Ring of Bright Water by Gavin Maxwell

“Aristocrat, social renegade, wartime secret agent, shark-hunter, adventurer, racing driver, traveller, naturalist, poet and painter….and one of the most popular authors of wildlife books in the twentieth century.” This was the description offered of Gavin Maxwell in the blurb to his biography. They really don’t make them like this anymore.

As tantalizing as that image is, Ring of Bright Water isn’t devoted to these varied and fantastical biographical details – instead it tells the story of Maxwell’s beloved Scottish home, Camusfeàrna, and the otters who lived with him there. It is a joyful, lyrical, desperately moving account of his interactions with the natural world – and most importantly of all, of the deep love he felt for his two otters, Mijbil and Edal. As with A House in Flanders  I can’t recommend it enough for anyone who needs some respite from the last few months: it has given me such unadulterated pleasure.

The first hundred pages, then, are devoted to Maxwell’s arrival at the Arcadian Camusfeàrna in the late 1940s – the house by the sea in the West Highlands – as well as his neighbours and the richness of surrounding wildlife. His descriptions of the wildcats, porpoises, and deer are exquisite – vivid and full of humour, sympathetic without ever becoming sentimental. Take this, for example, his recollection of being invaded by his neighbour’s frolicsome goats:

Their cynical, predatory yellow eyes, bright with an ancient, egotistical wisdom, were ever alert for an open door, and more than once I came back to the house from an afternoon’s fishing to find the kitchen in chaos, my last loaves disappearing between agile rubbery lips, and Mairi Bhan [the nanny goat] posturing impudently on the table.

It feels almost otherworldly in its simplicity and peace, but there’s nothing saccharine here. Maxwell’s voice is always rooted in reality, and whilst he talks about his new home with a poetic affection you feel something of his mercurial, restless soul struggling with the solitude.

Once the stage is set and you’ve lost your heart to the sea, the burn, and the cottage, Maxwell introduces the core of the book and the thing for which it is most famous – his successive relationships with two otters, Mijbil and Edal, rescued from almost certain death in their native Africa. This section is almost unbearably moving, joyful, and funny – I fell in love with both animals so completely and rocked from laughter to tears as he explains the ways they took over his life.

They are, first of all, completely fascinating: each with his (Mijbil) or her (Edal) own personality, tastes, and mysterious intelligence. The descriptions of them working out how to turn taps on; tucking toys under their arms as they swim; and gambolling about in the bathtub, are irresistible. Again, neither Mijbil nor Edal is anthropomorphized – they are entirely splendid enough as animals and don’t need to be enhanced by a kind of false humanity. In any case Maxwell heads this off at the pass, acknowledging that “a dry otter at play is an animal that might have been specifically designed to please a child.”  He loves them for their mad vitality, not because they resemble toys, or people – and is even almost apologetic about the obvious depth of his affection.

“…several times a day he needed, as much psychologically as physically, I think, a prolonged romp with a human playmate. Tunnelling under the carpet and affecting to believe himself thus rendered invisible, he would shoot out with a squeak of triumph if a foot passed within range; or he would dive inside the loose cover of the sofa and play tigers from behind it; or he would simply lay siege to one’s person as a puppy does, bouncing around one in a frenzy of excited chirps and squeaks and launching a series of tip-and-run raids.”

The thing that really got under my skin, though, was how much Mijbil and Edal trust Maxwell. They clearly adore him as much as he loves them, and involve him whole-heartedly in their curiosity and constant quest for fun. As he says at one point, you don’t own an otter, you co-exist with them – and for a time they filled his complicated world with a simple, straightforward companionship. There is a moment in the book where that trust leads to a gut-wrenching tragedy – turning the idyll, temporarily at least, into a nightmare. Quite rightly it is an otter which restores Camusfeàrna’s equilibrium, and which let’s you turn the final pages with renewed hope.

I understand the reservations some modern readers have about a man trying to possess something wild, but it doesn’t affect how much I loved this book. Maxwell was obviously an extraordinary and complicated character, and this is a exceptional story -not, I think, intended to be a blueprint for conservation. In the end it is a stunning affirmation of life and, as he says in the preface, something we ought to be more aware of: because whilst we can’t all have a species of otter named after us, or live in a remote Scottish Eden, we can find a certain comfort in being closer to nature.

For I am convinced that man has suffered in his separation from the soil and from the other living creatures of the world; the evolution of his intellect has outrun his needs as an animal, and as yet he must still, for security, look long at some portion of the earth as it was before he tampered with it.

maxwell

(c) Gavin Maxwell Enterprises

Brave New World

Normal: Conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected

(Oxford Dictionaries)

I’ve been spending a lot of time worrying about Brexit recently – and now, to add a nightmare-inducing cherry to my anxiety-cake, Trump. The message liberals like me seem most keen to disseminate at the moment is that this is not normal. Newspapers, blogs, podcasts – commentators are trying, quite understandably, to make sure we don’t normalise this. It’s not normal to see two racist misogynists standing next to one another in front of a wall of gold, celebrating the elevation of one of their number to leadership of the free world. It’s not normal to allow an erstwhile school-boy with a penchant for Hitler-youth songs to lead a nation over an economic cliff. It’s not normal for a man to be elected president when he’s currently subject to a smorgasbord of sexual assault allegations.

Perhaps. I have to say, though, that I’m coming to think that it isn’t so much that this isn’t normal, but that it shouldn’t be normal. The vein of xenophobia running through the Brexit campaign and the overt racism and sexism of the Trump campaign found a boil in the public consciousness that didn’t take much lancing: people seemed primed for this. And what is normal if not something shared by the majority of an electorate: it just so happens that a lot of us thought standards were better.

Yes, the votes in both countries were pretty close, and the outcome was exacerbated by a cocktail of austerity, poverty and years of political neglect. But in the end so many people were prepared either to endorse xenophobia; sexism; racism – fairly enthusiastically in some cases – or to turn a blind eye to them in the name of “making America great Again”/”taking our country back” as to make discrimination feel acceptable. And the point is that I don’t think that takes us somewhere new as a society – I think it’s the normal that we’ve managed to paper over for a few decades with a handful of genuine gains in political equality.

The distinction matters because we need to know what we’re up against. It’s been suggested that part of the reason the Remainers and Democrats both lost was down to complacency, which seems reasonable in retrospect. Even before the reductive 140-character age of Twitter, we’ve always been linear creatures – we like a narrative, especially a neat one, and can have a tendency to assume that progress always moves forwards. Civil rights lead to Obama, feminism leads to Clinton, the hip Trudeau of the 60s leads to the Marvel hero of 2016….It feels right that we’d keep building on our incremental moral gains as a society, leaving discrimination and inequality in our dust. If this year’s proved anything, though, it’s that that’s just not how this goes. Trudeau, Clinton and Obama aren’t our normal yet – they’re exceptions. And whilst Trump and many of the most vocal Brexiteers might seem grotesque, their prejudices have turned out to be depressingly mainstream fare. That’s not to say that everyone who voted for Trump is a racist, or that the Brexiteers were all driven by fears about immigration. But if we overlook the uglier underbelly of both campaigns, we risk forgetting how fragile our recent progress really is.

Even within my own family my feminism is seen as something of an eccentricity. As a white, privileged woman, I’ve been guilty of brushing away the occasional glimpse to discrimination or prejudice, writing it off as a rarity or a relic: essentially in the belief that, broadly speaking, society has put an infrastructure in place which is trying to eradicate discrimination. If we hold on to that faith too blindly, though, I fear we risk perpetuating the politics of 2016. Trump’s vitriol isn’t new – it’s very, very old, and we need to see it as such. We’re not resisting a sudden, horrifying normalisation of misogyny and racial abuse, we’re reacquainting ourselves with an old set of prejudices which never really disappeared. Yes, the rhetoric is particularly violent at the moment and feeling as though it’s been legitimised is extremely difficult, but I don’t think it’s as rare as we thought – particularly for those of us who aren’t white, non-disabled, cisgendered or heterosexual.

Ultimately I believe the shocks of the last few months will galvanise change and motivate a new generation of activists, but we need to prepare ourselves by recognising that the standards we’re defending now had never had time to become the status quo. It’s still normal to prefer an alt-right gameshow host to a woman who could not have been more qualified for the job. It’s just that it shouldn’t be.

“A House in Flanders” by Michael Jenkins

I found myself in a fantastic independent bookshop a couple of weeks ago – one of those quirky old places full to the rafters with an array of beautiful titles, displayed in a hotchpotch of authors and genres. Squeezing past groaning stools and book-strewn chairs I discovered a small pile of Slightly Foxed Paperbacks in the corner of the room. I couldn’t resist the thick cream cover or the press’s brilliant name; eventually I settled on A House in Flanders.

It turned out to be one of those occasions when a book couldn’t have appeared at a better time. After the political division and bitterness of the past few weeks and months, I needed something gentle, and kind – a dose of nobility. Michael Jenkins’ account of his time in France was the perfect antidote to a bellyful of Trump and Farage.

Over the course of several summers during the 1950s, the young Michael was sent to spend his holiday with a houseful of French “aunts” in Flanders. They weren’t really relations of his, but, as becomes clear during the course of the narrative, the introspective English boy was bound to the family by a bitter-sweet history. The sprawling French home reveals a riot of colour, familial love and shared secrets which prove to be a world away from his repressed English parents and boarding school, and he soon finds himself fulfilling the role of a go-between – not to enable a doomed affair as in L.P Hartley’s classic, but instead to offer a much-needed ear for the village, in the way outsiders often can.

Each chapter tells the story of a different relation or neighbour, their history, and role in the house. Tante Yvonne is the wise, childless matriarch who dedicated her life to keeping her family united under one roof. Gentle Tante Lise has control of the garden, Tante Florence oscillates between placidity and bursts of activity, Tante Alice jealously manages her property and Oncle Auguste is the former soldier occasionally beset by episodes of dementia. Apart from the exquisite cousin Madeline who inspires Michael’s first experience of love, the members of the household are octogenarians – at the end of their lives just as Michael is beginning his. One of the many special things about the book is the fact that the generational divide isn’t any sort of barrier to Michael being absorbed into their lives – their age gives the tantes a wealth of stories to tell but it doesn’t feel foreign to Michael. They become his world.

There is a sort of Edenic quality to Michael’s golden summers in the village – he wanders through golden fields on his various errands, absorbing the glorious countryside around him and learning its folklore. The memory of the world wars is never far from the surface, though, making itself known through the aunts’ stories; the confusion inspired by the few German characters to pass through the book; and the private sorrows and divisions which still haunt the village. Michael’s boyish thoughtfulness and lack of judgment integrate these flashes of brutality into the otherwise dreamlike narrative, so that the recent violence is somehow managed by his innocence. Death, loss, love, permanence and hope – they all have a place at the table here, managing to exist in harmony within the beautiful story.

At the core of the book is Tante Yvonne’s desire for the villagers to rub along with one another and for her family to stay close to home. Looking at her through Michael’s eyes you feel all of her strength and humour, as well as glimpses of the hardships she’s endured. Yvonne may have lived through war, lost loved ones and suffered the cruelty of being forced out of her home by invading soldiers, but there isn’t a trace of bitterness here – all Michael sees is courage, wisdom and an enduring faith in her neighbours. She’s both a peace-maker and champion of justice, steadfastly refusing to be beaten by war, grief or the passing of time.

What more of an inspiration could one want as this ruthless year draws to a close.

in-flanders-fields

Article 50

Can you remember what it was like to read the morning’s headlines with anything other than dismay? The past few months have been truly grim – Brexit, Heathrow’s new runway; species extinction; Trump, the gang’s all there, making every new day feel slightly more precarious than the last. It’s difficult not to feel entirely defeated. After all, what can one person do in the face of such escalating madness? Take for example, this choice headline:

enemies-of-the-people

The paper then decided to add the following detail to their coverage: “The judges who blocked Brexit: One founded a EUROPEAN law group, another charged the taxpayer millions for advice and the third is an openly gay ex-Olympic fencer.” “Openly gay”? When did voices like this become a legitimate part of our national dialogue? Where do we even start to un-do some of the damage caused by this sort of journalism?

This week, despite stiff competition from the past couple of months, has been particularly bleak. To recap:

(1)    A remarkable woman called Gina Miller took the government to court over Article 50. To be clear, her case had absolutely nothing to do with reversing the referendum on 23 June – yes she voted remain, but this was, and is, a question of constitutional law rather than politics.

Her argument is that Theresa May cannot trigger Article 50 (which sets Brexit into motion) by relying on Crown Prerogative (a centuries’ old right which essentially gives “the Crown”, acting through the Prime Minister, the right to by-pass Parliament). Instead, she ought to take the decision to Parliament – on the grounds that triggering Article 50 will remove some of the rights we currently enjoy as a result of a piece of UK legislation (the European Communities Act 1972).

The fact that the referendum ended with a victory for the Leavers should be irrelevant in this context – to quote AV Dicey:

“The judges know nothing about any will of the people except in so far as that will is expressed by an Act of Parliament.”

The judges ruled in Miller favour – not because they are part of a metropolitan elite trying to thwart Nigel Farage, but because this is a well-established rule of constitutional law. And it is an absolutely fundamental one – we fought a civil war over this. No King, Queen, or, as it is in 2016, Prime Minister, can go rogue and make crucial decisions about rights conferred by legislation without first taking that debate to Parliament. This is not a fascist state. Our leaders are held accountable by our MPs. And ironically, as lots of people have already pointed out, Parliamentary Sovereignty was precisely what the Leavers claimed to be fighting for.

