Reflections on Mother City Hop 2016, South Africa’s inaugural swing festival

Lindy hop has had a presence in Cape Town for nearly 5 years, since Jeannie Elliott moved to Cape Town from Texas to further her studies, and started teaching lindy hop classes to a handful of keen individuals who’d been learning from YouTube. We discovered Jeannie’s classes while looking for something to dance at our wedding and were hooked from day one… We’d been taking classes with Boogie Back Dance Co. for a little over a year when we found ourselves at the Orient Lindy Express in Istanbul: Turkey was our chosen destination for our (delayed) honeymoon, and we found out about the festival the day we arrived – couldn’t believe our luck! Those four days were pretty much mind-blowing to our fresh faces, and it dawned on us that we could maybe create a similar experience to Cape Town: first, to inspire our local dancers and second, to connect our beautiful city to lindy hoppers around the world.

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Just a few of the organising team! From left: David, me!, Ros, Laura, Lise-Mari

We assembled a team and started planning in early 2015. Our first major decision was on the scale of the event: would it be small, bringing in one teaching couple and advertising it mainly to local dancers? Or would it be big, with several teaching couples, attracting dancers from other continents? Or would it be something in between? At that point, most of our team felt that a big event would not be viable as it would require a large capital outlay (to pay for flights, accommodation and venues): we’d be better off “starting small” and growing the event each year. On the flip side, we were concerned that, ironic as it sounded, starting small would be a greater financial risk: there would be no international interest, and there wouldn’t be enough local interest either – our scene was too small to support even one teaching couple flying to Cape Town for the weekend (and besides, the parties would be small and dismal!). On the other hand, if we went big, we could attract a lot of international dancers (Cape Town reached no. 1 on the NY Times destinations list in 2014) – and then attract more local dancers because of the high profile of the event. We decided to go big! (Note: big by small-festival standards 🙂 )

How to pull off a big event with a big budget, but zero financial capital? Crowd fund it, of course! We set up an Indiegogo campaign – which itself took a lot of planning – but the platform was great: it allowed us to sell “ early bird” tickets and merchandise as part of the fundraising effort, as well as accept donations – and all of the promised funds would only be processed at the end of the campaign, if we met our minimum target. Thanks to the Frankie Manning Foundation, we were awarded the Ambassador Scholarship to attend Herräng Dance Camp (a trip that we would not normally be able to afford) so we timed the crowd-funding period to overlap with our trip. This gave us an opportunity to connect in person, with dancers and scene leaders from around the world, and tell them about Cape Town and our dream for Mother City Hop, South Africa’s first international Lindy Hop event. The enthusiastic reception that the project received was really encouraging, and we reached our goal with a few days to spare – thanks in large part to the support of the international lindy hop community. Our teachers – Peter Strom, Naomi Uyama, Thomas Blacharz, Remy Kouakou Kouame and Chazz Young – were generous too, and their willingness to reduce their rates for this event helped make it financially viable.

We met our minimum target and went full steam ahead with the planning: booking flights, setting up the new ticketing platform, working on sponsorship proposals (very challenging without a track-record and no photographs or videos and a bit of a dead end this year). In terms of ticket sales, we had amazing support from international dancers, who made up almost 70% of our attendees. Our local scene is quite small, and getting new lindy hoppers to buy a fairly pricey ticket to a 3-day event is quite a big ask, we realised. With that in mind, we knew we had to push for more support from “globe-trotting lindy hoppers” from other countries who’d be keen to visit our beautiful city.

Once the Indiegogo campaign was over, we switched to a local ticketing platform (which for ticket sales, is considerably less expensive). In the end we sold about 170 tickets, just over half of which were from outside South Africa and representing 17 different countries including Germany, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, the UK, US, Belgium, Reunion Island and Brazil. The Frankie Manning Foundation stepped in again to enable us to invite our closest lindy hopping neighbours: a group of Mozambican dancers and musicians from Hodi Maputo Afro Swing. This wonderful group of professional Afro Swing dancers incorporate their traditional Mozambican dancing with the Lindy Hop – resulting in amazing, high energy performances. Their presence at Mother City Hop and their stunning performances made a very special contribution that wowed our guests locals alike.

