The Fellowship of Life
a Christian-based vegetarian network founded in 1973

 

Interviews
Jon Wynne-Tyson

Rebel with a Cause (From The Vegan (Winter 1985)

After a varied career Jon Wynne-Tyson [JWT:] started the publishing firm of Centaur Press in 1954 at the age of thirty, since when he has continued to run it single-handed. Under the Centaur imprint a number of distinguished contributions to humane thought have been made available, including Henry Salt's Animals' Rights Considered in Relation to Social Progress, and Esmé Wynne-Tyson's The Philosophy of Compassion. Also a writer, his own published works include The Civilised Alternative, a study of society's values and options; Food for the Future, an exposition of the case for vegetarianism and veganism, and most recently, The Extended Circle: A Dictionary of Humane Thought, the 1985 recipient of the Animal Rights Writing Award of the Pennsylvania-based International Society for Animal Rights, Inc. He is married with two daughters.

Question: Your most recent book, The Extended Circle: A Dictionary of Humane Thought, has met with critical acclaim, with one reviewer going so far as to describe it as 'an instant classic'. What prompted you to embark on this magnum opus, and at whom is it primarily aimed?

JWT: The prompting was my feeling that it was needed, and that if I didn't get on and do it, no-one else would. It has taken seven years of intermittent work, being my major task this past year.

Those I most want to know about the book are teachers, young people, and of course their parents. This is why the paperback has a very low price, though it means many copies have to be sold before costs are covered. I was pleased, though, that two of the best reviews in the national media so far have been in The Daily Telegraph and Punch. Their readers' life styles and values may be said to be in greatest need of being changed!

Question: You have written a number of other works touching directly or indirectly on the issue of animal rights. The most well-known of these is, perhaps, Food for a Future. Tell us how it came into being.

JWT: After I had finished my earlier book, The Civilised Alternative, I knew that a book that expanded its chapters 3 and 4 was needed. The thought of getting down to it myself was so horrifying that, in my publisher's hat, I looked around for someone else to write it! There were sympathetic noises but no takers. Then, out of the blue, the publisher Reg Davis-Poynter asked me to write just such a book. What is more, being a good old pro, he gave me a deadline. So I got on with it. It was well received, almost the best review being in The Times - surprising, in 1975. Later, one of the major paperback publishers took it over, and when they had finished with it I revised it and published the new paperback myself. It was published in the USA, but by a publisher not known in that field, and after a sour-grapes review in a leading vegetarian magazine it fizzled out in a vacuum of neglect. But the UK edition sells steadily and I must try to make the time to revise it before it next goes out of print.

Question: Your books are widely admired, both within the animal rights movement and beyond, and you have become a source of inspiration to many. From where have you drawn your own inspiration?

JWT: I suppose inspiration, in an imaginative person, comes from one's focus of attention. If, in-bred, there is also an independence of mind, a tendency to question rather than unthinkingly accept established customs and values, then one is well on the way to becoming a loner, a thorn in the flesh of the Establishment. I was the only child of a brilliant, aware woman, whom some of her most outstanding contemporaries regarded as one of the most exceptional women of her era. She profoundly influenced nearly all who knew her, not least her son! We fought like tigers, of course, but my debt to her is enormous. She helped me to see things straight; to detect the essentials; to identify the humbug and the irrelevancies; to have the courage to say what is in one's own heart and mind, not what others want you to say.

Question: As a writer yourself, which books or writers have most influenced you?

JWT: Most of my serious reading has been in later life, so I have been not so much influenced by other writers as pleased to discover in their writings confirmation that we have been treading similar paths. In my early years, perhaps because of the pressure engendered by close association with my continually creative and articulate mother, my reading was largely orthodox and escapist. Tiger Tim's Weekly, the Greyfriars stories, E. Nesbit, the William books, The Wind in the Willows and The Boy's Own Paper did me well for several years! An adolescent passion for P.G. Wodehouse somehow led to such less frivolous authorities as Shaw, Tolstoy, Gandhi and Aldous Huxley, and a pacifism strengthened by being fifteen years old at a minor public school in 1939 was cemented by Dick Sheppard's We Say No and, later, by Donald Soper at Tower Hill and in Hyde Park. The Extended Circle is the best guide to my later writing!

Question: You are, I know, also a writer of fiction. Do you do this for 'light relief' or is there a deeper purpose?

