The following is the text of the speech that I gave at the TW VegFest event in Tonbridge Wells, England on Saturday 19 November, 2011.
From childhood’s hour I have not been
As others were; I have not seen
As others saw; I could not bring
My passions from a common spring.
From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow; I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone;
And all I loved, I loved alone
Those words of course are the opening lines to Edgar Allen Poe’s masterful “Alone“, one of the finest, most lyrical short poems of the 19th century. I sometimes feel, as someone deeply committed to the protection, the welfare, the rights of my animal companions in this world, that I am somewhat different, somewhat …alone.
It is only when coming to an event such as this that one realises that … I am not alone, that … we are not alone … we are not alone in the universe, there are other, similar life-forms just like us out there … there are, in fact, lots and lots of us but even so, our differentness is often exaggerated by the indifference of a society that refuses to play its part in the beautiful drama of compassionate living.
Here are but a few telling tales from my own recent past. Last year when the football World Cup was on in South Africa, a few of us decided to go to the pub after work to watch one of the games – 16 of us went in total. As it was after work, people wanted to get some food as well; 15 of us ordered a burger and chips. I didn’t order the burger; I didn’t even order the chips – they looked a bit rank to me! I subsisted that evening entirely on the nutrients to be extracted from a large number of bottles of Peroni, and I think that I rather well really… but the point was made, that I was the different one…
At Christmas time, we had a party at work and much was made of the catering that was going to laid on for us – on the evening there were great long tables filled with food, people eagerly picking at the goodies on offer … except that there was nothing there for me. One of the catering staff came over and said, “oh – you’re the one. Your food is out the back, I’ll go and get it.” Apparently I was the one … but not, unfortunately, in the same way as Keanu Reeves in The Matrix… back she came with a plate, looking quite pleased with herself. I took the plate and looked at … well, some soggy green things (it was difficult to tell exactly what they were) not so much drizzled but drowned in oil, limp leaves hanging over the edge of the plate, looking for all the world like the melted clocks in Dali’s The Persistence of Memory, except that this was no work of art … my mate sniggered and snorted as he drank from his beer and yes, once again I was the different one…
A few years before that I was working at a major investment bank in the City of London and as an investment bank they of course had great wads of cash to flash around spending it on whatever they liked. This was before the credit crunch … and I find it interesting that following the credit crunch they’ve ended up with even more cash to splash now for failing than they ever had when they were apparently succeeding … such are the mysteries of global capitalism…
Anyway, back then the bank decided to throw some cash down at the lower orders who worked there, such as myself, and they sent us on a ridiculously expensive 3-day residential training course at a terrifyingly posh hotel out in the Kent countryside … I’m sure this hotel had never had to put up with the likes of me before and if I hadn’t have had my company pass I’m sure I’d have been shot at the gates as a peasant intruder… but I did have my company pass so there was nothing they could do about it and they had to let me in…
We did the training during the day and that was all very boring, but it was in very fine, oak-panelled surroundings, every detail a deliberate expression of a place luxuriating in its own exclusivity and opulence … but it was in the evening, at dinner, that the hotel really wanted to impress …
From early evening drinks we were ushered through to the dining-room, a space perfectly dressed in exquisite finery, the other guests already making delicate chinks of sound as cutlery met china under the murmur of soft conversation… a piano player made gentle tones at the grand piano … a full grand piano, no baby stuff for this place … we were seated at a long table for the eight in our group, plus our two trainers. I had, of course, explained my dietary needs to the hotel beforehand – as a vegan one learns very quickly to seek to pre-empt any major confusion at the mere mention of that apparently alien-sounding word…vegan. Even so, when the hors d’oeuvres when brought through mine was a piece of a fish … I explained this problem to one of the waiters who said, “oh you’re a strict one?” before taking it away. Maybe I didn’t want a starter anyway.
Then the main event. The main course. This was where the chef was going to demonstrate his creative brilliance, his culinary genius… and this was full silver-service.
