Among the Cannibals

Among the Cannibals

The Savour of Salt
Ed. George Hendrick & Willene Hendrick
Centaur Press £12.95

IN 1977, Michael Holroyd reviewed George Hendrick’s biography Henry Salt: Humanitarian Reformer And Man of Letters, and suggested that “no-one could be better qualified than Professor Hendrick to edit an anthology of Salt’s writings”.

Here it is; and what is immediately arresting about this handsome volume, coming 50 years after Salt’s death, is its relevance to the times we live through. There are disconcerting moments when it appears that time has stood still. Salt’s concerns are the crises affecting us now.

We are introduced to a warm-hearted and humorous man who was the great friend of Bernard Shaw. “My pastime,” said Shaw, “has been writing sermons in plays, sermons preaching what Salt practised.” Salt wrote more than 40 books, and this careful selection of excerpts gives us a very good idea of the scope of his thought as humanitarian reformer, naturalist and conservationist, man of letters and correspondent.

Henry Salt was born in 1851, and grew up in a privileged Victorian family. He was coached for Eton by the radical Reverend Charles Kegan Paul, who was later behind the publishing firm. Salt entered Eton as a King’s Scholar and was affected deeply by the aura of Shelley which prevailed there. Imbued with the poets ideas, he set out to read Thoreau’s Walden, to his mother’s chagrin. She confiscated the book, and he obtained another copy from a friend. His independence of thought was being strengthened.

At Cambridge he was disappointed by the neglect of “higher social ethics”. He returned to Eton as a Classics master, and a paper by him on Shelley was published in 1875. Bernard Shaw, who at 24 had already established a reputation for wit among his friends, was invited to meet Salt. That same year Shaw became a vegetarian. Salt’s own conversion from flesh-eating had brought a change of attitude: “It had to be preached as well as practised.” He had begun to feel uncomfortable at Eton and was seeing his flesh-eating fellow masters as no better than cannibals. He departed from Eton to live the simple life in 1885.

On Gandhi’s first visit to England in 1889 he came across a book which was to influence him for the rest of his life. He said, “It was Mr Salt’s book, A Plea for Vegetarianism, which showed me why, apart from a hereditary habit, and apart from my adherence to a vow administered to me by my mother, it right to be a vegetarian.”

In 1890, a biography by Salt, The Life of Henry David Thoreau, which is still held in high regard, was published. In 1891, Salt founded The Humanitarian League, and a year later his Animal Rights and Social Progress was published; it was put by a well-wisher in the USA into every public library. Through The Humanitarian League Salt campaigned on many fronts, wherever he saw injustice. As his friend Havelock Ellis told him: “All you lived you wrote, all you wrote you lived.”

The Savour of Salt gives us tastings from his more important works which, as well as vegetarianism and animals’ rights, cover Socialism, flogging, hunting, peace (which “is, in fact, only an armed truce”), prison reform, slaughterhouse reform, and conservation.

With the desecration of Snowdon’s summit he pleaded for the need for a National Park — as it was to become in his lifetime. In the Lake District the National Trust only just came into being in time, judging from Salt’s description of “Coniston’s once beautiful mountain, the Old Man”, which was being dis-figured by copper-mining; the effects are still visible. Salt was told by Ruskin “that he thought the very sky above the mountain-top was poisoned and clou¬ded by the mines.”

The luminaries into whom Salt gives us further insights in this book include Shelley, Thoreau, De Quincey, Shaw, Richard Jefferies and James Thomson. He also wrote poetry himself. Shaw helped to publish his translation of Virgil’s Aeneid in 1928. Here we are given a delightful sample of his poems, which display the amusing manner in which he got unpleasant truths accepted.

Finally, if humanitarian change seems to be dragging its feet, Henry Salt has this to say: “We may take it as certain that, in the long run, as we treat our fellow-beings, ‘the animals’, so shall we treat our fellow-men.”

Rodney Aitchtey

The Independent, 21 December 1989