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Interview with Kathleen Jannaway (Secretary of the Vegan Society) by Malcolm Horne & Marijke McCartney, Vegan Newsletter 11 (February 1977)

MARIJKE: I would first like to ask you about the Vegan Society generally, because not all the Newsletter readers are members of the Society. What are the aims of the Vegan Society?

KATHLEEN: That's rather an interesting question. The function of the Vegan Society is simply to spread veganism of course, that is not by any means pushing veganism on people but making them aware of the possibility of veganism, so they are free to choose it if they want it. When you've found something of value you are under an obligation to spread the news as far as you can so that other people, who may be looking for that, can find it. That's what I've found so rewarding through these years – people have written to us saying "I never knew it was possible – this is just what I wanted". When you find it is possible it alters your whole attitude to life. As for the membership I do wish people would join because one of the first things that you get asked is how many members there are. And man is such a herd animal you know and one of the hardest things about being vegan is that you're standing a little different from everybody else. For some people, as soon as they know they're not going to be so odd and not going to be so cranky, that makes all the difference.

MARIJKE: How do you think the members themselves can help?

KATHLEEN; The most important thing vegans have done is to show that it is possible. When the first vegans became vegan nobody believed it was possible. Your first obligation is to practise the vegan way of life and show that it's healthy. The more people that do it the more convincing it is. Now, after 33 years of the Vegan Society, whatever the experts say, they've shown that it's possible because they've done it. The experts can go on arguing as to how and why but they can't argue that it's not possible.

MARIJKE: I used to read in 'The Vegetarian' that vegans lived entirely on plant produce and eventually I wrote off for free literature and I became a vegan and a member of the Society.

KATHLEEN: And it helped you in the early days so then I think there is a certain obligation to keep up your membership to help others have the same advantage later.

MARIJKE: We didn't know any vegans when we joined so we went to the social meetings advertised in 'The Vegan' and in fact you were the first vegan Kevin and I ever met, when we were on the way to Eva Batt's.

MALCOLM: I want to ask you how you see the future, bearing in mind that the Vegan Society has grown quite a lot since you've been Secretary – which is about five years I think. The membership has more than doubled in that time hasn't it?

KATHLEEN: Yes, the figure now is 2567 which is the number of people that have joined since the Society started 33 years ago although that doesn't mean there are that many active people in the Society.

MALCOLM: Do you think veganism is going to spread at that rate in the future?

KATHLEEN: I think it is going to spread – I think it is going to spread at a great rate.

MALCOLM: If people ask me how many vegans there are in Britain I usually say about 5000 – I don't know whether you think that's a good figure?

KATHLEEN: I find it difficult to answer that question. I'm always coming across people who are vegans but not members of the Society. You see, some people just don't join societies full stop. I'd like to ask why some of your Newsletter readers don't join. I think people often expect the Society to be what it isn't. I have people write and they complain because we don't promote certain religions or some political action. This is what I fight against hard, to prevent us getting aligned with any narrow group of any kind, whether dietary or religious or social or political groups, and to keep us really broadly based.

MALCOLM: Maybe some people don't join because they feel the Vegan Society is not going about things the right way and would join if the Vegan Society did 'such and such'.

KATHLEEN: Such as? This is what I would be interested in – constructive criticism. If they said "Why don't you do this?", then I could get myself thinking "well, is that a good idea or isn't it?" because I'm terribly keen to have more ideas on how to spread veganism. Mind you, I sometimes think that we present a Christian image too much and an orthodox medicine image too much but on the whole I justify that because we live in a so-called Christian society and the power-that-be in this society is orthodox medicine. And if you're going to make an impact it is sensible to use the language of the dominant culture. I know some people are dead set against orthodox medicine and I think as vegans one must be against certain aspects but nevertheless it is the background of our society. I have respect for the scientific attitude but it is very incomplete and inadequate in itself.

