“Walking the Woods and the Water” by Nick Hunt

When you read Patrick Leigh Fermor’s magical walking memoirs, you can’t help but wonder what it would be like to attempt that journey now – would people still be as kind? Would there be any sense of wilderness left in Europe? Would it even be possible to follow in his footsteps, or has urbanisation wiped PLF’s route from the modern map? Happily, I was directed to Nick Hunt’s memoir, Walking the Woods and the Water by someone who was kind enough to comment on my review of A Time of Gifts. In 2011, Hunt attempted to answer those questions by retracing Paddy’s route – as far as it was possible to do so, given that his journey pre-dated publication of The Broken Road – and this is his account of that modern journey.

At first, I struggled. I didn’t want so much brutal reality. The romantic in me wanted to hear that little has changed; that from the very beginning the journey was like travelling back in time, somehow, to Paddy’s prelapsarian Europe. Having just finished reading This Changes Everything, I was especially primed to despair at the way in which Europe has altered over the course of the last century – and Nick Hunt, quite rightly, doesn’t try to sugar-coat the fact that so much is different now.

“The glimpse I had of Rotterdam was almost as brief as Paddy’s own – he walked on at once, pausing only for eggs and schnapps – but the continuity between our two cities was absolutely severed. The Rotterdam of the Middle Ages has been blasted into the realms of fairytales, and the new reality of McDonald’s and Lush, Starbucks and Vodafone, had rushed in to fill the vacuum. The destruction seemed less an act of war than apocalyptic town planning, a Europe-wide sweep of medieval clutter to clear the way for the consumer age.”

It was heart-breaking reading – genuinely quite painful – and the prospect of seeing the utter dismantling of centuries of history through Nick Hunt’s eyes was almost too much to contemplate. Of all the things that might have brought Naomi Klein’s words home, this was it. And yet – the thing that pulled me through that first wave of unhappiness was the fact that it obviously made NH wretched too, and I quickly learned to trust him because of the way he articulates that disappointment: “From Rotterdam, Paddy had plunged into winter countryside, a landscape like a Brueghel painting, children skeetering down canals on fantastical ice-yachts. The reality was so distant it almost physically hurt. Now browns and greys seeped in from all sides and nothing shone or sparkled.”

That sense of loss never disappears – sitting next to Paddy’s this memoir makes it starkly apparent how much has disappeared through the course of a world war, various communist regimes, and an explosion in consumerism. What makes this such a special book, though, is that it is so much more than a lament. Yes, Paddy’s rural tracks have been covered by motorways, and yes, swathes of concrete have suffocated many of the bucolic fields he marched through with his putteed legs, but there is still a great deal of magic to be found, if you are willing to look beyond Starbucks and Lush. As NH says towards the end of the book, the further East he walked the kinder people became – and his narration of that generosity becomes all the sweeter because it is somehow unexpected now. Just like Paddy, Nick finds himself enveloped by groups of people in every country who ply him with alcohol and tell him stories about their homeland, and he is frequently offered food or shelter by complete strangers.

It would be trite to say that the one thing that evidently hasn’t changed is the kindness people are willing to show to a wandering pilgrim – but I think what NH does show is that he encountered both a comforting continuity, and also something entirely new. There is a sense that the world Paddy encountered is lying dormant in people’s stories, and in the landscape – to quote the beautiful phrase NH uses: “In certain lights, history could be glimpsed as a shadow under the skin; I saw it now, under the brightness of his smile.” As a result, you feel as though the intangible charm Paddy found in his version of Europe still exists. That is not all, though – it is not simply a kind of latent past NH finds, but also the promise of a change he cannot quite put his finger on. Paddy wrote the first two books in his travelogue after the second world war, knowing that the world he was walking through was about to plunge into war and thereby change forever. The Europe NH finds has been scarred by that, without question – at one point he even describes the houses and gardens in Romania as being in convalescence – but whereas Paddy was lovingly describing something he knew would soon be lost, NH finds a Europe-wide feeling that something is about to shift. In Holland, he spends an evening in the local Occupy camp, talking about alternatives in capitalism; in Romania, he finds a peasant culture so intact and self-sufficient that young couples are travelling there from Western Europe to find a simpler way of life; and in Germany, he meets a broken-toothed drunk “babbling about the freedom of Germanic tribes against imperial oppression.” As NH says, “This mythologised affinity with suppressed ancient cultures spoke of a similar yearning for a long-lost age of greater freedoms, unbounded by rules, that bubbled under Europe’s surface like a buried river.” Perhaps it is just an antidote to the creep of homogenisation, this feeling that ripples of history could unsettle consumerism and lead to the emergence of something both very old and very new – but (in the context of Naomi Klein’s call to arms in particular), I hope it is more than that. In any case, there is a magic in the not knowing, which NH very much makes his own.

