Family

“Ken’s all right,” Gina said, checking the oven.  

   She was wearing her old apron and dilapidated oven gloves, but he’d told her she rocked the charity shop dress. Jonathan was proud of her for making the pledge not to buy new clothes. She lived it all more naturally than he did but he was trying. The bike was getting more of an airing and he had just about stopped craving cheese. Ken, on the other hand, worked out devotedly and tended to glisten.

   “Would you say he’s attractive?” he asked Gina, attempting to find four unchipped plates that matched.

   She laughed. “Only in a business-as-usual way. You know how attracted I am to business-as-usual.”

   Jonathan grinned, guessing he was the proof of that.  In the three years he’d been with Gina, the four of them had mostly socialised in small or sizeable crowds, at Christmas and a couple of funerals. In between, the sisters met up in London, usually for a musical Caroline chose and Gina didn’t mind. The sisters messaged like teenagers.

   “I don’t know him,” he said. “We must have something in common but I haven’t found it.”

   As far as Jonathan could see, Ken saved his animation for ball sports. Jonathan had no intention of mentioning those in the wake of two English teams flying off to Russia to play each other. More utter madness.

   “You don’t have to bond, just let things go. It’s your favourite meal.”

   “Have you warned them it’ll be vegan?”

   “I mentioned to Caro that Veganuary had stuck. And she does fancy Chris Packham.”

   Jonathan kissed her cheek. “They probably think I’m a bad influence. After all, you were a normal consumer until I came along.”

   He laughed as she opened her mouth in good-humoured outrage. She was the driving force, if only people knew it: an action woman. But he was the one who could store the science facts Gina found too painful, and retrieve most of them at will.

   “I’m going to offer to lend them the Greta book,” she said.

   “Good idea. Do you think they know who she is?”

   “Funny.”

   But was it? Jonathan was conscious that their own inner circle, actual and virtual, excluded people like Caroline and Ken. Circles were deceptive. A young woman on a recent quiz show apparently suggested the ‘famous Thunberg’ might be a Sharon.

   “I want to hear all about Jake,” Gina said, adding, “Ellie’s fiancé,” in case he had forgotten. “And what Ellie’s up to. I haven’t heard from her for ages.”

   Ellie was as smiley as her mother and of classic placard-carrying, climbing and supergluing age, but since she’d been flying around the world for most of the time Jonathan had been with Gina, she presumably wasn’t too focused on reducing her carbon footprint. It didn’t seem to stop Gina adoring her. Apparently, Gina had been the kind of auntie to arrange flowers in the spare room, bake cookies and book a matinee. She would have been such a caring mum.

   “Bit provocative?” Gina asked, noticing the XR badge pinned to his jumper.

   “I thought we tell the truth. It’s really a lazy way of starting the conversation.”

   Gina nodded but sighed too. Jonathan wondered whether she’d mentioned to Caroline on WhatsApp that following their NVDA training they’d formed an affinity group, albeit one rather short of arrestables. He heard a couple of knocks on the front door and remembered the bell was still broken.

   Ken’s haircut looked new and expensive, like Caroline’s shiny heels. Once she’d released him from a scented hug, he held out a hand which Ken shook half-heartedly while handing over a bottle of wine in a plastic carrier bag. Jonathan told himself to shed the negativity. Had Ken put on weight – in spite of Caroline buying him some kind of treadmill for what they called their study even though it had more tech than books?

   “Good to see you,” Jonathan said, taking them through to the kitchen where the sisters embraced with enthusiasm and Caroline said the food smelled amazing.

   He poured wine and fruit juice; Caroline was obviously the designated driver. Ken could put away a fair bit of alcohol without visibly or audibly loosening up, which seemed to Jonathan a terrible waste. The sisters were already talking with affectionate concern about one of Caroline’s three cats, but Jonathan hadn’t learned which was which. Jonathan seemed to be inspecting the kitchen, but probably not for the lentil or kale crisps he declined when Jonathan offered them.

   “So how are things, Ken?”

   “Nothing much to report. Apart from a poor start to the season.”

   Jonathan tried to look vaguely sympathetic but was struggling to remember which team was letting Ken down, so he asked about retirement. Ken only said, rather bitterly, that he couldn’t afford to do that early. Jonathan supposed he’d considered but ruled out the option of reducing expenditure. Moving through to the lounge, he guessed that through Ken’s eyes everything they owned was probably overdue for all kinds of overhaul. Or in the case of Jonathan’s own artwork, a skip.

   Caroline and Gina were sharing the sofa. Jonathan and Ken took an armchair each and Ken focused on drinking.

   “We do have some news,” said Caroline, “about Ellie and Jake. They’re getting married on July 27th. One date for your diary!”

   Gina, eyes wide, said that was lovely and gave her sister another hug. Ken remarked that no one had told Ellie the days of the bride’s daddy footing the bill were over. When Gina’s questions established that the big celebration would be in a hotel in Surrey with a string quartet, Jonathan looked at Ken, but he seemed resigned. Jonathan had never considered how much money he might earn, except that it was enough to keep Caroline in yoga, massages and manicures, and long lunches with friends.

   “But the ceremony itself will be on a beach in Barbados!” Caroline’s excitement was child-like. “Just for immediate family and closest friends. Ellie says you’re her very special auntie and she’d love you to be there.” Caroline smiled at Jonathan. “Both of you, of course.”

   Jonathan looked across at Gina and could see her composing some kind of response, but that might take time, or care. Perhaps he should spare her.

   “That’s sweet of her,” Gina said.

   “But we don’t fly anymore,” said Jonathan. “This one hasn’t let me since we met.”

   Caroline opened her mouth in a quiet, “Ah…” as if piecing together clues. “For environmental reasons?”  

   “Because we’re in a climate crisis,” said Jonathan, knowing Gina found this kind of situation more challenging than occupying a road. “It’s the single most damaging thing an individual can do and we don’t need to do it. I’m sure Ellie would understand.”

   “Are you?” asked Ken.

   “Most young people are very aware…” Jonathan began, wishing his own grown-up kids would be less theoretical about it.

   “Is this what they call flight shaming?”

   “I’m not trying to shame anyone, just to tell the truth.”

   “Rather than make excuses,” said Gina. Jonathan knew she must be hating this. The silence felt extended.

   “There’s no crisis,” said Ken, ending it. “The whole business is alarmist nonsense, I’m afraid.”

   Jonathan stared. This exceeded expectations. “Have you been listening to Trump? He may not be the most reliable of climate scientists, I’m more afraid. And yes, the science is alarming.”

   “I’ve looked into this…”

   “On the same sites that claim no man ever walked on the moon and Elvis mops the floor in Burger King?”

   Gina stood. “The food should be ready. Let’s eat.”

   “Yes,” said Caroline. “I’m hungry.”

   “This is an important conversation,” Ken told her.

   “It is,” agreed Jonathan, wondering who would resume it first. “There’s nothing more important, never has been.” He was last to take a seat at the dining table he mostly used as a desk. “I suppose you’re going to tell me it’s a hoax or conspiracy.”

   “I’m sure he’s not…” said Caroline. “I think we’re all more aware these days. Did you see Blue Planet on plastic? So awful.”

   “The climate has always changed,” said Ken, as if she’d never spoken, “but I’m not convinced human activity is to blame.”

   “We’ll send you some links,” Jonathan offered. “From dodgy left wing sources like the IPCC, NASA, the Met Office…”

   “We’re facing catastrophe,” said Gina quietly but firmly, placing a casserole dish on the table and lifting the lid to a burst of steam. “The end of life on earth.” Her voice thickened. “But shallow as it sounds, I’d really like us to enjoy this food all the same, for now.”

   “Oh we will!” cried Caroline, placing a light hand on Gina’s arm. “The doom and gloom can wait.” She studied the dish. “What is it exactly?”

   She made a sisterly effort to sound excited when Gina told her.

   “Not too much for me,” said Ken. “I had a big lunch.”

   “Large for me then,” said Jonathan. “Please, love.” Was now a good time to mention the food shortages that might not be too far off the way things were heading? He could extol the many benefits of an allotment but he didn’t think Ken would be buying any wellies.

   Ken broke the silence as everyone began to eat.   “Caroline said you’ve joined Extinction Rebellion. I’m sorry to see you being conned by anarchists.” He glanced at Jonathan.

   “Ken…” objected Caroline, almost in a whisper.

   “I know the truth is hard to believe,” murmured Gina. “But it is the truth. No one’s made it up. Even the scientists are taking to the streets.”

   “I’m afraid I’ve lost my appetite, Gina,” said Ken, standing. For the first time his anger broke through his laconic delivery style. “I have a headache. Are you coming?”

   Caroline looked aghast. “We can’t leave! I just hate politics. We’re family…”

   “Which didn’t seem to count for much when we mentioned the wedding. Never mind Ellie’s feelings, or yours, when there’s virtue signalling to be done.”

   “Ken, please don’t go,” said Gina. “The food can’t be that bad!”

   Jonathan put his arm round her. He supposed he should be encouraging Ken to sit down and eat up, but it would be a relief to close the door behind him. Except that Gina was on the verge of tears, even though Caroline hadn’t moved.

   “Maybe we can disagree without accusing or insulting…” he began.

   “Or apologising for spoiling our daughter’s wedding?” added Ken.

    “Look,” said Caroline, “there’s obviously a big conversation we need to have sometime but we came with happy news – an invitation – looking forward to catching up. Could we maybe just chat about normal things?”

   Jonathan squeezed Gina’s hand.  Her sister wouldn’t understand that nothing was normal now.

   “I’m not staying to be lectured – or radicalised,” said Ken.

   “Ken…” said Gina, but Jonathan laughed. How could he help it?

   Ken reached out to Caroline, who stood. “I’m sorry… I didn’t realise…” How radicalised Gina was?! Or that life on earth was at risk of extinction without swift, radical change? “I’ll be in touch.”

   “Please! I want to know all about Ellie’s fiancé.”

   “Maybe you don’t,” suggested Caroline vaguely.

   “We have nothing to be ashamed of!” snapped Ken, leading the way to the front door. “You two have been brainwashed.”

   “I could say pot and kettle,” muttered Jonathan, hoping that somehow he still sounded good-natured. He wouldn’t put it past Ken to buy the Daily Mail.

   “How did this even happen?” cried Caroline, slipping on her shoes. “I’m in shock!”

   Gina embraced her. “Me too. I’ll call you soon.”

   Ken said nothing and was first to open the door.

   “Goodnight, Ken,” said Jonathan.

For the rest of the evening Jonathan tried to respect Gina’s wish not to talk about it anymore. He ate for two or three and drank some of what Ken had missed by throwing a tantrum. Then, after they’d washed up in almost-silence, Gina said she was going to bed. When she was upset she often crashed into sleep at top speed; tonight he couldn’t be sure for a while whether she only wished she had. Sometime in the early hours he turned to her with an erection and they made love – on her side, rather sleepy, but warm. It helped.

   “I don’t think Caroline realises how brave her sister is,” he murmured afterwards.

   “It would be easier to go to prison,” said Gina, and rolled over, holding his hand a moment when he placed it around her waist.

   “She’d visit you if you did.”

   Gina didn’t seem convinced. In fact, she seemed to be crying – not aloud, but her chest and shoulders shook.

   “Caroline will get it if you talk to her one to one,” he told her. “She’s an intelligent woman.”

   “But why are they resisting the science? How are we going to overwhelm the government with informed citizens demanding change – as in now – when people like them choose to reject the information? It makes it seem so hopeless. And what about Ellie’s kids?”

