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Dancing Backwards

July 14, 2014

I’m reading a library book called Dancing Backwards by Salley Vickers. In the second sentence of the first chapter are these words:

” the queues, by now spilling out of the cattle shed marked ‘Departures’.”

A thought struck me. How ingrained in us is the normality of exploiting other animals that we use a term like ‘cattle shed’ to denote overcrowding and uncomfortable  conditions. We used it to describe the trucks which took Jewish people to Nazi concentration camps – they were herded ‘like cattle’ and transported to slaughter in trucks, crammed in, hot, thirsty and afraid, just like cattle, in fact, and sheep, and pigs and chickens are today on every road in every country of the world.

Further down the page I find the phrase ‘going to the dogs’ and ‘turn tail’  and by page 10 which is about 7 pages into the book, the main character, Violet, is seated at the dining table on the cruise ship. I expect a description of meals containing animal products and, naturally, I am not disappointed! Except, of course, I am. It would be so nice to discover that one author has a vegan at the table and the crew of the liner serving her with special meals, pre-ordered of course, since obviously in today’s world there won’t be any vegan choice. Perhaps I will write that book myself!

“May I trouble you to pass the butter?” asks the character Baz.

Butter, made from the milk that rightly belongs to a calf who should be suckling it from  her mother. I say ‘her’ because on no diary farm anywhere will a male calf be left with his mother, He will be carted off for immediate slaughter (often literally, in a wheelbarrow, moments after birth: he is ‘wastage’)  or sold into the veal industry. The feelings of the cow do not factor into it – she may bellow, distraught, for her lost newborn for 2 weeks, and nobody care. And she will, because her body will be flooded with hormones released into her bloodstream after birth, hormones that make her protective and strongly attached to her infant.These strong feelings are there for survival reasons. The calf will die otherwise. Half the calves on dairy farms die, the other half are isolated from their mothers and bottle and bucket reared, then they also become milk producing slaves, doomed to experience exactly what their own mothers went through. 

But where is my baby? wonders poor cow number 205 with her red ear tag. Where have they taken him? I call and call and there is no answer. Meanwhile, life goes on as usual, as if my calf had never happened. We are herded twice a day  to the shed where the machines pump away the milk we made for our babies. This is our life .

And so, Baz and Violet, all unheeding in this novel that depicts normal life on a cruise ship somewhere in the ocean, spread their rolls with the product of extreme cruelty, blissfully, for them, unaware of  the ‘absent referents’ those living animals who suffered and died that they may have butter,  and smile and chat and enjoy the taste of it on their bread. Freshly baked, I’d guess, and ‘best butter’ too, perhaps – it is a swanky liner and they are some of the most elite of its passengers, in the most expensive cabins.

“The table was set for eleven but only eight guests appeared. ‘Do you think they cancelled?’ Valerie Garson asked, over her seared yellow fin tuna “

Two lines further on, we read this: “Captain Ryle was tucking into a lamb chop. Years of being at sea had given him an understandable aversion to fish”

The yellow fin tuna, ‘seared’ on Valerie’s plate will be just a small lump of this magnificent fish who should still be freely swimming in the ocean, not part of some pampered human’s meal. Valerie, like the rest of us, could simply eat vegan meals and leave the oceans to flourish, but, of course, Valerie, like most people is half asleep in conscience and doesn’t know what she is doing. She is, in fact, eating the world’s oceans into oblivion.

Here are some facts about the magnificent wild animal she is gobbling up for dinner:

Captain Ryle, of course, isn’t refusing fish for any ethical reasons, but every little helps. He is, however,  eating a piece of someone’s baby with evident relish. Lambs who come in Spring, and are a source of delight, and featured on Country File and who skip about joyfully for a few brief weeks and then are taken, while still very young and full of life, to brutal slaughter so that human beings may enjoy their flesh succulently roasted or grilled with mint sauce. It is what they are born for, just this, and their mothers may bleat with distress as they are taken, but nobody sees that part,  carefully the cameras lie to us, showing only what will keep us buying bits of dead baby sheep, keeping us asleep to the realities of how that meat came into existence as a sanitized slab on a clean tray covered in plastic film wrap in the supermarket chiller. Sheep may not safely graze in the pastures of England’s green and pleasant land or faraway in New Zealand or Australia, because the Captain Ryles of the world want to eat their babies for dinner.

Domestic sheep descend from a few wild ancestors that humans once took and corralled and bred together, and herded along with them when they moved camps. In those far off days survival was tough and this was an ingenious solution. The original ‘fast food’. It was, of course, never moral, but when survival is paramount, morals will usually be forgotten.

And here, a little further on in the book, comes the first breakfast on our fictitious cruise ship. On page 18 we read of a wonderful selection of cereals, fruit, toast, muffins and preserves and then the inevitable ” sliced cheeses, ham, salami, smoked salmon as well as bacon, sausage, black pudding, kippers, haddock, eggs cooked to order”

All of it is meant to demonstrate how every whim is catered for here, every luxury seen to. This is a holiday par excellence, nothing too much trouble, nothing less than the best for these paying guests. But it reads to me like the gluttonous feasts of the Tudor monarchs with their piles of slaughtered game. ‘Game’ – oh yes, the fun of passing the time enjoyably shooting to bits or hunting to death some lovely wild creatures, a pleasant afternoon’s occupation, what, old boy?

