Louise Wallis

Singer, DJ, Writer, Restaurateur

Creating Carnage: Simon Amstell on his first feature film

IMG_8307

Simon Amstell has long been a provocative presence on our screens. “The British comic has a gift for taking a social norm and gently mocking it until it seems utterly ridiculous”, observed the New York Times back in 2012. His latest project, a feature length mockumentary, has turned this into an art form.

“Set in a utopian 2067Carnage looks back at a time when human beings ate other animals. For the young people of this time, the idea that their grandparents could have been complicit in a bloodbath of unnecessary suffering is wholly unimaginable” says the BBC.

“The film aims to break the taboo around Britain’s animal eating past, whilst showing compassion for a generation, now seeking therapy to cope with the horror of their unthinkable actions” and “gives a unique comedic peek into the future where animals live equally amongst humans”

Tuesday’s Premiere at the BFI was an upbeat affair, full of friends, family, collaborators, fans, and journalists. The woman next to me, from Chortle (the comedy website), laughed raucously from the start but gradually grew more subdued.

It was an unsettling watch, this curious mix of comic drama, archive footage, fake documentary clips, puppet shows, interviews and faux news reports. At times it was hard to know what was pretend, and what was real. That is, aside from the clips of animal abuse (deployed minimally). The commentary, courtesy of Simon himself, is both hilarious and hardcore. “Fisting cows” he cries. By the time it ended, I thought Carnage was the most subversive thing I’ve seen since Brass Eye. (Or brass neck in Amstell’s case – for boldly taking Sci-Fi where no-one else dare).

In the Q&A after with film critic Mark Kermode, he reveals he went vegan after seeing Earthlings, but found that others wouldn’t watch the film as it was too upsetting. “So I thought it would be a good idea to make something funny and watchable, so that the message could be put across in a way that didn’t traumatise people”.

“The compassionate angle” he says, is the film’s “saving grace”. That’s true, I think: for although the joke is most definitely on us (carnists and vegans alike), it’s handled in a way that retains our collective dignity.

The stroke of genius was setting the film in the future, allowing him full creative licence. A standout scene is a clip from a (fictional) opera, featuring actress Samantha Spiro in a cow costume singing lines like “Why did you take my baby?” Writing this song “from the perspective of a cow” is the thing Simon’s most proud of. “When Sam sung it, we were doing a close up, and she actually made me cry”. Kermode concurs: “Actually, that song is starting to get under my skin and in a really bizarre way”.

Carnage is a fiendishly clever name – partly a reference to Carnism, the name psychologist Melanie Joy coined for the prevailing meat-eating ideology (the opposite of veganism). Impressively, Amstell refers to “carnists” as if it’s already an everyday word throughout the Q&A.

He’s a card-carrying vegan, that’s for sure, and as you might expect, couldn’t resist having a few pop at celebs along the way (even famous veggies like Macca).

“This revolution is happening now, whether anyone likes it or not”, he says. “I think that’s why I felt: as long as it’s funny. You just have to be funny. Ultimately, it’s going to be really awkward if we keep eating other animals”.

Carnage isn’t the first film to make veganism funny (see Truth or Dairy starring Benjamin Zephaniah). But it’s certainly the one that will be remembered, for a long time to come. As I sat in the Bar afterwards nursing my third Coconut Daiquiri – I kept chuckling to myself, thinking wow, that was really quite something.

Watch out World, Carnage hits BBC iplayer on 19th March

 

image002

For those who fail at veganism

solidarity

A Facebook friend has just announced she’s no longer vegan, and I’m sad about this. I’d admired a blog post she wrote last year, about her struggles as a vegan with an eating disorder, with her disapproving dietician, and with fellow “vegan feminists” who’d greeted her wobbles with guilt-tripping. Despite the setbacks, she was clear that being vegan “helped”; and since my own eating disorder (teenage bulimia) had also been tempered by veganism, I’d cheered her on.

