It’s not often I get a pang of grief from the mass media, but I got one from the news of the sudden, premature death of Anita Roddick.
I didn’t know her well. Most of what I did know or think about her was fixed long before I met her, in a way that must eventually drive people who have fame and fortune to a particular kind of madness - if it wasn’t there to begin with. But, so far as I could tell, it was not there in Anita Roddick, which leaves me feeling that my own little world is just a fraction less appealing without her.
I have never been into a Body Shop. In fact, I had not so much as heard the catchy name until I found myself in the Amazon, where feverish rumour and myth pass like rivers through the mighty forest.
At the time, in the early 1990s, the Amazon was at the top of the world’s green agenda. It was (as it still is), also going up in flames. The hunt was (and still is) on to find some ‘sustainable’ way of fitting it into the empire of corporate globalization.
Rumour had it that two ice cream vendors in New York, called something like ‘Tom and Jerry’, were in search of industrial quantities of uniform Brazil nuts for their upscale ‘Forest Crunch’ brand.
There was also said to be a woman from England who would descend by helicopter onto settlements in the forest to see what the iinhabitants were putting on their bodies. They were quite used to people stealing their knowledge of forest plants, even samples of their blood. But this woman seemed genuinely interested in their point of view, their side of any bargain she might wish to strike before she took off again in a cloud of dust.
A few years later I got a phone call from Anita Roddick. She was writing a ‘popular’ book about globalization, which at the time was largely the subject of impenetrable academic speculation. I had just been unwise enough to edit an edition of New Internationalist on the theme, and she wanted to pick what remained of my brains.
I went to her office. We talked for an hour or so, and my guess is that neither of us was much the wiser at the end of it. Then she asked if New Internationalist needed any ‘help’. By this I took her to mean ‘money’. And since, at the time, I was foolishly proud of our financial independence, and because I wanted to seem different, I said ‘no’.
Perhaps she saw through me. Next day I got another call from her, telling me that she was sending New Internationalist a modest sum for my pains, whether I liked it or not. I confidently expect never to spend such a remunerative hour in what remains of my life.
I was then preoccupied with fair trade, but I suspect she sensed quite rightly that there was little to be gained from talking ethical business with me. In fact, the nearest I ever came to discussing the intricate politics of the Body Shop was on a cycling holiday in France.
My daughter and I had booked to stay in a small town overlooking the Lot. When we arrived at the house, the glamorous owner came out and announced that she had just parted company from her husband.
Sensing that she might want to talk, we went inside. She sat down beneath a large portrait of her naked self. Quite how the conversation turned to the Body Shop I can’t recall, but the name seemed to enrage her even more than her husband did. She had once, she said, ‘worked with essential oils’ in Paris, and knew for a fact that the Body Shop’s claims to be free from animal testing were false. ‘Don’t mention the name of Anita Roddick in my house!’ she said. I said that although I was a journalist I was on holiday. She said that although her daughter was also a journalist, she couldn’t trust her an inch. The conversation reverted to the misdeeds of her husband.
Not long afterwards I got an invitation to a day-long think-tank about globalization at Anita Roddick’s house near Littlehampton, on England’s south coast. It contained a room the size of a barn that seemed to be permanently wired for think-tanks.
It was the kind of gathering where you might fear you’re the only unknown person present. Perhaps Anita sensed my fear and introduced me as ‘the famous David Ransom’, leaving the others to figure out why. I was sporting a pair of organic tweed trousers. Before I could assure her that they were lined, she advanced upon my nether regions declaring: ‘I bet they scratch!’
I spent some of the time in a small group with Anita, her husband Gordon and a ‘senior journalist’ at The Guardian listening to a relentless exposition on ‘localization’ by the remaining member of our group. I rather doubt whether my own brief contribution, speculating as to whether globalization might be a figment of the corporate imagination, was any more productive.
Time passed and I heard little more from Anita, except for the occasional call to say how wonderful she thought a particular edition of the magazine (which invariably had nothing to do with me at all) was. From time to time she would also draw my attention to her latest campaign, on Death Row in US jails or any number of other touchy topics.
So quite why I felt a pang of grief on hearing the news of her death is not all that clear to me. Perhaps, in a moralistic mood, I might have felt that compared with any others of her kind – and there never were many – she was that much more provocative, vital and generous of spirit.
Or perhaps it was the faintly sad irony that, having said on many occasions that she meant to leave no money behind her, the final Body Shop sale to L’Oreal must have left many millions of dollars with nowhere to go without her.