   “They’ll ask their parents why they didn’t rebel. And get married in their own community without sticking it to the planet.” He stroked Gina’s back. “It’s not hopeless. They’ll wake up. Everyone will…”

   “Once it’s too late. Maybe it’s already too late.”

   Maybe it was. He hadn’t seen her this way before and it made him realise he was still in love. She’d woken him, connecting him to everything that mattered, and he would do anything he could to spare her grief. Except the kind they lived with together.

   “We keep on keeping on,” he said, “regardless. No choice.”

   She nodded. “Right.” She turned to him and he kissed her forehead, both cheeks. “I love you,” she said. “Now I need to sleep this evening away.”

   “Good idea,” Jonathan said.

Jonathan was glad to see Gina messaging Caroline, until she used the words evasive and a bit empty and put a full stop after them. It was her decision to write to Ellie in the end – not an email but a letter in the post. That way she said she could be truthful but kind, and herself. The reply was an email:

Hi Auntie Gina. I’m sorry you can’t come. You and Jon have principles and make me feel guilty and superficial but it’s all arranged and it’s going to be beautiful. Mum will send you photos of course. My dress is just perfect. Did she tell you I’m marrying a policeman? He’s in the Met so don’t get yourself arrested please! See you on 15th if not before. XXXXX

  “Since when is preferring life on earth to survive a principle?” asked Jonathan, who didn’t seem convinced by the guilt claim.

   “It’s so terribly hard for the young,” said Gina. “So unfair.”

   Jonathan thought of Birth Strike, conscious that he stopped short of recommending it to his own children. “So are you glad we got together too late to have kids?”  

   “Not glad,” she said. “They’d have your thick hair and hyperactive hands, and they might be able to sing a bit.” She underestimated her voice; it was great that XR freed it. “And inherit my freckles. And they’d be activists, wouldn’t they?”

    He pictured them as musicians or therapists, or gardeners. He knew that in Gina’s first marriage she’d associated periods with tears of disappointment, and found it hard not to be envious, in spite of climate models, of friends boasting of grandchildren.

   “Never forget we’ve got each other,” Jonathan reminded her. “Whatever.”

Their hug was long. “It’s a hairline crack with Caro, not a breakdown.” The silence that followed was thick with doubt.

   “She hasn’t forgiven me for putting what she calls our beliefs ahead of family because that’s her religion.”

   Not good taste and good manners? Jonathan didn’t suppose Ken would manage forgiveness even when London proved them right by disappearing underwater.

   “And Ellie… No one loves people who disapprove of them. It’s not natural. Even though I don’t…”

   The no blame, no shame mantra might be hard with Cabinet ministers but Jonathan could see it was easier with an affectionate, all-smiles niece. Only now, assuming she ever saw that smile, Gina would worry what it hid.

Jonathan hadn’t foreseen the repercussions, not all of them. He wouldn’t have found out Ken’s sixtieth birthday bash was happening a few weeks later if Gina hadn’t spotted a post tagging Caroline on Facebook. He claimed relief that he’d been missed off the guest list, but Gina seemed sad and that made him angrier than he’d like. Jonathan really only used Facebook for XR news, but something made him check the next morning and find that Ken had unfriended him.

   “What! How ridiculous, childish and petty!” he cried from the computer in the study, and then wished Gina hadn’t heard because she didn’t really need to know. But she arrived and placed her hand on his shoulder. “Is he moonlighting as a lobbyist for fossil fuels or what?”

   “I’m just worried that Caro’s paying for this at home.”

   Jonathan didn’t think Caroline knew where she stood or drew her lines, but liked to think with a different bloke she could be sitting in the road carrying a placard. As long as she wasn’t wearing her white jeans.

   “Have you talked to her about fashion?” he asked. “The industry’s carbon footprint? Might be a way in…”

   “I don’t know when I’ll get the chance to talk to her, really talk.”

   He crossed his chest to place a hand over hers. “I’m sorry, love. This is painful for you.”

   “And her.”

   A couple of weeks later, over breakfast, Gina showed him a WhatsApp exchange on her phone. It hurts being out of touch and I’d love to see you. Would you like to meet for lunch one day? Xxx

   I don’t know Gina. Maybe if you promise not to talk about climate change? Please understand. Xxx

   “She’s the one who doesn’t understand!” he cried. “What will you say?”

   “I don’t know. I thought about suggesting total honesty and absolute mutual respect, but I don’t think I can manage both. Love, yes, but respect? For a head-in-sand strategy? And then I realised she’d be the same. Love, yes, but respect? For an extremist ready to break the law and obstruct working people?” She sighed.

   An hour later – and then a day later, two – her suggestion that they meet and be themselves had received no reply. By the end of the week, which she interspersed with more attempts to get together, Jonathan didn’t know how to console her in her silence. He emailed Caroline some links, from sources no rational person could disparage, with a friendly message that Gina really missed her. No response. So when Gina was at the allotment and told him to stay in and nurse his cold, he called Caroline’s number on his mobile.

   It rang for some time and he almost abandoned the idea. Then she answered, her tone suggesting she expected a voicemail about PPI.

   “Caroline, how are you?”

   “What can I do for you, Jonathan – apart from joining your rebellion?”

   “Be nice to Gina?”

   “Like you two were nice about Ellie’s wedding? She’d understand if she had children herself.”

   He almost asked her not to tell Gina that, after all the miscarriages she’d had with Brian before he bailed out. “You know Gina’s always nice. And she’s principled. Two reasons I fell in love with her.”

   “Most people can’t afford principles. And we can’t afford the wedding either, not any more. Ken’s firm is in administration and it’s hit him hard. Breadwinner’s pride, you know?”

   Jonathan wasn’t sure he’d ever known exactly how Ken won that bread. “Shit! I’m sorry, Caroline.”

   “I thought you wanted the fall of capitalism.”

   “Caroline, come on. I want climate justice.”

   “Well I want my old life back. And you two think we’re selfish, but I haven’t got emotional energy to spare for the world’s problems. Most people are busy dealing with their own.”

   “Like the people in the Maldives waiting for their world to go under…”

   She waited. Her voice was quieter, but crisp. “Don’t make out that’s my fault.”

   “It’s all our faults but now we know what we’re doing we have to stop, educate governments and force them to change direction.”

   “And clog up the courts and waste police time. Ellie’s Jake had to work double shifts in April. I can’t talk to you, Jonathan. I can’t deal with this now.”

   “Neither can the government, apparently. Look, I’m sorry about Ken…” It occurred to him that less stuff might allow in more light. A little freedom. Ken might flourish.

   “He won’t have you at the English wedding. I’m sorry.”

   What! “But Gina…”

   She had cut him off. Rerunning the conversation, he wondered how to report it to Gina. Or whether telling the truth was in this instance not the most helpful strategy. No wedding to miss after all, not on white sand anyway. He sent Caroline a message: Please, just meet Gina for lunch. She loves you. She would want to help, sympathise and mend. But Caroline didn’t reply. Seconds later Gina messaged him with: Ken’s firm is kaput and a sad face emoji. He hoped that however brief Caroline’s communication had been, it had ended with a kiss if not a heart.

   Gina’s stint at the allotment was way longer than Jonathan’s body would allow but he knew she loved what she called the green peace. Over supper they didn’t talk much about Ken’s crisis, although it seemed that Gina knew very little more about his company than Jonathan had ever wondered. Signal was busy with plans for the next rebellion and Labour’s Green New Deal was shaping into a possible reality. Surely no one trusted the Tories any more, unless they’d joined from Britain First or the EDL? Jonathan knew there were times when Gina would rather talk about Andy Murray, Judi Dench’s latest role or a friend’s flu, but that evening wasn’t one of them. And he did most of the talking, more carefully than usual, mindful that he didn’t know exactly what Caroline’s message had included or omitted.

   In bed she was quiet, her small smiles the kind he recognised as mere kindness. He hoped her excess of empathy would allow her to sleep.

   “I know you’re sad,” he murmured, stroking her hair, aware in the darkness of the shape of her, sensing the mouth he couldn’t see but would like to kiss.

   He could tell she was nodding. “Always,” she said, trying to lift and lighten the word as if something was funny.

   “I know. That’s rational…”

   “It’s the only responsible way to be! But I just want everything… to be all right. Everything! Life in the global South. Life for Ellie and her kids-to-come. Caro and me. Even Ken’s business, for Caro’s sake.”

   “You’re too close, you two, for this to hold. She’ll be holding an XR flag by Christmas.”

   She rolled over to face away from him. “I don’t even think she’s happy.”

   Jonathan hadn’t thought about that and nearly said happiness was overrated but he wanted it for Gina, Caroline too. He drew closer. Would she go to the wedding without him? Maybe she didn’t know yet that it would be an invitation for one.

   “Will you sleep?”

   “I hope so.”

   “Active hope. Ferocious love. Right?”

   “Mm,” she said. He hoped she was smiling now. “Goodnight.”

Creativity: a way of loving

I’ve always believed in stories: that they make us bigger, more compassionate people, taking us beyond our own limitations and deepening our experience in a way that develops empathy and increases understanding – i.e. our humanity – through feeling rather than fact. I’ve cherished all my life the fundamental truths fiction explores. And when I learned that Donald Trump hasn’t read a book since he was seven, my response was to rest my case. I became an author in the hope of moving and inspiring young readers because I’d witnessed the power of Michael Morpurgo’s stories in my classroom, and concluded that only love and courage can generate it. Not knickers or robbers – or not alone! So whatever the genre or audience – I write for adults too – I’ve been writing about love and courage in different shapes and forms since 06, whether through alopecia, bereavement, bullying, loneliness, eating disorders, identity and self-expression, creativity, refugees or faith, injustice or care for animals or Earth. I’ve used fantasy contexts and I’ve written stories that feel absolutely real. But in a speech at Preston New Road (fracking site) one Green Monday at the end of 2018, I found myself saying that there was now only one subject worth writing about: climate breakdown. This is an emergency.

Going on the train to London, mostly for protests, and passing movie posters on the tube, I’d been a) wondering for a while what possible point there could be in telling such meaningless stories at this time in our history, and b) reminded of dancing on the Titanic. I’d feared that unless I could explore love and courage through climate change, I’d be wasting my time and that of my readers. And I’d be complicit in the media silence that was itself a lie. At that point in 2018 I’d joined Extinction Rebellion and already sat in a few roads. It was clear to me that although my keyboard activism was no longer enough, I must do a great deal more of it. So I began FOR LIFE, delivered weekly on my website and eventually turned into an e-book that can be downloaded for a donation to XR. It’s a novel about rebels and climate sceptics, some of them in the same family, and it allowed me to use real events as settings and translate my own experience into that of my characters. It wasn’t the first time I’d been explicit in my novels about the climate crisis. I’d created a young activist in 2009’s THE WATERHOUSE GIRL, and four women who, in THE BIGGEST SPLASH, consider how much they are willing to sacrifice for change. Since my dystopic START I’ve realised that reality is likely to be a great deal worse than I foresaw at that time. But I’d pretty much lived FOR LIFE, with my own swarming, week on Waterloo Bridge and arrest, and I wrote with even more passion than usual – surprised by how completely I believed in the characters I created to carry a story that had been mine. Unable to let them go, I returned with an extra chapter on my website in October last year, allowing Manda and Gem to glue on together to a wooden tower at Trafalgar Square (yes, as I had done). And, as the soap writers say, the door is still open…

But I’ve struggled in the last year with my identity as a writer. The urge to do the most I can is very powerful. As a small author, I can’t argue that fiction is enough. Activism is surely, as time runs out, our best chance. Determined only to write about this one overwhelming subject so much more important than any other, I’ve updated a novel written just before XR to herald it, and my short story collection INSTEAD features The Activist. I’m working on a new collection approaching the theme in many different ways, and began with The Trial – putting a young rebel in a Magistrates’ Court where I had been in the dock myself. But I’m starting to find the writing hard. Another story about a family row over climate is proving a disturbing struggle. How do I avoid using this drama for a transparently didactic purpose? How do I find a narrative that has more structure than a slice of life? Most importantly, did I appreciate the emotional cost of exploring in my working or creative life the truth that fills my mind, heart and conversation, and the rest of my waking hours? After all, although I was moved by Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour, I’m not searching as a reader for cli-fi. In the last month or so I’ve enjoyed A Tale of Two Cities, Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout, The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean, Don’t Touch my Hair by Emma Dabiri and Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston – every one of which I considered worthwhile. Yet only the recently written Olive, Again alludes to the climate crisis, and even The Overstory, which I read just before Christmas, has a wider, almost timeless sweep that only takes in, without stopping, its protestors in the trees. All of them are to differing extents about love and courage, and all of them increased my understanding of experience I haven’t lived, places I’ll never go and people I’ve never been or known. And of course, knowing the truth Dickens and Hurston didn’t imagine, I carry it always with me. There’s no deleting it. It connects with and illuminates the truths that went before, making the violence of revolutionary Paris and the pillaging of Florida’s natural habitats even more distressing, along with the sexism and racism, power play, greedy hedonism and materialism on the page. But perhaps most of us, even those who’ve never craved escapist fiction, benefit from visiting past worlds that have not yet reached an alarming 415 ppm, or imaginary worlds that never could.

Allowing respite or ‘regen’ through functional denial is probably necessary for the mental health of those living with climate grief, and for me that means reading stories about other kinds of love and courage – along with walking in woods, seeking out snowdrops, listening to music, visiting art galleries and watching dance. Perhaps – and I’m not sure – I need to keep writing about other kinds of love and courage too. An online writer friend just responded to THE DREAM SPEAKS BACK, a book I co-wrote about childhood, individuality and imagination, with “THIS is how the world heals.” Isn’t all true creativity a way of loving? Maybe I need to remember that values implicit in fiction can be communicated as effectively as those more explicitly foregrounded. And while I spend more time on my activism now than my writing, perhaps I need to write just to hold on to myself – or rather, the best of myself.

XR is an enormously creative movement. You may have seen huge birds spread wings wide across a road; giant skeletons dancing; a woolly mammoth carried through London; the theatrical power of the Red Rebels; the garden that grew on a bridge last April. You may have heard Blythe Pepino sing the haunting ‘Emergency’, with a tune that would devastate without the lyrics. I was part of an action protesting against BP’s Carmen, with that aria reworded for a rebel opera singer, and an extraordinary recycled costume. I’ve met many activist artists and musicians, including Lola Perrin, who has composed and performed a series of wild, harrowing, visceral and beautiful works for piano, all of which are inspired by the catastrophe science warns us to avert. My response as a listener was to express something deep, emotional and wordless in dance, and as a recipient of a gift I felt real gratitude. But it would be challenging for me, and possibly for Lola too, to translate into words everything the music means. Later in February, the Vaults in Waterloo will host a late-night, fundraising celebration of rebel creativity of many kinds, for Londoners a few decades younger than me. Is it easier as an artist or musician to focus on a climate theme – without repetition, facts and figures or preaching – or do I only ask that question as a writer?  There is in any case no doubt that Extinction Rebellion draws on the arts to connect with the public, raises rebel spirits with creativity and finds joy in the life force it represents.  It would be fair to say that rebels cherish the arts as much as we are driven by the science, and value them, like the natural world, more than money or success. We’re mindful, too, that the greatest cultural achievements of humans on this earth are as much at risk as we are. Imagine a planet where all traces of Shakespeare and Rembrandt, Einstein and Beethoven, Florence, Angkor Wat, the Taj Mahal and Stonehenge had been erased along with the birds, lizards, amphibians, primates and people.

Good fiction has always been about who we are and what we need, how we see and shape ourselves and the world, who and what we love and fear. In an existential crisis, perhaps every one of us who recognises it as such must frame new answers to these old and immortal questions. What story are we telling in our lives? What, as human beings, can we be, as well as do, if we are to redefine and redeem humanity, rather than destroy homo sapiens along with other species? What, amongst the rubble of our habitual wants, amounts to more than what Hurston would call a hill of beans? Love, probably. And courage. How bravely can we love?

I think I’ve always written about that. And I know I’ve never bothered to read about much else.

For a change: three short poems (and one more)

I don’t write as much poetry as I used to. I do still have some of my earliest efforts from ages 9-14, about apartheid, riding my bike, a seaside donkey and the Biafran war, plus a tragic, grief-stricken poem to actor Pete Duel from Alias Smith and Jones, who committed suicide and briefly broke my heart. I think I fit prose better, but when I’m moved or stirred I still feel a poem coming on, although these days I am more succinct and less melodramatic.

Hyacinths in a vase is a poem that grew out of a Quaker Meeting for Worship when I meditated on what I saw and smelled on the small table at the centre.

Stalks bulk, coarse,

dominate water.

Above, heads are unruly,

straggle and bow, or rise.

Starred six ways, these are no snowflakes.

Trumpeting, waxed tough,

they’re brazen, unquivering.

Sweetly they gang up

to intoxicate

with a perfume to disempower gods.

Sue Hampton, 2018

She’s no more than five.
A grid of wire divides us,
cutting across her smile,
excited brown eyes,
the cartoon cat on her chest,
her world.
Behind, mysterious cans make rows
like low remains of ancient temples.
A ball rests in sunlight.
A tent’s neat creases fall like spears.
Gripping criss-cross space,
her hand’s steel-framed.
She’s glad, perhaps, to be named, to be shown.
Or maybe it’s the air’s warmth,
the dry sky, the mud-less earth,
the distance between last winter and the next.
His lens holds her now
but she’ll free her fingers,
pile pebbles, draw in dust,
skip, even sing
as she waits
like a Gecko on a wall,
gleaming.

Sue Hampton, 2018

The above poem was written to accompany one of many haunting images captured by young Syrian Abdulazez Dukhan during his years in refugee camps. He agreed that People not Borders could use them to illustrate our fundraising picture book, I AM ME 2.

No Faith in War

a poem written in a police cell after my arrest at Stop the Arms Fair DSEI 3/9/2019

7 a.m.

My view is different now:

an open skyful, grubby white,

a flight path, torn with roaring.

I think I’m lying

on the road to hell.

Top left, the concrete’s dark, unyielding.

Right, leaves shift and shudder high.

Seagulls loop on the wind.

Magpies jut like chimneys from a roof.

And when I close my eyes, the darkness

is a scarlet weave.

I cross my legs to still the shaking.

Constrained by pain, my body’s resisting,

my hand caught tight around the lock

I hooked inside the tube

through a case that says Calvin Klein.

From the hotel, cars free to slide away

are low on my radar as cats.

Beside me leaves scud scratchy, close and wild.

Bound together in love, the three of us don’t talk.

The kit keeps us apart,

held in Quaker silence,

in hope, patience, conviction,

in the PEACE stitched vivid on a cloth without an altar.

9 a.m.

My scalp and shoulders are pillowed now.

Under a banner linking legs on tarmac

and a scarf from a skip,

I’m lifted.

Around us, small but focused, a Meeting’s gathered.

I have no needs to meet

but smiles, a little conversation,

my father’s hand reaching down with the rest

to hold on.

And an end to this,

but not yet.

In Yemen roads are bloodied and skies

rain merchandise from merchandise.

We’re stopping the Arms Fair.

No weapons pass.

Plush and vast, the showroom space awaits unfilled

and this road is to Emmaus.

We did it.

Grandma did it.

11 a.m.

I’m shielded under pressure.

A shower sparks firework red around my boots.

The cutters burn,

the air’s industrial.

The team in black crouch, sweat and struggle,

pass surgical tools for this theatre.

It’s tough, all of it,

their challenge, ours.

As an observer starts to cry,

I smile at Leslie so he knows I’m not afraid.

My fingers, trapped, arthritic, curl stiff at the core.

The drill rattles hard.

Heat circles my hand until I’m free,

escorted to the van.

My legs fold and sway

but I hear the cheers.

Handcuffed, I smile and make a peace sign

through closing doors.

This last poem, Joey, was my response to a harrowing photo of a young kangaroo victim of the Australian bush fires. The image is at the end of the blog so if, very understandably, you don’t wish to see it, don’t scroll down below the photo of me.

I used to be blind inside

and hairless too.

It wasn’t safe to jump,

but I learned as I grew to look out, smell grass,

taste sunlight and dust,

test the rhythm of my own lungs

at first spring.

Shy of you, for a short green while

I breathed my own air

until it caked to livid ash.

My world was boundless

till my feet stilled heavy, frayed by flame.

Do I remind you of a toy worn bare,

left behind and fit for landfill,

or a P.O.W. clinging to wire

as the shot breaks from the watchtower?

Sue Hampton, January 2020

My extremist views: confessions of a Quaker grandma

I was dismayed and quietly outraged but not entirely surprised to read that according to the police anti-terrorist group Prevent, people like me are extremists. My views themselves are seen as extreme – or were considered so, until challenged. Now the Met admits to “an error of judgement”, Extinction Rebellion is no longer classified amongst extremist groups, and the requirement for schools and universities to report students who are emotional about the climate crisis, or take part in protests, has been withdrawn. But in November that directive was disseminated, and its impact is unknown. As I write, I have not seen a fulsome apology that contradicts its message, acknowledging the peacefulness at XR’s core and the experience on the ground of officers who commonly describe our arrestees as lovely. It may be that among those citizens considered moderate by comparison with people like me, there will be a fair few who are more appalled by Prevent’s judgement than by road-blocking activists. But some will agree with the original analysis, especially if they read certain newspapers, so I thought I’d spell out these contentious and apparently alarming views I hold as a rebel for life.

  1. I accept the scientific consensus that we are in a climate and ecological emergency, that the threat is existential and requires urgent, radical change now, because climate change is already killing people and animals.
  2. It’s my belief that love is stronger than hate or death and that there is God, or goodness, or light, in everyone.
  3. I reject war and assert that only together, in peace, can we address this climate crisis.
  4. I reject violence, including aggression and enmity, and the nationalism that often generates it.
  5. I consider the differences between people unimportant compared with the human needs that bind us, and the idea that one human is superior to another by virtue of race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity or religion, wealth or success,  divisive and damaging – while increasing inequality exacerbates all the problems we face.
  6. I reject the exploitation, abuse and betrayal of animals and am committed to veganism as the most significant way, along with not flying, of reducing my carbon footprint.
  7. I am convinced that only non-violent mass civil disobedience will persuade some governments, including mine, to work towards zero emissions by abandoning fossil fuels.
  8. I do not consider myself a criminal because I acted peacefully out of love, in conscience, in the light of the science, as climate scientists and doctors declare necessary to prevent ecocide and the end of life on earth.
  9. I consider the arms trade immoral.
  10.  I believe in supporting and welcoming refugees who by definition have fled from war, oppression – or, increasingly, climate change.

