37 minute read

'Vegan For Half A Century' by Jordi Casamitjana

Jordi Casamitjana, author of ‘Ethical Vegan’, talks with 4 vegans who have been vegan for over 50 years.

People often ask me how long I have been vegan.

Considering the increase in popularity of veganism in the last few years — which means many people have only become vegan relatively recently — I often encounter expressions of surprise when I tell people I went vegan 20 years ago.

For many, this is an impressively long time. But I tell them that it is nothing, really. Many vegans have been vegan for much longer.

The concept of ahimsa, which means in Sanskrit “do no harm”, can be found in many ancient religions, and also in centuries-old secular movements such as pacifism or vegetarianism. The vegan movement is just its latest incarnation.

Veganism is not a new fad, as many carnists believe. The Vegan Society was created in 1944, and even then, they just formalised an established lifestyle derived from a philosophy that had existed for millennia in many parts of the world. The concept of ahimsa, which means in Sanskrit “do no harm”, can be found in many ancient religions, and also in centuries-old secular movements such as pacifism or vegetarianism. The vegan movement is just it’s latest incarnation.

Therefore, there always have been people who had followed a ‘vegan lifestyle’ for many decades. For instance, Abul ‘ala Al-Ma’arri in 11th Century Syria, Roger Crab in 17th century Buckinghamshire, or Louis Rimbault in 19th century France.

Four half-a-century British vegans

Today, of course, you can meet many vegans who have been vegan for much longer than I. In fact, more than twice as long as I. There are vegans today who have been vegan for more than half a century! I thought that it would be interesting to find a few in the UK, and have a chat over Zoom with them to find out how was their experience of being a vegan during the last five decades.

I found several, but for brevity, I settled with four: Angie Wright, a 73-year-old teacher from Brighton who has been an ethical vegan since 1966, John Strettle, a 70-year-old teacher from Newcastle who has been vegan since 1969, Ruth Hawe, a 66-year-old podiatrist and reflexologist from the Midlands who has been a liberationist vegantopian since 1970, and Russel Howard, a 56-year-old carpenter from Herefordshire who has been a dietary and ethical vegan from his birth in 1965. Here is a bit more about them:

Angie Wright

Vegan from 1966 (55 years)

No vegetarian pre-vegan phaseBecame vegan in the UK

The main reason for becoming vegan: animal rights

Identified as an ethical vegan

Other vegans in the family: three sons and four grandchildren are life vegans

Born in Brighton but now lives in Seaford.

Worked mainly as a secondary school teacher (chemistry and biology).

John Strettle

Vegan from 1969 (52 years)

Vegetarian from 1968.Became vegan in the UK.

The main reason for becoming vegan: health, anti-vivisection, and respect for animals.

Identified as 100% vegan.

Other vegans in the family: daughter, two of his three sons, and partner.

Born in North Shields but now lives in Wallsend.

Worked mainly as schoolmaster, taxi driver and vegan shop owner.

Ruth Hawe

Vegan from 1970 (51 years)

Vegetarian from 1969.

Became vegan in England.

The main reason for becoming vegan: Compassion.

Identified as Liberationist Vegantopian.

Other vegans in the family: daughter, partner, and two brothers.

Born in the Midlands, and still lives there.

Worked mainly as a Podiatrist and Reflexologist.

Russell Howard

Vegan since 1965 (life vegan, 56 years)

No vegetarian pre-vegan phase.

Became vegan in England.

The main reason for becoming vegan: health, environmental, spiritual reasons.

Identified as a dietary and ethical vegan.

Other vegans in the family: grandmother, father, mother, three sisters and partner.

Born in Hitchin, and now lives in South Wales.

Worked mainly as a carpenter, handyman, builder, and inventor.

I asked the same questions to all of them:

What do you remember of the day you became a vegan?

Angie:

“I remember when I was 18 and I was going to sleep, and I suddenly recalled what had happened to me when I was seven. I was standing at the back of the house on a hot summer’s day and I saw a lot of ants crawling around on the flat stones in the street. I was stamping on them. Just because I could. I thought it was fun — like a lot of little children do. Then, suddenly, I heard this voice in my head saying: ‘what on earth are you doing?’.

