Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Confessions of a Failed Hippy

Every Christmas sees Oxford Town Hall host a Green Fair, an affair which is part joy, part ordeal, but always compulsive to me. Seeing the stalls on whale, planet and human saving in the smaller halls manned by those gaunt earnest atheist and Quaker faces I know so well, I feel at home and yet also a stranger.
Growing up, this was my world and yet here I am now estranged from it. I want to support all this goodness and worthiness and be a better Pedestrian or Agricprop yet feel suspicious as to how accurate and impartial the information on planetary abuses is provided by each stall, though why I should feel suspicious of small concerns who stand to make little or no money out of their views opposing the activities of (usually) global corporations making pots of the stuff perturbs me. Why should the stallholders' agenda be any more sinister? If they had no agenda, perhaps they wouldn't be there, wouldn't care. But are they there because they truly care about these things or because they need a cause?
Are there so many Atheists and Humanists into Veganism because they do not believe in God/the afterlife and therefore seek to live as long as possible through enhanced nutrition? Why are they almost messianic about wishing to convert others? Why have I never been able to contemplate dating one, despite sharing so many concerns about health, animal and planetary welfare?
Disturbing thoughts swirl around my head. Like women's rights meaning there's an unspoken edict you have to believe in the whole package including abortion-on-demand, there is an overriding sense that an alternative or 'thinking' person has to buy into the whole ideological package if they are not to compromise their moral integrity - you can't simply eat the lentils and let the Whales die or be a car owner who happens to cycle a bit. It's all or nothing. A total inner climate change.
One minute I am overwhelmed by a wave of goodness and the tie dye-clad beatniks of East Oxford out in force and the next I find myself a tad breathless and queasy. In the main hall, my impulse is to buy the rough-hewn handicrafts because I'm supporting something good, but the design snob side of my brain quickly cuts in with a 'No, those misshapen bowls are overpriced, poorly made and of no use to man or beast!', refusing to let me buy anything which is not (in William Morris's words) both 'useful and beautiful.'
I feel like a strange hybrid trapped between two worlds, the ideological and the conventional. It was a lifelong ambition to be normal and break away from the hair shirt childhood of constant ridicule where chocolate was a once-a-year Easter treat and Vegan parents sent rambling angst-ridden letters to Vegan Views asking what should they do about their son or daughter's school egg and spoon race, as REAL eggs were being proposed and the school would not countenance substitutes, but now I'm in my childhood dream position of being able to eat marshmallows (and even eggs) for breakfast, lunch and dinner, they've somehow lost their appeal.
Then again my parents were a strange mix of 50s conservatism and hippyish ideals, particularly the veganism and atheism, but minus the drugs and sleeping around, and even in my father's case - the kaftan or flares - he's always worn a suit all his life, rain, shine, and holiday alike. My mother went to India to find herself in the mid-60s and wore a Shalwar Kameez to marry my father before promptly packing all hint of exoticism in a studded blanket box.
I espy 'Spinning Jenny' on the corner stall sporting unbleached cotton harem pants and hand-beaded top selling her expensive Indian rugs for which she makes half a dozen trips a year to India, and spends the rest of her weekends driving around the country in a transit to hold stalls at various Green Fairs where her unfettered twin daughters run amok in their more-practical tumble wear patchwork outfits.
I smile in my evilly-dyed normal clothes, wondering how I would come out in an audit of who actually lived the lowest carbon-impact life, taking into account that I was raised a Vegan from birth, am child-free. inhabit low-impact housing, wear my clothes until irrepairable, seldom fly and didn't drive until 33.
Ultimately though, perhaps the moral unrest the yearly Green Fair wreaks on my soul has a simpler explanation, guilt. I could do MORE to save my fellow citizens and planet, as oppose to just finding more excuses not to, I could try harder not to betray my roots, I could try harder to like Fairtrade chocolate.

And at least idealism is more fashionable and comfortable now.

The smugness would surely be worth it.


Rol said...

Wow - so many questions in that post, I don't know where to start!

I think a little balance is always preferable, so the space you occupy seems the most sane. Extremism is always a little worrying, in anything.

Steve said...

Never accept anything unquestionably a wise man once said to me. Why? I asked and he just grinned and gave me a thumbs up. Pick and choose, Laura, exercise your right to follow your own conscience and your own counsel. If we all thought for ourselves we might save this planet before it is too late.

Nota Bene said...

An impossible dilema...everything has bias, so choose which bias you most like

rb said...

Extremism is always very scary and off-putting I find. When people get obsessed with something they stop thinking about it properly half the time - or about the context in which is must be considered.

But the world needs extremists. I just can't be one - or be close to one as they drive me nuts!

I pick and choose approaches to suit me - I try to live sensibly but I know I fail in many respects (too many children, too many flights) but considering I have so many children, I do not drive them about a lot (I cover miles each week on foot just scurrying here and there) and I try to buy local produce. Oh you know what I mean - I do bits and bobs but not nearly enough really.

