The Librarian Who Caused a Scandalous Riot

There have been several references in this blog to the man who became, in 1882, Oxford University’s first Waynflete Professor of Physiology, John Scott Burdon Sanderson, but little mention has been made of the man regarded as his chief opponent during the ensuing controversy over vivisection at the university. This man, Edward Nicholson, was appointed, in that same year, chief librarian to the university (Bodley’s Librarian). It was a portentous year, for then also John Ruskin was elected to a second and hectic stint as Slade Professor of Fine Art, a stint brought to an abrupt end by the same controversy.

Nicholson’s long period in office was one of the most crucial modernizing phases in the Bodleian’s history. He turned the Bodleian from a gentleman-scholars’ club into a busy and efficient university-wide institution. But his reforms, and of course his leadership of the anti-vivisection campaign in the 1880s, made him many enemies in the university. Accordingly there was afterwards something like a conspiracy to deny him the memorials to which he was surely entitled: a commissioned portrait, for instance, such as was accorded to both his predecessor and his successor, or his name attached to the collection of papers which he bequeathed to the library (they were jumbled into other collections, such as ‘Eng. Misc.’, and remain so). But he needs and deserves remembering – here in particular for the heroic stand he made against vivisection at Oxford University in the 1880s.

Burdon Sanderson came to Oxford with an established reputation as “the arch-priest of vivisection”. Nicholson too had made himself known on the subject, in a pioneering book titled The Rights of an Animal: a new Essay in Ethics, published in 1879. And it surely was new; Nicholson himself called it “so far as I know, the first systematic attempt in our language – may be in any language – to treat the question of man’s social relations to animals as a branch of moral philosophy.” But it was not the merely intellectual treatment of the subject which its sub‐title suggests. It was purposeful and practical, as indeed that telling formulation in the title – an animal –  implies: not a generality of animals, but every particular animal was claiming its rights of us. So at the end of the book Nicholson gives advice on how to turn ethics into useful effort. And that was what Nicholson was now finding himself required to do at Oxford.  

nicholson cartoon

It was not Burdon Sanderson himself, nor even the laboratory being planned for his use, that Nicholson opposed, though the controversy came to simplify itself in that way, as the cartoon illustration indicates (more about that in the notes). What he wanted was that the university should impose two conditions upon the work done by Burdon Sanderson and by all his successors at Oxford: first, that anaesthetics would be used in all experiments which would otherwise cause pain, and second, that there would be no experiments at all using domesticated animals. You’ll notice that these are conditions which UK law has yet to catch up with even now, but to Nicholson well over a century ago they seemed “morally indispensable”.

That phrase comes from the petition which Nicholson organized and presented to the university’s governing Hebdomadal Council in 1883, requesting that a distinct motion on these conditions should be put to Convocation (at that time the university’s legislature). The petition had 143 signatures to it, for Nicholson had enlisted the support of many heads of colleges, many professors (including John Ruskin) and fellows (including Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll), and the Bishop of Oxford, John Mackarness, to say nothing of all the Oxford graduates whose MAs entitled them to vote in Convocation. But the Council rejected the petition – “an intolerable wrong”, Nicholson thought, with typical passion. He believed that his party would have won the vote; probably the Council had thought so too.

Still, to obtain the necessary land and funds for the laboratory, the Council had to get the approval of Convocation. There had already been two sessions for this purpose, but a third and fourth would yet be needed. Nicholson therefore announced that the coming sessions would be turned into that debate on vivisection which the Council had refused, and he at once began preparing for them.

Evening after evening, after his strenuous days in the Bodleian Library, Nicholson put his talents as an organiser and publicist into the push against the laboratory. Printed letters and cards, circulars and other documents went out from his house at number 2 Canterbury Road, telling academics and graduates of the university, in Oxford and far beyond, what they needed to know about the rejected petition, about Burdon Sanderson’s record as a physiologist and as a witness at the 1875 Royal Commission on vivisection, about the coming votes in Convocation, and about what the University’s Council was doing. As to this last, the Council itself had finally felt obliged to campaign for its own policy, rather than move ahead with patrician self-sufficiency (its preferred method then as now). So by the time of the second vote in 1885, as one contemporary recalled, Oxford MAs “had been inundated with leaflets from both sides, with the names of prominent men attached, for weeks before the day of debate.”

Before taking a view of the debates themselves, which were two of the most crowded and disorderly ever to have taken place in Convocation, we should pause to notice Nicholson’s courage in thus discomposing the university. He was a new and untested presence there, by no means a unanimous choice among the library’s curators (one of them thought him “vain, egotistical, and vulgar”: not a gentleman-scholar, then). The Times newspaper, with its many Oxford connections, reported the matter with some acidity: “It would be mere affectation to deny that this appointment will be viewed by many with considerable surprise.” More immediately, Vice-Chancellor Benjamin Jowett gave Nicholson warning that his activities in the campaign might be considered damaging to the library, and by implication to Nicholson’s own career with it. As to that, there survives among Nicholson’s papers a draft letter from 1884 in which sets out his response. Here are some sentences from it:

Dear Mr Vice‐Chancellor, It will be a satisfaction to me if you will allow me to make quite clear to you my feelings and intentions in regard to the matter which you spoke of this morning . . . On the matter of principle I feel as strongly as it is possible to feel, and so I consider it a duty from which I cannot deviate for one moment to do all I can to avert the practice [of vivisection] in Oxford. If the majority on February 5th [that was the third of the four Convocations] had been able and willing to compel me to resign my office on account of my action in this matter, I should have taken that action just the same . . . if Council were to propose any further grant without allowing a vote on the principle [as we know the Council in fact did] it would be our duty to oppose the grant.

I can’t find whether Nicholson actually sent, to the man who had originally been his main ally among the Curators, this bold and uncompromising letter, but he certainly acted on it.

The Convocations, then. That debate on 5 February was rowdy enough, or became so. Jowett himself presided, and the proceedings were opened by Dean Henry Liddell of Christ Church (father of Lewis Carroll’s Alice). The professor of medicine, Henry Acland, then spoke in praise of Burdon Sanderson’s high moral character (that familiar argument: ‘trust the professionals’). Speakers against the laboratory included Dr Pope – “who, we are credibly informed,” reported the students’ Oxford Magazine, of course relishing the commotion, “spoke with a loaded revolver in his pocket” – and Nicholson himself, characteristically “bristling with little books and papers”. Unfortunately the debate got entangled in one particular animal procedure which Burdon Sanderson had spoken of in his evidence to the Royal Commission. He had called it “a beautiful experiment” and one which he had enjoyed “great pleasure in repeating” a number of times (he’s quoted thus in the cartoon). This naturally caused some vocal indignation. But now the Waynflete Professor himself, who had hitherto “leaned against the side of the arena, gaunt, grim, notable”, came forward (“received with a storm of applause and hisses”), and explained that the animal had been a brain-dead frog. The debate proper did not recover from this anti-climax (if it really was one), and the vote went against Nicholson’s party.

But a fourth Convocation was needed, and it took place on 10 March the next year. This time the university’s Sheldonian Theatre was even more crowded and the debate even more unruly. The Times on that day had printed statements from the opposing parties, making clear that it would be a major Oxford University event. One of those present recalled years later that “hundreds of non-resident graduates had come up to vote from London and the shires . . . the Sheldonian Theatre was crammed, the upper undergraduate gallery no less than the lower.” There was “row on row of ladies interested in the scene”. Those Sheldonian galleries climb steeply up into the dome; it’s a room which can look and sound precariously crowded – or excitingly so, as seems to have been the case on that occasion.

Again, Vice-Chancellor Jowett presided and Dean Liddell opened the proceedings. That imposing and celebrated Oxford figure was given a respectful hearing, but he seems to have been the last of the speakers to enjoy the privilege. Canon Liddon, a celebrated orator, came after the Dean, spoke against vivisection, and was booed. When Bishop Mackarness started to describe some of the revolting experiments being done in France and Germany, someone (so the historian Charles Oman recalls in Memories of Victorian Oxford)

got upon a chair, and led, waving his arms, a regular chorus of the word ‘name’ or ‘shame’ – I could not quite make out which. The Bishop kept his feet and tried to proceed, but the rhythmical din continued.

Another speaker against the motion, the new Professor of Modern History, Edward Freeman, well-known for his publications against animal cruelty, “was absolutely howled down.” Those who spoke in favour of the motion were no better treated, and when a clergyman sprang up and “got in enough sentences to demonstrate that he was about to defend vivisection by the example of Christ”, this absurdity so aggravated the disorder that Benjamin Jowett brought a premature end to the debate and the matter was put to a decision. The university got its way by 412 votes to 244. (The total of votes did not represent the numbers present, of course: only graduates and fellows of colleges were entitled to vote.) Charles Oman calls the event “a scandalous riot”.

A defeat then, but also a very great achievement, as Oman’s disapproval itself suggests. For Nicholson turned a project whose first two supply votes had passed through Convocation hardly noticed into a controversy which in 1884 and 1885 generated some of the fiercest passions ever witnessed in the Sheldonian. (The much more famous debate about evolution, held in the University Museum in 1860, was really a very mild affair in comparison.) He forced the whole university to take the rights of animals seriously, and to suffer a convulsion commensurate with the importance of the decision it was taking. In doing so, he gave that Oxford generation a lesson in ethics which very few of them can altogether have missed or forgotten.

One of Nicholson’s supporters in the campaign against vivisection at Oxford, writing to console him on the evening of the 1885 defeat, said “the protest will remain a valuable one, and one which we may hope will not be forgotten in the future history of the Laboratory.” Yes, a most valuable protest, and a courageous and visionary man: there are good reasons – indeed, moral obligations – to remember both.    

Notes and references:

This post has been adapted from a longer article first published in the Oxford Magazine. The full text can be read here, including a more detailed set of footnotes: http://www.vero.org.uk/bodley.pdf

John Ruskin’s time as Slade Professor, and its abrupt end, are recounted in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2019/02/04/remembering-john-ruskin-rightly/

Burdon Sanderson was called “the arch-priest” in The Oxford University Herald on 27 October 1883, about the time he took up his duties as Waynflete Professor. Nicholson’s description of The Rights of an Animal comes from contemporary publicity material for the book.

The Times’s comments on Nicholson’s appointment were published on 6 February, 1882

Quotations about the Convocation debates come from Charles Oman, Memories of Victorian Oxford, London, 1941, and from two university journals of the time: the Oxford Magazine, then primarily a student paper, for 13 February 1884 and 11 March 1885, and the Oxford Review for 7 February 1884

The hostile curator was Mark Pattison, writing in his journal, as quoted in an unpublished thesis in the Bodleian Library about Nicholson’s professional career, written by K.A.Manley, 1977).

The consolatory letter was written to Nicholson by the Regius Professor of Hebrew, Samuel Driver.

The contemporary cartoon shows Burdon Sanderson ‘experimenting’ upon Edward Nicholson. The ‘Blue Book’ of the caption, on a copy of which Nicholson’s hand is resting, is the Royal Commission Report on vivisection, published in 1876. As the frog indicates, the reference there and in the speech-bubble is to the “beautiful experiment” that became a theme of the 1884 Convocation debate (though the date given for this vivisection of Nicholson at the “Sheldonian Laboratories” seems to be miswritten “5th Jan”). Unfortunately I have mislaid the source for this illustration, but I thank the archive concerned and hope that the unattributed use will be forgiven.

Marching, Speaking, and Doing

The National Animal Rights March for 2021 was organized by members of the group Animal Rebellion, and took place in London last Saturday afternoon. The starting-place was Smithfield, the UK’s largest wholesale and retail meat market. With its long history of cruelty and violence, and its setting in London’s centre of finance, the City, representing the rule of the money-interest, this was a very well-chosen venue. In fact it was here, in October last year, that Animal Rebellion set up their plant-based market alternative, beautifully picturing the one viable food-future open to us. And even the more general Extinction Rebellion campaign, radical and eloquent as that is, evidently needs this persuasion. Its current leaflet, as distributed at Smithfield, puts second-to-last, in its ‘What can I do?’ list, ”cutting down on meat”. A placard at Saturday’s march stated the case more accurately and urgently: “Go Vegan, or Go Extinct”.

Smithfield banner

The route for the march took in three stopping-points at noted counter-vegan institutions. There was Cargill, for instance, whose holdings and own operations make it the largest (in the sense most profitable) food business in the world. Despite its plant-leaf logo, tastefully topping the ‘i’ in its name, this company controls the impoverished lives and violent deaths of billions of animals every year. Animal Rebellion calls Cargill the “silent giant”, and certainly it keeps itself anonymous at its London headquarters, 77 Queen Victoria Street. Like so many companies, it prefers to boast about its work (“committed to helping the world thrive) in the nowhere-land of the internet. By the way, the italics for ‘thrive’ are Cargill’s own, so you can see how earnestly sincere it is about this aim.

