A poem for lockdown

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

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

Sue Hampton

Pride? At what price?

It nearly loses Darcy Elizabeth. It may explain the Union Jacks strewn around a doorway on my route down to the high street. Oh, and it comes before a fall. We have an ambivalent attitude to pride, explained in part by the two definitions the OED offers:

   1 a feeling of deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from achievements, qualities or possessions that do one credit, and

   2 consciousness of one’s own dignity, the quality of having an excessively high opinion of oneself.

 To me 1 seems natural, an expression of the positivity most of us find helpful. We encourage each other to allow these feelings: “You should be proud of yourself.” In definition 2, on the other hand, pride becomes more of a character flaw than a quality. We judge and are alienated by such pride. We don’t like people like Darcy (unless he’s Colin Firth) until he’s redeemed by love and admits his pride was a failing of which he’s ashamed.

Apparently, then, pride is only acceptable up to a point, which is why the word excessive is key. At one end of its spectrum, pride is healthy self-esteem, a delight in a kind of validation that we all, to varying extents, need – and part of the ‘greatest’ love (uh-uh) Whitney sang about until I could reach for the off button. At the other it’s a synonym for arrogance, superiority, conceit and even contempt for others. We are comfortable with someone’s pride if it is simply personal pleasure, a reward for effort – the emotion on the medal rostrum, the Distinction certificate on the wall, the platinum disc or flush of applause. But not if the proud individual belittles others. If it spills over from the personal to the critical or superior, it’s offensive. Pride is merely self-respect until it disrespects other people. It’s the overspill that makes the difference by impacting on the self-respect of others. We like winners to be overwhelmed and grateful in their victories, to acknowledge debts to others and their achievements. I read a fine book by Satish Kumar called I Am Because You Are. As humans we are connected and interdependent. But when the proud set themselves apart, they are denying their need and their vulnerability, and claiming an elevated status that expects us to look up from a lowly position in life. Such pride is a loss of humanity to inflated ego. It’s an excess of individualism.

Here in the UK our society is highly individualistic. Those protesting against lockdown are demanding a kind of freedom that permits them to do what they want regardless of the consequences for anyone else. In America those with guns occupying state buildings and filling streets represent a more dangerous, less guarded form of individualism that refuses to be restricted in the interests of public health, and asserts the right to override the rights of others. What we read in their placards and flags is a pride known as nationalism, which sees America as independent rather than connected, with a power and identity greater than other nations. Here pride is a denial of need, a rejection of rules and a belief in exceptional status. It sets aside compassion for those who are in any way different, and shades into tribal hostility towards those who don’t share their identity as they define it. It can be expressed in vitriol and violence as, by losing touch with humanity, the nationalist denies the humanity of the other. So when I see the house with Union Jacks around the door, or the England flag on a roof, I feel a chill, and when I hear the word patriot I say, not me. That I was born in the UK was an accident over which I had no control. I feel no pride, definition 1, because my nationality was not my achievement or even my choice. I feel no pride, definition 2, because I do not consider that nationality a quality of any kind, let alone one that justifies an excessively high opinion of my country or its people. Indeed, whether I look back at history or to the present government, I see no justification for any such pride in my nation. There is much to celebrate but also a great deal to regret.

CBBC’s Horrible Histories debunked the greatness Britain has liked for many decades to claim by exposing the foreign origins of many symbols of Britishness (not just tea!) and faced an onslaught of outraged – patriotic – protest that ignored the factual accuracy of the programme. Reason makes way for emotion. Nationalism, like climate denial, requires no justification in the form of evidence. A patriot’s nationalism is in fact as personal as the pride of a girl who thinks herself prettier than the others. It’s a distorted perception stemming from inflated ego – or pride spilling into excess as it overlooks what we share as humans by disconnecting the ‘I’ from the ‘we’. In an age of fake news, patriotism exists in defiance of truth.

But surely pride in my country is important for wellbeing, happiness and self-respect? It might be, but I can’t feel it. The facts prevent it: the government’s inaction on climate change while pretending leadership, its punishment of the poor and disabled while guarding the interests of the rich, the moral bankruptcy of our arms trade and abandonment of the refugees it makes of those it does not kill. And the lies. If, however, I were a citizen of New Zealand, I would be profoundly thankful for a leader who by valuing life and health over business has kept her people alive. I would delight in that achievement, but also in the values that led it. I wouldn’t consider myself superior to the British because their government failed them – and the humanity test. I prefer to celebrate being a citizen of the world, and everything that unites rather than divides us.

What then am I proud of? Not my hair!! I needed to come top in English at school but I’m not proud of that need. Such pride is insecurity. Is what I feel about my writing pride? Well, by definition 1, yes, because I delight in it – the process itself and the sheer pleasure it gives me, quite separate from publication or rave reviews. And because there is satisfaction in feeling that what I have written is the best I can do. I see INTACT as my greatest achievement as a writer, but that’s where the pride ends. No spilling over into a deluded belief that I have achieved more in this novel than other writers in their greatest work. My pride in this latest and probably last book is tempered by my reader’s recognition of those I revere. But I can’t do more than my best and that, regardless of sales or approbation, is enough to sustain me. It’s also tempered by recognition of everything area of human achievement in which I fail: a seriously long list including driving, sewing, technology and sport.