MALCOLM: Do you not think there is a danger of people attaching too much importance to veganism so that it almost consumes their lives?

KATHLEEN: For me very definitely veganism is only one small part of my whole philosophy of life. But at the moment it's rather crucial because so many other things are contradictory. Take Christianity for instance – to preach, as the Christians do, compassion and a belief in reality as being like a loving father and yet think that such a God could make a world in which animals should have such strong feelings just in order to be thwarted so that human beings... I mean it's so incongruous isn't it – so contradictory. I think most people haven't been confronted with the situation – it's a real shock if they are.

MARIJKE: I don't think there's much difference if you say veganism is only part – you can just as well say veganism is the whole. I can see what you mean if you say veganism is part but sometimes I see veganism as my life because veganism really includes everything for me. It is what I think at the moment will help to bring about a mere peaceful way of life.

KATHLEEN: I don't like taking veganism as the whole but I know what you mean by it so I'm not criticising you but to me it's just one essential part that at this moment in time and space is very important. I find it very difficult to have sympathy with people who are always going around reading the small print on all the packages and telling you that if you don't eat this you're going to…, if you eat this everything will be wonderful.... All this concentrating on food in that sense I find it very difficult to sympathise with. To me veganism is a necessary part of the compassionate way of life – if you really think through what compassion means it must include veganism but, you see, it must include veganism not veganism living for veganism itself. And there's this huge question that I'm always having to wrestle with of where do you draw the line – I mean, where do you draw the line?

MARIJKE: You can't ever draw the line.

KATHLEEN: I mean, some people take up a position which is quite untenable – I don't really think you can go through life without killing something, or indirectly being responsible. People don't always think things through. While we're in this moment in time and space a certain amount of killing and suffering, and imposing the suffering, is unavoidable but just because a certain amount is, some people immediately follow up, very falsely as I see it, with "well then, it doesn't matter". To me the opposite is true – because it is sometimes necessary one is under obligation never to do it unless it is strictly necessary. The connection and the balance between reason and emotion is terribly important. They've got to be in harmony in the human personality. The tragedy of our time is that the intellect has outstripped the natural life and now, fortunately, it's provoking a reaction. But people are so turning against the intellect because of its dreadful fruits, the atom bomb and other departments of science, that before we know where we are we'll be back in superstition and magic and all the rest of it which is just as horrible you see. After all, our reason is a wonderful tool, it's a most important tool, but it should be the servant of our compassion.

MALCOLM: In a recent debate on vegetarianism in 'The Ecologist', Michael Allaby states that "we have no ecologically really acceptable alternative to the non-edible animal products", giving the example "your alternative to hide, to leather, is plastic. You're now into heavy petro-chemical engineering. It's possible to do it. It's economically feasible, but ecologically it's not the nicest thing one can think of, and in the long term I would submit it's expensive". Now that, I find, awkward to answer.

KATHLEEN: well, I don't agree with him. I think it's very much a matter of turning our research into the right directions. I mean, what was the first form of artificial fabric? Artificial silk that's made from trees. It can be a very simple process, it's not plastic and it's certainly degradable. Artificial fabrics of all kinds can be made from plants and trees. There's cotton, there's rubber, I'm sure there's all sorts of other marvellous things, it's just that we haven't gone into them.

MALCOLM: When people ask about veganism one of the questions they often ask is "what about wool?" and if you say (not all vegans do) "I don't use wool" then they say "well, how do you keep warm?". And, of course, it can be difficult to keep warm without wool.

KATHLEEN: I don't know that wool's all that much warmer you know. It's horrible stuff when it gets all sodden with sweat. I don't know that wool is by any means the perfect fabric. There are all sorts of things one can do with cotton and other materials. There's all sorts of plants that could be used.

MARIJKE: But you can't often buy them.

KATHLEEN: Ah, but that's society today. If the demand was there the supply would come.