Then there was the Marine Stewardship Council, round the corner at Snow Hill (the police running ahead of the march to guard the doors at each next stop). This is an organization whose “vision . . . is of the world’s oceans teeming with life”. Plunderable life, that is, for the MSC’s hope is that, by not over-fishing, we can make “seafood supplies” (sometimes known as fishes) lastingly available “for this and future generations”. Our speaker outside Cargill’s offices, Tim Bailey, had told us that the pain of slaughter, however small the animal, was “exactly the same”. This assertion was quoted in news reports, perhaps because it feels like an over-statement or at least tendentious. But we don’t have to know whether it’s true or not, for the right to live is certainly nothing to do with large or small. And therefore the speaker outside the MSC’s headquarters, Laila Kassam, quite properly re-defined ‘over-fishing’ as any fishing”.

March at MSC

One of the founding organizations for the MSC was Unilever, whose offices were the march’s first stop. This is another giant enterprise, which hoovers up successful brands, mainly cosmetics and foods, and makes their profits its own. Most of the conventional ice-creams one’s heard of, for instance, seem to belong to Unilever, for of course it’s not a vegan-friendly enterprise. It is, however, publicly committed to animal-free research (“we do not agree that animal testing is necessary to assure the safety of our products.”), and it posts an interesting video on Youtube about modern alternatives (linked in the notes below). It’s even been commended for its research policy by PETA.

However, as Animal Rebellion says, Unilever sells its products in countries whose governments require animal tests even for cosmetics – notably China – and the enormous volume of Unilever’s international trade therefore ensures that it’s still implicated in animal testing on a large scale. Unilever claims that “Doing good sits at the heart of everything we do”, but it’s the shareholders whom it aims to do good to first of all, something which a march round the City’s money-shuffling institutions makes more than usually obvious. And I doubt that those ice-creams, beverages, shampoos, soaps, and detergents, in so many varieties of packaging but otherwise insignificantly differing within their categories, do anything like as much good for their consumers. Certainly they aren’t worth the life of a single animal.

There are two other reasons for being wary of Unilever’s claims. One is that its newer animal-friendly values come after a very unpleasant history of vivisection. Work being done in the 1970s at Unilever’s own laboratories in Bedford was instanced by Richard Ryder in his pioneering book Victims of Science (the testing of shampoos and soaps in the eyes of rabbits). The same establishment was the scene of a mass raid and exposé by activists in 1984. In the trials which followed that event, one judge called the defendants “enemies of society”, and 25 of them were sentenced to a total of 41 years of imprisonment. More recently, in 2013, Unilever was one of a number of large food businesses said to be testing foods and drinks on animals, in order to justify health-claims.

The second reason for wariness is the bumptious jargon in which the company speaks to its public. “Our philosophy is quite simple,” we’re told: “Live from the Heart!” This is the explanation of “our heart-shaped logo . . . a sign that says ‘here there’s joy!’” How could one possibly trust this sort of sickening hyperbole, or suppose that anyone actually working at Unilever takes it seriously? The similarity of style with Cargill’s gush about “helping the world thrive, or the Marine Stewardlship Council’s vision of “teeming” oceans, reminds us that addressing the public on any aspect of Unilever’s business is a specialism within the company, a profession in itself; this is not the company’s collective voice, not even the voice of the company board. The heart-on-sleeve sentiment is just the fashion of the moment in public relations. It says nothing informative about the reality behind it, and certainly doesn’t underwrite that. Therefore the ethic which first persuaded Unilever and other such businesses away from animal-testing needs to be kept clearly in their sight, and they need to be kept in ours. That was the purpose of the mass visit on Saturday.

Nobody could put the case, or represent it in person, more authentically than the speaker at that point, Mel Broughton. As he told us, he has been putting and living the case for forty years and more: “I’ve seen some terrible things in my time.” In fact he was there at the 1984 raid on Unilever’s laboratories. Not that Mel was making a personal claim for attention. It’s the mark of his commitment to non-human animals that he’s simply purged of vanity and self-interest: a remarkable lesson in personality. And anyway, Mel’s immediate theme was not the past, or even Unilever’s reformed present, but today’s front line in anti-vivisection: the beagle-breeding establishment in Cambridgeshire called MBR Acres (the initials stand for the American owner, Marshal Bio-Resources).

Mel speaking

MBR Acres looks like a factory farm, and that’s indeed what it is, holding about 2000 animals at any one time in sheds with no outdoor runs. The dogs – beagles, because they are small and biddable, indeed trusting – are kept in a germ-free environment, and trained to accept inhalation-masks and injections. Then at 16 weeks or so, they are put into crates and transported to laboratories near and far for use in research. MBR beagles must have constituted a majority of the 4340 dogs used in British research last year, mostly for ‘repeated dose toxicity’ tests. These testing regimes may last for periods of less than 28 days, or up to and beyond 90 days. Such periods represent the likely remaining life-span of the MBR dogs, though some of them survive for re-use. The ordinary life-span of a beagle is twelve years or more. Yes, this is factory farming all right; it’s just that the dogs are being force-bred to be poisoned rather than eaten.

There’s a ‘Camp Beagle’ outside MBR Acres, protesting against, and as far as possible obstructing, the operations. Mel Broughton described the scene, with police crowding at the site entrance, and police vans escorting the MBA vehicles as they carry the dogs away: “We could hear those dogs crying in the back.” There are several videos online showing all this, in one of which can be heard a human crying too, a terrible addition to the distress. Film-clips also show the animals inside the facility, being crated and stacked in the vans. It was film of MBR Acres which is said to have shocked the Home Secretary, Priti Patel. She has demanded a re-examination of the use of animals in research, with a view to their eventual replacement. Very probably this project will fade into oblivion, as most progressive political schemes do. And anyway, as Mel said, “We’ve waited long enough, for 40 or 50 years . . . This has to end now, and we have to be the ones to do it . . . What all these animals want is liberation, and you are the people who will deliver that liberation. Don’t give in. Believe in what you’re doing.”

Mel Broughton is a most forceful public speaker, using no notes, prompted only by conviction and purposefulness. But as another notable speaker, Prime Minister David Lloyd George, said, “the finest eloquence is that which gets things done.” Can speaking, or even marching, get things done? Well, they do get things noticed, get things minded, and get things intended. Without those preliminaries, nothing collective gets done; with them, liberations have indeed been achieved in the past, and this of the animals surely can be too. But as Animal Rebellion says, “We must act now, before it is too late. It’s time to rebel for all life.”

Notes and references:

Animal Rebellion describes its 2020 occupation of Smithfield Market, and its thinking generally, in an excellent post here: https://animalrebellion.org/love-and-fruit-in-the-time-of-catastrophe-animal-rebellion-converts-smithfield-meat-market-into-smithfield-beet-market/

Animal Rebellion has published an open letter to Cargill here: https://animalrebellion.org/cargill-family-a-historic-choice-is-upon-you-planetary-destruction-or-climate-animal-and-human-justice/

The Marine Stewardship Council’s policies are described on its web-site here: https://www.msc.org/about-the-msc/what-is-the-msc

Unilever’s policy on safety-testing is presented here: https://assets.unilever.com/files/92ui5egz/production/5f08c41a40e03128d79e5a6161da28b5adb2c507.pdf/alternative-approaches-to-animal-testing.pdf  and the video showing the modern alternatives is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tJWG3YCXT0Y  Its earlier work is mentioned in Richard Ryder, Victims of Science, Davis-Poynter, 1975, pp.48-9, and a description of the 1984 raid and subsequent trials is given in Keith Mann’s From Dusk ‘til Dawn, Puppy Pincher Press, 2007, pp.87-91. The BUAV’s exposé of Unilever and others in 2013 was published in the Daily Mail, as archived here: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2345276/Food-giants-Nestle-Unilever-caught-animal-testing-scandal.html

MBR Acres is shown at work in a video made by Free the MBR Beagles here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1K08pAr_NvQ  Other material about it, and about Camp Beagle and the campaign, can be seen here: https://www.facebook.com/campbeagle199/

Lloyd George is quoted from a speech given at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, and reported in the Times for 20 January. The quotation has been used before in this blog on 26 August 2019 for the post ‘March of a Nation’.

The final quotation from Animal Rebellion comes from a general account of its 2021 actions here: https://animalrebellion.org/rebellion/

The photographs show the march setting out from Smithfield Market, the stop outside the Marine Stewardship Council (with police and pink octopus at the entrance), and Mel Broughton speaking outside Unilever’s headquarters.

No Duty More Imperative upon the House

Finally a bill has come before the UK Parliament which expressly recognizes animals as “sentient beings”. The concept – or rather, fact – had been established in European Union law by the Lisbon Treaty of 2009, and therefore was a part of what was lost with Brexit. Now it’s been re-introduced in the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill, published earlier this month and due to be debated first in the House of Lords on 16 June.

Of course the acknowledgement of sentience in other animals has been implicit in animal welfare law from the beginning and yet apparently thought compatible with such glaring maltreatment over the years as vivisection and factory farming. Nor did putting the idea into the open in the Lisbon Treaty seem to do animals themselves much good. Still, the new proposal does (or may) take the matter a good deal further. Its long title is ‘A Bill to make provision for an Animal Sentience Committee with functions relating to the effect of government policy on the welfare of animals as sentient beings’. This committee is to be a permanent institution, watching for, and publishing reports on, any government policy, planned or being put into effect, which the Committee considers “might have an adverse effect on the welfare of animals as sentient beings.” To any such report, the government is required to respond within three months, and then to pay “all due regard” to its recommendations “in any further formulation or implementation of the policy”.

Section 5 of the Bill, titled ‘Interpretation’, defines the word animal (“any vertebrate other than homo sapiens, though invertebrate species may subsequently be added) and also vertebrate itself, but not the word due (so we won’t know how much regard is required), nor the key word sentience. But this last word is anyway being continually enriched with meaning, and the Bill will presumably have to grow with it. For instance, since 2016 there’s been an excellent peer-reviewed journal devoted to the subject and titled Animal Sentience, and the London School of Economics recently announced a five-year project of research on ‘the Foundations of Animal Sentience’. Even the trendy habit of using the short form ‘ASent’ is probably a promising sign of growth. As the LSE says, “In recent years, an interdisciplinary community of animal sentience researchers . . . has begun to emerge.”

Although there’s something dismal about the phrase “interdisciplinary community”, the thing itself must be good in this case; I’ve yet to come across research which shows any species of animal less sentient than previously thought. And the really significant advance represented by the Bill is that the interests of these sentient animals will have to be taken into account across all government activity, whether existing law covers them or not. In conservation matters, for instance, not just net gains and losses of various animals will have to be considered, but the felt harms or benefits involved for them. There’s a genuine moral advance here, supposing it’s properly applied.

The Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill is part of the UK government’s larger Action Plan for Animal Welfare (note the cute initials: can it have been intentional?). The Plan includes various other promises, including an end to exporting of live farm animals, better labelling of animal-derived products, better protection for “sporting animals” (a curious expression), an end to the keeping of primates as pets, and many other improvements. Some of these are already in hand: higher sentences for cruelty to animals will come into effect on 29 June. Other promises are noticeably tentative. As to a ban on the importation of all and any animal furs, for instance: “we will explore potential action in this area” (I count three put-offs in that sentence). Animals in research get a bit of both, the promise essentially being to stand still, or “continue to commit to maintaining high standards of protection”.

The Secretary of State responsible for the Action Plan is George Eustice, who made the Plan public on 12 May during a visit to the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home. He began his speech there with the inevitable words “We are a nation of animal lovers.” The familiar boast (critiqued elsewhere in this blog) is not well-evidenced by that chosen setting, a poignant asylum in South London for abandoned pets, but at least there’s more to it than patriotism on this occasion. The Action Plan expresses several times the intention to “take the rest of the world with us” in setting higher standards of animal welfare, and to make that intention felt in trade and other international dealings. I’d say that the phrase “animal lovers”, especially without a hyphen, is more likely to raise a foreign smirk than do much persuading. In a parliamentary speech which George Eustice made in 2018 during a debate on the testing of cosmetics, he spoke in similarly sentimental terms: “Animal welfare is dear to my heart, and dear to all our hearts.” Let’s hope that the UK’s “international advocacy on animal welfare” will be put across with more ethical force.

In George Eustice’s introduction to the Action Plan, the ‘nation of animal-lovers’ claim is supported with a reference to the world’s first law for the protection of animals, the Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act of 1822. That law was certainly a momentous achievement: as one MP said at the time, it “consecrated the principle, that animals ought to be protected by legislative interference.” But it can’t be seen as a typical product of the national character. It followed a series of thwarted attempts to persuade Parliament to do something for animals, and was itself followed by similarly defeated bills aimed at extending its protections to other domesticated animals. The Act’s sponsor, Richard Martin (incidentally an Irishman, MP for Galway), was a stubborn and pugnacious personality; he really did have ethical force. His face shows as much (see below) – the stubbornness and force at least. Without them he surely wouldn’t have been able to bring his 1822 Bill through to success.

