What is more nerve-racking: undressing for Playboy or running as a parliamentary candidate for the Liberal Democrats? Definitely the latter, according to newstatesman.com’s new agony aunt. Marina Pepper has done both in her peripatetic career. She has also been an eco-campaigner, journalist, author and mayor.
Unsurprisingly, she is busy when I call. She has just thrown her TV in the recycling bin. “The kids left it on standby again,” she explains cheerfully, adding that she has form when it comes to telly rage. Once she nearly chucked a set out of her window but, realising it would smash and spread glass on her herb garden, she opted instead to lob it across her sitting room. “And still the bloody thing worked.”
Pepper describes herself as “Little Miss Community Activist”. (She was once asked to stand for the council as a Green Party candidate, but felt their policies were too bossy. “They used the word ‘should’ far too much.”) In Saltdean near Brighton, where she lives, she began by founding a walking bus, escorting local children to school so their parents wouldn’t have to drive. Her move into mainstream politics seems a natural progression from her local activism.
“I am instinctively a Lib Dem. I see everyone as equal, but some people need more help than others.” In the 2003 local elections, she took on the BNP – a risky move; she says she was targeted and had to ask for police protection. But standing as the Lib Dem candidate for Brighton Kemptown in the 2005 general election was the scariest thing she has done. ” It was a Labour seat being targeted by the Tories . . . both sides went for me. I got strange phone calls, letters.”
Ideally for an agony aunt, Pepper is approachable and pretty hard to shock. “If I haven’t done it myself, I’ve probably counselled somebody who has.” By any reckoning, she had an unusual upbringing. She refers a lot to her childhood: she was on her fourth stepfather by the time she was 13. Her ethos of self-reliance, of not wallowing, could be said to come from the unsettling nature of those years.
“I’m glad my mother kept moving on. I wish I’d had a bit more of a secure childhood, but it was definitely character building. We were incredibly poor, but I still went away to a good school.
“My mother rented out every square inch of our semi-detached, suburban house so she could afford, with grants, to send us away to school. As a state school teacher, she didn’t believe in the system, and both my brother and I were privately educated.” Contrary to some reports, she hasn’t followed in her mother’s footsteps and become a Wiccan – although she is a pagan. So what did being raised by a Wiccan involve? “A lot of brown rice, growing our own vegetables, farming our own meat.”
Food crops up a lot in her conversation, as does consumerism. She has an allotment – it was there that she met her anarchist boyfriend – and she is about to start breeding rabbits for meat. She runs a market each year promoting the purchase of local goods. Shades of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall? “My resistance to him is I never trust anyone with a double-barrelled name and I don’t believe you have to own half the Cotswolds to buy local produce.”
She gets angry with people who are vegetarian because of sentimental attachment to animals and because of the impact tofu production is having on the environment.
“I hate tofu-eating vegetarians. I hate them more than meat eaters who have to have their food wrapped in layers of polystyrene so it definitely does not look like a dead animal.”
Pepper’s attitude to most aspects of life is tough but realistic, and anything but prissy. When I ask how she feels about her children, Boudicca and Charlie, seeing nude pictures of her on the internet, she argues that there are far worse images they could see – bodies torn apart by war, for example, or the brutality being meted out in Palestine.
“They just think it’s typical of their mother: ‘Oh for God’s sake. Mum. Put your clothes on, please – you’re so embarrassing.’ I know that people like to get offended by half-naked ladies, but I think there are so many more important things to get offended about.”