Ben Goldsmith on losing his daughter Iris, a desperate search for meaning and how nature saved him
May 19, 2023. Series 7. Episode 65
Our guest for this episode is the passionate environmentalist and financier Ben Goldsmith. A leading figure in the UK’s rewilding movement, as well as a pioneer of green investment, Ben’s focus on our environmental crisis is now entwined with a deep sadness.
In July 2019 he lost, unexpectedly and tragically, his 15-year-old daughter Iris, in an accident on the family farm in Somerset. Paralysed by grief, Ben threw himself into an extraordinary search for answers, attempting to make sense of the tragedy, but also to maintain his deep bond with Iris.
In that search Ben talked to other grieving parents, leaders from a range of religions and faiths, a medium, all leading to a final, astonishing moment of revelation. The result of all this is his new book, God is an Octopus, a brilliant, compelling tribute to Iris and an examination of human nature in the context of the worst kind of crisis, and an explanation of the comfort he and his family found in nature itself. It is, I think, an important book that adds so much to this discussion around the crisis of grief.
An episode filled with emotion, sincerity and reflections on life and death that are as fascinating as they are useful. My thanks to Ben for sharing his story and I hope you find this podcast useful.
Ben’s Crisis Comforts:
1. Wild swimming. Anywhere I go, I love to swim in wild water. In the sea, swimming in the sea, we all love it, but swimming in rivers, ponds, I find that somehow cleanses me of emotional overload.
2. Walking in nature. I think we need this every day. If I don’t spend a little bit of time in nature, just for a few moments each day I start to feel short of something. I start to feel anxious.
3. Playing with children. Just rolling around on the floor with children and playing games and you know, just losing yourself in play with children, your own or someone else’s, I think is enormously cathartic.
Ben’s book – God Is An Octopus: https://amzn.to/3Iei6ub
Ben’s podcast – Rewilding the World with Ben Goldsmith: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/rewilding-the-world-with-ben-goldsmith/id1685196752
The Iris Project – https://theirisproject.org/
Ben’s Twitter: https://twitter.com/BenGoldsmith?s=20
Host – Andy Coulson
CWC production team: Louise Difford, Ed Isaacs and Jane Sankey
With special thanks to Global
Full episode transcript:
Andy Coulson: [0:00:44]] Welcome to Crisis What Crisis, the podcast that aims to useful lessons for when life unravels.
My guest today is the passionate environmentalist and financier Ben Goldsmith. A leading light in the rewilding movement in Britain and Europe, a former Director of Defra as well as a pioneer of green investment.
Ben’s determination to bring a focus to the crisis of our environment, especially here in Britain, is now entwined with a deep sadness. In July 2019 he lost, very suddenly and tragically, his 15-year-old daughter Iris, in an accident on the family farm in Somerset. Her death of course devastated him and his family.
Paralysed by that grief, it caused Ben to throw himself into an extraordinary search for answers, to try and make sense of the tragedy but also to find some trace of Iris. As Ben himself puts it, “I’ve come to grasp that learning to accept something so terrible as the loss of your child is difficult without any hope of a grander scheme of some kind beyond the reaches of our comprehension.”
So, in that search, that soul search, Ben talked to other grieving parents, leaders from a range of religions and faiths, a medium, all leading to a final, astonishing moment of revelation.
The result of all this is his new book, God is an Octopus, a wonderful, compelling tribute to Iris. An examination of human nature in the context of the worst kind of crisis, and an explanation of the comfort he and his family found in nature itself. It is also, I think, an important book packed with humanity, and that adds so much to this discussion around the crisis of grief.
Ben Goldsmith, welcome.
Ben Goldsmith: [0:02:28] Thanks for having me here, Andy.
Andy Coulson: [0:02:31] Ben, this book cannot have been an easy process. But it’s clear almost from the first page that you fully committed to it. It’s incredibly moving, raw, detailed, painful I’m sure but also as a process, not just the end result of it but the process, therapeutic?
Ben Goldsmith: [0:02:56] Yes, it was cathartic organising my thoughts after that- I guess that year of magical thinking. I didn’t have in mind to write a book, I think anybody who has never written a book can’t quite imagine themselves doing so.
And then a friend and journalist Isabel Oakeshott, who had written a book called Farmageddon, which I’d enjoyed a lot several years earlier, about the horrors of factory farming, suggested that we write a book together. A rewilding roadmap for Britain.
I was daunted by the idea, and in almost the first conversation we had after I’d decided to do it, she tore the idea up and said, “No, no, no. You need to write a book about your experience in in the last year and a half since Iris died. And it needs to be a personal book by you, and our idea can wait for another day.”
Andy Coulson: [0:03:52] Well, the right decision. We’ve talked a lot about grief on this podcast Ben, in different contexts. Losing a child of course is the very worst kind of grief. The counsellor Julia Samuel, who you might know, was on with us recently.
Ben Goldsmith: [0:04:07] Iris’s great aunt.
Andy Coulson: [0:04:09] Oh really? Well, there we are. She had very strong views on the words we use is this context. She feels that the word ‘recovery’ itself is entirely wrong, because it suggests that grief is something that happens, you know, that you recover from, that you get through and then you return to who you are. Or who you were, I should say.
When the truth about grief, which your book demonstrates rather brilliantly, is that grief changes us. There’s no recovery, as such. Is that a view that you agree with?
Ben Goldsmith: [0:04:42] Yes. What I’ve found is that the weight of our loss, it’s no less heavy than it was at the start but it’s kind of smoother now. You know, it’s kind of rounded at the edges. It’s warmer. In a way I’ve on some levels come to love the weight of our loss. You know, it’s a place that I visit, it’s a place in which to connect with Iris in a sense.
None of us who go through grief asked for this to happen to us. You know, we’d do anything to go back and for it not to have happened. These things happen to us and they do change us, and they come with gifts. You know, it’s almost as if I was in space all this time with a spacesuit and now I longer have a spacesuit, I’m exposed fully to a much greater breadth and depth of emotion. You know, I feel joy perhaps more greatly than I did previously because it’s so hard won.
Andy Coulson: [0:05:44] Tell us Ben about Iris. She was an extraordinary young lady.
Ben Goldsmith: [0:05:49] Yes, they always say that it’s the golden ones that are taken young, and it was true of my older brother. I lost my oldest brother Rupert Birley, my mother’s oldest son, who she had at the same age that I was when Iris was born. We were both very young first-time parents, my mother and I.
Andy Coulson: [0:06:09] You were seven I think when he died.
Ben Goldsmith: [0:06:11] Yes, I was seven and he disappeared off a beach in West Africa. He was on a business trip and they just found his watch and his wallet and his passport on a beach. He went for a swim, no one really knows what happened, they never found a body. My mother never had a funeral to attend, there was a memorial service later. And she was basically a single mother raising us, she went through unbelievable suffering and bore it with extraordinary courage.
One of the first things she said to me after Iris died, she said, “It’s so hard for me to tell you this, and it’s even harder for you to understand it, but it does get better. Life and joy do return.” I felt angry at her for saying that to me at the time, I remember. Why should-?
Andy Coulson: [0:06:51] You weren’t ready to hear it.
