`Veggie-burgher' riles city's meat eaters

Ros Wynne-Jones meets the mayor who insists on wearing fake fur robes
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The Independent Online
They call Neil Griffin the "veggie-burgher". On Tuesday he will become the first vegetarian Mayor of Durham, wearing a specially "refurbished" fur-free robe for the ceremony. Previous incumbents have been proud to wear the musk-rat-trimmed gown, but Mr Griffin has had the offending animal skin removed and fluffy new fake fur stitched in its place.

In a region of beef farmers and carnivorous pit villagers the Labour councillor's "Vegetan" mock-leather shoes and fondness for spinach-and- feta-cheese bake have not gone unnoticed. But his stand against the traditional robes plunged the city council into open warfare.

The pounds 500 bill for the de-furring of the robes has now been paid by the franchisees of the Middlesbrough Body Shop, silencing objections to the cost of the change, but the pro-meat lobby are still muttering about "lettuce eaters". The opposition points out that all the fuss over a rodent that has been dead for decades won't bring it back to life, but, as far as the anti-fur faction is concerned, it's new Labour, new trimming.

At the centre of the row is the musk-rat, a chubby, chocolate-brown, monogamous mammal, also known as the musquash, regularly used in the trimming of ceremonial robes. The semi-aquatic rodent is no stranger to controversy as a favourite of the fur trade, an oppressed pest in parts of Europe and a delicacy in north America where it is eaten as the more appetisingly named "marsh-rabbit".

Mr Griffin is no stranger to controversy, either. At the age of six, heavily influenced by Rawhide, he "bust open" the head of Wayne Sleep, an adolescent contemporary of his older sister, with a toy revolver. Both the pistol-whipping of the diminutive dancer and his championing of the rights of little furry creatures have won him notoriety in Durham and made him, city council sources say, a "housewives' favourite". On Tuesday he will become not only Durham's first vegetarian mayor but also, at 41, its youngest ever.

As the fur flies in the town hall, Mr Griffin observes: "I know some people might think of me as a grass-eating nutter frittering away the public purse, but I really do object to the use of animal pelts and, in the end, it hasn't cost the council anything because the Body Shop has kindly paid for it. Ultimately, I'm looking at this as an opportunity to debate the issues."

Mr Griffin, a media-studies lecturer at a local college and at Low Newton remand centre, became a vegetarian in 1982.

"It was after I got my dog, Tess," he explains. "I realised that animals have a consciousness and I just couldn't eat them any more.

"I believe, fundamentally, that the killing of animals for our own gratification has a brutalising effect on us all."

Nigel Martin, leader of Durham council's Liberal Democrats and a proud carnivore, is not impressed.

"I opposed the `refurbishing' of the robe because I felt that the pounds 500 could have been better spent on disabled applications," he says. "As far as the musquash goes, it is not an endangered species and this one's already dead. Trimming the robe with fake fur is not going to bring it back to life."

Mr Griffin good-humouredly says that, if things fail to go as planned on Tuesday and Durham decides that it isn't ready for a fur-free mayor, he may consider a career as the North-east's answer to Linda McCartney. "I could publish my own recipes," he says. "I'd call it The Veggie Mayor's Cookbook."

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