Ultimately this is a much grittier exploration – NH stays in post-communist mental hospitals, talks about how much he smells, and is occasionally chased by feral dogs – and whilst it has been inspired by PLF, it has the stamp of an entirely independent personality. Nick Hunt is a very talented writer, and achieves the very difficult thing of adding something to PLF’s body of work rather than trying to assimilate it into this own. It did not quite have the alchemy of Paddy’s vision, but having ground my teeth at the first mention of Starbucks, I can say that I was both relieved and hopeful by the end of the book. If you want to know whether PLF’s journey could be attempted in the modern age, this is the fascinating response – there are still wild boars, bears and dangerous mountains, and the traumas of the past eighty years have not changed the rhythms of rural communities too dramatically. What a young wanderer might find in eighty years’ time, however, is anyone’s guess – that is the mystery, “such stuff as dreams are made on.”

Polly Higgins and Samantha Power

My copy of Polly Higgins’ “Eradicating Ecocide” has now arrived, and it is next on my pile of things to read. In anticipation, I have been exploring the “Eradicating Ecocide” website, and reading about the proposed law – which in brief (i) proposes that ecocide should be considered to be a crime against peace, and (ii) creates an international duty of care to prevent the risk or realization of damage to ecosystems. The idea of legislating for this has apparently been around for decades now, and Polly Higgins’ draft law has been with the UN since 2010. So far, no decision appears to have been made.

In making these early explorations, I was reminded of Samantha Power’s gripping book, “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide”, which in part charts the tireless campaign of an individual called Raphael Lemkin to make genocide a crime. Though Lemkin (who himself had lost 49 relatives in the Holocaust) first created the word “genocide” in 1943, and though the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide became law in 1951, the US did not ratify the Convention until 1988. As Power explains so vividly, the US prevaricated over the issue for more than forty years, and displayed a continued reluctance to take action when it was needed (including, very famously, over the heinous crimes committed in Cambodia).

I appreciate, of course, that new international laws must be scrutinised with the greatest of care before they are implemented – but as I think back on Power’s words, the sluggishness of Western countries over the issue of climate change seems to have many parallels with the way in which acts of genocide were handled during the last century. In both cases, unjustified delays had the potential to lead to catastrophe.

Power ultimately closes her book with the following – which I think I ought to keep in mind as I begin to read Higgins’ work.

George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” After a century of doing so little to prevent, suppress, and punish genocide, Americans must join and thereby legitimate the ranks of the unreasonable.

“This Changes Everything” by Naomi Klein

“…History knocked on your door, did you answer?”

That’s a good question, for all of us.

Naomi Klein introduces “This Changes Everything” by saying that for many years she simply ignored climate change. It was too daunting, too complex, someone else’s problem – the environmentalists would deal with it. It was during a meeting with Bolivia’s ambassador to the World Trade Organisation in 2009. however, that something clicked for her – huge swathes of the world’s population were suffering as a result of a problem they had not contributed to. She realized that it was irresponsible to look away, and that the only way this vast global issue would be escalated in to a crisis was if ordinary people started treating it like one: “Slavery wasn’t a crisis for British and American elites until abolitionism turned it into one. Racial discrimination wasn’t a crisis until the civil rights movement turned it into one. Sex discrimination wasn’t a crisis until feminism turned it into one. Apartheid wasn’t a crisis until the anti-apartheid movement turned it into one.”

I’ve been absolutely guilty of treating climate change with this kind of denial and, whether deliberately or not, I have been looking away. Of course I’d see the pieces in the newspaper about how much coal has been burned in my lifetime, or the UN’s latest paper on the impact of our dependence on fossil fuel – occasionally I’d even read the article, and panic, and donate some money to Greenpeace. But I’d very soon comfort myself with the idea that the campaigners were dealing with it, and the vague notion that our governments couldn’t really let us reach a point where the damage was irreversible or permanent – if we can put a man on the moon, then we must be able to find a way to deal with all the carbon in the atmosphere before it’s too late. Two pages into this book, though, and I knew I couldn’t carry on like that. Notwithstanding Klein’s highly accessible style, I suspect the force of my reaction was in large part due to the fact that this is the first book I have ever read on the subject. Newspaper headlines, with their justifiably terrifying statistics and screaming warnings, are sometimes too overwhelming to focus on for sustained periods of time. “This Changes Everything,” though is calm and steady – it drip-feeds facts with Klein’s intensely personal and intelligent voice, so that the effect is cumulative rather than simply being paralysing. And something about that snapped me out of my apathy – I think it would literally be impossible to read this book and fail to be hit between the eyes by its message.

So, the facts. I cannot even begin to do justice to the force and detail of Klein’s argument here, but in essence what I took away was this. At the UN Climate Summit in 2009, a controversial decision was made to set a global warming safe-limit of 2-degrees Celsius. We will without doubt reach that limit in the coming years, and the consequences will be dramatic. However, as Klein says, even the 2-degrees limit currently looks like a utopian dream. Governments all across the world are failing to legislate for this, or to take the kind of dramatic action which might make the 2-degrees level attainable. Instead, because of our insatiably consumerist way of life and the West’s comprehensive failure to tackle this issue head-on, it looks as though we are heading towards a four or even six-degree rise by the end of the century. Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research has said that a four-degrees rise “is incompatible with any reasonable characterization of an organized, equitable and civilised global community.” In other words, the world our grandchildren will inherit will look dramatically different to the one we are living in now.

The added complexity is that this has all become apparent at a time when our capitalist economy is at its zenith. Through the free-trade impetus of the 1980s, Western politicians have created a web of trade treaties which prioritise international commerce above everything else. In one stunning example of the impact this is having on the green movement, Klein explains that in 2010, Ontario tried to kick start its own green program (described by Al Gore as the “single best energy program on the North American continent”) by legislating in such a way as to give local co-ops and indigenous communities a chance to benefit from the manufacture of items like solar panels. Essentially, Ontario tried to combine its green revolution with a bid to rejuvenate its faltering manufacturing sector, and the program was going brilliantly until the EU and Japan challenged Ontario’s new legislation, saying that they considered the local content requirement of the initiative to be in violation of World Trade Organization Rules. Ultimately this meant that a promising new green energy initiative was scuppered, because Europe and Japan thought it was more important to make some money from the program than to allow the province to galvanise the initiative by empowering local manufacturers. It is the very definition of a Pyrrhic victory.

Free trade aside, the fossil fuel industry is also now so obscenely wealthy that it has immense political clout – in 2013 in the US alone, “the oil and gas industry spent just under $400,000 a day lobbying government and congress officials, and the industry doled out a record $73 million in federal campaign and political donations during the 2012 election cycle…” How are local (and very often poor) communities at the raw end of the new mania for fracking supposed to tackle that? (Indeed, one of the things Klein does so well is to demonstrate how this is absolutely transcends politics, and not just because of the scale of the problem. Of course, many of the environmentalists’ solutions (like those set out by the UK’s Green Party) are traditionally “left wing.” However to my mind this is also the essence of the traditional conservative ideal of self-determination – why on earth should an oil company be able to frack in the village you love if the entire community is opposed to it?)