Ben Goldsmith: [0:06:52] Well you know, why should joy return? My Iris only had fifteen years, fifteen and a half years. That half is very important to me. Every day she had is important to me. But here I am at forty-two, I’ve had my fill. Why should I have joy and life again when she’s been deprived of hers? That was my feeling at the time. I didn’t want it to return.
And one of the helpful things that Kathleen O’Hara, who was a grief counsellor I saw in those early months, had said to me is, “When you do feel those moments of sunshine through the bleakness, even if it’s just enjoying a cup of tea, or finding a joke funny, you must grab it with both hands. You know, you deserve it and it’s crucial to your survival to grab those moments of joy when they do start to return. And allow yourself to.” Because often you feel guilty. Even if there’s no reason to feel guilty, you feel guilty that you’re still alive.
Andy Coulson: [0:07:47] Yes.
Ben Goldsmith: [0:07:48] Iris was a star. She was a golden child from the start. She was wise and smart beyond her years, you know. She always had the most brilliant little comeback, she was a strong, feisty little girl. The ringleader among her siblings and her friends in every possible circumstance, every time.
You know, the life and the energy just shone out of her. She had very bright blue eyes, and autumnal colouration my mother used to say, she was the kind of colour of kind of auburn and autumn. And she was like a little sort of fairy when she was little.
Andy Coulson: [0:08:25] You write that there was an other-worldliness about her.
Ben Goldsmith: [0:08:30] Yes, and maybe that’s what parents feel when they’ve lost a child. Maybe they immediately attribute kind of mystical qualities to the child that they’ve lost. But I remember at the time, when she was little, just from the start being extraordinarily proud of that girl. You know, she was just- she was one to show off. You know, you put her at the table and she could hold her own with the adults, and she was amusing and witty.
Andy Coulson: [0:08:55] And she was determined. There’s a conversation that you refer to in the- and clear-sighted, it seemed. Because there’s a conversation that you refer to in the book where you, as parents do, as we have that moment with our kids, where we have to raise the subject of drugs. And she said to you, “Don’t worry. Let me tell you the difference between me and the others. There’s never a moment when I don’t have one eye on the future.” A remarkable thing to-
Ben Goldsmith: [0:09:19] Yes, remarkable and agonising to recall really, because she was so sparkling in her preparation for her future. In a sense I derived comfort later from the notion that even though she didn’t live her future in actuality, she lived it in preparing for it and in anticipating it. But she was incredibly organised and, determined was the word you used, a determined child.
We found on a little table in her bedroom some mind-maps, I think they call them, where she’d mapped out her future. You know, what university she might go, the American ones on one side of the graph and the British ones on the other side of the graph. And what she should do to advance in English literature; books she should read, plays she should see. You know, how she should look after herself physically, exercise, learn how to play tennis, these kinds of things.
They were quite staggering, and it was sort of inconceivable to me in the pain of finding those things, that a child had made such an effort to prepare for her future ultimately didn’t have one.
Andy Coulson: [0:10:30] Ben, can we go to July 8th 201, the day of the accident? You saw Iris briefly the night before, when she came to the house in Somerset.
Ben Goldsmith: [0:10:44] Yes. She was meant to come the evening of Monday 8th with a friend, it was the very start of the summer holidays and I’d taken that week off to spend a week in July with them. And we had some cricket matches planned. I play cricket with my nephews, my two teenage sons play, a handful of friends. We have a team that plays friendlies against local leagues and other teams.
And we had a game on the Monday and the idea was we’d all be together for dinner on Monday evening. Sunday evening the cricketers had arrived, my nephews, and we had one of my brother-in-law Imran Khan’s nephew’s from Pakistan over [Shirsha 0:11:18] a talented all-rounder.
I got a call quite late, at about 9 o’clock, from Kate saying, “Iris and her friend Raffy are on the train now. They’re coming a day early.” I remember feeling a slight pang of irritation logistically speaking, there was not going to be anyone at the house really the next day, I wasn’t going to be there, how was I going to sort out collecting her from the station and so on?
So I managed to get a cab, and they arrived really quite late, 10, 10.15 or something. And it was the briefest of encounters. It’s the last time I saw her. I remember clocking that she’d suddenly become taller than my niece Tyrian, Imran’s daughter. I put them back to back, and we had a little giggle. She hadn’t recognised [Shirsha 0:12:01] in the darkness, she’d thought he was her cousin Sulaiman, and so she hugged this guy she’d never met before. And then giggled in my ear that she’d hugged him because she hadn’t quite realised that it wasn’t Sulaiman her cousin.
And then they kind of sloped off down the lawn to the kind of outbuilding which is where we have some bedrooms and a sort of party room where they kind of hang out, where they were going to sleep. And I regret not going with them. I think ordinarily I would have gone and hung out there for a bit, but on this occasion we had an early start and went to bed. And that was the last time I saw her.
And the next day we woke up, I woke up the various boys in the house, my wife Jemima, and we had a quick breakfast which I made, and we piled into two cars and drove to Gillingham station to get on the train to go to Charterhouse where the team we were playing had managed to rent the pitch there. It was a team of Indians over from India and one of them had gone to Charterhouse, so they got hold of the pitch.
Andy Coulson: [0:12:58] Right.
Ben Goldsmith: [0:12:59] And my wife Jemima was taking the same train on to London where she’s a chef in a restaurant.
So the only people at the house were the two sleeping girls, Iris and her friend Raffy, our two toddlers, Jemima and I had two toddlers, Eliza and Arlo at the time were two and less than one, and a German au pair we had for the summer. And then later in the day my ex-wife Kate, who lived in a cottage nearby, went round to see Iris an Raffy for a cup of tea before going to London herself.
And she told me that Iris had said to her, “I saw a ghost in the night, Mum. You know I’ve never said stuff like that before, I don’t know, but I saw a ghost last night in our room. Didn’t I, Raffy? I woke you up.” And Raffy said, “Yes, she woke me up.” “I saw a girl my age in the room. I honestly saw a ghost, Mum.” That was the conversation they had.
And then Kate hopped in the car and herself drove to London, mid-morning. And the girls, I heard from Raffy later they hung about in the garden playing music from a little music machine, they played some tennis which Iris had been learning at school, and then they had some lunch with the little children, and then then hopped on a farm vehicle known as the Mule, which is a kind of Polaris, a sort of heavy, slow-moving thing, really used to lug stuff around.
Andy Coulson: [0:14:23] It’s been described as a quad bike but it’s not a quad bike.
Ben Goldsmith: [0:14:24] It’s not a quad bike, it’s much bigger. It’s a six-seater, it’s like a van. It’s like an open-sided van with a truck bed at the back that you can put stuff in. You can move hay around, you can round up cows with it. It’s not particularly quick, it’s a big kind of diesel thing. The children have been driving it since they were seven or eight, I’d taught them how to drive it supervised, and then in their sort of teens, I guess thirteen, fourteen, I’d allowed them to start driving it themselves.
Andy Coulson: [0:14:53] Actually quite a slow-moving thing?
