My adult life got off to a shaky start. I was born in a ‘good’ family. When I exhibited early signs of illnesses like socialism and liberal thinking it was easy for my parents to do what any right thinking parents in the seventies would do, and throw me out of the house.
The only problem was that in Maggie’s Britain there were three million unemployed, there was a war brewing and we were still in the throes of the cold war. It was what might reasonably be described as a hostile environment for a young left wing teenager with the wrong accent. And when I say ‘the wrong accent’ it wasn’t that it was from the wrong part of town. I was from the right part of town. And that was enough to earn you a beating the moment you opened your mouth among the people with whom I mixed.
Doing my best to earn a reputation as the strong silent type, I only managed the second part. However I did manage to find myself emerging among the young left. I’d made some good connections with Greenpeace, which at that time was very militant. I had a part time gig taking photographs of demonstrations and then delivering them to the Fleet Street papers, who were very happy to pay for the material which was much more integrated than their own photographers could get. It was a sweet deal.
It all became a lot more serious though when one afternoon I was with one of the most militant of activists, at his private apartment. It wasn’t actually his apartment at all, it was a squat in fashionable Knightsbridge. I was there for the very best of reasons, that being that his sister was a sweet as a button and was there too. Mad Paul Magee (not his real name), the activist in question, was going over a planned action at Nelson’s Column. There was a board with papers, and chalk and it was all very organised. There were hardly any chairs though and I found myself sitting by the window, next to a huge plant, and struggling to find a comfortable position.
As the window was open, and there were a number of plants in a plant holder outside the first floor window, I gently lifted up the plant, placed it in the planter, and turned back to listen to Paul expounding on the details of his plan. I think I can rightly say that was a pivotal moment in my life.
Paul’s sister smiled at me, and I could almost feel my 19 year old knees give way. I steadied myself by reaching out and my hand found the planter. As I put my weight on it, it gave way.
Unknown to me this was the precise moment at which the drug squad were filing in to the front door of the building in force. What then happened was immortalised in Greenpeace folklore. I looked out and saw the uniformed officers rushing into the building as a huge plant fell directly on one of their number. Although I was ignorant of the fact, the plant that fell was a full grown cannabis plant, and weighing in at about thirty pounds fell straight onto top of the helmeted head of an unfortunate police officer, who promptly passed out.
Seeing the police I shouted out, ‘it’s the cops.’
Paul grabbed his bag and his notes and rushed straight to the toilet where a fire escape led to a small landing from which he could step across a rooftop to the next building. His sister took off as fast as a rabbit after him and I followed. Closing the window behind me I heard the sound of police officers hammering on the door and hurriedly followed Paul as we made good our escape. We were swiftly lost in the maze of rooftop entrances and exists of West London.
In the ensuing story that circulated among Greenpeace activists things got a little muddled. According to the story that circulated I had seen the police entering the building and assailed them by throwing Paul’s home grown cannabis at them, hospitalising one in the process. Needless to say, my reputation was suitably enhanced. I never felt very good about it, but then those were heady times and any chance of advancement was grasped with both hands. To this day I feel sorry for the unlucky officer who had the misfortune to be struck by the plant.
I don’t think the police ever really realised how close they’d come to foiling one of Greenpeace’s most successful operations. We went up Nelson’s Column just a few months later. Photographically it was a coup, and I got the front page of the Evening Standard, and a lead picture on the inside of the Guardian, both newspapers which I later worked on.
All this has a point though. It is just that, as messed up as we all were in those days we were working toward a safer world in whatever ways we could. It’s tempting to say we were more political than kids these days. I’ve come to realise that’s not true.
Our best hope are the Millennials. Our children. We’d better have faith in their ability to save this planet.
As much as our own parents looked at us and shook their heads in disappointment, we can only look at our children and marvel. They are dedicated. They are focused. And they are going to put things right.
Just the other day, in the sweltering heat, my son said to me, “You realise you did this.”
“What do you mean,” I replied.
“This global warming. You did this. You could have been stopping it, but instead you were skateboarding and getting Saturday Night Fever. It’s your fault,” he said with all the commitment of someone who wasn’t there at the time.
My daughter is much the same. A big fan of Greta Thurnberg, minimalism and meditation, she is quick to point out that when she has sufficient influence she will campaign for governments to use the pensions of the few remaining baby boomers to finance the recovery from global warming.
I have to admire their commitment. Of course, they don’t realise that at the time we were focussed on the fact that for much of the time all that stood between us and oblivion was the hope that we heard the four minute warning.
Yes, they do seem focused and committed. And in a sense that’s the most impressive thing about the next generation to place its hands on the levers of power. The commitment. One has to admire them.
I said to my son, “We were doing our best at the time.” And we really were. Activism, demonstrations, occasional arrests, and in my case a career with a news organisation that took me all over the world. My life at Associated Press was far from dull, and even led to working for the UN.
Yet, to these ultra focussed super informed millennials, we were decidedly low powered and hopelessly flawed.
My daughter simply looks into the distance, out across the garden, and somewhat mysteriously says, “I’d rather be a hammer than a snail.”
I find myself nodding in agreement with her singlemindedness.
After a moments thought, I say to her, “I think you mean ‘a nail’. You’d rather be a hammer than a nail. You know… in the song.”
She turns to me and quietly says, “There’s a song?”
There’s a pause, then my son says confidentially, ‘You don’t know what she used to do in the garden when she had your hammer.”
You know what? We’re doomed. We are never going to make it. They’re as messed up as we were.