Martin's Act trial

The primary means of opposition in the House of Commons was that most destructive of its weapons, ridicule. Reports of the debates on the Bill, and on the various amendments to widen and enforce its measures which Martin tried to introduce in the following years, are punctuated with “laughter”, “loud laughter”, “noise and laughter”. MPs would ask him why he didn’t include other species, whose mere mention they thought would tend to bring his project into contempt and ridicule: asses, hares, cats, rats, lobsters. Something of the attitude is suggested in a contemporary painting which imagines a donkey giving evidence in court of offences against the 1822 Act committed by his master (the young man to his left, cocking a snook). The title was The Trial of Bill Burn, under Martin’s Act, and it illustrated a comic song of the period on that theme: “If I had a donkey wot wouldn’t go / D’ye think I’d wollop him? No, no, no!” I read those repeated no’s as sarcastic, but at any rate the picture (shown here reproduced in a print) has everyone except the principals enjoying a good laugh.

Sometimes Martin spoke angrily about this hilarity and the “invidious sarcasms” thrown at his proposals: “The learned gentleman may laugh,” a parliamentary report has him saying to the Attorney General, “and no doubt he considered him and his case as a fit subject for ridicule, but he could tell him it was not a matter of ridicule elsewhere.” But he was never punctured. He was witty himself, and could turn the jokes his own way. When Martin was trying to have bull-baiting and cock-fighting prohibited, the Home Secretary, Robert Peel, argued that upper class field sports were just as ‘cruel’ (implying that nobody would think of putting them down); good, replied Martin, then they too should be banned, and “he did, therefore, call on the Home Secretary to do so, and to begin the salutary reformation by recommending to the King, whose adviser he was, to put down the royal hunt, and dismiss the royal stag-hounds.”

At other times, Martin would check the frivolity of MPs by giving them instances of the cruelty and barbarity which he had seen or been told of. One of these concerned the physiological lectures then being given in London by the French professor Francois Magendie, involving “most horrid and most wanton” experiments on dogs. This attack on a distinguished visitor caused some indignation, and Martin was told anyway that he’d got the facts wrong. His answer was reported thus: “he knew that what was spoken in that House was privileged from the action of libel; but he desired, in order to decide the real merits of the question, that such an action might be brought, and with the view of enabling professor Magendie to commence the action, and to obtain evidence to support it, he had gone down that day to St Bartholomew’s hospital, and had there repeated the statement, as nearly as possible in the terms in which he had before made it in that House.”

It was a characteristic performance. In 1824, Martin wanted to amend the Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act so as to authorize members of the public actively to apprehend a person seen ill-treating an animal, rather than just reporting them. It was Martin’s own habit to do so, and that same Attorney-General spoke in the House against the proposal thus: “He knew from the zeal which the hon. Member had heretofore displayed in the cause of humanity, that not a week would elapse before he would be forced into some desperate conflict in attempting to enforce the law.”

Martin was nick-named ‘Humanity Dick’, and it needs adding that his ‘humanity’ was not solely directed towards the welfare of non-human animals. Human distresses, including slavery and the sufferings of debtors, engaged his energies too. It seems that he sometimes paid the fines of those whom he had brought into the courts under his Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act. After all, the punishment of individuals was incidental; what he aimed at was a change of attitude and practice. And in fact that change, so a fellow-MP could say already in 1825, “might be seen in every market in London.”

Richard Martin

In 1826, Martin’s own debts obliged him to take refuge in France, where he remained for the last years of his life. He wasn’t a saint-like man. I can find no talk from him about loving animals or any other such touching rhetoric. But there was blatant abuse of animals in the streets and the cattle markets of Britain, and he persuaded the state that it should take notice and action. He wasn’t able to build on that success himself, but the principle was established. He encountered all those improvised objections, in their earliest vigour, that we still hear in their antiquity (being now employed, for instance, against legislating for sentience): it’s impossible to administer such laws; there are other more important laws to deal with first; they’ll hurt the poor; where will it stop (with cats, oysters, insects?); a different set of animals is more deserving (i.e. put it off); and of course ridicule. Martin faced all these down, and after those few years of harassing Parliament on this subject, his achievement is reflected in this momentous statement reported in the speech of another MP, John Maxwell: “There was no duty, he [Maxwell] conceived, more imperative upon the House than that of affording protection to animals.”

Astonishing to see that being said nearly 200 years ago! And correspondingly puzzling and dismaying that there is still so much to do. At any rate, now is a good moment (George Eustice was right in this) to recall and feel gratitude towards the man who forced a reluctant nation to make a start – not on loving animals, fine and proper as that may well be, but on treating their feelings and interests with the respect due to those of all sentient beings.

Notes and references:

The text of the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill (it’s very short) can be found here: https://bills.parliament.uk/bills/2867  The Action Plan for Animal Welfare is here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/action-plan-for-animal-welfare/action-plan-for-animal-welfare

The LSE’s sentience research project is announced here: https://www.lse.ac.uk/cpnss/research/ASENT

The 2018 cosmetics debate is reported in Hansard’s parliamentary records here: https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/2018-05-01/debates/7F5EB22D-EA66-4F29-8A8E-339DDF7093BE/CosmeticsTestingOnAnimals The quotations from speeches made in debates in which Richard Martin was involved between 1821 and 1826 are reported in Hansard and linked here: https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/people/mr-richard-martin-1/index.html

The post in this blog which discusses the phrase and notion ‘animal-lover’ is here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2018/08/20/love-talk/

Apart from online material, there are good accounts of the life and character of Richard Martin in E.S.Turner’s excellent All Heaven in a Rage (Michael Joseph, 1964) and in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (OUP, 2004, also online), whose entry on Martin is written by Richard Ryder.

The portrait of Richard Martin is a print from a painting in the collection of the RSPCA, of which (as the SPCA) Martin himself was one of the founding members in 1824. The aquatint from a painting, Trial of Bill Burn, was apparently made in the late 1830s. More details about it, including a version of the song from which the quotation above is taken, can be found online here: https://www.georgeglazer.com/wpmain/product/history-law-animal-rights-trial-antique-print-london-mid-19th-century/

An Oxford Story

Fifty years ago Oxford, like many other universities, was going through a phase of political restlessness and dissent, at least among its students and younger dons. National and local controversies made themselves felt on Oxford’s walls in graffiti of an anti-establishment kind. ‘F– Franks’ was painted in giant letters on the wall of Keble College, in reference to the recent Franks Report on the University’s governance. Balliol’s west wall was used as a lively social medium for opinions and protests. World peace, socialism, anarchism, and other noble futures were declared imminent with priggish self-confidence in countless rooms and halls: “the revolution’s here”, as the hit song said in the summer of 1969.

In all this, of course, the animal theme had almost no part. There was a University Vegetarian Society, but then there was a society for almost every strange interest. College kitchens would provide an omelette as the all-purpose meat-alternative for the very few who wanted it. As for veganism: the 1969 Oxford Dictionary addenda of new words was recognizing hippy, fuzz, and drop-out, but still not including vegan, though that word had been in use since 1944. Academically too, the theme was invisible. The study of philosophy at Oxford was mainly devoted to linguistic analysis, ‘talk about talk’. Moral Philosophy involved discussion of key concepts such as ‘good’, and ‘duty’ in the abstract, or there was ‘meta-ethics’, which questioned whether our moral judgements had any communicable validity or were merely expressions of personal feeling, the consensus being in favour of the latter interpretation. Of applied ethics, a staple of philosophy departments nowadays, there was no official teaching at all.

As to the life-sciences, this was almost certainly the most profligate period so far in the University’s hundred-year history of vivisection (but no numbers were published, or even perhaps kept). The back parts of the physiology building smelled of distressed animals, and experiments using cats and monkeys in careless quantities were routine. After all, Oxford was a centre of vivisection in a nation which was at this time using about five million animals a year in its laboratories. To supervise all this, the Home Office was providing eleven inspectors.

Then in the Hilary Term of 1970 those same numbers were advertised in a remarkable leaflet composed by Richard Ryder and distributed by him round Oxford’s churches, schools, shops, and colleges. The witty and prodding text introduced the concept and word ‘speciesism’ (Ryder’s invention). Readers were told something about the practice and ethics of vivisection, and urged to contact “MPs, professors, editors about this increasingly important moral issue.” It was a heroic individual effort by someone who, as a psychiatrist working at Oxford’s Warneford Hospital, was taking a professional risk with it. And the University, in the person of Professor of Pharmacology William Paton, did indeed complain to the Warneford authorities about Ryder’s campaigning.

But there was by now a small band of people at Oxford, mostly post-graduate students, who shared Ryder’s concerns. Their thinking and their discussions were genuinely counter-cultural, as opposed to the ubiquitous bolshevism of student fashion, and together with Ryder they would soon produce an even more notable publication, the collection of essays titled Animals, Men and Morals (1971). This daring and momentous book would revive animal rights as a serious public controversy after a long period of disuse, and show also, by example, that the claims of animals deserved the attention of academic philosophers.

This ‘Oxford Group’ (again, Ryder’s coinage) numbered ten people – three married couples and four others – though for their book they had help and contributions from several other people from outside Oxford who were already involved in animal protection. How these ten met, and how they collectively created in that inhospitable Oxford environment (even today it’s not an animal-friendly scene) a corpus of thought which still reads with subversive power, is now the subject of a full-length book, The Oxford Group and the Emergence of Animal Rights: an Intellectual History, by Robert Garner and Yewande Okuleye. This book Ox Group coverrecords, mainly through interviews with former members of the Group, the key relationships and influences, the discussions and the shared meals, through which their moral convictions took considered form. It’s oral history, then, and there is vivid and extensive quotation, with many telling moments recorded: the ethical ‘epiphanies’; the dietary adventures (“Peter and Renata for dinner. Protoveg stroganoff, noodles, peas, olives, white wine. Nice visit.” says a diary entry); the slightly bashful demonstrations outside St Michael’s Church in central Oxford (Richard Ryder was the only natural activist among them at that time); the intellectual walks, including the one that took two of them past the body of a bird, killed by traffic (“If that were a dead person . . . they wouldn’t just leave the body beside the road”).

That last quotation is from the recollections of Peter Singer, but the speaker and acting moral tutor at the time was Stanley Godlovitch, who had been already a convinced vegetarian when he came to Oxford from Canada in 1968, and was accordingly a key persuader. But yes, Singer naturally has a leading part in the book. He arrived slightly later than the others. Animals, Men and Morals was already in the making, and he did not contribute, but his review of it later on for the New York Review of Books led to his own Animal Liberation (1975), a more compelling title and in time a much more successful book. Accordingly Singer rose professionally with the subject more than any of the others, going their own various ways as they did.

However, it’s one of the merits of The Oxford Group that it shows the collectivity of the ideas at that time and re-distributes their ownership (as Singer himself, least arrogant of celebrated thinkers, very willingly does in his interviews for the book). In particular it highlights the importance of Richard Ryder, less famous now than Singer but in fact a hero of the animal rights movement, who in any other sphere of the UK’s public life would surely have been honoured in some way by the state for his services.

Then there was Roslind Godlovitch. Like her husband Stanley, Roslind was a strong persuasive influence on Singer and the others. She had already published a pioneering article in the journal Philosophy, which she adapted for her chapter in Animals, Men and Morals. This is a witty and polemical piece, still illuminating and authoritative now. She contemplates the contemporary ethical notion that, although animals should be protected from suffering when possible, their lives in themselves have no moral value, and she subjects it to a contemptuous reductio ad absurdum, showing that our logical course should therefore be “to exterminate all animal life.” She then suggests, much as Jonathan Swift might have done, how governments and charities could collaborate to achieve this end. But in fact, as she says with moving absoluteness, “there is nothing to indicate that an animal values its life any less than a human being values his” (the ‘his’ is perhaps of its period; the statement itself is surely for all time). Roslind Godlovitch, who discontinued her post-graduate research and wrote nothing further about animal ethics, is one of the five members of the Oxford Group to whom Singer dedicated Animal Liberation.

Richard Garner, the lead author of The Oxford Group, is a notable and well-published proponent of animal rights. In particular he has argued, as a political scientist, for the incorporation of animal interests in the political system. But for this study of ideas he has expressly chosen to be impartial as to the quality of the arguments involved: “agnostic” is the term he uses. That seems wise for a historian and interviewer, and the arguments speak adequately and indeed passionately for themselves, or rather for the personalities who are recorded as proposing them. But Garner has gone further and cast the whole story as a sociological study, illustrating “the social construction of knowledge”, or how humans collaborate to create ideas and give them currency.