Ben Goldsmith: [0:14:55] Yes, it was not very quick. It was not very quick. I mean, I don’t think this particular one was licenced to go on the road. I think you could have got a number plate for it, but it was a slow-moving thing, it’s a farm vehicle, much slower than a quad bike. But top-heavy, and as it turns out they turn over. They can turn over. It hadn’t really occurred to anyone that this could turn over, but they can and it did.
They hopped on it, and they’d intended, Iris and Raffy, just to drive down the lane and across a field which has a track running diagonal to the bottom corner of the farm, where at the bottom there’s a road and on the other side of the road is the Dreamer’s farm, where the four Dreamer’s children had grown up and they sort of like almost siblings with my children. They’d all grown up together, a gang of seven children.
And Monica Oakley, the oldest of the girls, was Iris’s best friend, and Iris went to get her at the end of school and to introduce her to her new friend from her new school.
And so they hopped into this vehicle, drove down the lane, and instead of following the track down the diagonal of the farm, they weren’t even wearing shoes, you know? It should have been a three-minute, four-minute journey and they’d have been back with the third girl. Iris decided to go off the track and snake it left and right, to scare her friend. You know, as fast as it would go.
And I guess it would have been lighter than ordinarily with just two girls in it rather than more people and things and tools, it was always carrying stuff. And I guess the ground was incredibly dry at that time.
And she lost control of it and it fell. Meanwhile we were playing cricket in Charterhouse. We were batting second, we’d bowled well and had a little lunch in this kind of marquee, this little marquee by the side of the pitch, and our opening batsman had been out almost straight away. I was with my son Frankie, we were both batting lower down, and we decided to go for a walk around the boundary of the cricket field.
We went for this little wander, the two of us, we stopped to look in the church at the edge of the cricket field. Charterhouse has this chapel and the big oak doors were shut, I remember us trying to kind of open those doors to have a look inside the chapel.
And then we made our way on, and as we reached the far point of the other side of the field I saw my ex-wife Kate’s boyfriend Paul, which whom she now has a baby, who plays on my cricket team, come running round the edge of the field. And he arrived ashen-faced and he said, “It’s Kate, it’s Kate, Iris has had an accident.” He handed the phone to me and I said, “Jesus, what’s she done now?” She said, “She’s turned the Mule over. Ben, she’s not breathing.”
And I felt that sense of electricity run through my body, that you get when you receive really frightening news. Cold through my limbs. She said, “The ambulance is there,” and I said, “I’m coming.”
So I hung up, gave the phone back to Paul, and Frankie and Paul went one way and I ran the other way. I went to get my phone that was charging in a little booth next to this marquee, pulled my phone out, my hands were shaking and I couldn’t quite get it switched on.
I started calling people at the house and no one was picking up at the house. We have a gardener called Nick who is there all the time, we have a neighbour called Astrid who was there all the time. I called everyone I could, and then I called Kate again and she was driving back from London. She said, “They haven’t got her breathing, there’s a helicopter ambulance there. There’s people there, I’m going. You need to come, you need to come.”
I went round the back of this marquee where there was a building site and there was a little workman’s shed, and I stumbled into the workman’s shed and there were two guys in there having a cup of tea. I sank to my knees and I said, “My daughters’ had an accident, I think she’s going to die. God help me, God help me.” And I fell on the floor. They didn’t know what to do, they sort of froze. One of them brought me a glass of water, “Drink this, drink this.” And I think I was just moaning or groaning and praying on the floor.
Into the room came my friend Ben Elliot, who said, “You need to pull yourself together for thirty seconds to get to the car.”
Andy Coulson: [0:19:15] Get into the car, yes.
Ben Goldsmith: [0:19:17] And so he picked me up, I leant on him and we walked to the car in my cricket whites with my studs, him in his, and I said to the boys, “Everything’s alright. Iris has been in an accident, we’re going to go to Yeovil hospital.”
At this point I presumed they’ll get her breathing again. That’s what you do, you get people breathing again. People survive these things, we’ve all seen it on TV. Especially young, vigorous people, a young, strong, fifteen year old girl. She was not fragile, Iris, she was a strong- charismatically and physically she was a strong girl. That’s what I clung to.
So I got in the car and I said, “I’ll see you at Yeovil Hospital.” I saw them getting into Paul’s car, and I saw the cricketers milling about. The game at this point had stopped. And then in the car we drove, and no one picked up, and no one picked up. And I called and called.
Andy Coulson: [0:20:06] You’re in touch with Kate, and the calls to you both have stopped.
Ben Goldsmith: [0:20:11] Exactly. And Kate said, “You know why they’re not answering, don’t you? It’s because she’s dead.” And I said, “Don’t say it. Please don’t say it.” And all I could think of that poor girl driving on her own on the motorway, no one to drive her, and I couldn’t bear it. I wished I could have been in her car, I wished someone could have been driving her.
And I remember sending a message into a WhatsApp group that we have for people that are at Canwood, saying, “Kate is going to arrive before me. I don’t know what’s happening, but make sure someone is there please to hold Kate.” And as it happened we arrived at…
We arrived at roughly the same time. So I pulled into the lane first, with Ben Elliot, and then the car behind was Kate on her own. And by this point there was a few people milling about on one side of the lane at an opening to the field on the right, and at an opening to a field on the left there was an ambulance parked, a couple of paramedics and two policemen. And down the slope was this- the wheels of this vehicle pointing back up on the grass towards us.
The policeman said, “Are you Ben Goldsmith?” I said yes. “Do you know what’s happened here today?” I said, “I think I do.” And at this point Kate joined me and I held her arm, and he said, “I’m afraid your daughter Iris has been killed in an accident here. Would you like to see her?”
It was all very matter-of-fact. Even in that moment I remember thinking, “These people are such professionals, they’re able to deal with the worst possible situation in such a matter-of-fact, calm way.” You know, you’d imagine he would be crying too, or he’d hold you, or- but of course that’s not their job, they have to deal with this in a professional way.
The paramedic said to us, first words he said was, “I must warn you, she’s in a body bag.” And slid the side of the ambulance open, and we went up two little steps, and there was this beautiful girl in a body bag, zipped half-way up. So I remember her beautiful profile, she had such a lovely profile. I saw her shoulders, and there was no seemingly any injury at all. There was a tiny fleck of blood beneath one of her nostrils, nothing else.
As it happened, they’d work on her incredibly hard and done all kinds of things to try and save her. Tried to access her lungs through her ribcage and all kinds of things. I think, at one stage I was told a lot later, they’d got a heartbeat but only for a moment. And I was told by the paramedics in that same conversation, maybe four months later, that if they had saved her she would have been significantly brain-damaged and it would have been an unlikely occurrence in any event.
And Kate started saying, “My baby, my baby,” and said to the paramedic, “Please try again, please,” and pleading with him, “Can you please try again?” And at this moment we heard another car come in, and it was the boys. So we got out the side of the ambulance in time to shut the door, and I said to the boys that, “Iris is dead.”
Frankie, who was the nearest in age to her, made a kind of guttural noise and then we sort of held each other, the four of us, for a moment. And then Kate was remarkably strong. You know, she sort of got the boys by both hands and walked off towards the house, and I hovered for a bit and then followed them.