And I thought it was a voice because I turned round to see who was shouting at me. And there was nobody there. So, I thought it must have been my own mind talking to me.

I thought about it and decided I shouldn’t be killing them because it was cruel and not necessary. And then I thought of sheep in the hills near Brighton. I shouldn’t be killing them either. So, that’s when I decided I should stop eating animals. I ran indoors to tell my mother and tell her I didn’t want to eat animals anymore. She said: ‘but you’ll die if you don’t eat meat’. I remember feeling a thud in my stomach. I thought: ‘oh well, I have to leave this thing until I’m a big girl’.

One night, when I was 18, when I was going to sleep, I suddenly remembered that I promised myself I’d stop eating animals. Because now I had money, the next day I got up and went to a health store and bought some lentils. First time I’ve ever heard of lentils, but I bought them.”

John:

“I was living in Newcastle. It was a Thursday and I was at school. I was 16 and the teacher said: ‘who’s giving the talk next week?’ I said: ‘I will. How about anti-vivisection?’

I asked dad about these meetings he went to, and he said they were about experimenting on animals. He gave me some leaflets. With them, I prepared the talk, went in the next week in the classroom, gave a talk, and halfway through a lad called John put his hand up and said: ‘If you don’t believe in experimenting on animals, why do you eat them?’

So, I went home that night, and I must have thought about it all night because when I woke up at breakfast on Friday morning I announced to my family that I wasn’t going to eat animals. My understanding of not eating animals was a vegan, but I didn’t even know the word. That wasn’t in my vocabulary.

For some reason — I don’t know why to this day — I became veggie overnight. But I

always was going to be vegan because, for the next year or two, every two or three months I cut out something that might have animal products in it. Meat, fish, fowl and honey went immediately, and everything else went soon after. If I found out the cakes had dairy, I stopped using them. If I found out the sweets weren’t vegan or chocolate wasn’t vegan, I cut it out. When I found out about milk, I cut it out. When I found out that cheese wasn’t vegan, I cut it out. I was vegan in mind from day one, and I was vegan in actuality about a year or two later.”

Ruth:

“On Sunday afternoons, at that time in the early 70s / late 60s, there was a programme called ‘the world at war’ which was very harrowing, as it had actual footage of the Second World War. I remember watching it out on my own. I was 14, and I remember seeing these bodies carried out from the liberation of Belsen. It just struck me that that I’ve seen that before, but of animal bodies being carried out into the butchers’ shops. I remember that very distinctly. Thinking there’s no difference. Making that connection in my head was very dramatic.

I was coming up to 16. I was living in the Midlands at home, still with my parents. I just finished my GCSEs and was going to go on and do my A levels. I thought: ‘I can’t just live like this anymore’. I had to stand for what I knew is right.

Mum said: ‘I can’t have you in my kitchen. You can’t be doing your own food. You just have to have what we have without the bits you don’t want’. I had realised already, from my knowledge of biology at school, that we need protein, for example. So, I’d looked up plant sources of protein. I found out about wheat germ, which is very cheap to buy, and it was 25% protein. So, I bought this wheat germ and I kept it in my bedroom, in my wardrobe. I would eat this after we had our dinner, which was the vegetables I could have. I subsisted on wheat germ, really.

Russell:

“I don’t remember, of course, as I was brought up vegan by a vegan family. My grandmother, Ruth Howard, turned vegan before vegans existed, before the Second World War. I think Reverend John Todd Ferrier influenced her.

My mother turned vegan about 1965. She tried being vegetarian for a while, but she still had acne. Then decided to go vegan and all her acne disappeared, helped by an orange juice fast. I think she was inspired to take more of an ethical point of view from some inspiring people who came to our school. My parents were quite involved with the Vegan Society.”

What obstacles or difficulties do you remember having to overcome the first years you were vegan?

Angie:

“The most difficult was I couldn’t eat cereal anymore. And everybody that I knew had shredded wheat for breakfast, or Weetabix, or cornflakes, one of those. I still love shredded wheat. And I couldn’t have it. It’s horrible with water. I tried it once, never again. There was no soya milk.

