Monday, 7 July 2008

Shop less!

I'm feeling very in front of the proverbial wave these days. This morning, Gordon Brown was urging people to shop and waste less. He was mainly referring to food; if we didn't all let our lettuces rot in the fridge there might be enough to go round. I'm afraid I've been a sinner on that front in the past - and sometimes still am - but my guilt valves were opened when we lived in Kenya and every scrap of uneaten food was carefully preserved in the fridge (kerosene), in itself a luxury. Giving up supermarkets has also helped a lot, and Ethi eats pretty disposes of all leftovers (barring salad). We still eat far too much.

But it also holds true for all manner of shopping. What Brown said about food could easily be shifted to clothes/toys/cars, even books. We're just too greedy, and we've got to stop equating the acquisition and consumption of stuff with happiness. Maybe I'm turning Buddhist or something, but I honestly feel much lighter since giving up non-essential shopping (in all ways apart from the literal: shopping, it seems, has an inverse relation to chocolate eating).

And it's been such a quick journey. This morning, Mark picked up a lovely plastic singing bird, one of a dozen Chinese-manufactured, ridiculously expensive - for what they are - which I'd bought to adorn the tables of my Joanna's pre-wedding dinner 2 1/2 years ago. At the time, he'd questioned the point of it, and I'd told him that it made me smile. It still does, but through somewhat gritted teeth. I'm not sure I'd smile less if it wasn't in our life.

July, for us, is kids' party season, however, and it's proving impossible to get through without a certain amount of buying. I managed to get through Alfie's birthday without party bags, at least, though Mark bought him a bike (which, it could be argues, is a green present - though a second hand one would have been better). I haven't a clue what we're going to get Notty - though her friends are leaving with old-fashioned sweets rather than plastic. My challenge is to get them to eat at least half of what gets put on the tea table.

It'll have to be sausages.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

All shaken up (and stirred too)

It's been Bond season, and I've been wrapped up in a whirlwind of Fleming and Bond-related parties - including my own, to launch the final volume of The Moneypenny Diaries, written as Kate Westbrook. I've spent the last four years 'being' Miss Moneypenny, trying to get inside her head and experience life as it was in the early 60s, living in the shadow of the Cold War.

I've always thought that part of Fleming's appeal - the reason why a world fell in thrall with James Bond - was that he represented a re-blossoming of style and glamour after the privations of post-war austerity. Here was a man who flew to New York to buy his shampoo (Pinaud's Elixir), who drank the finest champagne and enjoyed the rarest of foods (avocados!). He was a sign that we could breathe a collective sigh of relief after the horrors and plunge back into hedonism.

And we've been there, more or less, ever since, catapulting our way to personal fulfillment through the consumption of more, more, more. We've come to believe that having stuff makes us happy and that only by exceeding what our parents - and neighbours - had and have can we find lasting satisfaction.

I guess I did it unthinkingly along with the herd. I wanted a bigger house, faster cars, more exotic holidays. There was a time when I dreamed of couture clothes, of flying to Paris or New York to pick up the new season's hot looks. (I never did, of course, but it was an aspiration.)

Now I think; why? I started Not Shopping almost as an exercise - because I thought it would be good for the planet, but also to see if I could. But over the past six months, it's made me rethink not only the way that I act - whether I need new stuff - but the whole idea of happiness. I used to think that a new dress made me happy. But I've had no new dresses for months and I'm happy now. I used to believe - more or less subconsciously - that people judged me by what I looked like. I know I'm guilty of that. But I'm not sure it matters too much - or that it's going to continue to be the case.

Just because I'm not shopping, I'm not going start growing my underarm hair or wearing dirndl (whatever that is). But would it really matter if I did? I won't brush my hair less often than I did (very rarely). I'm not going to be a different person just because I'm not wearing skinny jeans or we don't have a plasma screen TV. I honestly feel so much better about myself because I'm not shopping. As long as I don't become smug or worthy or judgmental, I hope people will see me for what I am, rather than a symbol of fashionability/smartness.

