Meeting Vivienne Westwood

Vivienne Westwood died on the 29 December 2022.  A larger than life character, I once had the opportunity to meet her – at her suggestion – to discuss her thoughts about climate change and a campaigning TV series, to be called ‘Get A Life’, she was wanting to pitch to the BBC.  This meeting with her was in 2010 and had been prompted by my book ‘Why We Disagree About Climate Change’ published the previous year.  I visited her at her home in Clapham on the afternoon of 2nd September 2010 and what follows below is a short memoir of my visit, written by me that same evening.


After emerging from Clapham Common tube station in south London on a late summer afternoon, I wandered around the casually busy streets of Clapham trying to orient myself against my map.  43 Old Town was what I was looking for, and I assumed it was in one of the older parts of Clapham.  Fifteen minutes later, after taking a few false directions, I found my goal, an original 18th century four-story Georgian terraced town house sitting rather incongruously opposite the Clapham bus turnaround. 

I arrived as a recently arrived cyclist was being let in through the locked iron gate – the only hint that perhaps the occupant of this house was a wealthy or public figure.  I followed the perspiring middle-aged man up the steps, where we were greeted by Cynthia, Vivienne’s American PA whom I had spoken with on the phone.  So, a fourth person would be part of our conversation – and I wondered who else might be joining us.  Was this for safety reasons or to ensure that the conversation flowed more easily?

Cynthia King was in her early 50s, a short lady with a thick bob of fair hair and an easy manner.  She showed me through the hallway and into the pocket-sized walled garden at the back of the house.  The house itself seemed gloomy, with well-worn Persian carpets on the hallway floor and throws draped over a couch in the front room.  There were a variety of small wooden-framed photographs on the walls of the hall and the stairway leading down to a basement.  I was curious about these, but it would have been impolite to have stopped to look at them. 

After offering me tea or coffee, Cynthia and I sat down on some rather rickety wooden slatted garden seats that looked like they had seen better days.  We were surrounded by rose bushes six foot high, well pruned and ablaze with yellow and red colour.  The garden was well-maintained, but hardly impressive for a millionaire – the size of a badminton court at best.  The sun bathed the green foliage in a soft warm light and the blue sky above was criss-crossed with vapour trails.  Cynthia started with small talk – ‘How was my journey?’, ‘Is the sun too warm for you?’ – to which I responded by asking Cynthia how long she had been in London.  Twenty years or more, but interspersed within this had been visits to Vietnam and Cairo, teaching English abroad. 

The man, who had introduced himself to me as Gordon Swire, arrived with the tea, explaining that Vivienne was making the coffee – and that she always spent a lot of time over coffee getting it ‘just right’.  With Gordon’s arrival the conversation turned to the TV project we were meant to be discussing.  An initial 10-minute taster video had been filmed – on protecting the rainforest – and which mixed footage of the Amazon with Tim Smit’s Eden Project in Cornwall, together with some filmed responses from school children to the issues raised.  The series concept was to be called ‘Get a Life’ and was to be pitched to Alan Yentob, the BBC’s Creative Director, when he returned from his holidays.  “Vivienne can always get access to Alan, whenever she wants”.

It was a good 15 minutes after we sat down in the garden before Vivienne arrived carrying the coffee pot and two cups, for her and me.  She shuffled rather unobtrusively onto the scene and if one had been an ignorant observer one could easily have mistaken her for the elderly housemaid bringing out the coffee.  She was wearing a simple blue calf-length wrap-round woollen skirt and house-slippers, although the bright orange hair, tied at the back, would admittedly have been unusual for a domestic.  She was also wearing black patterned stockings – not many maids wear these – and a long-sleeved loose-fitting cloth shirt with the slogan ‘Leonard Peltier[1] is innocent’ across the front.  Her skin was very pale, accentuated by salmon earrings, by the bright red lipstick on her thin lips and by the deep orange eye-brow highlighter and eye-liner she was also wearing.  A slender frame with wrinkling skin, she looked her 69 years.

I stood up to shake hands and the conversation between me, Gordon and Cynthia continued for a while.  I was elaborating on various ideas from my book[2], explaining why I didn’t think climate change could be ‘stopped’ and why a more engaging approach would be to look beyond climate change to the ultimate goals that progressive social activists should be striving for: poverty alleviation, challenging unfettered consumption and building quality inter-personal relationships and communal identities and belonging.  I was just pointing out the dangers of the ‘stop climate change at all costs’ narrative by describing the hair-brained schemes to put mirrors in space to act as a sun umbrella, when Gordon intervened to say, “You should know that Vivienne thinks we should stop climate change, and urgently”. 

This took the wind out of my sails and gave her the opportunity to start explaining what drove her and the initiative for this proposed TV series ‘Get a Life’.  Although she started with the rainforest and stopping its destruction – I pointed out that this would only arrest 20 per cent of the causes of global warming – it quickly emerged that her personal focus was much wider than this.  She seemed to have bought fully into Jim Lovelock’s notion that climate change was endangering the human species and yet her passionate analysis of the root cause of this imagined ecocide seemed to be the contemporary world’s unappreciation of high culture.  “There are no proper artists in the world today”, “Everyone should go to the National Portrait Gallery” and “A rejuvenation of elite culture would gradually trickle down to the rest”.