And we got back to the scene of the house where people were starting to arrive back already. My nephews were there within five minutes, the police car glided down the lane and the policeman got out and asked me to get into his police car to complete a statement. He’d written a statement, very basic facts. “I am the father, I have arrived on the scene, this is what’s happened.”
And it was all very, very business-like. I wanted to kind of scream, I wanted him to- I wanted to beg him to do something to help, to make- you know, “Is this really happening?” I kept saying to him. He was very calm, we filled the form, signed it, and then off he went. And then Kate’s mother arrived, by this point I lose track of time, but Kate’s mother arrived and took her off to the hospital to see Iris in the hospital, and I was in just a daze. There in that yard, sitting on a chair in that yard, as people milled about and arrived and left and so on.
Andy Coulson: [0:24:38] Ben the first thing I’d like to say, having heard that account, is just how sorry I am. And I think anyone who is listening to this or watching this will want me to say that to you. And the way that you’ve described it there, you know, is so unbelievably moving.
The practicalities point that you make there, the professionalism that you encounter, first of all, from the police and others, Julia actually talked about the importance of how you learn of your loss. The words that are used in those conversations. And obviously they are trained, professionals, to not try and sugar-coat it, actually to try and get to the practical things that need to be done, as hard as that is.
But you are then of course thrown into a very long process of wretched practicalities. You know, there’s the formal identification, the talking to the police as you say, obviously later the funeral, and inquest obviously because of the accident. And obviously because of who you are, there’s some media interest as well.
Do you remember at all how you manged all that? Because although you write in great detail about how you didn’t cope, you talk about your grief and the physical effect it had on you, and we’ll get to that, but you were managing it. How did you manage that?
Ben Goldsmith: [0:26:16] I have a big and close family. My nephews and my niece didn’t leave my side for the next two months. They stayed in that house. Kate and the two teenage boys were there in the cottage nearby. We began to call it the Grief Kibbutz. We were in that place in Somerset eating together three times a day, fifteen, twenty of us for two months. It was thankfully the start of July, so the summer was a good time to do that.
And I think my friends must have coordinated some kind of rota, because it seemed without any planning on my part I always had one of my best friends next to me, doing nothing in particular. We fell into a routine. We would play cricket on the tennis court, we’d bowl a plastic cricket ball and play four-a-side cricket. I went through the motions and we played these games of cricket that were distracting. We had cups of tea throughout the day and I allowed myself one drink in the evening. Not more, more than one had the wrong effect, too emotional, couldn’t cope. But one.
I started drinking Japanese whisky, someone brought me a bottle of Japanese whisky, and still to this day I allow myself- not every night but when I want it I have a single Japanese whisky with ice. Taking small pleasures through the day.
But I don’t remember a great deal about those early weeks. I remember the process of dealing with Iris’s death from a practical perspective being incredibly easy, but that’s partly because other members of my family took responsibility. My sister Jemima and others dealt with the funeral. All I said was that I wanted Ave Maria, and someone suggested a poem I should read, which was I Carry You in my Heart by EE Cummins, which I read in the funeral. Unbelievably, I don’t know how I did it.
I didn’t have that much involvement in the admin side of things. The inquest is something that’s done away from you, and the inquest happened so long afterwards that it felt like they were talking about someone else’s family. I felt removed from all of that.
After sitting in that police car I was not that involved in the process.
I think the most painful things were learning about the details of how she died, in conversations I had. Seemingly a throw-away comment would leave me reeling, you know, reeling. The friend Raffy said to me a while later, the first time I saw her after the accident, poor girl, it must have been terribly traumatising for her and thank God she was not hurt.
She said, “It seemed like- it seemed like nothing. You know, the vehicle fell, it seemed like no big deal. We were laughing,” or “I was laughing,” she said, “And then I realised Iris was trapped. So I went round, and there was Iris trapped by her neck.” And she said, “Please, get help.” And she said, she was crying. It was the first time she’d ever seen Iris cry. The first time she’d ever seen her not strong, were I think the words she used. Because Iris was a strong girl, she was the ringleader of all her friends.
That- that- that piece of information of her pinned, wanting help, was agony for me to learn. I agonised over the details of, you know, could Nick, our gardener who heard the screams, could he have got their quicker? Could he have lifted it? He couldn’t lift it, it was too heavy. Could the two of them have tried to lift it? I wanted to find that vehicle in that scrapyard wherever it ended up, and see if I could lift it. See if I could lift it with one friend.
I agonised over the details, the what ifs, as if by agonising over them you could somehow unpick the past, that maybe it didn’t have to be real. And that’s I think an instinct that we all have, certainly that I have, is I want to fix problems. I’m good at fixing, I’ve always been the problem-fixer in my family, in my wider family. You know, I’m quite good at solving problems. People bring me problems, I fix them.
And this is one that I couldn’t fix, but my mind couldn’t let go of the idea that perhaps I could. And so it whirred around and around and around the details of what might have been, what might not have been. And in the end I just exhausted myself with that.
And someone once said to me that- my friend George Frost, who lost his older brother Miles, my very close friend Miles who just dropped dead of a heart attack because of a congenital issue in his heart-
Andy Coulson: [0:30:37] These are David Frost’s sons.
Ben Goldsmith: [0:30:38] David Frost’s sons. And Miles was one of my closest friends in the world, as is George. And Miles just dropped dead on a jog aged thirty-one, and George was the one that found him. And he said, “The greatest curse becomes a blessing, and that’s that you can’t do anything about it.” And there’s a truth in that, because initially the fact that there’s nothing you can do about it makes you want to rip your hair out, but eventually that you can do nothing about it becomes something of a blessing.
Andy Coulson: [0:31:03] Yes, yes. And that group of people that you described includes- you’ve mentioned him already because he was there at the cricket match, Kate’s partner Paul. He himself of course has also deep experience of grief. Lost his parents in the Tsunami of 2004.
Ben Goldsmith: [0:31:20] I often thanked God that Kate had Paul, because he knew deep grief. You know, as a teenager lost his parents in the Tsunami in Sri Lanka, and is just a solid and wise person. And a kind, ordinary person, not complicated. And he was and still is the most extraordinary support to Kate.
And the arrival of their little boy Arthur, two years after Iris’s death, has been a ray of sunshine for all of us, particularly for those two.
Andy Coulson: [0:31:56] Yes. Ben, let’s talk about the home, because the picture that you’ve painted there is one of support. But you are at the scene of the accident, you’re looking at that place every day. Was there a point where you felt, “I don’t want to be here, actually. I can’t stay here”?
Obviously that’s not where it ended, it became a great source of comfort to you I think to be there, but a difficult process, one imagines?
Ben Goldsmith: [0:32:28] Yes, I think in the first week or ten days I don’t think I thought anything of the future. Just blackness, you know? I didn’t even think of how we survive, I didn’t know if we would, I just tried to live minute by minute. I wandered around in a state of fear, really. It feels very fearful, the whole thing feels very fearful, grief. You feel like you’re afraid but you don’t quite know of what. It feels like you’re waiting, a lot of waiting, even though you don’t know quite what you’re waiting for.
Like waves. Kathleen O’Hara who was a grief counsellor I saw, described them as waves in the ocean, these waves of emotion come over you and you find yourself in floods of tears round a corner, or on the floor, you know, in the depths of despair. But you do feel a little better afterwards, and then you have a short period of time where you’re sort of able to function, and then it comes again. And as time passes, those waves become less frequent, less regular.
I think after the funeral, which was I forget, maybe a week or ten days after the accident, I arrived straight back at Canwood that evening and I went from the car on my own down to the pond where I swim. There’s a little stream which is the headwater of the River Frome that runs through our farm, and as it rounds a bend we’ve widened it and opened it into a kind of swimming area with a little island. It’s a very blissful place to swim.
And I stripped down and dived into that pond, and I remember very vividly being struck by the beauty of nature in that moment. It was the last of the late afternoon sun, the place was humming with life, that time in early July, dragonflies everywhere, swallows all above in the sky. The island has a tree on it and the sun was shining kind of laterally through the leaves of that tree and it looked particularly verdant and green, and the water felt kind of warm. Not just in the physical sense, it felt in a kind of metaphorical sense warm. I felt enveloped or held in some way.
And I remember thinking that I’m amazed that I still find the world beautiful. I could not imagine that I would find anything beautiful or joyful ever again, and here I am in this pond, swimming on my own, on the day of my daughter’s funeral. You know, inconsolable but appreciative of the beauty around me.
And I realised then that there is something I guess perhaps to live for. And it’s here. And my survival may even depend upon staying here.
I remember it very clearly, that moment. But it was one of astonishment that I still found beauty in the world.
Andy Coulson: [0:35:30] Yes. Ben, you’re a man with very strong views on rewilding, the decline of migratory birds, beavers, protection of the fly-aways that see those birds kind of coming here and the wetlands that they need. You have strong views about sheep that you’re also making public as we speak. It’s an important part of your life, and as clearly as you’ve touched on there been a very important part of your grieving process. The two things have become entwined.
Ben Goldsmith: [0:36:02] Yes. I wrote a letter at the age of fourteen to the Country Life Magazine, Britain’s biggest rural magazine, suggesting that their readership lack imagination when it comes to the subject of wild boar. The wild boar is a native species in Britain, a keystone species, they’re nature’s gardener. You know, they turn the soil in the way that no other animal can. And that bare soil becomes a germination bed for about a third of the plants that grow in Britain. Trees like Black Poplar and European Aspen, Willow, Sallow, they need the activities of wild board to germinate. Wildflowers that are abundant in Europe, things like poppies and cornflowers and scarlet pimpernel, they need the activities of pigs. They’re an important keystone species and they were extinct in this country for the last three hundred years. And I won the prize letter for that. We’re talking 1995 or something.
So I’ve been obsessed since I was a child with the idea of restoring wilder nature to Britain. We’re one of the most tamed landscapes or countries in Europe, we’re one of the most nature-depleted countries on Earth, in fact. If nature is wealth, then the United Kingdom and Ireland are near the bottom, you know, in the bottom 3 to 5% of countries of the world.
So I have devoted more and more of my time and my life to this movement, and since Iris died I’ve sort of- my life has kind of coalesced around this mission. This is what I want to spend my life doing, as much as I possibly can.
Andy Coulson: [0:37:33] Ben, one of the great rewilders is your friend Anders Povlsen. He and his wife Anne lost three of their four children in a terrorist attack in Sri Lanka, which again people listening and watching, listening to this podcast and watching, will remember, something that happened just three months before you lost Iris. You travelled to their home in Scotland and spent time with Anders as part of the process that you embarked on to try and make sense of what had happened. An important conversation, one imagines.
Ben Goldsmith: [0:38:10] Yes, I remember being absolutely floored by that news. I mean, it’s inconceivable isn’t it? The scale of the devastation that they suffered. Easter 201, for weeks I couldn’t think of anything else. And then July that year I lost Iris.
Anders, like me, and Anne, are passionate nature lovers and have embarked upon this extraordinary multi-generational mission to restore nature and vibrancy to a great swathe of Scotland’s Highlands. They bought these vast deer estates, mostly from foreign owners, and they have reduced deer numbers and the Caledonian forest is starting to re-emerge in a way that is quite mind-blowing to see.
You know, you travel from Inverness airport through that landscape and you arrive at Glenfeshie, it’s like moving from black and white into technicolour. Landscapes that people said couldn’t have trees, couldn’t have wildflowers or birds, landscapes that we’ve been told all our lives are natural in a bare and barren state, are re-awakening, and there’s little trees dotting the hillsides right to the very top. There’s no doubt that he derives a meaning for his life in the wake of that tragedy in nature recovery, in restoring nature, spending time in nature.
It’s his mission on this Earth and he’s doing things all over the place now with increasing vigour and at increasing scale. Not just in Scotland but in Africa and in Romania. I hope this year to travel to Romania to go hiking in the Carpathian Mountains in an area that was saved by Anders from industrial logging. You know, a place where you find bears and wolves, a place that the Prince of Wales, sorry, the King now, loves to go, and has even built his own guest house because of the richness of its nature. The King has been known to say that if you want to see a medieval English landscape go to Transylvania, Carpathia. These are wild forests with beautiful flower-rich valleys that are cultivated by these villages.
Anders is, like me, completely devoted to all of this stuff. And I think without it he’d have found it a lot harder to survive what he has survived.
Andy Coulson: [0:40:28] Yes, yes. You speak to Anders, you speak to a number of other parents who have lost their children, you seek those people out. You are on a mission to understand, to try and make sense. And you embark on this other kind of process of self-examination, Ben, of faith, of these sort of deeper questions that, until you lost your daughter that you hadn’t, like most of us, sent too much time thinking about too deeply.
And that was sparked by a meeting with a spiritualist.
Ben Goldsmith: [0:41:02] Yes. So these kinds of ideas and questions had never meant anything to me previously. I was not a religious person. I’m Christened and confirmed but that’s because I got a week of school for getting confirmed at Eton, and my mother got me Christened with my sister when I was younger. You know, I considered that there’s enough here in this world, in this realm, that we don’t need to think about anything else. Anything else is a distraction.
You know, nature is magic. The complexities and miracles of nature, the innumerable interactions that take place between different species before your eyes, the patterns when you go walking, these things have always fascinated me since my earliest memories.
I didn’t need more. I felt that invisible gods and spirits in the sky were just an excuse to get on with pillaging what we have here, because it makes what we have here somehow humdrum. I felt in some ways that the religions of the world had been complicit in the destruction of nature in some senses. It didn’t interest me at all.
In the early days and weeks after Iris died people did write to me referencing ongoing existence and, you know, your connection with her remains intact, Iris still loves you wherever she is, and she was chosen to be taken at this time, and all these kinds of different ways of looking at it. They didn’t really resonate with me, you know, I was more focussed on just trying to survive one day after the next.
But what I did find incredibly helpful was seeing other bereaved parents. So I went to see a handful of mothers and father who had lost teenage children. Some of the friends, some of them friends of friends. In some cases they’d lost their teenage children twenty years earlier. Just to talk with them about how they survived. Does life really return? Just to get a sense of, you know.
