On The Level | Viva! - The Vegan Charity

On The Level

Jeremy Cunningham

The Levellers are chart top tenners, they play to sell-out concerts across Europe and are figureheads for travellers and ‘crusties’. Juliet Gellatley talks to their vegetarian, ex-traveller in chief

The Levellers! It’s a name that smacks of political rebellion or religious zeal – like the Diggers or Quakers. But this group has no pretensions about charting a path to salvation – in fact they’ve given up on the human race. Or, more accurately, Jeremy Cunningham has – the bass guitarist in this hugely successful, Brighton-based band.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that he doesn’t care, he does – about human rights, animal rights and the state of the world. When success came to call some years ago, he determined to keep sharp his hard edge of concern and has contempt for those bands who swapped rebellion for Versace as soon as the dosh started to roll in. This has ensured a faithful following of fans who still see the Levellers as not having sold out, even after 13 years.

Jeremy Cunningham thinks a lot of things are wrong but there’s no way this friendly guy, with his red dreadlocks and enough tattoos to make Popeye jealous, is going to take on a leadership role:

“Everybody must think things through for themselves. But if things carry on as they are it will catch up with all of us and the whole world will fall to bits – and we’ll have deserved it.”

Jeremy is one of those people who commands respect when he speaks – you can’t help but listen. Despite that, he thinks the Levellers have had little effect.

“We’ve made people think about things such as the Criminal Justice Bill but politically, I don’t think we’ve made a blind bit of difference. We’ve made people think, but we haven’t made them act. I always thought if we got to the stage of playing the big arenas there would be some sign of change, but there hasn’t been.”

Jeremy hugs his beautiful big German Shepherd dog, Did – a companion he obviously adores because we stray off the subject of vegetarianism and share doggy talk for half-an-hour. Did is short for Didicoy – a slang name for fairground people. Jeremy rescued him from just such a group when Did was only three months old. He was destined to spend his life in a small cage as a living intruder alarm. That was eight years ago.

Jeremy Cunningham defies all ‘pop star’ stereotyping. He doesn’t trash hotel rooms, shout rude words into the camera lens or throw up at celeb junkets. He is so level headed that he gives Mr Spock a run for his money. Like Spock, he’s straight to the point – a spade’s a spade kind of thing. But unlike Spock, he laughs a lot, has a huge sense of fun and is instantly likeable. You somehow expect him to be full of hope for the future. Not a bit of it!

“The whole world now runs on the consumerist system and, realistically, I can’t see a way of changing it because everybody’s locked into it. It would have to be one great big ****ing revolution. I can’t see it happening because people are too apathetic. I’m depressed because I’m a realist.”

Sounds like the lanky old Scotsman in Dad’s Army – ‘We’re doomed, Captain Mainwaring, we’re all doomed!’ But then I wouldn’t be honest if I said that no such thoughts had ever crossed my mind.

Jeremy’s fatalism hasn’t slipped into nihilism. On a personal level he is still keen and committed to change – otherwise what would be the point of remaining veggie 15 or 20 years down the line?

The Levellers – almost vertical  

“My main reason for going veggie was to opt out, just like I’ve opted out in other ways. I’ve rejected the cruelty and the politics that lie behind it all. It didn’t happen overnight, I kind of drifted into it because it was much cheaper cooking veggie food.

“But then I’d go home and my Mum would cook meat and I’d eat it just to please her. In the end I had to say: “No, I’m not going to eat meat any more.” I felt this big weight lift from me. In fact, I might as well be a vegan because I don’t eat eggs or cheese – but it’s the milk chocolate that gets me.”

How often have I heard that!

“My Mum and Dad are good people who love animals but who still walk past a meat counter in Sainsburys and don’t see anything wrong. I’ll point out that what they’re looking at is dead pig or cow and they’ll say: ‘Yes we know what happens but we don’t want to think about it.’ That’s their generation but I don’t think there’s any excuse for younger people not thinking about it. Even if in the end you make the decision that you can go along with the slaughterhouses and all the cruelty, you must at least think it through for yourself.”

Jeremy spent years on the road as a traveller. I’ve never seen travellers as a threat to society – nicking a bit of kindling occasionally and urinating in the woods is hardly the stuff of villainy. In fact, one of the most shocking pieces of news footage I’ve ever seen involved a convoy of travellers – but it wasn’t they who disturbed me, it was the riot police.

Inside one bus, a heavily-pregnant woman was pleading with them not to destroy her vehicle. “Please don’t, it’s my home, it’s all I’ve got.” They smashed everything they could in the neatly-converted coach – sinks, cupboards, crockery, personal possessions – and broke all the windows. They destroyed her home, knocked her to the ground and dragged her screaming off the bus. The ITV company which filmed it later ‘lost’ the footage.

