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Here’s RAVELLED: the title story from my first collection

N.B. This wasn’t quite the final, published version as I’m a zealous tweaker, especially at the last minute, and have a meticulous editor at TSL. Obviously I’d be delighted if anyone bought the book as a result of reading this, but if not, it’s good to share!

She was the only Marilyn in seven hundred and fifty girls. In her class there were four Susans, two Annes and some Janes, Janets and Janices, but her name set her apart. It was modern, with an aura of sophistication – even though she wondered why her parents had called her Marilyn at all, if they wanted to treat her like a Jane and insist that school rules about make-up and uniform were there to be obeyed.

   But when she came home at four o’clock each day, her mother would ignore the brown mascara she’d applied to her lashes in the Girls’ Toilets before registration, as if she only saw what she expected or wanted to see: a good girl who happened to be blonde. Marilyn made sure the school skirt with its rolled-over waistband was always lowered to skim her knees as she stepped off the bus, but she didn’t tell anyone at school just how old-fashioned her parents were – or even how old. In twin sets and pleated nylon skirts, her mother might as well have been a gran; even the younger teachers wore shifts that showed their knees. Marilyn would never waste herself like that. She was going to flaunt what she’d got.

   By the Lower Fifth, the status her name gave her had been raised by another accident: the size of her bra and the tightness of her white blouse across it, with a button or two undone. “Oops, popped again!” she’d tell the teachers on patrol, adding a helpless, “Sorry!” Over that year she grew taller than most of her peers. Her friend Lorraine said she could get served in a pub with lipstick and a casual cigarette, but for all her big ideas, Lorraine was five foot three and freckled. Marilyn had no one to go along with such Let’s Pretend, or make it real. Not even a boy.

   Everyone assumed she was well practised in French kissing, but that was because they didn’t know the way her parents imprisoned her in the name of protection. Most of her classmates lived close to the school and some went to the same Youth Club. Marilyn was the only one from Wickford, far enough away for her to keep the restrictions of her life a secret while everyone assumed she was out snogging in a dark corner with a Sixth Former in an ankle-length Afghan coat. And she had the vocabulary necessary to sustain the deception, including the word that made her parents shudder if they ever heard it in the street: ‘the F-word’ that spelt instant detention. She enjoyed the sound of it, and the frisson of disapproval that followed it.

   ‘Who likes fucking?’ she printed in a note she passed around in Latin, to see who blushed and who dared to answer ‘Me’.  She watched the progress of the folded note from one desk to another, noting who smiled, who was startled and who looked around hoping to identify the author. Marilyn just continued to stare at the clock above the teacher’s head, eyes dulled – even when she saw, in a sideways glance, a quiet girl (one of the Lindas) write something behind a curved hand. But the girl in the next row was an Anne who went to lunchtime C.U. and had apparently met her so-called boyfriend at church. This Anne scrunched up the little scrap of paper in her fist before she dropped it on the floor and kicked it towards the wall with the side of her lace-up shoe. All Marilyn could do was target the back of her head and hope that the front of it was crimson. If holy Anne had to wreck her research she could at least have told the teacher. That would have made an entertaining diversion, embarrassing Miss Needham, who was unmarried at something like fifty and wouldn’t know the answer.

   As it was, Marilyn stifled a disappointed yawn, slipped from her desk her copy of Saturday Night, Sunday Morning and began to read when she could. The couple in bed on the cover were either post-coital or about to begin foreplay; the photograph was a furtive talking point. Marilyn’s mother had been appalled when she found it in her school bag, and even more shocked when Marilyn said, “It’s a set text,” and smiled because that was so close to the s word they didn’t say, not in her house. It was a funny story to tell the others, and her mother said she would write to the school to complain, but Marilyn didn’t suppose she had. She’d shy from the words she’d need to shape in her own handwriting on best Basildon Bond.

   Her teachers used those too: ‘An intelligent girl who could achieve a great deal more should she see fit to apply herself’, ‘quick-witted but less than industrious’, ‘Marilyn’s attitude to her studies leaves room for improvement’. When she was aiming, within limits, to be rude. To show that she didn’t care. That school was just petty and the teachers were so dried-up it was impossible to imagine them doing the deed – even though Caesar must have, in between fighting the Gallic Wars. Her parents always said, when the report book came home, “We were hoping for better this time,” so she always pointed out the percentages: nothing below 68, Division One for everything and sixth or seventh in class, all without trying. The numbers carried some weight with her father, who was a tax man, but all her mother wanted was nice manners, good behaviour – “You never smile, darling, and you have such a pretty smile.”

   Marilyn said she couldn’t help it if the teachers thought her mouth looked sulky. Sexy was what she meant. Too sexy for Miss DCHS (Derston Country High School) because all they wanted was a girl with lots of white teeth and a private school voice who could open the Summer Fair without wearing anything too far out for Princess Anne. Sometimes Marilyn practised pouting in the bathroom mirror, trying to look like Julie Christie with full, Nivea-creamed lips and thick hair falling on her naked shoulders. Maybe when she was fifteen she’d be allowed on the train to Carnaby Street and the Kings Road. She’d need clothes to fit in but by then she’d have a Saturday job. She wouldn’t mind working in the new Wimpy Bar, next to the record store with the listening booth. Then life would begin.

   But her parents didn’t want her working in the town. Her father said he’d pay her the going rate to clean his car, cut the grass and weed the borders. And she had to listen on Mondays to the stories Janice told, about her job on a beauty counter and the ‘dreamboat’ manager who told her she was a natural. 

   So Marilyn spent her so-called wages on cigarettes that she lit as soon as she turned out of the street. Standing by the bus stop with her skirt up to her thighs and a sour stare, she smoked where she could be seen by neighbours and reported. To serve them right.  

   But there was no scene, in spite of the smell that clung to her hair. She more or less gave up the fags, and bought albums instead, the kind her parents hated: Hunky Dory, Sticky Fingers, LA Woman. In her room she played them on her little deck and danced as if Jim Morrison was holding her, one hand on her bottom as she swayed.

   By the autumn of 71, when a boring summer came to an end and her parents pointed out how serious the Upper Fifth would be, with ‘O’ Levels at the end of it, Marilyn told her diary that she was in prison and if she didn’t find an escape route soon – like Lorraine, who was in Australia – she’d probably set the place on fire. At the bus stop on the first day back at school that September, she noticed, among the boys passing by on their way to St. Ignatius, one who’d transformed over the holiday from a boy to a dish. If he’d been Upper Sixth, she might have smiled at him when his friends called her ‘a Pan’s Person’ and he looked concerned about their manners. Marilyn just showed them a couple of Flick Colby swerves that sent them laughing on their way.

   Arriving at school, she heard the rumour that the new Head of English was a man. Someone had seen him with an old briefcase and mac, hurrying from the station and almost late on his first day. “Oh, at least forty” was the estimate, greeted with groans.

   “It says on the job ad,” said Marilyn, and switched to her Headmistress voice, “Applicants any sexier than the Prime Minister will not be considered.” A few people thought that meant Wilson but Marilyn knew better because her parents liked Heath and called him a gentleman.

    Still, it was disappointing to have no English timetabled for the first day, but in the dining room people said Mr Jones was ‘really funny’, ‘outasite!’ and ‘so sweet’. So as U5H class waited for him to arrive next morning, in the upstairs classroom overlooking the newly-mown field with the tennis courts beyond, Marilyn felt more interest than she showed.

   Using his pregnant-looking briefcase to hold the door open, he struggled in with a pile of books balanced on his other arm. Everyone stood but he as he said, “Oh, no need for any of that,” the pile broke up and tumbled; girls picked up the scattered paperbacks. Marilyn watched. The title on the black cover was The New Poetry. As the copies were passed around he introduced himself, spelling his Christian name in chalk (and very bad handwriting): Bysshe Jones.

   “Weird, you’re thinking?” Someone laughed. “My parents were Shelley fans,” he explained, “who believed in standing out from the crowd. I hated them for it – and at university I claimed to be Mike.”

   His shoulders went back, his chin up. People giggled. “You grow into yourself in the end. Names represent us out there, whatever identity we construct for ourselves in here.” A hand flicked the side of his head where the curls were glossy in spite of the only kind of haircut that would get him through an interview. “I need to know yours, and how you feel about that.”

   The girls looked at each other, smiling in surprise. He looked at the nearest Anne, inviting her to begin. She hesitated. Marilyn noticed the imperfect edges of his brown shirt collar and the woolly texture of his modern art tie.

   “Do we get an action replay, sir?” asked someone. People laughed. “I missed the question.”

   “Answer your own if you wish,” he said, “but bear in mind that this is only a double lesson and the idea is to dive into some poetry before break time.”

   Anne began mumbling about her name because she didn’t know what to say really, apart from how ordinary it was.

   “Are you ordinary?” It was a flicker of a question. Anne coloured, and pressed the spine of her glasses back. Barriers up.

   “Probably.”

   “I don’t believe it! And you mustn’t either. Nobody’s ordinary.” He picked up the poetry book. “This here proves the ecstasy of agony. How full emptiness can be. We come from the stars – nothing ordinary up there!”

   His finger pointed upwards and a couple of girls even looked at the slightly grubby ceiling. Marilyn felt the warmth of a grin on her face. He was loco and she loved it.

   Now he was naming famous Annes and asking Anne Clegg to pick one she connected with.

   “Boleyn,” she said, and blushed at the giggly gasps. Mr Jones reached out a hand that silenced it all. He was waiting. “It’s sad,” she said.

   “Tragic heroine or manipulative go-getter? Or both? We can never really know, and yes, that’s sad – and bottomless too. You’ve been reading Jean Plaidy.” The hand stopped her answering. “That wasn’t a charge. Confessions are best turned to poetry.” He waved the book, one finger pointing at the centre of the cover.

   Marilyn listened as Janet said she had no Janet to identify with at all, and Mr Jones said, “Ah. Rochester calls Jane Eyre ‘Janet’, in tenderness as I recall. Judge for yourself whether a victim can be a heroine. And whether like Darcy he’s a legitimate heartthrob. Who’s yours, Janet?”

   She shrugged, and her neighbour showed him her wooden ruler, decorated with the names of lead singers he was afraid he hadn’t heard of.

   “You don’t need to know,” Marilyn muttered, because their voices were weedy. And he heard, looking straight at her, just for a moment. She knew her turn would come. And some of the others had so little to say – even though it was so much more than they’d ever revealed in a classroom before.

   The cleverest but most silent of all the Susans said she wasn’t Susan at all, but Sue. “Only teachers call me Susan, because they don’t know me.” Her voice fractured. “It’s not me they’re talking to.”

   There was a thick pause of astonishment after that, while Susan reddened to the roots of her frizzy hair and Mr Jones smiled, nodding. “I shall try to earn the right to call you Sue,” he said, quietly, seriously, “because I’d like to know you.”

   His smile was boyish. Marilyn could imagine him at school, ‘full of beans’ like Jennings but knowing things without swotting. It made her feel the loss of a brother. He thanked Susan for her honesty, adding that without that there would be no poetry. He circled his forefinger and landed it on the register, looking up and asking, “Marilyn?”

   He wasn’t handsome; his eyes had a froggy bulge and his lips were thick, almost puffy. Marilyn didn’t need to raise her hand because all the others had turned; she was in focus.

   “Ah,” he said. She wanted him to know her, better than Susan, and she had an idea that if she just gazed straight back at him, he could see inside her. But what could she say? That her name made her cheap, a tart like the character in Crossroads?

   He began, “Norma Jean – a tragic heroine for our times? More innocent than Anne Boleyn and more vulnerable,” and had to explain what he meant. When he called Arthur Miller ‘a great playwright,’ and said Monroe must have been clever too, Marilyn had never felt more stupid, because she knew so little about this actress he seemed to admire, and her parents certainly didn’t like it hot (if at all).

   “I’m sorry,” said Mr Jones. “I jumped in. I shouldn’t have.”

   She shrugged. If she chose silence now, would that make her fascinating? “I’ve never known whether to live up to my name or down to it,” she said, and although her voice didn’t crack like Susan’s she felt suddenly sad. It was as if everything she’d counted on had vanished. She didn’t want to work in the Wimpy Bar, or lose her virginity to a Sixth Former, get spotted by a modelling agent or hitch-hike around the States in a mini skirt, with strings of beads around her neck and enough cash to buy some grass and see how it changed her. She just wanted Mr Jones to like her, but not the same way as the boys in the street. She wanted his respect, his understanding, his time.

   “What do you want your name to say?” he asked, his voice gentle, curious.

   “Confidence,” she said, afraid of losing it. “Independence. The opposite of tragic and vulnerable.” She remembered her mother’s sniffiness about ‘bra-burners’. “Liberated.”

   He nodded. “Bravo. I’m relying on women like you to demand your space and be heard.”

   Women like her. If she could hold his hand and walk in the woods she’d be real at last. Mr Jones said he didn’t want any of them living or dying like Sylvia Plath, whose work was in the collection, but that writing could give them a voice and that was power. Words, he told them, reshaped everything.

   Then he said he couldn’t resist poetry any longer. “A love poem by Adrian Henri,” he said. “A pop song without a tune.” He pulled a slim volume from the inside pocket of his olive green corduroy jacket, thumbed quickly and read: “Without you every morning would feel like…?” He slapped the book down on the nearest desk and held out a hand, cupped but with fingers wiggling.

