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Dom Warwick from Punk Lounge interviews author John King about his novel Slaughterhouse Prayer

Slaughterhouse Prayer is a fiction that reveals many truths. Written from a compassionate place, it is sensitive, thoughtful, and there is nothing like it out there. John King has created a piece of literature that explores issues that are of great importance now, and for evermore. Slaughterhouse Prayer should be read by everyone who eats food.” Benjamin Zephaniah

Slaughterhouse Prayer is a book that grabs you by the collar, slams you up against the wall and shoves you through various emotions. The atmosphere of it stays with you for days afterwards; intimidating, heart-rending, brilliant.” Steve Ignorant

“A story beautifully told… The potential for our rebirth, in language and deed, as a better kind of being… Back to the form though, which is stunning, in the only way that term should ever be celebrated. Slaughterhouse Prayer, a captive literary bolt through our collective consciousness. If Upton Sinclair had read the Upanishads…” 3:AM Magazine

What was the motivation for writing the book & does it echo some of your own views / beliefs?

I have been vegetarian or vegan since the early 1980s and find what we do to non-human animals obscene. I think of their terror and how they suffer and wish I could do something to help stop it, so that was my motivation in writing Slaughterhouse Prayer. The novel is rooted in my views and beliefs, but as much in my emotions. A mixture of anger, disgust, sadness. It links into most of the other stuff I have written about over the years – ideas of power, control, exploitation, confusion, innocence, society’s pecking order.

Do you think it will help act as a foil for those that read the book to open their eyes to some of the practices that go on in the meat & dairy industries?

I hope so. But Slaughterhouse Prayer is as much a book about the human condition, the way we are able to shut out the truth if it makes us too uncomfortable, the way we live our lives on a daily basis. At the moment, we stick the issue of animal rights in a box and insist it is unrelated to the rest of society, but that isn’t correct. If you judge a society on how it treats its weakest members then we are clearly failing, while those who profit from the meat and dairy industries insist animals aren’t even a part of that society. Instead we are encouraged to focus on trivia and argue over things that just don’t matter that much.

As you allude to, despite a great deal of sentimentality and claims to be animal lovers, most people tend to throw a blind eye to areas such as the meat & dairy industry, almost throwing a ‘blanket of ignorance’ over this, turning a blind eye. I think this is down to how we have been conditioned. How do you view this?

There are a mixture of reasons I think, but I agree, conditioning is the big one, and it is important to see what drives that conditioning. If you go to India and know something about Hinduism, for instance, you can understand and see how their attitudes towards animals are so much more open than ours. I look at the influence of religion and politics in the novel, our different ways of seeing the world. If we are trained to think in a certain way since the day we are born then it is very hard to change.

Humans are capable of anything if conditioned in a certain way, and yet individuals can and do rebel against this – genuinely rebel – and turn against the dominant view, but that needs real strength as we all want to fit in. Deep down, every single one of us is scared. Nobody wants to end up alone. To stay part of the group, it is much easier to let ourselves be convinced by the propaganda and advertising. This ability to justify the unjustifiable is a defence mechanism I think.

I thik it’s fair to say that some vegans have become extremely militant in their views, which could turn people against animal rights. In some respects this is covered in the book, due to the main character’s on-going soul-searching. What do you think about the ‘direct action’ approach to dealing with animal rights? We read a lot about fox hunting and animal liberation.

If a person understands and really feels what is going on and doesn’t close the truth out then it is hard not to be militant, whether in your thinking or your actions. But as the book tries to show, when it comes to the wider population it has to be a case of hating the sin and not the sinner. There is a lot of hope in the novel I feel, a great deal of positivity about the future. For me, it is only a matter of time before humans progress and one day look back on what we are doing now and feel ashamed.

Seriously attacking people who eat meat and dairy verbally, well, I don’t think that helps the cause. I agree it is counterproductive. People have to be convinced by an argument. And that will usually be an emotional argument. It has to be an emotional argument. For me, sentimentality is a strength. We are not machines and we are talking about sentient creatures who experience emotions such as fear, depression, pain, terror. The majority of us have eaten meat at some point in our lives, and have friends and family who still do, and we know that they are not evil.

As far as direct action is concerned, this is near enough always non-violent and incredibly restrained given the abuse that takes place. I believe direct action that involves damage to property and the saving of lives is fully justified. I have no problem with that at all. I admire those who are brave enough to live their beliefs to that extent, as they face draconian punishments at the hands of the state. I don’t think the wider public have much sympathy for those on the receiving end of such direct action either.

In Slaughterhouse Prayer, the boundary is pushed much further than damaging property, and I was conscious of the dilemma, which is a major part of the story. This centres around three stages of the main character’s life as they relate to his beliefs and conscience. Will prayers and wishful thinking stop the slaughter? Will peaceful protest and the power of words? Is anyone out there listening? These are some of the questions he has to confront.

On the flipside, others ridicule or poke fun at the vegan lifestyle, for example Garry Bushell has written the tongue in cheek song ‘John King is veggie’ for his band The Gonads. This was obviously a bit of fun amongst friends, although his own attempt at turning vegetarian only lasted two weeks. What are your views on this & what do you think would help someone turning to a vegetarian/vegan diet stick to it?

It was odd having a song written about me, but it comes from a friend with a big heart. There is always a deeper element to what Garry does, and he knows the arguments, tried to be vegetarian himself as you rightly say, but only lasted a short while. He attempts to deny it now, and actually blushes when it is brought up, and that is very funny to see. I think he is quite embarrassed that he failed, and so he protests too much, but he will make it in the end. He just has to be strong.

In the song he undermines that idea that a male with empathy is weak or unmanly, as if being a meathead makes you strong. More broadly, that is one of several stereotypes applied to vegans. Another is that it is a middle-class, hippy-type fad, and that working people have more serious things to worry about, which is a load of bollocks as it has never been an either/or situation.

There is another sort of ‘humour’ that is very different, and that is the mocking of animal suffering itself. For instance, someone making fun of an escaped pig being taken back to the slaughterhouse to die, or a young bull being castrated. Stuff like that. Then there are the expressions – ‘hung like a donkey’, ‘fucks like a rabbit’, ‘dirty old cow’. There is a cruelty and perversion there, even when expressed casually. 

As far as sticking to a new diet, it is down to the strength of your beliefs and your willpower I suppose. For me, the decision is a moral one, but others give up meat and dairy for their health and/or environmental reasons. I found it hard at first and lapsed, but only for a short period, and then went back in twice as determined. I think that often happens. And vegetarian naturally leads to vegan. Our tastebuds are used to the food we eat and that gives us cravings, but that can be changed pretty quickly.

My sister Rabbit turned vegetarian when she was six years old. She asked our mum what was in a sausage and stopped there and then. So I had an example, but it took me many years before I had the guts to do it myself, and I think that is true of a lot of people. They know it is right, but we all make excuses and put things off. Having said that, it is very easy today with all the vegan food available. There are few excuses in that sense.

As with several of your books, there is a cultural background, in this case the views and music of the anarcho punk scene, which has a strong bent towards the vegetarian/vegan lifestyle and protesting against animal cruelty. Is this something that was a personal influence?

The music was more of a reflection of what I came to believe than a direct influence, which is probably due to my age and interests at the time, but when we hear a record that captures our feelings – seriously clicks inside our heads – that is incredibly uplifting. People like Steve Ignorant and Colin Jerwood have been able to articulate what people feel, put their thoughts into words, and with others really inform and shape lives.

I’m not from that anarcho-punk scene, but I do share some of the views, have plenty of records by the likes of Conflict, the Subhumans, Crass. The main character in Slaughterhouse Prayer is younger than me and more directly influenced, although again, he isn’t nailed into a particular group. He’s more like Joe Martin in Human Punk I suppose. He’s interested and open, and wants to believe in non-violence, that words and peaceful protest will save the animals, but he isn’t convinced and struggles, which is what drives that Mickey Moo thread in the book.

The readiness to look at issues individually has been one of the best things about punk. It is what attracted me to it in the first place. The link between punk and animal-rights has been there from the start I believe, through the older hippies who were in some of the earliest bands, even if it wasn’t stated and I wasn’t aware of it when I was at school and eating meat, listening to the Sex Pistols and The Clash.

The book itself was a labour of love, written across a number of years. How difficult did you find the writing, get over the obstacles that you faced and how do you now feel that the book is finally being published?

I began the book nearly ten years ago. It started and stopped several times due to personal circumstances and problems with a publisher, plus I had to find a story that worked as it’s a novel rather than a non-fiction book based on a series of facts. There had to be light in there, some sort of hope and optimism, and so the nature of Slaughterhouse Prayer developed and that turned out to be a positive in the end. Mind you, I wasn’t thinking that a year ago when I was banging my head against the wall.

How do I feel now? Relieved. It’s a liberation in a way as I was worrying for so long that I wouldn’t do the subject justice, and each time I had to stop writing it meant going back in later and relearning the book, which is hard and hasn’t happened to me before.

Looking ahead now, one of your previous novels, The Football Factory, was turned into a film back in 2004. Do you have any plans for further films?

All my books are films inside my head, but getting them onto a screen is obviously difficult, and much more so since The Football Factory was released. The business has changed and independent film-making has suffered, but a more in-depth sort of TV series has in some ways filled the gap. There may be a series coming, but I can’t say too much about that, plus White Trash is something I have been looking to develop with the producer Ben Richards. Human Punk has always been a big ambition, but as a film. One thing I really want to do is finish the The Prison House album that I wrote with Leigh Heggarty from Ruts DC a good few years back. That is long overdue.

And what are your future plans for novels?

I have enough material for a short-story collection, just need to go through it and tidy things up, so I will probably do that soon, but I am keen to write a novel called London Country which will go back into the landscapes of Human Punk, White Trash and Skinheads, out around the M25. A lot has happened in the relatively short time since they were published, which means there are some interesting new things to write about.

It’s funny, though, as with Slaughterhouse Prayer I feel that as a writer I have hit a level that if I stopped now I could feel content with what I have done over the years. It was vital for me to write Slaughterhouse Prayer and to do it properly and in a certain style, and I believe I have achieved that as best I could. But I do love the process of writing and in answer to your question I am pretty certain London Country will be my next novel.

Further details on the book can be found here:

And you can read a review of Slaughterhouse Prayer in 3am magazine: