The path to veganism by Chas Newkey-Burden (@allthatchas)
I got the compassion-for-animals bug at an early age – and then I lost it for a long time.
As a kid I was obsessed with animals, a bit beyond the fondness that is commonplace in childhood. They always seemed so much more noble and loveable than humans. (Watch the news any night of the week and tell me I’m wrong.)
I remember when I was very young we visited some family friends who had farm animals, horses and ponies. I spent the entire holiday ignoring the humans and cuddling the animals. That was perfect for me. On the day we left, after being wrenched away for the drive home, I pointed at my fur-covered jumper and said we must never, ever wash it again.
I also asked if we could move to the countryside so I could live among animals all day, sleeping in their barns and hugging them.
That wasn’t really an option for our family, so as a consolation my Mum encouraged me to create a toy farm at home. Every few Saturdays, I was allowed to choose a model of a farm animal from the local toy shop.
I always chose a toy cow, to the amusement and exasperation of my Mum, who couldn’t understand why I couldn’t choose a pig, a lamb or a chicken occasionally.
I remember the day I realised that the meat on my plate didn’t come from an animal who died peacefully and naturally. My imagination was immediately seized by images of cows, sheep and pigs having their throats sawn open. Of chickens being throttled.
Undercover videos didn’t exist back then, yet I could somehow see and hear it all so vividly.
I immediately became vegetarian. I was 11 years old. To give up meat at that age was quite a step in early 1980s Britain. A kind vegetarian at my mum’s workplace offered to help, and handwrote some recipes for nut cutlets. They were all boring to me but I stuck at it.
I also became an animal rights activist. I handed out leaflets depicting the horrors of vivisection and hunting, wore badges, attended rallies and gathered signatures on petitions. Full of righteous energy, I preached to anyone who would listen.
And anyone who wouldn’t.
One day, I rounded on a friend who was proudly telling me that the tuna in his sandwich was from a company that avoided killing dolphins as they trawled for tuna.
“Sure, but what about the tuna?” I asked him.
“Chas, how come you’re so hung up about animal welfare?” he asked in response.
“How come you’re not?” I replied.
I’ve got so much time for the 12-year-old me.
He could be a brat, though. I remember devoting an entire summer to collecting signatures on an anti-vivisection petition. I got many hundred of people to sign. Then I decided to have some mischief. Our MP was David Mellor, and his job at that time was running the vivisection wing of the British government.
So one Sunday, me and a friend knocked on Mellor’s front door, and, pretending we didn’t know who he was, casually asked him to sign the petition.
He was brilliantly ruffled, particularly when he noticed that all of his neighbours had signed it. (I’d specifically arranged that, it was all part of my plan.)
As he stood there a bit dazed by it all, he said: “You see, erm… do you know who I am?”
“No,” I replied, all sweet blinks and innocent faced.
“I’m, well… perhaps it’s best if I don’t say, but I won’t be signing your petition.”
I wondered out loud if he’d ask his wife and kids whether they’d like to sign. Without a word he handed the petition back to me and shut the door.
A few weeks later the Animal Liberation Front attacked his house overnight, covering it with red paint. For weeks I was terrified that he’d think I’d done it. The following summer he helped pass legislation that regulated the use of animals in testing.
So, yeah, I’ve a lot of time for the 12 year old me. But less so for the me who, sometime around my 15th birthday, stopped the whole vegetarian thing. I began eating meat again.
I ate at McDonald’s, and then later became so obsessed with guzzling shawarma kebabs that a newspaper described me as a “pop culture writer and renowned shawarma aficionado”.
Why the turnaround?
I’d like to say that had I succumbed to the consumerist, carnist pressure to close my mind and open my wallet, to think only of myself (the prime minister at the time told us there was “no such thing as society”) and that all of this tipped me into a spiritual and moral swamp that was inevitable in such a terrible, selfish and fractured time.
But actually, I think I was just being a dick
Decades on, I started eating more thoughtfully but only after I had begun to read more thoughtfully. I studied Kabbalah and Hinduism, and my heart began to open up. Or my dickery subsided, if you prefer.
(Hinduism is a particular joy in this regard: how wondrous it is to worship Krishna, the protector of cows, rather than following any of the religions which pride themselves that the way they slaughter defenceless beings is the moral way.)
Then we got a pet dog, Harry, and I loved him so much from the start. He’s my little brother. I began to realise how insane it was for me to love my pet dog while eating cows, sheep and chickens.
So it was time to stop eating meat again, and I really wanted to burn the bridge this time, so I could never ever go back. I read Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals book, watched all the horrific videos like Meet Your Meat, and Gary Yourofsky’s powerful speech.
They blew my mind – and not in a good way. And the horror wasn’t over. With cows so dear to me, no sooner had I given up meat than I was nagged by the horrors of modern dairy farms. But giving up dairy seemed impossible to me.
So I decided to run a marathon to raise funds for Ahimsa Milk, who produce dairy without killing or harming cows. I also told myself that marathon training was not the time to make another big change in my diet, and that I’d think about going vegan as soon as the marathon was out of the way.
Well, the night before the marathon I didn’t sleep well. I often don’t before a big running event – it’s the nerves. But as I slipped in and out of sleep, I was gripped by a horrifying, haunting image of a young calf. During this vivid nightmare, I knew I’d done something to harm this calf. I didn’t know what, and I knew I hadn’t meant to. But I knew I had.
The next day, as I passed the finishing line after 26.2 miles, I fell into a congratulatory embrace with another runner.
As we sweatily separated, I noticed his t-shirt said “Vegan Runners”, so I told him how much respect and love I have for vegans, and how I had thought of becoming one myself.
“It’s easy,” he said.
“But will I still be able to run well?” I asked, somewhat ridiculously given the context I’d met him in.
He laughed, hugged me again, and said: “Dude, I’m 62, I’ve been vegan for 20 years and I run marathons all the time. You’ll do fine.”
Life was holding me (and so literally!) to my promise that I’d think about veganism as soon as the marathon was out of the way.
It will be a challenge, because I’m a huge fan of halloumi, paneer and ice cream. But what is a bigger challenge, I feel, is the background sense that I am living contrary to my values. I’m not sure that’s even living at all.
And I still haven’t got an answer to my question about tuna.
Calf photo by animals Australia