I was struggling to see how these twin perspectives – extinction and high culture – fitted into a coherent programme concept for the BBC, so I moved my proposals onto issues of quality of life and human well-being.  We need to tackle the root causes of many of our environmental and social ills, particularly our obsession with conventional economic growth as the only yardstick for ‘progress’.  I deferred here to Andrew Sims and Nic Marks from the new economics foundation who have been championing alternative metrics and I suggested that encouraging artists to do creative work around environmental decline could feed into this re-visioning of the notion of ‘progress’.

But Vivienne repeated her conviction that ‘there are no proper artists today’ which allowed her to digress into a short summary of the history of art from the 16th century to today.  “This just shows that the great artists have always chosen to see the world in different ways and we need another re-invention of reality today.  Modern abstract art is nothing.”

The conversation whilst lively and entertaining was becoming somewhat incongruous.  Here was the 69-yr old ‘first lady’ of British fashion, the woman who had done more than anyone to give punk culture a visual identity, explaining in her soft winsome north Derbyshire accent how a revitalisation of high culture through a new artistic elite would bring salvation to the planet.  And what was I, a rather conventional university geography professor, doing sitting in her garden suggesting she was wrong?

I now decided to use her hook of artists’ re-invention of reality by seeing the world in unique ways to introduce the idea of myth into the conversation.  Myths were a device I had used in my book and I now suggested that they were ways of getting beneath the surface values of our dominant visible and material culture.  I suggested they offered a more powerful motor of cultural change than trying to scare people with ‘end of the world’ scenarios. 

And so I brought Avatar into the conversation, a film which both she and Cynthia had seen and, I think, enjoyed.  Avatar was a good example of how popular culture – Hollywood – had taken a primeval myth – a decaying polluted planet and the struggle of good versus evil – and exposed tens of millions of people to the idea of truth through stories.  We need new myths today, I suggested, that can move people at a deep level to re-imagine their purpose and meaning in a crowded world of limited resources.  Rather than a James Lovelock and the countdown of the ticking clock to destruction, we needed the inspirational visions of a new Martin Luther King.

And here I flattered her by suggesting that she had the passion and status to communicate this possibility to a TV audience.  Her repeated message was ‘you get out of life what you put in’ and what you put in can make a difference and I encouraged her to take this passion into her TV project.  She laughed slightly, but returned to the urgency that climate change demanded of us and her belief that scaring people was almost certainly necessary.  No, I replied, playing the apocalyptic card is a dangerous tactic and I warned her against using it: fatalism, apathy and cynicism lay down this path.

By now it was nearly 3 o’clock, my due time of departure, and the sun was getting lost behind the city haze of a September afternoon.  After an hour and 20 minutes our conversation was reaching an end.  I began to move in my seat and I think Cynthia was aware of the time. 

But our discussion had one last round of energy left and this was the question of meaning and purpose.  Where in a secular world was this to be found?  Celebrity and consumption were false gods.  Responding to an early comment, I challenged Vivienne that in fact religion in the contemporary world was not dying out and that religion – or at least religious sentiments – had a very important role to play.  Cynthia now mentioned that she had picked up my religious sensibility from my book and Vivienne responded provocatively by saying that she ‘had the answer’ here – it was Gaia: Mother Earth, the living organism to which we all belong and with whom we all find our security.  Jim Lovelock really has made an impression on her.

As I stood to leave Gordon asked me what my religion was, so I said I was a Christian, a member of the Church of England.  Ah, said Cynthia, Vivienne used to be a Christian having been brought up as one.  So Vivienne asked me whether I agreed with those Christians who said that because of the after-life we could just let this world rot.  No, I said, my Christian faith taught me to care for the world, and for the people in the world, because they were God’s creation.  “So, did I believe God created the world or that we were all simply part of God?”  No, much in the same way that although I had ‘created’ my daughter and cared for her, she had a mind of her own – so too God had created the world and cared for it, but still let us have our freedom.  Yes, I see.

And this was our ending.  Thanks were exchanged with offers of keeping in touch.  I left my card with Cynthia and Gordon.  My leaving seemed a bit of a blur and I have no recollection about what Gordon and Vivienne did as Cynthia showed me out onto the street and walked with me the five minutes round the corner to the tube station.  I had no chance to linger in the house.

“So that’s Vivienne for you” said Cynthia.  She has strong opinions, I said.  “Yes”, said Cynthia. “I agree with much of what she says, but not about there being no artists today.  She’s wrong about that.”  And she’s also wrong about elite culture trickling down, I said.  “Yes, that too”, she replied.  And she repeated that the next steps were an approach to Alan Yentob and I offered to help if there was anything further I could assist with.

Cynthia and I parted on Clapham High Street, leaving me to reflect on one of my more unusual meetings.  Vivienne Westwood’s most revealing keywords in our conversation had been ‘elite’, ‘high culture’, ‘tradition’, ‘discipline’, ‘putting effort into life’.  I felt her views were rather detached from reality – both politically and culturally.  There was no mention of the poor, the South, the developing world.  And as for climate change she had been well and truly ‘Lovelocked’.  This was Jim Lovelock with an eccentric cultural face.

Copyright © Mike Hulme, Thursday 2 September 2010

[1]  Leonard Peltier is a native American activist, imprisoned for murder since the 1970s.

[2]  ‘Why We Disagree About Climate Change’, published the previous year by Cambridge University Press.