These are the fundamentals that unite the vast majority of rebels, along with the hope that 1000 humans, selected by sortition and given access to the appropriate experts, have a better chance of finding a way forward than politicians hamstrung by vested interests and tribalism. If more widely shared, these views could help us survive in a world that is more peaceful, more just and more compassionate as well as safe. Yet we are under media, government and establishment pressure to accept that all these beliefs are dangerous and that we should forget any campaigning for a better world and carry on consuming, competing, and prioritising our own personal desires, advancement and convenience. We are expected, even encouraged, to blame others for everything we lack and declare ourselves ready to fight for our country against people who are not like us, for oil, for power, for political gain. Greed is healthy for the economy, and the economy is apparently so precious that the survival of all species must be set aside in order to protect business as usual. And while in the UK and many other countries we have become used to leaders who lie and cheat for power, we are persuaded to accept the way politics is, to disconnect from it, to embrace cynicism as the adult position or to keep faith anyway that our team deserves to win regardless, because it’s ours. And all of this is desirable, acceptable, and normal? None of this is extreme or dangerous???

I’ve met wonderful people through Extinction Rebellion, people who are genuinely trying to be good humans treading lightly on the planet, kind and courageous people willing to devote time, sacrifice earnings or degree courses, spend a great deal of money on train travel and in many cases endure arrest and criminalisation with a range of social consequences, for the least selfish of reasons. People who choose to freeze or get soaked when they could be enjoying the telly and bed, and experience the pain of antagonism or distancing when family and friends don’t understand. My friend Anna Orridge called us countercultural, because our values are not yet mainstream, but that is changing faster than governments might wish. Of course, we are a band of individuals. Some, inside and outside Christian Climate Action, don’t share my Quaker faith as a follower of Jesus; we didn’t all vote for the same party although it’s undoubtedly true that no rebel will vote for a Conservative manifesto that doesn’t mention climate until page thirty-something. Some have professions respected by society, some live off-grid and many are creative; some look and sound conventional and others choose an alternative way to appear and use a less than standard vocabulary. I’ve met many rebels with boundless patience and forgiveness and a few with less, but love is embedded. Some fear it’s too late and many live, as I do, with climate grief. But whatever our disagreements, mistakes and disconnections, what unites us is the biggest cause in human history. And we’re not giving up.

2019: Out with the old

2019 was the year ‘climate change’ became so current a ‘thing’ that the Trump administration tried but failed to delete it from the global vocabulary, and ‘breakdown’ ‘crisis’ ‘chaos’ and ‘emergency’ started to clarify what that change means. Greta Thunberg became one of the most famous names in a world that saw records broken: rising temperatures and more activists arrested around the world. When, in March, I asked my local Town Council to debate declaring a Climate Emergency, I never imagined that after the local elections which ended Tory control, it would pass with only one abstention. Neither did I foresee that in the General Election campaign there would be an hour-long leaders’ debate on Channel 4 exclusively about climate, with three scientists on hand to explain the necessary urgency. Yet, positive as I try to be, it’s hard to look back on 2019 with anything but despair as emissions continued to rise, glaciers and permafrost melted, fires blazed and floods returned – while those world leaders who apparently acknowledge the problem have only talked about action and others have continued to deny the need to do anything at all. In the U.K. we may, hopefully, have finished with fracking, but we back it elsewhere and continue to subsidise fossil fuels. We are looking at new coal mines and airport expansion. So as the decade ends at this critical time in our history, we have both an awe-inspiring worldwide movement demanding change to prevent mass extinction and ecological collapse, and governments and corporations hastening the end of life on earth. It’s the stuff of dystopian fiction of the barely credible kind. And when heroic rebels went on hunger strike outside the political party headquarters, some of those parties were readier to let them die than to talk about XR’s demands.

For me personally it was a year like no other because activism became my purpose as writing fiction seemed less fundamental to my identity and less worthy of my time*. Because my husband Leslie Tate shares my commitment to serving that truth, XR became our life together, our dominant topic of conversation and the lens through which we see everything. I’d been involved from the beginning in October 2018 but it was this last year that brought us arrest and trial for the first time in my sixty-three and Leslie’s seventy years. Although many have risked and endured a great deal more, I found my own court appearances, especially my trial for my April Section 14 arrest on Waterloo Bridge, emotional and stressful. That first arrest itself was a decision, but also a shock. And for an author booked by schools (that seems to be past tense now!) it’s not ideal having a criminal record with three offences showing on my DBS. Living with climate grief has become, for me and many rebels I know, unbearable at times, but I remind myself that I may be on antidepressants but some people in this world are living with, bearing and suffering climate chaos now. The millions of preventable climate deaths each year are well documented, yet with a few exceptions judges have so far refused to accept the ‘imminence’ required to justify breaking the law to prevent a crime. And every time I witness a trial I think how absurd it is, how upside down and incredible that informed people of conscience have to literally take a stand and be criminalised for ringing the alarm in a desperate attempt save lives. But these people sustain me. We care for and understand each other. In XR we don’t always agree on how we rebel but the why creates a bond like no other.

This year I’ve made some brave, gentle and inspiring friends, including those in the local group whose company is a kind of therapy Mental Health Services can’t offer. The word ‘love’ is central to the rebellion and I feel it more deeply, than ever, for trees and skies and animals and mountains as well as people – and the light some of us call God, which is love itself. Never in my life have I felt a more loving sense of community, spirituality and strength than over six profoundly beautiful spring days on Waterloo Bridge. Extinction Rebellion has had a huge impact, giving a resolutely silent media stories to tell and opening a window on the truth that now drives scientists and doctors onto the streets with banners and superglue. Polls show a dramatic shift in consciousness and concern. Economists like the Bank of England’s Mark Carney recognise that preventing climate chaos is cheaper than denial. Ecocide Law, a long shot a year ago, has begun to look… inevitable? And yet my country has just voted in a government whose manifesto doesn’t mention climate change for some thirty-plus pages, and a Prime Minister who wouldn’t appear on that Climate Debate. The day the result came through I walked through my home town in a kind of zombie mourning, unwilling to smile or speak. Now I count on a resurgent, swelling rebellion, here and around the world. No one is giving up. The truth, once embedded in the heart, can’t be unlearned. People like me who would have sworn ten years ago that we would never do anything illegal will find ourselves willing to go further, creatively and lovingly – until the respect of the Queen is not enough and radical change comes fast.

Was my year dominated by activism? Yes, and other commitments, including – joyously – being a grandma. 2019 did see the publication of a few more titles that had been waiting on my laptop: a children’s book about a small refugee and smaller dog called WAGGLETAIL TED (all author earnings to People not Borders) and an emotional exploration of imagination and childhood co-written with Leslie Tate and the comedian Cy Henty, called THE DREAM SPEAKS BACK. Before and after the April Rebellion, convinced that the climate crisis is now the only subject for very truthful fiction, I wrote, and released chapter by chapter on my website, a novel about rebel characters called FOR LIFE*. It’s now an e-book that can be downloaded for a donation to XR. TSL also published my third short story collection (for adults) called INSTEAD. Among the stories, all written while I waited for my grandson to be born, is one about a grandma protesting outside the Saudi Embassy. When I wrote it I’d been active with Campaign Against the Arms Trade for a few years and had watched, moved, as people locked on across the roads leading to the London Arms Fair at the ExCel in Docklands. Soon after INSTEAD was published, I locked on myself, with two much younger Quakers, to prevent the delivery of weapons to this enormous show. With my arm through a tube in a suitcase stuffed with materials chosen to challenge the police cutting team, I experienced the same soul conviction I’d felt before my earlier arrest with XR. It was easy to imagine my dad’s hand on my shoulder, and picture him at his Conscientious Objector’s tribunal. It felt harder but more important to engage with something almost unimaginable: the real-life horror of those who lie on the road not through choice, from a position of privilege, but as victims of the bombs we sell – and those who leave home to escape the war from which we profit. This year I dropped in at a refugee camp in Dunkirk with my fellow People not Borders trustees, and met many small children with nothing. Lying on that road to the Arms Fair I understood better than ever before what brings refugees to Europe in spite of everything they have to endure, both on that journey and, once they arrive, when their humanity is often denied. Of course, all this is connected. Climate change is displacing more and more humans. The Pentagon has a bigger carbon footprint than many countries. And that government recently re-elected in the UK has massively increased arms sales to Saudi Arabia in 2019, in spite of that customer’s many war crimes and responsibility for the world’s greatest ongoing humanitarian disaster in the Yemen.

One of the joys of our year as a couple has been the widespread and heartening support we’ve received for our small-scale activism. Our combined court fees of more than a thousand pounds have been paid almost entirely by others, including Friends at our Quaker Meeting. After a lifetime of faith that has undergone many changes and presented increasing challenges and doubts, I’m happy to connect – mostly in a full yet open, nourishing silence – with people who ALL share our commitment to climate and social justice and peace. And to meditate with rebels of all faiths and none, on a road or under trees.

My year has been serious and world events have been frightening – not least the Far Right surge which is so interlinked with climate denial. But 2019 has seen an awakening too. The fires are still burning, so we have to keep sounding the alarm. And, like we did on Waterloo Bridge in April, we have to model a more just and caring way to live together on this earth we share. It’s what love requires.

Letters I can’t post

Dear Jeremy Corbyn,

We haven’t met but I’ve cheered you at a fair few protests. My husband, who knew you decades ago, liked, trusted and respected you. Our dear friend Frieda, who died in 2016 after decades of illness, poverty and disability and with no family to support her in the UK, was one of your constituents and adored you – almost as much as Arsenal and Andy Murray – because you visited her twice to listen, chat and help. I’m finding it distressing to see you assaulted even more rabidly than usual by a war criminal, disloyal colleagues and critics who in some cases may have a point, a minor one, but nonetheless miss THE point. The huge, life-changing one. You inspired people, including my two adult children who joined Labour because they connected with everything you stand for. You’ve embraced the Green New Deal, offering hope in a world on fire. You’ve represented integrity and compassion. You made people believe the world could be a kinder, fairer place. And no other leader in this country (apart from my heroine Caroline Lucas) has done that in the 63 years I’ve been alive. While Trump and Johnson have confirmed for me how dishonourable, undignified and heartless politicians can be, you’ve talked of love. You’ve shown love to those who need it most and refused to return the abuse you’ve endured.  So I’d hug you if I could. Thank you.

Dear Tony Blair,

I’m a Quaker so I try to see the God/light in everyone and I once believed you were a caring socialist, but I find it hard not to feel angry when I see you attacking a good man with values and principles you don’t seem to understand, a man of peace who voted against the disastrous war you sold us on a lie. I’d be grateful if you would reflect on whether peace and justice would be better served if, by retiring from the limelight Corbyn never craved or used for personal gain, you allowed young people to hold on to the faith in politics and humanity that he resurrected – just by being himself.

Thank you.

Dear Boris Johnson,

I cannot address you as Prime Minister since you do not speak for me. I am frightened – by the shocking failure of government to take urgent, radical action to address climate breakdown, by your determination to keep profiting from arms deals with Saudi Arabia (because if we don’t sell those bombs that kill children in Yemen, someone else will), by the racism you have emboldened, by your tendency to tell lies as and when they suit, by the contempt you have expressed for the working class and your apparent lack of compassion for the vulnerable and grieving.

Although I would rather be a jolly grandma than face more arrests and gruelling court appearances, I fear that only relentless, entirely peaceful mass civil disobedience can open your eyes to the truth about the existential threat that dwarfs all other issues. To love and peace.

