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Shaggy dog tale

November 10, 2017

In the spring of 2000 the “New” Labour government put out a report about meeting its obligations under the Kyoto climate change agreement. Blair & Co stated their commitment to reducing greenhouse gases and increasing the amount of energy produced from renewable sources. (You know, like the sun and the wind.) There was something buried in the multiple appendices that the government presumably hoped no one would ever find.

Unfortunately for them, there was a Greenpeace scientist living in Arkansas who just loved reading footnotes and appendices, knowing, as she did, that is where the bad news is always hidden. Sure enough she found something.

She contacted the Greenpeace UK office and asked them if they were aware that the government planned to encourage the building of up to 100 massive waste incinerators, claiming that the energy created by burning rubbish was renewable and therefore counted towards their renewable energy goals? No, they did not know this and the climate campaign were understandably unhappy to hear this. Burning rubbish (leaving out all the toxic elements involved) was not creating renewable energy, it was a staggering waste of resources.

In early autumn of 2000 I switched on my computer in the Greenpeace office in Vancouver and, checking internal email, was astonished to discover that an action team from the UK was currently occupying an incinerator in Edmonton. What the fuck? What were UK activists doing in Alberta and how the hell did this happen with no heads up to Greenpeace Canada? Oh, wait a minute. Not Edmonton, Alberta, but a huge “waste-to-energy” plant in Edmonton, North London. Okay, that made sense.


The action team had shut down the incinerator by occupying the chimney, from which they’d hung a banner warning people about the toxic chemicals which normally spewed out of said chimney.

It was a successful action and it got people and the media talking about the health problems associated with pollution from chimney stacks and contaminated ash and slag.

This was good news and bad news for Greenpeace. The good news was that the climate campaign team who undertook the action had shone a bright light on the many reasons why incineration of waste should not be increased. The bad news was that there was suddenly a campaign needed. The climate team had other fish to fry and did not have the capacity to add this to their work. At that time there was only one toxics campaigner working in the UK office. Another campaigner was needed. As it happened, this campaign position was advertised at exactly the time I’d decided to move back to the UK. I applied and was appointed.

By the time I started in April 2001 a great deal of research had been done. For one thing it had been established that the municipal incinerator in Sheffield was the most polluting in the country. Plans were already in place for an action team to shut it down. One of my jobs was to reach out to the small anti-incineration group in Sheffield, not to warn them about the coming action, but to make them aware of the wider anti-incineration campaign we were building. (Small grassroots groups were springing up throughout England and Wales to protest existing incinerators or oppose the construction of new ones. I was tasked with outreach to all of them to help create a national voice on the issue.)

In Sheffield the issue of incineration was being tackled by a church social justice group. (The incinerator was, of course, in the poorest part of the city.) The main point person was a lovely man named Graham. As soon as the action team were in place in the chimney in Sheffield, I rang him. He’d already heard about it on the morning news, was beside himself with excitement and said he would be there as soon as he could.

Soon afterwards I discovered Sheffield really was a tale of two cities: the rich one on the west and the poor one on the east. People (and church members) in the east may have been calling us heroes, but the church elders on the west side were calling us lawbreakers and denouncing the action. Uh, oh. I told Graham that I really needed to talk to these men and somehow he arranged it. I went in starting with the terrible toll this incinerator was taking on the health of the city’s (poor) residents. Sad, indeed, the church father’s agreed, but that did not justify breaking the law. So then I told them about the founding of Greenpeace by a group of men and women, mostly Quakers, who rented an old fishing boat to take them into the nuclear weapon test zone site in Alaska, risking their lives to bear witness. These brave men and women, some of whom I had been fortunate enough to meet when I worked for Greenpeace in Vancouver (the little town of Bethlehem), believed there were higher laws. So, too, it turned out, did the Sheffield church elders who issued a statement to this effect.


Dodged a bullet there, but it was now obvious that Graham’s small group was too softly, softly to apply the sort of pressure on Sheffield council that we’d been hoping would follow the action. Graham himself agreed and helped me organise a public meeting after the action had ended and the team arrested. One of the climbers involved, Huw, stayed for the meeting and received a standing ovation when I introduced him. A core group of enthusiastic activists emerged from the meeting to form Sheffield Against Incineration.

I made multiple trips to Sheffield over the next year to support the group in their work (including making incineration a big enough issue in the next local elections to lose the pro-incineration head of council his seat).

On one of these occasions, I got the train up in the afternoon and went straight from the station to the Brown Bear pub to meet the group. The pub was packed, so seven of us crowded around a small table in the corner. When I went to the bar to get a round of drinks in I clocked the bloke ahead of me and thought: ‘I recognise you from somewhere.’ He glanced at me and smirked. Fuck me, it was Kenneth Branagh. What the hell was he doing in the Brown Bear? Then I remembered reading somewhere that he was going to be playing Richard III at the Crucible. Carrying our drinks back to the corner I spotted him sitting at a large table with several people including an actor I recognised. We crouched in our corner chatting. Half an hour later most of the people at Branagh’s table left. There were now three of them (Branagh, the other actor and another bloke) at a table for eight and seven of us at a table for two. Bollocks, I thought. I got up, walked over to their table. “Pardon me,” I said, “I’m terribly sorry to bother you…” I got that far before Branagh turned to beam at me. He knew, of course, that I was a fan eager for an autograph or photo. Except I wasn’t. “… but now that most of your group is gone, would you mind swapping tables with us?” I pointed to the other table. Branagh’s face fell. (Was it possible I didn’t know who he was?) The other actor, seeing Branagh’s annoyance, burst out laughing and immediately agreed to the move.

And why, pray tell, am I sharing this story now?

On Wednesday evening when we arrived at the pub for my belated birthday drinks, there was only one table free – a table for four which could, at a pinch, have been turned into a table for six. But there were going to be eight of us. There was a table for eight in the pub, but two people (who were expecting two more) were sitting at it. The ensuing conversation about swapping tables suddenly reminded me of that evening in the Brown Bear. Later, when I got home and switched on the Daily Show, who should be the guest that night? None other than Kenneth Branagh!

Clearly this was a sign that I should share this story. Unfortunately I was in no shape to do so yesterday, so here it is today.

Oh, and by the way, I am very pleased to report that Sheffield Against Incineration went on to become South Yorkshire Against Incineration. The group is still going strong. Many of its founding members are also guiding lights in South Yorkshire Against Fracking.

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