I scrolled through the comments. Everyone was pleased for her: apart from one guy, who left a petulant “Good bye”. Although he added that he wished her well, but didn’t think stopping being vegan would “help anything”. This saw him challenged by a few people (vegans included), for being “dogmatic” and having “strict” and “rigid views”. For my friend, it was the final straw: “I wouldn’t identify as vegan now even if my diet remained vegan”, she replied.

Whoa, that was a strong statement. Why so down on the vegan identity? I wasn’t sure how to respond to this, or indeed, to the news itself. I didn’t think quitting would help either, but didn’t dare suggest this. And as a peripheral, online friend, I wasn’t sure it was my place. So I commented that I was “Sad to hear this”, and interested to read more about her change of heart in the blog post she promised.

But it bothered me that no other vegans had voiced reservations when my friend had been vegan for 9 years. Why not?

I teach exercise, and occasionally meet clients who appear to have anorexia, which carries a risk of heart attack and bone fracture. I’m obliged to raise concerns, even if it’s experienced as intrusive (and s/he leaves for a less ‘confrontational’ teacher). Because sometimes, to do the right thing, we need to do the hard thing. Boundaries help: they might be what that person needs in order to find a firmer footing, at that point, or further down the line.

If being vegan is a positive thing: why wouldn’t we want that for our friend? Couldn’t we ask how we might support her to stay vegan? I decided to send my friend a private message, just to put it out there. Maybe others did too? I hope so.

My friend’s reasons were mainly nutrition-based, and complicated by her condition. But the disproportionate focus on nutrition whenever vegan diets are mentioned worries me. We fixate on this. Forgetting that standard diets are supplemented too, with ‘fortified’ foods, that have nutrients added – in some cases, by law – to reduce the risk of serious deficiencies. There’s an unconscious bias that needs acknowledging before we can look at the issue objectively.

I also question the “recovery” narrative of many former vegans. For how do you “recover” from compassion? I think there’s something else at play.

The vegan identity isn’t the first to be disowned. Feminism was once a byword for militancy, prompting many women to publicly disassociate themselves from it. Feminists were “extremists”. (Hmm … where have we heard that before?) Happily, in recent years, feminism’s good name has largely been restored, thanks to the efforts of younger feminists like my friend. The stigmatising stereotypes exposed for the sexism they are.

We’ve learned to distinguish the message, from the messenger. By which I mean, to value the idea of equality for women, irrespective of our feelings about its most vocal proponents. The same will happen with ‘vegan’ too, one day.

For vegans are not unique in critiquing the behaviour of others – a defining feature of social change. The difference with veganism, of course, is its practical expression: the daily boycott of animal products. A practice some find easy, while others undoubtedly struggle.

I wonder if it isn’t quite common for vegans to struggle, or have the occasional blip? Sadly, it’s taboo to talk about this – for fear of letting the side down, I suppose, or being told off (e.g. by vegan feminists). I struggle myself at times. Not least with finding food I want to eat, when I want it – like a sandwich at the train station. It’s frustrating to be constantly thwarted in the simple pleasures others take for granted. But far worse, for me, are the social consequences of being vegan. Welcome to the role of party pooper!

Cake, the great staple of celebrations and social occasions, is a particular flashpoint. As cakes are rarely vegan in these situations, you find yourself excluded from an experience that’s essentially shared and participatory. Unless there’s two cakes: but that feels weird too, since lines are still drawn. It’s exposing. You can’t just be.

I don’t blame my friend for doing what she feels is best for her, or indeed anyone who can no longer cope with being vegan. It happens. The pressure to conform is enormous. Is it any wonder people crack? But I do think it’s important to acknowledge the toxic context that might move someone to relinquish and reprove a hitherto heartfelt practice.

“Spoiled identity” nails it for me. A term coined by the sociologist Erving Goffman, a specialist in stigma: the “process by which the reaction of others spoils normal identity”. The stigmatised are the “socially abnormal”. According to Wikipedia: “Those who are stereotyped often start to act in ways that their stigmatisers expect of them. It not only changes their behavior, but it also shapes their emotions and beliefs”. This is “internalised stigma”.

