A tribute to Anita Roddick

Clive Stafford Smith pays tribute to the Bodyshop founder and campaigner who died this week aged 64

I had two hours’ worth of coffee with Anita Roddick a couple of weeks before she died, and she was effervescing with energy. She had long been a supporter of Reprieve, the charity I work for, and I was overjoyed that she had agreed to take on the role of leading the Board. She was to chair her first meeting later this month, and we were discussing the future.

She was full of ideas – what were the challenges we had to meet? What were our strengths? Could we bring the staff to her house for a couple of days, and draw up a battle plan for the next year? How could we ensure that more young people turned their lives to helping the men, women and children held on death row around the world, or isolated in secret prisons?

Anita had long been famous, the woman who took on the establishment and reintroduced ethics to capitalism at the Body Shop. It was always going to be that way. When she first left school, she dabbled in acting, and tried teaching English and History at her old school, Maude Allen Secondary Modern in her home town of Littlehampton, West Sussex. She married Gordon in Reno, in 1970, and they both dabbled some more, running a bed-and-breakfast and a restaurant. But these were only rehearsals for the business she began to nurture when she dispatched Gordon off on his own dream, a two-year horse ride from Buenos Aires to New York.

She set up the first Body Shop near home and had parlayed it into two stores before Gordon returned. The example of her fair trade rules at first irritated the competition, but eventually forced them to adopt similar guidelines of their own. Good business became big business, and by the early 1990s the company was valued at £900 million.

When she eventually sold the company to L’Oreal in March 2006, she immediately ploughed millions into the Roddick Foundation, supporting charitable causes that included Amnesty International, Friends of the Earth, Shelter, the Big Issue, CND and, very generously, our own work at Reprieve. She believed that the desire to die rich was pointless, even obscene.

I had first come across her when I was living in New Orleans, representing death row prisoners, and she came campaigning for the Angola Three – men who had been sentenced to life in prison in Louisiana for allegedly killing a prison guard thirty years before.

They were tagged with the name of the infamous State Penitentiary, formerly a plantation for slaves from Angola. These three black men had never had a chance of a fair trial. Yet how would a privileged British multi-millionaire, daughter of Jewish-Italian immigrants, come to care for these African-American men four thousand miles away? Many Europeans might oppose capital punishment, but these men did not even have the death sentence to make them politically attractive.

Over the years certain cynics suggested she adopted left-leaning causes as a scheme to promote the Body Shop. Nothing could be further from the truth. Even before she first read a book on the Holocaust at the age of ten, Anita was committed to eradicating injustice. It did not matter if the inequity stemmed from human cause, or the arbitrary hand of nature. When she learned that, more than thirty years earlier, a blood transfusion had infected her with Hepatitis C, when she gave birth to her second daughter, Samantha, she chose to turn her misfortune into a cause, and in February 2007 she made herself a public advocate for better diagnosis and treatment. She also saw her illness as a reminder of her own mortality, and as a call to arms. "It makes me even more determined to get on with things," she said.

Anita was dismissive of the idea that she might one day retire. "The most exciting part of my life is now," she said. "I believe the older you get the more radical you become." Would that it were true of everyone. She had bored of business, and she spoke to me of her relief that she would finally sever all ties with the Body Shop at the end of this year, freeing her up to devote all of her time to social justice.

We were all rudely robbed of her passion and her acumen. On Monday, September 10th, 2007, she suffered a serious headache, was taken to St. Richard’s Hospital, Chichester, and at 6.30pm she died from a major brain haemorrhage. Fortunately, her husband Gordon, and her children Justine and Sam, were on hand and were with her at the end.

When I heard the news from a family friend only two hours later, I felt an angry sense of loss. I had hoped to work with this extraordinary woman for years to come, and get to know her so much better. But I was glad to remember, from our morning of coffee and big plans, that she had already given so much to the true love of her life: She had told me the extended version of how she met, and seduced, Gordon – a story far more intensely romantic than the variations that appear in her media biographies.

Her four decades of love for that kind man were patent, and spoke even more of her sincerity than the millions of pounds she gave to charity, or the midnight oil she burned for all her causes. Though too short, and though we miss her, her’s was a life well lived.

Dame Anita Roddick, OBE, founder of the Body Shop, ardent supporter of many charitable causes, husband to Gordon, and mother of Justine and Samantha, was born Anita Lucia Perilli on October 23, 1942; she died on September 10, 2007, aged 64.

Click here to see the articles Anita wrote for the New Statesman

Clive Stafford Smith is legal director of the charity Reprieve and has spent more than 20 years representing prisoners on Death Row in the United States. More recently he has represented many of the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.
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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit: monbiot.com/music/

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood