WORLD

A woolly debate

BRUCE WALLACE May 22 1995
WORLD

A woolly debate

BRUCE WALLACE May 22 1995

A woolly debate

LETTER FROM Brightlingsea

Just up the street, where afternoon sunshine bathes an obelisk war memorial in almost heavenly light, about 300 residents of the English coastal village of Brightlingsea are bowing their heads to commemorate the 50th anniversary of VEDay. But in the dimness of the Railway Tavern, Bruce Finlayson and his friends opt to mark the occasion from the comfort of their bar stools. “Dunkirk’s the only real anniversary that matters in Brightlingsea,”

growls the 49-year-old tree cutter, shifting lower in his seat and stirring grunts from the two dogs lying across his feet. There is mumbled agreement from Finlayson’s companions. As the afternoon wears on, and the ales flow, the men agree on much else: their dislike for the “froggies” across the Channel, for starters, and for Linda McCartney, too, with her preaching about vegetarianism.

But eventually, as predictably as the Brightlingsea tides, those topics lead to the one subject in town that always provokes an argument. “Around here, we don’t talk about politics, religion or sheep,” announces one drinker, modifying the adage on how to avoid disagreements in a pub. But, of course, they do. And there is nothing—perhaps there

never has been anything—quite as contentious to the people of Brightlingsea as the subject of sheep.

More precisely, the controversy surrounds the exportation to France of live sheep from Brightlingsea’s one and only commercial wharf. Until recently, the odds were that the mention of Brightlingsea anywhere else in England would have elicited a blank stare. Now, the name of this normally somnolent village of 7,500 people— nestled in the farming country of East Anglia, an hour’s drive from London—is synonymous with mob violence. Almost every day since January, the village has been the site of snarling street battles between animal-welfare activists, who oppose the export of live animals, and police under judicial orders to ensure that the still per-

Violent protests over animal rights rock an English town

fectly legal trade is allowed to continue.

In effect, the debate pits the British public’s celebrated love of four-legged creatures (“When I die,” goes the Irish saying, “I want to come back as a priest—or an Englishman’s dog), against the French love for fresh meat and a “Butchered in France” stamp. French wholesalers insist that lambs and veal calves be shipped across the Channel alive so that they can be freshly slaughtered for domestic tastes. What enrages

British animal-rights activists is that, once in France, the animals are kept virtually stationary in small crates, often for several weeks, to ensure more tender meat. Britain banned such confinement in 1990 on the grounds of cruelty, but the Tory government has been unable to get its European partner to change its epicurean habits. Meanwhile, English, Welsh and Scottish farmers remain heavily dependent on the trade.

Protests began in earnest last year at several English harbors and airports, and the peaceful pressure led large ferry operators and even British Airways to stop carrying livestock. But as smaller, private exporters picked up the slack, the protests against the $420-million annual trade turned violent, particularly in ports such as Dover and Brightlingsea, and at Coventry airport. In February, 26-year-old Jill Phipps was struck and killed by a truck hauling veal calves when she tried to stop it from entering Coventry airport Brigitte Bardot showed up for Phipps’s funeral, and soon she was being heralded as the movement’s first martyr. Last month, four policemen were injured in Brightlingsea when they were hit in the face by eggs filled with paint. Animalwelfare groups tried to distance themselves from the attack, arguing that far-left extremists had infiltrated their demonstration. “No true animal lover would do that to an egg,” says an earnest Marion Simmons of Com-

passion in World Farming. Even so, exporters and their families have been threatened and their homes attacked. And last month, a letter bomb was detected and dismantled en route to Agriculture Minister William Waldegrave’s home.

In Brightlingsea, elderly men and women have stood alongside mothers with young children to scream “scum,” “bastards” and much worse in the faces of police, some of whom accept the taunts more gracefully than others. Seniors have used their canes, and younger protesters their placards, to beat on the sides of the livestock trucks as they pass through town, guided by police vans and a phalanx of several dozen officers on foot. Predictably, television news teams eagerly broadcast it all to the nation—which, predictably, spawned

larger and larger protests. Occasionally, a more anarchistic political fringe element from outside Brightlingsea has joined in: bands of anti-government extremists who are always on the lookout for an opportunity to hurl abuse—or perhaps something sharper—at police.

