Episode #137 Of Course We Can! Lifting the lid on possibility with James Brown, mulit-Paralympian Gold Medalist and Climate Activist
What can we do, we who see the climate emergency racing towards us, but feel powerless? What is activism at its core and where do we find the courage to put our principles – and our fear, love and compassion – into action? James Brown, multi-medal winning Paralympian and Climate Activist talks about the nature of courage, action and his sources of hope.
James is an athlete, inventor, social entrepreneur, multi-Paralympian gold medal winner – and climate activist. There was a time when James was known most for his astonishing achievements across many sports. Between 1980 and 2015, he took part in no less than five Paralympic Games (winter and summer) as well as eighteen World Championship events.
His range of disciplines was extraordinary: they included track running, cross-country skiing, triathlon, swimming, road/track cycling and guide-running. He has several Paralympic Gold medals, was holder of the 800m World Record for eight years and has three other World Firsts to his name, including being the first registered blind person to compete in a World Track Masters cycling event at the velodrome in Manchester.
In 2018, everything changed for James when his daughter – then at university – broke down in front of him in a cafe in Exeter and explained all she had been reading about the climate and ecological emergency. James wept with her, but she offered hope in the shape of the newly formed Extinction Rebellion, and the possibility that non-violent direct action might help foment change. James committed to being at her side in whatever actions she took and within weeks, they were walking arm in arm to the blocking of the five bridges that were the first London Extinction Rebellion action.
Since then, James has been arrested 13 times for his non-violent actions (once for spraying chalk paint on the road outside DEFRA in Bristol where it was raining so hard the chalk was washing off as they sprayed it one and was gone long before the arrest process was complete). Most recently, he spent two and a half months in Wandsworth prison for the action that propelled him to climate-activist super-stardom – when he climbed onto a plane at City Airport and superglued himself to the top. The Facebook Live video that he recorded at the time has gone viral and James received thousands of letters and emails while he was in prison, from people who felt desperate about the climate emergency and wanted to know how to find the same courage.
So this is what we explore in today’s episode – courage and agency and activism in an age of total transformation. What can we do, and how can we find the courage to take the action we know the world needs?
Manda: My guest this week is someone who is right at the forefront of making that gap real and showing us the way through. James Brown is an athlete, an inventor, a social entrepreneur and a multi Paralympian gold medal winner. He’s also a climate activist. And those of you in this field will almost certainly know him best for that. There was a time, though, when James was known most for his astonishing achievements across such an astonishing range of sports between 1980 and 2015. He took part in five Paralympic Games, both winter and summer, as well as 18 world championship events and his range of disciplines was genuinely extraordinary. He was track running, cross-country skiing, he was a triathlete, he swam, he did road and track cycling and guided running. He has several Paralympic gold medals. Was Holder of the 800 metre world record for eight years and has three other world first to his name, including being the world’s first registered blind person to compete in a world track master cycling event at the Velodrome in Manchester.
Manda: And then in 2018, everything changed for James. I will leave him to tell you the story of his climate awareness epiphany. The change from Petrolhead to activist. To someone who spent time in prison for his activism. And those of you who know him now as a climate activist superstar, one of the people whose names are known around the world, will know him best for the action at City Airport in London in October 2019, when he climbed on top of an aeroplane and glued himself there as part of a climate action. I and many others were and remain in awe of the courage that that took. It would take courage if you had planned it out, had a team of 20 boosting you up onto the plane and were not scared of heights. James is registered blind, was entirely on his own, and shares with me that terror of being more than a couple of feet off the ground. So in today’s episode, we’re going to explore courage and activism and the inner journey that we all make to do whatever we think is most necessary to begin to change the world. So people of the podcast, please do welcome James Brown.
Manda: So James Brown, Paralympian climate activist, astonishing individual. Welcome to Accidental Gods and thank you for turning out at pretty much lunchtime on this amazing sunny summer morning. How are you today?
James: I’m really well, Manda. Despite the fears of Britain’s first 40 degree day looming and may have happened or not by the time the podcast goes out, I actually do enjoy the warm weather, fortunately, so. And we’re very fortunate my wife and I, we live in a little rented house in Exeter, but we have access to a little piece of woodland up near Dawlish Warren overlooking the sea. And we’ve got trees and we’ve got a static caravan that we’re allowed to stay in for a few nights a year and we’re growing stuff and I’m connecting with nature. So yeah, we were out watching the trees and the plants yesterday. Yeah. So yes, I love this weather.
Manda: And we still have water. We should be really glad of that because I know, I’ve got friends in Italy and Spain and they actually just don’t have any water to water their plants with at all. It’s all going for human consumption now because there isn’t enough. So you’re right, the 40 degree days are terrifying, but perhaps enough to bring more people to the passion of your recent life, which has been climate activism. And in all of the things that you have done, I want to explore that in a minute. But I want to find out first; so you’ve been a Paralympian. You’ve been an outstanding climate activist. You’re one of the few climate activists whose name is now known around the world. You’ve been a social entrepreneur. You’ve worked with disabled kids. You’ve done all kinds of things to bring the world to being a better place. And that feels to me the common thread. But I’m wondering what is the common thread inside James Brown that brings all of these things together?
James: Thank you for that lovely introduction. I guess it’s something about attitude. It’s something about when somebody tells me something isn’t possible, my antenna go shooting out of my head and I go, Hell, yeah. Surely we can do this. Surely there’s a way. There must be a way. The reason that we think something is impossible is just because our imaginations are limiting the scope of possibilities. So I think maybe that’s something I’ve somehow been fortunate to develop? Is that sort of ‘I’m not going to take no for an answer’. I’ve done a lot of different jobs throughout my life, I’m a Jack of all trades, master of none. Absolutely. Working at Gloucestershire County Council back in 2008-9 somewhere around there and I had a review with my boss at the time and she said, You know what, James? The thing that I really, really love about you and your work and your attitude is you’re always asking ‘why?’ And she said, do you know what the thing I love even more? You’re always asking, why not? You know, so there’s some kind of attitude and little thing there that I think maybe allows me to just not give up. Just keep going. If something fails, to have another go, think differently. Do it another way. And so that sort of having learned not to fear failure and then having that sort of belief that there’s probably a solution somewhere, even if I can’t see it at the moment, maybe that’s what it is?
Manda: Learning not to fear failure. Did that come about in your sporting career? Because every sports person I’ve ever listened to is you fail, fail, fail. And occasionally you win and then you fail again and learn from your failing. Did that arise then, or did your sporting career arise because you’d already learn not to fear failure?
James: Probably the latter. You know my sporting career is part of my life, but I’ve done lots of other things. The time I enjoy sport, funnily enough, is when I’m not competing. The time I got the most out of sport and physical activities is in an unstructured environment where it’s just me and my bike or me and the sea. I’ve set a few sort of different sort of world records and worlds first.
Manda: Quite a lot actually, James. You’re a very modest individual, but you’ve got many, many medals in your box under the bed, I think.