One of the ticketing options we offered was a “tour package”, to help our guests make the most of their stay in Cape Town: a hike up Table Mountain, picnic on the beach, an exploration of the Peninsula and the dramatic Cape Point, a trip to Robben Island (where former president Nelson Mandela was held prisoner for 18 years) and other historic locations, and a day in the winelands for wine and chocolate tastings. This was a great way for dancers to get to know each other as well as the teachers, who also joined the tours, in a non-dancing context. We ended the tours in Stellenbosch and hosted our welcome party there, on a beautiful wine estate.

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Our guests of honour at the festival were Chazz Young and Norma Miller, once again thanks to the Frankie Manning Foundation, who loaned us funds to bring them to South Africa. However, Norma was sadly unable to join us due to passport issues – instead we Skyped her in for a live interview with Chazz, where Peter Strom kindly facilitated the interview. Hearing their stories from “back in the day”, about the Savoy, Frankie, showbiz, and the changing times, made a substantial impact on the local dancers who’d never met the “old-timers”. And Norma was pretty hilarious, too – she sure doesn’t hold back on the jokes!

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Our festivities continued with the teacher introductions (watch the video!) and the dancing got underway with live music from the Swanky Doodles. The classes ran for the following three days (three lindy hop tracks and one solo jazz track), with taster classes in Mozambican Dancing with Hodi Maputo Afro Swing, Steals with Thomas, Frankie’s Favourites with Peter and Naomi, Tap with Chazz, and the Caribbean Shim Sham with Remy. Being so far from most of the swing world, taking classes with these amazing teachers was a first for almost all of our local dancers and the difference in everyone’s dancing was evident from just those 3 days.

The party on Saturday night was our feature event with nothing but live music all night, as well as performances from the teachers and Mozambicans. It went remarkably smoothly considering that we were forced to change venues just a week before the event! The 18-piece Delft Big Band (a social project that brings young adults out of the township and into a musical career) and the Swanky Doodles traded sets, filling the hall with swinging jazz standards and some of South Africa’s township jazz favourites, and Cape Town saw the biggest lindy hop social floor it had ever seen – that alone was a real inspiration!

From left: Brendan, me, Thomas, Chazz, Naomi, Peter, Remy

From left: Brendan, me, Thomas, Chazz, Naomi, Peter, Remy

After Mother City Hop, a group of us from South Africa, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Germany and Brazil joined the Mozambicans back in Maputo for the Mozambique Afro Swing Exchange. As the only two lindy hop scenes on the Southern African continent, we figured it was best to join forces and put these two first-time events back-to-back. More on that in another post…

This was me for a lot of the weekend

Brendan MC’ing the Jack ‘n Jill, Mother City-style

All in all – we’re so grateful for all the support we had from our attendees (to both events!) who trusted us despite our inexperience, and who brought some wonderful friendly vibes to our city. A heartfelt thanks goes to the Frankie Manning Foundation who helped us make this event extra special and more widely accessible, as well as the donations that came from a handful of generous dancers around the world. More than anything, we’re especially grateful to the incredible team that came together, got as excited as we were from the start, and made this project happen despite numerous challenges and set-backs.

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Get your calendars out and pencil in our dates for Mother City Hop 2017: 19 – 27 March!

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Two years

Today marks two years since I married this guy (and eight years and a day since we started dating). I can hardly believe how lucky we are to have found each other. Of course he’s my best friend – but he’s also the most wonderfully loving, kind, fun, supportive, generous, adventurous, thoughtful, inspiring human being. The most amazing thing about being with someone for so long and living and working so closely is noticing how you grow together and shape each other in a way that would have been inconceivable if you hadn’t met.

Our wedding is testament to how wonderful life is with you, B: watching this video, I have such happy memories of that weekend with our family and so many of our friends – the ceremony that we personalised to suit our beliefs and preferences, the emotional high (I’ve never seen you cry that much, haha), the incredible food and the weeks of work with friends and family and Laetitia that went into preparing it (such a pity the video doesn’t do it any justice), the noob first dance, Max!, the most incredible gift of song from Caitlin, Phil, Matt, Mark (I’m so so happy it’s captured on video – I get so emotional whenever I watch it), the wild party that ensued with Manouche, the wonderful, joyful celebration with so many people… Ah the memories!

B, I love how you’ve influenced me and I friggin love everything you are and everything you’ve become. Here’s to many many more years of loving you and loving life – dancing, cooking, eating, talking, sharing and who knows what else! ❤

Herräng update #1

Herräng. Where to start….
Herräng is a tiny, sleepy town in Sweden that used to be a mining town and now has just 500 inhabitants and some holiday homes. It’s picturesque and quaint, with red-and-white houses, bicycles (ok, cars too), birch woods, tiny daisies and magpies. The locals put up with the dance camp craziness and are seen to enjoy the occasional game of boulle. It’s surprisingly warm so far, and the little lake behind the Folkets Hus (town hall) has a couple of boats that are itching to be rowed out. The beach, well, isn’t so impressive. But then Cape Town beaches are tough to beat…
Every year the town is transformed for the Herräng Dance Camp, which has been running annually for the last three decades. It started as a week long camp with a small group of dancers, and was a bit of a boot camp with exercise and training in addition to the dancing. Since then it has grown to a massive, 7-week operation (including set up and take down) with thousands of dancers from all over the world. The Folkets Hus (or town hall) is the main hub, with the upstairs hall being used as the main dance venue and the Daily Meetings, the Dans Baan below (another floor for social dancing), the Library (which contains no books but is a wonderful place where all kinds of things happen – last night there was a Honky Tonk evening, the night before a talk and demo on Bebop Swing). There are also Frankie Floats (vanilla ice cream with root beer) on sale between 11pm and 2am, and there’s a whole wall dedicated to Frankie’s memory. We eat lunch at the Blue Moon Café, just above Bar Bedlam (downstairs in Folkets Hus), which serves breakfast, dinner, snacks and expensive drinks (alcohol is insanely pricey in Sweden).

Outside the Folkets Hus, there’s the Reception, the Lindy Hop Shop (second hand vintage wear, lindy heels, Keds, Frankie Manning-branded merchandise, tie pins, pantyhose etc), Tingle Tangle the Event Tent (fuseball, chess, cards, boardgames) and the Prop Shop (bits and bobs for costumes). There’s also the bicycle shed.

The school area is also transformed into temporary accommodation, with rows of bunk beds for dancers. Heaven’s Kitchen (buffet breakfast and dinner, surprisingly good vegan options!), the Ice Cream Parlour (I kinda feel like ice cream is an essential Herräng experience, it’s tough being vegan sometimes!), and a bunch of semi-permanent tents (Savoy, Smalls, Alhambra, Palladium and Roseland ballrooms) with wooden dance floors and sound systems for classes. (Yes that’s 7 class venues in total, all running in parallel!)

This description doesn’t do Herräng justice, but maybe a sketch of the Daily Meetings will help to convey the atmosphere.

Every day at 9pm, after dinner and before the dance floors open, the upper hall in Folkets Hus fills up and the stage curtains open with dramatic music, as Lennart enters under a spot light, with a stool in one hand and notes and microphone in the other, to applause and whistles. The Meeting proceeds with impromptu teacher interviews, video clips from the archives, many jokes, sometimes a performance (on the first night we had a chorus line performance in the style of dancers from the 20s). Even the Daily News is a mini cabaret performance by a Swiss yodeller. 

Lennart is a central personality of Herräng Dance Camp. He was part of the original group in the 80s who started HDC, after discovering clips of dance scenes from movies shot in the 50s. The style they danced originally was more like boogie woogie (which is very popular in Germany and Sweden today, but is pretty similar to lindy actually, the music is just a bit different – more on this later). Later they tracked down Frankie Manning, one of the original African American lindy hoppers from the 40s, who was a key figure in the Harlem scene. They brought him to Herräng, and he started teaching Savoy style lindy hop. From then, HDC grew and grew, and Frankie was an integral part of the camp and the main influence on the swing revival of the 90s.