I have a duty to survive this, I have younger children, I have a young wife you know, who has married me and wants to spend the rest of her life with me. I’ve got people who need me.
Andy Coulson: [0:43:06] So this is driven by a sort of practical requirement.
Ben Goldsmith: [0:43:10] It was very practical. This was a practical requirement. I can’t check out of life at this stage. I can’t just check out, I have to find a way to live again, I have to laugh again, I have to find joy again, because for me to check out would inflict an enormous degree of loss and pain on those who rely on me, particularly my other children and my wife Jemima.
And I wanted to see how it’s done and I wanted to just- I derived solace from being with these people. They were helpful, they knew. Those people who have lost a child, they’re in a kind of invisible club, and when we talk to other we are on the same level. We kind of know.
Andy Coulson: [0:43:47] But you were clearly, before you lost Iris, a fundamentally curious individual. But that accelerated?
Ben Goldsmith: [0:43:56] Yes. So I had never been particularly curious about theology, religion, spirituality, it felt hocus pocus to me.
Andy Coulson: [0:44:05] Yes, but other issues, clearly.
Ben Goldsmith: [0:44:08] But other issues of course, I read a lot and I’m interested in culture, I’m interested in history. I’m interested in the culture of theology and I’ve always been fascinated by the rituals themselves, there’s something beautiful to see kind of whirling dervishes of the Mevlivi, you know, or the beauty of Tibetan Buddhism. I’ve always found these things incredibly beautiful from an aesthetic point of view, and I’ve recognised their important from a societal point of view, but I just wasn’t religious or spiritual, I just didn’t buy it.
And then one of the mothers who had lost a child as a teenager many years before, at the end of our conversation handed me a number and a name, and suggested I go and see a spiritual medium in Fulham, and that it might offer me something. Because I’d asked her the question, “Do you think your son is still- his existence is ongoing?” This is the hardest thing to stomach, is the idea that the existence is no more, that they’ve just vanished. That is the hardest thing, because it’s so unfair that some people should live till ninety-six and that your golden child has had their experience extinguished in its entirety at the age of fifteen and a half. That is the hardest thing to stomach.
So I grabbed the bit of paper and thought, “Well of course. If- of course I’ll go. Maybe there’s something here, who knows?” I’ve always been a sceptic. And I went to see this lady that very afternoon in Fulham and sat in her front room, and I don’t seek to persuade anyone that what occurred was real, or that you know, that Iris was present in the room. For me in that moment it was extraordinarily real. We had a conversation for an hour and a half in which this lady performed some kind of magic.
I don’t know how she did it. Either she reads my mind, or she had some indefinable line of communication to Iris. But I had a conversation that was extremely meaningful, in which Iris described the accident, how she kept apologising, she kept apologising for this having happened, and you know, how she’s always taken risks and gone too far, but if it was going to be at any time it was going to be at this time that she had to leave. And that she felt like she was waking up from a dream, and it had taken her some time to figure out where she is.
And she delved into things that are unique to my relationship with Iris. Things about how I made her breakfast, and things about how I always begged her to play tennis and she’d finally learned, and she wished she’d had a chance to show me, and she was going to show me. And she never took a wrong turn.
Now, what that event did was on one level it gave me an extraordinary degree of comfort in the sense that, “Wow, maybe there is something to this. Maybe the religions of the world, when they talk about an afterlife, you know, ongoing existence, maybe they are onto something. Who am I to say that 99.9% of all the humans who have ever existed, what they believed is false? Who am I? You know, maybe they were right. Maybe she is still there in some alternate realm of some sort. You know, maybe we are able to communicate.”
And in the madness of that early grief it was an extraordinarily comforting thing. I can’t quite describe the joy and the tears of my time after that. In the hours after that I walked the streets, and sat in a café, I bumped into a cousin of mine and I could barely articulate to her what had just happened. I cried, and it was just so meaningful.
But what it more importantly did was it got me exploring. You know, there’s a small proportion of humanity believes this is hocus pocus including until recently me. What is out there? What is our experience after death? Do we have a soul? Is there a part of us which is not our conscious mind?
I was aware of meditation, for example. I had been aware of meditation as a tool for calming us down and helping us to live better, happier lives. And I was aware of the basic idea that our personality is kind of divided into the kind of conscious ego which helps us to survive and thrive in the world, and a deeper kind of spirit, or a deeper kind of consciousness which is where we feel such instincts as love and guilt, and a sense of responsibility and the kind of better aspect of ourselves, perhaps. And by silencing the first, you give greater expression to the latter.
And I was aware of these ideas, and maybe this- this part of us somehow survives death. Maybe Iris is still there in some way.
So I met those religious leaders that I knew. The vicar in Somerset. I was introduced by a friend to a rabbi, who I still see occasionally in North London. A fascinating man with tremendous kindness and tremendous wisdom, and I’ve learned a lot from him. And I went on a couple of occasions to see a Buddhist monk at the Vihara in Acton. A friend who is a car mechanic local to where I first lived took me to see his Buddhist monk.
And what was interesting to me is that they sort of talk in very similar language. You know, they talk about souls surviving death, and in some instances they talk about souls returning in a kind of cycle to re-experience Earthly existence more than once, you know, reincarnation and so on.
All of these ideas were deeply appealing to me in the hope that maybe Iris comes back, maybe we have another baby and maybe- you know, you think along those lines.
Where did I end up? Where am I now? I don’t think these things are easily explained. I remain sceptical of those who believe they know the answers to any of these questions. I believe that we are part of a grander mystery than meets the eye, and I believe that it’s incomprehensible to us sitting where we are here in this world. I think there is far more magic, and I think that reality is far stranger than we might imagine, perhaps that we’re even capable of imagining. And I believe that I have an ongoing connection with Iris in a way that is difficult to articulate.
I posted a message on my private personal Instagram to Iris. I took to writing little letters to Iris with a picture of her that only my friends could see, I found it very cathartic. On her nineteenth birthday, and what I said in that message is that my grief and my pain is infused with a strange sense that somehow she is close by even though I can’t see her.
Andy Coulson: [0:50:59] Yes.
Ben Goldsmith: [0:50:59] You know, I feel her closeness. And I feel an ongoing connection in the form of the love which I feel for her, which is the same as it always was. If I allow the thoughts to clear, the thoughts of disappointment and sadness and rage that she’s lost from this world, the sense of loss for her future that she won’t live, the missing of her, the what could have been. All those thoughts, if I allow them to fade for a moment and just dwell upon the love that I have for Iris and the love that she had for me, then I feel a very powerful connection that feels otherworldly. It feels powerful and it feels two-sided. And it’s rare. But when I feel it, it’s overwhelming. And it feels to me that there’s an ongoing connection which is love. You know, I feel that if there is a frequency into whatever realm Iris is in, whatever that might mean, the frequency is love. You know, and I think that is-
And I don’t think it matters what shape that takes, or whether it’s two-sided to the extent that she is a conscious, existing being in that realm. I’m absolutely open-minded to the idea that she is, but time itself may be an illusion. The whole thing is stranger than we can possibly fathom.
So I don’t know what any of it means, I just know that I have this ongoing connection in the form of the love we feel for each other, and I can go to that place almost when I want to and it’s deeply meaningful to me.
Andy Coulson: [0:52:37] That’s wonderful. Ben, was there any resistance to your- because on one level, you know, the detail in which you go into this in the book, it’s fascinating but you could also look at it and say it’s kind of borderline obsession that you kind of fell into on this exploration that you embarked on.
Was there any resistance to it from anyone? Were you steered away from it, or was it encouraged?
Ben Goldsmith: [0:53:06] No, because I was just me going about- I’ve always been obsessional. You know, I’m obsessional about beavers, I believe beavers are the most important tool we have for restoring life to our landscapes, I think they’re the keystone of all keystone species, the top of the pyramid, and I’ll tell anyone who listens. You know, members of my family will joke about my obsession with returning beavers to every river system from which they’ve been extirpated. I’ve always been obsessional all my life.
But I certainly on this stuff may have felt a twinge of self-consciousness, and certainly would not have rammed any of this down anyone’s throat. Especially given that I’m not evangelical, I don’t know the answers. So it wasn’t as if I arrived at a place of saying, you know, the orthodox Christians have got it right, or the Kabbalist Jews have got it right, and therefore I’m going to proselytise on their behalf. I never got there.
But what I would say to those who are bereaved or hurting is, absolutely don’t be closed-minded to the idea that there’s a lot more than meets the eye to reality and that death may very well not be what we think it is.
Andy Coulson: [0:54:06] Ben, can I bring the conversation back to something in this realm?
Ben Goldsmith: [0:54:11] Yes.
Andy Coulson: [0:54:11] You touched on it, but social media. You’re a prolific Tweeter, you’ve engaged with social media pretty actively before and after Iris’s death. There’s often a view obviously, it comes up on this podcast frequently, you know, is social media a good or bad thing in crisis? You’ve found it to be a good thing, yes?
Ben Goldsmith: [0:54:32] Yes, I mean I was lucky in that there was kind of- I’ve always been interested in politics without ever wanting to be in politics, and Iris died in July 2019. And perhaps that summer, that autumn, were among the most interesting in British politics for a very long time, you know, with the chaos around Brexit and will it happen, won’t it happen? And a new leader of the Conservative Party at the election in December 2019, and you know, I found that a helpful distraction undoubtedly.
Because I didn’t have the attention span in the early months to absorb myself in a book, aside from the kinds of books I was reading on kind of religion and spirituality, which was a specific line of enquiry. I couldn’t watch movies, I didn’t listen to music, I was fidgety the whole time. It’s very difficult. And the bite-sized pieces of information on something completely unrelated to your life was what I needed. And I found scrolling Twitter, you know, at that time very, very helpful.
I now limit my participation on Twitter in a time sense to about twenty minutes a day, because otherwise you could spend the whole time following one link through to the next and reading endless articles and it’s a rabbit warren. But at that time it was very helpful to me.
Andy Coulson: [0:55:42] But not just in terms of receive but also in terms of transmit.
Ben Goldsmith: [0:55:44] So transmit, I’ve done that on the things I care about since I first discovered Twitter, and I probably am a little bit unrestrained on that. My private Instagram is comprised of people who are my friends and my family, and not people I don’t know. And on that, I wrote a little note to Iris with a picture that was meaningful to me, roughly every two months for the first year and on the birthdays since. And writing those messages, those letters to Iris about how I was feeling, and about how much I miss her, and about my meanderings and wonderings as to where she might be now, was enormously cathartic.
And it also made me feel supported by those that I love in my life, by the replies that came back. So it was definitely helpful to me. It may not be for everyone. I’ve always been quite an open book, I tend not to hold back, I tend to be quite open in talking about how I feel about things. So it didn’t frighten me to do that and I found it an unblemished positive.
Andy Coulson: [0:56:48] I think I’m right in saying that it’s one of those posts, I don’t know whether it was on Instagram or elsewhere, that led to you getting I think a letter from someone who had read one of your posts, to say, “Look, maybe you should try this.” This, being a fairly extreme hallucinogenic tea.
Ben Goldsmith: [0:57:13] Hallucinogenic tea. And bear in mind, okay, I’ve always been very square about such things. I’ve never been one that can handle drugs very well. You know, I’m sort of hyperactive and high energy, and on the occasion where I’ve tried drugs when I was much younger it never really worked for me. I’m not moralistic about it, it just wasn’t very me.
I like to drink if I go out, I’ve certainly smoked marijuana, I think the prohibition of marijuana is absurd. I recognise the dangers of marijuana for those who are too young or those who do it too much, or those who take kind of chemically enhanced versions of it, but fundamentally marijuana for me is on a par with wine or whisky. You know, you can abuse those as well.
So that’s sort of the only things I’ve ever really engaged in in terms of shifting my consciousness. You know, alcohol and marijuana.
But a number of people said to me, people I respect and some quite unexpected people, sorry, people I respect and some quite unexpected people, suggested that I completely alter my consciousness for a period of time by drinking this hallucinogenic tea that comes from the Amazon basin, which is a central part of kind of the spiritual lives of millions of people across the Amazon basin. You know, it is to them what the red wine of the Holy Communion is to Catholics. That’s what they do at moments of individual and collective tribulation, it’s what their spiritual leaders do to obtain enlightenment and so on.
And the early Europeans who arrived in South America and imbibed this tea reported experiencing spiritual revelations and feelings of deep connection with all other living beings, and of course the Catholic Church quickly prohibited all Europeans from engaging in this.
So I did some reading on this, and realised that you’re hard-pressed to find an indigenous society past or present anywhere in the world that doesn’t engage in these kinds of practices as kind of a central tenet of their spiritual lives. And so I read up on it and I thought, “Well, if Iris is out there, this is how I’ll find out.”
So it was absolutely part of my quite practical and rather obsessive quest to figure out whether there is some kind of life after death, you know, and so I did a lot of research and I found someone that I took faith in, and had several conversations with that person, and took references and you know, I was quite scared. I mean, really it took a lot of courage to do this.
To do it anyway is quite frightening I think, to-
Andy Coulson: [0:59:44] It was quite full-on, right?
Ben Goldsmith: [0:59:46] Yes, to embark on something that’s going to floor you for an entire night, with the possibility of vomiting thrown in, and send you to a place the likes of which you’ve never known. If all you’ve ever been is too drunk or a little bit too stoned after smoking a joint, then this is a really different league. And to do so when you’re less than a year since losing your daughter and have been in a state of deep grief and emotional vulnerability, it really did take courage. I really had to steel myself to do this, and I had sweaty palms and adrenaline just thinking about it for days and weeks beforehand.
For me it was a watershed moment in my grief. I did it over two nights and it- it’s difficult to articulate in words the depth of the experience, and I’ve attempted to do that in my book, and I won’t necessarily do so here except to say that it’s like a kind of lucid dreaming. You know, it’s like being in one of your night dreams but in a far more vivid and vibrant way, a far more translatable way in which you have more autonomy to decide what happens next.
Andy Coulson: [1:00:49] And you hold onto it.