James: And as a result of the therapy that I would do with Caroline Heckman from the Climate Psychology Alliance, I can say more about that. I’m actually starting to take the medals out of the box.
Manda: Oh good.
James: Because for a long time… This is so interesting. For a long time, I’ve had this kind of not good enough attitude about myself. And maybe sometimes, you know, a gold medal in a box under the under the desk because it’s not good enough. Now, I’m learning that actually it probably wasn’t a bad attempt, you know.
Manda: So multiple world firsts, several Olympic world medals. It’s easy to mock that and I can feel myself going into I kind of reflexive of my goodness. But actually the unpicking of what does the bit of you that wants you to do better; What better could you have done than an Olympic gold medal, to keep that bit happy, do you think?
James: Yeah, we could get really deep into this, into the kind of therapy and childhood trauma and stuff like that and parenting. There was something there. But then at the same time, the flipside is that that’s also where the drive and determination and courage and questioning and and attitude came from as well. So. Yeah.
James: I, I guess, you know. I always want to do more. Maybe the first time in my life that I have been fully satisfied, almost really satisfied has been through activism, probably because I faced the kind of PTSD thing that many activists report after arrest, after imprisonment and so on. And I actually have got to the point now where I’ve thought, you know what? That was good enough. That was okay. You know, I did my best and I couldn’t have done any more.
Manda: Right. Because gluing yourself on top of a plane is…it’s hard to imagine… That is the gold medal of of activism, I would think. So you’ve been arrested a lot. Can you tell us a little bit about your journey into activism? Because you haven’t always been an activist, at least I think you have always been an activist, but not always a climate activist. Can you tell us about how your awareness of the climate and ecological emergency arose and where that took you?
James: Yeah, I mean, just on the sort of activist question, I guess I’ve been involved in campaigning for equal rights for disabled people sort of most of my life. I’ve had some involvement in whether it’s local access groups or campaigns or whatever. And of course, my work is all about providing mobile accessible toilets, a.k.a The Mobiloo, to event organisers who want to be able to include those who require high specification toileting solutions. With a hoist, adult size changing bed, a shower, lots of space. So you know, I’ve always been an activist I guess. And even just the attitudinal thing that makes me always question why does this need to be this way? That’s kind of activist. The move into climate activism was sudden and relatively short lived. I’m still in that zone, but I kind of feel like I’ve come to the end of a three year phase of phase of really high intensity work. And that came about because I met my daughter here in Exeter at the train station. I was invited to the university to go and talk about social enterprise, which is one of my things. In unfamiliar places and doing presentations because of my sight loss, I need a bit of help. So she and I know each other really well, she came down on the train, we had a bit of time to kill. And I just thought, Alice, you’re not your usual self today. And she just broke down in tears. And she’d been studying geography and environment degree at the time, and she’d always been interested in bugs and birds and nature and stuff. Whilst her Dad was kind of, you know, ogling Subarus and Lamborghinis and fast cars and suddenly in that moment, to see her grief, to see what she was experiencing. She had been reading that morning some scientific reports which she was passing on to me at the time. And, you know, to hear that in one particular South American country, there’d been a 98% drop in ground dwelling insects in 30 years.
Manda: 98%, that’s oh…
James: Yeah, I said, well, okay, you don’t need to be environmental. You don’t need to have empathy with bugs, right, to get that that’s catastrophic. That’s the mathematician in me that gets that, you know. Like you can’t sustain the 98% loss in anything and expect things to be okay, you know? So that was it. That was the moment. And it was so, so powerful to share that experience with Alice. She was absolutely grief stricken. We cried and cried and cried. I don’t know how we even managed to get through the talk after we did get to the university, but we did it.
Manda: Did you tell the audience what you’d just done? Was that part of your talk?
James: Oh, well, I’ll tell you. Well, what is interesting, the university, the engineering department, had given me a title for the talk, which was Social Enterprise (Innovating to Save the Planet).
Manda: That’s handy!
James: This is kind of coincidental, because I wasn’t coming down to talk about saving the planet. I didn’t even know the planet needed to be saved. I came down to talk about Social Enterprise Mobility Project and some of my work and some of my thinking about organisational structures and cultures. And here’s this title Innovating said plan. So I kind of wrote it up on the whiteboard for the students and said, Right, I’ll come back to that later. And I did at the end of the talk and I said, Right, okay, so social enterprise, so okay, so what’s the opposite? And they go anti social enterprise. And I said, okay, so social enterprise, I’m just exploring here with you folks. I don’t know if social enterprise is saving the planet. What’s antisocial enterprise doing? And of course it’s destroying the planet. So it kind of fitted in the context of the conversation with my daughter for the day, quite deeply and purely coincidentally as well.
Manda: Okay, so creating a generation of activists as we speak. I’m really interested in that epiphany moment and wondering how much it was intellectual and how much it was that if your daughter had just walked up and said, Hey, Dad, I’d learned about 98% insect destruction. I think it wouldn’t have had the same impact as watching her in personal, existential grief. Am I right on that, do you think?
Manda: And so then I’m thinking in our activism, that one of my difficulties; I look at friends of mine who are climate scientists who have been sounding the alarm bells for 40 years. Things are bad. Things are really bad. Things are really extremely bad. God guys, we’re going to see our first 40 degree day in Britain. This is not good. And it doesn’t touch people, because it’s not emotional. I wonder if we saw one of those climate scientists break down, as you saw your daughter break down, would that make the difference? And I don’t know, because is it the relationship with your daughter had to be there first? And you just see, I don’t know… If we saw David Attenborough just break into complete grief on television, would it have as much impact as watching the last episode of Blue Planet? I don’t know. What do you think?
James: Well, I mean, we did see it with George Monbiot, I think a couple of months back. I think he broke down. No, but what you point out, though, which is the important personal connection with my daughter, I think that was, for me, the key. I think if I’d seen George Monbiot break down, it clearly wouldn’t have had the same impact as my own daughter.
James: It was a massive wake up call to me. It was like, This isn’t your responsibility, Alice. My God, the least I can do a stand alongside you here. Right? Right.
Manda: And so did you stand alongside her?
James: Oh, God, yeah. Like, within a few days, we were arm in, arm in tears, walking onto the bridges in London for that memorable occupation back in November 2018. That was such a profound moment. You know, I’d never broken the law before. To step out onto the road when you’ve got police standing there saying, don’t do it and you just do it anyway. You know, it’s that feel the fear and do it anyway thing. So, you know, one might argue because of my lifetime of experiences of doing all kinds of crazy challenging things, mostly in sport, but, you know, you might think, oh, that was easy. But it wasn’t. It wasn’t easy. And and, you know, back to your question that you often ask: what’s most alive? I have this sense of of being judged as well for having been imprisoned. You know, I’m a criminal, but I’m also apparently a hero. How do you reconcile those two things? So different people have very, very different attitudes, perspectives or ways they look at us as activists. And that’s really hard. It’s really, really hard to live with that sense that you’ve been judged by others to have done, To be a criminal. That’s one of the hardest things.
Manda: Yes. And yet Nelson Mandela did many decades in prison and is a hero to almost everyone in the world. So.
Manda: It’s what’s one’s perspective. So let’s look more at that, because you did things that were guaranteed to see you in prison. You’ve been arrested 12, 13 times. And how often in those arrests were you doing things where you knew arrest was certain? Because I think there’s a difference between sitting down with a thousand other people in Trafalgar Square, singing songs and thinking the police might decide to pick us all up. But they probably won’t because it’s quite a lot of us. And then there’s other actions which are guaranteed arrest happening. How did you shift from one to the other?
James: I’m going to have to tell you a little story here, Manda.
Manda: Go for it.
James: And it didn’t result in arrest, actually,but I’ll come onto that in a minute. It was the spring 19 rebellion, wasn’t it? Where XR created the garden bridge and the pink boat and everything. Right. I had one of the Mobiloo vehicles on the roadside in Marble Arch, so we could support other disabled people who needed high spec toileting solutions in order to be able to attend. So we had the Mobiloo there. It was really hard work. I found it really hard to get reliable volunteers because everybody was out rebelling and I was trying to do both. Anyway, I closed up one night at about 8 to 9:00pm. It was dark and I got someone to guide me up to the pink boat, just a few hundred metres long in Oxford Circus. I had my white stick with me. I was holding somebody’s arm because I really can’t see well in the dark at all. But I was aware as we were approaching the pink boat, I was aware of a bright yellow jacket beside me. It was a police officer. So I turned to the police officer and said, Excuse me, officer, I’m visually impaired. At that point, I hold up my white stick just to confirm the evidence.
James: And I said, Where do I go to be arrested? And he said, Sir, I would have to advise you not to do that. And I said, Well, Officer, I understand your position. Hypothetically speaking, if one wanted to maximise one’s chance of arrest, what might one do? And at that point he just took me by the arm and he frog marched me over to the crowd, other people. He said, Sir, I’ll just take you over here to your friends. If you sit amongst them, I and my colleagues would be along to get you very, very shortly. And I said, Thank you very much, sir. I’m much obliged. But yeah. So, I mean, there have been times, I suppose, whenever… I sometimes get… I don’t know, it’s a hard thing to say. I do sometimes get frustrated. I sometimes feel if we together, all of us in XR could just go a little bit further. Every single person take one little tiny step further. We might be close to achieving something, getting some breakthrough, some tipping point. Whether it’s in the media, whether it’s from the government, police, wherever.
Manda: Well, you did. You got them to put up the amount of prison time to ten years. They’re obviously worried. And that in itself is a response. It’s just a response that I imagine from my completely most like invertebrate position of not really wanting to spend ten years in prison, is probably going to put quite a lot of people off. I’m wondering, because spent actual time in actual prison. Tell us a little bit about that first. But before we go there, I have another question. Did you get arrested? Was the policeman right? Did you get arrested when he put you with your friends? Did they come along and arrest you immediately thereafter?
James: No, I did not. Not on that occasion. But yeah, like I was saying, I mean, there have been times when I have kind of deliberately even sat in the way, you know, to sort of pick me first sort of thing.
Manda: Wow. How does that feel, James? Because at the times when I thought I might be arrested and I wasn’t, I was gut wrenchingly terrified. There’s something about really annoying an authority figure, even when they’re obviously half your age and looking quite pissed off because they haven’t had breakfast and and just basically don’t want to be there. You know, my, my inner good child, I guess, doesn’t really want to piss them off that badly. How does it feel to you? To deliberately sit in a place where pick me first is the option.
James: I suppose there’s a pragmatic element to it; which is that the sooner I can get this done and dusted, get the arrest over, get into custody and then get back home again, then I can get on with my work.
Manda: But that doesn’t work when you get a life sentence or a year sentence or even a couple of months sentence, then there’s the not going home to work for quite a long time bit.
James: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I suppose I’ve always had that lack of fear, you know. That, I’m going to try this thing and it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t work. But the theory of change, non non-violent direct action, suggests there’s a chance that something will or might. And for me that’s good enough. Good enough to know that there is a probability, albeit small, that those taking part in civil resistance or non-violent direct action, civil disobedience, whatever you want to call it, could make a difference. And of course, it has happened throughout history. So it’s that sort of being reconciled with the fact that it’s your choice to be there. Nobody forced you to be there. And it’s just about accepting the consequences of arrest and potential imprisonment. And yeah, you’re right about this this potential ten year sentence. It’s going to be fascinating to see how that pans out, because, as you say, this legislation wouldn’t have come through if those who were supporting it weren’t concerned, weren’t worried. And it’s not just about a little bit of nuisance. Of course it’s not. It’s about these guys might actually be the beginning of something.
Manda: They know the theory of change as well as we do, I guess.
James: They do. And they know the science. So they know the necessity for action and they’re just constrained by the system from taking it. Therefore, they just have to arrest us and try to put us in jail.
Manda: Do you think that’s the case? Do you know many politicians who are, let’s say, in government and have the power to change things; Is it genuinely that the system is constraining them or do they believe themselves to somehow be invulnerable?
James: Yeah, I don’t know. I mean, I think whatever you do with your work or your personal life, you’re working within a set of parameters. And the parameters of our electoral system require the politicians to campaign for the next general election. There’s nothing in there that requires them to think long term or behave long term, and the system wouldn’t reward them if they did.
James: So that’s why I really like the sorts of conversations that I hear you often have with your guests, and your work with thrutopia and so on. About sort of developing something separate, in parallel, some sort of community.
Manda: Yeah, an entirely parallel system. Indra Adnan calls it a parallel polis, where basically they can do whatever they want out in Westminster and we just can ignore them and get on with what we’re doing. And so we have a theory of change that takes us there and it takes a certain amount of activism. And I’d like to look forward. I particularly would like to look at your work with Caroline Hickman, but let’s let’s go back a bit. To growing up in Northern Ireland during the troubles and how that shaped who you are. Because you’re a Paralympian. You have boxes of medals, and in activism terms, you’re one of the few activists whose name is now known around the world. How does your childhood create that in you do you think?
James: Well, I think my childhood experiences are absolutely behind the sort of attitude and philosophy to life that I have. I experienced a lot of trauma. It was really challenging, difficult, but also some good stuff. So I was born in Northern Ireland at the begining of The Troubles. My parents were told that I was totally blind by the doctors when I was born. And the doctors blamed my parents, because they said you lived in agricultural land, as if that’s a sin.
Manda: Why is that going to make someone blind?
James: Toxoplasmosis. So it’s a disease that’s carried by a variety of animals? Yeah, there is a bit of a story, but probably haven’t got time to go into that. But at the end of the day, my mum particularly must have felt awful, awful guilt to be told that. And what an outrageously irresponsible way for those doctors to behave. And I don’t know whether that flavoured my parents, particularly my mum’s attitude, to my disability. Age of four I was starting to ride my older sister’s bike before she could. Age of five I got my own bike and my mum took me out on the roads. Quiet country road alongside strangford Loch. Nonetheless, for a kid with 5% sight, riding his bike. And then by the age of seven, I was on my own. So I did a lot of exploring by bike when I was a kid; a bike was my independence.
Manda: So you could see a little bit.
James: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And in fact, navigating a road is actually much easier than navigating a pavement because there are no steps, no bollards, no people. It’s quite organised in comparison to pavement. So oddly, yeah, I’m pretty much fine as long as the light conditions are good. So I went to this awful boarding school in Belfast, 1969 I started out, I think when the Troubles really start to kick off. And, you know, we would hear the guns and bombs and the shootings each night. It was a really violent school. I was badly attacked by one of my roommates one night and left a big hole in the side of my face where he decided to bite a chunk out of it.
Manda: How do you end up with kids that emotionally disturbed being shut in rooms together?
James: Yeah. Oh, well, there you go. There was a lot of it. A lot of it.
Manda: Was this a Catholic, Protestant thing? Were you also being crushed in with people from the other side of what was by then a very violent divide?
James: Of course. Yeah. I mean, the sectarianism within the school was quite palpable. But also, you won’t believe this. They mixed blind kids and deaf kids together. And if you can choose two groups of kids, that have the least possible chance of communicating, it’s blind kids and deaf kids because each of them relies on the sense that the other doesn’t have. So yeah, it was a bit crazy. I found it very hard. I was off sick a lot and at the age of nine we got a new GP in our village and came to visit me and saw me on my sick bed and went downstairs to my mum and said, Yeah, I think he’s got some allergies, he’s got a throat thing going on. But he said the main thing is his head. He’s, he’s depressed, he’s hating this school thing, he’s really traumatised. What does he love? He needs a distraction. And my mum said Oh he loves cars and the doctor without saying anything, lifted my mum’s phone, dialled a friend of his who was the owner of the local motor racing circuit and he said, I’ve got a nine year old blind kid here. He’s a bit rundown and depressed. Can he come and drive his mum’s car round your race track? And he goes, Yeah, of course he can! And that changed my life completely, totally, totally. Yeah. I mean, my self-esteem went from rock bottom to sky high and that was a big turning point.
Manda: Yes! You’re driving as a nine year old. I mean, you must have been the envy of the school then.
James: Yeah. My reputation at school changed. Suddenly people spoke to me. Suddenly, you know, teachers, pastoral staff, always dying to hear, What did you drive this weekend? Because I had a neighbour who worked for the Irish Times as a motoring correspondent, so he had a new car every Friday and he would take me to the track. So I was driving Porsches and all kinds of stuff. Yeah, pretty amazing. So sort of the riding of the bike, the attitude of my mum especially, but also my dad; not placing limits on me and almost going the other way. Almost it’s like because you’re blind, we’re…
Manda: Yeah, that nobody else is doing. No other nine year old is driving Porsches around the racetrack. It’s just not happening. Wow. Did you engage in sport then? I mean, did race tracks then become a thing? Is that why you ended up doing the sports that you did?
James: I don’t know. I think I just discovered a love for running one day. I just..My mum was driving us to a friend’s house along the shore road beside Strangford Lough. And I said, Mum, I want to get out the car and see how fast I can run. So I remember I did 15 miles an hour. I was probably about ten or something at that time, and I just discovered a love for running and a love for being outdoors. And of course I already had a bike. And yeah, I’ve done some pretty cool, fun things on bikes. You know, most people think, well, he’s blind, therefore he goes on the back of a tandem. And I made that mistake. When I decided to take part in the London 2012 Olympics. I joined the Irish Paralympic team and for the first time in my life I was on the back of a tandem. I actually found it really, really hard.
Manda: Yeah, because you’re used to being on a bike in your own and having full control.
James: Or on the front of the tandem with girlfriend on the back, you know.
Manda: And did they swap you? Were you able to go, guys, this is not me. I need to be in front. Was that a thing?
James: No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. Totally against the rules. But I’ll tell you what I did do. I was doing a lot of track riding in a velodrome, riding on the tandem. And in fact, we, myself and my first partner in 2012, we managed to get a silver medal in our first race together, which is the world championships in LA. And then we got to bronze in London in one of the road events. But a friend of mine who I trained with on the tandem, a friend from much closer by at home, he once said to me, he said, I think you could probably learn to ride a solo bike on the track. And for the first time in my life, I said, no, I can’t. And I’d never had that response before, and I don’t know why. And he said, Yes, you can. And together we worked out how to do it. And we worked with the coaches at Newport Velodrome. And I ultimately took part in the world Masters, the World Masters Championships in Manchester Velodrome on my own on a single bike. You know, that’s that’s one of my firsts. And that is again, about this demonstrating what you think may not be possible. Actually, yes, it can be done.
Manda: Right. And we should be teaching this to generations of children. This is human potential, lived in in real time. Are you teaching your own daughter? Does she have the same ‘Yes, we can’ Attitude?
James: Yeah. I’ve got two of my own kids, two step kids and I tend not to kind of lecture. It’s like they, it’s a process of osmosis. I behave in a particular way. If they choose to like it and emulate it or take something from it for themselves, that’s fine. And yes, I think all of my kids are developing that sort of ‘Why not? Of course, we can’ sort of ‘don’t accept the first thing we’re told’.
James: Let’s challenge this assumption. Maybe things can be different. Yeah, definitely.
James: I’ve done quite a variety of sort of jobs through my life. You know, Jack of all trades, master of none. But there’s been a common theme which has been about campaigning for opportunities for other disabled people. That’s been a constant throughout my life. So whether it’s being involved in a local access group, whether it’s building the UK’s most wheelchair friendly mainstream holiday accommodation, which my brother and I did in Ireland in the mid nineties. Or whatever. I have the opportunity working with the County Council in Gloucestershire on a program called Aiming High for Disabled Children, to take that sort of, what the owner of the race track said to the doctor: ‘Of course he can’. So we took that and turned it: ‘Of course we can’. And it was to say, well, no matter what you think to be possible, maybe we can do this differently.
James: So I particularly, because I was the petrol head influence on this programme; we had kids cooking with Michelin star chefs, we had kids surviving in the forest on their own with fire and knives when they normally needed three support staff to keep them and everybody else safe at school. We had kids getting a night away from home for the first time in their lives. But I wanted kids to feel the power of controlling a vehicle. So we found a place where they had a huge variety, including an army truck that can be driven just with one finger on a little joystick. So we got the kids out of the wheelchair, strapped them into this thing and set them off. With supervision, obviously. But we had kids with learning disabilities riding quad bikes very, very safely. And it was great. And it was just that sort of let’s find a way to do something that most people think not to be possible. That’s what it’s about, right?