Like any other mum I tell my children I’m proud of them. By that I mean I don’t just love them – love being unconditional – but appreciate their qualities and achievements, in particular the caring humans they are. I’m an adoring grandma, and take enormous pleasure in the small beloved’s company and filmed exploits, but aim to avoid definition 2 which would translate into an excessively high opinion of him in relation to other people’s grandchildren. Competition is built into the fabric of our society and I will celebrate anything he does well, but more importantly I hope I will celebrate his kindness and compassion, a sense of justice, honesty and warmth – values at odds with definition 2.  Am I proud of the human species? Not in the sense that I consider us more important than gorillas and whales, or even the biblical sparrows. But I acknowledge the power we have over other species, and feel ashamed of the many ways we abuse it. I am ashamed too of the inequality governments and people have allowed or even fostered, in unjust societies where some humans have power over others – and of the pride with which those who have much dismiss those who have little. I celebrate human achievements in art and music, words and architecture, but not in warfare, and not in ecocidal practices that destroy our shared home. And I think the kind of pride we see at Covid Daily Briefings, with Cabinet members and others unable to admit or discuss mistakes the government may have made in addressing (or not) the crisis, or put economics before human lives, not only fits definition 2 but carries a horrifying price – just like the price of inaction on climate. When world leaders behave as if they know better than experts, ignore evidence and can never be wrong, such pride can be terribly costly.

“But you’re proud of your activism? Of being arrested? Of XR?” Well… I’m not brave, but I can sometimes draw on the courage of conviction. Not just my own deeply-held Quaker convictions but the truth as set out by the scientific consensus, IPCC and UN. Sorry, Sinatra, but owning a ‘way’ with the prefix ‘my’ in another song I can’t endure does not make it right. That’s the mistake of the gun-toting white nationalists. I feel compelled to take whatever non-violent action might be necessary, when I can, because I have exhausted other methods of campaigning and by supporting fossil fuels around the world the government is hastening the end of life on earth. My mental health demands such action; the alternative would feel like complicity in extinction. I’m glad I didn’t duck arrest because of fear, and I’m glad I defended myself at my trial – at an emotional cost that will be reduced next time. And I’m heartened when my family tell me they’re proud of me because support always helps. I have huge respect for the fellow-rebels I know, and applaud most of the actions XR has taken, while disagreeing with a few. When I look back to Waterloo Bridge last April I am – YES – enormously proud of the way we lived together in our peaceful, loving, vegan and creative community, deeply conscious of how and why. It was beautiful and bright with hope. The love was practical and spiritual and tangible. Our rebellion changed public consciousness, pressuring the media as well as the government to tell the truth. But it wasn’t enough, and it’s hard, especially in lockdown, to find a new and irresistible way forward. Yet without change life on earth will become untenable. The death toll from climate change will dwarf the numbers lost to Covid 19.

Pride can be dangerous and divisive but maybe U2 were right. To be a quality rather than a mistake or failing, pride must be in the name of love.

A better dream

There was a land where people belonged to tribes that fought each other with words and sneaky plots. The richest people on the winning team got to rule, in law and in print. They learned to break the rules to stay in charge. That meant big lies to hide mistakes and why they made them.

   The other members of the tribe, the ones who didn’t have chauffeurs and second homes and free booze at work, kept clapping because they believed the lies. Or that lies were OK as long as they kept their tribe in charge.

   And the people in the other tribe were angry and pointed out the lies but the tribe in charge said they were lying. And tribe members quarrelled and sometimes forgot why they joined the tribe in the first place.

   There were people in that country that didn’t belong to a tribe, because they didn’t like the rules, or seeing them broken. Or their own life was terribly hard and they had no way to believe in change.

   There were people from other lands and different tribes and they weren’t always welcome. If they were escaping from bombs, the tribe in charge wouldn’t let them in. It didn’t make any difference if the bombs had been sold by the ruling tribe and made their land rich – while it left the bombed country poorer and sicker, as well as broken.

   The tribe’s leaders got richer because rich people paid them for help to get richer, and the people they didn’t care about got poorer.

   And all this time, something was happening around the world that most people in most tribes didn’t want to know. The whole planet was getting hotter, and living things were dying: creatures of the land and sea and skies. People far away were dying too but the tribe in charge didn’t go to school with them so they didn’t count. The air was thick with poison and the earth was burnt and drowned. A gang of storms terrorised and crushed lives. But nobody put it in print or told it in people’s living rooms. When the tribes met they talked about other things, like leaving the enormous tribe of friendly tribes across the ocean. Some of the leaders of the tribe in charge only really liked their own tribe. They only wanted their own rules. So they broke their own rules, and got rid of the tribe members who thought being in a big friendly tribe made things safer and fairer.

   The tribe in charge had won again, with sneaky plots and lies. Still they didn’t take the world’s temperature, even when children in their big cities died breathing the air. When people tried to make them listen with banners and trees and songs to stop traffic, the tribe in charge sent the police to drag them away, and called them criminals. Even when a little bit of truth told by children leaked into print and into homes, the tribe in charge told everyone to carry on as normal because they had everything under control.

   Even though normal life was deadly.

   The tribe who wanted that to change were thinking what to do next to open the leaders’ ears and hearts when something happened that no tribe had expected. An invisible killer was born. It crept inside faraway tribes and made them so sick that sometimes they died. But not before they’d breathed death into others. In the land of our story, the tribe in charge paid no attention even though the killer was on the way. They didn’t get ready and they didn’t make any new rules until the hospitals were full and there were too many bodies to store.

   Then everything changed. The ruling tribe had to make rules they didn’t think they could afford. Suddenly the land was quiet enough to think. The city skies shook off their poison veils. Some of the people in tribes were just humans now, alone in their homes, and as they recovered peace and colour and music and art and books, they started to love again. Not only those they had stopped touching, but those in other tribes, even those furthest away. Not just other humans but the trees and rivers and birds. And being alive. They wanted the dying to stop but they didn’t want to be normal anymore. Now that they could hear the earth whisper, they stopped shouting. They missed embraces, and before they crossed the road to avoid strangers, they smiled, whatever their tribe.

   The silent killer that got inside people scared everyone, but not everybody stayed safe at home. The healers had to go where the danger was, and some of them died. People whose jobs were not about making money had to keep feeding people and caring for the old. So they moved each day in the world of danger. They had no time to look up at the blue sky through pink blossom. And some of them died. So did some of the poor people taking the safe people the things they’d bought, or clearing away the waste.

   Meanwhile in sunlit woods, it was the ancient trees that were cleared, and the web of life broken, for money. And some of the rich people in the tribe in charge got rich as the poor grew poorer. The new poor, who couldn’t work at home, no longer slept at night. There was fear, and weeping, and anger too.

   But everything had started to change and it didn’t stop. Not even when the sickness was over and the healers could take off their armour and take time to grieve. Across the tribes people saw the mistakes and the lies and the courage and the pain and they said, “No more.”  Now they could see beyond their tribe, they joined the human family. A different membership to renew. They’d rather be humans together, living fairly and kindly and protecting everything and everyone that lived on the earth. Because they knew what mattered most and it wasn’t money.

   So when the leaders of the tribe said everything was all right now and it was time to get back to normal, the people said, “No.”

   No to lies and sneaky plots and blood money. No to war. No to poverty. Yes to truth, and love and justice. Yes to the beauty they had glimpsed, because once it shone, the darkness cleared.

   “Vote for us,” begged the leaders in charge, and the people said, “No. No more tribes. We are one.”

    “But we are the law. We make the rules!” the old leaders protested.

    “Not anymore,” the people said, and their cry echoed and gathered around the world. “We will make a new law, to protect all life on earth. To mend the web we tore.”

   They called it Ecocide Law. It was a new beginning. And everyone saw that it was good…

Fiction and reality: how close a connection?

A little more than a couple of years ago I began a novel for adults – only my second in over 30 titles – inspired in part by falling in love with, and marrying, a non-binary man who wears women’s clothes. And real life has twice now caught up on it.

Georgie is in many ways very different from my husband Leslie Tate; I’m not Mags, although we intersect now and then. And their unconventional love story, which is no romance, is not ours. The narrative draws at least as much on imagination as on my own ideas, passions and experiences, because very little that happens to Mags has happened to me, but that doesn’t mean I don’t inhabit it along with the Britain and world around them. It’s always my intention as a writer to keep my fiction as real as possible, even with fantasy stories for children. By that I mean I aim for emotional authenticity: a humanity in my characters even if they are not human. INTACT is not autobiographical, but I hope it feels true.

When I began this book I considered myself a bit of an activist with Campaign Against the Arms Trade, and placed Georgie on the road to the London Arms Fair in 2017. But when it came to climate change, I relied on the written word – in my blogs, tweets and posts but also in my fiction – to qualify me as a kind of keyboard warrior. I was a concerned, even despairing Green Party member and a supporter of Stop Ecocide who marched at every opportunity and visited the fracking site at Preston New Road to support the protest there, but no one had heard of Greta Thunberg and I was living both with very little hope and a less than deep understanding of just how terrifying the climate science really was. By the time I finished my story, all that had begun to change.

I joined Extinction Rebellion in October 2018, when my novel now begins. Since then, I’ve been arrested three times and defended myself in court, because I’ve wised up to the future horror awaiting us if we can’t cut free from fossil fuels and live more consciously and caringly on this Earth, without consuming and destroying. There’s having a general awareness of the truth – like Mags in INTACT – and then there’s living and breathing it because it’s deep in the heart. Transforming from one to the other, as many have in the last eighteen months, is not a reversible process. And sharing the truth isn’t easy because those hearts and minds that haven’t absorbed it are spared the grief and sorrow that can be overwhelming. I decided to write a novel about rebel characters I created to experience variations on my own activism, thoughts and emotions. Now an e-book that can be downloaded for a donation to XR, FOR LIFE is closer to present reality than anything else I’ve written. Having finished it, I could no longer see any reason to continue as an author once it had become necessary for me to devote what energy remains to rebelling… for life. But what of INTACT, the manuscript I believed to be my best writing, now that it had been overtaken by more urgent issues?

Well, it may be my last book. But I had to update that manuscript, already underpinned by my values, by setting it in the autumn and winter of 2018 and adding references to the climate movement that swiftly became global. Georgie reads the IPCC report. Mags is trying to go ‘properly’ vegan. One of the younger characters has joined XR. The insertions fitted seamlessly, but don’t alter the fact that this is an intimate novel about relationships, fulfilment and the power of the past. It explores love of many kinds. And of course love inspires Extinction Rebellion and my Quaker peace activism. I’d find it hard to write about anything else.