Owen said...

A friend just sent me a refrigerator magnet with a quote from Kurt Vonnegut printed on it which says : "We could have saved the world, but we were too damn cheap."

I don't know of anyone who is living totally outside the "modern" system, which most folks seem to agree is destroying the planet at an unprecedented pace. Except maybe a tribe or two in the deepest Amazon or remote Papua New Gunea. The rest of us are guilty by association, no matter how pious we may appear. We do compost our garbage and plant a garden plot in the yard every spring, but just using a computer is a sign of complicity...

Be well, thanks for all the food for thought...

Wisewebwoman said...

Oh that old devil perfectionism. How can it be applied here?
I think once we all do the best we can that is enough in and of itself.
Greenism is a biz like everything else, even for its devotees with their badly made clay pots making an unfair (to me) dollar by exploiting our compassion...
Oh I could riff for hours on all of this, Laura, suffice is that I, along with you, try and make a smaller footprint every day.

Steerforth said...

I completely agree. Politically, I'm very Green and have spent the last few years trying to reduce my carbon footprint. But put me in a hall full of people with baggy, cheesecloth clothes and unkempt, straggly hair, and I turn into Jeremy Clarkson.

As the other people have intimated, I think the problem lies with the mindset of people who inhabit the more extreme fringes of any ideology, however benign it is.

There is, among these people, a single-mindedness and although it can be a very positive thing (thank God some people were single-minded about abolishing slavery and giving women the vote), I don't usualy have a great rapport with wide-eyed, earnest types who always say and think the "right" thing.

I'm more attracted to people with a sense of humour, who can be honest about the huge gulf between who we want to be and the person we actually are.

Christine Laennec said...

What an interesting post, and comments! I have two over-riding thoughts: firstly, is there any way that we can precisely know the effect we're having on each other and the world in general? Surely we all just have to make the best decisions we can at each point. And secondly, it seems to me that there's something that happens when people are hugely concerned about inhabiting the "I know best" moral position - it often somehow, subtly, negates softer human qualities such as affection, compassion and humour... speaking from my own experience only!

brokenbiro said...

Interesting post! It certainly stirred up some ghosts for me, too. I spent a few years working (initially as a full time volunteer) for a local green network and organised several green fairs (which were a nightmare because you can no more orchestrate womb-breathing vegans than you can herd poets!). There seemed to be a mixture of people involved, all grappling for the moral high ground - whether through a hopeless optimism in their power to effect change, an angry disapproval of other people's lifestyles or simply a right-on 'alternative' lifestyle choice of their own. Very difficult to work with any of them - and I gave up in the end!

The Sagittarian said...

Exactly what Steve said.

DuchessOmnium said...

Dear Poet,

You are too young to be a hippy! But you are more than old enough to think and to be suspicious, and you are right to weigh each claim in the balance.

I have thought of you often recently. I see that there is a move to save the Summertown Library. Since I am not a believer in big government I would far rather see it saved by poets (or rich writers, which is probably more to the point). And I like to see them all putting their money where their blog is.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

Rol, unanswered questions go with the territory I guess, but as you say I try to strike a balance.

Steve - both wise and droll. As Sagittarian said.

Notabene. Unfortunately you are not allowed to be biased nowadays without demonstrating prejudice! T

RB, I'm sure raising responsible citizens is as environmentally-responsible as it's possible to get as they may well do more planetary good than harm, thereby cancelling out their manufacturing carbon footprint! ;-) Yes extremists are scary, but I suppose as you say they have a role in highlighting problems which need addressing.

Owen, a very sage comment and you are absolutely right. Thank you.

WWW - a salient point. Green issues and sustainability have indeed become a whole industry now, out to make money as much as anything else, and where do all these consultancy profits go?

Steerforth, you are so right. Balanced people may be more fun, but they haven't necessarily got the single-mindedness to get a slave trade banned. Notwithstanding I do my utmost to be a balanced person who does their mediocre best. Glad to hear you do too.

Christine, the 'I Know Best' position. A double-edged sword indeed. And yes, a certain blind arrogance must surely accompanies it. Re the feedback on our impact on the world - now there would be an issue for statisticians to conjur with!

Broken Biro. How interesting. And yet not entirely surprising, knowing what I know about hard-core Greenies. Even among themselves there is passionate disagreement about who is greener than who etc and who is right.

Duchess - thanks for dropping by. You are assuming poets are rich! I am assuming we pay for the libraries through our council tax and they have no right to take them away from us without our consent and without demonstrating it is a last resort and not discriminatory to any taxpayer or brings them illegally under the minimum public service provision they are duty-bound to provide in return for collecting our dues.
Yes, I missed the first hippy wave indeed! Even managed to miss Punk!