All the world is nuts about
In each issue Vegetarians in Paradise presents the 24 Carrot Award to an outstanding person or organization that endeavors to practice or promote education, natural health, wholesome nutrition, and ecology techniques for the mutual benefit of humans, animals, and the earth.
Vegetarians in Paradise proudly presents its 24 Carrot Award to Donald Watson, founder of the Vegan Society and originator of the word "vegan." In 2004 the Vegan Society celebrates its 60th anniversary with worldwide events on November 1. Watson, who celebrated his 94th birthday September 2, is a continuing inspiration to vegans all over the world. We are especially grateful to George D. Rodger for his cooperation in arranging and assisting us in conducting this interview.
What follows are the questions asked by Vegetarians in Paradise (VIP) and the answers by Donald Watson (DW).
VIP: What events in your life led you to vegetarianism? What brought you to veganism?
DW: As a child seeing animals pushed through doors alongside butchers' shops to be killed. I once saw a cow and a calf enter together. I wondered later which one the butcher killed first. On one occasion I actually watched a cow being killed at an abattoir in a field where local children were free to watch and where they hoped to be given a bladder to use as a football. I also watched a pig being killed when I visited an uncle's farm. I turned vegetarian at the age of fourteen.
My conversion to veganism was about eighteen years later when I learned about the biological mechanics of milk production.
VIP: How do your family and friends react to your vegan philosophy?
DW: Very well at present, but this was not always the case in the early days when there was much concern because I was flouting nearly every medical advice at that time. On my first visit home after leaving it to earn a living, my father said, "Are you still on that vegetable diet?" When my older brother and younger sister joined me as vegetarians, non-smokers, teetotallers and conscientious objectors, my mother said she felt like a hen that had hatched a clutch of duck eggs. Such was the way my departure from orthodoxy was viewed at the time. I had good kind parents who never allowed my "peculiar" ways to destroy our good relationship.
Later when we formed The Vegan Society, criticism was almost general - some of it in the form of concern about what we might be doing to our bodies. The kindest criticism we received was that we "meant well," or that the sheer problems arising from choosing to live in a world catering mainly for other people would get us down in the end. Other critics said, "It seems to suit you" without realizing that it might suit them too if only they would try it.
VIP: We understand that you are responsible for creating the word "vegan." How did that occur? Why did you feel the word was needed?
DW: I invited my early readers to suggest a more concise word to replace "non-dairy vegetarian." Some bizarre suggestions were made like "dairyban, vitan, benevore, sanivore, beaumangeur", et cetera. I settled for my own word, "vegan", containing the first three and last two letters of "vegetarian" -- "the beginning and end of vegetarian." The word was accepted by the Oxford English Dictionary and no one has tried to improve it.
VIP: There is some confusion about the pronunciation of the word vegan. One of the dictionaries pronounces it vai-gan. Could you give us the correct pronunciation?
DW: The pronunciation is "VEEGAN" not "VAI-GAN," "VEGGAN." or "VEEJAN." The stress is on the first syllable.
VIP: On November 1 Vegans worldwide will be celebrating World Vegan Day. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Vegan Society. Why was November 1 chosen as the day for that event? How do you plan to commemorate the occasion?
DW: When the Vegan Society Council suggested having a World Vegan Day, they suggested it should be my birthday, September 2. I reminded them that the Society was not formed on my birthday in 1910, but on a day in November thirty-four years later. I suggested any day in November would be more appropriate, so they chose November 1. I doubt if they realized that in the Christian calendar this is All Saints' Day!
How do I intend to spend the day, you ask? Providing I still have a comfortable body and no other pressing commitments, I hope to spend part of it THINKING. Although I pride myself on being a practical man, with both feet firmly on the ground and not attracted by anything airy-fairy, I do believe in pursuing the "powers latent in Man', and I wonder whether feeding for a long time on pure guilt-free food may make our bodies better "receiving sets" for whatever wisdom there is in the environment. Some scientists may ridicule this idea as it is not materialistic. They can hardly claim to be true scientists if they choose to limit themselves in this way. Conscience, because it is there, is a factor in the true scientific equation. So I hope to be on the receiving end on November 1st. As one of the oldest practicing vegans, I must have a flying start. Scientific method is not the only route to truth.
VIP: You were instrumental in the formation of the Vegan Society. Can you tell us about how that transpired? How have the goals of the group changed over the years?
DW: Inspired people can do much individually, but can do more with like-minded people. So I gathered a few such people together whom I knew would not waste time arguing for the sake of it. I know as a propagandist that many people do not argue to reach right conclusions but to defend their interests and religious shibboleths. We did not need a committee of such people. Of course, we did not always agree on everything. We argued for a long time about whether members should sign a pledge, before deciding against it. We also debated for a long time about the case of honey but again decided against it.
The Society soon widened its aim to include all animal exploitation, in brief to work for a new relationship with the rest of sentient creation in a symbiotic relationship if possible, to live and HELP live rather than to just live and let live.
VIP: What are some of the notable accomplishments of the Vegan Society?
DW: Constant growth worldwide. Silencing critics by outliving them! Turning critics into supporters. Governments and health authorities are now doing much of our work for us by advocating a vegan diet for seriously ill patients.
VIP: When The Vegan Society began, you functioned as editor of the Vegan News. Could you tell us about the publication and subsequent publications?
DW: The five issues of the duplicated Vegan News are what I call the "Dead Sea Scrolls" of the Society. I produced them before the Society's first Committee was formed. The response I received was so great that I had to limit subscribers to 500 because I could not produce more of the twelve-page effort single handed. My friends would have helped, but we all lived far apart, so it was easier for me to do all the work rather than try to arrange for it to be shared.
As a woodworker, I had spent many years picking up tools to do specific jobs, and changing them for other tools to continue with whatever I was making. On starting to promote the vegan idea I saw words as tools and tried to use them to good effect. I knew, of course, that the pen could be mightier than the sword. I hated verbosity and gobbledegook and seldom used the first person singular "I", because it could create a fence between me and my readers. Everyone knew what I meant at the end of every sentence. The result was successful beyond my hopes. Readers either agreed with me or they didn't; those who did joined in the crusade, and few left before dying.
The first printed issue of The Vegan appeared in Spring 1946, to be followed by quarterly issues ever since, reporting the progress we have made.
The Vegan Society had a difficult birth and has never been rich. The full story would fill a book.
VIP: What role did you play in the formation of the American Vegan Society?
VIP: How active are you in vegan activities now?
DW: Not very, except as a source of reference.
I am a Patron of the Society, subscribing a sum of money every year.
Perhaps my main use to the Society is that, at ninety-three and never having used medicines, orthodox or fringe, I am proof that, after a weak childhood in a meat-eating family, veganism works. Are there any other nonagenarians who have never taken medicine?
VIP: Can you tell us about your education? What role did it play in your career?
DW: I left school at fourteen to be an apprentice woodworker and have been educating myself ever since. My most used book is my dictionary. I use it almost daily to check on the exact meaning of words.
VIP: What organizations do you belong to and support? DW: For me veganism covers many, but I do support movements with isolated aims providing they do not use vivisection. I have a soft spot for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and for Mountain Rescue teams, where people risk their lives to save others, without payment.
VIP: Of all of your personal accomplishments, which ones give you the most pride and satisfaction?
DW: Being instrumental in starting the vegan movement and giving it its name.
Teaching more than 3,000 boys over forty-three years the joy of making things in wood.
Being a hedonist, providing I do not harm myself, other people, or animals, or the planet.
Never quarrelling with people, because early in life I became adept at raising my eyebrows instead at the strange behavior of so many. The fact that they are still in place says a lot for the reflex action of the muscles on my forehead!
My biggest achievement is still to come. It is to die peacefully in sleep when my body is worn out.
VIP: What future do you see for the vegan movement during the next 25 years?
DW: Bright. The genie is now out of the bottle and no one can ever put it back.
VIP: What person or persons have had the most influence on your life?
DW: My father who started life as a poor farm boy and by hard study became head of a large school by the time he was thirty. Though orthodox in all his ways, he was fair and generous to me. He was clearly surprised when, as a teenager, I escaped from what I saw as the tyranny of so much tradition, but this did not destroy our relationship. When I was a small boy, he told me not to steal or trespass or swear. The latter came in useful when I became a propagandist, so I never swore. It annoys some people, and propagandists should not annoy anyone except with the truth of their message. It is strange that people who take such strong exception to swearing are often blind to the greater evil of cruelty.
VIP: What leisure activities and hobbies do you enjoy?
DW: Fewer than in my earlier days when they were fellwalking [hiking on the moors], cycling, violin playing, and keeping an acre of garden in trim. I now concentrate on less strenuous pursuits. Ten years ago I began to compile a book of bits of traditional wisdom that attracted me. It now contains 365 entries and is still growing. A recent entry, from the pen of Samuel Johnson, would save the lives of millions of young people if they would only obey it. It is, "The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken."
I am still raising my eyebrows on seeing people choosing slow suicide by their habits instead of a long healthy life. Another of my hobbies in old age is trying to explain the great problem: why such an intelligent creature as Man suffers such a dearth of wisdom.
VIP: According to some scientific studies, vegetarians live longer than non-vegetarians. What factors do you think contributed to your longevity?
DW: Certainly not inheriting a cast-iron constitution. My father died of a coronary at sixty-three. Neither his father nor grandfather reached seventy despite the fact that, as farmers, they had plenty of fresh air, exercise, and organic foods. On my mother's side, all died around the age of seventy.
Early in life I decided my first rule of health must be to try to keep poisons out of my body, and this seems to have paid off. Today we have the new hazard of hundreds of chemicals added to manufactured foods, so we must read the small print if we want to keep clear of them. A fuller answer to this question would fill a book.
VIP: In your lifetime what negative words and actions have you faced because of your vegan views?
DW: None, except in the early stages. People now are careful not to argue with vegans!
VIP: What advice would you offer to people about making the transitions to vegetarianism and to veganism?
DW: Don't leave it too late. A single meal of animal food may infect you with any of the many diseases now endemic in medicated farm animals, including variant CJD (Creutzfeld Jacob Disease) from which there is no cure and which may lie dormant for many years.
VIP: Have we overlooked anything that you would like to share with our readers?
DW: Yes, veganism gives us all the opportunity to say what we "stand for" in life.
The ideal of healthy, humane living is now easy with modern transport bringing us vegan foods from all over the world.
Join us and add decades of health to your life, with a clear conscience as a bonus.
This interview with Donald Watson was conducted August 11, 2004
George D. Rodger's Note: