Why I Left My Enchanted Cage
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 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 was one of several that shook me 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 community 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.
Connecting to the Earth
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.
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. You realise that your self-pity and guilt and unease have vanished along with those securities. Because letting go is also letting in.
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.
Recently I went back to the place that gave me my first job in journalism: Vogue House. Standing 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 30 years ago, we celebrated the memory of our former editor, Beatrix Miller.
It brought to mind my old life, writing cleverly-stitched copy about vintage champagne, beautiful dresses and houses where maids do the hoovering for you. 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.
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 of being a writer. You tell it how it is.