After about 4-5 years or so I discovered a group called BVY, the British Vegetarian Youth movement. There wasn’t much for vegans but

it was a vegetarian youth group. I got involved with going on holidays with some of them. I remember one person being very excited saying to me: ‘I discovered this powder made from soya and it makes milk’. It was called Granogen. I loved that stuff. I don’t know why it doesn’t exist now. And there was a baby version called Granolac. It was lovely. Because of it, I could go back to having cereals.”

John:

“Soya milk didn’t exist. If you wanted soya milk in the 1970s you had to buy soya flour and mix it with water to make a sort of powdered soya milk.

There was a vegetarian restaurant in Newcastle called The Supernatural. My memory of that one is that I went quite often. And one Wednesday I was in, and they said that the meal they gave me the previous week wasn’t vegan as it had egg in it. I thanked them for telling me. There was nothing you could do about it. Vegans and vegetarians were not really looked after unless you went to a specialist place. And even then, mistakes could happen.”

Ruth:

“The total lack of any support and being mocked by my family. My brother, particularly. And of course, I knew nobody in those days. And in actual fact, it was 15 years before I met another vegan. 15 years of just going it by myself. So, it was pretty tough. Pretty harrowing. I used to get teased when I was at university, and I put posters up. People would write nasty things on them. And yeah, I felt very alone. Very isolated. Very alienated, really.

It had been very hard because my family was totally unsupported when I even went vegetarian. And I didn’t even like being vegetarian as soon as I realised what was involved in the dairy and egg industry.”

Russell:

“The Vegan Society was quite worried that vegan children wouldn’t have enough nourishment. So, I was sent to see Dr Frey Ellis in Kingston, London, where I was weighed, prodded and poked to see how healthy I was.

They concluded I had normal growth. My B12 vitamin levels were good. There was a lot of B12 fortified food in those days. I was small for my age, but I sort of caught up in my late teens.”

What do you remember of your experience of being vegan in the 1960s?

Angie:

“It was 1966 when I went vegan. The difficulty, as well as having no cereal, was going out with people. Because I was 18, I would go out occasionally with someone, and that was the difficulty. So, I had to say to people that I really liked Indian food. I didn’t particularly because it wasn’t something I had experienced growing up. But I started to learn to like Indian curries. Because they were the only cafes that I could go into and find something to eat in the evening.

In the daytime, I couldn’t go anywhere. There were some potato cafes opened. They cooked potatoes with baked beans on them, but they came later, I think. Probably in the 70s. In the 60s, any place to eat out was an Indian restaurant.”

Russell:

“We did not have a lot of other vegan friends. Just ourselves. I think I was the only vegan in my school. At primary school, we just went home for lunch. So, that was alright. We avoided having the free school milk, of course.

“My mother was interested in nutrition. She had studied it when she was younger. She gave us fruit and nuts for breakfast. A few apples and oranges, and some almonds.”

What do you remember of your experience of being vegan in the 1970s?

Angie:

“I was living in London and the Vegan Society was based in Hastings at the time, so I still didn’t have much to do with them. But the Vegetarian Society did do events.

I went in for the Miss Vegetarian competition. Now, I’m normally a bit of a feminist, so I would be against that. But I thought it might be a way to promote veganism, even though it was for the Vegetarian Society. I remember parading up and down. We weren’t in swimming costumes —we just walked up and down in clothes. I came third after about 20 or so. I was pleased with that. And I was also able to say at the time when they asked me why I was vegetarian. I was able to say: ‘actually, I’m a vegan’. And I gave the reasons: ‘it’s against all animal abuse, including dairy and eggs abuse’.

At that time there was an organisation called CAW, Coordinating Animal Welfare. Somebody wanted to get together with all the different groups that existed. They all worked as one and they produced a little cheap newsletter. We got that sent to us and it would tell us when any activities were going on. I think that around that time we’d demo against Harrods, because of the fur trade.

We also went to the RSP- CA’s AGM. A lot of us joined at the same time, probably because CAW told us to. We got them to ban hunting. Until then, the RSPCA allowed hunting to continue. We had it changed. We added animal people to the committee — rather than hunting people because they have had a lot of hunting people on the committee at the time. I joined the Hunt Saboteurs, and that was the best place to meet vegans. Because a lot of them were vegan.”

John:

“At the age of 16-17 I immediately got in touch with the Vegetarian Society and I became a member of their youth section. I went away on weekends and holidays with other vegans and vegetarians in that group. I then became a holiday organiser for them. I did make friends within veganism but back on Tyneside, at school and college, I don’t remember meeting another vegan. I was the odd one out at mealtimes in college. Sitting there eating mashed potatoes, cabbage, and peas. That was about all that the cafe could give me that was vegan.

Meals provided by the college were very difficult because I had to open a tin of Nutaline, nutmeat, and push it out. Cut it into slices and take them with me for my lunch.

Luckily in Newcastle, we had the first Newcastle vegetarian restaurant and I remember the meal that I was first given when I went there. It was rice with peas, sweet corn, and bits of carrot. A very easy meal to make. That was a very basic meal, but that was my first one.

If you wanted margarine in the 70s, you had to go to a Jewish shop because the Jewish believe in only eating animals at certain times of the year. And it had to be kosher, which meant that they could eat it at that time of the year when they weren’t going to eat animals. So, if you bought kosher margarine, it was vegan. And it is still available these days, so it’s been going for 50 years. It’s a good margarine. That was the only way you can get it in those days.”

I was the odd one out at meal times in college. Sitting there eating mashed potatoes, cabbage, and peas. That was about all that the café could give me that was vegan.

Ruth:

“In the 70s I was a student. I first started in my three years at podiatry school, and that’s where I used to put the posters up. I did make two vegetarian friends whilst I was there, which was nice — but of course, they were only vegetarian, and they couldn’t really relate. I didn’t want to lose them by alienating them. They were nice people, and I am still in touch with one of them, actually. She was a Jewish girl, and she introduced me to falafel and houmous. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven when I found this. I did not drink soya milk. In those days it was Plamil, which tasted disgusting. I just got so used to having black tea or black coffee, that I never even thought about it. It wasn’t part of my reality.”

Russell:

“In general, in the 70s, before this gormet food came out, we ate very plain food. Boiled cabbage, potato, swede, Brussels sprouts and things like that. Very ordinary kinds of oils. Sunflower or maize oil.

At secondary school, I brought a packed lunch every day. With sandwiches and biscuits, and an apple or two. I remember having some soya milk from Plamil. It was the only organisation producing soya milk. We did have some margarine. The stuff from the Jewish people called Tamil. And also, we used to make our own soya butter by preparing soya flour. Boiling it in water until it gets a bit thicker, then adding some oil and sugar, and all mixed together to make a kind of butter.

We met H. Jay Dinshah, the founder of the American Vegan Society. He visited us in our place in Hitchin.”

What do you remember of your experience of being vegan in the 1980s?

Angie:

“In the 80s I started to have my children. In 1980 my first one was born, so I wasn’t so active. Obviously, because I was busy bringing them up. But there were problems then, because I went to the hospital to have my first child, and I was supposed to be kept in for two days. Of course, my husband had to bring me food, as they couldn’t give me any food. On the day I should have left the doctor came to see me. I remember this vividly. She said: ‘I think we’re going to keep you in, to see if your milk comes through and to sort out your vegan diet’. Well, I didn’t need to sort out my vegan diet. I had been vegan by then for ten years. So, I knew what I was doing. They were the ones that didn’t know what they were doing.

The other thing this doctor said when I asked her if we could leave was: ‘well, we could make the baby a ward of court’. I remember thinking: ‘what a mean thing to say to a woman who’s just had a baby, with hormones probably up and down’. For what reason? None other than I was a vegan, they didn’t know how to feed me, and she thought I might not get any milk.

I remember when my husband came, and I said to him ‘we’ve got to escape’. I’d already dressed the baby, so we tried to run for it. They called us back and said: ‘you can’t just leave’. And I said ‘well, we are leaving’. So, we left.

My milk was fine. I have breastfed four of my kids, and they were fine.”

John:

“I did move to London in the 70s for five years and had more joy with eating out, but in the 80s I went back to Newcastle. I was always working. I was a schoolteacher. I remember getting told off by the headmaster in one school because I gave a very thought-provoking assembly, which encourage people to think about how life used to be before we messed up the world. I was told not to impose my thoughts on my students.