Manda: Right. And that that seems to be the common thread of all the things that I know of that you do. And I only hear obviously the kind of peak achievements. But let’s find ways to do things people didn’t think were possible. So I’d like to look at your your most famous act of activism, which was the airport. But some people probably don’t know the story, so I’m not going to be the spoiler. Tell us, how did you do that? And particularly, I’m interested in how did it feel? Because we’ve looked at your courage already, and and I am still in awe of it. But this was another 100% guaranteed arrestable action. Tell us what happened and how you felt.
James: Hmm. It was a few days after the Canning Town incident where protesters were pulled off the top of the train. That’s very controversial action. I think most people think that it was a mistake. Some people don’t. A couple of days after that, you know, I find being in London really hard. I find being involved in protest really hard. It’s not an easy choice. Right. I was really at the end of my tether in London and I just want to go home, I want to get away from all this. I heard of this occupation of the city airport the next morning in London. I thought, well, I’m here, I might as well give it a go. And I went to briefing and I went back to my friend’s flat and I ordered a plane ticket to get through the airport. And off I went in the morning and I arrived probably, certainly earlier than the others who also had tickets and were also planning to go through to airside to conduct their peaceful protest there. I ended up going through on my own and as I sat there in the departure lounge, I was thinking, maybe nobody else is going to come join me, maybe this is it, maybe I’m on my own.
James: And that’s what it felt like. I knew there are all kinds of reasons why others chose to do different things. I think one protester did come through and stand up on a plane and gave a speech to the passengers and prevented the plane from taking off. I wasn’t aware of that at the time. I was sitting in departures and the whole notion of climbing onto the roof of the plane only came to me, then in that moment. It wasn’t planned. It was fairly spontaneous. But, you know, I’m used to, as you would call it, dynamic risk assessing. My life has been all about risk. It’s been about sort of, right, we’re hurtling down this mountain on the tandem and we’ve just had a front wheel blew out. You know, what do we do to stay alive here? You know so we as athletes, learn to think quickly, I guess, in response circumstances. So I kind of thought I wonder if I could kind of get on the roof.
Manda: There was a plane just standing there.
James: It was the plane that I was due to go on, to Amsterdam. So it was there. I was taken out first and I was climbing the stairs and a member of cabin crew welcomed me and said, Hello, Mr. Brown, can I take your bag? And I said, Yes, please, because I need to get on the roof for a minute. And I gave her my bag and my jacket and I climbed on the roof and I could just hear her put her hand over her mouth and go Oh my God, you actually did it! As I was climbing, I made it really clear to her that I was part of the Extinction Rebellion. This is a peaceful protest, non-violent. But I just wanted her and the rest of the crew on the plane to feel no sense of threat, if you like.
Manda: Yes. You’ve not got a bomb. You’re not going to blow them to pieces. This is this is XR and they will have heard about XR, because by then everybody had.
James: They were all briefed.
Manda: Right. And did the city airport know that you were coming? Because I know in most of the XR actions, all of the authorities pretty much know the route they’re going to take, because we have to track ambulances through different routes, things like that. So had City Airport been forewarned that something was going to happen?
James: Yeah, yeah. Yes, they were. And I had even had a conversation with the woman at the check in about the protest and other staff who I encountered on my journey through. But yes, given that the airport staff knew, you know, it kind of seems to me slightly remarkable that they didn’t notice that I was wearing an Extinction Rebellion T-shirt and carrying a tube of glue in my pocket. Even though I went through the scanner, I was fully frisked. I had the wand, I was obviously randomly pulled out for a full security check.
Manda: With an XR T-shirt on, that’s really random.
James: It was. Yeah. And that was a mistake on my part. You know, I got dressed early that morning, oh XR t shirt, through my jacket on, not thinking when I go through security I’d have to take the jacket off again. So it wasn’t a deliberate sort of ploy on my part to test the security system. It was just a set of circumstances. You asked about sort of what I was feeling, and when it got time to step out onto the tarmac, walk across the steps, suddenly Elvis’s song, a little less conversation, a little more action, please, came to my head and that stuck with me whilst I was climbing up and whilst it was sort of sitting on the top of the plane trying to get ready to do a Facebook Live broadcast. Which I’d never done before, not prepared for, couldn’t see my screen because it was a bright, sunny day, but somehow I managed to make it work. And apparently at one point; so I was talking about my reasons for the protest: the climate crisis, my concern for my kids and my grandchildren. And apparently at one point I said, I’ve never done a livestream before. I don’t even know if this is working. I can’t see my screen. And apparently one of my friends from Exeter was kind of typing a message to me: Mate, there’s 18,000 people watching this already. You’ve already been going 30 seconds!
Manda: Oh, fantastic. And by this point, are they trying to get up after you? Because I’m thinking climbing on top of a plane is a non-trivial event. I know you’re used to dynamic risk assessment and going down mountains and in bikes where suddenly you’ve got no tire. But actually physically, the physical dynamics of doing that route. I used to be a rock climber and I’m trying to work out where the hand and footholds are between the stairs to get up to the plane and the roof of the plane. It’s not really designed for people to to climb it. How did you do that?
James: Oh, I don’t know if I can share that with you. Would that be my incitement to you Manda to go and climb on a plane?
Manda: I swear to you, James, that I am not going to climb onto a plane. It’s not part of my life.
James: You’ve got you’ve got the handrails at the top of the steps. Then you’ve got the door. The door obviously opens out from the fuselage and the top corner of the door is easily within hand reached even.
Manda: Of a tall Person?
James: No. Well, even somebody five foot six, five seven, I think could probably reach the top of the door. Especially if you give a leg up on the on the handrails. So once you’ve got a handhold and a foothold or one hand or two footholds, it’s not far to go from there. It was really like a couple of seconds, really, from the point at which I told the member of cabin crew that I was going to go up, until I was actually sat on the roof. I did move around a bit. I did the live stream. And I think for those who have seen the live stream, I think very hundreds of thousands of people have watched it. You know, the fear is very obvious because I hate heights, right?
Manda: Oh, my gosh, James.
James: I’m terrified of heights. And as I was doing the live stream, I eventually had to stop just because all the adrenaline kind of eventually fairly quickly, kind of ran out of me. And suddenly I started to get scared and shiver and cold, and…
Manda: And getting up is always easier than getting down. Any climb, getting down is the hard bit.
James: Absolutely. Yeah, yeah, yeah. So that’s when I turned and lay down on the plane and then the fire crews and police came and put a blanket over me, because they could see that I was actually quite shaky at that point.
Manda: And had you super glued yourself by that point? Because you just happened to be carrying some superglue, right? Because that’s what you do.
James: Yeah. It’s kind of part of the sort of toolkit of the activists, isn’t it? Yeah, yes, I did. I super glued one of my hands to the top of the plane towards the end when it looked like I was going to be taken down, I added a little glue into the mix.
Manda: So it delayed it a bit. So how long were you up there altogether?
James: About an hour.