Every evening after the meeting (which is more of a talk show really), there are a bunch of activities to choose from. There are evening classes, held by anyone who feels like it and not necessarily swing related. Anything from “How to speak Australian” to “Killer Boogie in 2 minutes”. In the Library (that has no books), there are interviews with teachers, lectures on all things swing, music tasters and what not. There are games in the Event Tent and other happenings as they announce themselves, and of course, the dance floors are open each night with a live band and/or DJ. The Carling Family Band played twice this week. A remarkable group of talented musicians that had the dance floor packed! The music plays until breakfast the next morning, or when the last dancers leave the floor. Needless to say, sleeping patterns are weird at HDC. On Tuesday nights the dance floor opens at midnight with Slow Drag night. Everyone is dressed in their best, the lights are low, and dances are in close embrace. Fridays are the themed parties, where a dedicated team dresses up the hall accordingly and everyone goes crazy with costumes. This Friday is 4th of July (‘Murica!).

So far this week, we’ve had classes for about 3.5 hours a day. The audition process was interesting, worth describing perhaps. When you register for HDC, you select a level (beginner, beginner-intermediate, intermediate, intermediate-advanced or advanced). On day 1, you go to a peer audition: each person gets a slip of paper with their names in a series of blocks. You social dance for half a song with a random person, tear off a block, exchange blocks, rate your enjoyment of the dance from 1-6, and drop it in a box. Rotate to the next random person, and repeat 5 times. That night, a group of volunteers labours through the slips of paper, to divide the groups into streams.

The next day, we had more auditions. We danced in rotations while a few teachers watched, shifting people up (into advanced) or down (into intermediate) and the rest stay (intermediate-advanced).

The advanced class is pretty big, with about 25 couples. We’re still kinda stuck in old times here, with all-male leads and all-female follows, although we did swap roles in one class with Hasse and Marie (more on that later) – they’re my favorite teachers so far, we had three classes with them yesterday. We’ve also had two classes with Tatiana and JB (they’re amazing dancers, currently on the competitive scene), three with Kevin and Jo (full of jokes: “Balls!” and “Kevin’s a dancer…”), and one with Lennart and Alessandra.

So that’s a sweeping description of Herräng so far, we’ll write up some more descriptions of various aspects of the camp.

Today we’re chilling a bit after a late Slow Drag night. Humongous group picture in front of the Folkets Hus this afternoon, a couple of classes, dinner, Daily Meeting, taster class, dancing, then a “secret” blues party at 2am where the leads will be blindfolded 😝

This week has been intense so far, and a bit short on sleep, but an absolute blast.

HERRÄNG!

Alright, flights are booked and I think it’s time to share the news properly:

WE’RE GOING TO HERRÄNG DANCE CAMP!!!

Yeah… What is that, you say? Well, it’s only the biggest and longest-running lindy hop camp in the world. Take this in: 5 weeks of (pretty much) 24/7 dancing, with thousands of other dancers of all levels from around the world, with amazing, world-class instructors, huge parties with live bands and DJs, crazy themed dress-ups… Watch the intro vid for the 2015 event here: 

There’s no way we could have afforded to go on this camp. We have been super fortunate to have been awarded an ambassador scholarship by the Frankie Manning Foundation. Frankie was one of the dancers from the original swing era (1930s) and was considered by many to be the father of lindy hop.

The mission of the Frankie Manning Foundation is to carry on the work and the spirit of Frankie Manning in spreading the joy of Lindy Hop, danced to big band swing music, throughout the world.

With the help of generous donors, the foundation works to help dancers from remote, fledgling scenes get to the big dance camps – thereby spreading the lindy hop far and wide. Luckily we ticked some of the right boxes, being lindy-obssessed and in an up-and-coming scene far from the rest of the swing world. The scholarship covers two weeks of classes plus one week’s party pass, and we’ll be volunteering for one week, in exchange for another week of classes.

We can’t wait to go, and also to come back and share what we learnt with our lindy buddies here. We leave Cape Town on the 24th of June, and we’ll spend an extra couple of weeks visiting friends and family in Europe. We’ll be posting updates in case you want to follow them!

Let’s talk about kids

In the past year or two, several of our friends have had kids and it’s got us thinking about starting a family of our own. Calm down! Not right now! But maybe in the next 2 or 3 or 10 years maybe.

[image credit: Reuters]In this regard there are two options: we do what you were thinking earlier… or we adopt. We have been considering the relative pros and cons, but we have discovered that this is not an easy conversation to have with many people. Especially when it comes to the ethical implications.

As with veganism*, people feel judged if we take a stance that is contrary to their lifestyle choices. So, I’m going to try and outline the issues as I see them, and do my best not to cause offence in the process.