Breakfast is usually the best and easiest meal for vegans when on holiday, because there are usually sufficient choices, even if the place can’t seem to run to soya milk or non dairy spread. A fact that, in England, at least, is reprehensible, since every supermarket has a Free From section and on line ordering facilities – no excuse whatever to not cater for vegans. There are usually mushrooms and tomatoes on offer, and baked beans, and one can have toast without spread, and cereals with juice on them instead of milk – it all works well enough. Tea is alright black if not too strong, but nowadays you can usually find a herbal or green tea alternative in most places that serve hot drinks.  It’s getting better, but there is still a long way to go before vegans find a proper welcome everywhere. We are most likely to be the embarrassment at the table who makes everyone feel guilty and turns a pleasant meal into something a bit uncomfortable. We might even be avoided on a cruise after a while. People might scuttle away, afraid we are going to start up again with our animal ethics stuff. The vegan in the room is the bit of sand in the otherwise comfy shoe, even if he or she isn’t particularly one who talks about it much, just is there, ordering vegan food quietly and smiling.

Eggs for breakfast? Here is what is behind those:

So our story continues with breakfast on board ship. “Ken returned with two plates on which he had piled, as if against a coming famine, bacon, black pudding, sausages, mushrooms, tomatoes and fried potatoes”

The very thought of all that gives me ‘metaphorical indigestion’! Incidentally, I haven’t suffered from indigestion at all in the 19 months I have been fully vegan. Animal products, especially in large quantities, are very heavy on the digestive tract. No wonder they cause colon cancer. In our past, of course, there would often have been a famine, and people would have needed to feast, when they could, on high energy foods. Meat would have been infrequent and very welcome, particularly before the idea of animal agriculture caught on. I can see very well how we have got where we are today on the backs, literally and figuratively, of other animals. In our gratitude to them we might now think of freeing them from the burden of carrying us, but it is far from our collective mind to do this. Instead people fight hard for the ‘right’ to go on abusing them and are hostile to vegans for pointing on the needlessness of most of it, today, in our modern world, with all the food choices now at our disposal worldwide.

Vegan living isn’t only about the ethics of eating animals, however. It’s bigger by far. It is a recognition that we are literally eating the planet into oblivion, from overfishing the oceans, to damaging everything with climate changing greenhouse gases, to which animal agriculture contributes as much as the transport sector. It’s also an awareness that we can never feed all the world’s children if we stick religiously to this system of basing our nutrition on animal foods. It is simply unsustainable and very wasteful. I read that most of the world’s fresh water is actually used up (or, as I would put it, wasted) in the livestock farming industry. And, I hate that word, ‘livestock’ by the way, it denotes ownership and commodification  – not living beings with rights, but objects with none whatever, just as people once thought of black African slaves. They were ‘stock’ and were bred for use and sale, and the strong young adult men were colloquially referred to as ‘bucks’ by the slave owners. Which returns me nicely to where I began, with the ‘cattle sheds’ and ‘cattle trucks’- images of overcrowding, heat, discomfort, thirst and long hours on your feet, getting more and more exhausted.

And the thought of ‘why is it ok to put other animals through these conditions, to recognise the inhumanity of them enough to use the images to denote our own discomfort and to decry such conditions for human beings, but not to, similarly, decry them for other animals?’

Vegans are on a journey of awakening empathy. We are in the vanguard of the next huge moral reform. Unlike every other struggle, this one is for beings who cannot assist in their own liberation. They are truly helpless. They cannot speak our language, organise themselves into protest marches, go on strike, refuse to perform for us or assert their rights as earthlings in any way. Black African slaves, oppressed women, gay people, minority groups of any kind, can rise up against their oppressors, but other animals cannot. Humans have de-horned farm animals to prevent them goring those who do  unpleasant things to them or wrest their infants from them, castrated them to make them less dangerous, fenced them in, used curbs on them to control them- whips and sticks and dogs – showing them that people are, supremely,  their masters, making sure they know it, and stay docile, so they may be killed with ease. Or rather, pay someone who is more barbaric and less sensitive,  to do it for those who demand meat, dairy and eggs every day, out of sight and sound, presenting the would-be diners with the cleaned up consequences of dastardly deeds no CCTV is allowed to show, on the shelves of the food shops, so those who pay for violence to be done may have relatively untroubled minds as they happily eat the body parts of the hapless victims.

Vegans opt out of all this, alone in seeing how terrible it all is, how dis-eased, in fact. We are a called ‘extreme’ for the stand we take. I, for one, am proud to have become so ‘extreme’ in my ethics as to think it of supreme importance  to consider the inherent worth and dignity of all beings who inhabit this earth with us.

We have,  in my sincere and honest opinion, no right whatever, as the moral beings we seem to believe we are, to do what we routinely do to other animals. I stand for doing no intentional harm to any being who feels pain and emotions like I do and to treading as lightly on this earth as my clumsy human feet can manage.

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