Manda: Okay, that’s long enough to get really quite cold. I’m kind of impressed, though, that the police and the fire crews threw a blanket over you because I had not really…. I suppose this is my projection of them all as monsters now… Imagined that much humanity. Were they decent to you or were they just incredibly pissed off?
James: Oh, totally. No, no, no, no, no. Absolutely lovely. One of the police officers, they brought extra sets of steps along either side of the plane to create a sort of safe platform, either side of where I was. And there was a police officer standing on there with his own phone doing a live interview with me to his son, who was a big fan of Paralympics. This police officer obviously worked out who I was and he said, Oh, I’ll catch the chance to interview this crazy guy on top of this plane for my son.
Manda: Yay. So you were able to tell him why you were doing what you were doing?
James: Oh, yeah. Yeah. It was all quite good humoured, really, to be honest.
Manda: Right. But you still ended up in prison. I’m guessing the prison was for that action or was prison for something else.
James: The prison sentence that I have served was for that action. Yes.
Manda: Okay. Because you’ve been arrested 13 times, I suppose 13th time lucky. If you consider going to prison actually lucky. Tell us a little bit about that experience, about prison, because that seems to be the thing that frightens most of the activists I’ve met. Is I’m not going to do the arrestable actions, because I just don’t want to spend time in prison. And you have, with the results that we talked about. What was it like?
James: It wasn’t easy. It was a challenge, but then I kind of thrive on challenge.
Manda: You do, don’t you? Yes.
James: I mean, I was fortunate, right? It was a year sentence, which is then like they give you a year’s prison sentence. It’s automatically cut in two to say, right. If you behave yourself, you get out after six months, but then you’re also eligible after three months to be released on what they call a home detention curfew. So as long as I was a good boy, I was only going to be in there for three months. I actually got out after two and a half without the ankle tag, because the Court of Appeal agreed with my lawyers that this prison sentence was slightly outrageous.
James: And so the Court of Appeal quashed it. So I was released after two and one half months. So the relative brevity of the sentence, you know, was a factor in the survivability. I had a great cellmate who helped me a lot. I had a couple of thousand items of correspondence during that time including 140 cards on my birthday.
Manda: Was this XR? Did they organise this for you or was this just spontaneous members of the public?
James: The will was obviously there and I think my daughter did some clever jiggery pokery in the background on social media, making sure that anybody who needed to have my address had it. And it was really interesting because in the absence of my glasses, which the prison wouldn’t let me have..
James: Yes. Seriously. She was then able to communicate to sort of well-wishers and supporters, what font size was going to suit this week, depending on whether or not he had his glasses or not. Or whether his cell mate was going to be doing his reading. So…
Manda: Were they just randomly taking your glasses away? Is that some kind of prison torture?
James: They just did. Well, my cell mate was allowed all three pairs of his. You know, it’s in the rules: maximum three pairs of glasses. I got none, even though they were sort of down in the storeroom.
Manda: Did they think you had superglue hidden? And I’m looking at your glasses as we speak, and they don’t look like you’re hiding a knife in there or, you know, something to drill your way out of Wandsworth.
James: Those are very strong glasses. Yeah. So it’s just got one big lens.
Manda: Okay, it’s quite a big lens.
James: No, I brought them in with me and they just wouldn’t release them from my property, despite lots of phone calls, lots of letters, lots of complaints, lots of representations to the Equalities Team. And the Equalities officer was at the door of my cell six weeks into the glasses gate and and said, look, to be perfectly honest, I have no idea why you need glasses. No idea how somebody with only 5% vision could benefit from having glasses. So it was her decision, clearly. But ultimately I did get them after about six or seven weeks. But it was a hell of a struggle.
Manda: That’s a month and a half into a two and a half month sentence. But yeah, really, seriously, the other guy has all three pairs? Is this because they were anti XR? Was this some kind of power statement on the side of a power structure that’s just deliberately being difficult?
James: Oh, I think the response from officers was very much individual and I did come across some staff who were incredibly anti XR. Especially the guy who was running the property section on the day that I was brought in, oddly. He was very, very clear to me directly that he more than disapproved of protest and that all protesters should be locked up forever.
Manda: Wow. At least that would mean his job was secure.
James: Well, yeah. See, then the other side of the coin is that not only did I receive a huge amount of support in the form of letters and emails and cards, there was a presence of supporters outside the prison. Every single night that I was there. Every single night was a coordinated team of people outside playing drums, singing, doing poetry, lighting candles, engaging with prison staff, members of the public. And one night, shortly after I was there, one of the wardens came to my cell. I hadn’t seen this guy ever before, he was a complete different wing. And he said, I just want you to know that I was on my way home, didn’t know you were here. I was on my way home. I met your supporters outside. And you know what? They’re the loveliest people and they’re so lovely that I just had to come and meet you.
Manda: That made me cry. That’s amazing.
James: I know. It’s remarkable. So, you know, you can’t tar any group of people with the same brush.
Manda: That’s fantastic. And what about your fellow prisoners? You said your cell mate was really helpful. Were you in a wing…was your cellmate, he had three pairs of glasses; was he also legally blind or was it just by chance that you ended up with someone who had lots of glasses?
James: No, he was sort of in his late sixties. So, yeah, he uses glasses.
Manda: Reading glasses, long distance glasses. Yeah. Okay.
James: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. So no, we didn’t get any special treatment really at all. The first wing we were on, the induction wing, was really quite friendly and we kind of knew that. And we did ask if we could stay there, but we were told there was no way, so we were actually shipped off suddenly. You don’t get any warning about anything in prison. You know, it’s just two people at your door with a trolley. Pack your stuff, you’re moving, right? So you have to pack your stuff in 10 minutes or as quickly as you can get shouted at. And then we were thinking as long as it’s not wing A as long as it’s not wing A, please don’t send us to wing A. Where did we land up? Wing A!
Manda: Wing A of course.
James: Yeah. We’re in one of the harshest wings on one of the harshest prisons in the country, but that felt that we had a real prison experience. Like, we know what prison is in Britain now. We’ve been there. We’ve experienced it.
Manda: So you’re speaking in the plural. Was Steve also an exile activist?
James: No, but I guess I talk about us together because we were very, very close during that time. He was a great storyteller, you know, and a lifetime experience of all kinds of odd circumstances that each of us we would have, like storytelling at 10:00 each night. It’s quite a routine. And he would do all the actions and the accents. And he’s worked in Libya. He’s been taken hostage and he’s worked in Iran, you know, so yeah, it was great. It was a good help.
Manda: Was he in for a similarly short duration? Is that why you were paired together?
James: He was in seven months. So he’ll actually be coming out, probably round about now, to be honest. I’m looking forward to going and visiting him in Cornwall when he’s home.
Manda: And so other than him, were the other inmates even in wing A, did they get the XR thing? Or was it just so foreign to them that they didn’t care?