We can be multi-stigmatised too: in my case, an ‘illegitimate’ child become a childless, vegan adult. Stigmas are myriad: attached to disability, sexual preference, eating disorders, political views, belief, bereavement, hair colour, and many more. They mount up, and take their toll. And in response, we create coping strategies. A common one is to conceal the spoiled identity, another is to reject it. Since the vegan identity isn’t easily hidden, it tends to be renounced, which also brings relief from its practical demands. I guess it’s vulnerable that way.

But it isn’t all bad news. The feminist identity has prevailed, giving us hope. And the more we become aware of internalised stigma, and its impact on us, the more we can challenge it. I find stigma fascinating: a strange map of the human psyche.

For anyone struggling with food and/or veganism, I recommend Always Too Much, And Never Enough, the recent memoir by Jasmin Singer. A bullied “fat kid”, who went on to lose weight as an adult, and noticed a dramatic difference in the way the world treated her. She wrote a blog about this that went viral, and eventually became the book. (Read an interview with Jasmin here).

alwaystoomuchcover

My friend’s decision gave me pause for some soul searching. It’s made me reflect on how we can best support others contemplating the same. And what we might say to them.

Curiously, this has culminated in a Peter Gabriel lyric popping into my head – from a song I haven’t heard in years (his duet with Kate Bush). I remember feeling conflicted when it was released, over it being sentimental. I realise now, it’s not: just a profound expression of solidarity.

Then I found a quote from Gabriel, about the song’s intention. “The basic idea” he says “is that handling failure is one of the hardest things we have to learn to do.”

So, at the risk of sounding sentimental, I’ll leave you with the great man’s words. Dedicated to anyone who is struggling – with veganism, or with life.

Don’t give up, ’cause you have friends
Don’t give up, you’re not the only one
Don’t give up, no reason to be ashamed
Don’t give up, you still have us
Don’t give up now, we’re proud of who you are
Don’t give up, you know it’s never been easy
Don’t give up, ’cause I believe there’s a place
There’s a place where we belong

In the name of Love: Why Plant-based isn’t Vegan

Peace Love Vegan

The American Café Gratitude has shocked people recently with news that the founders of this chain of “vegan” eateries, Matthew and Terces Engelhart, have been eating and raising animals for slaughter – on their Be Love Farm.

Their what farm? Old Macdonald’s apparently, but with a new age makeover.

According to The Guardian, the couple say they’ve had death threats since posting photos of hamburgers and frozen meat on their blog, and describing their “transition” back to meat as “a necessary and important part of our growth”.

Mr Engelhart provided further clarification in a statement: “Cows make an extreme sacrifice for humanity but that is their position in God’s plan as food for the predators. We can be part of that sacrament.”

Holy cow. They’ve lost the plot. But even the Guardian reporter is confused, referring to upset customers as “purist vegans”.

That is, for merely being consistent with their beliefs.

Time to wake up, my friends, for we have a major case of mistaken identity on our hands. Thanks largely to the media, who continually conflate ‘plant based’ with ‘vegan’, and use them interchangeably.

Does anyone know what vegan means? Apart from vegan journalists I mean.

Many don’t want to know. Preferring the positivity of the “plant-based” narrative, with its focus on health, the Self, and in the Engelhart’s case, wealth: a brand of “sacred commerce” that profits from the vegan market, only to piss on it. Well, that’s Gratitude for you.

Am I being mean here? I don’t think so. The Cafe’s strapline on Twitter is: “a group of family owned organic vegan restaurants” (my emphasis).  The family is trading on this – yet killing and eating animals. In the name of “Love”. That’s outrageous, and absurd.

