by Tracey Potts
The British Vegetarian was a bi-monthly journal published alternately by the London Vegetarian Society and the Manchester-based Vegetarian Society. It ran from January 1959 to August 1971 when it became known as The Vegetarian and adopted a broadsheet newspaper format.
The history of vegetarianism in Britain contradicts the popular wisdom that associates lentils with hippies and the counterculture (the character of Neil, in the 1980s sitcom ‘The Young Ones’ offers a neat glimpse of such a stereotype). Important studies such as James Gregory’s Of Victorians and Vegetarians: The Vegetarian Movement in Nineteenth-century Britain (I.B. Tauris, 2007) and Peter J. Atkins, et al (eds) Food and the City in Europe Since 1800 (Ashgate, 2007) draw attention to the Victorian roots of food reform – and the content of The British Vegetarian also show in microcosm the movement’s origins.
The political entanglement of vegetarian dietary advice with a range of radicalisms is demonstrated throughout this issue, which was published in 1969. There are pieces on Mahatma Gandhi (who was a member of the London Vegetarian Society), and on the “Oslo Breakfast” and children’s health. The Vegetarian Cycling and Athletic Club 80th birthday celebration showcases nineteenth century belief in the notion of diet in harmony with nature’s laws and, by extension, as an alibi of peace and universal brotherhood. Underlying the society reports, readers’ letters, members’ obituaries, classifieds and recipes, advertisements for the Theosophy Society, The Nature Cure Clinic, The Weymouth Hydro: the Sea-Front Home for Natural Healing, are ideas of a deep connection between divinity, hygiene and nutrition.
The counterculture does make an appearance though – the only obvious indication that this is the late 1960s – in the form of portraits of ‘celebrity’ vegetarians. Aside from the cover photo of Gretchen Wyler, ‘Vegetarianism’s latest “star” convert’ (she was an American actress), here’s my particular favourite:
If you are looking for an interesting and unconventional person on the “pop” scene, then Cecil McCartney is bound to fit the bill. Singer, song writer, artist, student, meditator and would-be astronaut… Cecil has just made his record debut on the Columbia label with two self-penned songs “Hey Alethia I love You”/ “Liquid Blue” D.B. 8474
Cecil, who when asked when he was born replies “On the edge of infinity where space curves,” comes from Belfast in Northern Ireland.
An awkward meeting of brisk, upright British sensibility and 1960s Austin Powers-esque grooviness, this interview highlights something of the divergent thinking that attends vegetarianism. This is accented hilariously when the singer/would-be astronaut goes on to detail the six herbs that he felt compelled to eat while on a mountain expedition, which in terms of their ‘molecular structures… were more complex than LSD’.
In short, The British Vegetarian offers a fascinating look at a radical movement in all of its historical and ideological complexity. Vestiges of Victorian thinking vie with an altogether more explosive and countercultural politics, which are then met by everyday concerns (which, it needs stressing, are no less political): from naturopathy for pets to how to grow blackcurrants. And it contains some useful recipes for pulses: Boston Baked Beans – with rum (!) – anybody?
The British Vegetarian is held in the Vegetarian Society archive.