The bad publicity has made Brightlingsea a place best avoided. And that has stirred resentment in the village from those who say the protesters are bad for business. “It

is only a minority who are protesting, but they are destroying this town,” says Roy Field, who owns The Anchor Pub, a weathered Victorian building on the waterfront next to the controversial wharf. But emotions run so high in town that Field says the editors of the local paper, The Evening Gazette, will not even run his letters condemning the protests, “in the interest of my own safety.”

They seem more worried than the pub owner. The pugnacious Field invites crews from the cargo ships to come ashore and drink at the Anchor. For that, he says, he has endured a boycott of his pub by protesters—“I wouldn’t have their lot in here anyways—too foulmouthed,” he declares—although a few occasionally linger outside and swear at anyone with the moral laxity or the political temerity to drink at the Anchor. “People see the mobs on TV and they stay away from Brightlingsea,” complains a sad-eyed Christine Simms, who owns the Swan Inn on the main street Simms, acknowledging that business is “definitely down,” adds that she and her husband never join the arguments that rage just across the bar. “It’s a tight community: you’ve got peo-

Lines have been drawn in the village. Those opposed to the campaign to ban live exports are known locally as “antis,” as in anti-protestor, and are clearly not as well organized. Recruitment is much easier on the side of the lambs. “For the majority of these people, it’s the first time they have ever demonstrated against anything,” says local left-wing activist Bob Rayner, who supports the protests. To Rayner, it is ironic that Brightlingsea residents stood by while coal was shipped to Europe through its port in defiance of the mid-1980s miners’

ple in this town who have never been outside Brightlingsea in their life,” she says. “If you offend one person, you can offend a whole lot.”

strike. “I must admit that the big eyes of the sheep sticking out of the lorries look much more appealing than a pair of scruffy miners,” he says.

But Margaret Thatcher’s England, with its embrace of commerce at any cost, now seems far off. These days, businessman Roger Mills, who owns the company that transports the sheep, is seldom mentioned in animal rights circles without his full unofficial title: East Anglia’s Angel of Death.

“Mr. Mills: you revolt me. I hope you rot in hell,” reads one protest sign posted in Brightlingsea. And that one also hangs in the window of the harbormaster’s office. All along the Colne Road leading to the harbor, windows are plastered with photographs of livestock jammed into suffocatingly close quarters. The most popular poster is a coloring-book effort by “emma, aged 7,” which shows lambs crowded onto a ship’s deck with the evocative, if hardly catchy, line: “This is too cruel. Leave them where they are.”

Until recently, the protesters were a curious mix of middle-class housewives, hunting opponents, anti-highway protesters and dreadlocked New Agers. And there was a

certain English civility, a political choreography, to the protests, which are now in their fifth month. Some protesters still say “good morning” to policemen before shifting to the usual cries of “shame” as the trucks pass by. But as the cost of policing the trade soared, officials moved to snuff out the demonstrations. Suddenly, organizers faced three-month jail sentences if their demonstrations got out of hand. The issue of animal rights became clouded by civil

rights—and more radical elements joined in the protests.

“These animal lovers say to us: ‘If you are not here for the animals, go away,’ ” says John Tipple, 40, an activist in the 10,000-member Socialist Workers Party (SWP) with a nationwide reputation for provoking police to violence. “I think they are all hypocrites. They have no concern at all for humans.” To Tipple, the egg-throwing in Brightlingsea was simply “bad tactics,” and Brigitte Bardot is “a fascist.” But in battle, he says, “it is necessary to link arms against a common enemy.”

Tipple sees the fight as another chapter in the grand confrontation between capital and labor. But the origins of Brightlingsea’s civil war may be less universal. The wharf itself, and the heavy commercial traffic it attracts along the one narrow road into town, have been controversial since the 1970s. Over the years, the town council gradually restricted the wharf traffic to grain—denying permission to ship timber and cement through the village. Now, many people see the wharf owner’s decision to ship livestock through Brightlingsea as a mischievous way to strike back at the town. “It’s a feudal fight about who will run the town,” says Rayner.

“We were really a happy, reasonable community until all this started.”

But healing the wounds may not be as difficult as many believe. Even in the Railway Tavern, there is general support for the principle of kindness to animals. The customers listen intently as one man recounts a “true story” of Australian shippers pushing hundreds of live sheep overboard in the Persian Gulf after the cargo was turned away from a Bahraini port. “Bloody Aussies,” exclaims Finlayson, bolting upright again. “If they had to kill the sheep, they should have put a bullet in each of their heads. But drown them? Now that’s barbaric.”

BRUCE WALLACE