   “A winter Monday.” Someone said, “A power cut,” and another girl said, “A train with no wheels,” which made everyone laugh, Mr Jones loudest of all. Marilyn wanted to offer a line he’d always remember, a line to make him forget the ones in the book. She thought furiously, impatient with her slowness. Then she raised her hand.

   “Marilyn?”

   “Without you every morning would feel like dancing on jelly.”

   Someone spluttered. She heard it echoed. But Bysshe Jones tilted his head to one side. “Wait…” he said, and she could see he was excited.

   “You know, you can’t balance,” she said. “And you’re a mess. You’re really only dancing because the jelly wobbles you around. You feel ridiculous.”

   “Ah yes, and it makes us think of childhood parties but this is the opposite, a kind of torture.”

   Marilyn nodded. She was in love.

At the end of the two hour lesson, the girls were slow to leave the room, but Marilyn didn’t want to hang around like a twelve-year-old at the stage door after a Donny Osmond concert. She just walked away, running her fingers through her hair, remembering that her line wasn’t wrapped in brown paper on anyone’s doorstep, like in the poem. It was in his head. He’d be going to the Staff Room now, to share it: “Is she gifted, Marilyn Green? She reminds me of Lara at the start of Zhivago.”

   The weather was still summery enough to sit on the grass, so she took out her copy of the anthology and saw there were only two women in it. But in the nearest conversation, the female in question was Mrs Jones – whether there was one, and what she might be like. Why she didn’t iron his shirt better! Irritably, Marilyn moved away. Weren’t they inspired?

   That night she spent four hours on the homework he’d set them: to find a poem they loved, and write as honestly and thoughtfully as possible about what it meant to them. She chose Larkin’s Wedding Wind, read it aloud in her room three times, four, and wrote: I love the wildness and the passion, the words like ‘thrashing’ and ‘bodying-forth’, the intensity of ‘the wind of joy’ that makes him ‘sad that any man or beast should lack the happiness’ he had. I love the idea of ‘perpetual morning shares my bed’. It makes me think of a couple lying, warm and sleepy, with the sun shining on them as they kiss. It makes me feel like the bride, waking to a new world because I’m in love. The cattle ending seemed strange at first but then I realised what he’s writing about is an animal instinct as well as romance, and love and sex are as natural and necessary as water. It’s romantic, because he hopes the love won’t ‘dry up’ even in death, but wind can dry lakes so maybe he’s afraid it might. We all feel the same about love, and we thread our beads on it knowing one snap and they spill everywhere. But when we find it we kneel, which for humans means worship, if you believe in God: someone to thank for the love and the loved one. If I could ever write anything as intense and beautiful as this poem I’d be glad I lived. As it is, I still feel ‘stupid in candlelight’ most of the time.

   Her parents were incredulous – not that she let them read it; they’d lock her up for the rest of her life – that she should work so hard, and that her eyes were so bright when she explained, “I love poetry. When you go deep into it, it’s the best thing ever. It’s everything.”

   Only one thing mattered more to her than the way he read poetry, talked about poetry, used his hands to accompany poetry, and the words that sang and shone, and darkened and remained mysterious. The following day it came, scrawled in ink under a vigorous A+.

   I applaud you for this genuine, well-expressed and open response, which is in itself as passionate and lyrical, but as honest too, as the poem. Even after a few hours of marking it made me return to Larkin’s words and appreciate them even more. Thank you.

   All, she thought, was ‘ravelled under the sun by the wind’s blowing’. Rereading the poem in bed that night, she could almost sense his hand under the sheet. Would she be ‘let to sleep’?

After half a term of poetry they switched to Shakespeare. “More poetry!” Mr Jones told them. “Everything’s poetry. Look out of the window at that field, and the sky above it. It’s poetry even while we struggle for words to recreate it.”

   Marilyn luxuriated in Macbeth: not just the text but the context he took them through with all their senses, the excitement and the shock of a new kind of love that fuelled murder. It made her daydream about ways of killing Mrs Jones to possess something more precious than a crown. If he were in love with her, that would be the only power she would ever need.

   All her other subjects came more easily now. It was as if a window had opened and the light shone all around. She was able to show her parents – casually of course – A after A in her exercise books. They were like children surprised with sweeties. Her father rewarded her with crisp new pound notes and her mother said, “You won’t smoke it away, will you darling?” but she had no intention of spending it on anything but books. Apart from eyeliner, which she wore to school unchallenged, and a red lipstick which she was saving…

   He was forty-two! He told them so, when someone asked. It made no difference; how could it? Every night, by torchlight, she added to a letter she was writing him – full of love, and struggling for words to recreate it – always remembering the importance of honesty, and of searching for deeper truths about her core self, and what it was to be alive. It was more obsessive than she had dreamed. Yet in spite of the closeness of him when she sat in the front row for the first time in her school career – “can’t see the board,” she explained, “but you can stuff specs” – they hadn’t touched. She knew, in her loneliest moments, that it would never happen, but she must long for it anyway.  

   Christmas came and went, and Marilyn couldn’t be sure whether he’d found the neatly-wrapped present she left on his desk in his Form Room – or recognised her writing even though she hadn’t signed it. On Christmas Eve she started work on a Without You… poem that began with the dancing in jelly but had grown twenty lines by morning. When her dad gave her tickets for Hamlet in the West End she burst into tears – and reviewed it afterwards for the school magazine Mr Jones now edited.

   “Really incisive,” he told her in January, stopping in the corridor an hour or so after she’d delivered it. “You gave such a rich, detailed sense of it, I might as well have been there.”

   “Wish you were,” she said, before she walked away.

   A couple of bitter mornings later, the Catholic boy she used to like came over to her at the bus stop where she was shivering, and asked whether she’d wanted to go to the pictures with him. She said, “Sorry, I’ve got a boyfriend,” and gave him a smile that was meant to be kind. Girls talked about ‘blokes’ but the word didn’t fit him yet. He looked disappointed but how could it be fair to snog with him in the cinema when her heart was taken – or at least, given?

   It was unsettling when Janice, who was pretty in a doll-like way, got pregnant and left school as soon as her bump began to show. There was no official version, just rumours that the father, who might or might not be the dreamboat, was twenty-three and wouldn’t marry her – so her dad chased him down the street, yelling. Marilyn felt sorry and envious at the same time. Anne Clegg got engaged and was planning to marry at a registry office in a long purple dress, so there was speculation that she was expecting too. Even the chubbiest, frizziest Susan had slow-danced with someone at a church youth club – although she didn’t want to talk about it, said she hoped he wouldn’t ring and refused to tell Marilyn why when she asked.

   The friendships Marilyn kept in school were even looser now that she loved Bysshe Jones too much to tell, and literature with a devotion that made reading – and her essays for him – a priority. But she preferred the company of the others aiming for the highest grade, so she could talk about love, betrayal and death on the page, and make warm, private connections they couldn’t guess.

   In the mocks she came top in English Lit: 88%. Lower in Lang but the teachers for that were mainly women, and she was fairly sure the youngest of them didn’t like her. Mr Jones was already busy starring in panel games like Just A Minute or Call My Bluff for the girls’ lunchtime entertainment, in rehearsing the Sixth Formers for an all-female production of King Lear and in playing vigorous piano for assembly, but she asked him to run a Writers’ Group and he said, “Yes, of course. Poets’ Corner. Thank you, Marilyn – great idea.” Now she could compose love poems and read them in the intimate environment of what was a kind of store cupboard for English text books, where the grouping of four or five chairs meant she could reach him, skin to skin – theoretically, if not realistically. The ecstasy of the agony.

   “He shone a searchlight into emptiness,” she wrote, and read aloud, “and filled it. In his eyes she found humanity. In his voice she heard music. In her bed she sensed him, lover-angel. And turned away, alone with tears.”

   In spite of the nervous fervour of her poetic exposure on Tuesdays, when she sometimes found herself troubled by the intellectual control of Susan’s poems-as-exercises, no one asked questions. He must know her now; how could he not? Sometimes the certainty seemed almost enough.

   Then in April, just before the Easter holidays began, her father interrupted her homework with an unexpected question. She looked up at the evening stubble that made her think of Fred Flintstone and realised he’d been sent. He was on a mission.

   “Marilyn,” he said, “we need to talk. Your mother and I…”

   “I’m not pregnant or on the pill,” she said. “I hardly ever smoke and I haven’t got legless yet. And I’m in the middle of an essay I need to finish before I draw up a revision timetable.”

   He flushed. She could see he was angry but she hadn’t time for this. Her mother appeared, shadowy behind him.

   “Darling,” she said. “You work too hard. We’d like to see you go out with your friends. If you still want to apply for a job at the Wimpy Bar…”

   “I can’t now. I’ve got exams in two months.”

   “It’s not healthy,” tried her mother, low volume.

   Love wasn’t, she thought, not love like hers, but she didn’t suppose they’d know about that.

   “You’re not happy,” her mother continued.

   Happy? Something she’d never been, not since the sandpit days of dress-up dolls and a teddy on the pillow. Only with him, and Shakespeare and Austen and Hughes and Plath. Happiest of all when she was most hopeless, in Poets’ Corner, his breath almost touching her cheek.

   “I’m happy in my studies,” she assured them, suddenly Oxbridge and worthy of respect. “I’ll celebrate my birthday when it’s all over.”

   As they left her, it crossed her mind that they were characters too, if she knew their story. Meeting her mother on the landing before bed, she gave her a hug and felt the fragility of bones against her own softness. She felt alive.

   The next day a rather dome-bellied Anne Clegg sat next to her in English and asked, almost in a whisper, “Will you come to the wedding? Not a bridesmaid but you know, for support? My parents won’t be there.”

   “Sure,” she said. She nodded to the door as Mr Jones stepped through it. “Invite him?”

   “I could,” smiled Anne. Everyone else loved him too, in their different way.

   She came home that afternoon to find her parents had bought her a second-hand bike: “For air and exercise.” She thanked them, because this was freedom too. Mr Jones lived in the next town and had mentioned a book shop there. She could cycle to the wedding – he’d approve of that – but would he turn up? No other teacher would consider such a thing but that was the point; he was a human being – “with brains and desires, ideals and shame,” he’d said – and he understood that they were too.

The wedding was a few days after Easter. Marilyn told herself something would happen: a twin would be ill or his wife would need him to do some job even though he’d called himself ‘a hopeless handyman’. She liked the way the hot pants looked with the loose flowery blouse tucked in, and her hair at its scented, blow-dried best. Managing to slip out of the house and avoid questions of unsuitability – not just of her outfit but a pregnant bride just turned sixteen – she cycled off in sunshine, glad it wasn’t hot enough to sweat.

   Apart from Anne in purple and her skinny groom in white, there was only the official in a cheap suit and Anne’s awkward-looking in-laws-to-be. So Marilyn wasn’t the only one who smiled when Bysshe Jones edged in, just as proceedings were about to begin. He was on the shoulders of the groom’s brother, who might have come straight from a building site.

   With the number of guests in single figures, Mr Jones looked around before sitting in the row behind Marilyn, a seat or two to her right. Marilyn didn’t turn her head once through the short business of the ceremony. It was enough to know that he was well placed to see the black bra straps through her top and the length of her legs in nude nylon, but she was sad to notice the absence, on Anne’s face, of the light that powered her now. The light she’d like him to see, and understand. Once it was over, he was the first to applaud. Then he followed her outside after the family. As Anne and her husband held hands for Polaroid photographs he murmured, “I need to go, Marilyn.”

   She walked with him a few steps to a bench, where she sat, crossing her legs. Smiling up at him, she shaded her eyes from the sun. There were yellow roses in a round bed behind him.

   He looked from the wooden slats to her, back at the newly-weds kissing for the camera and down on her again. “Such a shame,” he said. “Her parents, I mean. I had no idea. And what good can it do?”

   He sat down next to her. At once Marilyn felt almost stunned. “I know.” This might be the moment, the only one or the one that turned everything, and either way she couldn’t seem to begin. She couldn’t even lay a hand on his arm, or thigh. All those novels she had read, all that poetry of passionate being, and she had learned nothing. She might as well be a child. She was too afraid of his wholeness, the depth and breadth of him, his brain, his commitment, the life he’d already lived while she’d been posing.

   When she lifted her eyes from her lap and met his, she almost cried.

   “Marilyn,” he said, and sighed. Such tenderness in his voice! “I know you think you’re in love with me and how can I fail to be flattered? I’m honoured. You’re extraordinary. And I don’t mean this!” He smiled: a tribute to the physical reality of her next to him? “But it’s not me. It’s poetry you’ve fallen for.”

   Marilyn shook her head. Her voice was so small: “It’s you too.”

   “I’m not for you, I promise. Trust me. In another life… well, I’d be a lucky boy. But not this one. I’m sorry.”

   He stood and she knew she couldn’t stop him. Tears brimmed hot, and trickled. He was walking away and he hadn’t even kissed her cheek.

   “Marilyn?” called Anne. “Thanks so much for being here. Come to Den’s house for sandwiches…. Are you all right?”

   She nodded. “I can’t.”

   “Go on,” said the brother, lighting a cigarette and offering the packet. “You’d be welcome.”

   It did cross her mind that this could be when she found out whether she did like fucking. But she was extraordinary; Bysshe Jones was honoured; he might have loved her in a different life, romancing her with Keats. Theirs would have been Wedding Wind, not a quickie after nibbles once cheap booze smoothed the way. How had it happened for Anne – in the back of their dad’s van?

   She rose and smiled, made a kind excuse and thanked them, wishing them well.

   “Will you still sit the exams?” she called back from the steps onto the street.

   “Yeah! Lit anyway. Got to make him proud, haven’t I?”

   “Yeah,” said Marilyn, and waved.

Over the remainder of the holiday she began revising. Learning the poems by heart lifted her to a place where she could reach her own images; soon the letter in her bottom drawer was fifteen pages long. The new term began, and it was only when she arrived for the first double Lit that Mrs Farrell thumped in with a longer skirt than usual trailing over Scholl sandals, and said, “Mr Jones and I have done a timetable swap so I’ll be taking you through to the exams.” She sat, a little breathless. No one spoke.

   As soon as Mrs Farrell stretched a wobbly arm to the blackboard, Janet passed a note with no words but a face spilling tears. Marilyn pushed out her bottom lip. Whether he wanted to spare her or he couldn’t trust himself, it was her fault anyway. She thought of Zhivago clutching his heart on the tram, with Lara further beyond reach with each oblivious step. But this was different; she’d given him nowhere to go but away.

   Cycling home that afternoon, past the pond on the common, she wondered how deep it was. Without him every morning wouldn’t feel like dancing on jelly. It would be like winter fog, a wasteland, with always the same question: to die, to sleep? I love you love you love you, she wrote that night. Now there was nothing more. She folded the pages into a brick-like thickness and tied a ribbon around it.

At the end of her final paper some of the girls took her out to drink cider on the common. When the mother of the cleverest Susan parked her car to deliver a cake with sixteen candles, they hid the plastic bottles behind a bush. Then once the cake was cut and they’d sung a more drunken Happy Birthday than was strictly necessary, Susan said, “First love hurts but you’ll find someone else.”

   Marilyn swore, had to say, “Sorry, Sue,” and told her that she must be right but it was hard to believe in anything but poetry anymore. She almost added that he hadn’t touched her, in case they imagined it the way she had, but then Janet asked, “Anyone we know?” so she shook her head, and let the tears run.

   Two hours later she cycled home in a haze and was sick on the corner of her street.

   On the last day of term she hid the letter in her bag and at lunchtime asked an Upper Third who was on her way to the Staff Room to deliver it to Mr Jones.

   “All right,” she said. “He’s my favourite teacher. I wish he wasn’t leaving.”

   Marilyn didn’t stay to be officially dismissed in her Form Room. Not to be, not to be. The lessons were over.

She got eight As, including both kinds of English, and a C. Only Sue improved on that. Her parents couldn’t have been more moved if she’d just survived a car crash, and when she called on Anne and the baby, she noticed her friend’s results slip stuck to the fridge with A for English ringed three times in red.

   “It was Mr Jones,” she told Marilyn, feeding the baby from a bottle. “He made me care.” Marilyn said she knew what she meant.

   “How are things?” she asked Anne, because there were six of them in the house now, not counting a malicious-looking cat that caressed her bare legs.

   “Oh, you know…” Anne looked out of the window to the deckchair on concrete, where Den was bare-chested and smoking with his back to them. “It’s not poetry.” With a smile Marilyn thought was brave, she turned to her blue-eyed daughter and asked her, “Is it, poppet?”

When Marilyn’s first poem was published in a feminist magazine a year after university, she sent a copy to the school Bysshe Jones had moved on to, but it was returned ‘unknown at this address’. She hadn’t told her boyfriend; he’d see the humour but the pain would pass him by. But almost ten years later, when she won the Hartland Prize – only a small one – and was rewarded by a collection in print, she called it Ravelled. She was married then, with twins of her own, teaching full-time against her mother’s wishes and her husband’s too, drinking a little too much red wine and remembering each night and most days what Anne had told her baby.

   The dedication read: To Mr Jones with gratitude for immersing me in ‘all-generous waters’. Love always.

   She hoped he might think the work extraordinary.

The Prisoner

It had been part of the NVDA training but Em didn’t really know how to go floppy so she just lay down on the road with her eyes on the sky. Her uni friends called her a lightweight because three drinks fuzzed everything, but in a more literal sense that worried her mother, she was an easy load. Four officers had a few metres to carry her to the van, where they carefully settled her on the step. No handcuffs. No Black Maria. Could they tell it was her first time? Worrying for Carl, who’d been stopped and searched eight times in Brixton, she hoped he was back on the grass with the banners and speakers. She was ashamed now of all the things she hadn’t understood when colour blindness seemed enough and grades felt like everything.

   Her ragged home-made appeal to back the CEE Bill rested on her knees. Maybe these officers didn’t know what that meant. What if any of them had read the climate science and ingested it? Could they ask to be sent elsewhere, to prevent actual crime?

   “Are you OK?” asked the young woman who’d arrested her. She had painted nails that might glue on, French plaits and a small curve of studs in one ear. Em was curious. In a different world could they have been friends?

   She nodded dumbly. I was Head Girl. I think I’m in shock. She sat up straighter and widened her eyes to find Carl filming her, his spare hand making a peace sign until he was shooed away. Just a close friend, she kept telling her parents, pretending that was cool.

   Now her arresting officer wanted to know her details but wasn’t she supposed to stay silent until they reached the station? Next she was ushered into one of the seats, behind a guy with a cap, a tattoo that reached out from the V-neck of his loose jumper and a grin he offered as he turned.

   “Hey,” he said. “All right?”

   Maybe she needed a different slogan on her cardboard: NO REGRETS BUT STILL ADJUSTING. Or NOT SURE WHAT TO TELL MUM AND DAD. Of course she’d tried to explain the need for civil disobedience as opposed to emails, petitions and an allotment but they wanted someone else to save the Earth, not her.

   “Have either of you been arrested before?” asked an older male officer who might not be able to catch either of them if they ran.

   “Think I’ll keep that to myself, mate. No offence.” When the officer turned his back, he smiled and showed her five fingers spread on his shoulder. Tougher than Em’s, and browner, they suggested a gardener. “But I’ll tell you why we do this shit. It’s scary but everyone needs to hear it.”

   Uniformed backs were turned but he grinned at Em as if unfazed. “Plenty of time to bend their ears if they take us to the wilds of Essex.” Suddenly his face straightened and his rather bleary blue eyes looked sad, or afraid. A grey-haired woman was helped gallantly into the van even though she looked as if she walked Fells before breakfast. “Respect,” he told her, and his smile was back.

   One of the officers was reporting three prisoners and trying to find a police station with cell space. The woman who sat opposite Em adjusted her collar to reveal the white clerical kind. Her hair was cropped but thick, her jeans patched and her boots red. On her black T-shirt was the XR hourglass with a cross incorporated.

   “Nice to meet you both,” she said, as if she might belong to the Attenborough family. “Love and fierce love.”

   The gardener liked that. “Codename Seed,” he said, as if that gave him pleasure.

   This was how Em felt when she arrived at university: beige. Or even translucent, a shape people looked through in search of someone more interesting.

   “They’ll find me on the database once they’ve seen my bank card,” said the vicar.

   “What do your congregation make of this?” Seed asked cheerily.

   “Ah,” she said. “That’s what you call a long story.”

   Em wasn’t sure she had a story, herself, any more than a codename.

   “Are you always this quiet, Emma?” asked her arresting officer, sitting down behind her. So she’d investigated her backpack already.

   As if she was still fifteen, Em shrugged, with a tight smile, and Seed winked.

As they queued yet again, Seed told the driver he could do this in eight minutes by bike. Resisting his good humour, the officers talked mainly among themselves, ridiculing a superior they shared and comparing curries. Reverend Claire, whose mother was half-Indian and used to dance at Sadler’s Wells, pointed out a care home where she’d planned to visit her father later that afternoon, and sit outside cased in PPE.

   “You could de-arrest the vic,” Seed suggested, “and drop her off while we’re stuck here.”

   “Arrest was her choice.” That was the sturdily unfit-looking older male. He sounded fractious or worn.

   “It might have been God’s!” Seed pointed out.

   Rev Claire laughed heartily. “Indeed.”

   Seed said he was a pagan; Claire seemed quite happy to hear it. Apparently her father had dementia and little conversation but his eyes sometimes filled at the sight of her.

   “I wish my mum was like you,” Seed added, and looked out of the window at traffic that didn’t move.

When they arrived at the police station they had to wait in a chill grey space that was a cross between a carport and a warehouse. A chirpy sergeant ambled out with a temperature gun and Claire said, after they’d all been declared fit as fleas, that thanks to the virus she’d had a funeral-filled summer. Em realised she couldn’t in any case see her best gran for a fortnight after the Rebellion finished. Then she’d tell her all about it; she’d be the one who was proud of her.

   Even though Em still hadn’t managed any words apart from thank you, the silence once Seed was led inside felt instantly weightier. Claire began to ask the officers questions about where they were from, and apologised for their extra-long shifts. Apparently they’d get time and a half and the otherwise-weary guy became animated at the prospect.  Claire closed her eyes and smiled as if she’d fallen into a beautiful dream. Em wondered whether she was praying for her – asking God to make her stronger than she looked, perhaps, or to help her find her voice. I’m in shock, Em realised. How weedy is that?

   “What are you studying, Emma?” asked Claire, on opening her eyes.

   “History.”

   “The mistakes we should have learned from?”

   “Mm.” Suddenly Em wondered whether she’d quit. Focus on the present to secure the future.

   “How will your parents react to your arrest?”

   Em felt her expression of doubt morph into a grimace.

   “It’s hard to explain to those closest to us, isn’t it?” Claire acknowledged. “But you might be surprised how much impact your action has on those who know you.  I do believe public opinion is shifting. People are waking up.”

   Em smiled as if she believed that. Part of her did. Part of her wanted to tell Claire she was lucky to be old because hers could be the last generation in the UK to live a life unshaped and undamaged by climate chaos. It was different now. Even if Carl grew to feel the same way she did, they couldn’t make a family together, knowing what they knew. Could they?

   She could hear another van drawing up outside. If enough people joined XR, the system couldn’t handle the prisoners, the paperwork or the court appearances.

   It was her turn to go inside.

There was nothing in the cell, lit by starkly unnatural light, but a long, low shelf covered with a mat and pillow of thin plastic, and a stainless steel pan without a seat or paper. Plus the kind of tiled walls public toilets boasted if they’d never been refurbed, and buttons to press to call the desk or wash her hands. Em put down the textbook she’d asked to keep with her, with no hope of processing the words or caring what they were. Carl would put the mat on the floor and meditate, possibly upside down. Presumably Claire would pray, and sing hymns, and count on God keeping her company. Em realised she had never been so alone. Picturing Carl with his eyes bright on her and his phone recording her so-called courage, she murmured, “I hope we always stay friends so don’t let this faze you but it seems dishonest not to mention that I’m in love with you.” Reminded of old Hugh Grant sitcoms, she shook her head. As her school-friend Janna used to say when she had a crush on her curate, What are you like?

   Her dad said she’d changed, as if she was meant to conform like him, for money – and as if the world around her was the same as ever. But unless everything changed, there’d be no point any more.

   “Carl,” she whispered, “Stay safe.” But no one would, unless the madness stopped.

   Her door opened and someone different stood there in a mask.

   “We need to take your fingerprints and DNA,” he said flatly.

   Em almost forgot her mask before following him. The room at the end of the corridor was small, and packed with what Carl would call kit. The fingerprint machine seemed erratic, refusing most images before overruled. The officer apologised.

   “It never behaves.”

   But Em always had, up to now. Not a single cigarette, never mind a spliff.  Now she might end up with a record. Eventually she sat for the DNA swab, and then the mugshots. She supposed that for this camera, a smile would be inappropriate, and the point was to make everyone look like a criminal.

   “Thank you,” she said after each process.

   “We like XR,” the guy said at the end. “You’re all so polite.”

   That was a cue but she couldn’t take it. As she was escorted back to the cell she glimpsed the custody desk and the back of a T-shirt she recognised, long black curls in a topknot, a lean neck that almost made her cry. She willed him to turn before she passed unseen. Almost too late he glanced around as he leant on the counter, and she could tell from his eyebrows that he was smiling. His peace sign became a heart space between his hands, and something in Em’s chest tightened around her lungs. “Be just as nice to him,” she wanted to say, just as she’d almost told her parents before they met him, but they thought he was a radical influence, and asked her to stay away from any Black Lives Matter march in case there was trouble. It made her sad that so much of her life was secret now.

   Back in the cell she wondered how long she had been in custody but maybe it was best not to know. The love that mattered was the kind her old R.E. teacher called agape, the kind God would feel for humanity if God existed, which Carl thought likely – but Em was less persuaded than she’d been, on Sundays at least, before the IPCC report. There must be a word for love of Earth and everything that shared it. She realised that if she were in a wood right now she would be in no hurry to leave it. She would sit in shadows, touch the bark and name the textures, let the leaves pattern her face, breathe as if she’d just learned how, and imagine unseen lives above and below. Trees were what connected her with Carl, right at the start of that first term when they both looked up on campus at the same tracery etched by a Crimson King Maple through startling blue.

   Em sat down on the cell floor and imagined it soft and warm, moist with moss. That was a challenge, given the chill hardness through her long summer skirt. Closing her eyes, she looked up and tried to feel the sun and breeze, rejoice and be glad in it. Even though Carl would do it better, with belief.

   Giving up on herself, she stood and sang, quietly at first until the acoustics swelled her confidence. “People gonna rise like water, gonna turn this system round. In the words of my great-granddaughter, climate justice now.”