It makes for a clear organizing principle, certainly, but I would say also an unfortunate one. It’s not just that the dead hand of sociological jargonizing lies heavily upon some parts of the text, but I shall take that first. It especially affects the opening chapter, which lays out the theoretical machinery and will surely tend to alienate the common reader and doom the book to the shelves of university libraries (though the price may do that anyway). For instance this, by way of providing some theory for the interviews: “The dynamics of an oral history interview is usually centred around the intersubjectivity between the interviewer and interviewee.” I choose this sentence partly as a sample of sociology’s habit of disguising the patently obvious in nebulous abstracts, and partly to illustrate the baleful influence which this habit of abstract diction has on ordinary nearby English: “dynamics is”? “”centred around”?

But perhaps more unfortunate is the incongruity between this study-bound theory and the energy, urgency, and sense of revelation which (as the book clearly shows us) animated the members of the Oxford Group. That encounter with the dead bird, for instance, so immediate and also so emblematic (Albert Schweitzer saw a dead insect as both a lesson and a real presence in just the same way), is part of a section intended to illustrate “the Role of the Gatekeepers”. That’s “in Farrell’s terminology”, Professor Michael Farrell being the chief supplier of sociological theory to the book – and the reader comes to dread his name, academically distinguished as it no doubt is.

I would finally add that, as David Wood argues in his chapter of Animals, Men and Morals, jargon is a notorious enemy of clear moral awareness. He titles the chapter ‘Strategies’ (i.e. strategies to conceal what’s really happening to animals) and shows how “a huge pattern of jargon” has been deployed with great success to obscure the realities of meat and dairy production. Again, therefore, the use of this sort of abstract and distancing language in The Oxford Group is painfully incongruous.

Still, the story easily escapes this theoretical cage, and it’s a fascinating, exciting, and moving story, whose importance is growing all the time. In his ‘Postscript’ to Animals, Men and Morals, Patrick Corbett (of Balliol, but by 1970 a professor at Sussex) says “we want to change the world.” How many of the restless spirits at Oxford in the late 1960s were thinking and saying that! So many of their projects came to nothing, and often enough it’s just as well they did. But here was one that most fortunately did not. Sadness we must feel that it continues to be relevant and urgent fifty years on, but profound gratitude too for the originality and fervour of that band of ten – and of course gratitude also, despite my carping, towards the authors who have now given the Oxford Group its proper history.

Notes and references:

The Oxford Group and the Emergence of Animal Rights: an Intellectual History, by Robert Garner and Yewande Okuleye, is published by Oxford University Press, price £47.99. Please note that the date of publication was 17 December 2020, and this review of it uses a proof copy only. There will have been changes, and accordingly I don’t give page references.

The song quoted is Thunderclap Newman’s ‘Something in the Air’, which was top of the hit parade for a while in July 1969, but Bob Dylan’s ‘Times They Are a-Changin’, with its stern advice to “mothers and fathers . . . don’t criticize what you don’t understand”, would summarize the outlook just as well.

The new words are listed in the ‘Addenda’ to the 4th edition of the Little Oxford Dictionary, OUP, 1969.

The text of Richard Ryder’s 1970 leaflet is provided at pp. 44-5. Professor Paton later wrote a defence of animal research, Man and Mouse: Animals in Medical Research, OUP, 1984.

Animals, Men and Morals, edited by Stanley and Roslind Godlovitch, was published by Victor Gollancz. Quotations are from pp. 168 and 164 (Godlovitch chapter), 199 (David Wood), and 232 (Patrick Corbett). Contributors from outside the Oxford Group included Ruth Harrison, Brigid Brophy (who partly organised the project), Muriel Lady Dowding, and Maureen Duffy.

An Impulse to Break Open Cages: the Life and Works of Brigid Brophy

Hackenfeller’s Ape, Brigid Brophy’s first novel, was published in 1953 when she was in her mid-twenties. The setting is London Zoo, where humans and the world’s other animals come artificially face to face, and the book is all about that encounter, in particular the wrongs of it, not just of zoos, but of that whole power relationship which zoos make visible, also audible and smellable (“an odour shabby, seedy, somehow disgraceful: the smell of the caged animals.”). Wrongs, because humans, so far from having any special claim to the world, are themselves just another species participating in the great zoo of life. And the book presents them zoologically from the first, dispassionately noting their “characteristic calls”, “high degree of social organisation” and “courting rites”, none of it especially pleasing.

The hero of the novel – a professor of zoology and therefore well-placed to appreciate all this – is there to study the “courting rites” of the two Hackenfeller’s Apes. But when he learns that Percy (some “facetious spirit” having given the male ape this name) has been marked down as test passenger in a forthcoming space-shot, he rebels. Finding no support from his university, or from the press, or even at an anti-vivisection charity (these efforts are referred to as “field work in the habitat of Mankind”), he devises “an act of liberation” for Percy. It’s also an emblematic action, a model, in the professor’s imagination, for a comprehensive “exodus of the animals” from their confinements. That would cause havoc, certainly, “but he doubted if they would destroy as much as Man did.” Then his dream enlarges; he imagines breaking open prisons, even leading the damned out of Dante’s inferno, “up from their sunless circles to carry the gates by storm”. He pictures with exhilaration “the liberated march of elephant, petty thief and damned soul.”

Of course things don’t turn out quite as he plans. I’ll say a little more about that later.

Hackenfeller’s Ape won the Cheltenham Literary Prize in 1954 (Iris Murdoch’s Under the Net came second). Brigid Brophy went on to write several more novels, two plays, book-length studies of Mozart, of the artist Aubrey Beardsley, and of the novelist Ronald Firbank, a huge Freudian analysis of the human will to destroy (Black Ship to Hell, 1962), and countless essays and reviews. Something of that vision of general liberation is there in all that she wrote. In fact, in her writings and in her public life she was one of the makers of the 1960s and of the liberationist thinking which was the period’s ideological legacy.

She called herself “an impartial Lefty”, meaning impartial as to species, and it was especially in the case of the animals that Brigid Brophy was a maker of that era. Her Sunday Times article of October 1965, titled ‘The Rights of Animals’, effectively founded the modern animal rights movement (the article’s 50th anniversary was celebrated in this blog: see notes below). From it can be traced the revolutionary book Animals, Men and Morals (“we want to change the world”, said Patrick Corbett in its ‘Postscript’). To that book Brophy contributed a chapter mainly about vivisection, arguing – and she was a ferociously rational arguer – for a “Declaration of Independence on Behalf of the other Animals”, on the model of the human-centred one of 1776. The book was reviewed in the New York Review of Books by Peter Singer, who then wrote his own book, the text that came to define the movement (more of that in a minute): Animal Liberation was published in 1975, and has been in print ever since.

And now at last there is a book about Brigid Brophy herself, giving proper attention to all the various contributions she made to the intellectual culture of her times. Brigid Brophy: Avant-Garde Writer, Critic, Activist is a collection of essays by academics, fellow-writers, and fellow-campaigners, with lastly a moving account by her daughter, Kate Levey, of Brophy cover 2the awful ordeal of Brophy’s last years with multiple sclerosis. Kate Levey believes that her mother has been not so much neglected since her death, as judged unpalatable and alien to our present “huge retreat from progress”.

That’s a view which Gary Francione confirms in his contribution, titled ‘”Il faut que je vive”: Brigid Brophy and Animal Rights’. The quotation from Voltaire is one that Brophy herself used in Animal, Men and Morals, to summarise her claim for the primacy of the “right to stay alive.” In Voltaire’s story, the famously sardonic come-back is “Je n’en vois pas la necessité” (‘I don’t see the necessity of it’). But to make that reply, as our own species does to the life-wishes of all the others, is to speak as a “tyrant”. That’s a characteristically political key word in Brophy’s animal rights lexicon. It summarizes here the way we arrogate to ourselves the right to put a value, or very often no value, on lives which can only properly be evaluated from the inside, by the animals living them. And we know that these animals do indeed value their lives, that to live means (except sometimes for humans) to wish and try to go on living. The motivations of pleasure and pain are in fact there to help this primary urge succeed. Life, then, is the essential and “self-evident” right, as that 1776 Declaration acknowledged.

Francione shows that the great Jeremy Bentham, founder of utilitarian ethics, did likewise deplore the tyranny (he used that word) of men over animals, on account of the suffering that it entailed. But because his ethical system was a matter of counting pleasures and pains only, Bentham saw no essential wrong in killing animals, provided the pain of it was minimized, since the humans “are so much the better for it” (here one can’t help picturing this overweight man at his dinner table).

So humans do effectively own the other animals and can dispose of their lives, provided always that the animals’ “interests” in happiness, while alive, are properly recognized. This is the line of thinking that Peter Singer used in Animal Liberation and has held to ever since. It is, says Francione (with some over-statement, I think), only “a more progressive version of the welfarist position”. He calls it “neo-welfarist” or “happy exploitation”. The epithet “father of the animal rights movement”, sometimes used for Peter Singer, is therefore inapt (as Singer himself would happily acknowledge), because he does not argue in terms of rights at all. Brigid Brophy did, and Francione ends wistfully by saying that “animals would have been so much better off with a movement that had one parent – a mother – Brigid Brophy.”

The book has one other essay about Brigid Brophy as animal advocate. It’s written by the long-time activist Kim Stallwood, and its main theme is angling, that most unapproachable of animal abuses. Brophy gave the inaugural address as patron of the newly-founded Council for the Prevention of Cruelty by Angling (CPCA) in 1981. I’m glad that Stallwood quotes plentifully from this address, for it shows not just the argument but the wit and combative force of this remarkable personality. And two points in particular she insists on in this speech, as she always did. The first is that we should waste no time comparing and contrasting varieties of maltreatment. Fishing was not a special case as a ‘sport’ or tradition; it was simply one part of the “feudal, indeed fascist, fantasy” of human entitlement in the world, which had to be confronted by a “pro-animals-in-general movement”.

The second point is that we ourselves will be the better for it, as we certainly aren’t, pace Bentham, for eating animals (Brophy herself had been a vegetarian since 1954, and went vegan in 1980). Note that Brigid Brophy never spoke of animals with the sort of facetious condescension which the professor of zoology detects in that name ‘Percy’. She therefore meant it when she envisioned “a civilized country for humans and fish to live in on terms of reciprocal non-aggression”: if there’s a witty incongruity somewhere in that, it’s exactly a reminder that we are abusing lives which were never a threat to ourselves. As later published in CPCA’s newsletter, Brophy’s speech at its inauguration was given the title ‘A Felicitous Day for Fish’ (which Stallwood uses for his chapter title too). But at the end, Brophy adds that the day “is also a felicitous day for humans”. In Hackenfeller’s Ape, the liberating of Percy goes disastrously wrong, and may mean ruin for the professor, but he’s – unsentimentally, unemphatically – a better man, on better terms with himself, at the end of the story. If his “act of liberation” were indeed made general, then we too would be saved.

As Kim Stallwood shows, the CPCA and its successors have had little success, so that his chapter, like Francione’s, involves some sense of disappointment. But that’s not the effect of the two chapters as a whole, still less of the whole book, which puts together a portrait of a brilliant creative force and intellectual warrior (she tells daughter Kate that she has “fought all my life for one thing or another”), a woman undefeated except finally by the cruel disease. And although her animal advocacy is here timetabled into the two chapters, it was never merely one topic among others to her. It was as much part of her awareness as animals are part of the world.

By way of illustration, one especially diverting chapter of the book gives an account of the art form that she and the poet Maureen Duffy invented (a distinctly 60s thing to do): they called it Prop Art, they wrote a ‘[Woman]ifesto’ for it, and in 1969 they held an exhibition of 55 works which they had created to demonstrate it. Prop Art used ready-made objects to form novel and persuasive images. One of the exhibits (it’s pictured in the book) consisted of a polystyrene head, from Peter Jones’s department store, set on a dinner plate with an onion in its mouth, a carrot on its crown, and other vegetable trimmings, all on a plate with carving knife and other utensils at the ready. The title was ‘Tête d’Homme Garnie’. As the exhibition’s press release noted, it may be a “horrific” image, but then “if you think liking the taste of meat justifies killing and eating animals, why not humans too?”

