When I was 13...

In 1956 when I was 13, I was sitting in our living room watching a grainy black and white TV. Soviet tanks were rolling into Budapest to crush the uprising. Kids my age were throwing themselves against the tanks. I rushed upstairs and started packing my suitcase. My mum came in and asked what I was up to. "I'm going to Budapest" (having no idea where Budapest was).

"What on earth for?"

"They're doing something awful and I have to go."

"Don’t be so silly!"

I burst into tears.

She got it, how important it was, bless her.

She said I had to get trained if I wanted to be of use and that she would help me.

And she did.

When I was 16 I went to work in a Sue Ryder home for people who had been in camps for people who had been in refugee camps since the war. Some had been in concentration camps. I listened open mouthed to those who wanted to talk about it.

In college vacations I went to work in a camp for Vietnamese refugees in France. From there to Algiers, emerging from a terrible war, to work with orphans. My university dissertation was on refugees.


Then I got on a cargo boat in Bordeaux, that went round the west coast of Africa calling in at the ports unloading champagne and beef steak for the French expats. We called at Conakry in Guinea where I watched President Sekou Toure speaking from atop a pillar in the main square to a crowd of thousands. The boat ended up in Pointe Noire in the ex-French Congo, which was at the time at war with the ex-Belgian Congo. To get from one to the other was tricky. I found out that the French Ambassador, like me, needed to cross the River Congo. But we had to go in secret, at midnight. When we arrived at the other side, the dawn light glinted on the machine guns pointed in our direction. I got off the boat and - very quietly - made my way to the airport to catch a plane to Lusaka, and thence to South Africa.

In South Africa I realized fairly soon that if I managed to get a job in social work (the only training I had) I would be in jail in weeks. So I went in the opposite direction, getting a job in retail fashion. This was 1966, when Prime Minister Verwoerd - the 'architect of Apartheid' - was stabbed to death in Parliament. I did what so many South African whites do, closing my eyes to what was happening around me, living an incredible life in a flat on Clifton beach and driving a sports car. I simply ignored the political situation.

It was when I married Murray McLean, stopped working and went to university to learn Zulu, that I began to understand a little. I did voluntary work for a nutrition education organization called Kupugani (meaning 'self-help') that involved work in the so-called homelands. My eyes were well and truly opened to all the starkness of starvation. Children with huge extended bellies from kwashiorkor staring at white men pouring surplus milk down the mines. We bought and shifted the surplus milk, to places where it saved lives. We found a derelict building near the main station where commuters left for Soweto, and we set up a shop selling oranges, soup powder, peanut butter and other cheap nutritious foods.

Income Generation

When I became chair of Kupugani, I saw that we needed a regular source of income that did not involve the huge effort of constant fund-raising. My husband by that time employed about 5,000 migrant workers in various enterprises; I observed that at Christmas, before they went home for their only holiday, these employees were given money. Often this money did not reach their families. So we developed a scheme to offer employers the possibility of giving their staff a box of nutritious food instead. We bought in bulk, used (white) volunteers to pack the boxes, and were able to sell them for a profit – a classic win-win-win, because the food reached the families, employers felt good, and Kupugani got a regular source of funds. The first year we raised about £60,000, and then doubled this every year, enabling us to expand our education work accordingly.

By the second Christmas of this scheme I was nine months pregnant. My colleagues and I were finishing packing the boxes, and swept up a huge mound of rubbish. When the rubbish was lit there was an explosion that knocked me onto my back. I thought that would be the moment that my child would arrive, but in fact my beloved daughter Polly sensibly decided to stay inside for another four weeks.


Just six weeks after Polly was born, I got a severe form of a brain disease called encephalitis and was unconscious for several days. When the brain specialist told me he estimated that I had lost one third of my brain cells (the only ones in the body that don't replace themselves), I burst into tears. "Don't cry" he said "you've got a pretty face and a nice husband, you'll be all right."

It took six years to recover, six years of excruciating headaches and a great deal of patience on Murray's part. The most effective treatment I had was acupuncture – which I tried as a kind of last resort after 5 and a half years of misery. It was so gentle, so benign and so powerful that I got interested in how Chinese medicine works, as a holistic system attending to causes rather than symptoms of illness. I like this 'whole body' approach so much that I have had acupuncture treatment ever since, using it as my version of health insurance; by restoring balance in the body it provides me with lots of energy.

The Market Theatre

One day in 1975 some actors came to our home in Johannesburg. There was at that time nowhere for black and white actors to perform together, and they had discovered that the Johannesburg fruit market – a beautiful art nouveau building in the toughest part of town – was for sale. Under the Group Areas Act it had a permit for all races to mix – the perfect venue for a multi-racial theatre. But we had to act fast, before the government caught up with us. So Murray and I threw ourselves into it. He phoned a builder friend and got a bulldozer in the next day, to rake the tilt for the stalls. At every posh dinner party we went to, I cornered the men on either side of me and took a cheque for R5,000 off each. In six months we opened with a production of the Marat Sade, and somehow nobody got arrested.

The political tension took its toll of our marriage – my husband a substantial employer (albeit an enlightened one) - and me beginning to organize black trade unions. So we left South Africa and went to live in Paris. Murray did a degree in political science, I went to work for the Minority Rights Group and then for UNESCO, and Polly went to nursery school. It wasn't a very happy time for any of us. At Easter–time in 1980 Murray had a massive heart attack. We moved back to England, and I breathed a sigh of relief to be home – for Polly to go to a village school and we could pick brambles and live in the country. Murray slowly recovered and Polly learned to ride ponies.

Nuclear Weapons

This was in the early 1980s, when the public was waking up to the huge build-up of nuclear weapons under Thatcher, Brezhnev and Reagan. I had a done a study for UNESCO on women and peace, which had woken me up to the very real dangers of accidental nuclear war. The British government issued a pamphlet recommending that in the event of a nuclear attack you should put a paper bag over your head and crawl under a table. It was entitled 'Protect and Survive'. Cue a perfect opportunity for CND to mount a campaign entitled 'Protest and Survive'. I did.

In 1982 I was in New York for the Second Special Session of the UN on Disarmament, lobbying delegates. After a week of no progress, there was a massive demo through the city that filled Central Park with a million people. The New York Times gave it six pages. Back in the UN next morning I saw that not one delegation had changed its position one centimeter. Despair. There had never in history been such a big demonstration. What more can people do, to get their leaders to listen?

Strap hanging on a tram on Broadway, I had one of those flashes. "Nuclear decisions clearly are made by people, and probably not those in the UN. If the people in the streets - who care so much - could go and talk, calmly, one to one, with the people who really make the decisions on nuclear weapons, perhaps the dynamics might change. But who are the people who really make the decisions on nuclear weapons?" So I went home, and started a research group to find out.

The story of what happened next has been written elsewhere (Power & Sex, 1996). But three years later I was in NATO HQ in Brussels with Margarita Papandreou and a battalion of women MPs from East and West Europe asking NATO leaders awkward questions, and then in Moscow asking Gorbachev equally awkward questions. Over time we learned how to engage in real dialogue with nuclear policy makers, getting to know them well enough to invite them to spend two days in a medieval manor house near Oxford talking with their most knowledgeable critics, eventually rolling up their sleeves to thrash out possible terms of treaties.

To do this we had to create a very safe environment. By this time I had begun to understand the value of meditation, and had become a Quaker. Moreover I had got to know a number of extremely wise people, including my beloved mentor Adam Curle, who really knew how to meditate. So I invited some of them to be 'Standing Stones' for the meetings, meditating all day long in the library underneath the room where the talks were taking place. One day one of the US State Department negotiators said to me:

"This is a really special room."

"Yes, it was built in 1360."

"No, it's REALLY special."

"I agree. It may be because many good things have happened in this room."

"No, I mean, there's something coming up through the floorboards!"

During the 1980s I wrote lots of articles in national newspapers, and made a lot of speeches. One day I got an invitation to speak in Verona, Italy. I was told to come to the Arena theatre, and expected the kind of small backstreet venue that most peace meetings happened in. When I got to the city and asked for the Arena, I was directed to the massive Roman amphitheatre, with what turned out to be 20,000 people steaming in from all directions. Total panic. I had nothing prepared for anything remotely like this, and spoke all of 10 words in Italian. A blessed interpreter came to my aid, I spluttered a few incoherent sentences, and a mild joke about Mrs Thatcher brought such glee that a Mexican wave took over and I didn't have to worry any more.

Now that I've duly tried to impress you with my Italian story, I can tell you that in the UK the line suddenly went dead. In 1988, in order to render the highly secret process more accountable, we published a Who's Who of 650 nuclear weapons decision-makers worldwide – with names and addresses of those who design, commission, strategize, deploy and profit from weapons. This made the British Ministry of Defence very cross; they banned the book and forbade anyone anywhere in the UK defence system to talk to us. News media also gave us a wide berth from then on for many years.

At Home

Coming out as an activist was one of the factors that cost me my marriage. Although we remained friends, we divorced in 1987 and Murray died, as a result of recurrent heart attacks, in 1988. He was an entrepreneur of the very best kind, a fabulous father to Polly, and beloved of so many people. Polly was only 14 when he died.

Polly is utterly amazing. She has transformed a childhood full of challenges into a blossoming adulthood, where she embodies the ideal of servant leadership. After university she went to South Africa where she was born, and worked as a creche assistant in a township project for women with malnourished children; this opened her eyes to some of the issues around social change work in developing countries. She came back and completed a MA in Effective Learning (with a dissertation on meditation in English primary schools). In 2004 she helped inaugurate the Funding Network, which brings together interested people with catalyst charities at special events to create social change. She has turned her house in East Oxford into an informal centre where art, theatre, dance, self awareness and poetry can reach a particular audience. She works as a facilitator of women's sexuality groups and a freelance translator of French literature, including the private diaries of Catherine Deneuve, Secret by Philippe Grimbert and most recently The Patience Stone by Atiq Rahimi.

After all the tensions of growing up (both of us) we have discovered a relationship that is wonderfully nourishing. We both enjoy the challenges and rewards of being open and truthful, and we generally find that this brings juice and joy to life. In her mid thirties Polly met and fell in love with the beautiful Rose, who has the fastest wit I have met, and they are very happy bunnies. They married in 2010 and now have beautiful twins.

In my own thirties I used to have long curly brown hair. In my forties I started to go very gray, and covered it up with dye. When I turned 50 I got tired of the whole dye performance, cut my hair to a centimeter long, and went white. White hair, I can tell you, makes you invisible overnight. I was used to being at least sometimes noticed in the street; now I pined for that attention. I was also menopausal, which my partner John helped me through with humour and kindness. His daughters were about the same age as Polly and we had exceptionally happy times together, going on silly cycling holidays to France in the rain.

John also contributed in a pivotal way to the development of the Oxford Research Group; since he taught systems thinking at the Open University, he helped all of us to review our progress every six months using his delightfully effective techniques – rich pictures, systems maps, creative innovation sessions. He also encouraged me to keep things simple, not to burden the organization with a heavy structure, to take risks and have the confidence to do what needed doing and not worry what people thought.

Power & Sex

I suppose I must have an inbuilt career saboteur, because at key times I follow a hunch – something that I HAVE to do – which throws a hand grenade into my CV. Imagine this: I start a research group that labours mightily over thirteen years to develop an excellent reputation as a reliable publisher of factual reports on security issues. I complete a serious doctorate. I am trusted to host meetings of nuclear policy makers with critics with whom they totally disagree. And then what do I do? I write a highly personal book entitled Power and Sex – a book about women, which contains quite a lot about serpents, sexuality and inner power.

From time to time when exhausted I have stopped everything and taken a sabbatical.

That's when the real terror hits us workaholics. What if:

  • I never get asked to do anything again
  • Nobody needs my help
  • I lose my memory
  • Everybody forgets me
  • Help!

The Elders

This is pretty much the state I was in in November 2004, after two months of enforced rest. The phone rang and someone said Richard Branson wants to talk to you. It turned out that he and Peter Gabriel had an idea to assemble The Elders, a group of wise people from all over the world who could guide better decisions for the future of humankind. They had taken the idea to Nelson Mandela, who said you need to work out exactly what it is you want to do. Then came what they called the 'washing machine period' where they went round and round trying to decide who the Elders should be and what they should do. So I got a phone call to see if I could help.

It was a bumpy road. Working with a wonderful team at VirginUnite, we eventually refined the criteria for the qualities an Elder should possess, worked out the options for what kind of organization it would be, how it would be funded, and what it might take on. We developed a list of 300 potential elders that we whittled down to a selection of 12 made by Nelson Mandela, and The Elders was launched on his 89th birthday, in July 2007, with Archbishop Desmond Tutu as Chair.

Peace Direct

By the turn of the century, we had become aware of a number of grassroots peace initiatives that were having a real effect on some of the fiercest conflicts in the world. These were local people who knew exactly what was needed to prevent or heal violence in their locality, who were brave enough to get up and do something about it. But they were often without any support and desperately in need of funds to continue their work.

So a small group of us set up Peace Direct to do just that. The organisation was launched in September 2002, when we took over the Royal Opera House theatre in Covent Garden for 3 nights, to celebrate Transforming September 11th. We did this because we calculated, rightly, that the first anniversary of 9/11 would be taken over by obsession with the ‘War on Terror’. We wanted to demonstrate, live before a large audience, how people were actually transforming conflicts, without violence, in real time. Interspersed with fabulous live music by Chloe Goodchild and a full choir, we presented a series of dialogues with people with direct experience of hot conflict in the Congo, Northern Ireland and Pakistan. The most moving moment for me was when I introduced the Brighton bomber Pat McGee and the woman whose father he had killed, for which he had served a long jail sentence. It was only the third time they had met, so we were witnessing – live on stage – the start of a reconciliation process that led to their long collaboration in building peace in Northern Ireland.

Peace Direct went on to be nominated as “Best New Charity” at the British Charity Awards in 2005, by which time I had handed on the directorship of the organization to Carolyn Hayman, who not only instantly understood what we wanted to do, but used her extensive experience to make it work effectively.

Self knowledge

Working in the voluntary sector, in non-governmental organisations, I notice a distressing drain of energy. People become emotionally exhausted and burned out.  Of course this is often due to the sheer pressure of work, and dealing with the toughest of human problems with entirely inadequate resources.  However I also observe that the energy drain is the result of internal misunderstandings, feuding, bad communication and lack of self knowledge. It’s clear to me that work in the world, however passionate and genuine, is far more effective if it is based on inner intelligence, on self awareness and thus on the ability to understand others. This means being able to listen deeply, and to do the work on the basis of empathy.

It took years and years for this to dawn on me, and I have made countless mistakes, especially when I over-ruled my intuition. I was constantly encouraged by the Quakers, whose courage in addressing the toughest issues – slavery, violence in prisons, cruelty to women – had always inspired me. Their ability to “speak truth to power” is extraordinary. It demands a steady cultivation of the ability to be silent, and to listen to a greater intelligence. It requires honesty and integrity of high order, and the employment of inner power.

 What do I know?

So, after all these decades, what do I know?

  • I know my body is a teacher; if I can only get quiet and listen, the depth of wisdom available is limitless.
  • I find peace in the natural world – I love being in my garden where I grow vegetables and potter about looking scruffy.
  • I believe in intuition, in following hunches. When I ignore my gut feeling, things go pear-shaped.
  • The things I find difficult, others can do with ease. And vice versa. So I conclude it's a good idea to do the things that I do with ease.
  • I quail when I'm faced with an AFGO (another fucking growth opportunity) but I have discovered that emotional crisis enables change. Things have to be excruciating before we change.
  • The only person I can possibly change is me.