When someone in plain clothes with a ponytail told her she was being released she realised with surprise that she had finally fallen asleep over her book, but it could have been for two hours or two minutes.

   “What time is it?” she asked, feeling unsteady.

   “It’s four fifteen,” the woman said.

   Twelve hours, then, but with no interview and no solicitor. And what about Carl? At the custody desk there was a new, clean-shaven and unmasked face that reminded her of a less louche Ethan Hawke. The sergeant winced at a hyped, aggressive guy yelling and swearing behind him, and apologised for the noise.

   “Sorry to keep you so long, Emma. We’ve been busy.”

   “No worries.” Well, apart from rising seas, melting permafrost, disappearing glaciers, record temperatures, floods and forest fires. She saw her backpack sealed in large unnecessary plastic and regretted the polystyrene cups of water she couldn’t resist in her cell.

   “You’re being released subject to further investigation. We’ll contact you by post if you are going to be charged.”

   She nodded.

   “When Extinction Rebellion began I used to tell first offenders that they’d probably hear nothing, so they might as well go away and forget all about it, but I can’t promise that now.”

   “I can’t go away and forget about anything.” Em didn’t know where that had come from. Had relief finally ungagged her before she could despise herself? “This is a Climate and Ecological Emergency. There’s a bill we ask Parliament to pass and act on fast. We don’t do this for the fun of it. I’ve been a bit traumatised really but that’s nothing. I’m so privileged. People are dying in the Global South and the Prime Minister of the Maldives is begging for international Ecocide Law…”

   Ethan was looking patient, or perhaps resigned. Perhaps it had been a long shift.

   “It’s… unbelievably serious,” she finished. Her voice faltered. “And we don’t know what else to do to get people’s attention.”

   “I understand,” he said, and passed her some paperwork, lowering his eyes while hers burned.

   Em felt a surge of desperation. When she had checked her belongings and signed off, he asked if she’d be all right to get home.

   “Sure,” she said, wondering what that meant to her now. She put on her denim jacket, but felt no warmer.

   “Your friends are waiting outside,” he told her.

   “Carl…?” Her hand mimed a topknot and curls.

   “Not yet, I’m afraid. But there’s quite a crowd. You lot look after each other, don’t you?”

   Wide-awake now, Em turned to the woman with the pony tail who began to show her out.

   “Good luck,” said Ethan behind her.

   Through the darkness outside the glass-walled lobby she saw rebels gathered around a couple of folding chairs covered in blankets. As soon as she pressed the button to open a sliding door and stepped into a sharp morning, they began to cheer. Seed, blowing smoke from a roll-up, stamped both feet like a Flamenco dancer. Reverend Claire scuttled towards her, with her hands, clapping rapidly, held out towards her. Em felt the stretch of her smile as she pulled off her mask and smelled the coffee. There’d be vegan milk! Soon she was holding a steaming mug and answering questions as the others wanted to know whether she’d slept and whether the clatter of the half hourly check had woken her like a letterbox snapping. Whether she’d been offered the vegetable chilli or made a bad mistake with the baked beans and potato. An older couple from arrestee support wanted her details for XR records.

   Claire said she was getting the night bus back to Parliament Square for the vigil and invited the others to join her.

   “Sure,” said a tall American blonde who might be a model. Her perfect teeth showed bright when she smiled. “All faiths and none, right?”

   “I’ll pass,” said Seed. “I’m going to crash out on a mate’s sofa. Reckon I can walk it from here.” He elbowed farewells with the rest, his biggest smile for Em. Watching him walk away with a raised hand, Em pictured him at the next Rebellion, running to hug her and spin her round like a wild uncle. Unless, forgetting her completely, he walked straight on past.

   “Emma, are you sure you won’t come?” checked Claire.

   “Thanks, but I guess my friend Carl’s still in there. I’ll wait for him.”

   The blonde knew who she meant. “Say hi from Megan. Hope they don’t keep him long.”

   The five of them waved as they moved off, relaxed and chatting. No trace of sleep deprivation, dehydration or stress. It was shaming.

   Millie, the well-wrapped woman in the opposite chair, offered her vegan breakfast. Choosing an apple and a date and cashew bar, Em realised she was happy to be mothered.

   “First arrest, Emma?”

   “Yes.” She was glad of the sweetness. “But not my last.” Both hands around the warm mug, she drank. “This is the best coffee ever.”

   She’d read that after beef and co, coffee had the biggest carbon footprint, but she’d think about that another time. Asked about her course and her parents, where she came from and how long she’d been a rebel, she told a story only Carl knew. How disconnected she felt outside XR and how climate grief had sent her to the uni doctor for antidepressants she had to hide nervously between terms. The words came fast and firm and every now and then her laugh surprised her.

   Millie and Tom explained that they had small grandchildren they looked after twice a week and an A and E doctor for a daughter-in-law so they’d been shielding and could only support rebels this time round. 

   “Are you sure you want to wait for your friend?” asked Millie eventually. “We’ll hang on until he gets out. It’s after half-five now. The tube will be coming alive if you want to get home to bed.”

   Em smiled but shook her head. However long it took, she wasn’t going anywhere.

Stop the Press: a poem

I’m straddling a tube.

Blanket-resistant, my legs

feel newborn and frosted.

On our web there’s a scrum,

a swollen mess of cross-stitch,

a stranded, tentacled creature

with secret mouths

and twenty eyes.

My left hand’s deep down steel,

where fingers that raced time to lock

rest stiffly now in peace.

Rain, like Security, gave up

and the dark’s grown generous

as lightly it wraps us, fifty-one of us,

while we sing like Hardy villagers

at a harvest supper

of small and sentimental tragedies

scented with roses.

Empty, I savour happiness,

feel strong and sure

and numb with love.

On high from bold bamboo

the crows’ nests swing,

and from the trucks a playlist quips.

But this is serious,

is everything.

For just one day

the lies are stalled, and in their place

the truth can rise.

As fireworks splinter scarlet,

a grinding churns the air

and metal melts pungent through morning,

we lift it to the light.

Not-that-great Britain: land of hope and cruelty

“If you don’t love it here, why don’t you leave?” someone suggested – not to me personally but to those like me who criticise, regret or deplore recent developments in our home country, and choose not to be patriots. Since the word packs so much heat that it’s often inflammatory, its connection with the war it fuels is inevitable. And this in itself begins to explain my aversion to it. As a Quaker and Pacifist, I don’t believe in violence and see war as a failure, crime against humanity and nature, and terrible human tragedy. But even if I set aside my faith, in love and in the God or Light in everyone, patriotism remains for me a problem rather than a virtue. And my rejection of it feels, for an emotional and instinctive person, coolly rational.

We don’t choose our country of birth, so pride in it because it’s ours seems less than objective. There’s a sense in which as humans we grow to love the familiar because it’s the context of our lives, and that’s natural and positive but simply a personal reality for each of us. I love the natural beauty of our hills, lakes, forests, rivers and coasts, but I don’t imagine this landscape to be superior to all others around the world. My allegiance is to Planet Earth. It just happens that I function within a small area of it that is, like the rest of it, both glorious and damaged. I don’t consider it world-beating. It’s true that I was pleased when Max Whitlock, who grew up a few miles away from me, won gold. I’m attached to Andy Murray, but if I’d been born in Spain I’d feel the same about Nadal and if I lived in Switzerland I’d know Federer better. Yes, I’m partisan when watching athletics, which adds to the excitement, but it’s a fleeting, surface tribalism: trivial, random and arbitrary. It doesn’t count for anything that matters.

Patriotism is a kind of pride, and whether I’m looking back at UK history or at the present appalling, dangerous and corrupt shambles of a government, I struggle to feel any such thing. Pride in the slave trade and colonialism? No, that would be shame. In our leading role in the industrial revolution? Well, with hindsight, looking at the carbon graph, sadly no. In our literary heritage? Yes! In Shakespeare, George Eliot, Dickens and others living and dead we have gifted wordsmiths with deep humanity and wisdom; their work enlightens, broadens and develops empathy through understanding beyond our own narrow individual perspectives. But I also recognise that there must be many, many wonderful writers in other languages from whose wisdom I will never learn. It’s not a competition.  In the campaigns that have brought about justice, yes – but what injustices Britain has perpetrated and continues to do so. Reading Why I No Longer Talk To White People About Race opened my eyes to the widespread and systemic nature of racism in this country. We have police officers who will take their cue from the US and kneel on a black man’s neck. Inequality in the UK has widened in my lifetime, as The Spirit Level showed (it’s updated regularly on the website) and in this country our deeply seedy press is controlled by five billionaires while child poverty and homelessness are on the rise.

Am I proud of our government’s silver medal position in the arms trade? How could anyone be anything but ashamed of our readiness to arm conflict and oppression? See Saudi Arabia, so valued a trading partner that we continue to sell them the weapons that kill schoolchildren, bomb weddings and year on year decimate Yemen, identified by the UN as the world’s greatest humanitarian disaster. Well, as our Prime Minister said as Foreign Secretary, if we don’t sell them someone else will. See Bahrain, Israel, the streets of America. See Belarus where a dictator’s forces have been trained here. Consider our record of military intervention – Iraq, Afghanistan – and the ongoing consequences. See 68 million refugees and displaced people and our reluctance to reunite children with family members here. See a media that whips up callousness and hostility when we take just 1% of the world’s asylum seekers. Shame on us.

And then, last but most important of all, there’s the issue that overwhelms all else: climate breakdown. Am I proud of our ‘leadership’ as we fail to meet Paris targets, score 1 out of 20 on our own identified objectives, continue to bail out and expand aviation, build roads, destroy ancient woodlands and subsidise fossil fuels abroad as well as failing to shut down coal, oil and gas when a just transition is both possible and necessary now? The UK’s record is one of inaction, massaged statistics (as Greta clearly explains) and greenwash. Neither my previous MP nor the current incumbent seems to have any understanding of the seriousness of the threat to life on earth, yet the science is clear, robust and terrifying. I have never voted Conservative but honestly, if the CEE bill is passed I will be overjoyed beyond imagining (and I admit it’s hard to imagine). If the Tories hand responsibility for climate action to a Citizens’ Assembly I will applaud them. Like Jonathan  Bartley, I don’t care who does the right thing as long as it’s done.

In the meantime, I can’t be patriotic. Not while the world abhors our toxic press, while the BBC remains largely silent on climate, while the government is found guilty of lies and corruption (endless examples of misinformation along with rampant cronyism). Not while leadership through the Coronavirus pandemic has been lamentable: death toll that could have been so much lower with early protection of Care Homes, a swifter lockdown, adequate PPE, airport testing, an efficient track and trace system in place sooner, clearer messaging, more compassionate and less profit-driven priorities, integrity in power…

When I see the patriotism of Trump’s MAGA supporters I’m horrified that love of country seems to involve surrendering all other love, compassion and respect for human rights. Nationalism involves an enemy and often means turning on compatriots too. Its narrow focus claims special status and ignores the big, human picture. Like a child who hasn’t yet learned to share or to see another perspective, it demands without giving, Me, Me. Yesterday Twitter was alive with opposing views on Land of Hope and Glory and Rule Britannia. Like Roman porticos they have historical importance, offering an insight into outdated attitudes with no place in our global reality at risk. But do we want them to represent us now? Patriots – also traditionalists – clinging to that past when we saw ourselves as victorious and glorious, demand the right to sing and hear those sentiments. Butthese are records of a time we should recognise as indelible history but with deep regret – not sing them with gusto in crowds either complicit in their racist, colonialist jingoism or disengaging from the shocking truths they conceal. I hope at the Albert Hall many fall silent in compassionate acknowledgement of the victims behind the lyrics: the collateral damage of patriotism.

Parklife, June 2020

This is a short story and another postscript to the e-book, FOR LIFE (which you can download for a donation to XR) about rebels Manda and Gem. This original novel concluded in April 2019 but you can read about them locking on at the October Rebellion here, catch up with Gem taking part in the 40 day Vigil for Life here and read about Manda on Mothering Sunday 2020 here.

Manda looked changed. Gem suspected her of losing as much weight over lockdown as Nick had put on. Waving excitedly from across the road, Grandma Manda was looking only at Skye, who jiggled in her buggy and reached out her arms as if she’d never heard the words social and distancing paired around her. For a moment Gem thought Manda had forgotten their meaning as she began to hurry towards them, but she raised her hands as if to hit buffers just in time.

   “I have a bubble!” she cried, and blew them all kisses – Skye first.

   Aware of others liberated behind and ahead, Gem suggested moving into some space if the park allowed any.

   “I almost went back to James just for the garden,” said Manda, wishing she could unclip Skye, take her hand and lift up to sniff the roses. But maybe she’d be shocked how heavy a child could grow through Spring. “Sorry I can’t hug you, angel.”

   “Sorry our so-called garden won’t fit four of us two metres apart,” said Nick.   

   Manda watched as he freed Skye from restraint and flew her over his head and down onto his shoulders. Her legs, which had lost some of their baby roundness and gleam, looked longer but more vulnerable somehow. What a world for a child to live in. Sometimes she couldn’t think that thought without shaking inside.

   Gem was glad Nick was his usual chatty self and Skye was trying to compete with “Look, Gamma, high high!” and plenty of laughter. It left her free to make sure Skye held on tightly and no one else strayed too close. She was sure Manda remembered that just over a year ago they were occupying Waterloo Bridge and full of the brightest belief. With the May Rebellion cancelled, there was talk of July, August or September, but who knew when it would be safe to take to the streets. And the strange thing was how little she minded being a family of three squashed into a flat or fitting onto a postage-stamp space of grass with stories to read. But someone at work had lost her step-dad and there was unconfirmed news on the street’s WhatsApp group that a neighbour she couldn’t even picture was on a ventilator.

   “So, Manda,” Nick began, “are you champing at the bit?”

   Manda pointed out a sparrow for Skye before lowering her pitch and volume. “The mad activist, you mean? I should be up a tree stopping HS2. I disappoint myself.”

   Gem registered the change of tone and supposed Manda was still on the antidepressants she’d mentioned not long ago on video call.

   “You probably needed a break,” Nick told her.

   “Regen,” added Gem.

   “Not like this,” muttered Manda. “They’re destroying ancient woodland as we speak, and I struggle to get out of bed.”

   “Everyone does!” said Nick. “With some exceptions!” he added, grinning up at Skye.

   Manda told her she was a perfect pickle, managing to find a voice to make her laugh. She didn’t want to talk about XR, and the frustration and helplessness, or the divisions either. Sometimes she thought Rob would have found a safely brilliant way to keep the message out there through all this but she’d never felt so tired, alone or afraid. Ashamed, too, to ask her GP to double her daily dose of happy pill when she had so much: food, a roof and no funerals – not yet anyway – that she couldn’t attend.

   And now, Skye looking down on her and smiling as if the world was full of nothing but beauty and humour and love.

   “Do you think we’ll all learn anything from this?” Nick asked her.

   “I did hope – for a couple of stupid, naïve weeks.”

   “Not anymore?”

   “Not anymore. Boris can’t wait to get us back to business as usual.” Her anger at the sacrifice of nursing home residents gripped her chest a moment and she hoped Gem wouldn’t ask about her, because she didn’t want to admit how listless she’d become since Mothering Sunday resurrected something in both of them.

   A loose and barking dog trailing its lead raced towards them, its owner calling, “Banjo!” and “Sorry!” while she gave half-hearted chase. Gem, who usually had to calm Skye’s fears, noticed her laugh instead, as if invulnerable above them all.

   Gem stepped back, regretting her own anxiety. She must buy masks, whether or not they ever became compulsory. Manda seemed more inclined to befriend the animal than pursue what was usually her chosen subject of conversation.

   Licked by the dog when she attempted to stroke it, Manda heard Skye cry, “Kissy dog!” as she ruffled its ears – not unaware of Gem encouraging Nick to step back as if either she or Banjo would infect them all.

   Once dog and owner were reconnected and on their way, Manda regretted the tensing of her skin as the sun dried her face.

   “My only cuddle since winter,” she remarked, only to wish she could redact that rather than sound pitiful. It was true that until March she hadn’t longed to hug her mother for many decades, not with such ferocious desperation.

   Gem gave her a sympathetic smile, but this was a different Manda.

   “Ignore me,” Manda told her. “I’ve forgotten how to socialise. I stopped the XR Zooms – too disturbing. So much talk and no action. I think I’ve forgotten how to rebel too.”

   “We can’t, Manda.” Gem surprised herself. “Black Lives Matter won’t let a virus silence the call for justice.” She supposed Manda hadn’t been so disconnected as to miss the Colston statue being toppled and dragged into a harbour. “And it’s all the same. Climate justice is racial justice. We need to unite and demand change. We can’t let this opportunity go.”

   Was Nick surprised too? She couldn’t tell as he bounced his rider, which prompted appeals for, “More!”

   Manda didn’t respond at first. She’d cheered at the images of the statue being felled but the protesters would be blamed for any spikes in cases. “Each moment only has room for one movement,” she said in the end.

   “But it is all one!” Hadn’t Manda been listening? “Rob would have been so proud of Bristol but the climate crisis won’t wait.”

   Manda knew. Of course she knew. Somehow their roles had reversed and it made her feel small and old.

   “Nick thinks the brand became toxic after Canning Town,” Gem began, “but…”

   “He’s right. Bloody disaster. Sorry, Skye.”

   “XR used to be cool,” said Nick.

   “Oh come on! This isn’t a designer label we’re talking about.” Gem couldn’t believe she’d been cast in this role: the outlier and fanatic. “It’s way too huge and urgent to press pause.”

   Gem realised she’d offered Manda an unfortunate cue with that last word when she added, “And Heathrow was a disaster too.”

   No one spoke except Skye, who wanted them to listen to the birds, even though the songs they’d heard and tried to identify a few weeks earlier were lost now in human and engine noise.

   “Of course we’re discouraged after October, but we can’t give up.” Gem would have had to admit, if pressed, that the numbers on their local group’s weekly Zoom had fallen. It was no surprise that some rebels had lost faith and heart, but Manda?

   “Quakers are very positive,” Nick remarked to Manda. “They live in the Light.”

   “Quakers live in the real world,” Gem corrected him. He’d only been to a couple of Meetings for Worship since Covid struck, but she didn’t want to feel annoyed or even a little bit betrayed. She’d always known his commitment to rebellion was less than robust, but Manda’s had persuaded her into a wooden tower with superglue on her hands. That commitment had been Rob’s, and it made friends of them as well as family.

   “You’re not really saying that whenever the next rebellion happens you won’t be part of it?” asked Gem, quietly, realising she sounded as sad as she felt.

   Manda hurried towards an ash tree ahead as a couple vacated its shade. She sat, hugging her legs in her holey jeans. Nick told Skye she could come down and run around the tree as long as she didn’t get too close to Grandma. Gem half-expected Manda to reach out and grab Skye as she ran. It was a minute or two before the adult conversation resumed, with Manda’s arms behind her back like a prisoner.

   “Better no rebellion than a damp squib,” she said, throwing the line away but focused on Skye.

   “Better any rebellion than none,” Gem disagreed, but Manda was chatting with Skye as if she hadn’t heard. “Your conditional discharge will expire in July,” Gem told her. “My plea hearing has been postponed twice.” She felt guilty suddenly. “I’m sorry I couldn’t come to your trial.”

   Manda shook her head. “Don’t be soft. I didn’t acquit myself as well as I hoped. I guess that’s why I didn’t convince the judge to acquit me!”

   Nick and Gem both told her, without evidence, that they were sure she was wrong.

   “It was more stressful than I expected.”

   Gem imagined it would be. “You were brave to plead not guilty and go through that.”

   Manda shook her head. “The brave ones were the rebels of colour who get stopped on the street by cops every week – whether or not they made themselves arrestable.”

   “Do you see Leo at all?” asked Nick, following Gem’s own line of thought.

   Manda just shook her head again. “Who needs a man when you’ve got a granddaughter?” Suddenly she rose and pretended to chase Skye around the tree, arms Dalek-like, hoping Gem trusted her not to catch her.

   Skye laughed delightedly, and stopped, crouched a little, as if waiting for her, only to run away as Manda supposed she’d have to trip.

   Gem couldn’t imagine life without Nick, who loved her whether or not Skye was his, and accepted Manda like a mother-in-law. She was pretty sure Manda was missing Leo as well as civil disobedience, and Libby, who’d turned into a great auntie but hadn’t quite got the hang of being a daughter.

   Wishing she understood Libby better – or rather, that Libby understood her, Gem asked how she was.

   “Steaming. She thinks lockdown’s an overreaction.”

   “Ah, like XR,” said Gem. She guessed that Libby on furlough would be bored and cross, and not much fun in her father’s bubble.

   Manda played peep-o around the tree trunk. “She’d be happy if I gave up activism.”

   “But you wouldn’t,” Nick told her, pulling out the aluminium water bottle Gem had bought for his birthday. She liked watching him tilt his long, lockdown hair back to drink, but sometimes she almost forgot that as Rob’s best friend he had known Manda, James and Libby – and Rob himself – longer than she had. She thought of the video Nick had helped Manda make on the anniversary of Rob’s death, a tribute that had gone viral until the trolling drove her off Twitter. Whatever, he was right about Manda. He must be. This would pass.

   “You know when we were at the police station in October,” Manda began, turning to Gem, “and I said I was depressed and they took my Doc Martens because of the laces, I asked the doctor where climate grief ends and depression begins, and he said he didn’t know. How can I tell why I feel the way I do, now, after surviving Rob’s death – somehow?” Then she grinned at Skye. “But I’m a happy Grandma now I’m hanging with the perfect pickle.”

   “We can do this again,” said Gem.

   “Before lockdown started I didn’t really want to go out of the door.” Manda laughed. “Now I could break it down!”

   That was true, in a way, but so was the opposite. Mass Zooms made her withdraw into distracted observation– and once or twice, turn off her camera – and as long as she could walk in twilight when the streets were empty enough to ignore the pavements at least now and then, isolation seemed safe, and London beautiful again. As if within the peace there was healing, but not within her, because the permafrost was melting and the Arctic was burning, and some rebels said it was too late to prevent catastrophe, that the only realistic approach was mitigation and adaptation. Such cold words for a world on fire.

   Suddenly Manda couldn’t do this anymore. It wasn’t fair on the young and she’d lost her smile.

   “I’m going to head off,” she said, “before I crash and poop the party.” Perhaps it was a good thing she couldn’t embrace anyone, because that would make her cry.

   “You’ve only just…” began Nick.

   “It’s an emotional time,” said Gem, fearing she’d mishandled something and hoping Manda knew she didn’t only mean this, now, in a pandemic, but the crisis that had fallen down the news agenda.

   “Oh yes.” Manda circled arms in a virtual hug. She reached into her bag, pulled out a picture book and dropped it on the grass. “Grown-ups might need tissues for that.”

   Gem thanked her, and persuaded Skye to do the same even though she clearly didn’t want Grandma to go.

   “Kissy Gamma!” she cried as Manda waved goodbye. Nick tried to explain why that wasn’t possible just now. Gem wished she could have found a way to stop her leaving.

   “She needs to watch that video again. Rob would convince her not to let go,” said Nick once she had scuttled away, doing occasional sidekicks and hops for Skye.

   Gem thought, she’s broken, but she would mend. She’d feel stronger once she took to the streets again, with banners and placards. All rebels would, and they must, as soon as they could.

   Nick squeezed her hand.

Since FOR LIFE, I have caught up with my characters in a few other short stories to be read on this website:

The Trial: a short story

Written before lockdown, this free short story is NOT strictly autobiographical. The characters are fictional, but I’ve adapted my own experience in court, both as a defendant and a supporter of other rebels, so much is drawn from life. I chose to take various different viewpoints, which was an act of imagination as my own is rather clear!

Marcus

Marcus Olorenshaw stood on the Central Line, pressed against his wife and pretending she was a stranger. Over breakfast she’d wanted an explanation for his grumpiness.

   “You’ve no idea how wearisome these trials are,” he’d told her, but that had been unguarded, a mistake.

   “Doctor, professor or vicar? Or are you hoping for a crusty this time? A barefoot hippy for a change?”

   “I don’t care as long as I’m spared the speeches. They have to be told these cases are not about climate change. Or morality, either.”

   “Just as well I’m not recording this for Channel 4 News,” she’d remarked, looking up at the kitchen clock. “Make them feel the full force of the law!”

   Up closer to her than he’d been for a while, he couldn’t be sure the purity of her white hair was natural. Marcus reflected that he didn’t always know how to read her, and suspected the menopause. Irritation prevented him kissing her cheek when the carriage doors opened, and unless he missed it, she didn’t wish him a good day. Suddenly it bothered him that he couldn’t remember what bright-eyed cultural business she would be enjoying while he endured five hours of gritted teeth and fake patience. Sometimes he thought she was less than grateful for the salary he deserved – rather like these activists who failed to appreciate their freedom to set up camp on bridges and glue themselves to government buildings in a country that allowed them a platform.

   So who had he got today?

Jenny

Emerging from the subway, Jenny Marsh saw from the curved and rather imposing building on the corner that they had arrived, albeit as early as Alice had warned they would.  The doors were still locked. Jenny put up her black umbrella and tried to share it with her daughter, who hadn’t spoken for a while.

   “Are you all right?” she checked, and Alice nodded.

   She’d ignored Jenny’s advice on dress code, although the jeans at least had two knees and her hair would look more presentable out of the rain as long as there was a brush in that old shoulder bag. Jenny looked at her phone: not one but two questions from staff who hadn’t read their emails. Sighing, she replied as briefly as possible. Maybe she should have told them all why she wouldn’t be in school. Tomorrow, perhaps, she could announce the verdict at morning briefing. She couldn’t quite imagine the response but the younger ones might be impressed.

   Now Alice was looking at her own phone. “Dad’s train was delayed,” she reported. “And he wants me to change my plea to guilty. But I can’t.”

   “Well, you could… in the sense that it’s not too late.”

   “But I won’t,” said Alice, quietly. “It’s important to tell the truth. Anyway, I’ve spent hours on my documents.”

   “I’m sure.”

   Jenny had offered to pay for a solicitor so Tony had done the same and they’d agreed to split it. But Alice was adamant that she wanted a voice, her own voice. This must mean her prep was at the expense of her coursework at the very start of her degree. Alice had been so studious before the Climate Strikes changed her. Tony had been convinced she’d fail her A Levels after the arrest in April – and she’d reminded him that a few weeks after he left them two years earlier, their daughter hadn’t exactly done badly at GCSE. Alice was turning out to be less delicate than she looked, even though they were both convinced that on a vegan diet she didn’t eat enough.

   Jenny watched her reply to a message, probably from that housemate who’d already clocked up three arrests. Alice had said none of her uni friends could afford the train to London; Jenny hoped Tony wouldn’t let her down again. She looked at her watch just as the heavy doors opened on some steps up to revolving doors and airport-style security.

   “It’s necessary,” said Alice, and led the way.

Greg

Greg Swift was hungover, which wasn’t ideal, and spoiled the bacon sandwich he ate as he walked underground to Exit 8. For some reason no one could explain, there was only one defendant on his list. Why hadn’t they batched her up like most of them? Such a waste of the court’s time and money. At nineteen she was the youngest he’d had to prosecute so far, and barely looked adult in the bodycam footage, with her denim shorts and baggy Choose Love T-shirt. With luck, and no police officer required, it could all be over by lunchtime. He hadn’t mentioned to Kristof what kind of case this was, not after that bedroom row about the last one with the Biology teacher, the architect, and the grandmother who used to play cello at the Royal Opera House. “I don’t know how you can live with yourself,” Kristof had told him. “In that case,” Greg had said, “I don’t know how you can live with me, so feel free to fuck right off.” As if he could pick and choose, or rewrite the laws of the land. And as if Kristof did any more to save the planet than any other smartass young Londoner who shopped and partied hard and flew to European capitals for stag weekends, football or Taylor Swift.

   Greg would rather spend the day with some petty criminal than a girl like Alice Marsh, but he knew the motions now. He would autopilot through them with the help of a couple of painkillers. He stepped over a surprisingly deep puddle, binned his disposable coffee cup and hurried inside.

Serena

Serena held her clipboard to her chest as she breezed in to Court Four waiting room and smelled the food. Those arrestee support people were marvellous the way they always turned up with their hummous and French bread, cookies and bananas – and filled the space with chat. The police superintendent was there again, poor chap. Hadn’t he got real work to do? They exchanged friendly greetings before she checked off the defendants’ names, all present. It seemed a shame that in Court Three a young girl was up on her own, with just her mother to support her, so she had a quiet word with a familiar woman wearing an Extinction Rebellion badge and sent her next-door. Serena knew by now how random the workings of the machine could be, how many embarrassing errors could turn up on the day. But it was always nice to see the climate protesters with their warm smiles and old-fashioned manners, some of them all loose with confidence and others, like the Alice girl, terribly shy. A bit traumatised already? It was a shame really but she always tried to make them feel at home, in a way.

   Perhaps she’d pop back to the Alice girl and make sure she hadn’t changed her mind.

Alice

Alice turned to see her father enter the courtroom and catch her eye with a look that probably meant sorry, although he hadn’t missed much. He looked out of his depth, as if he had no idea how he came to be here, too late to see her stand and give her name, address and date of birth, to hear her asked to speak up. Quiet, her teachers always said, hardworking and capable.  None of them ever knew who she was, so when her dad left no one knew how to help. Not that she could have told them. Now everything had changed, around and inside her, and like the criminal justice system, her parents weren’t keeping up, either of them.

   The judge was old, and looked as if he’d be more comfortable having drinks with the Prime Minister. He was crisp as toast, but every now and then slathered on a load of butter when he smiled. Alice didn’t suppose there was anything she could say that he’d really hear, but her notes sat piled beside her aluminium water bottle. She tucked stray hair behind her ear, knowing it wouldn’t stay there. She was aware of her father sitting down next to someone with a laptop who could be a law student or maybe a trainee police officer. The prosecution lawyer was delivering numbers. So many Londoners delayed and inconvenienced, so much disruption, takings lost, money spent on policing. Familiar, it still seemed strange that anyone would think it mattered, any of it, compared with climate catastrophe. But it was endless, and she had the feeling the lawyer was boring himself.

   Alice told herself she must delete it all, everything but the much, much bigger facts. She must sit straight and keep her voice together, but sometimes when she read the reports, saw the melting and burning, nothing held. As if she had nowhere to stand, to exist, to count on.

   She would tell both her parents afterwards, straight away, before they could forget the reasons.

Tony

Incredible, people said, about any old singer or goal, film or shoes. It was a joke, because this was incredible, thought Tony. This now, here: watching his girl on trial for trying to stop a madness that was even harder to believe in. Which was why he’d never really believed it, in spite of her, until he walked in to the courtroom and saw her looking so young and serious and incredibly brave.

   She’d tried to teach him. Now he didn’t need the science because she was enough. This was more than enough.

Greg

Greg had heard it all before. That Sixth IPCC report, Government adviser Sir David King, Attenborough, the John McDonnell statement that would needle Olorenshaw more than most, the claims that people were already dying that were never going to wash as imminence. The whole necessity argument was dead in the water before anyone got out of bed this morning or any other, but it didn’t matter to these activists. They were all so sure they were right – even this girl who could do with a microphone, and looked like she needed a large beefburger and a mountain of fries. He didn’t pay attention any more, not to what they were saying, just to whatever detail he could find to distinguish the individual from the whole crowd. Whether this one would cry – or rather, how soon. How much Olorenshaw would put up with and how much, with well-groomed parents like hers, he’d make her pay. Last time he’d clobbered a Biology teacher he accused of rhetoric with seven hundred and seventy, which was more than Greg planned to ask from Alice Marsh, unless he decided she’d be the type to make a habit of it without a deterrent. It was all right for Kristof to be woke but he didn’t understand. The establishment wasn’t ready to allow people like her to break the law for a pat on the head; government certainly wasn’t, and the Met was still reeling. The whole system was clogged up, like the traffic in London back in April when this girl was invited to leave but made four officers carry her off the bridge, arms out like a crucifix. If Kristof watched the bodycam footage the Catholic in him would see sacrifice, but that was just emotion. The law was something firmer, more rational and dependable. It was what had drawn Greg to it. That and the money. And the feeling of order, as long as there were no cock-ups.

   “The science…” she said, trying to project.

   How many times! Irrelevant. A waste of breath. He could see she was a good girl but Olorenshaw wouldn’t. “No reasonable people would have behaved as you did,” he’d told the last guilty group. Wallop! His honour was a pompous old headmaster and Greg wouldn’t want to see him lay into Alice Marsh like that, even though her intensity was no good for his headache.

Jenny

Jenny had told Alice more than once, face to face and on the phone but mostly in messaging, that she wasn’t arrogant enough to dispute the scientific consensus but the methods the rebels used were never going to win hearts and minds. That frankly, the way these activists presented the problem was a bit over the top, too apocalyptic to credit, a turn-off. Alice had a way of going silent, as if she was wounded, or winded, or despairing of her mother’s stupidity. But in the dock, she was as collected as a teenager could be.

   “We live in a democracy with freedom of speech. Why was it necessary to break the law to make your point?”

   “This is a climate emergency. The normal rules don’t apply. The petitions and marches didn’t change anything and we’re running out of time.”

   “How could your actions change anything?”

   “This is a climate emergency. We needed to get that message across so we had to grab the headlines, and tell people what’s happening so that they demand change too. We had to wake everyone up, governments, media, industry, even the legal system.”

   “By sitting in a road making people late for work, for medical appointments.”

   “This is a climate emergency. Nothing else is really… significant.”

   “Like the normal rules, apparently. Why didn’t you move when Police Officer Hartley asked you?”

   “This is a climate emergency.”

   The judge shifted in his chair but the prosecutor continued. “Why didn’t you walk when you were arrested? Was it necessary to be carried by four tired and overstretched officers?”

   In the video she’d looked so calm and certain. Now she looked tired and overstretched herself. The prosecution lawyer was pressing her hard and Jenny couldn’t ask to see him in her office at lunchtime for a quiet word.

   “This is a climate emergency.”

   The District Judge leaned forward a little, fingers clasped around his pen. “A court of law is not a place for mantras.” The way he said the word suggested that he could think of nothing more offensive. “You can wave your banners and chant your chants at your demonstrations, not here.”

   Alice was silent. The prosecution lawyer hesitated.

   “Have you any further questions, Mr Swift?” asked the judge, clearly hoping not.

   “No, sir.”

   “In May Parliament agreed that this is climate emergency,” said Alice.

   “You may stand down, Miss Marsh.”

   Jenny glanced across at Tony and saw him with both thumbs up and a mouth that bit back emotion, but Alice didn’t make eye contact with anyone as she crossed the courtroom. Honestly, Jenny didn’t know. Had she done wonderfully, or badly? Did it make any difference anyway, when the deal was done?

   Jenny had no idea how Tony did that heart thing with his fingers so quickly and effortlessly just as Alice looked in their direction, but she’d never done it in her life. He must be in practice. Alice said there was someone in his life. Of course there was…

Tony

Tony produced a plastic bottle of water and had drunk a few sips before Alice shamed him by unsealing her reusable one. And she’d given him one just like it last Christmas too. He didn’t want to fail her again. But this… she shouldn’t have to go through it. Let other activists bear the weight. He’d tried to explain that he’d lose his job in a blink if he were to do what she’d done. It was different for the young with their bright ideals, always had been.

   He hoped she knew how proud he was.

Marcus

Marcus always talked about respect for these people’s convictions but they thought they were above the law, and as good as said so. At least this girl didn’t waste more police time questioning a busy senior officer about human rights. He was pretty sick of hearing about people’s consciences, as though ordinary, law-abiding people didn’t possess such a thing. “So you think the government has it all under control?” he’d been asked at breakfast, and apparently his answer that no doubt they did, and after all Britain led the way in this, had not convinced his own wife. Now that she’d forgotten her outrage at being delayed for something less than consequential in April, she was rather taken with the little Swedish zealot with plaits and an accusing frown.

   He was rather relieved that his own son was too busy earning big bucks in the States to sign up to her kind of fervour. For all their eloquence and figures, most of these rebels must have mental health issues. But the father looked as starry-eyed as if she were five and just played Mary in the Nativity play. Did schools still do those, or just wiggle to Slade and Elton John?

   Marcus expected Alice Marsh had a speech to deliver before he withdrew for his verdict and he wasn’t going to allow more than two pages of it.

Greg

His case proved, Greg’s job was done until Olorenshaw consulted him on the fine. Greg didn’t normally pay attention to defendants’ last-ditch attempts to cram in as much death and doom as possible. But he hadn’t made up his mind about Alice Marsh, who was attractive in her own bare, otherworldly way, and obviously well outside her comfort zone – if she allowed herself one any more than a late-night kebab – but keeping her head above water, considering the melting Arctic. Not too quivery but not flat and boring either, in spite of all those reports from bodies with long names. He’d been half-expecting Olorenshaw to ban notes and would have been sorry to see the girl floundering. She wasn’t, not yet, in spite of Olorenshaw’s own brand of gentlemanly intimidation. This Ecocide Law stuff was quite interesting and Greg had been meaning to look it up. Now she was telling the court how she’d been inspired by that barrister Polly Higgins who’d died on Easter Sunday. Some people said Extinction Rebellion was a cult; Greg steered well clear of religion.

   “Three years ago I told my parents I wouldn’t go on any more family holidays that meant flying,” Alice said, and added, “Before they split up,” so quietly that Olorenshaw asked her to repeat it. Greg remembered his own parents’ divorce when he was about the same age and how long it had taken him to stop hating his mother.

   “Before my parents split up.”

   Greg heard the pain then, the fault line that hadn’t cracked open before. He would have liked to check their faces, the two of them. But Alice Marsh was back on track, except that she’d put the papers down and was winging it.

   Her generation. The right to life. The right to bring a child into a world worth inheriting. It was personal now and she was exposed, real. Damaged, of course; Olorenshaw would despise her for it. Part of Greg wanted the old fart to stop her and part of him would be livid if he did.

   Kristof would want to know about this but Greg really didn’t want to tell him.

Jenny

Jenny embraced Alice as soon as the door closed behind the judge. “You must be exhausted. I know I am.”

   Alice nodded. Tony held her for a longer, firmer hug, and kissed her forehead the way he used to, a decade ago.

   “Time for a coffee round the corner, do you think?”

   Alice shook her head. “I don’t suppose he’ll take long.”

   Jenny didn’t know what to say. Out came a teacherly, “Well done” but it was hard to feel as composed as she sounded. Because if Alice was right… how did she sleep?

   “Good luck.”

   It was the prosecution lawyer. Jenny smiled gratefully but Tony reacted as if an Everton fan had just sympathised over a Liverpool own goal.  Clearly surprised, Alice thanked him, and for a moment she became a self-conscious schoolgirl again.

   “He’s young too,” she told them as he returned to his laptop.

   Jenny had never thought to find out how many of her students were worried about climate change. Now she would be afraid to ask.

Tony

It’s so bloody unfair, Tony messaged outside the toilets. Not the money. Criminalising people like her. Tony hadn’t actually told Jess the figure, which was a joke. The judge wanted to punish Alice – or them, her liberal, divorced parents, for failing to keep her submissive. It made him so angry. The law was so far behind reality. Like him. That was where people chose to stay, out of the loop, because the truth the scientists were offering as a warning was too hot to handle. Easier to get on with life the way people had got used to living it.

   Jenny emerged from the Ladies first, her lipstick renewed, showing no trace of anything as she rummaged in her handbag rather than talk to him.

   “Do you think she can stay out of trouble for nine months?” she asked him as she zipped it shut again.

   “I doubt it.”

   “We have to persuade her. She’s done enough. Why can’t the adults do their bit?”

   “Like us?”

   He could see that made her cross. “I’m going to write to the Environment Minister. And no, I can’t say who that is just now. And yes, I know it’s probably a waste of time.”

   Alice appeared behind them.

