This is Donald Watson. He and a group of acquaintances founded the Vegan Society in England and coined the word ‘vegan’ with its contemporary meaning: a human who abstains, as much as possible, from ingestion or exploitation of non-human animals. At that time, Watson had been a vegan for some years. And that time was November 1944.
By November 1944, it was reasonably clear that the Nazis weren’t going to succeed in conquering England. But fending them off had changed and constrained every aspect of life in the British Isles since 1939. Food was severely rationed. New clothing was scarce. In both cases, basic needs were adequately covered, but you had to take what you could get. And here was a small group of people volunteering to make do with even less than that, simply because what bacon you could get killed a pig (and so on).
This is an astounding position to take in the culture of that time. With the world exploding – violence, genocide, the abuse of power on every side – this handful of radically compassionate women and men said no, thank you.
Donald Watson was a conscientious objector, not fighting in the war. He was a master woodworker, and the government required him to teach his skills to others at a pittance. In some cases, students were assigned to him, including bombing victims and these guys:
“…among all the rest, there were evacuees from London and there were two men sent for occupational therapy. They’d been rescued at death’s door from the Burma railway, and they were as near to death as I’d ever seen anyone – they could hardly speak, and over the weeks and the months, they gradually came back to life and started making simple articles.”
I gasped aloud when I read this in a 2002 interview with Watson. There’s not enough here for me to guess at who these two returned FEPOWs were. But what I can glean:
- Watson lived and taught in Leicester;
- The POWs came to him soon after repatriation, since he describes them as ill and immediately post-trauma;
- He met them while he was still living in wartime condition, teaching anyone he was sent;
- The 1st Battalion Leicester Regiment was captured in Singapore, and perhaps these fellows were among them.
This suggests that they might have joined his class in November 1945; about a year, in other words, since Donald Watson had solidified his vegan identity with a new word and a newsletter published out of his basement. Now two men were before him who had been used, not as beings in their own right, but as means to someone else’s ends. Others alongside them had been used up. They themselves were struggling to return from death. Who knows what they made of their countercultural teacher. But I can’t help being touched by the idea of these veterans, who’d suffered so much, coming within the orbit of a man whose compassion had room for everyone’s suffering: human, pig, whatever.
This is Bertha. She lives at Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary, and she has never been terrified or abused the way millions of other pigs are every day. Her mother was so mistreated at a farm raising pigs for food that the authorities intervened. Mama Julia came to sanctuary traumatized, not too different from the freed POWs coming to Donald Watson. Her children, however, now have the opportunity to live their lives the way everyone should everywhere: free from fear or coercion, their own beings.
In this new year, I hope and pray for more compassionate Donalds, and more fortunate Berthas.