For her pains, Gina Miller has been subjected to a barrage of racist and misogynistic abuse. I know the UK isn’t alone in being home to some pretty vile trolls, but what’s so particularly sickening about all of this is that that response has been legitimised – by the palpable silence of our Prime Minister, and by the conscious intervention of the right-wing press. Grim.

(2)    Gina Miller wasn’t the only victim of the Great British Public this week. Lest we forget, the Daily Mail chose to run that headline the day after the ruling was handed down by the High Court.

Leaving the bizarre personal attacks on the judges aside, the point is that they have done nothing other than uphold the law. They’re not trying to frustrate the sinking of the Titanic (heaven forbid) – instead, they are protecting a rule at the heart of our largely unwritten constitution.

Liz Truss eventually made some half-arsed comments about the ruling which fell far too short of calling articles like this out, and after a long silence Theresa May offered some mealy-mouthed comments about the freedom of the press whilst deciding to take the case to the Supreme Court.

That doesn’t just demonstrate a disappointing lack of leadership, it’s genuinely quite frightening: as Dominic Grieve said yesterday, the government’s response (or lack thereof) to the sorts of articles which incite a hatred of our judiciary is chillingly reminiscent of Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.  That’s an extraordinary thing to try to comprehend.

And Liz. Mate. The only things you’re responsible for as Lord Chancellor are protecting the rule of law and standing up for the judiciary. You’ve essentially just become the political equivalent of the Dinosaur Supervisor in Jurassic Park.

phil

(3)    And then of course, there’s the assertion made by the Mail et al that this judgment is the work of the “metropolitan elite”. Ah, the elite – the right’s target-du-jour. According to sections of Fleet Street, UKIP and parts of the Tory party, anyone who opposes Brexit is an elitist traitor ignoring “the People.” And for good measure we’re also guilty of tearing the country apart with our “Remoaner” resistance to Hard-Brexit.

Of course there’s some truth to the fact that university graduates generally fell into the Remain camp, and that by definition, the country’s most senior judges are at the top of their tree. But the hyperbole of the demagogue is an extraordinary thing.

Because according to that logic, the 48% of people who voted to remain in the EU are all part of some kind of “elite”. Now I don’t know about you, but if I got VIP tickets to something I’d be pretty hacked off to find sixteen million people coming along with me.  We’re not an elite, we’re almost half the people who turned out to vote – more than that, if you consider the proportion of Leave voters who (i) weren’t actually voting to send the UK hurtling back into the 1950s and/or (ii) think it’s important to respect the constitution. Not to mention the fact that the people actually calling us elitists are:

(I)                  Paul Dacre, Editor of the Daily Mail and landowner – who’s received £460,000 in EU agricultural subsidies since 2011

(II)                Nigel Farage who, back in 2009, was reported to have received £2m of taxpayers’ money in expenses and allowances as a member of the European Parliament

(III)              Arron Banks, the businessman and Donald Trump apologist who apparently pumped over £7 million into the Leave campaign

They might not be in the same intellectual league as the judges they’re vilifying so enthusiastically, but wealth like that looks pretty elite to me.

Ultimately, if the Prime Minister genuinely thinks she has any hope of reuniting a country wracked with division, suspicion, disappointment and economic uncertainty, she might want to rein this nonsense in. We need to be talking to one another to understand our differences, not sneering at the distraught group of Brits who lost the referendum and undermining the judiciary for good measure.

(4)    In the meantime, the natural world continues to get a hammering. While our newspapers are filled with endless political train-wrecks, stories about us being on track to lose two-thirds of wild animals by 2020 get relegated to the back pages. We need to be focussing on implementing the Paris climate deal; addressing the fact that scientists think we’re living through the Sixth Extinction; finding renewable energy solutions rather than burning through fossil fuels. If the nation’s attention is devoted to averting constitutional disaster, and if every new right-wing development compels us to extricate ourselves still further from global cooperation, then how in the world are we supposed to work together as an international community to sort these problems out for the next generation? The fall-out from Brexit is a disaster not only because of what it’s doing to our sense of national identity but because it’s preventing us from engaging in the issues that truly matter.

For now, I’m not sure what to do. I suppose staying engaged is the key – even if it’s deeply depressing – so that we’re ready to work towards a solution once this toxicity has abated. And in the meantime, as my Dad always used to say, don’t let the bastards grind you down.