   “What’s a waste of time? Was this? I hope not. I have to hope not.”

   Tony put his arm round her. “Come on, you need a decent lunch. I need a drink.”

   “I’m leaving uni. Maybe not for ever but for as long as it takes. Nobody’s listening yet so the alarm’s got to be louder. I need to be in London.”

   Tony hadn’t seen it coming but now he didn’t know why. He looked to Jenny. She was the one who bigged up education as the answer to everything.

   “No, Alice. That’s too much…” she tried.

   “It may not be enough.”

   “Look, let’s eat, all right?” he said, managing a kind of smile. “It’s been tough, especially for you, and we need to regroup, stay rational. Enough drama for one day.”

   He knew Jenny would agree with that. Alice nodded, and pulled on a woolly hat that made her look fourteen. The court support woman with the hourglass badge came hurrying after them as they approached the revolving doors, wanting to know how Alice was and telling her how brilliantly she’d done. She never liked accepting praise.

   “Thanks. I’m fine.”

   Jenny looked tense now. Tony didn’t know for sure how he felt, or what he could say, over a bottle of wine, that was rational, and avoided drama.

   Now the XR woman gave Alice a hug, gave her an email and headed for the Ladies.

   Alice thanked her again. “See you on the streets!”

Some real life rebels outside City of London Magistrates' Court

One grandma’s lockdown

Some of these experiences will be common to many; others are more individual. It’s possible that I had the virus mildly early on, but I haven’t lost anyone close to me and that makes me very, very lucky. I’m acutely aware that for some humans in other parts of the world with no health service and no savings, this year has been and remains both devastating and terrifying, so I know ‘white privilege’ is written all over my own perspective.

I’ve been both very emotional about the death toll and frustrated and angry that in Britain these figures have now become so hard to find. It disturbs me that while in many countries the cases continue to rise, the shock and grief of our collective response has dulled. I tell myself that even when only 11 UK deaths are recorded, each one counts for just as much as every individual in eight or nine hundred.

Several times I’ve cried watching interviews with survivors still battered and suffering, their stripped humanity raw and their gratitude deep.

A recent procedure of my own – a scare that proved unfounded – showed me the detail of the care taken in a hospital environment, reminding me of the ongoing vulnerability of medical staff and our duty to protect them as well as each other.

My anger at the government, initially because of the failure to provide these courageous people with PPE, peaked with deaths among NHS and care workers but has not abated as one failure has followed another.

I’ve learned to appreciate the work of the underpaid and undervalued in a shockingly unequal society that I hoped we could reconstitute more justly.

At People not Borders we were able at the height of the pandemic to contribute financially towards PPE etc for refugee camps. However, it’s been hugely frustrating being unable until recently to raise much money or collect donated items, so it feels great to begin sorting and boxing again for Greece, and to see shoes we’ve bought reach refugees in Dunkirk.

I chalked ANOTHER WORLD IS POSSIBLE on walls around town and yes, in the quiet I imagined I could “hear her breathing” (Arundhati Roy). I used to love walking in the middle of the road, the way strangers greeted and helped each other, hearing birdsong and having time to look, listen and think.

I actually believed for a while that the world might take the opportunity of lockdown to make the radical changes necessary to avert climate catastrophe – and have more recently raged as our government has prioritised bailing out polluting industries.

I’ve trusted Channel Four News to try to find the truth and care about it. It’s thanks to the team there that I have understood how differently the virus has impacted elsewhere, and how manageable for people like me the lockdown has been.

My reading, fairly prolific, and has broadened to include inspiring and/or educative non-fiction titles such as Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge, The Hammer Blow by Andrea Needham, The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd and Dear Life by Doctor Rachel Clarke. But I still feel a little self-indulgent reading before 6pm!

I’ve had time to read articles, mainly about climate change and racial injustice, online. I’ve even tried to retain some facts.

Of the novels I’ve read, my favourites were Annabel by Kathleen Winter, The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré and Notes from the Lost Property Department by Bridget Pitt. I also found Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo very powerful.

Having decided not to write any more fiction myself, I have – preposterously – completed an adult novel begun in, and because of, lockdown. My decision to focus on activism and family from now on had not factored in a global pandemic; I had to do something and writing is what I do. The novel, a sequel to my 37th title, INTACT, which was published in March, might or might not exist in the future as an e-book, depending largely on whether a few people buy INTACT! But I’m lucky that a pension and simple living spare me the financial problems most authors are facing.

My daily exercise has been a walk with Leslie and we have built up our fitness to manage four or five miles on occasions, but have struggled to avoid runners in particular but also, and increasingly, people who are neither wearing masks nor taking care to keep social distance.

Every day, even if restricted to street walks, we have looked for flowers and celebrated those seen for the first time (this year) as they’ve bloomed. Trying to bring back or discover their names and hold on to them until we are home again has been our alternative to learning a new language or, in the case of certain gifted young people, all Chopin’s Etudes.

Those talented siblings, the Kanneh-Masons, have brought me joy and elation with their weekly livestreams from their living room in Nottingham.

For weeks I cleaned more often and more intensively but that was a phase.

Zooming continues in spite of having lost some of its appeal. I often find myself even less likely to contribute on screen than I’d be in person. They’re a blessing for the shy, as is the Leave Meeting option.

My new concept of a busy day – applying objectively ridiculous pressure – would have made the busy, pre-lockdown me laugh out loud.

I abandoned bras with very few exceptions and with pleasure, but that leaves me feeling old and exposed when hanging loose on the street without a hoodie or XR jacket.

Every bedtime we have recalled the good things that have happened that day, some of them small but cherished all the same – like yesterday’s clear view of a Red Kite gliding directly and not far above us.

Early in lockdown I continued an inter-faith vigil for the climate that had begun in Westminster but had to regroup online. It was moving and heartening sitting in silence on my living room carpet with a candle and various texts: not just Quaker books but XR’s This Is Not A Drill, The Book of Joy by Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama and I am Because You Are by Satish Kumar. I also developed my own little daily regenerative routine, which endures and never fails. (I make prayer hands and say “Peace,” then lift them for “Love” and raise one arm in a loose fist for “Justice”, head bowed.)

The May Rebellion couldn’t happen, which was a huge disappointment and at times deepened my despair.

But that month my first foray for any purpose other than exercise was with Extinction Rebellion, when a small group of local rebels began to witness safely, in masks and two metres apart, on the high street. Initially we made NO GOING BACK placards, with almost all the shops closed. Continuing every Sunday since, we have now changed the message to BUILD BACK BETTER, but I also chalk that Black Lives Matter. Climate justice and social and racial equality were always closely connected but from now on, in XR, they will go hand in hand.

In France the Citizens’ Assembly voted overwhelmingly for a referendum on Ecocide Law. I allow myself to hope that such a law could soon be passed, and that before long Ecocide will be declared an international crime – which would change everything fast.

My emails to my Tory MP have become even more frequent and on 25th June I was part of a socially distanced XR presence at his constituency office. When he voted against reuniting child refugees with family in the UK just recently, the emotional tone of my communications changed as I appealed to his humanity. So far I have received no reply.

I’ve been glad to be on antidepressants (since my XR trial in October) because for me they work and I’ve stopped feeling ashamed.

I won’t be alone in expressing the wish that I’d been born in New Zealand where one world leader shows integrity, compassion and wisdom.

The Royal Academy of Dance ran some weekly online ballet lessons which I took with some excitement, about sixty years after first planning to be a ballerina but never ever being taught. I did find the tuition more formal and less exciting than I’d hoped, and objected from a feminist perspective to being encouraged to flutter eyelashes – in my case non-existent – as part of the end-of-performance curtsey.

Like many, I’ve wished we had a garden, although in the shared space at the back of the flats neighbours who didn’t really interact have now bonded and it’s lovely to see children playing safely together.

Also like many, I’ve planted seeds for the kitchen window sill and have hopes for the little basil shoots that already have the appetising scent of a holiday in Italy back in 2005, the last time we flew anywhere.

I’ve pined for my favourite naughty vegan treat of chips in paper from the fish shop next to Berkhamsted station, where I’d been indulging 10 or 12 times a year in conjunction with getting the train to London. Tempted as I am, I’m not ready for a takeaway yet.

Today my 9 month conditional discharge from the court expired. We are planning the next rebellion but without knowing what will be possible or safe, and I can only hope we’ll wake up a government that for all its greenwash is still hell-bent on pushing us over the cliff as fast as possible.

More than anything I have missed hugs with family and friends, seeing family and friends in person, across a café table or our kitchen, and in particular I’ve felt the loss of my Grandma Mondays with my grandson. I’m lucky that he lives a few minutes’ drive away and in recent weeks we’ve enjoyed his garden with him and his parents. All the same, every time we’ve left I’ve cried because I just want to hold him, and sit him on my lap for a story, and play all day. And I’ve seen my daughter once since March.

I’ve felt for those shut in with someone abusive, grumpy or even just cold – just as I’ve felt for those who’ve had to risk their health to work, or who are in financial difficulty.

Since I stopped teaching to be a full-time author in 2008, Leslie and I have spent most of our waking and sleeping hours together, but the extremes of early lockdown confirmed for me how very much I love him, how happy we are together (almost all the time) and how fortunate that makes us.

I’m conscious that for many thousands of people in the UK alone this year has brought grief, loss and pain. I’m very, very angry with our government because it failed them – and the NHS, and care homes and care workers, and bus and taxi drivers too. I’m furious because of the government’s ever-flowing stream of ‘world-beating’ lies and because in so many ways they’ve prioritised profit over human life.

I’m more determined than ever to work for that better world.

Kids’ fiction matters

As a child I was frightened by the Wolf Grandmother, wicked witches and ogres, and didn’t like Beatrix Potter because animals sometimes became pies. Evil in fantastic form gave me nightmares even when I knew it was all ‘pretend’. Drawn to the sadness of love, I avoided darkness in my reading choices from the local library, and my sensitive father protected me from the real world as featured in his commuter’s newspaper long after I had the reading level to process it. Looking back as an adult depressed by that reality, I think he was right, but these decisions about reading and viewing content are for parents to make with intimate understanding of their own children. Nothing much has changed for me. I’m a Pacifist vegan and I’m terrified of climate chaos and the Far Right. But as an adult I see it as my responsibility to look into the darkness, name it, understand it – and work to dispel it. I don’t allow myself to live in a world of songbirds and rainbows. There are things – and public figures – that make me despair and sometimes leave me angry, because they normalise war or violence, prejudice in any form, lies or consumerist greed, so how do I respond? I can block, and believe me I do, because I don’t want hate on my feed. But it’s more useful to challenge it, and campaign for change. And fiction for psychologically healthy young readers is worth writing and campaigning for.

When a mother of young children, and a primary school teacher, I used to both monitor fiction and consider carefully how much dark reality to reveal. I remember parents complaining that having read The Suitcase Kid, their daughter was lying awake worrying that they’d divorce. I stood my ground because so many children in the class lived this already and benefited from fiction that understood and helped their peers to understand too. But the disillusionment that faces teens or pre-teens as they learn how many ways our leaders fail us, that we sell arms that kill children, that some adults mean them harm and some police officers should be arrested themselves, appals me. The end of innocence feels like a terribly sad loss – which is not to pretend that children are angels who don’t know how to be unkind.  Of course they do. But racism, like all prejudices, is learned. Nursery children really are oblivious to the differences that divide adults. How soon we introduce them to these divisions, and how we present them, may just determine the kind of adults they become. So children’s fiction matters, not just for aesthetic or literary reasons but in terms of child development. That lays on children’s authors – however famous, and regardless of adult material they may produce – a genuine and daunting responsibility.

I’m going to stick my neck out here and suggest that The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is less damaging to young readers than the kind of fiction that dehumanises anyone, through racial or gender stereotypes, in pursuit of humour which is really ridicule. And since humour which is really sneery, jeery disrespect is everywhere, it’s not surprising to find it in children’s books. Laughs at other people’s expense are easy to come by and women like me with alopecia can provoke that kind of humour just by existing. I remember being shocked when, during an author visit to a primary school, I first read a passage from THE LINCOLN IMP in which the bully’s cruel jokes prompted laughter from my young audience. It can be a knee-jerk reaction of the kind that finds it funny, just in the moment, when someone falls on their face – until, sobering up, most of us feel guilty and reflect with concern. I remained confident, however, that amused readers would soon find themselves scorning such wit and empathising with the victim in my story. I’m conscious that it’s up to me to make sure of that. But if a narrator mocks other characters, without learning to stop like Freya in ALAS AND ALACK, the message absorbed by readers is very different. They’re being taught that mockery is a clever kind of wit and some people are fair game. And those of us who object to comedy because the context is too raw or the joke too callous are readily dismissed as over-sensitive. Where’s your sense of humour?

Of course children’s stories don’t have to be predominantly funny, and as a teacher I found that Story Time was most thrilling when the book I shared resonated with its audience at a profound emotional level. Kids can relate to fiction about the human condition as well as underpants. In fact I believe these are the stories that count. In my own writing my central characters might lose their hair, be overweight, or have special needs, uncool passions, a disability or an ethnicity that sets them apart – so that readers connect with them emotionally as they understand the experience they share with them. I was overwhelmed when a teenage boy told me that THE WATERHOUSE GIRL had made him a better person. Stories are excitingly powerful, but children’s authors abuse that power if they perpetuate in the next generation the problems that split and damage us.