We each had a waiter dedicated to us with the maitre d’ in full command of his staff. Each of the waiters stood at our side, holding the silver platters in their hands, the silver domes sparkling in the evening light. With a nod the maitre d’ gestured to the pianist who paused his playing, the room fell silent and the waiters placed the platters before us. A moment to savour as we waited for the revelation of what was in front of us. With an orchestrated wave of the maitre d’s finger the waiters reached over in perfect synchronisation and lifted the silver lids – my colleagues to a one “ooh-ed” and “aah-ed” and “wow-ed”, gasps of delight as they looked on in wide-eyed wonder at their plates. I looked at my … risotto in something less than wonder. “Is that it?” one of colleagues said as she gazed across at the sorry-looking damp rice splodged on my plate. What could I say? At least the chef had managed a vegan risotto. But they feasted well, my colleagues, that evening on their varieties of so-called “game”, the chef’s speciality, naturally, the hotel’s speciality, naturally, and I was once more “the one”…
The second evening we had the same service, the same dedicated attention to our needs, the same sliver platters, the same nod to the pianist, the same ritual with the team of waiters, the same revelation of the chef’s virtuosity and remarkable talent … and I had the same risotto. And I saw the same, pained sorrowful looks from my colleagues.
The final evening after a third day’s training, and for the last time the ceremony unfolded as before, the maitre d’ ushering us through to the dining room for one more meal … one more example of the chef’s magnificence, one further chance to sample the pleasure of his genius; one further pause by the pianist as the waiters raised the polished, silver domes one last time and once more the same “oohs” and “aahs” and “wows” from my colleagues and .. oh yes, once more the same risotto for me! Once more I was singled out, I was different, I was alone.
I complained of course although the hotel was completely unconcerned; they make plenty of money by filling plates with plenty of so-called “game” birds, reclining afterwards in the rich rewards from so much praise from so many well-fed, well-satisfied guests.
I mention these incidents not because I felt bad about any of them, not because I felt embarrassed by what happened, and not because I felt that I was in any way wrong for being “the one”, for being “singled out” in that way … on the contrary, the very opposite was true then and is still true now …
I seriously could have cared less about being “the one”, and I would only have preferred more “ones” to make us into a many… but I was fine without the burger and chips in the pub that day, looking around the table and seeing their hands greasy with the stain of flesh dribbled with oil to burn away the blood; I was fine, really, with those limp leaves at the Christmas party – how else could I ever enjoy a party, a festive occasion, if I had corpse parts on my plate? And I was massively unfazed by the pained looks of my colleagues in that hotel as they looked sadly at my plate, and I looked at them and saw their cheeks fat with the torn shreds of the violently slaughtered, their faces reddening and bulging with the stuffed remnants of an eviscerated life.
They may have laughed and joked at the table, at the party and in the pub but when I smile I do not have the tattered flesh of the slain hanging from my teeth, my skin does not ooze the rotten grease of death and when I breathe I do not exhale the swallowed scream of the viciously killed.
There was nothing wrong with being “the one” … but the one thing that is wrong in all of this is that it is the wrong way around – it is the one who rips into the bodies of the dead who should be singled out; it is the one who demands that others die for his or her gratification who should be the one who receives the quizzical, confused glance as we ask, “but why would you want that?” and it is the one whose pleasure is found in the sufferance and destruction of the weak and undefended who should feel isolation from his or her peers, the silence that folds like a shadow that comes from being the odd one out.
There should have been fifteen in the pub that evening who were uninterested in any flesh-based burgers, the xmas party should have been heaving, swinging with the many who could eat whatever they wanted from the long tables, crowded with vegetables, fruits and all manner of non-animal cuisine, and below those silver domes should have been riches aplenty for those whose appetites are sated not by blood and death but by the plant-based offerings of a world of food bursting with goodness, and so they would have been if that chef was worth even a fraction of the cost of a meal held under the glittering light of the chandeliers in that dining room.