Jeremy was one of the victims – and this physical assault was followed by a legal assault, effectively criminalising travellers.

“I was one for about 10 years. I was my own master, I wasn’t paying rent and I wasn’t living in anyone’s pocket. I was controlling my own life and felt good about it.

“The attacks on travellers were nothing more than scapegoating. The Conservatives had pulled out of the ERM and broken the last of their election promises and immediately started pointing their finger at this group of people. It was to distract attention. We were living outside society and maybe we posed a threat because we offered a different way of doing things not based on money.”

And for Jeremy, of course, and many other travellers, that includes not exploiting animals.

“Animals aren’t stupid. They can smell the blood when they’re going off to the slaughterhouse and might well know they’re about to be killed. They can certainly tell that something’s not right and that other creatures have been killed nearby. A friend of mine went into a slaughter house under cover and brought back all these photographs and I just don’t know how she managed to cope with that.”

Unusually, Jeremy doesn’t find it strange that people can act so cruelly.

“I used to call myself an anarchist, which requires an inherent belief in the goodness of humankind, that man can look after himself and treat others as he would expect to be treated. Problem is, I don’t really believe that any more. It seems the biggest will always batter the smallest so it doesn’t surprise me that people do that to animals because they also do it to each other. It’s encouraged, it’s part of the capitalist system where profit is everything, to keep the shareholders happy. The legalised death and destruction spread by the tobacco industry typifies it.

“It’s a global, multinational world. It’s here and now and no government’s gonna do anything without the say so of these people. Unfortunately, they control everything.”

And of course, when you look at the meat industry, he’s absolutely right. Livestock and the fodder which feeds them has become the main drive of world trade and it’s why hamburger companies are spreading through the developing world like a rash.

“I always wondered how many cows it must take to supply McDonalds and Burger King. When I look at them, I think there’s something really sinister in the background because they’re so huge – they’re everywhere.

“It’s shocking that we have no control over them and I know that one day something will happen – just because it always does. Nuclear accidents like Three Mile Island and Chernobyl and then BSE and GMOs. This kind of mass production is wrong on many levels, not least morally. But try and tell people and they think you’re a loony, lefty nutcase trying to spoil their meat and two veg.”

Beneath all the cynicism, Jeremy Cunningham does have optimism, born out of personal experience.

“I believe that alternative lifestyles and alternative politics can succeed but on a smaller scale. We lived in Amsterdam on an island site that included travellers and permanent homes that people built themselves. It looked like a bit of a shanty town but it wasn’t meant to be glamorous.

  Juliet with Jeremy at the Levellers’ studio – complete with Viva! posters!

“It had its own economy and grew most of its food, which we traded with squats in Amsterdam. Some people busked, others did craft jobs and some had regular jobs but simply preferred this style of life. Between us, we built our own bar which was our meeting place and where different bands played. They were nice days. For it to work, everybody has to care about everybody else because if one person feels they’re being excluded they can screw the whole thing up, even without meaning to, just by sowing the seeds of dissent.”

Like so many other things in life, The Levellers might never have come together – it was purely happenstance. Jeremy was broke and tried to sell his guitar to Mark Chadwick. But it didn’t work out that way.

“We got together with a group of friends and plugged in and immediately I knew it was something special. We didn’t have anything else to do so we put everything into writing songs. We then played the travellers’ festivals, squats and places that no one else would play. Our support grew and grew and we looked for a record deal but no one would sign us. One producer said: ‘I know you’ve got big support but those people don’t buy records, they steal them.’

“It all came together at the big summer festivals like Glastonbury when we played to huge audiences. The money we made went into our own record label which is how we got our first records out. It’s what we’re still doing.”

Their music is hard to define – it rocks, it rolls, it has lyrics, it has meaning, it’s rootsie stuff laced with a touch of fiddle folk and held together with two-fingered punk. It’s unique – and very, very listenable. No wonder they’ve got a huge following.

But somehow it doesn’t seem very punky to play a benefit gig at Crawley Leisure centre to help keep the local accident and emergency department stay open! Outside society but helping to keep it functioning. I love it!

Jeremy isn’t the only vegetarian among the five Levellers – in fact there are three and one lapsed. It’s Mark again, who gets annoyed when he’s reminded of the issues: “I’m definitely going to go vegetarian again, definitely.” He’s running out of excuses as it gets easier and easier to get good veggie food in Europe, according to Jeremy. Well, most countries.

“In Spain, I explained I was a vegetarian and was given chicken. I raised my eyebrows. The waiter said: ‘Yes, chicken is a vegetable – it’s true. You see chicken doesn’t think!”

For some time now the Levellers have been including leaflets from anti-vivisection and environmental groups in their fan mailings and I’m pleased to say that Viva!’s will now be joining them. What could be more appropriate for Hello Pig than our Pig in Hell information. Thanks, Jeremy!

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