Wednesday 21 May 2014

It's all in the bag

This Spring my friend and fellow journalist, Louise Chunn, got in touch and asked me to write a piece about the shift I had made from fashion ed to community activist for her website We had worked on ELLE magazine together in London in the late 80s. This is an uncut version of the story published under the original title, Why I left My Enchanted Cage.

OK, so I am standing on a bench in the Green Dragon and waving a black handbag. You have to guess what three designer items I am wearing, I say. Everyone laughs as they look at my wintry gear: yak jumper, cashmere jumper, alpaca coat, zigzaggy pony skin belt.

We’re at a Green Drinks night in a free house in a small market town called Bungay in Suffolk. It’s a monthly event in which my local Transition Initiative, Sustainable Bungay, discusses environmental issues within a frame of social change. Tonight I’m the ‘expert conversationalist’ and the topic is Give and Take Fashion. Each spring the group hosts a Give and Take Day where the community bring stuff they don’t need and take home something they do, without any money changing hands. In this run-up discussion I’m telling everyone the story of how I once used to be a fashion editor and now just wear give-and-take second hand clothes.

You might wonder why this is a pub quiz. But when you look at the world’s second most polluting industry (after oil and gas) you have to find a way into people’s hearts and imaginations. Being light-hearted and imaginative in the face of tough global realities, I’ve discovered, is a surefire way to break through the illusion that everything is OK, in a time when patently it is not.

“Everything we are wearing is artificial,” I say to the table. ”We keep these materials, these colours close to our bodies, but we don’t know where they came from, who made them, who grew the plants, what lands we grabbed, what rivers we polluted, what farmer died by his own hand because he could no longer grow them. How many pesticides does cotton use?”

How did I get here, a million miles away from where I was born? I guess we have to talk about that black handbag. It was designed by Issey Miyake, and in 1990 I was invited by the Japanese master craftsman to attend a conference on fashion and the environment. I had by that time been documenting high-end consumerism in my native London for 12 years and though I was witty and smart and successful,  I had never considered the impact of the textile industry on the earth’s ecosystems or people’s lives. I didn’t even know rayon was made from rainforest wood. The encounter shook me among several that year.
In 1990 I owned a flat in Notting Hill and 2000 books. I went to the Greek islands in the summer and Manhattan in the winter, and ate fish and meat in swanky restaurants without a qualm.

In 2014 I live in a rented cottage in East Anglia and my coat (by Scott Crolla) has definitely seen better days. I split my own wood, make my own medicine, I don’t fly or go to supermarkets. I still write, though not for glossy magazines on the latest pasta shape or trench coat. I edit a small grassroots newspaper and in 2012 published a book about how I changed tracks and how the unique properties of wild plants can help you get back down to Earth.

I didn‘t plan to come back to England, but destiny forced my hand. In a time of unravelling, you have to make yourself at home. You have to give back. I didn’t want to become part of a commmunity action group, or feel what it was like to stand in other people’s badly heeled shoes, but destiny took me there. I’m a journalist, that’s what I do. I record what I see and ask awkward questions. Years ago I learned the best stories comes from direct experience. The only way is through the bramble bush.

When I was young I used to get depressed and longed to escape to the country. When I left the city, I travelled on the inside of my self, as much as I did across continents. A door opened I did not even know was there. Misery I realised comes from living in a silo world, where you have no real connection to the Earth or your fellows or your own true nature. To break out you have to undergo difficulties, but you bear those challenges because you glimpse the freedom of blue sky that your enchanted cage will never give you. That’s when you discover life is not a me thing, it’s a we thing. We are taught we should be in control, when in fact we should be in communication.

When I went travelling in 1991 I sold everything I had (well maybe not the Rifat Ozbek belt). I didn’t set out to downshift: it just happened that way. On the road you can’t hold on to your city lifestyle. It doesn’t work on Mexican buses, or living in the desert in Arizona. Not unless you have a heap of money to cocoon yourself in. Besides, when you are travelling other riches come your way that you care about more. The encounter with the planet, the world of dreams and plants, your fellow artists and seekers on the path. You realise that your self-pity and guilt and unease have vanished along with those securities. Because letting go is also letting in.

I set out on that path because London could not give me the deep and meaningful life I desired. But it was the times too. We live in a time of consequences for our fossil-fuelled civilisation, and in 1991 I felt those consequences already gnawing at my heart. When you get smart about the planet you realise that everything you once wrote about the pleasuredome rested on exploitation – of people, plants and places. Some part of me did not want to play that role any more. 

Last week I went back to the place that gave me my first job in journalism: Vogue House. I stood in the Conde Nast board room with a glass of wine, surrounded by the women and men I had shared typewriters, taxis and parties with thirty years ago. Most had not left this elegant, glittering world. We were celebrating the memory of our former editor, Beatrix Miller. I learned the tricks of my trade here one day when I was given the task of writing captions for the main fashion story. ‘Miss Miller’ sent me back to my desk, hour after painstaking hour, until I got them right. She was old-school and a perfectionist when it came to editorial details. “You have to imagine the reader standing there with the gin bottle and Hoover,” she told me, “you have a duty to tell her there is more to life than that.”

It’s true, there is more to life than that. Just as there is also more to life than vintage champagne and houses where maids do the hoovering for you. More than Mozart and Jerusalem sung in your memory at St George’s Hanover Square; more than rooms of damask sofas and silk dresses I once praised in cleverly-stitched copy. These are lovely things, but they all come at a price, as every fairy story will tell you. And it’s a price you have to pay one day (or your descendants will)  – with your body, with your mind, in the part that was once called the soul. 

Every descent myth tells us that to become a real people, we have to relinquish the self-obsessed material life we cling to and radically change our ways. Somewhere we know this in our bones. Somewhere I knew this when I was writing those captions. But to deconstruct a story you have to know first how it was conjured. 

No one born into  privilege goes down in this world, the Times columnist David Aaronovitch once asserted, except perhaps writers. We’re the ones who remember the way out, not because we are in any way enlightened but because we’re more interested in the story than our own comfort. 

After the memorial drinks party, I went into Oxford Street and was immersed in a sea of ordinary people. It was a big relief. Nothing in me wanted to go back through those glass doors.

That’s part of the duty. You tell it how it is.

Images: on the beach with seakales, Sizewell, 2014; in my Notting Hill flat, 1991; book cover pic from 52 Flowers That Shook My World, tumulus and wild daffodil, 20010.

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