As the publication of INTACT drew closer, reality broke in again, this time with the Covid-19 virus that has, as I write, killed nearly 70,000 of us globally, confined us to our homes and made many lucky enough not to be in mourning both frightened and angry. It is, of course, a kind of preview of an even more frightening future guaranteed if we don’t avert climate chaos. It requires change and adaptation, and exposes the shallow desires we mistook for needs, leaving us with the recognition of what really matters to us as humans – or what it means to be human. Which is to love and be loved. As Mags and Georgie both know, not least because more than fifty years ago as children they loved each other very much.

The crisis may allow some of us the freedom to read extensively but this not a good time to launch a book. I expect there will be fiction before long about lockdown and the loss of loved ones who died without family beside them, but I won’t be writing it, not unless I live it, because that would be cheap, inauthentic and insensitive. For now, at a time when it’s hard to have a socially distanced conversation about anything but the virus, some readers will choose escapism. But as a writer I can’t do that. I have to connect fiction to reality; that’s an emotional imperative for me. The lockdown has nudged me into writing the sequel towards which INTACT could be said to look. But I will have, as always, to let the characters lead. They are not for me to awaken, recruit or transform, and I never know exactly where they will lead the narrative. But I do know that 2019 was very different from 2018, and if Mags and Georgie live through that year it can only be, as context, the time it was. Maybe it will change their world too.

Click here you’d like a copy of INTACT, praised by my favourite living author, Susan Fletcher, delivered through your letterbox.

Mothering Sunday

Following my recent story, The Vigil, I’ve returned again to my characters from FOR LIFE, a novel about rebels available to download for a donation to Extinction Rebellion. For those who don’t know, Manda is a kind of mother-in-law, in spite of the death of her son Rob, to Gem.

Since Rob died, Manda had never quite adjusted to Mothers’ Day. Now with the Care Home closed to visitors she wasn’t sure she should have sent her own mum a card. Perhaps Hamadi would open it with surgical gloves, show her the picture from a distance that meant the pink shape could just as easily be a hippo as a camellia, and read the message on repeat, at increasing volume, with more patience than she could normally muster.

   Such a lovely morning. But for once she was relieved to take direction from the Prime Minister and spend the day alone. It was just a day, one that mattered to girls in service who were graciously allowed home to their mothers for tea and cake but meant next to nothing in a health crisis that was a glimpse of a future no one wanted to think about now.

   She sat on the sofa, drinking coffee and watching the daffodils outside her flat, remembering that they were really narcissi, which reminded her of Trump and Johnson in a way at least one of them would have no way of understanding.  Would Libby ring? Her daughter had joked after the Prevent nonsense labelling rebels extremists that the cops had obviously been monitoring Manda and she was their evidence. Still, they were closer these days, thanks to Skye. Who would have predicted that Auntie Libby would rise to that role with such spirit and calm?

   No Zoom meetings scheduled, so perhaps she’d download that novel set in Ethiopia that someone had recommended on Twitter, as a change from Jem Bendell, Rupert Read and Roger Hallam. She knew she shouldn’t be feeling so frustrated and grumpy already, with the possibility of weeks or months of isolation ahead.

   Her phone rang, but told her it was not Libby but James. Only a fortnight earlier they’d all walked in St James’s Park, against the better judgement of all three women but reassured because nurseries, like schools, were still open, along with restaurants and pubs.

   “Are you climbing the walls?” he asked.

   “Guilty as charged,” she said. “I can’t get my head around the idea of not seeing Skye except on screen. How are you doing?”

   “Bit bored I guess, but I’m running every evening, after dark.”

   She supposed it wasn’t the best time for him to take a sabbatical to find himself. Now he’d be stuck with that self and the only possibilities of discovery online.

   “I’m not that bored.”

   “But no May rebellion to prepare for?”

   “No. But no one is giving up. It’ll happen.” She wasn’t admitting to the emptiness or the attempts to come off the antidepressants, which had been too hard to contemplate trying again for a while. Not to James, who seemed to admire her so-called bravery almost as much as he regretted the part she’d played in clogging up what he called the system and wasting police and court time.

   “I thought you might try to convince me that this virus will be the trigger for the kind of change you want…”

   “Don’t you want it too? A safer, more just world back in touch with real human values? I mean it’s becoming clear who the key workers are in this society and it’s the NHS workers and supermarket staff…”

   “I know. I’m not on the other side, Manda. Anyway, I rang to wish you a happy Mothering Sunday as our mums always called it, because I thought it might not be the best…”

   “Or the worst,” she said, probably too quickly, because he wouldn’t have forgotten the first Christmas, the first birthdays, the first celebrations of any kind, however meaningless, without Rob.

   “No.”

   There was a moment of silence while she tried to guess the way his face looked, where in the house he was sitting – but was glad it wasn’t a video call because he couldn’t see her uncombed hair, or the less than sexy dressing gown he’d never approved when they were together. Her own face looked older than his, when she wasn’t smiling – and dead serious was her default expression these days, except when being Grandma.

   “What will you get up to today apart from your run?” she asked.

   “Nothing much, I guess. I thought Libby might come round but she says she’s self-isolating…”

   “With symptoms?”

   “A cough, apparently. But there must be those about too, and colds, and flu, and chest infections. It doesn’t mean…”

   “I know, but without testing… And they can’t even get proper protective equipment to the frontline NHS staff.” Remembering that he’d bought a mask from Amazon, quick off the mark, she tried not to feel cross about that. “Are you shopping for anyone? Mrs B next-door? Libby, if she’s coughing? Because if not, I will.”

   “Mm, good idea. I’ll offer.”

   “There you are – your day has a purpose now. One that isn’t to do with abs or step counters.”

   “Thanks! But don’t worry about Libby.”

   “How?!”

   He pointed out that she was young and healthy; Manda didn’t mention the amount of alcohol the healthy young had a habit of consuming. Then he said Libby had told him not to tell her because she’d freak. Ah, the same way she overreacted to climate change, Manda supposed.

   “OK, take it easy,” he said. “Make a cake?”

   “Not just for me!”

   “You’re too thin, Manda.”

   “Thanks.”

   And a moment later he had gone, sounding so cheerful and normal – normality being her ex-husband’s speciality – that she felt rattled by contrast. Leo would have held her, stroked her hair and known she didn’t want to be reasoned with. And made baking worthwhile. She hoped he was with that elusive son of his, making music.

    She called Libby but had to leave an answerphone message. Whichever idiot said there was nothing to fear but fear itself needed to do some serious editing in the light – or darkness – of a deadly virus and mass extinction.

   In her head she heard Libby tease, “You don’t know what to do with yourself, do you?” and she wouldn’t be wrong. So many actions in her diary, leading up to May, all abandoned. Manda felt suddenly lost.

   She was cleaning the kitchen surfaces – which had recently been getting a lot more care and attention – when her phone rang again.

   “Libby!”

   “I thought I’d call to say Happy Mothers’ Day wherever you put the apostrophe.”

   “Thank you, but Dad said you were ill…”

   “Just coughing. I bet you had me on a ventilator.”

   “People are, more every day, and there aren’t enough to go round!”

   Libby’s cough was small but certainly dry. “But way more people just have slight symptoms or none. I hope Boris isn’t about to go full totalitarian; I want to go to Brighton for Easter. And you know me, I never get really ill. It’s your generation and Gran’s that have to be careful. Is she OK? She doesn’t know anything’s up?”

   “Not a thing, I imagine.”

   “I guess that’s good at this particular point. If you go and see her…”

   “It’s closed to visitors.”

   “Oh yes. But you could do a Love Actually with placards in the garden outside her room.”

   “I think they’d set Security on me.”

   “So! Glue yourself to a tree.”

   That reminded Manda of rebels trying to stop HS2, and made her feel guilty. Would the felling stop in a lockdown or would that be classified essential? She had to admit her daughter didn’t sound ill.

   “I’d better go,” said Libby, who rarely explained why. “Speak soon and don’t worry.”

   “You’re the second person to tell me that this morning. Lots of love!”

   Having made herself another coffee, Manda noticed a message on her phone. No! Her friend Farah was struggling to breathe and shut away from her own kids. In her little Oxfam diary she’d written, but later crossed out, their plan to meet at the café, now closed.

   She sent a message which felt inadequate but added a green heart at the end. Was it psychosomatic that her throat felt sore? She had a vague memory of coughing in the night, between Prozac dreams too colourful to forget, but there was no one to confirm. “FFS!” she said, aloud. What about refugees? The homeless on British streets? Anyone in countries that could be themselves considered vulnerable?

   An autopilot scroll through Twitter found a rebel friend up a tree and being illegally evicted with no regard for social distancing. And here she was, doing nothing for anyone. Further trawling offered a reminder of an online XR action for this particular day, and an email to send to Alok Sharma, minister at BEIS, about safeguarding the future of children and mothers-to-be. Welcoming the kind of activism she would normally dismiss in favour of something more physical, social and sacrificial, she rushed off an email, and attached two images, one of Skye and another of herself glued to that tower. Her tweet carried the same pictures until she realised Gem would not be happy, and deleted Skye’s wide-eyed smile on a swing. Thinking also of my daughter, who may choose not to bear children in an ecocidal and genocidal ‘civilisation’. Plus a picture of young Libby, pretty and neat from the start in her gran’s knitting.

   Manda felt a sudden conviction that she must see her mother, and not just virtually but through sunlight and breeze. But how, with no lift from Libby and no overcrowded public transport? It must be walkable, given the serious lack of time pressures – although if she was going to get thrown off site before her mother had glanced out of the window, it might not be worth the many wrong turns she’d be bound to take regardless of an app that wouldn’t behave.

   And it wasn’t fair to call in the hope of speaking to her favourite carer, but with luck he’d be on duty and swing it if necessary. “Thanks, Libby,” she muttered. It was like an action in a way, but she didn’t need chains this time, or padlocks, a banner or even a tube of quick-locking glue. Just one word typed per A4 card in the largest possible bold font. But before she began she hurried a small batch of muffins into the oven.

It was roughly tea and cake time when Manda finally found her way to the care home, breathing away the raggedness resulting from getting lost more times than she’d admit. Tucked discreetly around the corner from the gates, she surveyed the scene. The front garden looked immaculate as ever, with its potted plants and symmetry and perfect edges, but the car park was almost empty. She could guess the message on the A-board without approaching it. Yes, it was closed to visitors, but she wouldn’t exactly be visiting. No men in uniform on the prowl. So, as long as she could locate her mother’s room from the outside rather than a terracotta corridor… and the cherry tree would help. It should be flowering.

   Probably best to scoot. The path led through tall photinia, well disciplined and mathematically placed but gleaming. Catkins swung playfully and the creamy camellia was riotous. Without a backward or sideways glance, Manda hurried on, apparently observed only by a squirrel, until she stopped, smiling, as she found the cherry tree and looked across the grass to an open window that she hoped was her mother’s.