Please read the climate science. Thank you.

Dear Caroline Lucas,

Thank you. Just thank you. THANK YOU.

Sue Hampton (Ms)

Visit by Catherine Ashton, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice President of the EC to Moscow, where she takes part in the Quartet meeting: Tony Blair, Middle East Quartet Representative

13/12/19: lies, grief and hope

I’ve hated politics since I was fooled into ecstatic celebration by a young daddy called Tony Blair with a fresh face and a baby on his knee. Sometime before or after marching against the Iraq War, I called the Labour Party to tell them I was cancelling my membership. War, greed and lies seem to fit naturally together. Blair is a hugely rich man with friends among oppressors and war-makers, and there were no WMD. Now we have another Prime Minister, his majority doubled and beyond, who has no intention of allowing the truth to get in the way of his ambition. The result, for those of us who believe in climate and social justice and are shamed by our continuing support of Saudi Arabia in the destruction of Yemen, for those who campaign for peace and understanding across all differences, is hard to take and equally hard to believe.  Who votes for ecocide, to bomb children, for foodbanks and surging racism? Did those who put a cross by their Tory candidate really choose climate breakdown and rampant inequality? Or did they just, like the U.N. with Blair’s dossier, fall for the lies?

I don’t know anyone who supports Boris Johnson. Thank God. So how do I try, as a Quaker, Green and XR arrestee, explain what happened on 12th December? I’m a Remainer too, but for me that’s not such an overwhelming matter of morality or conscience. Staying in the EU serves climate action and peace, and the protection of human rights. But I recognise that this bulky, bureaucratic juggernaut is in need of reform and seems to most of us a distant, suited, puffed-up community our lives don’t need – and to some, the reason their lives are not as they’d wish. Did Johnson receive his majority simply because of Brexit? Because of nationalism, with its racist and fascist undertones, or just because of frustration? Which is where the lies come in, the lies on the Brexit bus, the lawbreaking by Vote Leave, the endless lies told in this campaign, in adverts – 88% of Tory ads – and by the Prime Minister himself. Lies that were not called out by the majority of the media, just as the majority of the media failed to tell the truth. Are we to assume that those who voted Tory really believed the lies, or just, in the era of Trump, shrugged their shoulders because politicians are all the same, any bloke who’s cheated on women has to lie, and putting it about makes Johnson and his American friend like any bloke? Or is the explanation less dark but more frightening? Did the Tory voters simply not know what they were voting for – or what kind of leader they were voting against? Because in a shockingly effective, relentless campaign, the media misled them – by creating an endearingly Beano Boris out of a ruthless Machiavel, and a dangerous Bogie Man out of a brave idealist whose kindness and integrity were kept as secret as his two peace prizes. Because the BBC News was taken over by Tories with no qualms about flouting impartiality. And because the Mail and Sun have become ever more bigoted and inflammatory, stirring up hate crime and convincing their readers there’s no climate emergency, only brattish kids and extremist protestors who should be in school or prison.

What I realised on the afternoon after the election, as I walked around my hometown unable to hide my desolation with a smile, is that other people were talking of other things, shopping and working as usual. Not grieving but smiling. Not reading the world with the same eyes, or not seeing the same world. Most of them must have voted Tory, or for our ex-Tory Independent, but perhaps some of them did so as a habit, in the interests of continuity over change that might threaten their privilege, or without too much thought because politics seems largely irrelevant to the lives they live. As a quiz show fan I know how close to pointless a correct answer to a politics question will be, and how much more deeply immersed we are in TV, film, music and sport.  The media keeps us better informed about celebrities’ love lives than climate change. And we have a Prime Minister who not only dismisses people outside his Eton bubble as ignorant but counts on that ignorance. It’s a Roman-like bread-and-circuses attitude to his public that contrasts starkly with the ready hugs, empathy and compassion that come naturally to Corbyn but are evident in footage that never gets as far as the cutting room floor.

My guess is that a similar analysis of BBC coverage would show even more shocking bias…

I believe in love. As humans we know, when everything else is stripped away in crisis, that nothing else matters. Corbyn has spoken, in debates, about love. Green candidates, like XR activists, are guided by it: love of the natural world, of one human family, of peace and justice. I refuse to believe that the majority of people in S.W. Herts are motivated by hate and greed. Tory voters don’t all turn their backs on refugees; they don’t burn £100 notes in front of the homeless the way young Boris Johnson did. They just haven’t understood the truths that have been kept from them. Engaging emotionally with the climate science changes everything and on our ballot paper only the Green candidate has taken it into his heart. The climate lens changes the way we see and do everything and most of us don’t want that vision, that challenge, that transformative and terrifying view of life on earth.

I wrote on Twitter that we must serve love and truth today. And every day, in as many ways as we can. Those of us less at risk from Tory austerity and welfare cuts must defend the more vulnerable, the less white, the less wealthy. We can’t let Boris Johnson define us, divide us, dismiss or oppress or bully anyone, threaten our civil liberties or human rights. And however hard he might try to crush our protest, we must grow the resistance, for love’s sake, for the future’s sake, for the sake of those already suffering climate injustice, for all species under threat because of humans. The truth will soon be too overwhelming to hide, but until then, even those of us who are terrified of train talks will have to speak it. We will need more courage and resilience. We will need to hold on to each other, and to hope. We must rebel for life.

Red Rebels at Christmas

Rebelling in red: the time is now

I’ve become a Red Rebel, and the night before our first action I was wildly excited about leading the procession into St Albans Abbey for the General Election hustings. I wasn’t much help making the red robes and headdresses, having been humiliated in sewing lessons both at primary and secondary school. I was reminded, as the brilliant Bex dressed us all, of my friend Julie who came into my classroom back in 1997 before my first Parents’ Evening with a cloth for my table display. I did my best with it. She then quickly tugged and smoothed for all of a few seconds, leaving it inexplicably transformed. It’s a gift I don’t have. But I love dance and more importantly I’ve experienced the mesmerising, slow, silent power of the Reds up close in a crowd. Watching them pass through the Love Rebellion site at the back of Downing Street in October, I felt moved and compelled as their presence calmed, stirred and hushed everything and everyone around them. And they seemed untouchable in their mysterious otherworldliness. What Reds do is theatrical, borrowing from mime and the Chorus of a Greek tragedy but it feels to the observer less of a show than a strange connection, soul to soul.

When we entered the abbey we heard some people tell each other, “Extinction Rebellion,” but many have never come across the Reds and I’m sure many more are unsure what it all means. I remember once hearing the phrase, ‘the blood of our children’, but the Reds are more goddess than ghoul. They are sad, generous and compassionate. What threatens is catastrophe but the rebels are the alarm, not the fire. Like the Furies they offer a warning, but without frightening the children. And the stillness is part of the drama. The founder, Bristol’s Doug Francisco, acknowledges the potent symbolism of red, suggesting blood, flame and danger – now the death of life on earth – but also love. There are YouTube training videos showing how to simply convey that love, along with the mourning of climate grief and the powerful commitment represented by the fist lifted high while the head, lowered, prayerfully defuses aggression. No blame. The moves are simple; the key elements are the emotions vividly expressed and the desperately urgent purpose. Reds have a huddle before and after actions, and all I whispered during ours was, “With love.” But we also take one another’s hands, making eye contact and a deeply serious bond. We hoped for that kind of inner communication with the candidates, and with voters in the pews. But we also knew that there’s a new sensitivity about hustings this year, given the toxic and divided nature of today’s politics, and were prepared to be prevented.

In the taxi we talked of climate and ecological breakdown. From the moment we stepped out of the cab, we were in character. It was dark and wet as we walked from the Clock Tower to the abbey entrance, and much of the route was cobbled, sloping or uneven. We processed in line, just six of us, and eventually found ourselves, after warnings of police and security, stepping through the main entrance and beginning to walk slowly down the aisle. We were escorted by Graham, pristine in a suit and carrying white roses, and guided by local rebels. At once the stewards became jumpy but we’d agreed to stay silent and dignified and glide on obliviously. Apparently Graham was told by one that we were disturbing the audience and disturbing her. Nothing has ever been more disturbing than this existential threat facing every one of us. We continued but about halfway we were stopped. I couldn’t say exactly how because my head was high. We went back up a side aisle and then, in spite of repeated requests to sit down, ‘performed’ at the back until we had to leave to meet our cab. Some of those seated in front of us took selfies with us.

Did we make an impact? Certainly, although not everyone among the thousand or so will have seen us. Did everyone know who we were and why were there? I’m sure not. I understand that sometimes the Reds are accompanied by an explainer, or leafleters, but this wasn’t possible on such an occasion. Did we feel that it was worthwhile? Definitely. For a first attempt the context was challenging. Next time we may choose a high street. We have learned how to be more effective, need to use our faces more expressively, and have a plan to be escorted by a rebel carrying an Earth on fire as a back-up message. But I am completely in love with this creative, mysterious way of rebelling: a graceful, emotive and spiritual alternative to blocking roads.

We were all sadly conscious of the rebels on hunger strike outside political party headquarters and very much at risk. A few hours before our outing, more experienced Red Rebels visited them, and I can imagine the solace and strength they offered.

Grandma’s tree

The boy’s grandma loved trees. When he was just a baby she carried him through the forest, and took him close to one trunk, then another. She placed her hand on the bark and felt it. Some trees were smooth. Others were soft with moss. Some were rough, ridged or bumpy. There were trunks as pale as frost but others were darker than coffee grains. Every time Grandma touched a tree, the baby boy touched it too. They both smiled. Every time, Grandma felt the tree’s heart beating silently. And every time, the baby boy reached out for the next tree.

As he grew, the boy began to love the big tree in Grandma’s garden. Taller than her house, it looked down over the hedge to the railway. Its branches were strong and wide and its trunk was thicker than a castle wall. Even when Grandma and the boy joined hands to hug the tree they couldn’t reach all the way around it.

   Grandma put her ear to the bark and a finger to her lips. She seemed to be listening. So the boy put his ear against the bark too, much lower down towards the roots.

   “What can you hear, Grandma?”

   “Same as you,” said Grandma. “A heartbeat.” She paused, listening hard. “And a song.” She smiled at the boy. “And a story.”

   The boy listened hard but he told Grandma he could only hear the birds and the wind.

   “It’s a secret heart and a secret song,” said Grandma. “And a secret story.”

   “Will it tell?” asked the boy.

   “Maybe one day,” said Grandma, “if you keep listening.”

   “I will,” said the boy.

By the time he was nine the boy could climb Grandma’s tree and wave down at her from a branch above her head. He watched the trains speed past and tried to read their names. Grandma took photos of him, up the tree and beneath it. He raced himself around the tree and back, and made leaf prints in autumn. One Christmas he asked Grandma if they could decorate the special tree, but she thought it was beautiful enough already.

   “Like you!” she said. “No one needs to hang a bauble round your neck to make you look gorgeous.”

   In the summer he sat with Grandma in the shade of the tree and they read stories to each other, or made them up as they told them.

   Even when it was too soggy outside to climb the tree, the boy always waved at it when he arrived at Grandma’s house, and if it was windy it waved back.

   “Is the tree still growing?” he asked her one wet day. “Or has it stopped, like you?”

   “Oh yes. It will live a lot longer than humans can.”

   “How long?” asked the boy.

   “Some trees can live a thousand years,” Grandma told him.   

   The boy was amazed. “How long will you live?”

   “No one can answer that,” said Grandma.