Traditionally, people tend to think of having kids (by procreation) as simply the next step after marriage. Some people think of it as their gift to the world and others simply want to make sure that they are looked after in their old age. I think that for most people, it’s an experience that they are after. Bringing up kids, teaching them, playing with them, loving them. A strange mix of selfish (fulfilling a personal desire) and selfless (giving up sleep, time, freedom, finances etc.). Parenthood is certainly something held in high regard by most people in our society. How may people would respond negatively to hearing a friend’s happy announcement? And the positive impact I’ve seen it have on my parenting friends seems to support this notion. So what, then, are the reasons one might choose to forego procreation, in favour of adoption?

Overpopulation is an issue that amplifies most of the Big Global Challenges and yet it is a direct result of personal decisions. “But,” you might say, “if I have no more than 2.2 children I don’t actually grow the population in the long term”. That’s fair enough, but the accumulated environmental impacts of each extra person are quite staggering when you think about it. The fuel, the CO2, the land use, the waste. And if you factor in their children and the resulting future generations, things spiral rapidly.

On the flip side, we all imagine our kids bringing world peace, or at the very least having a positive impact on their communities.

So how do we weigh up these pros and cons? The most compelling argument for adoption that I have come across points out that almost all the pros for having kids apply equally to adopting. Surely, your adopted kid is no less likely to change the world than your biological one. And on top of that, you are providing a home for a kid who might otherwise grow up without parents.

From a more philosophical perspective, Prof David Benatar, in his anti-natalist book ‘Better Never To Have Been’, points out that you do no harm to a baby that does not exist by choosing not to create it. It doesn’t exist to be harmed or helped. On the contrary, you do do harm by bringing a child into the world that will, at least to some degree, suffer because of it. On the other hand, adopting a child that already exists, does a great deal of good. Now I’m not sure that I’m on board with anti-natalism in general (although perhaps I should reread that book) but maybe in the world as it is today, this is not such an extreme position.

So what are the remaining arguments for procreation, over adoption? The most common one that I come across, is that prospective parents are worried about not bonding with a child that does not share their genes. In my (admittedly limited) experience, I have not come across adoptive parents for whom this has a been a problem. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a real concern for people. The other common reason is the experience of pregnancy and birth. Not that these are necessarily as dreamy as we can imagine, but they are certainly life-changing experiences for many people. But are they enough to justify bringing a whole new person into existence? We’re weighing a few intense months and some really intense hours against a whole lifetime, which one would still have with an adopted child. And add to that the avoided harm of a parentless lifetime that that child might have had.

Perhaps one thing worth acknowledging in this debate is that we all make selfish decisions on a daily basis. So why single out procreation? This is a fair point. My perspective on it is that this is one of the most profound and impactful decisions that you will make in your life, so perhaps it’s worth some extra attention.

If you follow the arguments presented here to conclusion, you might think I’m suggesting that any procreation at all is wrong. On the contrary, in a perfect world I’d imagine that everyone should be able to choose to procreate or not. But in an overpopulated, resource-constrained world, with a huge excess of parentless children, I wonder whether we shouldn’t start by providing loving homes for those, before we create more cute little mouths to feed.

According to this report, roughly 40% of kids brought into the world are unintended. That’s a scary statistic, given that contraceptives (and, whether you like it or not, abortions*) have given most of us the tools to separate sex and childbirth. Surely this is the cause of overpopulation? We’re talking close to 140,000 of the 350,000 or so new babies born each day (take a moment to think about that number) that were not deliberately intended. Well yes, this is a big factor, but that doesn’t relieve each of us from the moral implications of our conscious choice to add to an overburdened planet.

The last line of defence most people offer at this point is : “Ok, so adoption is great, but you can do both!”. The reality is that kids are not cheap. There is a very real financial limit on the number of kids we could support. So each child we create means one less child adopted. One more child that grows up in an orphanage, or in a home where it is not wanted.

So do you have biological kids already? Does this make you a bad person? Am I saying you should regret having them? No, I’m not judging you or saying the world would be better off if you hadn’t had them. I’m just trying to get my head around this issue and concluding (so far) that I’m not sure that I can justify procreating. If you found anything I have written here offensive please let me know so that I can learn how to talk about this more sensitively.