Ben Goldsmith: [1:00:50] And you hold onto it. And it’s difficult to emerge from such an experience without imagining that there are no some kind of alternate realms of existence. You know, you do feel waves of kind of knowing, or- I mean, the waves of knowing that I had were of understanding those religious people I’ve known in my life as to why they did what they did.
You know, I had an elderly nanny called Mimi who went to church on a Sunday with her best hat on. My brother-in-law Imran Khan who is devoutly Muslim, who is absolutely rigid and rock solid in his faith that there is a god, and that God is comprised of love, and that God has great intentions and great benevolence, and that he is doing right by God.
When I think of the kind of other religious people I’ve known, my Uncle Teddy who was sort of religious in his fervour for nature, I sort of found myself sort of muttering, you know, muttering to myself. “They knew. How did I not know that there is more out there, that there is a god?”
Now, I don’t know what that god is or what shape, you know, what it means. I think the mystery is far beyond our understanding and I think the religions have done their best to try to interpret this, but I believe that we see the tip of the iceberg. And I believe that we are enveloped in a kind of benevolence of some kind. And I felt it when I swam in the pond that day, and I felt confirmation of it when I was in that strange lucid dreaming of this Iowaska tea.
I did it over two nights and I saw my Iris, not in a sense that she was there in an apparition, in a sense that I saw with perfect clarity my relationship with her. I saw cleared of all the much of the thoughts and the anger and the grief and the- I just say my perfect little relationship with my little girl, you know, who I had known so well. The little looks we shared with each other at the table when someone said something funny without realising it. The little moments that we share with those that we love that aren’t necessarily describable in words but we know each other so well. I saw that crystal-clear.
And then the others in my life, my other children, my wife, my mother, my siblings, my nephews, my nieces. I saw them with a clarity that I’d never seen before. I know them better than I knew them before.
But most of all I left with a sense of awe, like I emerged from this thing that I don’t ever intend on doing again because it is very frightening and it is extraordinary and very kind of- it’s an undertaking that I don’t know that I would do again, or that I need to. But I left it with a sense of awe for the blessings I have in my life, and for this thing that we’re a part of, and that I’m alive at this moment.
And yes, it was a watershed.
Andy Coulson: [1:03:38] In the midst of the process you ask for a pen and paper and your write the words-
Ben Goldsmith: [1:03:42] Yes, I scribbled in kind of barely legible letters on a piece of paper, and I drew lots of hearts and people’s names, this was as we were emerging. And by the way there’s a euphoria in having survived it. You come out the other side, and- there’s no danger of course that you’re not going to survive it, this is non- it can’t kill you, this stuff, you’re going to be fine.
But it’s not enough. You still emerge from it and think, “Thank God that’s over. And my God, I’m not going to let what I’ve experienced by unpicked by my own logical mind later. I will hold onto this.” You know, like the Ratty and the Mole when they see the god Pan, the friend and helper in that beautiful chapter in Wind in the Willows, and there’s a kind of forgetting but they hold onto it, the experience that they’ve had.
And I decided to write it down. It was sort of illegible but I found the bit of paper later that day and I’d written, “God is an octopus.” I remember there being something octopus-like about whatever it was that was enveloping me. Like the flame of a gas cooker that was sort of in all things and all living things, it was sort of pluralistic to infinity.
So I wrote those words, I don’t remember writing them, and as a joke I said we should call the book that. And Bloomsbury the publisher decided to keep it, so the book is called God is an Octopus.
Andy Coulson: [1:05:01] Superb. Ben, you’ve explained just how all of things that we’ve discussed have kind of weaved into an even greater purpose for you now in life. But you’ve also created the Iris Prize with Kate in memory of your daughter. Tell us about it please, and why it’s so important.
Ben Goldsmith: [1:05:27] Young people have the greatest to fear from environmental breakdown. You know, the effects of the degradation of our natural environment are beginning to be felt in such a way that the future looks a little scary. And young people have the fearlessness and the energy, as well as the knowledge now, to be the ones who do most about this. It’s sort of unfair that they should be the generation that is going to do the heavy lifting, but it is what it is.
And so I thought that we could help lift up young people from around the world who are doing wonderful things, the things that Iris was not able to do. And especially those from communities that are harder to reach, those from indigenous communities for example, or inner city communities, and provide them with funding, provide them with mentorship.
The Iris Prize is our way of honouring Iris’s life and helping other young people.
Andy Coulson: [1:06:19] That’s a wonderful legacy, but Ben, the book is a wonderful legacy. You know, there are- the team and I had this exchange. There are books that sort of stay with you, and yours is a book that stays with you. So thank you.
I’d like to finish though by asking for your Crisis Comforts, three things, can’t be another person, that helped you through, have helped you through. Three specific kind of comforts. What would they be?
Ben Goldsmith: [1:06:50] So, when we saw each other first this morning you said, “You’re a cold water swimmer.” Well, my little secret is I don’t really like swimming in cold water in the winter, but that pond of mind in Somerset from about April through to October really is a source of refuge. And it’s not just that pond. Anywhere I go, I love to swim in wild water. In the sea, swimming in the sea, we all love it, but swimming in rivers, ponds, I find that somehow cleanses me of kind of emotional overload.
You know, if I’m feeling particularly anxious or upset, if I dive into the sea, dive into the pond and swim, just splash about in the water, I come out feeling better every time. It really works. So that for me would be high up the list, and if I were braver I’d do it throughout the year. I just can’t face jumping into a pond that feels like a Slush Puppie in January. But I have friends and family members who derive even greater comfort when the water is colder and I won’t diminish their recommendation.
The second would be just walking in nature. You know, I think we need this every day. If I don’t spend a little bit of time in nature, even if it’s literally to eat a sandwich on a park bench in a square in central London, if I don’t see the birds and feel the sun on my face and look up at the trees just for a few moments each day I start to feel short of something. I start to feel anxious.
And if I’m really feeling low I will switch off my phone, if I’m able to I’ll grab the dog, or even better persuade my wife to join me, and I’ll walk on Hamstead Heath or walk through Regent’s Park, or if we’re in Somerset, which more often than not we are, just go walking in nature. And using all five senses to kind of observe nature, to kind of- it’s a sort of meditation. I’m very bad at meditation, I’m just not very good at it yet, but walking and noticing the smells and the sounds, and identifying stuff, “That’s a bluetit and I can hear a chiffchaff singing,” it clears your mind and makes you feel better.
I think the third is- I think the third is playing with children. I mean, I think- I’ve got a little boy called Vinnie, he sounds like a Hatton Garden watch dealer, Vinnie Goldsmith, or a villain, and he’s six months. And just rolling around on the floor with children and playing games and you know, just losing yourself in play with children, your own or someone else’s, I think is enormously cathartic.
You know, I think they kind of somehow surf the sort of quantum froth when they play, and they’re sort of of this world and not of this world. And I think that’s why they play, and I think we can participate in that and benefit from that, and of course they benefit from it.
Most importantly, putting my phone away. Not being distracted by- I think messages and obligations I think when you’re not feeling up to it can really knock you down. You have to be in the right frame of mind to deal with obligations that come relentlessly into your phone.
Andy Coulson: [1:09:47] Yes, very good. Ben, thanks so much for joining us, it’s been a pleasure.
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