When I started to take soya milk, I always was sure it was fortified with B12. I’ve always been aware of the B12 problem. I started to take Plamil fortified soya milk.

I went on a mountain leadership course to learn about looking after children on the hills, and I remember being told that I was taking too long to eat my lunch. It was peanut butter and banana sandwiches with wholemeal bread. And, of course, wholemeal bread takes twice as long to digest as white bread. So, these people on the course — which had egg and cheese, or egg and cucumber sandwiches — were over their lunch very quickly, and I was still eating mine when they were on their second course.

I also remember having a bicycle and I wanted a non-leather seat. There were no real substitutes for leather seats in those days because synthetic seats hadn’t been invented. So, the only thing you can do is cover it up. I needed toe straps to fasten my feet, but the toe straps you could get made of cardboard snapped. They were useless. So, the solution was to go to a bike shop and buy second-hand toe straps, which meant that you weren’t increasing the demand for animal skins, but you were making use of a product that had previously been made.”

Ruth:

“I worked for the NHS to start with. I was working in the hospital for part of the week. The only thing I could have at mealtime — if I didn’t take my own, which I usually did — was just the vegetables, which had been kept hot for ages. So, they were almost grey and lifeless, and I felt quite toxic after eating them.

I joined the Vegan Society and started getting involved in anything that I saw that was happening where I might be. But then in about 1983, I went to America. I lived in America for two years, so that really changed. I was in Florida, and again, I was back to not knowing any vegans. But I found it easier in America than in England. There wasn’t the hostility that there was here. A huge amount of hostility against. As if you want to be ‘holier than thou’. As if you’re trying to prove something. I didn’t get that in America.

When I returned to the UK it was starting to get easier because health food shops would sell all sorts of Sizzles and sauce mix, which became stable. You just mix them in water and then you fry them up. It had a bacon flavour, with beetroot colouring, and it had a smoky flavour. It was really nice. Unfortunately, they stopped making it which I still feel sad about.

My daughter was born in 1987. So, there was a bit of pressure — which I knew to expect — from the doctor and the midwife. I am sorry to say I lied to them, and I told them I was vegetarian because I didn’t want them to give me a hard time and try and persuade me. It was bad enough getting a home birth. I said: ‘look, I’m not going into hospital. I want to have my baby naturally at home. If you won’t help me, I’ll do it by myself’. Thankfully, it all went well.”

Russell:

“When I was young you had to explain what vegan was. You had to say you were a strict vegetarian. But when those TV programmes happened — there were a couple of TV programmes in the 60s and 70s where they came to my house — more people knew about it.

I never felt the need to break away from veganism. It just did not appeal to me the idea of eating meat at all. I like the ethics of veganism. I loved eating Fru-grains. It was a great product. It came in tins and packets. Very distinctive product. It was made of dates, almonds, and a few other things, all blended together. It was a kind of breakfast cereal.

In the 80s we had the old vegan shopper, which was a book that had things you could buy marked as vegan. That was before the vegan trademark was set up.”

What do you remember of your experience of being vegan in the 1990s?

Angie:

“We were living in Nottingham then. I probably didn’t do anything much in the first few years, but things were getting a lot better. I met Patrick of Veggies, and I started doing stalls. This is when my kids were about 12. I started doing stalls and there were a couple of vegan cafes or vegetarian cafes that did vegan food. It was becoming a lot easier to eat out.

I became very involved with Veggies. They were a very active group in Nottingham. They went to various demos and marches and served food. I was working then as a teacher, but every Saturday we did a stall in Nottingham with Animal Aid literature. I think Viva! might have started too, so we were giving out their leaflets as well.

We used to go to lots of demos. We had the Hillgrove Cats demo. It was great to meet other vegans because anyone on the animal rights marches was probably vegan. Or if they weren’t, they soon became vegan because of talking to other people. Suddenly, you felt you were part of a movement. It wasn’t something strange to be vegan. I met lots of vegan friends.”

John:

“I was still a schoolteacher. But now I remember being encouraged to bring seaweed into the classroom and to have a day using alternative foods. Attitudes were changing a little, and you weren’t so much of an outcast. But I still got lots of funny looks when I ate raw mushrooms with my lunch.

