In my previous life I was a journalist – the titles I worked on varying from trade magazines (in the earliest days), to community newspapers in Canada, then – back in England – on Disc & Music Echo followed by a few years on NME.
Even while working for the rock music press – which could actually be a vehicle for some fairly substantial and thoughtful writing – I began doing straightforwardly political articles. In those days, moving from music journalism to straight journalism was extremely difficult but I did finally crack it and started writing for the New Statesman, Time Out, and then various national newspapers and magazines, including The Guardian, Observer and Independent. I had a job on Time Out for a while but preferred working as a freelance because I didn’t want editors telling me what stories to write and when and how. My themes were issues such as drugs, radical politics, homelessness, out-of-control cops, dodgy landlords, riots, racism, knife gangs and so on. I also wrote a pretty hefty book called Street Drugs, which took categories of substances a chapter at a time – alcohol and tobacco included – and examined their pharmacology, history, effects and social and medical impacts. It was translated into different languages, and still sells decades later.
I got interested in Green politics at the time that Die Grünen was taking off in Germany. I wrote a fair bit on that topic, and remember ending a lengthy feature on the Green movement with a reference to animal rights – saying it was a kindred issue but couldn’t see it taking off. Weirdly, within a month or two I was a vegetarian, and within 15 months a vegan. I credit my wife Sara for giving me the lead; in fact, she was an animal rights campaigner long before me.
In recent weeks, Sara has been re-reading some of those pretty ancient articles and insisting that various of them be posted on the internet (they exist currently only as yellowing cuttings). The first to get the treatment was a piece I did for The Independent in 1989, called Slaughterhouse Tales.
And now comes a 1983 cover feature for Time Out that tells the story of how London Zoo created a living hell for an African elephant called Pole Pole – finally killing her in a botched attempted move to their Bedfordshire ‘branch’, Whipsnade Zoo.
The piece caused a big stir, and was one of the chief motivating factors for the establishment, by actors Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers, of Zoo Check – later to become Born Free. I was among a group of three or four individuals, deeply troubled by what had befallen Pole Pole, who gathered for regular meetings with Ginny and Bill and plotted Zoo Check’s launch. I edited their first newsletters.
The Pole Pole Time Out story alights on many of the zoo-related themes that remain current today: not least the bogus claims by zoos that they are engaged in species conservation. It even includes an account of zoo-related vivisection – all supposedly in a good cause.