I think things are changing now: if Bond represented the tipping point of a seesaw from restraint to abandon, I think we're on the fulcrum of tipping back. The economic crisis - which, surely, must only get worse - will force us to take stock of our spending habits. We're already having to tighten our metaphorical girdles. But what I hope is that we'll learn to do it with a sense of joy, and find ways to get pleasure from the unmaterial - particularly time.

The richest people I know are not the happiest. They employ gardeners to tend their beds and get their food delivered by Ocado. They do not know the joy of eating a pea that they grew. We all have room for at least a couple of peas in our life - even James Bond.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Just peachy

The long winter months of fruit deprivation have come to an end, at last. Yesterday, I went into the farm shop to find, to my joy, not only English strawberries, but Spanish peaches. (In fruit terms, I'm afraid, I count Spain as local.) I pounced on them. They were astronomically expensive - apparently the booming Polish economy has resulted in a dearth of slave fruit pickers - and not particularly delicious, but gloriously guilt-free.

I brought two peaches with me to pick the kids up from school. 'The first peach of the year!' Alfie shouted with excitement before cramming it into his mouth.

That made it all worth it. All the months of wrinkly apples and curly Kale. It's not the peaches that I'm loving; it's the fact that my children now appreciate seasonality. As do I. Rock on the cherry season!

I'm also loving the farm shop, which is becoming increasingly well stocked. Apart from parmesan and chickpeas and white balsamic vinegar, there's pretty much everything I need. And the joy of it is that, because I haven't been into a supermarket now for 4 1/2 months, I have no point of price comparison.

Apart from Mark, that is. He popped into Sainsbury's yesterday to get some creme fraiche - and came out singing its praises. 'It's so cheap!' he cried, brandishing four jars of tomato passata (which he's steaming through for the sake of the empty bottles, which he's planning to use for his home-produced passata). 'And what's more, they give away free bags!'

Caroline 2 in the farm shop was bemoaning the price of lettuces. 'I get through tonnes of them,' she said. 'My pet goose loves them.' I said I'd save any spare leaves for it.

We started discussing the weather.
'I hope it stays fine for the weekend,' she said. 'I was planning to go out for the day. It's my birthday. But it's also the ruddy Bowood ballooon festival.'
'Are you going to it?' I asked.
'No. I can't. My goose is terrified of balloons and I daren't leave him.'

Monday, 28 April 2008

Green Wife 2

I'm back and typing, with a lot to say... However, until I clear my desk of all the stuff I've used my arm to put aside, here's the second installment of Green Wife in the Spectator:

Monday, 31 March 2008

Bloody bike

As always, attempting to lighten my carbon dependency, I tried to bike to the pub yesterday. Dog lead fell through basket, caught in spokes and I was catapulted over the handlebars. Midnight found us in Bath casualty, a lady plastering my right arm. So Green Wife may go off the air for a few weeks (v slow typing with left hand).
I should have taken the car...