I remember one child going home and telling her mum that had made her go off meat. And I’d only been in the school for six weeks. And the child said: ‘my mother is gonna murder you, I’ve gone off meat’. And I’ve never even mentioned the word vegetarian or vegan. But what they’ve done was watch me eating my packed lunch and then asked me questions. What are you eating and why. These kids put two and two together and worked out that meat equals animals.”

Ruth:

“I was in Surrey at the time. I remember battles at school, unfortunately. Sadly, my daughter got mocked by the children at school a lot for being vegan. More than I knew at the time. I didn’t try to get them to provide vegan food. This was the early 90s, not like today. I just needed to send her in with her lunch box. And if children came round, I would make sauce mix rolls, etc. None of the kids ever had a problem with that.

I no longer felt the alienation, because I was in contact with other vegans from going to events, such as protests, or awareness-raising events. Or vegan festivals, for example. We had a local Vegan Society group, and we used to meet for shared meals.”

Russell:

“In the 90s I was mostly at home. I found a job doing woodwork. Making boomerangs. I was quite good at it. I ended up making 120,000. These boomerangs were sold at the Covent Garden’s craft market, mostly.

I went to art college at Saint Albans, at Herefordshire College of Art and Design. And there I met some people who I learned later were vegans. Some of whom I am still in contact with. I brought a packed lunch to college every day. There were no vegan restaurants in Saint Albans. I know there is one now because a friend of mine is running it.

I went to a few of the vegan society’s AGMs at that time. In 1983 or 84 were rather turbulent AGMs, as I remember. There was a new intake of people very interested in the Vegan Society who had an alternative view about how things should be done. They wanted the magazine to be shocking pink! There were a lot of animal rights people who got involved at that time too. They all had to get along with each other.

I haven’t done much animal rights activism myself. I am just content with being vegan and try to persuade other people to become vegan. And I think I have persuaded a few people.”

What do you remember of your experience of being vegan in the 2000s?

Angie:

“People started having food meetups to promote veganism. If we met someone in the streets, we would encourage them to come to the meetups. And, of course, by now we’ve got Facebook. That made a difference when it came on the scene. Because it was another means with which people could contact others and join meeting groups.”

John:

“The first time I ever got a lesson planned on veganism was round about 2008 when it was on the curriculum and schools were much more open. So, the attitudes were changing in the 2000s. People were finally acknowledging the fact that you can grow more food to feed humans on a field than you can to feed animals, and subsequently kill those animals to feed them to humans.”

Ruth:

“With each year that goes by it becomes easier. I had an accident falling off my bike 13 years ago, which stopped me from working. But the fruit of that was that I had a lot more time on my hands to do online activism and talks, wherever I was asked to go.

The easiest part is Facebook because you just repost what someone else has done and put a comment. I joined dozens of groups to raise vegan awareness. Not just vegan groups, but spiritual groups as well. Especially religious groups.”

Russell:

“I first went on to the Internet the day before 9/11. We were making boomerangs that day. By that time, I was making them as a part-time job.

Many more people knew what being vegan was. I didn’t have to explain it anymore. We began to have products labelled as vegan.”

What do you remember of your experience of being vegan in the last 10 years?

Angie:

“The last 10 years, things have been good because people have been doing demos. We haven’t had so many marches, though. The marches have gone down. That’s when VegFest started in Bristol. I remember going with Patrick of Veggies. We used to go there to serve food. That was great because there might have been 100 stalls there doing all sorts of vegan stuff. And then, of course, Brighton got the next VegFest.”

People started having food meetups to promote veganism. If we met someone in the streets, we would encourage them to come to the meetups.

John:

“My last teaching was round about 2010 because there wasn’t enough work. I started taxi driving.

In 2016, one day I was in a vegan shop, and I overheard that they wanted somebody to buy them in, or to buy them out. I went back the next day and I bought it. The shop specialised in vegan footwear. I still have that shop near Newcastle called ‘Alternative Stores’. And we have a large following of people that like our vegan footwear. The only one of the designs I have actually designed myself was a pair of steel toe capped work boots to British and European standards. That’s the first specifically branded vegan piece of footwear that probably existed in this country.