James: Like everything, some did, some didn’t. You would get into conversation in the showers with folk and the extent and the depth of those conversations varied massively. Some were very knowledgeable, very supportive, others weren’t. So others, you know, just I suppose, I suppose I got respect or something like that maybe from others, just because of the audacity of what it was I did.
Manda: It is hard not to.
James: And the fact that I then ended up in prison, which they thought was complete, overkill, you know. I think I was the first non-violent protestor to be given an immediate prison sentence.
James: In the UK, since 1923.
Manda: The previous one was a suffragette, was it?
James: Well, I know others who have been on remand and things, but I suppose that’s just a sort of a nice little stat.
Manda: Yeah. Another world first.
James: Well, well, kind of. And it’s something my lawyers used in the Court of Appeal as a sort of a benchmark to say, look, come on, this is a bit harsh.
Manda: Right. And interesting that The Court of Appeal upheld it. And it would be very interesting to know whether the courts have the freedom to do that now with the changes in the law. But I guess we won’t know until we test it. So this is fascinating, but I don’t want to dwell on on prison forever, because it’s over. And it sounded like this was a period of your life where you aimed for the top and you’ve got to the top again, which is consistently what you do. And there’s what do you do after being on top of a plane? There’s not many actions you could escalate beyond that, within the non-violent realm. Where do you see yourself and your activism moving now?
James: I’m a backwards activist, right?
Manda: What does that mean?
James: Well, a lot of people sort of come into sort of campaigning, working sort of in the area of of trying to combat climate crisis, because they know a lot. Right. And they’ve seen this happening or they’ve been doing it for years. I was a petrol head, right, until October 2018. Didn’t have a clue.
Manda: You were. Driving Ferraris round a race course. Yes.
James: And I flew far many times. I’m so ashamed. I’ve probably flown 1200 times. Because I even had to fly to school whenever the school in Belfast didn’t work out. They moved me to Worcester College for the Blind, which did work brilliantly. That’s where I got all my opportunities to do sport and cross country skiing and so on. But because of being an international sportsperson, I’ve flown far too many times, you know. So I’m kind of, I’m quite ashamed of that.
Manda: But we didn’t know, James. We didn’t know. That’s the thing. Yeah, we, we, yeah. I think when I look back, because we were of a similar generation, we did what we did because we thought it was okay at the time, we genuinely didn’t know. So you’re a backwards activist. Where is your activism taking you know?
James: Where my activism has taken me now, is a deep, deep connection with nature. And it’s amazing. My wife and I bought a little bit of woodland recently. We didn’t really know why, but now it’s becoming clear. And, you know, I wanted to control it. I wanted to say, right, this is the project, this is what we do. And gradually, the more I thought about it, the more I spoke to my therapist and my wife, you know, it’s no, no, no this isn’t a project. This is the place where we can go and be calm and connect with nature. And, you know what? Is actually working! I’m suddenly, now, I’m interested in all of the things: the environment, the soil, the bugs, the birds, you know. And that’s why I say a backwards activist, because I’ve sort of petrolhead full on activism, prison, come out and then discover why! And this kind of spiritual connection, this inner work that I’ve been doing, listening to a lot of your sort of meditation stuff and so on, which has been really helpful; connecting with fire and water and the elements. Ah, that’s where I’m going right now. It’s like, Oh my God, this thing. And my brother reminded me recently actually. He said, Well, do you not remember when you were a small kid and you get asked what you want to do when you grow up? And I go, I want to be a farmer so I can sit in the mud.
Manda: Oh, really? Oh, fantastic. So now you’re sitting in the mud!
James: Yeah. Yeah, I know. Exactly. Yeah. So it’s been with me all my life, and now it’s coming through again.
Manda: So beautiful. So because of the nature of this podcast and how it arose, I am asked a lot by people of how do we connect? How does it feel to you to be connected? Can you describe some of the felt sense and perhaps a little bit of the process of that? Or is it just too numinous and impossible?
James: No. It’s amazing. To suddenly realise that we are just part of the earth. It’s Phenomenal. I am not scared to death any more, because I’m just going to go back to the earth where I started and I’m going to just be part of this wonderful thing that we need to honour and save and respect. So that’s been the most profound thing for me. And I don’t know, also just a sense of inner contentment. And that’s in the midst of a lot of problems, sort of still kind of suffering PTSD from three years of very, very intense activism and prison. And I’ve got a lot of pain at the moment in my body, a lot of physical pain. But I’m kind of thinking, you know, as the spirit, the soul, the mind, you know, calms. Maybe the body will come with it and maybe I’ll stop experiencing this pain. So I don’t know if it’s long-covid. I don’t know if it’s arthritis, I don’t know. We’re having investigations. But despite the fact that I’ve got pretty, pretty debilitating physical conditions going on at the moment, I’ve just never, I don’t know, I’ve just got this sense of calm and happiness and freedom and my relationship with my wife is amazing. Like, you know, right through prison, we wrote to each other, we wrote letters, which we haven’t done for forever, really. And those were so, so profound and so powerful. And yes, that communicating. Cos that’s, that’s what it’s about, I guess.
Manda: Isn’t it just. That’s so beautiful, James. I had other questions I wanted to ask, but honestly, I think that feels such a profoundly moving and genuine and powerful thing that I think we will just wrap there and perhaps come back and talk to you again in a year and find out where that sense of deep heart Earth connection has taken you. So unless there’s anything… If you have any last things that you want to say to everybody, then this would be the time.
James: I don’t know. I think for those who are contemplating taking direct action and it’s only one of the bits of the recipe, like we don’t even know the recipe, right. But direct action, for me and for many, has to be part of the recipe. And like I’ve said before, we don’t know the outcome. We have to be comfortable with that uncertainty. We have to comfortable that we don’t know what the result of our individual actions will be. But the point is, it’s a snowball effect. It builds up. So I guess that saying that… I say this not because I’m judging or deciding or any kind of commentaries. Because what folks say to me, right; The two big things, themes that came through in all of the letters and emails in prison: I’m really scared for my children. And I wish I had more courage to take the action that I want to take. So if there’s some way that we can inspire folks to have the courage that they say they want, in order to take the action that they feel they’re prevented from taking; I think if I can if I can support folk in that way, I would I would love to be able to.
Manda: All righty. We need, almost it feels like, we could somehow create a vehicle for that. We will support you in your courage. We will support the evolution of your courage. We need to think about that, because that feels, you’re right. If we can get the movement, any movement growing and we don’t know how big, but tipping points happen amongst people, they do. And I am in awe of your courage. And so I suppose listening to you and understanding that you knew you’d made a choice and it was a clear choice and that the prison experience wasn’t great. But you’re here now and your life now, I’m hearing you, feels like you’re in a very, very good place. And partly, I think I imagine that’s because you have done what you’ve done. You’ve stretched your courage to its limits. You’ve been terrified of heights and still climbed on top of a plane. I’m still, you know, that in itself really hits all of my terror centres. But you’ve pushed yourself to your own limits and beyond and you found that the world is still here, and you will have made a difference. If you got thousands of letters while you were in prison, then there are hundreds of thousands of people who were thinking but didn’t get round to sending to you. I’m also, most of my friends in XR, who went to prison, spent their months or whatever meditating, and it was their downtime. I’m just, I’m so sorry, I’m sure it’s lovely getting thousands and thousands of letters, but I’m thinking you probably didn’t get a lot of time meditating. If you’re even opening them and reading them takes a huge amount of time. But it’s good. It means there are hundreds of thousands of people who respect what you did, understand why you did it, and want to emulate you. And if there can be a vehicle for helping them to take that one extra step. Then, then that’s good. And I suppose XR is that vehicle. Am I right?
James: Well, I think XR and the other affiliated groups. I think Just Stop Oil, Insulate Britain, stop HS2, I mean the list goes on and on and on and on and on.
Manda: Yes, yes. And Donnachadh McCarthy, he and I are working together to see if we can find ways on an energetic spiritual level, to help bring the media. Because if the world’s media were on side, the world would change overnight.
James: Of course.
Manda: So there are, yeah, movements on all fronts. All righty. So if someone were listening and it, to be honest, is unlikely that someone’s listening to this podcast who isn’t already on board, but suppose it’s their first time. Where would you suggest that they go to find the most useful access point of how they can bring their activism to bear?
James: I mean, there’s all the Extinction Rebellion local groups all over the country.
Manda: All around the world, even.
James: Yeah, I mean, 70 odd countries. Yeah. I mean, yeah, XR achieved something pretty phenomenal. But actually, I think that really what matters is being active in the community. Becoming an activist doesn’t mean having to risk arrest. There’ll be plenty of activists who will be willing to risk arrest, but being an activist doesn’t even mean belonging to XR, it means campaigning for change. And many, many more can do that without any risk. Experience, I suppose activism at a lower level and then feel their way through. I guess there’s also something about folk working together and supporting one another, encourage one another to be the best activists they can be. To maybe conquer the fear and play with that, test it out, you know? And I mean, I did. My first arrests were fairly low key. There were obstruction of highway or that kind of stuff. They always did pick on me and keep me in for ages, though. I think after City Airport I was in the cell for like 46 hours or something, but you get used to that.
Manda: Wow, just short of habeas corpus.
James: You get used to it. I don’t know if I’ve got one piece of advice that would be relevant to everyone, but I think ‘do something’ might be the best. With the ‘of course we can’ mantra tagged on to the end of it.
Manda: Definitely, yes. That is going to be the title of the podcast. Yes. Yes, we can. Of course we can. And you’re right, I think finding… Our local groups, we’ve got two locally and they’re just such lovely people. Finding people who share your concerns and support. It’s that sense of networking and support is huge. And if XR isn’t your thing, there will be… We have, I don’t know about you, but we have local groups campaigning to stop the local privatised water company chucking sewage, raw sewage into the river. And they come from right across the political spectrum, but they care about having a river that you aren’t going to die if you fall in. So there’s always things going. It’s just find what matters to you and do it, I guess. Yes. Yeah, that’s where we’re at. All right. I think that’s a wrap. James. It’s been such a pleasure and an honour and a wonder. And I am so grateful for everything that you do and everything that you are.
James: Thank you Manda. I really love your podcast series. It’s been a real honour to be part of it and all the best with your upcoming work, your great work that you do.
Manda: And that’s it for another week. Enormous thanks to James for his courage, obviously, but for his level of self awareness, his humility, his capacity to see the big picture and then to think deeply about what we can each do to bring ourselves, as the best of ourselves, to a world that is ready to connect with us if we want to connect with it. That sense, at the end, that after all of the activism, after the astonishing sporting career, after all that he’s done to make change in the world, James is now connecting to the Earth and listening to it and asking, What does the web of life want of me? And I know this is my thing and therefore I am going to fixate onto it. But even so, it really made my heart sing. And this was such a moving podcast. It’s rare, genuinely, to be in the company of somebody willing to be vulnerable, willing to be open, able really to look into the depths of what’s going on, and yet clearly capable of such acts of outstanding courage. When I was doing the research for True Spies, I read a lot about the people of the SOE, the Special Operations Executive. And some of them survived. And we have biographies and autobiographies, and it’s a different kind of courage. I am not equating the met police to the Gestapo. But World War Two felt like an existential challenge to those in it, and I’m sure was. And we are now, without question, in an extraordinary existential challenge worldwide.
Manda: And if you’re listening to this podcast, you know this already, and I’m fairly sure you are already taking whatever action you feel able to take. But I hope the conversation with James helped to open doors of what is possible, what we can all do, how we can all stretch a further step to help us reach the societal and cultural tipping points that we’re going to need, to bring us through that gap to the flourishing future that our hearts still do know as possible, in the face of all the evidence to the contrary.
Manda: So that’s it for this week. We will be back next week with another conversation. And in the meantime, as ever, enormous thanks to Caro C, for wrestling with the interesting sound. For the music at the head and foot and for all that she does to keep this podcast moving. Thanks to Faith Tilleray, for the website and all of the astonishing, beautiful conversations that keep us moving in the right direction. Thanks to Anne Thomas for the transcripts and thanks to you always and forever for listening and for all that you are and that you do. And if you know of anybody else who wants to be part of the generative dance of the world, who wants to lift the lid on everything that is possible in their lives, then please do send them this link. And that’s it for now. See you next week. Thank you and goodbye.
You may also like these recent podcasts
No More Fairy Stories: Writing the way through, one tale at a time with Denise Baden
We know we have most of the answers to the poly crisis. Our challenge is getting them into the mainstream. And that means we need to understand what works when we craft our new narratives of how the world could look and feel.
Meeting the Ocean: Rekindling our deepest connections through art and science with Markus Reymann
How do we bring artists, scientists, policy makers, educators, conservationists, journalists, and all the different siloed tribes together in ways that let them genuinely communicate and listen to the web of life?
Proudly Mad: exploring mental health and the climate emergency with Charlie Hertzog Young
How did one man make the shift from Not wanting to live in this world, to refusing to live in ‘this’ world? Manda and Charlie discuss the interface between mental health, the climate emergency and what we now call eco-anxiety (but which needs a rather stronger name than that implies).
Building Tomorrow: Bonus addition: Painting 2050 if we get things right
What does our world look and feel like in 2050 if we make all the good choices now? Paddy and I recorded a brief 15 minute bonus of how the world could look if we actually employed all the strategies in ‘Building Tomorrow’ – so sit back, soak it in – and then let’s make it happen…
STAY IN TOUCH
For a regular supply of ideas about humanity's next evolutionary step, insights into the thinking behind some of the podcasts, early updates on the guests we'll be having on the show - AND a free Water visualisation that will guide you through a deep immersion in water connection...sign up here.
(NB: This is a free newsletter - it's not joining up to the Membership! That's a nice, subtle pink button on the 'Join Us' page...)