Reviewed by PHILIPPA JAMIESON
Hang on tight! You're in for a rollercoaster ride with this autobiography by one of the founders of Greenpeace in Britain. Much of the book chronicles Susi Newborn's involvement in the organisation that made a name for itself through its anti-whaling activism on the high seas.
Newborn, who now lives on Waiheke Island, begins with a childhood incident in which she staged a sit-in beside a tree her father wanted to chop down. The stubborn girl won out, and this early example of direct action and determination sets the scene for the rest of the book. The author's upbringing was anything but conventional. Her parents were Argentinian actors, then her father became a diplomat, and Newborn was brought up mostly in England and later in Italy.
Privileged, yet an outsider, her sense of justice seems to have been strengthened by her father's death in suspicious circumstances, after he defied an order by the Argentinian government to return home.
Newborn's background and the events of her early life give her the combination of audacity and perserverance needed for a life of activism. Describing the establishment of Greenpeace in Britain, she reminds us that great things can be started by the inspiration and efforts of a handful of committed people. The story of the finding and funding of the Rainbow Warrior is one such example, and the reader can hardly fail to be moved by the excitement of idealism solidifying into action. In her fundraising activities she rubs shoulders with famous musicians who play benefit concerts, and such celebrities as the late Spike Milligan.
One of the original crew of the Rainbow Warrior, Newborn voyages around Europe, describing her adventures in vivid detail, including coming between a harpoonist and whale, and nearly being squashed by a ship carrying radioactive waste. The author's style is heart-on-sleeve, at times overwritten, but she makes up for it with her strongly evocative visual imagery and constant action. There's some steamy sex along the way - and barely a pause for breath. This rebel with a cause threw her entire self into her activism, so it came as no surprise to me that she crashed and suffered a mental breakdown, while with her husband and baby in Amsterdam.
Then the book falters, never regaining the momentum of those years of feverish activism. After recovering from her illness, Newborn goes to study in the United States, which is where she is when she hears of the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior. Her husband was a crew member on the ship at the time and, fearing for his safety, she flew to New Zealand, and ended up living here. She seems to gloss over the bombing, as though she assumes knowledge of the events on the reader's part. A brief overview would have been helpful.
Newborn then married a Kanak activist, and writes briefly of the troubles in his homeland that mean he is not safe there. She goes on to work in prisons and in mental health. While her Rainbow Warrior years are certain to be of widest appeal, the latter part of her story could have done with more rounding out. What happens to activists in later life? Do they burn out or fade away? Do they carry on their work in less flamboyant ways?
Newborn's comments on Greenpeace are candid. Gradually becoming disillusioned with the direction the organisation was taking, she resigned as a British director in 1979. She confides that she didn't like what Greenpeace had become - another corporation headed by a CEO pictured in a suit and tie on the cover of Time magazine. She is cynical about the achievements of Greenpeace, citing bureaucracy as swallowing up more money than the projects themselves, and seems more loyal in the long run to Friends of the Earth, another organisation she has had a long involvement with.
She views the media as a double-edged sword. Through the media, Greenpeace has been able to bring environmental causes to wide public attention, and indeed their methods of direct action provide new opportunities for the media - TV and photojournalists in particular. But she believes the media also have their own agendas, and can distort the message.
But Newborn is still an idealist: in her final paragraphs she addresses readers directly, exhorting us to go into nature, to look deep within, and to follow the path we must in order to save the world. She comes across as a catalyst for change, a feisty and inspirational leader with the energy to get people working for a cause.
Herald Feature: Conservation and Environment
Reviewed by PHILIPPA JAMIESON