Meet the Bristol grandparents who are trying to save the world
David Clensy meets the group of grandparents who have become unlikely eco-activists
AS eco-warriors go, they’re terribly polite. As he looks back on the excitement of his first attempt at “direct action” – by occupying a branch of Barclays bank in Clifton last week – 77-year-old Phil Kingston tells me: “We didn’t want to stay in there too long and be any trouble – after all the staff may have had children to pick up from school or anything.”
I don’t remember Swampy ever worrying about interrupting the school run – but that’s what’s all rather endearing about Phil and his fledgling band of eco-pensioners.
The grandfather of four founded the Grandparents for a Safe Earth organisation after realising he “had to do something to protest about what we’re doing to the Earth”.
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The Patchway widower launched the group a little over a year ago, with the three other elderly members joining Phil for regular conversations about ecological issues over tea and biscuits in his home.
But last week things looked set to turn nasty, when the green-minded pensioners decided to take things to the next level by dipping their toes in the water of “direct action”.
Far from turning nasty, as Phil recounts the events of last week to me, it sounds as though they all had a lovely afternoon as they protested against Barclays bank’s investment in fossil fuel industries
“We decided to focus on climate change, because it seems to have been set to one side since the recession took over the headlines back in 2008,” Phil explains as he leads the way into his lounge, where one of his fellow co-conspirators, 76-year-old grandmother of three Ina Humphreys, is waiting on the sofa.
“Some four-fifths of fossil fuel emissions are locked into economies, according to the International Energy Agency,” Phil says.
“If the coal output planned internationally in the years up to 2017 goes ahead, the International Energy Agency say we will see a rise in temperatures of two per cent since the start of the industrial revolution – and that will be a tipping point, from which there will be no return. That is the accepted limit for a possible safe level of temperature rise for human beings.
“That’s why we think time is of the essence with this – it’s not just a long term problem, it’s an urgent issue. When you reach a certain age, and you become a grandparent, you start to appreciate just how important the future of our planet really is.
“We targeted Barclays because they were the biggest UK investor in fossil fuels – and the fifth biggest in the world.”
But why target the suburban Whiteladies Road branch in particular?
“Primarily because it was on the number 54 bus route,” Ina says, quick in her honesty. “And we knew there was plenty of space in there and on the pavement outside – we didn’t want to be getting in anybody’s way with our placards.
“We certainly didn’t want to upset anybody – either the bank’s staff or its customers. Like President Obama said, we think you can disagree without being disagreeable.”
Phil explains: “We turned up at 12 noon with our placards and banners, and we went into the bank.We gave a leaflet to the manager explaining why we were there, and that we were occupying their bank as a protest.
“The staff were very nice to us,” adds Phil, a former social work lecturer at Bristol University. “They did call the police, but you expect that.”
The police officers arrived at the bank three hours after the pensioners had started their sit-in.
“Two officers came in,” Phil says, “and they asked us to leave. They were very nice about it though.
“We said we wouldn’t leave. They looked at the four of us, and they said they would need to go away and come back with reinforcements if we didn’t leave willingly. We said thank you, that would be fine.”
The two police officers returned to the bank at 4.30pm, with reinforcements – one additional PC.
“Then there were three of them, and four of us, so we still had an advantage,” Ina – a retired expert in preventative medicine – tells me excitedly.
Phil adds: “But it was getting late and we really didn’t want to hold up any of the staff if they had children to pick up from school. So we agreed to leave, but only if the police forcibly escorted us off the premises. The officers were very good about it – they eventually agreed they would hold our arms while we left, so it was clear that we weren’t just leaving of our own accord.
“But ultimately, we are prepared to be arrested, if it comes to that at a future protest,” Phil adds, as he brushes some digestive crumbs from his cardigan.
So you’re going to do this again?
“Oh yes,” says Ina. “Next time we may even target somewhere bigger – like the Broadmead branch of Barclays. And we hope that more pensioners will join us in our protest.”
Phil says: “We tried writing to the CEO of Barclays, but got nowhere, so we need to put the pressure on the bank by making our voices heard in the high street branches.
“After all,” he adds, his voice breaking into a brief unexpected sob, as he seems momentarily overwhelmed with a surprising flurry of emotion.
“This planet is, after all, the only home we have. We have to protect it.”
Then he takes another sip of his tea, and looks out of the lounge window at the storm clouds gathering over the Patchway estate.
“We simply must do what we can, not for us, but for the sake of all our grandchildren.”
Anyone wishing to join Grandparents for a Safe Earth can contact Phil on 0117 9698198.