Gradually, attitudes have changed. And in the 2010s this is taking off to a massive extent, where people realise that what they’re doing does have an effect on the environment. Those of us who have been vegan for 50 years know well that if you can grow your own food you make such a difference. But if every family that’s got a bit of land grew some more vegetables, they would see a difference not only in their health, but in the cost of their shopping, and in the goodness that does to the planet.”

Ruth:

“At the moment I’m doing Kundalini yoga training. I am doing art now too. I use whatever opportunity or means I think I can to reach people.

Ever since my early life I’ve had these visions of an idealistic place. What people would describe as heavenly, where there isn’t any fighting, or bullying, or war, or abuse. Where we live in harmony. Vegantopia, this wonderful ideal, it’s like the core of my being.

I am a vegantopian. I used to think it was a past life somewhere, but in the last maybe 10 years, I’ve realised it’s not the past. It’s the future that I am driving forward, getting closer to us.”

Russell:

“It’s just amazing the number of products that are out there now. I can’t keep up with it all, you know? New vegan products are appearing on the shelves every day. The vegan trademark theme has taken off. I do try some of the new things. Meat alternatives are getting ever more realistic, which I don’t particularly like.”

Which advice would you give to a new vegan who just started?

Angie:

“I think they need to have other vegan friends. It’s hard to do it on your own. Even if you know what you’re doing, and you get support from the Vegan Society or from Facebook. I think they should try and get vegan contacts.

Because very many young vegans — young in age as well as young in being a vegan — may find they are the only ones in the family and maybe their family doesn’t support them. Maybe they are laughed at. They need to know that they’ve got at least five vegan friends they can go to if they want to have a cry or they just want to vent. That makes it so much easier.

My advice would be to always wear a vegan T-shirt when you’re out and about. Because I do this all the time. Every day I’m wearing a different vegan T-shirt. I’ve got loads now.”

John:

“My advice to any vegan who is just starting out would be to ensure that they have a well-balanced meal with as little processed food as possible. Bearing in mind that processed food can be very helpful and quick and useful at certain times of day, or in certain jobs.

We need to eat food as raw as possible. Whether salads or grains. We need to have a good balance of cooked food and raw food, but as natural as possible. The less processing the better. Making sure you get your vitamin D, your vitamin B12, and follow the guidance that’s out there because it makes sense to do so.”

Ruth:

“First, I would say thank you. Thank you for listening to your heart and your intuition. And then shine that light. Basically, hold that vibration of harmlessness with compassion and share it with everybody.

Saint Francis of Assisi said: ‘preach the gospel at all times and if necessary, use words’. What he was saying is be it. We influence people by our behaviour, by the way we are. People notice. We may not think they do, but they do notice.”

Russell:

“I don’t give advice very often. Veganism is better for your health, is better for the animals, of course, and it changes your outlook on life. You become a whole lot more civilised.”

What do you normally eat these days?

Angie:

“I have muesli for breakfast nearly every day. Or just oats nearly every day. Because that’s supposed to be a good healthy thing. Cereal for breakfast with fruit. Bananas, for example.

At lunchtime — I’m not a very good cook — I hate cooking. I like things to be easy and I don’t like washing up. So, I used to eat a lot of bread. I’m trying to cut down on bread now.

If I’m having a hot meal in the winter, I’ve gone back to basics. Because it’s so easy to eat sauce mix and to have all these fake sausages and all these burger things that are not necessarily good for you — because they are full of fats. Now I tend to have stew. That’s because you can have anything in it. A mixture of three or four different vegetables, with lentils, and chopped up potato and onion.

Sometimes I make these smoothies with green stuff in them. It could be a fruit smoothie with grapes. I put a handful of spinach in, a handful of lettuce, cabbage, etc.”

John:

“Muesli is a staple diet for me every morning. As much fresh fruit as possible, and ideally homemade hemp, almond, or walnut milk. The main part of my life is that healthy good start to the day.

At lunchtime, I try to have something raw, or something fresh. For evening meals, the advice is to eat as early as possible. Before my evening meal, I’ll have a juice. I started juicing in the last two years and I’m now incorporating one or two juices into my diet every day. Vegetable juices and raw juices are my top priority.”

Ruth:

“I don’t eat breakfast but I would sometimes have porridge with chia seeds.

Hummus is still a large part of my daily diet. And vegetables. I always have to have a big bowl of vegetables. Just steamed. I don’t need them with anything special. Just lovely, steamed broccoli, and carrots, and whatever. Nice big bowl. I usually put hemp seeds on it. And I will have something like a vegan bake, or a vegan burger or sausage, or something like that, at some point during the day.

I don’t eat that much fruit. I have a pineapple every week. A few oranges. I like to make my own vegan cheese. Just usually soft cheese made from soaked cashews, sunflower seeds, and a bit of lemon juice. Left to ferment for a day or so. And I make bread with almond flour.”

Russell:

“I normally have cereal for breakfast, but I do something very unusual with it. I add soya flour to my cereal with some sugar and then pour water on that. It makes a sort of sauce. It’s a bit nuttier and it doesn’t taste like milk so much.

For lunch hour, we’ll have some sandwiches made up of wholemeal bread, margarine, peanut butter and tomatoes. One of my favourite sandwiches for lunch.

For an evening meal, I make a pot of food with loads of vegetables in it. My favourite is swede. I also like rice, beans and lentils.”

I always have to have a big bowl of vegetables. Just steamed. I don’t need them with anything special.

Five decades of vegan progress

I found the conversations I had with Ruth, Angie, Russell and John fascinating. They all revealed a similar pattern.

It starts with the strong determination to be vegan against all odds. But what I found more interesting is that in many of them the ‘revelation’ came from within. Not many chances to watch a documentary or encounter a vegan outreach event in those days. It’s almost like veganism can spring up on its own, in anyone at any time. And I imagine it has been happening all over the world for ages.

The next stage they seemed to have gone through was a relatively austere vegan regime with simple foods and a palpable feeling of isolation. But then they met other vegans. They joined vegan or vegetarian societies and started feeling they belonged to something bigger. They became very excited by the very few vegan products that were available to them. Brands like Plamil, Tamil, Fru-grains, Granogen or Nutaline became engraved in their minds. Such treats brilliantly shining, in contrast with the simple monotonous limited bland diet choices they were surviving with.

And the difficulties of raising kids as vegans in the past is also something I had never considered. In particular, for the mothers, when dealing with other people during labour. Wrongly put under so much unwelcomed peer pressure to abandon veganism when they are more vulnerable.

And finally, experiencing the increasing recognition of veganism, and the explosion of the vegan product offer. Something that did not start happening in the last few years, but gradually over the last couple of decades. For recent vegans, having many vegan options everywhere is the minimum they expect. For half-century vegans, though, sometimes it may feel a bit overwhelming. I noticed how their voices or faces lit up when remembering the one or two favourite products they used to treat themselves with.

And I could not help feeling close to them when some make comments suggesting they are not particularly keen on realistic meat substitutes — as I’m not either. And that they like simple healthy natural foods — as I also do. Perhaps the secret of a long life as a vegan is to let go of the shapes, tastes, and smells of animal exploitation. I suspect I will feel even more strongly about this in thirty years.

I am looking forward to interviewing them again then.

About Jordi Casamitjana

Originally from Catalonia, but resident in the UK for several decades, Jordi Casamitjana is a vegan zoologist specialising in animal behaviour, who has been involved in different aspects of animal protection for many years (working for organisations such as The Born Free Foundation, Wild Futures, The League Against Cruel Sports, CAS International, the International Fund for Animal Welfare and PETA UK).

In addition to scientific research he has worked as an undercover investigator and animal welfare consultant, often on wild animal issues. Some of his professional achievements include the closure of several zoos, securing the first successful prosecutions of illegal hunters under the Hunting Act 2004, and his participation in the banning of bullfighting in Catalonia. Jordi, who has been vegan since 2002, recently become well-known for securing the legal protection of all ethical vegans from discrimination in Great Britain in a landmark legal case that was discussed all over the world.

Jordi is also an author “Ethical Vegan, a personal and political journey to change the world” as well as a novel titled “The Demon’s Trial”.