MALCOLM: Why do you think there are several eminent ecologists who don't go along with vegetarianism? They go along with eating less meat, they all agree on that, but they don't go the full way to vegetarianism. Is it their compassion which is lacking?

KATHLEEN: Yes, it's their lack of understanding of what man is and what he should be and what he should be developing into. What sort of animal is man and what direction has he got to evolve in, this is the real question to my mind, I think it is now clearly indicated that the evolution of man should go in the direction that we in our hearts feel is the right one, that all the great teachers have agreed about, in the direction of compassion and love. Jesus and Buddha and Gandhi and all the rest of them, they all say the same thing in essence – although it's dressed up in different cultures.

MALCOLM: Maybe some ecologists see their subject as elevated to such an extent that everything's got to fit ecology whereas I would turn it round and say that your ecology has got to fit your ethics.

KATHLEEN, Yes, yes. So many scientists are sheer babes on the emotional side. I think it's the fault of early education – people don't realise that children need to develop the emotional side of their nature. Probably once they start to think too much and read too much it makes it difficult. It makes me very sad to think of people who don't realise the tremendous importance of myth and fairy tale and arts and drawing and all that side of life – it's much more important in early education than learning to read and write. I think the early development of the intellect can do a lot to stunt the emotional growth.

MARIJKE: What would you like to see in the Newsletter?

KATHLEEN: Well, I think what I am most interested in, personally, is seeing what makes people tick with regard to veganism. I'm interested in the philosophical background – as we've said, veganism to me is only part of my general philosophy of life and I'm interested to see how people fit it into their various philosophies of life. As for the Newsletter's function I think it's a very useful medium by which people can exchange ideas. I feel that 'The Vegan' itself has got to be more of a shop-window. First of all it's got to be more practical to help people who are turning over to veganism and it's got to deal with the practical difficulties that arise in their life. It's got to help them work out the answers to little problems which we dealt with in our turn. It's horribly repetitive to somebody who's been in the movement for a long time. I also feel there is a responsibility not to put stumbling blocks in the way of people who are feeling out to veganism. I mean, some of the things that people say are awfully silly and ridiculous. Now, if I'm going to fill 'The Vegan' up with that somebody else who is looking in the direction of veganism, and still at that stage, may be glad of an excuse to say "Ah, well, I told you they were a lot of silly cranks". If they read something cranky in 'The Vegan' it can put them off and I feel an obligation to avoid that but on the other hand it's necessary really for people to be able to speak out on these things and I think in the Newsletter they could have the freedom to do that – it doesn't have to be a shop-window quite so much.

MARIJKE: How did you come to veganism yourself?

KATHLEEN: As a town dweller I never thought about food until I went to live on a farm during the war. I turned vegetarian because the lamb outside was the leg of lamb on my plate – a bit of that creature out there who had just as much right to run around as I had. I'd never thought about it before. People don't think about it – the blockage in people's minds I think is amazing don't you? They can go to church and sing 'Lamb of God' and then go home and say "this is a tender bit of lamb, dear" and never connect it up, do they? I never thought it was possible to do without dairy products and, if things aren't possible, you don't think about them do you? And then, that was during the war I turned vegetarian, then in 1964 I read a book review of Ruth Harrison's 'Animal Machines' and it knocked me for six – the factory farming and all the things she showed up. I was absolutely horrified – slaughter houses are bad enough but to think that an animal wasn't going to have any sort of life at all, and the only significance of an animal's life is moving about in the fresh air, isn't it? I mean, it's not in a way so bad for you or me – if I was shut up in a prison at least I could think and philosophize and I might be able to read and write, but an animal's life is movement out in the world. I can remember going along to a Friends Vegetarian Society meeting and getting up and saying "you know, what is the use of being vegetarian when one of the most awful aspects of the whole business is the veal calf?" That's when it really came through to me that veganism was a possible idea – that's how I came to veganism.

Follow-up: Kathleen was Secretary of the UK Vegan Society from 1971-1984.

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Cross-reference: History