As for death, climate breakdown and the plight of refugees, I believe they’re all important contexts for children’s fiction. Of course they’re distressing – that’s the point. Beth March dies; so, even does Michael Morpurgo’s Dancing Bear. We learn to live with loss and sympathise with others doing the same. My picture book for People not Borders, I AM ME, is an empathy-developer that helps children as young as three or four to understand emotionally what it must be like to be a young refugee. I don’t believe in shielding children from the kind of reality that’s too big to ignore, as long as the exposure is measured and positive. Life is full of sadness and that’s what makes the joy soar. Children introduced to injustice and suffering feel compassion, and a desire to help, to change the world for the better. That’s the richest kind of maturity. This stuff matters, and there’s nothing worse than the kind of fiction that implies nothing does. I’d go so far as to say, at this point in human history, that fiction that presents our current world while ignoring the climate and ecological emergency is a kind of lie. I’ve acknowledged it in many of my novels, but in different ways and genres. Just as adult cli-fi can be more terrifying than the IPCC report, children’s fiction built on the same truth can be gentler, inspiring, brave. It’s a heavy responsibility to bear and requires delicate judgement, kindness and hope.

I’m not naming names – I can’t, not having read a huge number of children’s books in the last ten years – but I’m making a case. It’s a case that explains why, for example, The Secret Garden has just been filmed again and will always retain its power for as long as there are stories. Call me soft, idealistic, old, but for me:

Sadness is important; superficiality sells kids short.

Unkindness is a reality but the author shouldn’t be guilty of it!

Fun and deep seriousness aren’t mutually exclusive. They can work together to make a story unforgettable.

If it’s lightweight, or even trivial, it lacks staying power.

If it’s jumped on a bandwagon with no real vision, it’ll soon fall off.

When a character is a stereotype the author denies their humanity, and by extension, the humanity of real people with whom the reader may associate them.

If the stereotype is racial, it’s particularly damaging, and always was, long before Black Lives Matter. Enough!

If white authors like me create black characters we’d better take loving, enlightened care.

Authors must not limit girls – or boys, either.

Disrespect is not a healthy attitude to foster in readers and society.

Humour is no excuse.

Young characters can/should be deep, rounded, complex and individual rather than cool or conventional. It’s the rebels that inspire us and change the world for the better.

Even fantasy needs values. If the story’s not about love and the human condition, however young the reader, why bother?

If the story teaches a child to sneer, judge, be shallow and careless, give it a swerve.

Love and understanding – or depression and climate grief

I’ve been suffering from depression and taking medication for eight months now and for me the antidepressants have really worked, so much so that I’ve swung from a kind of shame (prompting two rather disastrous failed attempts to prove I didn’t need them) to an acceptance that I am happier and more functional using them. I make no claims to any knowledge or understanding of depression – unlike the brilliant Matt Haig, whose tweets and whose book Reasons to Stay Alive I unreservedly recommend – but there are rare occasions when I understand my own emotional processes, and I’ve just experienced one.

Our feelings are so muddled, connected and conflicted that identifying them can be difficult to do, and when I recognised my depression I was confused. I knew I had always had the potential, always been romantically attracted to sadness in literature, music and film, as if I sensed from an early age that beauty and sadness are interdependent, like love and loss. So was there a chemical inevitability that as I grew older and experienced more loss in various forms, the sadness would overwhelm? Or was it something else that took me to my G.P.? Is my depression climate grief, a rational response to the facts as climate scientists explain them, because those facts equate to the most profound kind of loss that humans could fear, and experience: the end of humanity, and of life on earth? The timing fitted. After years of what I’d considered campaigning and then activism I had become not only committed to non-violent direct action as a rebel with XR, but emotionally immersed in the science, living its saddest of truths because I’d taken that truth, via the brain, into my heart – which then broke. Which remains fractured, and which I am afraid would break again if I came off the pills. Arrested for the third time last October – just before I visited my GP – I admitted to depression, and told the doctor at the police station, “I don’t know where depression ends and climate grief begins.” “No,” he said, “neither do I.” Do I know many rebels on medication too? Oh yes, more than I had imagined.

Yet, returning to the inextricable way in which feelings can be connected, it’s not so clear. We’re not as simple or as altruistic as I may have suggested. We’re selfish beings, and maybe we need to be to survive the world’s suffering. My need for medication coincided last October with two arrests in consecutive months and two court appearances over ten days, including my trial for my April arrest, at which I represented myself and pleaded not guilty at the end of months of stressful preparation and sheer anxiety. So was it really climate breakdown that crushed me, or something more personal and much less deep: fear of being criminalised (since I’ve always been a good girl and need people to recognise that) and a desperate need to acquit myself well, not just for ‘the cause’ but in the eyes of my fellow-rebels?

And what about the insight today brought? Well, yesterday, towards evening, I felt lower than I have for seven months or so. Not as unreachable as I was, back in October, because Leslie could make me smile and laugh, bless him, but nonetheless unable to meet a friend at my doorway to sign a card for my neighbour. I wondered why. Was it the science I’d read earlier in the day, warning that the temperature rise ahead of us could be sooner and higher than previously thought – up an unlivable 5 degrees – and the possibility that now we have six months to avoid the worst? Reasonably, plausibly, yes. To respond any other way would be madness! Was it disappointment and frustration that again an action I had committed to was postponed or cancelled and another reconsidered by my affinity group? Understandably, yes. There isn’t much time to delay and the pandemic has made the kind of protest XR planned impossible this year. And yet…

It was only today that I knew for sure what else was affecting my emotional balance. I was due, for the first time in a few weeks, to see my grandson, son and daughter-in-law, still socially distanced, in their garden this morning. That visit made me the happiest I’ve been for a long time, leaving me energised, smiley, positive, chirpy and at peace. This teaches me (setting aside the very obvious connection between climate grief and grandchildren) that yesterday I experienced a different kind of fear – that my small grandson might almost have forgotten me, might not take enough notice of me, might love me less than I want him to! I was dreading a kind of (relative) rejection; how needy and childlike is that? Rationally I am grown-up enough to handle the reality that he will never love me as much as I love him, because that’s the way it works. But I also recognise a deep-seated variation on loss that has been with me for some reason all my life. As an adult, in spite of feeling treasured as a child, I almost always expect to be loved less than I love, and almost always assume that I am. (I won’t name the exceptions in case I’m wrong about those!)  So there’s anxiety and inadequacy in the mix, a sense that I’m less lovable, or deserving, than the family and friends I love most. My depression last night was one expression of a desire to be loved more than I am! I could blame alopecia or never being pretty and all that jazz but regardless, it really does feel shameful! Especially as I am with a husband I love very much, whose love has sustained me through lockdown. This is some brain and heart divide.

Enough time on the couch. I share this only in the hope that it may help someone else, in the sense that understanding ourselves can help us to understand others, and that inevitably, it’s complicated so understanding will always be incomplete. And thinking about Black Lives Matters, as we all have been, I’ve made a jump. If I was brought low by the possibility of being loved less, I can just begin to imagine life for those fellow-humans who are, in a society that’s systemically racist, never valued as equals by that society and repeatedly rejected. It’s only in the last few weeks that I’ve recognised the difference between colour blindness (my M.O. all my life) and active anti-racism, a difference that is about the love I thought I lived by but also about a deeper, informed, listening and empathetic understanding. There’s blind, instinctive love and there’s love that accepts and honours the lived experience of someone else even though it isn’t mine, and even though my perception and assumptions might have been as different as my experience. Love in action accepts this experience I haven’t lived as reality, as truth. Love is the most powerful force I know, but without understanding, as 1, Corinthians 14 tells us, it’s not enough. From love and understanding, justice comes.

When writing isn’t enough: protest, behaviour and truth

It’s Sunday, so I was on my high street with a placard again, with XR friends – all of us in masks and socially distanced. When #nogoingbacksundays began we were deep in lockdown, George Floyd was still alive and there was hope that as a species and a nation we might learn from the last few months, and recognise that business as usual was already killing us before Covid-19. We’re a small group of regulars and we stand in silence, appealing for climate justice and connecting with the Black Lives Matter movement. After all, like coronavirus climate change affects people of colour both disproportionately and first.  If we look to the global south, to the Pacific Islanders and indigenous peoples, we see terrible climate injustice, and those suffering have done the least to create the crisis.

For Leslie and me, this Sunday protest falls when we would otherwise be ‘joining’ our fellow-Quakers for Meeting in our own homes, so we try to approach the hour meditatively or prayerfully as peaceful witness, a kind of vigil. Very few passers-by engage with us. A few hoot to show support from cars, or give us the thumbs-up – like a plaited girl of about twelve across the road, a mini-Greta – but most either ignore us or scrutinise our messaging before turning away. We’ve had no hostility, and it feels important as one of few actions currently available to us. But  however many times I take this kind of stand, it’s always a shock – that human beings are walking on past as if we and climate change don’t really exist, when in fact we’re acting on a scientific consensus and with love. When what’s at risk and already being lost and destroyed, is everything, is LIFE ON EARTH. When the normality the government aims to revive is deadlier than the virus. When the nutters going over the top and classified last year as terrorists are actually responding rationally to the evidence as the world’s experts present it. Or rather, we’re under-reacting, in our well-behaved way, because weeping and wailing would be more proportionate and trying to shut down government arguably quite reasonable since our leaders are the criminals. There’s usually a point when I sing internally, or remind myself to focus on the light that is both truth and love, in order to hold on to hope, because the alternative is the kind of grief that hollows out and immobilises. Then I realise that perhaps what most people are rejecting, or sidestepping, is that very grief that truth awakens and once faced can never sleep again. So I remember to understand.

Yesterday, when rebels talked to some sympathetic councillors on Zoom, everyone was very decent and polite, articulate and respectful. The meeting was seen by most as encouraging. But again there was a moment when I did weep and wail, inwardly and privately, not just with frustration at the snail’s pace of change at local government level (arguably speedy relative to national government) but at reality. Underpinning our low-key conversation was impending catastrophe, with rising temperature and sea levels, extreme weather, climate refugees, and millions of deaths right now: Greta’s world on fire, and at war too in more ways than one. Yet anyone overhearing without English might assume from the tone that we were debating the new colour scheme of the council chambers. We have to play this game, apparently, to avoid all the negative labels used by Cressida Dick and the Met, the Daily Mail, our Prime Minister and Pritti Patel. To seem mature and respectable rather than hysterical. Because right now, when people abandon democratic channels and peacefully shut down bridges, glue themselves to the Department of BSEI, sit down in airports or take down statues of men still honoured in spite of their crimes against humanity, those protesters are seen as a threat to society and decency – even though the goals of such protest are justice: climate, racial and social. The inversion is breathtaking. Yet such protesters are the modern equivalents of those radical reformers society learned in time to admire, to thank – in spite of their less than muted opposition to abhorrent norms we no longer attempt to justify. (Not even the far-right thugs do that, because they have and require no justification but ignorance and hate.)

Yes, I’m emotional, obsessed and often devastated by everything I challenge: not just climate inaction and systemic racism but the arms trade at which Britain excels along with the world’s betrayal of refugees fleeing from war and oppression facilitated by the rich white nations. Isn’t such emotion legitimate? I didn’t expect to persuade the courts that my actions when arrested were necessary, in the attempt to prevent a greater crime, because as magistrates are advised in XR cases, they’re “not about climate change or morality”. The law, like governments, still sleeps, adhering to rules outdated by the present reality fronted by activists but also by the United Nations and David Attenborough. As a shy person who prefers to let others do more of the talking, I sometimes conform to the low-key exterior that effectively denies that reality. I often duck the confrontation the truth would risk. But I have learned from my recent reading that racial injustice calls us to be actively anti-racist rather than just colour blind, and that only honouring the truth of lived BAME experience is enough. It’s the same with climate activism. We must honour the truth of lived BAME experience of climate breakdown and of evidence uncovered over decades of scientific research, study and modelling.

   Even if it makes us trouble-makers, law-breakers and extremists generally unwelcome at parties.

Another World Is Possible: a poem for #poets4theplanet #beginafresh

Words that never stop meaning

everything…

Frail and dusty

the dream still gnaws through sun and wine

as chance decays,

still alive

but critical

so hold her close

Breathe in each molecule that builds

the love of which you’re made

Then hope beyond belief

because the new beginning is a fine root through rubble,

Wind’s corps de ballet white on blue,

A chain of hands across a chasm of flame,

The teeming underside,

Fear honoured wide eyed

in grief’s communion

And every morning’s soaring cry

undimmed, unmasked

and bravely yearning

Sue Hampton

A poem for lockdown

I wrote this on Easter Sunday and in the few weeks since a good deal has changed. More deaths, more misjudgements, more lies – and less care being taken by some in response to the messages of relaxation. I think it’s important to remember how shocking everything was until we got used to those deaths, misjudgements and lies.

Will I remember
the runners hurtling past
like bandits with weapon breath,
the measured queues in masks,
time that swelled like baking,
the skin tech couldn’t touch?
Will my senses recall
the fresh taste of streets,
the unstained blue
and broadcast birds?
Will I forget
the daily final score,
graves like factory foundations,
white-cold lorries neatly tiled in wait,
end of shift faces grooved and raw
and tweets sharing loss from the void?
I want to remember the grid that grew
with quietly donated lives
honoured once weekly with saucepans and spoons.
Privilege vs exposure,
the space money makes,
the depth of the debt.
The angriest I’ve ever been.
What will I remember?
In separation, belonging.
In horror, courage.
In love learned,
a rainbow at the door.

Sue Hampton