   “A hundred years!” said the boy, but Grandma only smiled, and said they should plant acorns next autumn, to help the Earth keep breathing.

   “Cool,” said the boy.

By the time the boy was fourteen things had changed. Grandma was seventy-six and her hair was very white. She wasn’t as bendy as she used to be. But the boy had changed too. He was taller and stronger but quieter, and didn’t laugh as often. He was busy too, with sport and school work and friends, so he didn’t spend as much time at Grandma’s, but now and then he called round after school if he could, and she was happy to see him. Only he didn’t like having his photo taken any more, not even under the tree.

   One afternoon, when he arrived for a surprise visit, she seemed sad.

   “What’s wrong, Grandma?” he asked. He knew she still missed Grandad, who’d died before he was born.

   “It’s the tree, love,” she said.

   “Is it dying?”

   She shook her head. “But it has to be cut down. The roots are too close to the house. The expert says it’s not safe. And I’d rather lose the house than the tree…”

    “But you can’t live in the tree.”

    “No, but no one can live without trees. We need them now, more than ever.”

    “But you need a home.”

    “I’m not the only one,” she said. “That tree is a habitat.”

  She’d taught him that; she’d shown him all the life in it, from the squirrel eating its acorns to the caterpillars to the fungi no one saw underground. He gave her a hug.

   “Next time you come,” she said, “if the tree has gone, forgive me.”

   “I will!”

   “I hope I can forgive myself.”

A week or two later she sent him a text that read, The tree is down. x She had added an emoji with a tear. The boy went round to see her after football practice, even though he had lots of homework, but she didn’t seem to hear the doorbell, or his knock, or the phone. So he climbed into the back garden over the side gate, and found her sitting where the tree used to be, in the dark. When she turned towards him her face shone in the light from the living room because it was wet.

   The boy could smell the sliced wood. Under his shoes he felt sawdust clogging the grass. Then he realised that she was sitting on the stump. It was all that was left of the tree she loved. Now she stroked it with one hand.

   The boy crouched down and put his arms round her. Her body shook but her crying was quiet. It might have made him cry too, but he didn’t do that anymore. He pulled away.

    “No heartbeat,” she said, “and no song. The story has the kind of ending I never want to read.” She squeezed his hand. “I’ve been saying sorry.”

   The boy wished she would stop crying, and blaming herself. He didn’t know what to say. And the thought that came into his head was too silly to come out: The tree knows you loved it. Because he knew trees didn’t really have hearts to love with.

   But he did. He just didn’t have the words to make a difference.

When the young man was at university he called Grandma sometimes, but she couldn’t always hear him very well. She told him she’d paid for a hundred trees to be planted in Kenya.

   “That’s good,” he said, remembering how he’d told his mates, “My gran’s obsessed with trees.”

   “When will I see you?” she asked. “I want to show you something special.”

   “Not sure yet,” he said. It was a long way and he was busy. “Soon.”

   His parents weren’t sure she could stay in the house much longer but that was too sad to think about. When he came back he would cut her grass for her and weed her flower beds.

   But his dad called him a few days later.

   “It’s Grandma,” he said. “She died last night, in her sleep.”

She was buried in a pod in woodland, with young trees growing up around her. A few weeks later he went to Grandma’s house with his dad, to help sort things out. She didn’t have many clothes so bagging them up for the charity shop didn’t take long. The boy looked at the books about trees, flowers, birds and animals, and remembered so many of the pictures from the days when he sat on her lap and turned the big pages. But what had she wanted to show him? Not knowing made it hard not to cry.

   “I’ll make us some tea,” said his dad.

   Then the young man found a ragged shoebox under Grandma’s bed. Lifting off the dusty lid, he found a wodge of photos, thick as a hardback book, wrapped in tissue paper tied with rainbow wool. Pencilled on the paper was his name.

   Carefully he unwrapped a stack of photographs, all the same size. The image on top was of the tree, leafy against a grey sky. On the back of it Grandma had written the last day and a date, a recent one. She had taken the photo before the tree surgeon came to chop it down. Underneath it was the tree again, in sunshine, on your eighteenth birthday. He flicked through the pile to be sure but every photo showed the tree, bright and shady. Like the book he’d made as a boy, with a ball he’d drawn to rise and fall as he turned its pages, it was alive. The tree’s shape shifted as it filled and thinned with the seasons. And the clouds behind it moved as if chased by wind. The grass beneath it grew and neatened and grew again. Acorns scattered and disappeared from its roots. And the boy shrank, but his smile grew bigger.

   The young man knew he was going back in time, as fast as a Tardis. He almost missed the photo of himself as a baby wriggling in Dad’s arms. Hello you. x

   Soon, like a summer evening, the colour drained away to black and white. Page after page the tree breathed. A squirrel nibbled an acorn. Branches tugged and tussled and settled into stillness in snow. And then there was a young woman beneath them, with a mass of thick hair, wearing a long flowery skirt and smiling: the day your grandad asked me to marry him.

   The young man stopped flicking and smiled back at Grandma. But there were still dozens of photos underneath her. Skimming through them he reached a girl, not more than eleven, in dungarees, standing high up in the tree and waving when she probably should hold on tight. The tree was the reason I moved back to the house when your great grandparents died. I grew up with it, see. X

   He’d never seen his great-grandparents before but there they were, with baby Grandma in a heavy-looking pram. The date on the back said 1954. Before Kennedy was shot, or Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. Before people really understood how trees communicated – like people holding hands but feeding, warning, protecting each other. Was that what Grandma meant about the song?

    He was still watching the tree breathe when he realised he was reaching the bottom of the pile. No one knows for sure how old the tree is but it was tall in 1939 when your great, great grandfather built the house.

   Before that it had a different story to tell, and that might stay a secret. He straightened up the stack of photos and looked again at the tree’s last day. Suddenly he could have cried like Grandma had when he found her surrounded by sawdust, her hand on a wide, fresh stump. He remembered its living smell in the cool evening air, and the way her face had shone.

   He turned to see his dad carrying two of Grandma’s mugs. She’d know how to plant a tree. She must have told him. He seemed to remember something about collecting acorns and putting them in the fridge. Why had he let her do that without him? Had he been too busy growing up?

   “Ah,” said his dad. “The oak. I never really understood what it meant to her until it had gone.”

   “Dad,” he asked, “how do you plant a tree?”

    Passing the photos to his father he saw Grandma’s handwriting on the bottom of the tissue paper package.

   With love, it said, and hope. xx

The Tower: a new short story to follow FOR LIFE

Giving her right palm another coating of superglue, Manda wondered whether she’d overdone it. As she sat down inside the tower and placed her hand on the pale wood, her skin certainly stuck. It was a strange feeling, but not uncomfortable – although next to her Gem had spread her younger fingers, while Manda’s were tightly joined in a stop sign.

   She grinned at Gem: a smile of relief and triumph, but also surprise. Not so much because she found herself glued to a tall structure on the road by Trafalgar Square – that was rational, strategic – but because it was Gem partnering her. Gem, who might be thinking of Rob too, if her new life with Nick hadn’t erased him now. For Manda, he’d always connect them and no de-bonding team could change that.

   Gem looked as bedraggled as everyone else, her hair flattened by rain while Manda’s had turned to teased wool. Her smile was smaller and Manda hoped she hadn’t felt pressured by her own enthusiasm.

   “O.K.?” she checked.

   “Fine. I can’t believe how quickly they got this thing assembled.”

   “In seconds.”

   Some of the rebels who had surrounded the process remained in place; others stepped away as if to challenge the police to see what they’d missed. Manda shouted up to the women locked on above them, but they didn’t seem to hear. She hadn’t even seen their faces. But to the left of Gem an older man, a slight, churchy type with glasses, sat on a folded sleeping bag on the wet ground and glued a hand to the side of the structure. And there was a mature woman with her back to theirs, facing the ‘stage’ tent on the edge of the square. Another, who might be a student and wore so little clothing it made Manda shiver, attached herself on Manda’s right, with just a blanket between her skinny backside and the puddled tarmac.

   Manda realised that as the hours went by, she might need to engage these others. Gem was such a full-time Quaker, her face clear, still and pale as if in the silence in her head was the place she liked best. A serious face, it made Manda herself feel flighty, unstable, not as grown-up as she should be after all these decades. Taking it upon herself to organise introductions, Manda hoped she’d remember some of the names. She probably sounded heartier than she felt but she might be the most experienced activist in this tower, and with that CV came responsibilities she was glad to shoulder.

   Gem was being asked, “Have you done this sort of thing before?” and was shaking her head, pulling her mouth into a narrow smile.

   “Skye will be proud of you. Give her a couple of years,” Manda told her.

   This time Gem nodded. With her free hand she pulled out her phone.

   Gem had to leave a voicemail for Nick, which probably meant the day out was going well. It was astonishing, all of it: how instantly Skye had loved James, how abandoned her laugh became when he was around, the way she called him ‘Ganpa’ regardless. The way Nick accepted it all, with no reference to DNA tests, even though he was Daddy now. The noisy, boys-together matiness of the might-be father and the maybe-grandad. And Manda as could-be grandma, more careful and sensitive than the stereotype Gem had tried to fit her with, more patient and less wild.

   Even so, Gem wondered how long it would be, as they sat tightly together, before Manda asked questions of a personal kind. And how surprised Gem might be to find herself so intimately engaged with her never-mother-in-law.

   “Good day to be indoors looking at the stars,” Manda told her, apparently forgetting she’d called the Planetarium a rip-off. “They could come over afterwards and say hello, though – if you’d like that?”

   Gem wasn’t sure. Not to see the police confiscating tents and sleeping bags. Not if a one-armed hug was only half of what Skye counted on. She could imagine her now, sitting on her lap, the slightly wriggly warmth of her and the movement of the legs that would swing down. How long would it be before she understood, and was frightened? Gem knew there were teenagers, children too, seeing their GPs with climate anxiety, needing counselling or pills. It was cruel, and unfair, even if Nick turned out to be right and Skye grew into a climate striker using that powerful voice of hers on a microphone. By then, well, it would be too late. The chaos would make nightmares real, and no determined hope would save anyone or anything.

   Rebels were leaning in to offer lunch: bananas, biscuits from an open packet. “Coffee?”

   “Uhuh,” said Manda. “No drinks. We declined the nappies.”

   Apparently there was a contraption, a kind of tubing, but Manda had no intention of testing it. Already a few people had thanked them. She told herself not to enjoy the status; it wasn’t personal. A young woman took a photo on her phone and then put her hands together, Gandhi-style. Manda supposed she had no one to call, these days, except her new ‘family’ under the starry dome. It was good to be friends with James, and to see him alive for Skye, but she knew Libby felt aggrieved. Ousted, perhaps. She could be a half-hearted auntie, stiff, even detached, but Manda put that down to lack of confidence. Maybe when Skye was less sticky and more coherent…

   “What went wrong with Leo?” Libby had asked.

   “Oh, darling, I wish I knew,” she’d answered.

   “I don’t believe you.”

   Four months after she’d left him puzzled and hurt, she couldn’t say how much of what she felt, or used to feel, was love. His offer of a ‘place to crash’ during the occupation had come out of the blue and she’d had to tell herself to be pragmatic with a yes when her no anticipated the way it would feel in his bed without him, knowing she’d never have sex again, because that had peaked with Leo and she still remembered. She could call him now, on his little tour packed with flights he was rueful about, but why? Not knowing how much he’d care made her sad.

   The rain had thickened again and she felt sorry for the women on top, their bed the roof that sheltered her and Gem.

   “We got lucky here,” she said. “What will Nick say? That I led you astray?” Manda knew she should withdraw that because she didn’t think Gem was very leadable, and she didn’t mean to imply that only one of them was committed. Hard-core, James called her, almost amused. She suspected he had more respect for Gem’s less verbal conviction with fewer flourishes. And of course, for a young mum arrest was a different proposition. Well, this would be quite a showy debut.

   Gem shook her head. “He won’t be shocked.”

   Not as shocked as she felt herself, suddenly, because it had happened too fast to think hard the way she preferred. But sometimes an impulse felt deep and important, and she must see it as an opportunity – to hold the road and sustain the protest for longer. However the courts looked at it, it was necessary.

   “He’d be here with his camera if he knew.” Manda hoped that eventually she’d stop searching every XR film for a glimpse of her own face, and tell no one when she spotted herself on Channel 4 News. She supposed Gem was above such vanity – unless no one was, and her own honesty was the rare thing Leo used to say it was.

   Gem was talking to the woman behind and explaining that she’d “only just turned up today.” If people like her had been there from Monday, thought Manda, it might all have felt more secure. Ambitious as the whole plan was, the sites might have held, and it was hard not to feel disappointed, and a bit aggrieved. So many armchair supporters but not enough arrestables. She realised she was very, very tired. And the government wasn’t listening.

   But Gem was talking about colour and creativity, Red Rebels, giant skeletons, birds with enormous wingspans. Manda could see she’d been paying close attention from home, and was touched by the positivity, but had to butt in.

   “The police took disabled toilets, stage gear, kitchen equipment. They arrested lorry drivers. I saw them bullying drummers. They need to be challenged.” She knew she probably sounded bitter; Gem was more suited to no blame, no shame.

   “But there must be so many among them who hate harassing us,” Gem said. “Parents who are fearful for their children too.”

   Manda couldn’t deny it, and so far she’d been treated well after her two arrests. But Leo hadn’t been confident of the same respect and people like her needed to remember that. Now they were being asked by a Wellbeing rebel whether they wanted anything. Manda’s body was crying out for salad leaves, broccoli, spinach – not another cereal bar and no more vegan chocolate.

   Gem knew it would be a mistake to check the time so soon after ducking in and sticking herself in place, but she hoped they wouldn’t be there after midnight. If Nick thought her reckless she wouldn’t disagree, but she had needed to make a stand for so long, and this felt like the most rather than the least she could do – and had been doing for a year.

   She smiled at Manda giving in to chocolate and began to remove the backpack bulking uncomfortably behind her before realising that she should have slipped it off before she glued her hand.

   “Rookie error.”

   Manda, who had done the same, laughed loudly.

   Gem’s phone rang. Nick wanted to know if she was all right, although she’d already said she was fine.

   “We’ve only been glued for twenty minutes tops. Clock watching’s not the best idea.” She heard Skye say, “Mummy!” and checked, “How much have you told her?”

   “That you’re in London trying to save the earth and the animals and might be late home.”

   “That’ll cover it. Do you want to put her on?”

   Skye was loud. “Mummy, Ganpa bought me ice cream. And sweets. He’s naughty.” She giggled.

   “But kind,” said Gem, glancing at Manda and seeing her roll her eyes. “So did you see the planets and the stars?”

   “Bye Mummy.” And she’d gone. Nick was back, telling her to be careful and he hoped she wouldn’t be stuck in Trafalgar Square overnight with the drunks getting lairy. She told him she hoped they’d be home by then, because Manda had reported rebels only spending three or four hours in a police cell.

   “I love you,” he said.

   “Love you.” She remembered him saying the pronoun made all the difference and wished she could use it as freely as him. Manda would understand if she told her she wasn’t sure she’d ever love him the way she loved Rob, but however long they were glued in this tower she had no plans for that kind of sharing. Turning off her phone to save the battery which was negligently low, she remembered the writers who’d be reading later and told herself that if they were still there by then, at least they could celebrate their front row seats. Although she hoped Margaret Atwood wouldn’t do an Emma Thompson and fly over the Atlantic to rebel.

   “Hey,” said a guy, crouching down on Manda’s side of the tower. “I have chains?”

   “Sure, great,” said Manda. But Gem passed, and felt like the lightweight of the team.

   As the guy discreetly delivered the chain under a blanket, he said to let them know if they needed anything else, and to remember that if it got really late there was always acetone they could use but it would take a while.

   Gem thanked them. Chained around the waist, Manda gave her jailer the thumbs up. She was telling Gem about a piece of theatre involving landing crew in formation, and a friend who’d been arrested at City Airport, when a young rebel from XR Media got down on her haunches to ask if she could interview them both.

   “I’ll leave that to Manda,” said Gem.

*

“What time do you think it is?” Gem asked.

   It was a while since anyone had offered them anything and the hot water bottles provided by a rebel before he retired to his tent, with a wide smile and a high five, felt only warm. And although she’d tried, the so-called music from the open-mic ‘stage’ was too loud to sleep through. Surely it would stop soon, and the drunk droppers-by would find a night bus home.

   Manda checked her phone. “It’s nearly one a.m.” She made sure she sounded neutral but it was bravado. “Sorry, Gem.”

   “If the cherry picker had rolled up before dark we’d have missed the authors. That’d be something to cry about.” Gem smiled, referencing the tears they’d both shed listening to the readings. Considering the deluge that had beaten down on those listening without a wooden roof, and the spray the wind had dragged in on them, they were remarkably dry under their blanket and sleeping bag. But she was colder than she intended to admit.

   “I’m wondering how hard it might be to slip a nappy down inside my leggings,” said Manda, “with my left hand.” She added that she wished her bladder was as young as Gem’s.

   Hours ago she’d told Nick the police obviously wanted to clear the road. This might not be comfortable but this was privilege, choosing to make a statement knowing they wouldn’t be teargassed or beaten, and confident that London wouldn’t be underwater tomorrow. This was solidarity with those already suffering and dying because of climate change and she was tough, as tough as Manda in her own way.

   Manda wasn’t sure the homeless guy who sat on the ground beside her, with his hand below hers but not actually glued the way he’d been proudly claiming, was still awake, or how he’d react if she asked him to go and give her some privacy. He coughed, and lit a roll-up he seemed to have picked from his lap.

   “Excuse me,” she said, tentatively. “I was wondering whether you’d mind moving so I can…”

   “I’m glued on.”

   “I don’t think you are…”

   “Yeah! I’m glued like you.”

   “The thing is,” she said, and lifted the nappy from under the blanket, “I need a wee. So I’d be really grateful…” She didn’t know his name, she realised guiltily. But he lifted the hand in question in a whoah of a gesture and pulled himself up.

   “You’re all right,” he said. “You take care of yourselves.”

   “We will,” said Manda. “Thank you.”

   “If there’s anything at all I can get you, anything, you just say.”

   They both thanked him and he looked around unsteadily, then disappeared. By the time they’d managed to call for a couple of female rebels to screen her where he’d been, Manda was wriggling and shuffling and feeling the same sort of hysteria she’d felt at school when the stiff, male Biology teacher told them to underline Human Reproduction as a heading, then leave four empty pages the girls knew they’d never fill.

   “Mission accomplished, ish. But I don’t think I’d be able to use this unless I was at gunpoint,” she muttered, even though the tightness of the chain around her waist must be down to her ballooning bladder. If their homeless friend came back she’d give him money and a hug. Her two young modesty preservers said if there was nothing else they could do to help they’d be off now, but told them they were heroes, honestly.

   The woman behind them seemed to be asleep and all was quiet above. Manda wondered whether Gem regretted declining the nail varnish remover the church guy had welcomed a while back, in order to catch the last train with his wife. The bottle at her feet lay drained between banana skins.  

   “Does it help being a Quaker?” she asked.

   Gem took a while to think about that. With being glued on for twelve hours or more generally? “I’m better at waiting than I used to be and silence feels like home when I find some. People talk about being grounded or gathered and I sometimes feel a lot more scattered than that, not whole at all. And it doesn’t make the climate grief any easier. If it did, I wouldn’t trust it.”

   Manda said she didn’t trust much these days but she liked what people called the spirituality of rebellion. “That’ll be the hippy dippy side of me. A Gaia fan. I’m learning to meditate in my old age.” She wasn’t sure she wanted to talk about climate grief, not now, and she’d be missing the antidepressant she took these days with her breakfast. Like mother, like daughter after all. And that must be her fault, up to her point.

   Turning on her phone, she found a reply to: In case you should call I am glued to a tower in Trafalgar Square and conserving battery on my phone xx. Sent only a few minutes earlier, it read: Of course you are Mum x and was illustrated with an emoji full of teeth. Manda supposed Libby could be with some new guy she hadn’t mentioned or had only just met, and teetering around in something short and insubstantial like the girls that passed through, curious. Someone had said XR was cool now, but Libby might not have heard.

   “I’ve just understood,” she told Gem, “that Libby’s jealous of you.” Then she felt as if she’d betrayed a confidence. “Because she never connected with Rob, because she can’t be herself with children and we’re…” She didn’t want to presume. “You and I are in this together, and she’s outside.”

   Gem thought about that. “That’s sad,” she said.

   “Most things are,” Manda murmured.

   “Apart from Skye.”

   “Apart from Skye.”  Gem paused. “And trees. I love trees; we both do. As soon as Skye could reach out a hand to touch a trunk I showed her how different the bark can feel.” She knew Nick didn’t get it, not yet. He was too urban, but one day they’d have to move closer to a forest.

   Manda missed the garden James had neglected and then handed over to a gardener with no imagination, but Skye had brought it to life again, and that wasn’t sad.

   For a moment it seemed as if the live music, which she’d really like to put out of its misery, was over. Then it started again, more off-key than ever – even less musical than the slightly crazed laugh she let loose.

   “It’s a mad world,” she said.

*

As light broke, Manda was dismayed by the relief she felt to be surrounded by a ring of police at last. She hoped they enjoyed the improvised song in honour of the residents of the tower delivered by a bright-eyed young rebel with a ukulele and russet hair. Above, the women locked-on sounded remarkably lucid as they attempted to engage the officers in climate science.

   “No one does this stuff for the fun of it,” one added.

   “Oh I don’t know,” said the tallest. “Some people get off on this kind of thing.”

   Manda leaned out at that. “We don’t. We’re desperate. The science made us that way. But I’m too old and tired to string together the words, dates and numbers. They must be young up there!”

   Gem guessed the officer who bent down to look in on her side was no older than Libby.

   “You two must have been frozen all night,” he said, puffing out white breath.

   “We had these,” Gem told him, producing hers.

   He reached out. “They’ll need a nice hot refill.”

   Manda passed hers over too. “They should put you in charge,” she said, supposing the confiscations and bullying weren’t his fault. He said he wouldn’t be long.

   “They’re doing a brilliant job up there,” said Gem, listening to the women share with their captive audience the prognosis that had become so familiar: ice melt, London underwater, unliveable heat, disease, food shortages. “But it must sound incredible, you know? Fantasy.”

   Manda nodded. She realised she might cry. Gem laid her free hand on her shoulder, and just for a moment felt it shake as Manda refused to sob out loud.

   “Thanks for your company.”

   Manda laughed through her nose and had to fumble for her hankie. “All nineteen hours of it! That must be eighteen and a half too many.”