13161543_10154055591571917_281671767_o

It’s not that I don’t feel for the Engelharts, now caught in horrible media frenzy I wouldn’t wish on anyone. I do.  Yes they are deluded, but mainly, I think, mixed up. And they’ve done a lot of good, which is worth acknowledging – by turning people on to vegan food. If not, to the ideal.

I remember first being struck by differences between ‘compassionate’ and ‘healthy’ vegans back in the 90s, when I helped organise a series of talks by the American vegan Dr Klaper (the one in Cowspiracy). Whilst we approached veganism from an animal rights perspective, some of the American party were more interested in pre-digestive enzymes before every meal.

“I’ve always viewed the health benefits as a bonus” says Kim Stallwood, self-styled Grumpy Vegan and author of Growl. And I agree. These are perks – not our raison d’etre. 

You can see the folly of the health-centred approach writ large in the spectacle of famous “vegans” who still “enjoy a steak” once in a while. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great they’re mostly not eating animals. That’s to be applauded. The issue here is the oxymoronic use of vegan. Just who is using it in this context  (the celeb, or the reporter) is never made clear. Quite possibly it’s both.

Bullshit like this has “plant-based” written all over it, which is why I think we vegans need to stop using this term. At least as a politer form of vegan.

I get why we use ‘plant-based’ sometimes. It’s a more neutral form of words, less likely to elicit a hostile response. (And God knows we’ve had enough of those …). The trouble is, it’s a euphemism. As in, “A generally innocuous word or expression used in place of one that may be found offensive or suggest something unpleasant” (Wikipedia).

We should take heart from the #SayTheWord campaign, which encourages people to say “disabled” in preference to euphemisms like “special” or “different”. It’s clearly struck a nerve, and spread like wild fire since its launch in January by activist Lawrence Carter-Long. Most importantly, it’s empowering disabled people.

But at least the media knows what disabled means. When it comes to vegan, they’re clueless. We need to start educating them, just as we need to start challenging anyone calling themselves “vegan” without sharing its ethical stance.  Coming not from a morally superior place, but a factual one.

And maybe the vegan community needs its own version of the Say the Word campaign. To help us reclaim the vegan identity. Or at least get a discussion going. (Twitter hashtag anyone?)

We can also follow Sean O’Callaghan‘s lead. Better known as blogger Fat Gay Vegan, he frequently uses the word ‘compassionate’ alongside ‘vegan’ in his posts and speeches – as a way of spelling out its meaning.

Make no mistake: veganism is about animals. Always has been. And always will be, as long as we are proactive in protecting it.

Use it, or lose it. And losing is not an option: animals need us to have the courage of our convictions.

For the record, veganism is an act of conscience, and empathy, for our fellow beings. It’s not a cult, a trend, or a health fad. It is anti-animal abuse, and pro-animal rights, and seeks justice for all. Anything else is simply not vegan.

© Louise Wallis

(Peace, Love, Vegan image by artist Sarah Kiser)

Day Dreaming: the story of World Vegan Day – by its founder

21st Birthday Candles_3

World Vegan Day is 21 this year. As its creator, I feel like a proud parent.

Not only has it officially come of age,  it has finally come into its own. In 2015, the Day is now a widely celebrated and internationally recognised event and fixture of the media calendar.

So where did I get the idea for World Vegan Day? The truth is I can’t say exactly – only that it came to me in a flash: in one of those classic “Aha!” moments.

World Vegan Day logo

I was President of the Vegan Society at the time, voted into this role in 1991 on the back of my undercover investigation into two animal labs. It was an exciting time. The Society was building up to its 50th birthday, and we were thinking of ways to mark this momentous occasion.

I’d already come up with one idea: a film. And in 1992, in quite possibly the earliest example of crowdfunding, I set up a Vegan Video Fund. Then enlisted my partner Frank, my friends Franny & Boo Armstrong as filmmakers, and Benjamin Zephaniah as Presenter.  Over a year later we emerged, tired but triumphant with Truth or Dairy*, an upbeat, and humorous take on veganism.

