episode is generously sponsored by Kickstarter backer Jaysee Costa.

Thank you. And thank you very much for sharing this journey with me. If you’ve found it interesting, let me ask you to let folk know – reviews on iTunes are particularly effective ways. And now the full story is online, it’s a great time to post about it.

[Theme begins – music with sound of gongs]

There’s more information, pictures, notes and bibliographies at the Vegan Option dot org. And also a way if you’d like to help with the show’s ongoing expenses. There’ll be another regular season in 2018.

Being in the middle of something of a vegan surge leaves this story on a cliffhanger. How far will it go? Will the tide go out, or have things changed for good?

For me, as a vegan, this is all my backstory; the story so far for the movement around the world.

And one day, someone is going to tell our story too.

It’ll include climate change, and lab grown meat, and the developed world passing peak demand for animal products.

Perhaps, as opposition to treating other animals as if they exist for humans goes from strength to strength, the most important chapter of the story.

And we get to write it.

[Theme ends]

END OF EPISODE 15.

This transcript was posted October 4 2019, but dated so that it appears after the show itself in listings. The featured image is from the first issue of Vegan News. Many thanks to Amy Carpenter.

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About Ian McD

I'm a British new media person with a passion for radio, and interested in the kind of stories best told when we see humans as part of the world of animal minds. I blogged about why I'm producing The Vegan Option.

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"The Vegan Option Vegetarianism: The Story So Far - A Radio History