'What did I do? I stood up and said: I care about this environment and we cannot approach the millennium building more and more roads and cars. I want my grandchildren, when I have some, to inherit a decent earth.'
Back in May, Bel Mooney was photographed in big sweater and jeans beside her 14-year-old daughter, Kitty, the pair of them dedicated at all costs to stopping the proposed bypass across Solsbury Hill, near Bath. Ms Mooney spent the next two weeks encamped in a Mongolian yurt (a sort of politically-correct tent); standing foursquare in the teeth of earth-moving diggers alongside environmental protesters and New Age travellers; she even fasted for eight days to underline her determination. 'It's a gesture to show this matters and that protesting is not just the prerogative of young people with long hair,' she said at the time, and added that the demonstrators, who came from all over the country, were 'passionately and sincerely concerned with the environment'.
Last week Ms Mooney was approached by two people on behalf of some 60 protesters evicted from their nearby campsite, with a request that they might be allowed to pitch their tents and benders on land belonging to her husband, Jonathan Dimbleby. She turned them down - and in a flash was transformed from environmental martyr into wicked witch. QUEEN NIMBY scolded London's Evening Standard on Friday; NOT IN MY BACK FIELD SAYS BEL headlined Saturday's Daily Mail.
What is Ms Mooney's version of events?
'I was in the house on Thursday morning doing some environmental reading for another campaign, for a different road, and there were these two chaps on the doorstep, both of whom I know by sight: one of them a space-head and the other a wee guy from Bristol. They said, 'Did you know we're being evicted from the hill tomorrow? We're wondering if there were anywhere round here we could put up our benders?'
'I said, 'Come out here with me, sweetie' - I always call everybody sweetie - and I showed them the fields. One's got cows on, and a bull; the other's got sheep; then there's a wild flower meadow . . . I said to them, 'You have to face the fact: this campaign's over. They went off perfectly happily. In any case, most of the protesters have recognised that and gone already.
'And then the space-head guy was in the SOS caravan (that's, Save our Solsbury) and told a local journalist he'd asked some people if they could use their land, and one of them was me.
'Well, this stupid little series of accidental nonsenses made me temporarily lose faith, and I heard myself saying, 'I wish I'd never got involved.' It's not true, of course: I've discovered a feeling for the landscape I never knew I had; and a rage against Department of Transport policies,' - she waves towards huge files of correspondence - 'but this time they may have gone too far. They lie the whole time, they divide communities . . . I am at war with the Department of Transport, and I'm happy and proud to be so. I shall vote Labour at the next election - I feel that I've discovered my roots, and I've been like a 25-year-old]'
We are sitting in her study, which is filled with punning references to her name: a swirl of bells suspended above the desk; rugs and curtains printed with moons. It is on the first floor of the former stable-block attached to the beautiful 18th-century vicarage outside Bath in which Ms Mooney, her husband and their two children have lived for nearly 15 years. Until recently her parents lived here, too. Unlike many people who have travelled far from their working-class roots, Bel Mooney is very close to her parents. She takes out a sheaf of photographs from one drawer of her desk and shows them to me.
'I went back to Liverpool a few years ago, by myself, on a sort of little pilgrimage.' The first photograph shows a long three-storey block of Fifties flats - she calls them 'corporation flats' - with a concrete balcony on to which each front door opened. Hers was number 24B.
'It's like a sort of memento mori . . . that's what I come from, and now I live here, in this very beautiful house. Jonathan and I over the years have earned a very reasonable amount of money and I always find that rather miraculous. Because of my childhood I never take money for granted.
'I was brought up to work very hard: I had a little desk at home, in the sitting room by the fire, and the radio would be off while I was doing my homework. I can't bear people who are lazy - think how long you're going to be dead - and there's always pesto to make or a book to read.
'The other side of this is that I'm a complete hedonist. Last night I drank three bottles of wine and smoked about 14 cigarettes and put on rhythm and blues and danced around the kitchen till one in the morning.'
Apart from her continuing battle with the DoT, what is next for Ms Mooney?
'Normal life's been on hold because of Solsbury Hill and also Jonathan's life of Prince Charles. I was supposed to start a new adult novel for Viking after Christmas and was looking forward to a year of writing but then lots of things came up - you know how they do - and then after Easter it was the road so I've written nothing this year and I'm desperate, desperate to write again.
'I'm very pleased to be identified as a children's author and of course the 'Kitty' books make me a fortune - they're frightfully successful.' She goes to another drawer and brings out sheaves of letters and folders in which whole classes of children have written and drawn for Ms Mooney, telling her how they love her books.
Her first novel was prompted by her husband, who said she should write 'proper books', so his Christmas present that year was The Windsurf Boy, published in 1983. 'Then came The Anderson Question. That's my favourite and I'm very sorry it's out of print because I actually think this is a good novel.' The fifth is in the pipeline. 'In the end the thing I aspire to be most is a novelist but I've been so many things in my life. I'm sorry that I spent so many years in journalism: I got seduced down market, to the Mirror, by the money. I don't think I've even begun to find my voice in fiction yet. If I never had to go out of this study again I'd be very happy.'
Bel Mooney is terribly un-English, her behaviour sometimes blatantly over the top. That hunger strike, for example - was it really necessary? She clearly believes it was done to stop the road; starving herself for a week simply in order to get her picture into the papers would be bizarre indeed.
The trouble is that Ms Mooney lacks that modesty which the English admire, most especially in successful women; the self-deprecating, oh-it's-nothing note. Instead she says, 'I know who I am: I'll be 48 in October and I'm a writer and I'm robust and brave.'
Of Jonathan, to whom she has been married for 25 years, she says, 'We've been through a helluva lot together and it's been hard, extremely hard, but we have an ongoing intellectual conversation and a tremendous friendship. He's very protective and I hear him at parties saying, Bel this, and Bel that. It's very nice, this sort of mutual pride.'
Bel Mooney's reckless gusto is easy to mock, and plenty do. I found it honest and endearing. 'I can write, I can paint, I can interview people on TV and the radio and what's wrong with that?' she asks. 'I'm greedy: I want to be everything] Why can't you be let alone to be a full person?'
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content