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Dancing Backwards: More Thoughts On.

July 17, 2014

The scene at the breakfast table in this novel reminded me of so many holidays and short breaks I’ve enjoyed in my life. People tend to pile their plates at breakfast, I do it myself, yet at home I don’t eat cooked breakfasts. When we stay at Michael House, which is a vegan guesthouse run by a facebook friend, ( the food on offer is so delicious I always eat heartily of it, but I know that I will not have much lunch, perhaps only some fruit or a light salad. I won’t be that hungry again until dinner, and there probably won’t be much for vegans anywhere we go anyway. I am well used, now, to taking my own snacks with me wherever I go – nuts, fruit, dark chocolate, raw carrots, rice crackers and peanut butter, things of that sort.

Our main character, Violet, leaves the dining room, where she has eaten a very light breakfast and as she walks away she hears ‘Ken urging Jen to another helping of bacon’.

Poor pigs, some of the most abused animals in the food system, and yet more intelligent than dogs and than any three year old child. Vegans receive many silly bacon jokes from a certain type of very shallow thinking person. I have to wonder why they derive pleasure from making such remarks. They remind me of children sniggering about something that is only funny to children, but which, in children, one can overlook, because they are children and haven’t yet learned to control certain sillinesses, but in grown men (and it is, sadly, mostly men) this behaviour is completely puerile and lacking in any kind of consideration for another person’s feelings.

Most pigs are kept in vile, inhumane conditions because they are cheap ‘pork products’ to the farmers and consumers. Many people, when challenged by the presence of a vegan, will offer the information that they are against factory farming, but the reality is, they are being untruthful. They might believe what they are saying, but unless they live it, they might as well say nothing. All they are doing is disturbing the air with useless, empty words. The fact is that 97% of all meat comes from factory farms because most people will not pay the price for the living animals who are the providers of their burgers and sausages, to be raised any other way. Every sandwich, meat pie, hot dog and burger bought from an outlet that serves food will be from factory farmed animals unless it says otherwise,and who reads or asks about any of this? So much for ‘not supporting factory farming’ – it is, like most things, a remark meant to make the vegan shut up.

So Violet leaves the dining room and wanders out on deck. “And there was the sea, reminding her that nothing that happens matters much in the great sum of things. And yet, she thought, how can we help minding?’

Violet, of course, isn’t thinking about the things that occupy me, but she is right ‘how can we help minding’ stuff? How can I help minding that so many animals die needlessly every day, people die of hunger while others grow fat and get sick on it and the environment is being trashed? I mind. I mind hugely. I want things to be different. I do not want a world that is so cruel, so unfair, so violent. Does anyone? Yet what are most people doing to help change that? As they bite into their bacon or tuna sandwich, who thinks about the impact that food choice is having on the wider world and about making some changes to improve things? How many people can truly, deeply connect what they do, to what happens ‘out there’? The butterfly wing effect, the tiny action that has enormous repercussions all over the globe and echoes through the Cosmos.

A little later in our story, Violet has a conversation with some Eastern European cruise staff.

“Boris raised his eyebrows. Long ago, his family had owned serfs, and vast tracts of woodland where wolves loped”

The wolves have long disappeared from the UK, along with lynx, all hunted to extinction for many reasons, none of them good or moral. The animal ‘serfs’ we call ‘livestock’ had to be ‘protected’ –  of course-  from ravening wolves. There is no room for large, wild carnivores in a world dominated by animal farming. Useless, it seems, for vegans to point out that actually we don’t need to have herds of animals in pastures and birds shut in poultry sheds, we could all eat plants and grains that no predator would be interested in. but nothing matters but people’s lust for meat, apparently. I imagine a countryside much more wooded, as it once was, a very long time ago, where there is wildness again, and fields are full of vegetables, and farmers use forest gardening and vegan permaculture to get as much yield from their land as possible and we create meat in labs without having to keep and slaughter billions of animals.

Violet goes in to dinner and,at table there is talk of Voodoo and witchdoctors – the ‘traditional healers’ in Africa, the Sangomas, who, says the expert, prescribe lion’s fat for courage.