   But she could be asleep, or in the lounge. Only one way to find out. Manda approached the striped curtains that didn’t help because they hung at every window. But a familiar tartan dressing gown lay on the end of the bed. The figure sitting looking into the garden looked for a moment too small to be her mother. Manda unzipped her backpack, where CONSCIENTIOUS PROTECTOR was still pinned by two corners and flapped. Was she dozing? The sun made it hard to see.

   She put the tub of cakes down on the grass with its note to staff taped to the lid. Then she pulled out the cards and checked the sequence. Ready. She must be two metres from the glass. As she swung her bag onto her back, she saw her mother stir. Manda leapt and waved her arms like a puppet pulled at every string.

   “Amanda!”

   Landing, she put her finger to her lips and began the reveal she preferred to attribute to Dylan while her mother stood, her face framed by curtains, her glasses in place. SHHHHH! was followed by HAPPY, MOTHERS and DAY. Then, LOVE, YOU, and MANDA, and finally P.S. I’M and CONTAGIOUS.

   Her mother was clapping. Manda hadn’t felt this happy for so long. Not the last time she’d been there with Libby, and been more or less completely overlooked and overshadowed. Not the time before that when her mother had complained so repeatedly about Rob not visiting that she’d almost shouted, “He’s dead, Mum!” She hadn’t seen that smile for a while and maybe her mother hadn’t seen hers either, not a real one. She blew an extravagant kiss. Then to show that this supposed contagion wasn’t deadly – because her mother wouldn’t remember about the virus even if she’d been told – she did a little dance with her thumbs up and waved goodbye, hoping there’d be no bereft cry behind her as she walked away, like there used to be from Rob when he was in Nursery. Never from Libby.

   Amused by her own excitement, not too far from elation, she headed briskly towards the gate. She had turned around the corner when her phone began to sing. Just a number, no name. No! Not Farah’s husband?

   “Hello?”

   “Manda, it’s Hamadi.” Her favourite carer was talking quietly. “I found the cakes you kindly baked. I’ll have to check whether we’re allowed…”

   “Sure! Your call. I wore latex at all times, unused. From a pack I had after surgery.” He was twenty-six – she’d asked him. He didn’t need to know that. “I know I broke the rules.” But he approved of her more typical XR rule-breaking – he’d told her.

   “I saw you. Love Actually? Very nice. Very kind. Your mum is bouncing.”

   “That makes two of us.” Manda remembered she wasn’t wearing a bra. “OK, thanks for everything, Hamadi. I won’t misbehave again.”

   He’d gone before she could say she hoped no staff were isolating with symptoms, or swear about the government failing to provide them with masks. She put away her phone and wondered if she could remember the way back without too many mistakes. James would call her irresponsible. Even Libby would say, “It was a joke, Mum, not an action plan!” But she hadn’t endangered anyone. And her mother was bouncing.

   By the time she’d walked a mile she was warm, her scalp sweating under hair she should really get cut before the summer. If any hairdressers were open. Passing a window, she glimpsed herself, serious face back in place. The comedown. There was no avoiding it, even without a cell at a police station. And if the virus got into that home…

   If. What if. Gem had said on the phone that they mustn’t allow the worst of those in. “What if,” she’d said, “this is the turning point and we never revert to the same destructive stupidity?”  Yeah, Gem, it wasn’t impossible. But mostly it seemed less plausible than a Richard Curtis rom-com. And worth believing in, all the same.

   The little capsules at breakfast had stopped her informing her own walls that she wanted to die whenever the space inside felt too dark. And now the challenge was living even more differently, and staying alive. But what if Farah died, because some customer had shared the virus in exchange for pecan pie before Johnson got round to closing the cafés?

   She’d saved herself one cake for tea.

The Vigil

This is a very short story which continues into real time my novel, FOR LIFE, which can be downloaded for a donation to Extinction Rebellion here.

For those who jump in with no knowledge of the characters, Gem is a young mum, a new Quaker, and a rebel. Having lost her boyfriend Rob in a car crash a few years ago, she is now living with his friend Nick in London. Manda is Rob’s mum, a committed activist who has given up work for the rebellion.

Nick had promised to keep Skye entertained once she woke. Gem could rely on him to do that. No faith, he’d say, yet nothing worried him. But really she supposed his faith was in her, and the human spirit. Hers felt dampened, frayed. The streets had begun to empty like a beach in a storm, and even for a climate doomer, as the Guardian called people like her, this pandemic was too surreal to comprehend. Yet Nick had proposed waiting for the nursery to close, as if he trusted the men in suits delivering judgements from their daily podia – a government in which she had no faith whatsoever. And he seemed more relaxed about his lack of clients than she felt about attempting to work from home in a flat that had been cramped for one and a quarter.

   Gem must find that inner place she could access in Meeting on a Sunday. She placed the candle on the rug and lit the wick.

   “Seven o’clock and she’s still asleep,” said Nick, quietly, smiling as she sat and crossed her legs. “Happy vigilling.”

   Yes, happy to be taking part, she thought, and smiled back. “Thanks.” Remembering the Sunday afternoon two weeks earlier when she’d sat facing Parliament, with the Square roped off behind her, and felt the sun on her face, she realised she’d had little idea that it would come to this. She supposed she’d been in the kind of denial that allowed climate sceptics to sleep – and rage at the likes of her.