Or finally there’s the essay (not actually discussed in the book) which Brophy was invited to write for a volume published in 1988 by the Mauritshuis gallery in The Hague. It was Goldfinchone of the latest things which she wrote, an account of the painting by Carel Fabritius of a goldfinch. The painting was not then quite as celebrated as it has since become; the gallery’s own website now rather absurdly calls it “the most famous little bird in the history of art”. The suggestion is that the picture was done as a trompe l’oeil, so that, hung high on a wall, “it must have looked like a real little bird.” And indeed such birds “were often kept as pets in the seventeenth century” (the painting is dated 1654). Brigid Brophy provides her own scholarly reconstruction of the setting and purpose of this “deeply enigmatic” painting. She does not use, for the bird, that pet-minded word ‘little’; she says “small”, or “about the size of a goldfinch in real life”. And she argues that there was indeed a real-life goldfinch being imaged. Therefore the painting ought to be called a ‘portrait’, just as Titian’s painting of an unknown man in a similar or equivalent pose, part of the collection in London’s National Gallery (to whose director, Michael Levey, Brigid Brophy was married), is called a portrait. This is, then, a portrait of an unknown bird. It makes a difference to call it that. And then Brophy writes,

About the status of the bird that Fabritius depicted there is no puzzle. He is a captive and a slave. Probably some human claims to own him.

Thereafter, as she makes her art-historical study of the picture, she keeps this essential truth before us: she speaks of the “slave bird”, the “solitary captive goldfinch”, the “abused bird”. Finally the art-object itself seems to be conspiring in the careless cruelty which has been the theme of her essay, and we are left pondering “the existence, once, of a captive bird and the existence, now, of the image of the bird looking out from the picture that imprisons it.”

This was a woman who detested and fought arbitrary captivities of all kinds all her life, but especially those that have characterized human relations with the other animals. It’s time indeed to recall what we owe to her, and to enjoy and celebrate her creative intelligence and pioneering courage.

 

Notes and references:

Brigid Brophy: Avant-Garde Writer, Critic, Activist is edited by Richard Canning and Gerri Kimber, and was published in May 2020 by Edinburgh University Press (264 pp., £80). The book arises from a conference held at the University of Northampton on that anniversary date October 2015.

Quotations from Hackenfeller’s Ape, first published in 1953, are taken from the 1979 edition published by Alison and Busby, including the title of this post, which comes from p.81. There is also a Virago edition, 1991.

‘The Rights of Animals’ was first published in the Sunday Times in October 1965; the 50th anniversary of its publication is observed in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2015/10/11/brigid-brophy/  The essay was re-printed, with some additional observations, in Reads (Sphere Books, 1989). Reads also includes the piece ‘Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius’. There are other collections of the essays and reviews, and they’re well worth finding. Brophy’s reviews were highlights in the arts journals of her time.

Brigid Brophy’s chapter in Animals, Men and Morals (Gollancz, 1971) was titled ‘In Pursuit of a Fantasy’.

Jeremy Bentham is quoted from his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Justice, 1780, footnote to p.309 (but I’m not positive that this is accurate; it may be the 1789 edition).

What is this Folk that here thus Loudly Singeth?

Some years ago there was an evening vigil for laboratory animals outside the Home Office, the UK government department responsible (among many other things) for ‘animals in science’, which at that time occupied a suitably grim concrete edifice at Queen Anne’s Gate. For the handful of demonstrators, inconspicuous in the cold semi-dark of that building’s portals, it was a dreary enough experience. But there was one tonic episode when three or four people sang a verse of the familiar ‘Red Flag’ anthem, with lyrics re-composed for the purpose and including some ribald advice to the “white coats”. I’ve not heard the song again since then, though there was a series of such vigils, and the song must surely have been written down somewhere.

From time to time songs are more formally composed and recorded as ‘animal rights anthems’, or at least are received as such. A recording by the rapper Gaia’s Eye is actually titled ‘Anthem for Animals’ (“eat from the garden / And not from the graveyard!”), or there’s Prince’s ‘Animal Kingdom’ (“Leave your brothers and sisters in the sea!”). In fact a whole “play-list for the animal rights revolution” is made available by the organisation PETA on its Spotify channel, with about twenty-five tracks of varying age and relevance. PETA invites supporters to submit their own “favourite animal rights anthems” to swell the number.

The more of these the better, and some are written with obviously earnest commitment. But they can only be called ‘anthems’ in the restricted sense that they set to popular music the values of a cause or party, not in the sense that they can be put to popular use – or, as the Oxford Dictionary uninvitingly expresses it, “adopted by a nation, school, or other body, and performed at ceremonies and other official occasions”. The conventions of ordinary pop music – syncopated rhythms, strongly personal vocal sound, electrically mediated instrumentals – make it hopelessly unsuited to informal collective singing. It has even to some degree made that sort of singing seem awkward and antiquated.

A “new vegan anthem” is offered on the web-site Jane Unchained which does at least have a catchy chorus – “Go vegan, go vegan, go!” – to which we’re invited to “sing along”, and perhaps we really could. The video shows plenty of people doing that (including the former Meghan Markle), and the phrase was used as a chant during last year’s Official Animal Rights March in London. But it’s a hard-driving song, well-packed with words, and just for that reason would surely come to pieces if a large crowd attempted to sing it.

Well, does animal rights need an anthem in that dictionary sense? In order to suit an unrehearsed collective voice, such pieces have to be musically and lyrically unadventurous. They’re generally either hearty or dirge-like. The typical instances mentioned in the dictionary – national anthems and school songs – are mostly stuffy and embarrassing, and tend to discredit the whole idea. But perhaps that’s mainly because those collectives aren’t the ones that really need asserting or even ought to be asserted.

And there have been anthems that evidently worked as anthems should. The suffragette ‘March of the Women’ was one such. It was used with strong effect not only at those Songsheet of 'The March of the Women', 1911. Artist: Margaret Morris“ceremonies and other official occasions”, but whenever the collective spirit needed a boost. The conductor Thomas Beecham claimed to have seen Ethel Smyth, composer of the music, using a toothbrush to conduct “in almost Bacchic frenzy” a performance of the song by fellow-suffragettes in the quadrangle of Holloway Prison. The lyrics to it, by the suffragette Cicely Hamilton, aren’t very impressive. In fact they have a good deal of the school song about them (“Life, strife – these two are one, / Naught can ye win but by faith and daring./ On, on . . . etc.), and oddly enough they don’t mention women at all after the title itself. The point is that the singers meant them, or at least meant the collective event which they were part of. That’s where the frenzy came from.

The same is true but in a converse sense of ‘The Red Flag’. This socialist anthem borrowed its stirring tune – with less uplift but more heart than Ethel Smyth’s – from an old German song, ‘O Tannenbaum’. It was traditionally sung at the end of Labour Party conferences, as well as other party occasions. The lyrics no doubt seem more melodramatic now than they did at the time of writing (1889): “Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer . . . Come dungeons dark or gallows grim, / This song shall be our parting hymn.” Partly for this reason perhaps, but mainly because it was impossible for New Labour assemblies to mean the song, the tradition became an embarrassment to be avoided, until revived with some conviction more recently. Again, the success of the anthem depends on the health of the cause rather than the quality of the composition. That surely makes things relatively easy for an animal rights anthem.

Still, there do have to be words and music. The music, we’ve seen, can be borrowed: better so, since it won’t need learning. What about, for instance, one of the great hymns to liberation, Giussepe Verdi’s ‘Va, pensiero’, the chorus of the Hebrew slaves in his opera Nabucco (1841)? The words are a somewhat weak and sentimentalized version of the tragic and ferocious Psalm 137 (“By the rivers of Babylon . . .”). However, the power of Verdi’s music, scored for unison voices, and its theme, the longing for freedom, fixed the chorus at once as an anthem for the Italian liberation movement of the time, the Risorgimento. Given the very modest standard of lyric required for a successful anthem, it shouldn’t be hard to provide a text which enlarged the liberationist appeal of ‘Va, pensiero’ to include all sentient beings. It shouldn’t be, but I admit that I have tried without success. Something that is neither real poetry (choral singing would trample on its art) nor obvious doggerel (uninspiring and even a bit discreditable) is required, but I couldn’t hit it.

The words, then. There is, of course, a complete text already in existence for an animal rights anthem, composed by one of the great writers in English of the last century: the song ‘Beasts of England’ in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. The story being an allegory, this song, taught to the other farm animals by the boar Old Major, stands in for the socialist ‘Internationale’ of 1871. (The ‘Internationale‘ is itself a fine example of the anthem genre, showing that lyrics at their best can constitute a complete manifesto). But the book wouldn’t work as brilliantly as it does if Orwell hadn’t given the animals all he had of sympathy and imagination. And ‘Beasts of England’, which might have been done as a burlesque, is in fact composed with simplicity and conviction. The only comic touch, perhaps, is the mention of mangel-wurzels:

Riches more than mind can picture  Animal Farm
Wheat and barley, oats and hay,
Clover, beans, and mangel-wurzels,
Shall be ours upon that day.

But really there oughtn’t to be anything comical about what is, after all, a staple food of some farmyard animals. And in general the words are perfectly judged for an anthem – not fine poetry, but plain, metrically regular, heart-felt, and true to their situation, just waiting for the music to give them emotional force (Orwell suggests ‘O My Darling Clementine’):

Soon or late the day is coming,
Tyrant man shall be o’erthrown,
And the fruitful fields of
England
Shall be trod by beasts alone . . .

For that day we all must labour,
Though we die before it break;
Cows and horses, geese and turkeys,
All must toil for freedom’s sake.

But it’s a fairy story of course (that’s the book’s sub-title). In the ‘Internationale’ it made sense to say “Producteurs, sauvons-nous nous-mêmes!” [Workers, let us save ourselves!]. Animals might well say so too if they could, and Orwell’s fictional beasts do, but it might feel absurd to sing, on their behalf, what we know is impossible. We need an anthem which says “sauvons-les nous-mêmes”: it’s for us to save them.

Just singing anthems won’t get that done, I know, but music stores and makes at once available the collective purpose and those emotions that give it momentum. It’s therefore a valuable campaigning property. It’s also a public benefit, so that the determination and anger which must at least partly characterize any demonstration are made attractive or at least compelling rather than alienating to the people who happen to witness it.

Perhaps whoever wrote that verse for the Home Office vigil could try something more substantial and permanent? And yes, let it include not just the already ascendant and even fashionable vegan theme, but also zoos, circuses, hunting, and vivisection. Gaia’s Eye says “Don’t get me started / On experimentation”, but that’s all he does say, and other songs don’t seem to mention it. But it’s surely not dying out. An experimenter on monkeys at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics has recently announced his intention to escape EU regulations by moving his project to Shanghai, where a new International Center for Primate Brain Research will soon be making available up to 6000 non-human primates without irksome restrictions. A fellow neuroscientist remarks upon this “incredible progress” on China’s part, calling it “the positive side of a political system that is able to move very quickly”. Well, there always has been something totalitarian about vivisection, even in the West; it’s a one-species state for the animals, even where there are checks on its severity. “Tyrant man” in fact, and if he can’t, as a tyrant, be “o’erthrown” simply by singing, that’s at least one conspicuous way to remind ourselves and persuade others that “soon or late . . . he shall be”.

 

Notes and references:

The title is roughly modernized from the tenth-century Anglo-Saxon Blickling Homilies, published by the Early English Texts Society, 1967.

PETA’s list can be found here: https://www.peta.org/blog/peta-spotify-channel/

The Jane Unchained song is performed here: https://janeunchained.com/2019/03/15/sing-along-to-the-new-vegan-anthem/

The text of ‘March of the Women’ is published at http://www.sandscapepublications.com/intouch/marchwords.html. A description of its performance in Holloway Prison is provided by Thomas Beecham in an article about Ethel Smyth for the Musical Times, no.1385, July 1958, p.364, but he is quoted here from an article in the Daily Telegraph, 31 July 2008.

The chorus of the Hebrew slaves from Nabucco, as movingly performed at the New York Met in 2002, can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GS6L_9xUT5E (with sub-titles in Spanish).

A report of the move from Max Planck to Shanghai’s new primate research centre appears in the journal Science, 31 January 2020, pp.496-7.

The Animal Farm illustrations are from the cartoon version commissioned by the Foreign Office in 1950 from the artist Norman Pett and writer Donald Freeman (National Archives).