JWT: I wrote a number of novels some years ago under pen-names. Now, under my own name, after 30 years mainly given over to publishing, I hope to write several more. Some writers express horror at fiction being used as a vehicle for ideas. I think this is nonsense. Most of the really great novels have been novels of ideas, of strong beliefs, of promptings for change, of exposure of human folly and evil. But they mustn't be mere tracts. To my mind the most satisfying novel challenges our minds and hearts through the portrayal of real people in real situations. If it does so with humour, well and good. It cannot be done without experience of life and without convictions in the author. Sadly, there are many novelists who have nothing to say, lack passion or conviction except over their bodily appetites, and want only to conform with the attenuated, sterile pattern of the day. At the best, such writers say nothing beautifully. As Roy Campbell wrote: 'You have the snaffle and the curb all right, but where's the bloody horse?'

So Say Banana Bird (1984) did have a 'deeper purpose' and got a good if small press. The Sundays (where whom you know counts for more than what you write) ignored it. C.P. Snow said something about the British not liking you to change categories, and not all the orthodox media have forgiven me for surviving as a publisher for 30 years and then turning author. Though Banana Bird has a strong environmental 'message' (only one reviewer expressed empathy for it), my best novel, Anything Within Reason, has yet to be published.

Question: I know of no more articulate, indeed eloquent champion of veganism than you. The chapter in Food for a Future entitled 'The Further Step' is, in my view, the most forceful presentation of the logic of veganism ever committed to paper, and yet you are not yourself a vegan. Can you explain this paradox?

JWT: All too easily! I am a workaholic and for over 30 years have got through what would normally be shared by 4 or 5 people. I cannot also be in the kitchen! My wife is boss there, and although she goes along with vegetarianism because she knows it is important to me, she is simply not prepared to take 'The Further Step'. I have to balance this compromise against the fact that my output of work requires a stable background. If that background is disturbed by constant argument, or ended because dietetic consistency comes before marriage, my output as a writer and publisher will suffer. Through my work, and now less frequently sailing, tennis, etc, I meet many people outside the animal rights movement. In each case one has to judge at what point one may damage a nascent empathy by (as they would think) going over the top. I could give many actual and hypothetical examples. I'll cite one. A good review in a national paper for one of my books would not have appeared if I had refused to lunch with a certain literary editor for fear that some part of the meal might not be totally vegan. None of us is wholly consistent. It is impossible. What matters is that each of us should be going in the right direction and with the right intentions. If you simply cannot find winter-weight non-leather shoes for awkwardly shaped feet, the choice may be between chilblains (or worse) and accepting a by-product of the meat industry (animals are killed for their flesh, not for their hides). Of course consistency is important and to be strived for, but we are not going to contribute much to the course of Western society if we spend our days in a hammock and muslin face mask. Each of us must make his/her choice.

Question: With The Extended Circle now published, what lies ahead for you? Your books seem to me to be designed to fill important gaps in existing literature. Do you see any more gaps to be filled?

JWT: Gaps? I'd say a yawning chasm! For myself, I want to reach new publics, not only with fiction, but also with plays. I am delighted that the animal rights movement approves of my books, but it is the unconverted I most want to reach. With them it is a question of taking them down the nursery slopes, of introducing new ideas in conventional structures. A London theatre director has bought an option on my first play, and a Broadway director is also keen on it, but so far my agent had found no management to take it on. It has only a spattering of animal rights 'messages', but the last one comes in a powerful context. So I'm hoping. My agent wants me to write a really committed play, and I'm trying to find the time to do so. Plays can reach entirely new audiences. The 'gap' is infinite. All I need is another sixty years of increasingly vegan life!

Question: It would, perhaps, be fitting if this interview ended with a favourite quote from The Extended Circle. Of the many, is there one of which you are especially fond?

JWT: I have scores of favourites. In my 'Introduction' to the book I say that the passage that most 'speaks to my condition' is where John Bryant dreams of a world 'where man is at peace, not only with himself, but also with all the other creatures of Earth,' for 'it is cruelty which dominates my every conscious moment.' Some of the most forthright quotes were C.W. Leadbeater's; some of the wittiest, Henry Salt's; some of the most poetic, James Stephens'. But that still leaves me in great admiration of Victor Hugo, J. Howard Moore, Montaigne, Ashley Montagu, Ernest Bell, Brigid Brophy, Voltaire, John Cowper Powys, Philip Kapleau, Todd Ferrier and a host of others. Once the breakthrough has been made into realisation of the oneness of life and of our kinship with all creatures, there is little difference except in language and style between the wisdom of the famous and the little known. But, of the many candidates, perhaps the best rounding-off quotation, in content and language prompting thought rather than making a definitive statement, comes from the American writer Henry Beston's The Outermost House (1928):

We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals ... We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err and err greatly. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren; they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.

Reproduced with thanks.

NB A revised and expanded edition of The Extended Circle was published by Centaur Press in 2009.

See also: The Wynne-Tyson Effect and Reflection: Jon Wynne-Tyson and Reviews.

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