Over the course of the weekend, David Cameron announced that there will be a referendum regarding the UK’s EU membership held on 23 June 2016. After his recent late-night negotiations in Brussels, the PM’s obviously hoping that he’s done enough to convince the on-the-fencers to stay in the union – people campaigning for the Brexit are unlikely to change their minds at this stage, and the pro-EUers are probably pretty settled in their views too. It’s all those people in the middle, who aren’t really sure what all this is about and whether they care, that will make the difference.

I’ve talked about this with various friends recently, and the general consensus seems to be that this conversation is confusing, complicated, and really difficult to get a handle on. The Scottish referendum was pretty straightforward – either they want to be British or they don’t – and although there were obviously layers of economic and political arguments, it felt like much more of an emotional decision. I’d never really thought about the implications of what it means to be English and a Brit before, but when it came to it I found the idea of us going our different ways really distressing. Partly because of the history – there’s so much Britain has done as a combined unit we can be proud of – and partly because the idea of us all becoming more insular seems crazy to me. I know my grasp of the details of the Brexit debate is still pretty ropey, but it’d take a lot to convince me that an individualistic mind-set makes sense in 2016.  Still, unlike being Scottish or English (particularly during rugby season) I get the sense that for most of us, being “European” doesn’t necessarily mean a great deal day to day. It’s such an intangible thing. Being British is part of my identity – being European can often just feel like geography.

That’s something I’m seriously beginning to challenge, though – because I genuinely believe our greatest hope for a fair, functioning, and environmentally stable world lies in being part of something bigger than ourselves. The island mentality just won’t cut it any more. Yes, I’m always going to get tribal about the Six Nations, the superiority of English ale, British rain, our humour, our countryside – I love my home. And yes, the EU is too bureaucratic, it’s deeply irritating when they interfere with what we eat and drink, and – let’s face it – the UK could enter Eric Clapton in the Eurovision song contest and still get a mauling. The EU has plenty of flaws, and homogenisation isn’t appealing. But that’s not what this is about – this referendum has to be about finding a shared ideology, not cultural differences. We live in a world of globalised capitalism, where markets are king, corporations influence politics and where free trade agreements like TTIP go so far as to give companies the right to sue national governments for adopting environmental policies which threaten their bottom line. We can’t look at political responsibility in terms of ever decreasing circles whilst also living with “capitalism sans frontieres”. There are no checks and balances in that model – no political bodies with the scope to curb the activity of international companies. If the markets are global, then surely the playbook has to be too.

We’re already facing an existential crisis as a species; if we don’t tackle climate change head-on and with incredible dedication over the coming years, then everything is going to alter irreparably. And we’re not going to be able to do that unless we coordinate, and feel a sense of global responsibility. At the risk of sounding corny, we have to become citizens of the world – international corporations sure as hell won’t save us (much as they might like us to believe otherwise), and in the UK we definitely can’t rely on our own government to step up to the plate; not with their appalling environmental record. As I’ve said before, the few environmental laws we have were essentially put in place to enact EU legislation. Without those two key Directives, British wildlife would be extremely vulnerable. The EU may be flawed, but it’s the greatest defence our countryside has.

Ultimately, and notwithstanding all the other reasons I believe in the union, it’s because I love the English countryside so much that I’m going to vote to stay in. Yes it’s imperfect, but committed international activism and enforceable environmental legislation are the best chances we’ve all got to protect our corner of the world (and at the same time, everyone else’s). If we peel off and stick our heads in the rapidly-heating sand then arguments about migrant benefits really will look parochial in no time at all; the months after COP21 literally couldn’t be a worse time to promote an “every man for himself” mentality. Brexit

War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy

A few weeks ago, I, like a huge swathe of the UK, started watching the BBC’s adaptation of War and Peace (or Phwoar and Peace, as it’s been dubbed by the Daily Mail et al). It was utterly brilliant – entertaining; accessible; vast in scope; and incredibly romantic. So, at the end of the now-famous ballroom scene, I decided to abandon the adaptation temporarily and finally read the novel.

