International Vegetarian Union (IVU)

For a vegetarian world. For people. For animals. For the planet.
Be part of this world: 8 - 14th November 2004
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Alex Bourke

A Vegan Activist

I became a vegetarian at the age of 14, around 1975, after refusing to do dissection in biology and receiving leaflets from the Vegetarian Society and the Vegan Society. 

I remember walking in from school one day to a plate of fish.  I had a chess match later on, several miles away.  “I’m sorry, I can’t eat that,” I said to my mother.  My father had to support her and said, “In that case, you’ll have to walk to the match.”  “Then I’d better be going,” I replied, and set off to the utter amazement of my parents.  I started running but was lucky enough to get a ride from a friend and his father.  My parents thought I’d run all the way and realised that I was serious about being a vegetarian. Most of the rest of my time at school was spent in the library or winning chess trophies and so I left equipped with a strong intellect but with much to learn about people.

I didn’t “come out” as a vegetarian for the first five years, apart from an article in a school magazine.  At university, I was delighted to meet another veggie at last and together we started Southampton University Vegetarian Society.  Soon, we found lots of us and we enjoyed many dinners and parties.  I remember having lived in one flat for a few weeks when one of my flatmates asked, “You’re not a vegetarian are you, I mean, not you?” meaning “surely not a normal person like you”?  By the end of that year, they were all eating almost no meat. British university was incredibly boring, but at least I learned some languages, martial arts, and how to program computers, all of which would prove useful later.  I hitch-hiked a lot in France, travelled around Russia on trains and worked for a summer in New York, selling vegan ices and orange juice on the street and had many adventures.  It’s amazing that I got an academic degree at all, but I think I got a good one in life.

For a few years, I became a “straight”, got a job, got married, bought flats then houses, did all the things that straight people do except think for myself or have children.  Somewhere inside I knew something wasn’t quite right, I wanted to keep the door open, and I was strangely attracted to books like Jonathan Livingston Seagull and TV series like Kung Fu and Star Trek: The Next Generation.  At that time, it was necessary for me to become immersed in the old ways in order one day to know them well enough to help change them from the inside, as part of the vegan re-evolution.  I worked as a computer operator, programmer, administrator, secretary, in investment, insurance, and for three-and-a-half years in a guidebook company. Everything I learnt would one day be useful.

In 1989, I went back to university to take the world’s first MSc in parallel computer systems, a kind of Top Gun for programmers, and became a teacher on that course for the next two years.  During my days as a lecturer, I had less cash but an incredible amount of free time.  I renovated a house into apartments, took over the Green Group in the university and campaigned with the Green Party.  We got 15% of the vote in the European elections, but no seats under the British system.  I wrote a series of articles for the student magazine about basic veggie cooking called The Hippy Cookbook. People who hated vegetarianism read them because they were funny and thus they found out how great our food is.  With two vegan friends, we got vegetarian and vegan food into the canteen, and these friends pushed me off the fence and into veganism.

My wife, a health professional who worked with patients with strokes and heart attacks, knew that not being vegan was the primary cause of these diseases, but she considered it social suicide to be vegan.  I guess most people are still more concerned with being part of the group than with doing what they know to be right.  We saw a therapist who told us that our life goals were so totally different that we couldn’t possibly stay together and she advised us to separate.

Suddenly, the suppressed half of my personality started to wake up. I got a job programming in Paris, sold everything and started to grow my hair long like I’d always wanted to.  I felt fantastic for a couple of months until the summer ended, most of my new friends went back to their countries, and I had my first anxiety attack.  I’d changed countries, jobs, friends and languages - just about everything in fact - and I was in a country that was unbelievably hostile to vegans.  I was the only vegetarian in the French HQ of a multi-national with 600 people working on the biggest information technology project in Europe, yet in the first week I saw it would fail and nobody would listen because they were all locked into groupthink.  It was dull sitting alone at a computer writing very difficult programs.  I wanted to be with people, but people who thought for themselves.  I was sitting on a huge amount of frustration.  Where to go next?

I was determined not to quit.  Somehow, I survived the first year in France and went to the Sixth International Vegan Festival in Britain in 1992, taking 100 copies of The Hippy Cookbook, made up of my articles plus cartoons by Marc Vyvyan-Jones. The festival was to change my life totally, like that of so many others, when a vegan acorn finally landed on fertile ground in a vegan forest.  I arrived knowing only five vegans in the world and left knowing dozens, eight of them French.  The second year in Paris was wonderful, just like the discovery of vegetarians at university had been.  We were always having dinners, going to meetings, and we wrote The Vegan Guide to Paris.  We went to visit people in other countries at weekends and they, in turn, came to stay with us.

In 1993, I definitively quit as an employed programmer; went to the International Vegetarian Congress in India; went travelling around with vegans in Europe and attended the fantastic Seventh Vegan Festival by the beautiful Spanish coast, where I gave a workshop on How to Write A Vegan Book.  People who came to that festival then produced Vegan Guides to Amsterdam, Berlin, Edinburgh, Melbourne, Munich and New York.  Now I knew I was really an activist.

In Spain, I met a brilliant and wonderful psychologist from Colorado, Dr Kay Sheehan. Together, we wrote an article My Boyfriend’s A Meat Eater for Britain’s leading vegetarian magazine, Vegetarian Living.  I was asked to join the Council of the Vegan Society.  Later, I went travelling around Poland with an amazing American activist, Julia Hope Jacquel, who had worked with Dr Michael Klaper, and there I discovered just how easy my life had been compared to those of vegans and vegetarians in Eastern Europe. I started to edit and produce the Vegans International Newsletter and, with my new friends, we expanded the V.I. network to cover 50 countries.

Over the next few years, I travelled a lot in Europe, putting vegan activists in touch with those in Britain and America to get the latest information; co-wrote and published more guidebooks for London, France, Britain and Europe; worked for a year with the amazing Juliet Gellatley and Tony Wardle to help them set up Viva! to promote vegetarianism and veganism to young people; co-wrote Campaign Against Cruelty - an activist’s handbook with Ronny; scripted and co-produced a video Animal Rights; and sometimes did freelance computer programming to get some money.  Often, I would work all night on a magazine, go to sleep at 6 am for a couple of hours, then go out and do a day’s programming.  I hated the programming, loved the vegan activism.  I found so many incredible people all over Europe who had started groups alone and grown them to create hundreds or thousands more vegetarians and vegans.

I sought out the greatest teachers in the vegetarian and vegan movements, talked with psychologists and read everything I could find about what makes people tick.  I learned to toughen up, to protect what I believe in and help it grow.  The movement now is like a coiled spring, with thousands of dedicated activists and teachers around the world working in a loose alliance that has no leader.  It’s time to release more of our power.  I believe that the collapse of the meat and dairy industries will come within one generation, through our educating people to take responsibility for their food and stop hurting themselves and nature.  This is what I will be dedicating as much as necessary of the rest of my life to.  The more of us who do the same, the faster it will happen.

I will continue to give workshops around the world to teach folks how to write and publish a vegetarian guide to their town. When there are guides to every town in the world, it will be very easy for anyone anywhere to become a vegetarian and then a vegan.  Only you can do this for your town.  So please, join us and help us vegetarianize then veganize the world.

I’ll see you all at the celebration when the last slaughterhouse closes and then, one day, we can sit in the park playing chess and telling stories, and the children will say: “Why are you always talking about the time when people used to eat animals, no one has done that for 20 years?”

Alex Bourke, London, England / /


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