So – now that I am finally looking, it is obvious how far-reaching and omnipresent this issue is. Since I started reading this book a couple of weeks ago: I have discovered that students, alumni and academics at both Oxford and Cambridge are currently campaigning for the universities’ endowment funds to divest from fossil fuel; UK Oil and Gas has found what it thinks amounts to 158 million barrels of oil per square mile in Surrey; Shell has won a temporary restraining order which bars Greenpeace and its activists from boarding, barricading or interfering with the movement of the drillship Noble Discoverer, the drilling rig Polar Pioneer or the heavy-lift vessel Blue Marlin; and I have found out that a hugely inspirational lawyer called Polly Higgins has proposed an Ecocide Law into the United Nations. There is even an article on the BBC website this evening saying that in 50 years time, “The classic fish and chips enjoyed by previous generations could be replaced by the likes of sardines and squid, according to a study published in the journal Nature Climate Change.” The effects of climate change are everywhere, yet as the major political parties slug it out in anticipation of the election in a few weeks’ time, the lack of engagement with the problem is palpable.

Naomi Klein’s message is that it is down to communities to tackle this now. Governments have failed us, eccentric billionaire philanthropists have not delivered their promised solutions, and the fossil fuel industry shows no signs of slowing down. Cultural shifts throughout the ages have been driven by the determination of grass-roots movements – as Klein says, abolitionists, feminists, and civil rights activists kick-started the revolutions which have changed the shape of our societies. That is what is needed now, and I intend to participate in any way I can. Not just because the statistics are frightening, but because, as Klein says so beautifully, the possible upside of the climate change nightmare is that it may just prompt society to adjust some of the enormous inequalities which have fuelled the problem for the past three hundred years.

I started reading “Walking the Woods and the Water” earlier today – Nick Hunt’s modern day recreation of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s extraordinary journey across Europe. On p.13, Hunt writes, “The glimpse I had of Rotterdam was almost as brief as Paddy’s own – he walked on at once, pausing only for eggs and schnapps – but the continuity between our two cities was absolutely severed. The Rotterdam of the Middle Ages has been blasted into the realms of fairytales, and the new reality of McDonald’s and Lush, Starbucks and Vodafone had rushed to fill the vacuum. The destruction seemed less an act of war than apocalyptic town planning, a Europe-wide sweep of medieval clutter to clear the way for the consumer age.” Whether or not you feel an instinctive political interest in climate change and the culture which is apparently feeding it, that kind of language must cut to the quick of anyone who has luxuriated in the descriptions of PLF; Laurie Lee; Stella Gibbons; Gerald Durrell….So much of our literary history is bound up in the charms of the natural world. How can we fail to protect that inheritance now?

This Changes Everything

“The Diary of a Provincial Lady”, by E.M Delafield

As I was trying to choose which books to take on holiday last week, I, as usual, hunted through Persephone Books’ list for something tempting. My eye had drifted across “The Diary of a Provincial Lady” several times before, but for some reason – probably the title, which seems to be universally disliked – I had never gone so far as to actually read the blurb or delve into its pages. What an error of judgment on my part, and what an enormous pleasure suddenly to find E.M Delafield on my list of favourite twentieth century authors.

I will, henceforth, press these books onto like-minded readers. Everything about this series of volumes – from “The Diary of a Provincial Lady” to “The Provincial Lady in Wartime” – is as delicious as anything written by E.F. Benson and, dare I say it, even stands up next to P.G. Wodehouse. It is not just the way in which the unnamed Lady barrels through life with chaotic aplomb – which she does, fabulously – but also the way in which Delafield develops a supporting cast and series of verbal ticks worthy of the finest comedic writers England has produced. I particularly loved the way in which she describes the eternally-grumpy but devoted husband, Robert, almost through a total lack of dialogue or detail. More often than not he completely ignores his wife – instead choosing to read the Times and fall asleep – but very occasionally we have a glimpse into his caustic mind: “I reluctantly agree to do so, and she mounts her bicycle and rides off. Robert says, That girl holds herself well, but it’s a pity she has those ankles.” Withering. He essentially exists in the negative in these fictional diaries – plagued by his wife’s social life, and an endless series of doomed picnics – and very early on I almost felt as though his unassailable lack of interest in his wife’s affairs signalled a lack of love. As the diaries progress, though, he very occasionally confesses that He Misses Her when she is away from home – which sends his Provincial Lady into paroxysms of delight, and lends their relationship a unique tenderness. This is an honest, funny, and affectionate portrait of a marriage – and by the end of the final volume I adored Robert as much as his wife.