Free as a Bird

In the European Ceramics gallery of Oxford University’s Ashmolean Museum there is at present a “contemporary art installation” entitled A Nice Cup of Tea? The title is a pun of sorts, and the implied answer to the more serious sense of the question – has a cup of tea always been a nice, a fastidious, thing? – is ‘no’. In fact the aim of the show is to remind viewers who enjoy this refreshment ritual that “every sip connects us to the legacy of the British Empire, global trade and transatlantic slavery”, and in particular with “the brutal exploitation of enslaved people producing sugar in the West Indies. The art-work itself is in the suspended-bits style pioneered and made famous by the artist Cornelia Parker: a tea set has been broken into pieces (analysed, in fact; it’s a sort of visual pun) and hung on strings above a pile of crockery fragments and dust. cup of tea art.JPG

A notebook to one side is made available to visitors: “Please tell us what you think”, says the label. The pages were still blank when I was there: nothing to add, it seems. Or too much for the time and space, perhaps. After all, that dazzling gallery of eating and drinking equipment “connects us” to much more than the prizes and vices of Empire: it’s an index to human life and history. And if the Ashmolean’s curators have rightly spotted the shameful connections to slavery, they have yet to remark on the much more obvious and continuing reference to the non-human objects of our compulsive imperialism. It’s not just that most of this china was designed and used for eating animal parts and products from. Much of the charm, and sometimes beauty, of its designs derives from representations of animal life. (To only a slightly lesser extent, this is true of the whole Ashmolean Museum, and indeed of any art gallery.) The animal presence simply stares at you from all sides. And although the images are often made with affectionate attention, there’s no doubt who’s serving whom. Not only the real presence of animals in flesh and work provides for us, then; their mere forms minister, as ornaments, to our pleasure.

liberty figureFor instance: just to one side of the exploded tea-set installation, a showcase contains the figure of a man reaching up to release a bird (the piece was made in the eighteenth-century at the Bow factory in London). The man’s gesture has a sort of drunken licence about it: might it represent the traditional subversive fantasy of a world turned upside down – in this case, letting the animals go at last? No: the figure is indeed intended to represent liberty, but it’s the man’s liberty; the bird is only a symbol for the human experience. At the man’s feet is a ram, also there as a symbol (of virility), and a dog (of philandering?). The whole piece is in fact called ‘Liberty’, and was designed as a pair with its complement or opposite (not represented in the gallery) called ‘Matrimony’. The wretched bird, all too aptly stuck to the man’s up-reached hand, is just there to image the husband’s day-dream of sexual licence.

One can find this ‘free as a bird’ motif throughout art and literature (yes, and pop music), part of the larger habit of making non-human animals tell us our own story back again: a use for them, in fact. Often these images are very fine. The well-known poem by Siegfried Sassoon, ‘Everyone Sang’ (which is generally read as a response to the contemporary 1918 armistice, though Sassoon himself denied it was written as such), thoroughly deserves its place in national memory:

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on – on – and out of sight.

That word “must” at least shows that he allowed the birds their own mystery; he did not pretend to know them. But then of course the poem is not about them. The birds are there to illustrate a human feeling.

The release of poor Miss Flyte’s caged birds at the crisis of Charles Dickens’s novel Bleak House is likewise very moving, but that too is essentially symbolic – in her case, of liberation from the false hopes and ruinous toils of Chancery law.

In short, these thought-up birds all mean what we mean them to. Meanwhile real birds, birds as themselves, are “everywhere in chains” – in cages, at least – in order to please humans or (as instanced in some previous posts of this blog) to make some possible or merely notional contribution to our understanding of human physiology. It’s surely strange that, feeling this almost visceral communion with the flight of birds as humans commonly do, we should nevertheless deny flight to so many of them. A brief and informal study was recently made by Animals Australia of this phenomenon. Showing, in a series of impromptu interviews, that randomly selected people did have this sympathy, they juxtaposed it with the wretched statistic of 8.1 million caged ‘pet’ birds in that country. The short film ends with a definition of the phrase ‘cognitive dissonance’: “simultaneously holding two or more conflicting ideas, beliefs, values or emotional reactions”. It’s a human capacity or perversity which has made possible our present tragic relations not just with birds but with all the other animals.

So of course that famous opening statement of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract (1762) was about humans only: “Man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains.” And how many high-minded invocations of freedom have made it special to humans in just that way! Thus President Kennedy in his fine inauguration address, a locus classicus for the theme of liberty, was talking with all his ambitious expansiveness strictly about “the freedom of man”. And when the politician and diplomat Wendell Willkie wrote grandly, in his best-selling book One World (1943), that “Freedom is an indivisible word”, he meant, of course, within reason: indivisible as between us humans. And that’s the premise also, casual and undeliberate as it may be, of the Ashmolean Museum exhibition. Freedom – the valuation of it and the right to it – is really what divides humans from the rest of nature.

There’s a scene in Axel Munthe’s memoir The Story of San Michele (a book featured in this blog last month) where both these human habits – denying animals their freedom, and yet making them symbols of our own – are satisfyingly busted. During Easter week, it was the tradition in the village of Anacapri (and elsewhere, no doubt) to capture small birds in preparation for a special ritual on the Sunday: “For days, hundreds of small birds, a string tied round their wing, had been dragged about the streets by all the boys of the village.” At the Easter service, they were to be released as images of the resurrection. But not in practice given their freedom, because when let go “they fluttered about for a while helpless and bewildered, breaking their wings against the windows, before they fell down to die on the church floor.” So one Easter at daybreak Munthe puts a ladder up against the church and smashes the windows to let the birds fly out.

Like most direct actions, this was an imperfect victory: “only a very few of the doomed birds found their way to freedom” [309]. But for those birds at least it was real freedom, not a picture of it, or an idea about it. Just so when Mr Virtue, the parson in Flora Thomson’s memoir Still Glides the Stream, attends the village show: he knows that many wild birds are cruelly kept in cages by the villagers, but at least they are no longer proudly exhibited, as are the various rabbits, cats, and canaries, “because one year Mr Virtue, who judged the pet entries, had carried outside and released a skylark, and when its owner had complained had thrown the empty cage at him, swearing with many oaths unfitting for a Flower Show, that a man who was capable of robbing a little singing bird of its liberty should be sent to gaol for six months’ hard.”

Yes, an incomplete victory, but a real freedom, so that the visceral communion I mentioned earlier itself becomes real, an authentic sympathy rather than a romantic whim. When 1500 foxes were set free from a Scottish fur farm in 1976, one of the cage-breakers recalls as much: “It was like being liberated at the same time as the foxes.” [61] It’s a beautiful saying, and here we’re beginning to see that freedom is indeed morally indivisible, or as William Hazlitt said, love of liberty is love of others (love of the others, he might have said). And in fact that quotation about the foxes comes from a book which is a great testament to that indivisibility: Keith Mann’s 600-page history of the Animal Liberation Front titled From Dusk till Dawn (2007).

This most remarkable book chronicles the efforts of groups and individuals, from the 1970s to the early years of this century, to practise that love of others by actually liberating them, and implicating their own freedom in the endeavour. The book itself was begun in a prison, and as papers or discs it followed Keith Mann from prison to prison. So it’s not just a story of captivity and freedom, but a material product of this largely invisible but altogether real strain in modern society. It relates to the Ashmolean’s artistic meditation on slavery much as an escape bid relates to wringing your hands in the comfort of home (or for that matter, I’m afraid, writing prose like this about freedom). In one vivid and exemplary scene, “the prisoner Mann” (as the police report of the incident calls him) does indeed make his own escape bid, slipping from a police escort, jumping onto and over a twelve-foot gate, cycling off on a ‘borrowed’ bicycle, and then hiding up under a railway viaduct, all the while “chuckling intermittently to myself . . . I’d liberated myself and it felt great.” He stayed free for nearly a year, which he spent (of course) at an animal sanctuary.

That impertinent glee, the chuckling, is characteristic of this folk-heroic personality, pictured grinning undefeatably on the back of the book. For Mann belongs to a kind that has been embarrassing authority, mocking its dignity and disrespecting its institutions, ever since the first official uniform was put on, but also paying for it, often far over the odds. And From Dusk till Dawn, full as it is of subversive wit and dauntlessness, is necessarily a tragi-comedy. At every story of liberation that Mann tells (and as Benjamin Zephania rightly says in his foreword, “Mann is a natural storyteller, with a hell of a story to tell”), some or most of the animals have to be left behind. Even those that are freed can have no firm property in their freedom: getting them back into confinement is at least as much part of the official response as punishing their liberators is. Keith Mann recounts the effortful rounding-up in this way of some beagles briefly rescued from Oxford University’s notorious Park Farm (at that time “a complex of windowless buildings imprisoning various species of animals awaiting the vivisector’s carving knife”), and he wonders “What is this obsession with taking these animals back to these places?”   

One consequence of the direct actions which Mann recounts has been stricter law and increased security, so that his chronicles now have a period feel about them; such low-tech raids on the prison camps of speciesism are no longer feasible. Compare, for instance, the disorderly and half-supervised Park Farm with its “comparatively minimal” security, as Mann describes it, with Oxford University’s present-day animal storage and research facility, the Biomedical Sciences Building, likewise windowless, but also fenced, front-doorless, and protected by CCTV. But of course that ‘love of others’ never goes away, so that, as Keith Mann says with his characteristically selfless buoyancy, the story of ALF “will continue to be re-written and be added to by many others over the coming years until animal liberation is finally achieved.”

The hazardous actualities of From Dusk till Dawn, even the simple but wholly practical proto-ALF interventions of Axel Munthe and Parson Virtue, seem to belong to a different dimension from the fashionably aesthetic meditation on historical 68408684_1332946016860747_7385333270633775104_o.jpgslavery which the Ashmolean’s “contemporary art installation” provides, but in fact it’s all one unhappy and continuingly urgent subject. The placard pictured here on the right, which was being carried during August’s Official Animal Rights March in London (reported in this blog), succinctly states the case which the Ashmolean Museum might bear in mind if it wants its art to be not just modish but actually modern.

 

 

 

Notes and references:

The free exhibition A Nice Cup of Tea? is on show at the Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, until 22 March 2020.

The Animals Australia video can be viewed here: https://www.animalsaustralia.org/issues/caged_birds.php

Research using birds is a particular topic in this blog on 21 May 2019 (‘What are Sixty Warblers Worth?’) and 24 October 2016 (‘How to Learn about Magpies’).

The post in this blog about Axel Munthe’s book The Story of San Michele can be read here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2019/10/04/franciscan-medicine/

Still Glides the Stream was first published in 1948, its contents looking back to the late nineteenth century. The quotation is from p.103 of the Oxford University Press edition, 1966.

The critic and essayist William Hazlitt contrasted love of liberty with love of power (which, he said, is “love of ourselves”) in the article ‘Illustrations of the Times Newspaper’ published in Political Essays (1819).

From Dusk till Dawn was published by Puppy Pincher Press in 2007. The book is available to buy online at http://www.fromdusktildawn.org.uk/shop/

This year’s Official Animal Rights March was reported in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2019/08/26/march-of-a-nation/

See also, on this subject of direct action, the post ‘In Prison, and You Visited Me’: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2016/01/15/in-prison-and-you-visited-me/

Franciscan Medicine

Today, October 4th, is the feast day of St Francis of Assisi, and also World Animal Day, an “international day of action for animal rights and welfare”. Something was said in this blog last year about the World Day, and about the mind and personality of St Francis whom it commemorates. This time I shall speak about a notable latter-day disciple of his, the physician and writer Axel Munthe, who wrote one of the twentieth century’s best-selling books, published in 1929 and in print ever since: The Story of San Michele.

The book is a sort of memoir, which begins and ends with Munthe’s project to build a house among the ruins of the Emperor Tiberius’s villa at San Michele on the island of San Michele.JPGCapri – a project conceived by Munthe as a young man, and gradually completed during and after his career as a doctor to the rich, whence his social and financial success, and also to the poor, whence the fame and honours he won.

St Francis too is there at the book’s start and at its end. While Munthe was still a medical student, working in the public hospitals of Paris, he learned, in what were then religious institutions, of the “wonderful features” of St Francis, “the friend of all humble and forlorn creatures of sky and earth, who was to become my lifelong friend as well.” [28] Not that Munthe himself was persuaded by Catholicism or by any other faith, and his agnosticism shows in the very unorthodox fantasy with which he closes the book. He imagines himself before St Peter in the Hall of Judgement, unlikely to come off well. In his desperation he calls for the intercession of St Francis: “I have loved him my whole life and he knows me, he understands me.” [351] And happily the saint is indeed fetched to Munthe’s aid, not by the attendant sub-gods but by a sympathetic skylark who knows of Munthe’s past services to his species (more of those services later). In the last scene of the book, then, “there he came, the pale Umbrian saint, slowly descending the winding hill path . . . Swift-winged birds fluttered and sang round his head, others fed from his outstretched hands . . .” And so on.

Yes, you’ll be finding this a bit soppy. No doubt there is something of Ronald Searle’s “sissy” schoolboy Fotherington Thomas – with his “Hello clouds, hello sky!” – about St Francis himself, at least as recorded in legends. (In fact, of course, he was a very strong personality as religious leader and as administrator of the order he founded.) And like St Francis, Axel Munthe speaks of “my brothers and sisters from forests and fields, from skies and seas” [9]. In The Story of San Michele and his other writings he often converses with animals, imputing replies to them, as indeed he does in the case of that skylark. Accordingly, the entry for Axel Munthe in the Dictionary of National Biography (Munthe was a British, as well as a Swedish, citizen) calls him “a sentimental lover of animals”.

