Little boys, I was once reliably informed by a great friend who was a Headteacher, often try to out compete each other when standing at a urinal to see which of them can pee highest. I don’t remember taking part, but then I don’t remember all that much from when I was a young adult let alone a seven-year old making routine discoveries about what I could or couldn’t do in a toilet. I’m sure though it was harmless fun, and – as I’ve forgotten it completely – wasn’t life-changing.
When I was about eight (and the two are unrelated in terms of cause and effect) I starting getting seriously interested in birds. That was life-changing. Birds and wildlife have had an enormous impact on my life. Still do. Birding was fun, and a little bit competitive (mainly with my brother who has gone to devote his entire adult life to them). It got more competitive the more I got into it. I tried (unsuccessfully) to keep up with the ‘big listers’. I didn’t have the resources to really compete, but I made some good friends, and have some fantastic memories of driving through the night, seeing birds I might never see again, and enjoying the in-jokes, the banter, the feeling of belonging to a marginal group that was misunderstood by the majority of the country (and that’s not an exaggeration). It was fun.
Taking up birding has changed my life, especially since my love of birds has evolved into wanting to protect them, to do something to help conserve them. That matters. I didn’t go to University, I don’t work for a major conservation organisation, but I do what I can. I constantly think I’m not doing enough, but I don’t feel judged by what I usually describe as ‘real conservationists’, and on the whole I think most people understand that I’m doing my best.
When I went vegetarian it was huge step. Far bigger in terms of a change in thinking than taking up birding. I’d eaten meat for forty years, ignored the inner voice that said thinking about birds all day and then eating them at night without a second thought was a contradiction. It involved a complete shift in how I related to the world. I re-thought everything I knew about farming, land use, animal welfare, environmentalism. I left behind a lot of food I liked the taste of and had to make decisions about everything I ate. It was hard at first, but I knew why I was doing it and I felt it was right.
One thing I very consciously didn’t do was go around telling everyone how wonderful I was and how appalling they were. If someone saw me eating veg food and asked me if I was vegetarian I’d say yes. If they wanted to know why I’d tell them. At first my ego was tickled when people told me that I ‘didn’t look like a vegetarian’, but that quickly passed as I soon came to realise that many of my colleagues were already vegetarian and didn’t ‘look like vegetarians’ either. I should have known that there is no such thing as a ‘typical’ vegetarian anymore than there is a typical birder.
I did, however, want to be a ‘good’ veggie. I wanted to be open about my thinking, debate well, be open to new ideas, really understand what the issues were. I was lucky that my partner was already a long-term vegetarian. She is a highly intelligent person with very well-thought out reasons for not eating meat. We bounce ideas off each other, discuss issues, shape each others’ thinking. She has never mocked me for not going vegetarian earlier, nor tried to make herself feel superior by reminding me that she ‘saw the light’ before I did. Why should she? How would that have helped?
Two weeks ago we both took another decision: to give up dairy and go vegan. It’s another major lifestyle change. One for the better but huge anyway. It feels right to us. There’s no doubt though that we need some support and help. It may not sound much of a step going from vegetarian to vegan but it is. We both eat a lot of dairy products. We don’t have the money to change our wardrobe and throw away leather belts and woolen sweaters, but we won’t buy new ones. We’re not enthusiastic chefs but we’re going to have to learn to cook or live off a diet that may be healthy and guilt-free but might be a touch boring. That’s not to say there isn’t plenty of excellent vegan food available, we just don’t know where it is yet.
If we’re honest (and we always are) were not vegans yet. We’re moving towards it but we’re not quite there yet. We will get there, but we haven’t yet. I can’t speak for Jo but I need some advice about all of this. In the last week I’ve joined a few forums and followed a few vegans on Twitter. I’d like to think that vegans would welcome an inquisitive and open mind. Most have been great, but annoyingly I’ve found a very small number of activists to be patronising and rude, people who seem to want to prove how wonderful they are at my expense. Frankly at this stage of my life (and at this stage of a big lifestyle change) what I don’t need is someone trying to challenge my ‘achievements’, my activism, my commitment, my actions so far, questioning how many petitions I’ve signed, and whether I’ve really thought about things as hard as they have. Whether – in effect – I can p*** as far up a bloody wall as they can.
There are dickheads in all walks of life of course, but it’s especially counter-productive being a dickhead when you’re presenting ideas and information in the hope that those ideas might be taken up by the people you’re interacting with. Along with changing what I eat I am going to make a promise here and now to never (again?) be one of those irritating and insecure people who badger and hassle other people to be as worthy and pious as they obviously believe themselves to be. I want to be one of the welcoming and supportive people I’m currently looking for. I don’t for a second think I know everything or know better than someone else. I want to learn and exchange. If someone wants to debate with me I’ll do so with respect and listen to their views. If I get pushed I’ll push back, if they insult me I’ll delete them, but what I will never do is line them up in a metaphorical toilet and ask them to show me how high they can send a stream of urine into the air…