I don’t need to tell you that it’s a book with a special aura of inaccessibility – not only because it is such a giant tome, but  also because it’s about the Napoleonic Wars and, I’d assumed, a very Russian kind of misery. I read Anna Karenina five or six years ago and, after a rocky start, fell for its portrait of a histrionic, urban love affair set against Levin’s pure devotion to his country and his wife. It certainly wasn’t always an easy read, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. Still, I eyed War and Peace askance – I thought it would be a Middlemarch or a Vanity Fair, giant classics which, so far, I’ve never really got on with. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I’m sure a significant portion of my enjoyment can be attributed to the sparkling translation of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky – the idea of reviewing a translation is always a strange one for that reason – but it’s blindingly obvious from the very beginning why this is so often cited as being the greatest novel ever written. The world Tolstoy conjures is all-consuming; the distance of two hundred years feels like nothing at all; and everything he writes is fizzing with humanity.

The idea that War and Peace might be a novel at all never sat comfortably with Tolstoy – he considered it to be more than that, given that it is also in part such a detailed account of the war fought between the Russians and the French, interlaced with philosophising about what it means to be alive, morally sound, and happy. Perhaps after two hundred years of experimentation its easier for us to accept it being a novel, but that’s also aided by the curiosity, accessibility and lightness of touch with which Tolstoy analyses his existential questions and theory of history.

A bee sitting on a flower stung a child. And the child is afraid of bees and says that a bee’s purpose consists in stinging people. A poet admires a bee sucking up the fragrance of flowers. A beekeeper, nothing how a bee gathers flower pollen and brings it to the hive, says that a bee’s purpose consists in gathering honey….All that is accessible to man is the observation of the correspondence between the life of a bee and other phenomena in life. It is the same for the purposes of historical figures and peoples. 

If anything there’s something Homeric in the imagery and the deliberate, rhythmic repetitions in his language, and of course the juxtaposition of war and love: if it’s not a novel, then perhaps War and Peace has the soul of an epic poem. Just like the Aeneid, or the Iliad, it is incredibly easy to be swept up by Tolstoy’s story – but the language doesn’t sacrifice any detail to the extraordinary scale: Natasha realised that Sonya was in the corridor on the chest. The chest in the corridor was the place of sorrows for the young female generation of the Rostov house. Indeed, Sonya, in her airy pink dress, crushing it, was lying face down on nanny’s dirty striped feather-bed, on the chest, and, covering her face with her fingers, was sobbing, her bare little shoulders twitching.   

(Given that there’s something of the Bennett sisters in Natasha and her friend, it’s worth mentioning that reams has surely been written about the similarities between Tolstoy and Austen – not only because of the context (War and Peace is set at the time Austen was writing) but also because both authors have that ability to see a world in a grain of sand – to turn a ballroom scene into an opportunity to take a scalpel to human nature.)

I never quite forgave Tolstoy for denying me the specific love story I wanted from two of the characters – when it became clear that my pair were heading for an exquisite tragedy rather than the happy ending I so wanted for them, I thought I might abandon ship in a fit of pique. By then it was completely under my skin, though, and I couldn’t resist. I found tears streaming down my face for huge tranches of the story – but it also made me grin in recognition and pleasure, living every vivid scene. This is not the dour tragedy I thought it might be. It’s a novel  completely in love with life. Reading it is, in the truest sense of the word, a profoundly cathartic experience. All of human experience is contained within these pages – love, grief, confusion, humour, guilt, cruelty, redemption – at times I felt almost sick when the characters suffered. After one particularly gut-wrenching passage – Tess of the D’Urbevilles sprung to mind – I really did have to step away from the story for a couple of days, because I was so frustrated and disappointed. Ultimately, though, this is such a life-affirming piece of work. Flicking back to Hardy, brilliant though he is my problem with his novels has always been the relentlessness with which he brings his characters low – Tolstoy doesn’t share that nihilism. Everything here is balanced and true. Sorrow and joy in equal measure – war and peace.


Valentine’s Day

I’ve been knee-deep in War and Peace for the past few weeks, hence the protracted radio silence. I’m creeping towards the end, though, so will post something on it soon….

For now, I’ve just been published for the very first time, on an absolutely brilliant website called Collectively. I’m so excited, and wanted to share – so here it is!