I imagine that it is believed the courage of the lion is transferred somehow to the man through the fat, or perhaps it is the ‘courage’ (?) of the hunter who slew the lion and collected the fat. Whatever nonsense fuels this superstition, a majestic animal dies needlessly to supply something completely useless to do the job required of it. Nothing can give cowardly humans courage if they don’t already have it, and there is no courage in arming yourself against another being with weapons and overpowering them by superior force. This, quite simply, is aggression and domination. Bullying in fact.

Courage is standing up for what you believe is right in the face of opposition, derision and persecution. Courage is defending the weak and helpless. Courage is putting yourself in danger to rescue or help someone. Courage is something you grow in yourself, it simply cannot be acquired with some salve or tonic or the taking of an animal’s life and using some part of its body.

The Chinese have all these superstitions about tiger parts and rhino horn and this deadly nonsense is pushing wonderful animals to the brink of extinction. Human stupidity is extremely dangerous.Respecting the culture of another country should not include ‘respect’ for traditions that are ignorantly destroying ecosystems and species. Some laws should be international, and protecting wildlife is one of them.

In the UK we have the wildlife crime of the badger cull, where our government, in the teeth of scientific advice and huge opposition from wildlife experts, blunders on with this absurd and disgusting policy at the behest of the dairy industry. Or is it? That’s the excuse, but is it the real reason? I can’t understand why anyone who thinks they love badgers goes on buying milk and cheese. What can they be thinking? The very least we can do is stop supporting the industry that is behind the cull!

So Violet returns to her cabin where she finds “two small squares of chocolate, positioned at a scrupulously judged diagonal on the turned down bed”.

More dairy – the sweet treat that is milk chocolate. Death by chocolate – death, that is for the calves whose milk is stolen and for the older cows whose yield has dropped to less than desired for a good return, and so it’s off to the abattoir as a reward for all their service to the industry and humanity’s love of ice cream, chocolate and custard. Goodbye Daisy who never suckled one of her infants and spent her life in relentless servitude, off you go to become shoe leather,fertilizer, dog meal and whatever else use your poor body can be put to. Never mind, though, there are plenty more of your sisters and daughters to carry on the good work of servicing the greed of homo sapiens, dominators and plunderers of the planet. Great is your reward in heaven? Who can tell what God, if He exists, has in store for all of us and the hapless victims of our cruelty in some hereafter. Most likely we are all simply snuffed to oblivion and all our struggles here as nothing in that grand sum of things, as Violet mused, looking out over the waves, feeling her tiny insignificance.

“Shall I send the cheeseboard over, mrs Hetherington?” I read a bit further on and Violet answers “Why not?”

So many reasons ‘why not’ rush to mind, but Violet doesn’t have these thoughts. The word vegan has not occurred in this novel, and most likely never will. I can’t recall any novel that I have ever read, (except Holy Cow, recently written by my friend Ruth Hawe and available on Amazon),which does  mention veganism. It is simply too ‘avant garde’ at the moment, morality and human conscience have not caught up with it enough for it to feature in literature. It is the next great moral frontier and most people are still failing to board the train.

I wonder how much of our living is centred around eating. Reading this novel with my mind alert for mentions of food, and noting what is being consumed, I realise that meal times punctuate our days and provide the framework for so much of our socialising. They are required to be pleasant occasions for bonding, which is why the presence of somebody on an ethical diet is problematical. The real problem, of course, is that so much of what we eat isn’t ethical and that is the scandal of our human existence – almost everything we touch is tainted with some sort of exploitation, even our food; especially our food, as it happens. When vegans are at table with those who are not vegan, spectres gather around the table, unwanted presences, the reproachful gazes of slaughtered pigs, bereaved cows and  butchered lambs. There they are, in the room, those once living beings who are the absent referents of the food on most people’s plates and the response to this unease is to attack the vegan in some fashion, rather than to face up to the reality of what has been caused to happen through the menu choices that have been made.

When I look into the eyes of a cow, I see a living, sentient being who feels as I do, experiences life in much the same way as I do and who, through nothing she has done to deserve any of it, has been born in the body of a creature that human beings have decided is a ‘milk producing machine’, to give the Violets of this world her chocolates and her cheese.

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