I’d like to hear your thoughts on this. Whether you agree with me or not, please keep in mind that this is an emotionally charged topic for many people, so be gentle in expressing your opinion online. (In person, hit me with your views, I’m hard to offend.)

*blog post to come

Hello 2015

I started 2015 on a good footing: with a glass of water, a sun salutation to loosen up the hamstrings and wake up my back, followed by a good cup of strong Rwandan coffee. There’s something about January 1st that imbues me with positivity. It’s a nifty psychological trick, I’m sure it’s only a self-propelled mind game. Regardless, I think it’s harmless, in fact, pretty great. I’m super excited about 2015. There are some game-changing events on the horizon, and a positive attitude will help me make the most of them! So, here’s my (long?) list of New Year’s Resolutions. Perhaps it’s ambitious, but I might as well shoot high.

  • Personal growth:
    • smile more, and laugh more;
    • be more patient;
    • schedule my productive time;
    • improve my morning habit: make the bed, drink a glass of water, do a sun salutation, then have my coffee;
    • wean myself off sugar in coffee (I’m on a half-teaspoon now…);
    • do more for animals;
    • support the Big Issue more regularly;
    • write daily, even just a little, and blog regularly;
    • get back into the habit of reading a novel at bedtime and on weekends.
  • Family:
    • have more coffee/movie/dinner/hiking dates with my family
  • Friends:
    • stay in touch (or get back in touch) with the special people in my life that I don’t see enough (you know who you are, please hold me to this!)
  • Home:
    • keep the floor a no-clothes zone;
    • make dish-washing an obsessive habit;
    • do a monthly clean-out;
    • track my finances more diligently.
  • Lindy:
    • bounce more;
    • style more;
    • work on my responsiveness as a follow;
    • start learning to lead.
  •  Ballet:
    • work on my posture;
    • work on my feet for a better arch;
    • strengthen my core for better stability;
    • work on my feet and legs for better jumps;
    • work on my back and hamstrings for a higher and stronger arabesque;
    • do a bit of cross training.

The key to achieving these goals will be to keep them realistic and achievable, and measurable where possible, with regular check-ins. On the first of every month, I’ll refer back to this post to see where I’m at, and whether I need to re-evaluate anything.

Oh and one final resolution: I want to be more conscious about how I influence others. I want to make a positive impact on the world, and I think that’s best achieved with a positive attitude. My veganism has taken me through periods of frustration, despair and sadness, but it has also given me reason to hope for a better world, thanks to all the wonderful vegans I’ve met in the last few years. Here’s to a 2015 full of inspiration for others to join the path of compassion and justice for animals.

Love!

#myveganstory | Brendan

We live in a world that’s so messed up, it seems nothing we can do will make any real difference. What can I do about Famine? Violence? Disease? Climate change? Deforestation? Pollution? Over fishing? The list seems endless and each problem insurmountable. My vegan story began when I realized that there was one simple thing I could do, to not only reduce my contribution to many of these problems, but also become part of the solution.

Animal agriculture is the number one cause of almost every environmental disaster you can name: from deforestation to climate change; from over fishing to desertification. Add to that the enormous inefficiency of growing plants to feed to animals instead of eating them directly; the majority of antibiotics produced are used on animals and the majority of infectious diseases come from animals. When I discovered that on top of these there were negative impacts of animal products on our health via obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer, I really had to ask: is it necessary?

But by far the most persuasive reason I discovered to stop eating animals and their ‘products’ relates to the hypocrisy I saw in myself. I love animals, I’m crazy about my dogs and cats and even the chickens we used to have as pets. I would never do anything to harm an animal and would go out of my way to help animals in distress. And yet I was funding the most barbaric mistreatment of pigs, cows, sheep, chickens and fish (not to mention dogs, rabbits, rats and mice used in cosmetics and pharmaceutical testing). As if they were different to the other animals I loved. This sort of discrimination is identical to racism and sexism.

But as I discovered, there is great news: we can opt out! We can thrive on a diet that avoids, as far as possible, the use of animals. And while we’re at it, we get bonus health points, and massively reduce our environmental impact to boot.

Everyone has to eat. If you’re looking for a new-year’s resolution why not choose to make a difference with every meal in January.