   Gem knew she hadn’t managed her fair share of the talking but there were things she’d only ever told Rob, things she must tell Nick first – about the day her parents died, the drugs that stopped her healing and the anorexia that even now she had to keep shrugging off in secret. She knew Manda considered her quietly together and approved of her parenting, but she wasn’t sure she was ready to be known so fully and unflinchingly, or why Manda wanted to know her that way.

   Manda supposed she had said too much throughout – but then, after all this living she’d somehow pulled off, she had too many stories. And this would be another. It had been Gem who cried, almost invisibly as well as inaudibly, when a young female panel following the authors had talked about Birth Strike and motherhood, and Manda had touched the cold hand that lay in her lap, given it a brief squeeze and dismissed as inadequate everything she could think to say.

   The rubber bottles were back, and hot again.

   “The crew should be here before long,” said the young constable with good skin and neat hair.

   “I would have liked to be home when my daughter wakes up,” Gem told him. “But I’d also like her to live…” Her voice frayed and she looked up above the rooftops at a chill, grubby sky.

   The young constable nodded once and withdrew to join the others in the black and yellow circle.

   “No comment, no caution, no duty solicitor,” Manda reminded her.

   Gem knew what to expect. She just wasn’t certain she was ready.

*

Outside the police station the rain bounced hard but arrestee support were there, two of them sharing an umbrella, offering smiles as they hurried across the road from a coffee shop and asked how she was doing.

   “Released under further investigation,” she told them, giving her name. “Manda Craig is still in there but it’s her fourth time now.”

   “She might be charged and bailed,” said the tall guy with the beard. “They’re trying to scare us into staying away. Have you got time for a coffee?”

   “I’d love one but I need to get back to my little girl.”

   They checked she had an Oyster card and thanked her, which felt embarrassing. Gem was tired but excited now, at the thought of opening her front door and being home.

   “If you see Manda, tell her I’m sorry I can’t wait.”

   The hand that held the umbrella still felt a little stiff with the last strips of glue she hadn’t peeled off and scattered on the cell floor. The torn skin at her wrist, where the cuff of her jumper had been caught, was sore, but she felt good and strong. Twenty-one hours! It was ridiculous, extreme – and over. No regrets.

   Somehow, as the rain beat her hair into threads and beaded her phone screen, she managed to message Nick as she walked.

   I’m very proud.  He added a green heart.

   But it was nothing. Amongst people heading out on a Saturday night, she felt other, alien, unknown. A ghost drifting through walls. But soon she’d be normal again, sealed off and warm, on a sofa with a TV, and trying to believe all this could be enough.

   Afraid to be afraid.

Rebellion: a change of identity

“Yes, I’m an author,” I say at the police station when they check me in and ask whether I work. Each time (three so far) the officer looks down at the next question and makes the same joke about me probably not needing help with reading or writing then. I’m not used to this yet and after 21 hours glued to a tower for Extinction Rebellion last weekend I was more muted than usual – so quiet, in fact, that students who know me as the lively author who came to their school would be shocked. During those school visits, explaining alopecia and the power of stories, I’ve always talked about identity, and it’s struck me that mine has shifted again. I went from teacher to author in 2008, having longed to write for ‘a living’ for fifty-two years, but now, in spite of my answer at the custody desk, I’m probably known more for my activism (climate, but peace too; my second arrest was at the Arms Fair) than for my 36 books – which, being full of my values, used to be my activism. Having achieved my author status I clung to it, writing hard, fulfilling school bookings to lead writing workshops, landing the odd festival and speaking to writers’ groups and book groups, often with my writer husband Leslie Tate. I have small publishers that can only offer a small readership but I let go of the frustrations and the ambition, and focused on delivering my best writing, on creating stories that felt important. I was never in it for the money, but the joy. I learned some years ago that when I wasn’t writing, I wasn’t happy. But that was before the climate crisis changed the way I look at the world, the way I live and who I am.

With parents who trod lightly on the earth and a brother who became the world’s first Carbon Coach, I always thought I knew and cared about ‘the environment’ but in fact as a teacher I was an overworking, conforming consumer. Even once I became an author and created a young eco activist in THE WATERHOUSE GIRL, I didn’t really get it. Knowing the truth at some level, and engaging with it emotionally so that it’s embedded in the core of that identity I was talking about, are two very different ways to be. The first allows us to live the ‘business as usual’ model while feeling and expressing guilt. The second transforms our feelings, priorities and therefore our actions and conversations. In my case, once I took climate breakdown into my soul – and that really is where it lies – I committed to writing more overtly about the crisis in my novels and to keyboard activism on social media. And I wanted that to be enough. If I’d had a readership of millions, I might have believed it was.

Last September I gained a new identity that’s proved even more moving and more joyous than I expected, after nine exciting months, it would be. I’m a grandma now as well as a mum and it’s emotionally overwhelming, an entirely new kind of love. Weeks later I joined Extinction Rebellion and wept for sheer hope – as well as desperate grief for all that’s already been lost or is under threat. I was used to my minority status as a Quaker, a Green, a non-flyer (since 06), a vegan. Now I found myself with people who wept too. I became a rebel. But even then I didn’t foresee how rebelling would change me. It’s made me braver, far braver than I would ever, as a naturally fearful wuss, have believed possible. It’s made me very, very sad – so sad that I don’t know where climate heartbreak ends and depression begins. It’s exhilaratingly intense and beautiful. And it’s left very little room for concerns like how many books I’m selling, or mailing out to schools. Since FOR LIFE, my novel that ends with the April rebellion – now an e-book for a donation to XR – I haven’t written anything but blogs and posts, and I miss it. But I haven’t had any author bookings either, all this term – which has always been my busiest. When I decided I was arrestable in April I knew schools might steer clear, and I was prepared to give up on that income and those sales. No one looking at my website can be in any doubt of my activism, although with a famous name I suspect I’d scare schools a lot less. I’m not the author who engages in activism any more, just an activist with a ton of stock to keep dusting on my bedroom shelves. The book launch for THE DREAM SPEAKS BACK is now also the day of my trial for my April ‘offence’ so if that runs late I may not even make it! But there’s no choice and that means no regrets. After all, there are rebels who have given up jobs to dedicate themselves to making change happen. And being a grandma is hugely empowering. In fact, although I could credit my mum with the physical courage I’ve found lately, it’s also courtesy of my favourite baby. You could say what I’ve shed, along with fantasies of eventual, possibly posthumous national acclaim, is the ridiculous vanity of believing that my writing mattered when set against a climate emergency that dwarfs or eradicates everything else.

I’d like to write again and perhaps I’ll find I must. But maybe next time I’m asked at a police station whether I work, I’ll swallow my pride and say, “Yes, at this. For climate justice.”

Like the sweatshirt I accepted from the Met, I don’t want unsold books going on landfill, so I’m offering any title (apart from the People not Borders charity books and the joint memoir, THE DREAM SPEAKS BACK) for £5. Message me.

Daisy is an eco-activist, aged 11
And here she’s 16 in this novel dedicated to Polly Higgins.
a fracking allegory
“A bucket of iced water over the head” to quote one reader, but mow the future looks a lot more frightening.
for adults

These are just a few of my climate novels.

Only trees

Sometimes love is something we learn. The Amazon is on fire and finally we understand what that means. The truth dawns, a truth we knew if we only stopped a moment to breathe, listen, look: that trees are the purest carbon capture technology, that they’ve been the lungs of the earth all along. That by planting more of them, trillions more, we could give ourselves an outside chance. Our dependence on trees is something we ingenious humans can be slow to grasp. Yet their beauty lies not only in their colours, textures, sounds, shape and strength, but in something deeper that seems to me now like tenderness. A tree has the power to transform the brutality of our concrete creation. Study after study confirms the nurturing impact on our wellbeing of walking through woods, or even a city park. Trees sustain and heal. Yet we ridicule tree huggers and Druids who revere the natural world over which, magnificently and beneficently, they preside. We destroy them to consume. We fell them for motorways. We overlook both the habitats they represent in all their magical complexity, and the extraordinarily intricate web of life we break at our own risk.

I’ve wised up but I’ve been no exception. I’ve lived an urban life, spending more time in art galleries, novels and cinemas than forests. But my father, whom I adored, had a deep, intuitive connection with the natural world. Writing about my childhood in the third person for my contribution to the triple autobiography, THE DREAM SPEAKS BACK, I didn’t know how Tardis-like the process would be. To a greater extent than I could have imagined, I became the little girl I used to be – and emerging into the present I was terribly moved, because my dad is gone and I am at that age where, setting aside climate breakdown just for a moment, loss is cumulative and tears are generally a blink away. I found myself supplementing memory (mine’s just too riddled with gaps where the details should be) to present a series of scenes that are essentially and emotionally truthful. Some are composites, such as a visit to Frinton, where my grandparents rented a beach hut and one scene represents many days, or rather how I felt about those days. Others are beacons in mist because of their emotional energy. Technicolour and multi-sensory, they retain their power over me. And the most vivid of them all seems to be the one I quote here. The one in which a tree has been cut down, my dad is weeping and I know, because he’s the wisest, most sensitive person in my world and the one I love most, he must know something profound that I’m too young to appreciate.

I feel it now.

The grinding noise was over now but the garden still smelt of wood. There was a fine dust of it around the sliced stump where the tree used to make shade. The girl thought of a painting she’d seen in The Tate Gallery, of the boy Jesus in the carpenter’s workshop. Dad would be proud that she remembered the artist’s name too: Sir John Everett Millais. But she wouldn’t mention it. She wouldn’t say anything in case the words were wrong. She just stood on the step down from the living room and watched.

   Dad wasn’t browning in the deckchair, or mowing the lawn, or looking at the red geraniums gathering in a crowd alongside her. “What a colour!” he’d said last year. “Scarlet, carmine or vermillion?” “Scarlet,” she’d decided. That would have been a more beautiful name than Susan, and fitted a heroine better.

   Now he sat on the grass, with splinters around him, and his knees up in front of his chest. His arms hugged his legs and his head was down, but not for long because a moment later he gazed up at the space the tree had filled, as if it was a scar that hurt. The girl knew he was crying even before a sound broke out. It wasn’t loud but deep and shaky. His body rattled softly, like the branches of the tree used to do when it was windy. Inside the girl the stiffness started, filling her. It was what happened to her breathing when it made no difference how much she loved him.

   Mum was behind her now. She laid a hand on her shoulder and whispered, “Daddy’s heartbroken, darling. He blames himself. But we had no choice.”

   The girl knew about the roots that had grown in secret, and webbed out towards the foundations. Dad had drawn the house on his board at the office so he called it a mistake building too close to the tree. But no one could have dreamed that it was creeping secretly towards them, day by day, week by week, while they ate and played and slept. She imagined the roots like arms with muscles and fists – breaking through the earth and shattering the concrete to lift up the house and tilt it like a ship on a wave. It wasn’t really frightening, because it was harder to believe in than the Ogre that used to give her bad dreams when she was small.

   She was too grown-up for a swing now anyway.

   Mum went slowly out across the grass and sat down beside Dad. He turned towards her and his face was wet, and creased out of shape. Mum reached her arm across his back and he leaned towards her. The girl couldn’t hear what she said to him but he kept on crying.

   She wished he’d stop now. He preferred the garden to other people. It was his place to breathe after London and the train. It was his painting. But his heart had more cracks than it should and that scared her more than roots could ever do. Why couldn’t he forgive himself? The sun was bright and the geraniums didn’t care.

   It was just a tree.

Featured image: words by Robert Macfarlane, artwork Nick Hayes

PROCESSING