|International Vegetarian Union (IVU)|
33rd World Vegetarian Congress
Alex Bourke, 37, from London England.
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 km 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 finally meet another veggie 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?" (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 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 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 Jonathon Livingstone Seagull and TV series like Kung Fu and Star Trek Next Generation. At that time it was necessary for me to become immersed in the old ways in order one day in the future to know them well enough to be able 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 we couldn't possibly stay together and she advised us to separate.
Suddenly the suppressed half of my personality woke up a bit. I got a job programming in Paris, sold everything, 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, 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 multinational 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 my new booklet The Hippy Cookbook, made up of my articles plus cartoons by a friend. The festival was to totally change my life, 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 including Stephane Hennion. 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 other countries at weekends, they came to stay with us.
In 1993 I definitively quit as an employed programmer, went to IVU Congress in India, went travelling around vegans in Europe, went to the fantastic 7th Vegan Festival by the beautiful Spanish coast organised by Francisco Martin, where I gave a workshop How to Write A Vegan Book. People who came to that festival then produced 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 Dr Kay Sheehan who taught me a lot about what was really going on below the surface between the leaders in the vegan movement. I've seen that Kay will be in Thailand and I am really looking forward to seeing her again. I was asked to join the Council of The Vegan Society. Later I went travelling around Poland with an amazing American activist who had worked with Dr Klaper, where 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 and Britain, worked for a year with the amazing Juliet Gellatley and Tony Wardle to set up Viva! to promote vegetarianism to young people, co-wrote an activist handbook, and sometimes did freelance computer programming to get some money. Often I would work all night on a magazine, go to sleep at 6am for a couple of hours, then go to 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 saw that there are serious weaknesses in the vegetarian and vegan movements, and these are usually to do with people with big egos who get involved not just to help animals but also because they like status or power or just like to take advantage of free holidays. I encountered situations where people I thought were friends became vicious in their search for dominance, and through being too gentle I could have been destroyed. Except that everything I had learned in martial arts and interstate chess and from my heroes had taught me that there is always a way to the light, even though it may be hidden like a shadow in darkness and we must find a guide. I sought out the greatest teachers in the movement, talked with psychologists, read everything I could find about what makes people tick. I learned to seriously 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 evil 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 look forward to meeting some of you in Australia at the ninth International Vegan Festival between Christmas and New Year, and all of you in Chiang Mai. I have to say I was somewhat disappointed by previous IVU festivals where there was a lot of cheese and eggs and even doctors giving talks about the benefits of milk, indeed some of the talks were very boring and telling us things we already knew. It looks like this will be the first truly world class festival and I can hardly wait. Vanessa has asked me to speak about how you can produce a vegetarian guide to your 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, come along and help us vegetarianize then veganize the world.
You can see some of my books at
I'll see you all at the celebration when the last slaugherhouse closes and 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?"
Love and liberation