BZ Horse Stance_2

My second idea was World Vegan Day. That was much easier: we simply had to announce it. But what date? We knew that the Society had been founded by Donald Watson and friends in November 1944, but not the exact date. The 1st November seemed a good choice – easy to remember – and as I explained in 2011: “I liked the idea of this date coinciding with Samhain / Halloween, and Day of the Dead – traditional times for feasting and celebration. Both apt and auspicious”.

Donald Watson & wife

Culturally, this is the time of year we remember ancestors and forbearers, and those early pioneers were never far from my mind. As I wrote, in an editorial for The Vegan in 1994 (next to the formal announcement of World Vegan Day):

“It is hard for us to imagine what it must have been like to literally ‘invent’ yourself as a vegan. In the forties, the idea of refusing to eat animal products was not only unheard of but considered stark raving madness! Everyone sincerely believed you would surely die. The story fascinates me. How was it possible that a few disparate individuals scattered across the country should simultaneously experience this new, revolutionary vision of a saner future? What on earth possessed them to severely restrict their food options at a time when rationing was at its most severe, and everyone else was worried about simply finding enough to eat? And how did they instinctively know what to do, when there had been no-one else before them?”

We owe everything to these daredevil dreamers, and on World Vegan Day we get to raise a toast in thanks.

It’s also a time for fun, feasting and awareness-raising. Whenever I google ‘World Vegan Day’ I’m blown away by the boundless creativity: from festivals, food tastings and film screenings, to professional football matchesnaked flash mobs, and poignant protests.

WVD Animal Equality protest

WVD event by Animal Equality in Madrid

I still struggle to get my head around the fact that there was even a World Vegan Day debate in the UK Parliament. Led by vegan MP Kerry McCarthy (now shadow Environment Minister).

Sometimes, people contact me to tell me what they do on World Vegan Day. My favourite anecdote is from Jordan Wyatt of the Invercargill Vegan Society in New Zealand, the “southernmost animal rights organisation in the world”. WVD has special significance for Jordan, as he explains:

“On 2011 World Vegan Day, we planted a memorial tree. In 2012, I went big for the first time, posters up, getting in the media etc. My now partner drove down 200km to join in, from her nearby city. By 2013 we had fallen in love, and she had moved down to be with me. On 2014 World Vegan Day, we installed public art, posters, media … AND got married, on the 70th anniversary of veganism”

WVD wedding 2

Jordan and Jen’s Wedding – World Vegan Day 2014

Wow. A World Vegan Day wedding, for a couple who fell in love on World Vegan Day, in a ceremony next to a tree planted on World Vegan DayIt doesn’t get better than this.

In a way, Jordan and Jen’s story sums up what World Vegan Day is all about: bringing people together. It also demonstrates how powerful ideas can be.

A current hot topic in idea theory is ‘The Adjacent Possible’. In the simplest terms, this is the potential (and serendipity) created when you notice and connect the unlikely.

A leading exponent is Steve Johnson, bestselling author of Where Good Ideas Come From. He describes it thus:

“The Adjacent Possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself”.

I love this: “a shadow future” is how I think of World Vegan Day. The one day a year when we can make our dreams feel real. When we get a glimpse of what a vegan world might look like. When we can connect with others, and influence the course of their lives.

“Chance favours the connected mind” says Johnson. Creativity, he suggests, comes not from introspection and solitary pondering, but from being proactive – from mingling, sharing and exchanging. Innovation is essentially social, he argues, thriving in chaotic spaces like the Coffee Houses which famously gave rise to the Age of Enlightenment.

As proprietor of Kabaret, a Cafe Bar serving excellent coffee in the heart of North London’s artistic community, this pleases me immensely.

Running a vegan venue wasn’t something I foresaw. It came by chance via a serendipitous facebook connection.

Our tagline is ‘Creating Vegan Culture’. So new is this concept, that even we don’t know what it is! But hey, we’re doing it anyway.