Sunday, 16 March 2008

Individual v collective responsibility

In so many ways, trying to be green appears to come back to this: do I do the best for myself and my family - or do I try to do my tiny bit to make things better for the world (even though I know my contribution will have infinitissimal effect)? Like travelling: I would love to take my kids to all the extraordinary, wonderful places I've been - and more. Having those experiences has made me who I am, broadened my emotional and moral as well as physical horizons. Seeing and learning about different cultures has made me aware that ours is not the only way to be, that what seems right for us is not always appropriate for a Madagascan or Indonesian, for existence.
By not flying (theoretically), we are denying those opportunities to our children. How will they suffer as a result?
We were talking about this the other day when my sister asked whether 'martyring' ourselves (ie not flying whenever and wherever we want) makes people react the other way (our family have a strong streak of perversity)? I replied that it wasn't about martyrdom, but about acting according to our conscience. Even to me that sounded priggish. But it's also true. I feel as if I've breasted the watershed, and instead of wanting more stuff, I now want to give it back. An essay I was reading (the introduction to "Do Good Lives Have to cost the Earth?), tried to define happiness, particularly its relationship to money. It found that, over a certain level (about $15,000 pa) there was no correlation. None at all. Although this is inevitably complicated by factors such as expectations, it still makes increasing sense to me. We don't need more stuff to make us happy. We've been conditioned to think we do - thanks Maggie, Coca Cola, Vogue etc. - but it's a load of bollocks.
We've got to realign our expectations, rethink what it is that makes us happy. The same essay suggested that, beyond enough money to satisfy our basic needs, the important vectors to happiness are time and giving something back - helping others. One of the best evenings I had last year was when Mark and I took a couple of beers and walked up the Downs to watch the sunset. It beat the premiere of Casino Royale, dinner at the Dorchester, pretty much everything.
Today, I got inordinate pleasure from planting out the spinach, baking baguettes. The kids loved our 'Night Off' last week, when we switched off the mains, and ate and bathed and read stories by candlelight. We laughed more, stressed less. We were making a tiny difference, but it was more fun than computers and noise and television. I had forgotten how seductive the sound of silence could be.
So maybe the premise is wrong? Perhaps we can do good for the individual and the greater good simultaneously? Perhaps my children won't suffer by not flying to Bogata. Or maybe we'll go by boat.

Green House

We spent yesterday with friends, and I was acutely aware of how greenness has taken over our lives. Everything I talk about seems to have greenish highlights. It doesn't particularly feel that way to me - which, I suppose is a measure of the extent to which it has become internalised, part of how we think, which must be a good thing?
We went to a movie with the kids and afterwards, Sally suggested picking up a pizza from Sainsburys. 'No can do,' I said. She asked what I was up to, and I gabbled on about setting up an Eco Mums' support group. We talked about holidays and I admitted that Mark hadn't come to South Africa because he refused to get on a plane. And so on. I do hope I'm not getting boring.
I was up in London last week, and a friend asked how it was going on 'Planet Green'. Oh God. I had subjected myself to a 24-hr succession of not-buying opportunities. First, a friend's gallery opening, in which at least a quarter of the paintings were of our fields/trees/hills. I was itching to buy 'Sam's duck house', but managed to restrain myself (or, rather, the price ticket did it for me). We went to an after-party at an obviously very well off Spanish divorcee's house in Knightbridge. A butler in white gloves opened the door, while Philippino ladies wearing starched white doilie aprons handed around plates of canapes before dinner. At least half the food wasn't eaten, and I can't imagine they had a wormery in which to dispose of the excess.
I stayed the night with Fev, who offered me yoghurt for breakfast. I opened the fridge to get it, and found a punnet of Chilean blueberries nestling temptingly on the bottom shelf. 'I'm sorry,' she said. I gobbled the blueberries gratefully and wished she hadn't felt ashamed.
Kate was holding a sale of James's sister's kids knitwear at her house. I would have loved to have got some. I took my cup-candles along, but only J & Kate, Alice and Allie bought them, under pressure. I am going to use the money as seed capital for 'the Eco Mum Movement', perhaps to buy a domain name?
Allie is pregnant, but stressed that she wasn't going to be the sort of mother that pushed the pram around, or kept the baby attached to her hip. I bit my tongue. We bumped into her Mark later, and when I congratulated him, he said, 'It's going to be the Philippino's baby.' I am sure, when it comes, they'll feel different. I hope so.
I know that my friends in London think of us as some sort of curiosity, while I feel that is they who are behind the curve, with their hot houses, fast cars, and long haul holidays.
I came home. I mixed up some dough and put it in the airing cupboard. I hung the washing in the hall, and watered the broad beans growing rapidly across the way. I guess we can't kid ourselves. Mark may have spent months making a greenhouse at the end of the garden, but he needn't have bothered: we're already living in one.