Munthe knew himself liable to the disparagement. When he denounces the shooting of larks for food, a friend says to him “You are an idealist, my dear doctor.” Munthe replies, “No, they call it sentimentality and only sneer at it.” But then he says, “mark my words! The time will come . . . when they will understand that the animal world was placed by the Creator under our protection, and not at our mercy; that animals have as much right to live as we have.” [73] If ‘sentimentality’ means pleasurable indulgence in the gentler emotions, then Munthe’s anger about the larks is a plain refutation of the charge. For as he exclaims later when speaking of his retirement on Capri, “The birds! The birds! How much happier would not my life on the beautiful island have been had I not loved them as I do!” [309]

And it’s not just that decisive ethic, “as much right to live as we have” (an ethic which must indeed bring unhappiness to all who know it to be right but see it everywhere violated) that gives his relation with animals unsentimental substance. No, he fought for those birds on Capri. Even literally he did so: he was fined for knocking down the man whose land on the side of the mountain was used for trapping the birds when they briefly rested there, thousands of them, on their way across the Mediterranean in spring and autumn. Munthe’s feud with that man – the local butcher, appropriately enough – and his eventual success (he finally bought the mountain-side and made it into the bird sanctuary which it remains today) is one of many practical animal narratives in the book. He knew very well the difference between ‘love of animals’ as a sentiment and as a motive for conduct. When he says in his book of essays titled Vagaries “I know well that England is the country for lovers of animals”, he is speaking sarcastically, his topic at that moment being fox-hunting.

Besides, the phrase “right to live” was one which Munthe couldn’t have used carelessly. For he spoke as a doctor, and one who was even more familiar than most in his profession with what he calls “the battle between life and death”. [125] He writes a lot about ‘Death’ (his own is being imagined in that last scene). Parts of San Michele constitute a sort of meditation on death, felt and addressed as a distinct personality. First seen “at work” in a relatively modest way (“a mere child’s play”) in the Paris hospitals, death later assumes giant proportions in Munthe’s career:

I saw Him at Naples killing more than a thousand people a day before my very eyes [i.e. during the cholera epidemic of 1884, the subject of Munthe’s book Letters from a Mourning City]. I saw Him at Messina burying over one hundred thousand men, women and children under the falling houses in a single minute [the earthquake of 1908]. Later on I saw Him at Verdun, His arms red with blood to the elbows, slaughtering four hundred thousand men, and mowing down the flower of a whole army on the plains of Flanders and of the Somme [Munthe was serving in the ambulance corps, as described in his book Red Cross, Iron Cross]. [125]

To all these places Munthe had gone voluntarily, leaving his comfortable practice in order to attend the sick and dying. His experiences during the two Italian disasters are described in San Michele. But this man who felt so much sympathy and took so much risk for humans in extremis was with equal willingness and earnestness a doctor to animals. In Rome he kept “a sort of infirmary and convalescent home” [291] for them alongside his human practice, and some of the most vivid images in the book are of suffering animals. There is the gorilla dying in the Paris zoo, who “sat up in his bed and put his two hands to his temples in a gesture of despair” [47] (Munthe hated zoos and menageries: “The cruel wild beast”, he said, “is not behind the bars of the cage, he stands in front of it.” [60]) Or there is the time when Munthe is asked to attend a monkey scalded by boiling water; the request comes from a fellow-doctor who “begged me to wait in his salon, and appeared a minute later with a monkey in his arms, a huge baboon all wrapped up in bandages.” The bandages once removed, “it was a pitiful sight, his whole body was one terrible wound.” [243]

No, there is nothing sentimental here, only careful observation, sympathy, and devoted Axel_Munthe00service. And what Munthe says about his skill as a “dog-doctor” seems to have been true with all these animals: as patients, they needed love and understanding, “the same as with us, with the difference that it is easier to understand a dog than a man, and easier to love him.” [49]

It’s in the monkeys in particular that we see how Munthe had, in his own thinking, revised the conventional Darwinian scheme. He knew and felt its general implication, of course, that we were all, as he says in the book Vagaries, “fellow-citizens in Creation’s great society”. But the idea that humans were evolution’s newest and best did not appeal to him. The zoologist Thomas Huxley had spoken in his justly famous Romanes Lecture, ‘Evolution and Ethics’ (1893), of rising above the heritage of “ape and tiger” in man. For Munthe, however, humanity was more of a coarsening of what had come before than an ascent from it. Near the end of San Michele he combines Genesis and Darwin in a scarifying narrative of man’s emergence on the seventh day of Creation:

a huge monkey maddened by hunger set to work with his horny hands to forge himself weapons to slay the other animals . . . he grew up, a brutish Protanthropos slaying friends and foes, a fiend to all living things, a Satan among animals . . . His raucous cry of wrath and fear grew into articulate sounds and words . . . he evolved into man . . . The ferocious war began, the war which has never ceased. [349-50]

If – so Munthe suggests – the God who made this mistake ever wakens from his “haunted slumber” sufficiently to organize a second world-cleansing deluge, the next Ark will be for non-human animals only.

No sentimentalist, then, though it’s true that his excitability as a writer leads him into maudlin moments, as it does into all sorts of other carryings-away: whimsies, exaggerations, obvious fictions, over-coloured dreams and visions. The author himself confesses it, but with one beguiling reservation: in the prefaces which he wrote from time to time for new editions of San Michele, he admits that some of the scenes in the book are mixtures of “real and unreal . . . fact and fancy”, but then he says, “in one respect at least I can say with a clear conscience that I have not deceived my readers – in my love for animals.”

Still, Munthe was a physician; his training had therefore implicated him in the use of animals for research, and to some extent it had even reconciled him to it. He had direct experience, as a student, of Louis Pasteur’s studies in rabies. Then in his own practice he had to deal with the worst medical scourges of that time, whose aetiologies were just then being uncovered in the laboratory: cholera, diphtheria, consumption. Rabies too he was called in to treat, and it’s while writing about rabies that he suddenly faces this subject, using the rhetorical question to which he habitually resorts in passionate moments: “When will the anti-vivisectionists realize that when they are asking for total prohibition of experiments on living animals they are asking for what is impossible to grant them?” Researchers like Pasteur, Behring (on diphtheria), and Koch (cholera), he says, “must be left to pursue their researches unhampered by restrictions and undisturbed by interference by outsiders.” [59]

True, it’s only to such directly disease-related studies that Munthe concedes this freedom, and such projects are “so few that they can be counted on one’s fingers”. For the rest he agrees to “severe restrictions . . . perhaps even total prohibition.”  Moreover, he acknowledges that differences between the physiologies of animals and men often undermine the “practical value” of vivisection. He even proposes that convicted criminals be offered remission of their sentences in exchange for service in laboratories – in the laboratory, for instance, of the then fashionable ‘rejuvenation’ specialist (or fantasist) Dr Voronoff, as “substitutes for his wretched monkeys”.

That’s a desperate alternative, which was no more practicable at that period than it is now, but it suggests something of Munthe’s restlessness of mind on this subject. And of course there did not exist in his time the many non-animal “substitutes” that have become available since.

It’s notable also that the terrifying rabies-related case to which Munthe has been called, and which prompts this single brief disquisition on animal research, is not in fact a case of rabies at all. After frightful scenes of panic, bloodshed, and attempted suicide, leaving in their wake a shot dog and a blinded and mentally unhinged patient, laboratory tests indicate that neither man nor dog had any infection. This story of false alarm, therefore, so far from illustrating the case for research (I don’t think that Munthe means it to), belongs with a much larger theme in Munthe’s career as a doctor: namely hypochondria, the resort to medical explanations and therapies for what are really moral and social ailments. We would now call it the ‘medicalization’ of unhappiness. At that time it was only for the rich, naturally enough. The poor, meanwhile (as Munthe clearly shows) were living in conditions which made even ordinary good health nearly impossible. Their poverty was what above all needed curing. Certainly disease is real enough, but much of human illness is of our own creating, and can be put right (if at all) without benefit of medicine.

The Story of San Michele is not an orderly narrative of Munthe’s life, still less is it a reasoned report on his profession. He shows the horrors of disease and suffering, the vanities of invalidism, good and bad doctoring, the comedy and tragedy of these, but offers no summing-up, except what is implied in the joy of escaping them, as he finally does escape them at San Michele. But of course there is a philosophy that takes form and persists through it all. Munthe brings with him into his San Michele way of life animals new and old (including that scalded monkey, now fit and hyper-active) and also his continuing sense of the necessity to love and defend them and all their kind. In short, the philosophy of St Francis: the one thing, as he says in the preface, that is unconditionally to be trusted in all he has written. As to vivisection, the dissonant element there, we may trust what he says or not. St Francis, his model in so much, could not guide him in that matter.

 

Notes and references:

Quotations from The Story of San Michele use the edition issued by John Murray in 2004, Murray having also published the first edition in 1929. Vagaries (later titled Memories and Vagaries) is a collection of short essays, many of them about animals, and was published by John Murray in 1898: quotations are from the chapters titled ‘Blackcock-Shooting‘ and ‘Zoology’.

The idea of using convicted offenders in medical trials may have some obvious logic and appeal but is also flawed and dangerous, even sinister. There is quite an informative piece about it on the web-site of Understanding Animal Research here: http://www.understandinganimalresearch.org.uk/news/communications-media/why-testing-on-prisoners-is-a-bad-idea/  I don’t mean to promote that web-site, which is given some critical attention in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2018/06/08/on-the-trail-of-an-untruth/

Last year’s post about World Animal Day can be read here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2018/10/02/two-anniversaries-one-lesson/

The portrait in charcoal and pastel of Axel Munthe is by his contemporary, Feodora Gleichen.

March of a Nation

The starting place for this year’s Official Animal Rights March in London was the huge Achilles statue in Hyde Park – that triumphalist image of man the combatant, protecting his own interests with his left arm, while savaging the interests of others Achilles 2.JPGwith the his right. Against this obsolete rhetoric of Richard Westmacott’s 33 metric tons of cannon-bronze (the type of rhetoric which may yet inspire humanity to bring the whole house of life down into ruin), came together on 17 August a counter-eloquence of non-violence, asserting the right of other species not to be minced by the human sword.

And certainly the rally and the march were powerfully and variously eloquent: banners and placards (“The only thing we need from the animals is forgiveness”, go vegan sign.JPG“I’ve come from Lisbon looking for protein”, “You kill them and their flesh kills you”, “Suck your own tits!”); chants and other noise; and that symbolic mass movement through the streets towards Parliament Square – the organizers said 12,000 people, an over-estimate possibly, but certainly many thousands. Speeches too, of course, and these were sign-languaged: translated into a repertoire of gestures and looks not only beautifully expressive in themselves, but demonstrating that words, so often preened upon as our special human property, are not the sum of language but one variety of language only. In fact signing is a reminder of our heritage of animal communication, more generally of what ought to be our animal solidarity. And some of the signs are especially moving and beautiful: most notably on that Saturday the sign for ‘freedom’, the fists opening out forwards into spreading hands, as one might liberate a bird or preferably all birds.

Well, eloquence then. But as Prime Minister Lloyd George said exactly one hundred years ago at the time when he and others were trying to make an end of war at the Paris Peace Conference (Lloyd George was one of the pedestaled figures that overlooked the march when it reached its destination in Parliament Square), “the finest eloquence is that which gets things done.” So what does an event like this get done?

Of course it’s a massive mobile advertisement for veganism, touring the centre of a crowded metropolis: veganism the diet, but more importantly, as both the placards vegan options.JPGand the antiphonal chant (“Go vegan: for the animals”) insisted, veganism as a political movement. So, some persuasion gets done at least.

Also this time round there was a more definite project: a rehearsal for the ‘Animal Rebellion’ event in October, when animal rights will join the Extinction Rebellion movement (in which, of course, it’s a crucial element, whether acknowledged or not) in a large-scale disruptive demonstration. The assembly at the Achilles statue was therefore given advice on the philosophy, practice, and efficacy of peaceful direct action. (Gandhi, its great exponent and therefore the precise opposite of Westmacott’s Achilles, was another of the figures overlooking the crowd in Parliament Square.) The rehearsal itself was to consist in a blockade of traffic in and out of Trafalgar Square.

However, when the march arrived at the Square, all the traffic had already been closed off for the march, and there was nothing to blockade. In such ways a liberal society absorbs the blows of criticism and simply springs back into shape. And a march like this one does demonstrate, rather disconcertingly, how liberal British society is, so far as it goes. All those main roads through London closed off to let its critics pass clamorously through at their own pace! But then, as a glance round the world makes painfully obvious, this liberalism is not natural to human government; it has had to be laboured for and won here, in past centuries, by just such shows of dissent and demand as this one. In fact it illustrates their necessity and efficacy: they do get things done.

One of those political forerunners is just now enjoying bicentenary attention: the great gathering in St Peter’s Fields, Manchester, in 1819 to demand political reform, a gathering which was violently dispersed in the ‘Peterloo massacre’. (The name ‘Peterloo’ was an ironic allusion to Wellington’s victory at Waterloo four years earlier, an achievement which the Achilles statue commemorates.) Though a disaster at the time, this event was part of the run-up to the Great Reform Act of 1832. And that legislation began a sequence of electoral reform which reached its natural conclusion nearly 100 years later with the Equal Franchise Act of 1928, giving the vote to all women and men over the age of twenty one (over eighteens were enfranchised in 1969).

And there we came to a stop, leaving the great uncountable majority of UK residents completely unrepresented. In fact it seemed miserably apt, when the march was cenotaph.JPGclamouring its way past all the government offices in Whitehall, that those great rooms were empty and the windows blank, and, in Parliament Square itself, that large parts of the buildings were sightless behind scaffolding shrouds. At present, politics needn’t take notice of animal interests, and usually don’t.

Even so, it must be there, in Parliament Square, that a start is made, and animals begin their own far harder journey towards liberty through political representation: not, as at present, indirect representation by means of the good will of the humans who do have their own delegates there, but direct representation of some kind. As Robert Garner has argued recently in the journal Contemporary Political Theory, “a democratic polity should take account of animal interests, not because a substantial number of humans wish to see greater protection afforded to animals, but rather because animals themselves have a democratic right to have their interests represented in the political process.”

By way of illustrating that distinction, here is the government’s response last month to a parliamentary petition asking for theft of pet animals to be made a specific criminal offence. “We acknowledge the emotional trauma which the theft of a much-loved pet can cause”, it caringly states, but no reform is needed because existing guidance on sentencing already takes into account this “emotional distress that the theft of personal items such as a much-loved pet can have on victims.” There is no mention of the interests of the animal; it is simply assumed that the humans are speaking for themselves, animals happening to be the focus of their interests in this case.

In short, it’s “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. But Abraham Lincoln’s fine and famous phrase is no longer adequate, if it ever was. That chant “for the animals needs bringing into it. Lincoln spoke of a “new birth of freedom” in “this nation”. But the animals are as much a part of whatever nation they live in as the humans are, more so by seniority; they are at least as much affected by its government; and therefore they are equally entitled to their own voice – that is, a voice dedicated to their interests alone – in that government’s decisions.

How to manage that is, of course, a difficult question, but let’s at least insist on the principle now. As the quoted article by Robert Garner shows, it’s making some headway in academic political thinking: indeed there is a peer-reviewed online journal titled Politics and Animals. But by a more popular audience the idea is likely to be thought absurd or threatening. Going back to the Peterloo anniversary, one of the aims of the Memorial Campaign set up to mark this anniversary year is “to crowd-source ideas for radical improvements to how democracy is conducted”. For this purpose it has set up a web-site called ‘Six Acts to reboot democracy’. People are invited to sign up and vote for or against the proposals shown there, or to make their own proposals for democratic reform. When I first looked, there were 33 such proposals; none of them mentioned animals. I have therefore posted a proposal titled ‘Representation of Animals Act’. Please go there and vote for it, if you have time: when I last looked (it’s near the bottom of the page), it had received a total of one negative vote.

Notes and references:

The title-phrase comes from a speech of the Irish nationalist politician Charles Parnell, given in 1885: “No man has the right to fix the boundary of the march of a nation; no man has a right to say to his country – thus far shalt thou go and no further.”

The Official Animal Rights March (TOARM) facebook page is here: https://www.facebook.com/events/achilles-way-london-w1k-1ab-united-kingdom/the-official-animal-rights-march-2019-london/615721232212726/  There have been/will be related marches at about this time in many other cities round the world. TOARM was founded by the organisation called Surge in 2016. Last year’s London march was described in this blog on 3 September 2018.

Prime Minister Lloyd George’s speech at the Paris Peace Conference was reported in the Times of 20 January 1919.

The publicized intention of Animal Rebellion in October is to blockade the meat market at Smithfield in London. Please visit its web-site at http://www.animalrebellion.org/

Robert Garner’s essay ‘Animals and Democratic Theory: beyond an Anthropocentric Account’ was published in Contemporary Political Theory, vol.16.4, 2016, pp.459-77. It can be read online here: https://www.readcube.com/articles/10.1057%2Fs41296-016-0072-0?author_access_token=xNdtWwORBPuYWYx0bHmbalxOt48VBPO10Uv7D6sAgHtNg344y2R29w6T1gh33kZDmAvHpritVE1zaVYYkHK2S22mn9e-UqOTAw2XrOTRE95RWBW9DCw6tbESCaRw05SaTD67RwZg3G8UgFwzYJmjrg==

The animal-theft petition and answer can be found here: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/244530?reveal_response=yes

Abraham Lincoln is quoted from his speech given at the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, Gettysburg, on 19 November 1863.

The Peterloo Memorial Campaign’s ‘Six Acts Project’ is online at https://www.sixacts.org/. Note: The VERO proposal for a Representation of Animals Act was in fact quietly deleted by the organisers soon after it was posted. When I asked why, I was eventually told bluntly that it did not constitute an improvement to democracy. There is, unfortunately, a tradition of contempt in socialist thinking for any concern about non-human animals: a tradition only, not a rationale, of course.

WDAIL 2019

On Saturday 27 April, Oxford was the venue for the main gathering in the U.K. to mark World Day for Animals in Laboratories (strictly April 24th). And Oxford certainly is a suitable place in which to remember all those animals. Not only are more animal lives being worked through here than in any other British university; Oxford is, besides (as we find among the various boasts on its web-site), “ranked top in the world for medicine”. It may therefore be regarded as setting an example of big spending in animals to all the rest of the world.

The gathering point for the rally was a fine open field at Oxpens on the western side of the city, adjacent to the railway line and a cut of the River Thames. Oxpens was once a working-class suburb; long since demolished as such, it’s now a miscellaneous and unpretentious area of offices and recreations, including an ice rink. As the place-name suggests, there was until recently a market for the buying and selling of cattle where, WDAIL banneron Saturday, impassioned speeches were being made on behalf of their (and our) fellow-creatures. Then, the march set out from Oxpens to make the case for animals visible and audible through the main streets of Oxford, stopping outside the Biomedical Sciences Building to hear, among other speakers, Mel Broughton, hitherto silenced on this subject for ten years by imprisonment and probation. Those years have evidently done nothing to qualify his thinking or his fervour.

This event, the WDAIL, last came to Oxford in 2013, and it’s natural to wonder what changes there have been since then.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the University’s commitment to animal research. The number of ‘procedures’ recorded at Oxford in 2013 was 189,460; the number for 2018 was 219,551, an increase of about 15%. No doubt there was a general increase in scientific activity over the same period, and I don’t know whether animal research has been growing disproportionately or not. In fact the University is growing in all material directions more rapidly now than at any time in its history. Growing ethically also? The question may arouse laughter, either as comically naïve or as meaningless. It should be asked, all the same, and the animals will certainly be somewhere in the answer.

Still speaking of the University’s expansion: even here at unacademic Oxpens, far from the colleges, the shadow of their ambition has fallen. The whole area, either bought up by Nuffield College or forming part of its original endowment, is to be re-developed. Reading the prospectus for the grandiose scheme, we discover that this modestly useful district is “perhaps the most extraordinary undeveloped area of any historic city in the UK. And those who have noticed that the University’s architectural scruples deteriorate with distance from the collegiate centre of town can happily be reassured. Oxpens is to become “a new vibrant community” (now I remember, the WDAIL rally also was vibrant, but presumably not in the sense, if any, intended here). The design will show “innovation, imagination and vision”, and the result will be one which “adds value . . . to the built environment in our world-class city.”

I quote from this dreary tract of planner’s jargon, ending with that cock-a-doodle brag about Oxford, because it’s signed off by the Warden of Nuffield College, a distinguished academic. I’m sure he didn’t write it; probably he didn’t even like to read it. This sort of publicity is a discipline in itself which does not, we must assume, engage the professional ethics or interest of the academics who commission and pay for it. Its particular relevance here is that publicity like this constitutes one of the most notable changes in the animal-research scene since the WDAIL in 2013. The Concordat on Openness on Animal Research had just been initiated then, and seemed little more than a pompous and clumsy name. Since then a nationwide fog of words has been generated by this PR project, very much in the “world-class city” style, often making it impossible to know whether what one descries through it is real or illusory.

Certainly some increase in real public knowledge has come out of the Concordat. For instance, in 2013 Oxford University was willing to disclose only that there were about 16,000 animals in the new laboratory at any one time, but since there was no indication of the rate at which those animals were used up and replaced by others, that was a nearly meaningless number. The more revealing numbers had to be fished out bit by bit with Freedom of Information requests. Nowadays all the relevant numbers which the University is required by law to submit to the Home Office are also promptly posted on its web-site, together with a great deal of other material of a more or less enlightening kind. Other signatories to the Concordat (121 institutions altogether) are similarly informative.

Such increase in public knowledge must be a good thing. But of course the knowledge is still rationed by those who provide it; even if it’s dependable in itself (and this blog has shown that Oxford’s is not), nothing unpleasant or seriously discreditable is likely to be volunteered. The most notable effect of the new candour is really on the morale of those practising animal research. They may personally prefer to remain as discreet as ever, but their work is continually boosted for them, and a habit of boastfulness and complacency now characterizes the whole scene.

Already in 2015 this can be noticed in a post about that year’s WDAIL published on the web-site of Understanding Animal Research, and titled ‘World Day for Animals in Laboratories – 140 years of animal welfare improvements’. Here we are reminded that we’re “a nation of animal-lovers” (actually the original has “animal lovers” without the hyphen, but I know they didn’t mean that, even though it would have about the same amount of truth in it). Accordingly, we are urged to mark this anniversary (instituted as a focus for anti-vivisection protest) by celebrating “the major milestones which have ensured the UK has some of the best laboratory animal welfare conditions in the world”. These “milestones” are then listed, beginning with the Royal Commission of 1875 and ending with the 2015 ban on testing of household products. Complacently looking backwards, the writer treats all this as a completed history, something for us British, and the animal-research profession in particular, to take pride in. He helpfully forgets that the purpose of milestones (anyway a tellingly obsolete image) was to inform you, not how far you’d got, but how far you yet had to travel to reach your destination. As for the “World” reference, the writer seems to regard that not as a plea for all the animals suffering in laboratories, including the many millions enjoying none of the protections mentioned, but as introducing an element of international competition in which the U.K., satisfyingly, comes at least equal first. It’s a classic piece of PR management.

The listed “milestones” have, it’s quite true, been valuable improvements. However, most of them were the result of strenuous campaigning from outside the profession, against fierce and indignant resistance from within. Nor were the results ever quite what had been hoped and aimed for; they were always partial successes at best, milestones indeed on a still unfinished journey. What we really learn from this UAR retrospect, therefore, is that eloquent and active opposition to animal research is what causes progress, and that WDAIL, as this opposition’s symbolic or representative annual event, should therefore be as noisy, restless, uncompromising, and future-minded as possible.

And that’s indeed what the 2019 WDAIL in Oxford was, just as it had been in 2013. The speeches, having nothing to hide or disguise, were in plain vehement English. Nobody was there to advance a private or professional interest, or to secure their salary. Three of the speakers had, on the contrary, paid heavily for their part in this sort of campaign with time in prison. It was, in fact, just the sort of communal/political event which the much-missed Tony Benn used to speak about and prize (and attend). “Everything comes from underneath”, he used to say: meaning that it was the collective will and sense of justice of the people, the ‘commons’, that effect change, not the formal agencies, authorities and powers. They, indeed, are what suffer the change and therefore resist it, until resistance becomes futile, when they accept, institute, and take credit for it: we’ve seen it happen. So the familiarity of the scene at Oxpens – the unpolished and WDAIL cops and dog.JPGmiscellaneous crowd, the banners and placards, the shouts, chants and whistles, the dogs, all as they were in 2013 – should be reassuring. It means that progress continues.

 

Note and references:

Film of the WDAIL speeches can be seen here:  https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCb42LS3_n_U7hob9qMVnmDQ

The prospectus for Oxpens redevelopment is online here: https://www.bidwells.co.uk/assets/Uploads/oxpens-brochure.pdf

The UAR post about WDAIL 2015 is here: http://www.understandinganimalresearch.org.uk/news/animal-welfare-alternatives/world-day-for-animals-in-laboratories/

Please read this blog for more about Tony Benn and the “underneath” at https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2016/11/21/tony-benn/

Photographs are by Paul Freestone.