So why is it not the right way around? Why is it so wrong?
Because we are led to believe lies. The world is warped, the truth is twisted, the facts are falsified, and the lies are laid out before us for our delectation and consumption – if we choose the lazy way and ask no questions, challenge no assumptions, and suppose that every presumption is promoted for the best of intentions, for the noblest of reasons, with everyone’s best interests at heart.
No. This is a dark heart of corruption and distortion; the truth is crushed and lies roll over us; we are led to believe not only that animal body parts and their secretions are essential to human health – despite the irrefutable scientific evidence that disproves this categorically, but also that it must be so hard to live as one who has no animal products in the diet; people are made to feel that it’s just too difficult to change, that it’s just so hard to adapt to a life free from meat and dairy.
We should not be surprised that this is so. The animal farming industry is worth billions of pounds in profit and those companies – whether producers, distributors or retailers – engaged in “feeding the masses” have a vested interest in everything remaining the same, in keeping the population pacified and docile, the mass of humanity leaning backwards, eyes rolling, tongues lolling and mouths agape as tons of rubbish is poured down their throats. But we don’t have to take their rubbish, we don’t have to fill our bellies with the bloody remains of the cruelly killed, we don’t have to stain our lips with the stolen milk of worn-out, run-down traumatised cows bellowing for their calves, now lying dead with a bullet in the head, shot within hours of being born.
We don’t have to do any of that and stopping doing it is one of the easiest things we can do … as well as one of the most profoundly compassionate and beautiful acts we can ever perform.
All that we have to do is to see them, those farmed animals, and see them all for who they really are, and see ourselves for who we really are and then just to modestly adjust our behaviours and live our life slightly differently, so that we can live a life whose every moment is devoted to compassion. This is all that we have to do, to adapt to a life of kindness and consideration for others.
We are an adaptable species. We can adapt to anything. You’d be surprised what people can get used to, you would. It’s amazing really, our ability to adapt. There were men, and it was only men, who were taken as prisoners to Auschwitz-Birkenau in the Second World War and were forced to “work” in the murder chambers and crematoria as what the Nazis called Sonderkommando, a “special” team whose task it was to remove the dead bodies from the gas chambers, remove any gold teeth and jewellery – including intimate examinations for any hidden items, and then burn the bodies, either in open pits or in the crematoria. Often, these men saw and had to deal with the bodies of their families from whom they had been separated only hours before – and now they had to destroy them, utterly and completely. Some of those men “worked” in that horror, that abyssal nightmare, for months even in some cases years.
Even under this most extreme of psychological tortures and trauma they survived, they maintained their decency and their dignity … they … adapted. That is a testament to their courage, the strength of their humanity and their determination to bear witness to this most grievous of evils. But they adapted.
All that I ask is that we all adapt to soya milk instead of cow’s milk, adapt to tofu instead of ham, adapt to … letting other lives live. I ask only that we all live without the factory farm with its cages and chains, live without the weekly livestock market selling animals to their death, and that we all live without the slaughterhouse as the backdrop to our daily rituals, its walls running with blood, spilt just for us.
We can have Weetabix for breakfast instead of sausages and bacon; we can have pizza, curry, burgers just the same … just without the animal pieces, and we can have life all around us not death in us and surrounding us.
We can so easily live in a way that harms no-one, that causes no-one to suffer, no-one to feel pain, no-one to die, to lose their life just for us. From the moment we raise our head from the pillow in the morning until we rest it down again at the close of evening we can live and we can know that everyone else lived and no-one died because of us … no-one was shot because of us, no-one was stabbed in the heart because of us, no-one was anally-electrocuted because of us, no-one was kicked in the face, and punched in the eye, and beaten on the head and burned and scalded, and yelled at and cursed and hated and pushed and pulled and thrown and … … no-one screamed in pain because of us, no-one bowed their head and cried and died just because of us …
And we can live so well!