Stylistically, there are two things I would single out from this smorgasbord of delights. The first is the way in which Delafield’s Lady uses the “Query” and “Answer” model to sum up her thoughts on any human flaw, event, or pattern which catches her eye – e.g. “Query: Are the Latin races always as sincere as one would wish them to be?” or “Query here becomes unavoidable: Does not a misplaced optimism exist, common to all mankind, leading on to a false conviction that social engagements, if dated sufficiently far ahead, will never really realize?” They are uniformly hilarious asides, and more often than not very acutely observed. (I was primed to enjoy this particular tick, I think, because lawyers frequently use the omnipresent “Query” as a way to pose knotty questions in conversation, which I have always found to be fairly maddening – e.g. “Query: has the client considered branding issues here? Answer: probably not.” Delafield has skewered this for me, and never again will I listen to this mannerism in the ofcfice without wriggling my toes in mirth.)

Secondly, she uses capitalisation to devastating effect. I cannot think of any other author who can make me chuckle with only a few well-placed capital letters, yet Delafield’s Lady does it frequently – “Monsieur Gitnik, in response to leading question from hostess…tells us that if ever goes to Russia again, he has been warned that he will be thrown into prison because He Knows Too Much.” Or: “Housekeeper from upstairs rushes down, and unknown females from basement rush up, and we all look at ceiling and say Better fetch a Man. This is eventually done and I meditate ironical article on Feminism…” It is a wonderful technique, and she is a master at deploying it.

And then, of course, there is the Lady herself. She becomes a friend, a role model, and icon of what it means to be a modern woman by the end of these pages – as Rachel Johnson says in her affectionate introduction to the new Penguin edition, the Lady is effectively the first female character in literature who tries to Have It All. She is a loving Mother to Robin and Vicky, valiantly trying to be terribly Modern and dismissive of her children’s charms whilst all the while weeping whenever she sees their photographs if they are away from home. She is a fond Wife to the taciturn Robert – muddling through the housekeeping and her dramatic relationship with Cook to make sure that he is fed and watered and shielded from the domestic affairs which are, by tradition, her domain. She is a Feminist – quietly pursuing her own career whilst good-humouredly recognising that whenever anything technical goes wrong in the house, she is the first to Call a Man. And she is an Author – able to afford her own flat in London, and to send Vicky to school, all as a result of her own labour. Most appealing of all, though, is the fact that she juggles all of these responsibilities with frequent laughter and a touch of chaos – her Literary Agent is constantly chasing her for new material, she is often struck by how much better mannered other people’s children are, and Robert is the first to remind her that her house-keeping skills are less than perfect, and that she once forgot to order flour before a Bank-Holiday weekend. Essentially, she muddles through – but with such aplomb. Sure, the Lady could have been a fashionable Modernist thinker, if she had had the space and time – but she is far too busy for such indulgences, and if our heroine thinks that she might be in danger of slipping into a modernist flight of fancy she very quickly nips it in the bud and ploughs on with her day. “Mem: Should often be very, very sorry to explain exactly what it is that I do mean, and I am in fact conscious of deliberately avoiding self-analysis on many occasions. Do not propose, however, to go into this now or at any other time.”

In short, E.M. Delafield and her Lady are a joy, and these 1920s diaries are a gorgeous sanctuary. I am now a Devoted Fan.