Wednesday, 17 March 2010

From urban queen to eco warrior

It was hardly the change Rebecca Frayn expected in her middle age
Rebecca Frayn
To find myself becoming a suburban Swampy in my middle age is not something I would have predicted in a million years.
I mean, I do wear sandals, but they are usually from Prada, and, if I am serving lentils, I favour a particularly delicious recipe from the Ottolenghi cookbook. Three children and a full-time career as a film-maker and novelist have always been more than enough to contend with. I can say with complete certainty that spending hours outside the House of Commons in the pouring rain, holding a placard in one hand, was never part of my life plan.
My epiphany came when I made a short film for a producer friend, Christina Robert, about the effects on the planet of flying. While researching the film, I came to understand how terrifyingly precarious the state of our ecosystem has become. It was then that it dawned on me how absurd it was to be obsessing about my children’s calcium intake when their very future appears to be on the line. And, as every mother knows, there is nothing like feeling your children are in jeopardy to rouse the sleeping tigress within.
This new environmental awareness could well have ended there if, at my next book club, the film hadn’t triggered such a candid conversation among my friends about climate change and the potential impact on our children’s generation. Rather to my alarm, these gentle, softly spoken women all seemed adamant that we had to do something. What an earth could we do, I protested. Well, we could lobby the government, someone said. Urge them — in the two-year run-up to Copenhagen — to take action. So, hesitantly, uncertainly, we formed a group, got ourselves a name, We Can, and a website, and began to try to work out how we might actually set about achieving this goal.
Undeterred by our total lack of experience, We Can soon took on a momentum of its own. Our first event was a vigil for mothers and children. On the day, we all wore T-shirts that would spell the message “Climate — Action — Now” when three of us stood side by side. Only on the Tube on the way to Westminster did it occur to me that, as a lone woman with “Action” inscribed across my bosom, I was probably sending out a rather different message to the one I had intended.
The crowd at this first event outside the House of Commons was only about 100-strong, but there we finally were, all wearing faintly astonished expressions and holding aloft our placards. (The puzzling number of paparazzi in attendance was explained when it transpired that a rumour had gone round Victoria Beckham was promoting a new underwear line and might be putting in an appearance.) Not long after that, feeling more astonished still, we joined forces with other, more radical environmental groups to storm the main gates of the House of Commons, before hurrying home to put our children to bed.
One morning, as dawn broke over the suburbs, I found myself on my way to a protest having to write a letter to my husband titled “What to do in the event of my arrest”, with lists of homework and piano lessons that he must oversee if I didn’t come home. It was only as Copenhagen grew near that we began to hit our stride. By the time we took scores of children into the House of Commons dressed as endangered animals, and watched the lobby fill with small polar bears and bumblebees, we were feeling like old pros.
Along the way, I have had to take a cool, hard look at my lifestyle. One of the first things I did in my new eco-warrior role was to offer my house as a base for the direct-action group Plane Stupid to make banners for a protest it was holding at Heathrow. On the appointed day, what seemed like a vast horde of young people began to flood through the door of my well-appointed home, some bearing Sanskrit tattoos or wearing garments apparently selected at random from a fancy-dress box. In the end, there were 40, or maybe even 50, activists all ready to begin cutting and pasting. Somehow, I found myself driving an elfin woman, who said she lived at the top of a tree, to buy material for the banners in my husband’s diesel-munching Mercedes, leaving the warriors to roam unattended about the house.
As I waited for the tree elf in my shameful car, I couldn’t help but reflect on what, in their high-principled way, they might be making of my home: that cowhide rug in the hall, all those electronic goods my children kept leaving on standby, the environmentally unfriendly expanse of glass in the kitchen and, most gratuitous of all, the giant Christmas tree in the sitting room, cut down in its prime simply to satiate my wanton materialistic gluttony. I felt rather like someone who has inexplicably taken a wrong turning somewhere, or, worse, like Margot from The Good Life. In the event, they were far too polite to mention the tree. But I had glimpsed my life through their eyes — and I didn’t much care for what I saw.
Shortly afterwards, I went to the Greenpeace HQ with one of my group to meet their senior climate adviser, only for the slow and shameful realisation to steal upon me, as we sat among the environmentally right-on posters in reception, that I was wearing not just leather shoes, but worse, far worse, leather boots. Suddenly, everything about me seemed swathed in consumer thoughtlessness. What was that ponyskin bag doing there, swinging so jauntily from my arm? And what had I been thinking when I decided to bring the giant bottle of Evian — too big to be pushed out of sight, and virtually shouting out loud that it had been unnecessarily air-freighted from France in its non-biodegradable plastic packaging? I sat through the meeting with my head bowed. Here I was, masquerading as someone with a conscience, when in fact I was the living embodiment of why we were all going to hell in a handcart.
The whole experience has been like tugging a stray strand of wool and finding the entire jumper unravelling in your hands. On an individual level, it is difficult to find an aspect of my life that isn’t in some way implicated. I began to walk the house obsessively switching off lights. The car, which my husband refuses to be parted from, had to be avoided. And the innocent mangetout on my plate no longer appeared innocent at all — as its purchaser, I was complicit in the air miles it had racked up on its epic journey across the world. I was to be found in the supermarket, surveying the rows of vegetables and fruit flown in from Kenya, Argentina and the Cayman Islands with quiet despair. Ironically, when I bumped into other mothers from my daughter’s school there, they would sometimes begin to stammer nervous explanations for why some of the purchases in their basket might not meet my lofty standards — quite oblivious to the fact that, despite all my campaigning, I was as conflicted about doing the right thing as they were.
After the most recent controversy over “Climategate”, public confusion on the issue is only growing. Yet plain common sense should tell us that, with fish stocks drying up and rainforests disappearing at an alarming rate, we need to embrace more sustainable ways of living as a matter of the utmost urgency — climate-change sceptics are merely quibbling while Rome burns. So, what next? Well, post-Copenhagen, we’re taking a mangetout-free break to figure that out.
Rebecca Frayn’s new novel, Deceptions (Simon & Schuster £12.99), is out on May 27