There’s a reason why heart disease, and diabetes, and obesity and dementia and cancer and so many other desperate afflictions are so rare amongst those who have no animal-based foods in their diet – certainly when contrasted with the meat-eaters in our society. Even taking everything else into account – lifestyle, exercise, age, gender, ethnicity, family history – all of the medical data all point the same way: that a plant-based or vegan diet is not only a healthy choice but the healthiest choice …
It allows us as human beings to live long and healthy lives, with a much, much lower risk of so many diseases that terrify so many. It is not inevitable that 1 in 3 of us must contract cancer as is suggested by so many cancer charities; heart disease is not an inevitable fact of life that can only be held at bay at best by surgery and a lifetime of popping pills; we do not have to spend the majority of our later years debilitated, in chronic pain, with worn and diseased bones, bereft of energy, vitality, the very life sapped from us even as we live … and wheeze and stagger, bent-double towards a cold, early grave.
The one who is considering, but hesitating, about whether to make that choice and absent all animal products from their life – from their food, their clothes and furniture, cosmetics and household products, should ask themselves the simple question – what’s the worst that can happen?
Will their arms fall off? It seems unlikely. Will their eyeballs boil in their heads and explode outwards in a shower of tissue and membrane? That’s not expected to happen. Will their stomach erupt in a spasm of fiery rejection of fruits and vegetables, and be ripped asunder in a bloody horror of self-evisceration? That’s doubtful too.
The worst, the very worst that can happen is that going shopping might take a bit longer as they scan the ingredients list of items on the supermarket shelf … that’s how bad it will ever get …
Now what’s the best that can happen? The person will feel healthier, more full of energy, and will know that their new diet is one that is most definitely more friendly to the environment, knowing that the precious limited water and food available on Earth is not poured into the mouths of livestock animals but is still there for the billion humans who are desperately parched and hungry. And they will know too that they are not responsible for any pain, any suffering, any violence, any cruelty, any beating, any bloodshed, any killing…
They will know that they are living a truly compassionate life, one that respects all life, one that cherishes life, one that really offers hope to those who hunger and thirst in our world, and offers safety and sanctuary to those who deserve our mercy, and protects and cares for the natural world, that safeguards the rainforests, the mangroves, the coral reefs, the rivers and seas and oceans, the savannahs and the forests, the fields and the wetlands, all secured for future generations to treasure the richness of the variety of life lived therein, and one that offers care and kindness to those who are undefended, that looks after the weak and the fragile, a life that expresses love in fullness and without hesitation, concession or compromise, a live of love lived completely and absolutely, a life of goodness, decency, kindness and compassion offered to all without exception…a long, healthy, wonderful life of joy and love …
That’s how good it can be.
And we can all do it. We can all live that life. The power is ours, to change our lives and the lives of so many others.
We do not have to wait for anyone to tell us what to do; we do not have to wait to be given permission to do what we want to do; we do not have to wait to change the world. We can do it now.
We are often made to feel powerless, by lobbyists, by Governments, by big business, but they’re wrong -they don’t own this world; we do. They’re not in control; we are. They don’t have the power; it’s ours. In truth, they’re running scared from us, terrified that we won’t show our loyalty by always shopping at the same supermarket, always buying the same brands, always voting the same way … if we take away our loyalty, if we refuse to buy into what they want us to do, then there’s nothing that they can do about it … and they know it.
They want us to feel weak, but we are strong; they want us to feel helpless and hopeless but hope is ours to offer and help is ours to give. They want us to feel that we can change nothing, but we can change everything. The power is ours; we are in control – of our destiny and the destiny of those billions of others in our world … and we can change the world … by thinking differently, by acting differently, by choosing to live differently, we can change the world.
It doesn’t matter that we get “singled out”, that people regard us as “the one”, because we’re the ones that are taking a stand, we’re the ones that are making a difference … and we are the ones that the world has been waiting for!
Copyright Richard Deboo 2012