We host many vegan events including Vegan Comedy Nights, London Vegan Drinks and Queer Vegan Disco. For this year’s World Vegan Day I’ve pulled out all the stops and organised an ExtraVeganza.

We’ll be kicking back, scoffing Sunday Roast, sipping Prosecco, watching a movie, and listening to two of my favourite people speak: Jasmijn De Boo, Vegan Society CEO & Huffington Post columnist; and real life wonder woman Fiona Oakes, the world record-breaking marathon runner. We’ll also be raising funds for Fiona’s animal sanctuary Tower Hill Stables, currently home to 400 animals.

Tickets are still available for this event on Sunday 1st November, so if you want to come – book here

Happy World Vegan Day, whatever you are doing.

This one is dedicated to all you dreamers out there, and especially Mat Swinn.

Remember folks …

IMG_2141

* Truth or Dairy our 20 min Vegan Society film has aged remarkably well. If you fancy watching click here

An Open Letter to Ellen Degeneres

Halo-Vegan-Garden-Medley-Dog-Food1

An Open Letter to Ellen Degeneres

Dear Ellen

Sometimes I hate Facebook. You never know what’s going to pop up and divert you from your day. I certainly never expected to find myself writing an open letter to you, someone I’ve never met but always admired. But then I never expected to see this headline either:

“”Vegan” Ellen Degeneres Launches Leather Footwear Line”

I clicked on the link. It wasn’t an easy read, the snide tone unkind and unnecessary: but the title is true.

Your new footwear line – part of the ED range – includes “Grace” a Chelsea Boot made from “Nubuck” [cowhide].

And is being sold from a third party website Bergdorf Goodman, rather than the main ED website: www.EDbyEllen.com 

A move The Dodo claims is deliberate: “clearly a choice and public relations strategy” to not alienate [your] large vegan fan base”.

But who knows? Maybe this is all a horrible mistake. It’s hard to tell. And that’s why I’m writing this letter – in the hope you might explain.

To be fair, in some circumstances vegans have been known to wear leather. For example, new vegans in the process of transitioning, vegans on low incomes, or vegans living in less developed parts of the world. But this isn’t to imply that leather’s okay.

I know lapsed vegans, and I know vegetarians who wear leather jackets. But I can’t say I’ve ever been confronted with a vegan who sells leather, and in her own brand to boot. This is a first. For us all, I think. And there’s no easy way to say this, Ellen: this isn’t vegan.

So who defines “vegan”? Well if anyone has ownership of that word it’s the UK Vegan Society, who coined it back in 1944. You could say it’s their brand. The Society acts as guardian, refining and safeguarding the definition from being misinterpreted, whether by design, accident or lack of awareness:

“Veganism is a way of living, which seeks to exclude as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose”. Vegan Society

But it isn’t like this is a church where anyone gets excommunicated. We’re a movement, so we rely on anyone identifying as a vegan to act in accordance with its meaning and principles. If people can’t manage this, we expect them – quite reasonably – to quit using the term.

It’s also puzzling that the ED label would diversify into leather just as the vegan market is booming. Things have moved on. Times are changing – and quickly: Faux leather’s now part of the fabric.

In the UK, you can get vegan shoes on the high street, as well as from a growing number of specialist companies, who have the advantage of being eco-friendly. Here’s a quick round up from Ecouterre.

How about a vegan footwear line? There must be lots of talented shoe designers out there – especially young ones – getting creative with these new kinder materials, and looking for a break.

You could make their dream come true by giving them the chance to design for you. As well as earning back your vegan credentials (and fan base). I’d love to see that happen.

I just hope this is an unfortunate blip, in an otherwise outstanding record in promoting compassion and vegan ideals. You do such fantastic advocacy work for animals, and we would hate to lose one of our own.

I hope you will think about this, and thank you for reading.

With love,

Louise Wallis

Creator of World Vegan Day and former President of the Vegan Society 

15/9/15

© 2017 Louise Wallis

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