   For this hour she’d signed up for, she would be solo. No one to share a pavement, a view, a conviction. Not in her front room, anyway, but they’d be out there, in their own homes. Someone somewhere had just extinguished a flame in a lounge and turned their thoughts to breakfast. The baton was hers and she needed to focus on the light.

   Gem breathed in deeply and out again. There would be no more Quaker Meetings for the foreseeable future, not with real 3D bodies and those hard chairs to lift into a circle. But she was meant to know how to centre down into silence, wait on it, open to be filled. The Buddhist meditating behind her in Westminster, who could manage nine hours at retreats, had a body that gave itself up like dough. Gem loosened her own stiffness as she breathed, and inhaled the scent of bay and rosemary. She told herself it was normal to be scattered, to swirl with rising numbers, hospitals under strain and the lack of testing, but once this was over the world would have to find a path through the grieving because every living thing on earth would still be at risk.

   Earth. To Skye that meant soil, mud, wellies, having little idea of a sphere in space, turning mysteriously through time. Gem pictured it, blue and white – remembering the livid red of the Australian bush fires and the Amazon blazing on as far as she knew. An evangelical vigiller had produced a tiny hand with a marble-sized planet sitting on its palm. A white palm, probably belonging to a blond Jesus. But the differences didn’t matter, or the words. Only love.

   Closing her eyes, she let the word repeat on a loop in her head, thickening with a secret smile that sneaked up on her. It led to justice, which was love in action. As she echoed this new word inside, she felt conviction ebb away, as if justice was a dream that would never be lived. For a moment she imagined herself back on Waterloo Bridge, the drumbeat behind and the police line in front; she heard the song about rising like water for climate justice now. The urgency and the theatre; the bond of resolve strong as superglue. She missed it. October had been colder, tougher and way more vulnerable but she still hadn’t been charged for her cold night stuck with Manda to the tower, and now perhaps her day in court wouldn’t come.

   It was a cue to hold Manda in the light. That would have been a simpler matter, given the friendship they’d settled into, without a new resolve Gem hadn’t yet shared with her never-was mother-in-law. She couldn’t let Manda near Gem, for both their sakes. Because Manda’s toughness wasn’t physical and she was thin as an addict – which was, in a way, what she’d become. Activism fuelled her but ate her away too. And if she couldn’t be Grandma for weeks, months maybe, she’d be pulp. Bereaved all over again, but alive.

   Time to let the light do its thing. How beautiful the flame was, its crocus yellow beyond bright, its curls and stretches, tilts and shivers mesmerising. Such power – as if darkness could never defeat it. And yet all she’d have to do was blow. Even Skye could manage the puff. Symbols weren’t always enough, because love was fierier, rockier, more like the air than the flame, more of an ocean. Which would explain why she still loved Rob, and nothing could end that love, any more than a virus could claim him. The insubstantial flame couldn’t match such certainties. And without their shared love of a still-real ghost who lived with them all, maybe they wouldn’t make the same kind of remodelled family: her and Nick and Manda, together for Rob as well as Skye.

   The word discipline nudging her, Gem reached for This Is Not A Drill, knowing having read it from cover to cover where to find the bits she needed. Sam Knights, in the story so far, and Gail B at the end. She began to read aloud. It was the part about all the world’s children being our own that she repeated, again and again, the words slow and full. A mantra. She was here for the children, those with less flesh on them than Skye, or darker skin, and no guarantee that their island wouldn’t be swallowed by the sea before they grew up, or their markets by floods. “All the children are our children,” she murmured, picturing a child scavenging barefoot on landfill, another with eyes squinting from a fur-lined hood at a ragged polar bear on a street. She’d seen so little of the world and now the only way to protect it was to stay home. Maybe she should have allowed Gem to stay with Nick’s parents where she’d have a garden to play in. But at least when the nurseries closed, London would stop poisoning small humans in their buggies. If only lessons led to learning…

   She could hear Skye now, asking where she was and why, so she called, “Come and say hello.”

   Eyes drawn to the candle flame, Skye seemed for a moment almost shy. “Mummy, are you crying?”

   Gem supposed she must be showing her daughter a different face. Skye had read the adult reality, unmasked, as sadness. She smiled and stood to pick her up.

   “I’m praying for the world,” she told Skye, wondering whether the courts would find enough evidence to justify that claim, and uneasy with the verb because of its evangelical aura of magic.

   “And the elephants?”

   “Definitely. You can sit with me if you like but I’m guessing you’re hungry.”

   Skye nodded. Her hair was at its wildest but with luck she’d let Nick brush it after breakfast, if he made a game of it.

   “Porridge, madam?” Nick called.

   Skye ran. Gem sat again, and told herself to clear space for the truth and the beauty. Maybe this was why Meeting Houses were pale, cool and bare, as opposed to a muddle of colour and mess.

   She closed her eyes, but in the furry darkness an Earth-shaped circle rose, and for a moment she saw a red heart bloom at its centre before the nothingness made a fool of her. Reaching out both hands, she imagined rebels to hold them: a crowd to circle the capital, the Earth itself.

   “You are right,” the magistrate had said, not so long before the virus broke, “and you must win.” Gem would gather the science for her own trial, if it ever happened, learn it like a poem. Manda, who’d been bailed when released from Charing Cross station hours and appeared for her plea hearing days later, was now on three conditional discharges and said she’d go to prison – as long as Skye would visit her. But that was before self-isolation, and talk of lockdown.

   Rob, she thought. His name was such a big, wide, heavy word. In her head the sound of it still fractured. Would she be herself, the woman she’d become, without those months with him and everything he painted on a placard? Could he have been confident she’d never let go?

   She opened her eyes on the flame and felt it at last. More than warmth or glow or even peace, it held her, safe and loved and connected with everything, the whole, the pulse of life and its wordless wisdom. Bathed in its deepening stillness, she knew it would pass, but she would remember it, recognise it again. So many names for it, but who knew, and what difference did it make?

   The breath of God? A glimpse of something beyond and within and eternal.

   Something like hope.

Fundraising stories: another small way to help child refugees

There are three books I wouldn’t have written if I hadn’t got involved with a tiny, dynamic charity based in my hometown with the goal of helping refugees anywhere and in any way possible. I started volunteering with People not Borders a few months in – after two Berkhamsted mums had connected through Facebook and coffee, and determined to do whatever they could to alleviate the suffering they had seen as the refugee crisis hit the news. Many similar groups began around the same time in the late summer or early autumn of 2015. I soon became a trustee and celebrated when we achieved charitable status in 2018. We are volunteers and because we are so few, every penny donated is spent on refugees – not publicity. What we can do is very limited in the face of a crisis that is huge and growing, but it’s important that we focus on that small-scale action and don’t allow the desperately tragic situation in refugee camps in Greece or Dunkirk, on the streets of Paris, or in Syria, Yemen and Turkey, to dishearten and disempower us. We do what we can, and that involves appealing for clothes, food items and sleeping bags while also raising money to buy brand new waterproof boots, hospital equipment, nappies and pop-up tents – whatever, in fact, we hear from our partners on the ground is needed at the time, and that can change fast. We liaise with others who make our work possible, and couldn’t function without heroes like Angus from Herts4Refugees, our man with a van.

One key fundraiser so far, along with two big concerts, two sleep-outs and a Quiz Night, has been the two picture books I wrote about the experience of child refugees. I AM ME was beautifully illustrated by local textiles artist Paula Watkins and explores the mixed emotions and fears of a child resettled in the UK after escaping a war zone. Although such children are very few in spite of the work of Lord Dubs and Safe Passage, it’s a story that resonates with anyone who has felt like an outsider or had to leave home. Because it’s intended for children as young as 3 years old to age 7, the text is in rhyme (which I normally avoid as a writer, and used to discourage as a teacher, because it can be so banal, limiting and forced) to increase accessibility and enjoyment and to ensure that small readers are not distressed. I hope it’s sensitive but also spirited, and of course there is a happy ending of a kind. At People not Borders we were thrilled when it reached the finals of the People’s Book Prize last year. Thanks to Paula’s colourful and thoughtful illustrations, which look textured as well as vivid and showcase various materials and techniques, it’s a gorgeous book and has been bought not just for children but adults too. I always had in mind that adults would in many cases read the story to children, and I wanted to connect with them whatever their age, because like all worthwhile stories with emotional power it’s an empathy-developer. It helps us to understand what it would be like to be someone else, and in this case someone who has suffered trauma that is for us hard to imagine.

Last year the same publisher, the tiny but ethical and local TSL, released I AM ME 2, set in a refugee camp in Greece. It’s more of a prequel than a sequel, but also aims to tell a sad story with simplicity and bright hope. The illustrations are very different, and the tone a little more sophisticated as a result. We had come across the stunning work of young Syrian Abdulazez Dukhan, who left Homs at the age of fifteen and spent some three years in refugee camps in Turkey and Greece. Having done some translation work there because he spoke some English, he was rewarded with a camera, and captured many children, alone or in groups, sitting on cardboard or on a makeshift swing, tearful or smiling. These images are moving, in some cases haunting, and a testament to the children’s resilience as well as a painful reminder of how the adults of the world have failed such innocent victims of war. The book is most suitable for children aged 6-8 but again is bought by adults. My hope is that while young readers will feel compassion and perhaps outrage, they will be inspired by the courage of those whose lives they glimpse.

Together these two picture books have now raised about £3,000, in spite of our limited reach. I have been welcomed to some local schools simply for a free assembly about our work, or a short workshop based on the books which I’ve then sold after school. I’ve visited playgroups, churches and Quaker Meetings which have supported us in this way, a Rotary Club and and one high-profile company in Westminster with a social conscience. I’m hoping that anyone reading this will want to buy them from this website (not Amazon) even if they then donate them to their nearest school, library or church. A few wonderful people have bought five or ten and sold them to friends, neighbours or colleagues. And we gave 20 copies of I AM ME to Safe Passage, to be included in welcome packs for minors arriving in the UK.

More recently I realised as another story of mine – longer, with a few tiny illustrations by me and an older audience of 6-11 – was due to be published by a different publisher, Pegasus, (I don’t pay towards publication) should also be a fundraiser in a smaller way for People not Borders, so I am donating all my author earnings from WAGGLETAIL TED to be spent on child refugees. It’s the story of the developing friendship between a small dog afraid of children (as well as cats, vets and water) and a small Syrian boy afraid of everything but especially dogs.

If you can support our work by buying any of these books – and/or inviting me to your school, church, workplace, W.I. or any other group – then thank you. Both I AM ME and I AM ME 2 are available as e-books.

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.

PROCESSING