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.

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(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.

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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.

Harnessing the rage

The essential problem with becoming more political over the past couple of years is that I’ve genuinely started to lose the faith. I know that the best way to change people’s minds is to be positive and upbeat but honestly, after a couple of gins, I tend to veer into bleak (and no doubt extremely tedious) territory at the moment. The more you read about climate change, the environment, and the loss of biodiversity, the more it becomes apparent that our government is doing virtually nothing to avert catastrophe. Smug digs at Caroline Lucas aside, Theresa May’s government is doing what my dad would have called the square root of FA. Ratifying the Paris Climate Change is easy – anyone with a lady bic has got that bit covered – but actually doing something to help contain this problem seems to be utterly beyond Westminster.

I’ve been chewing over this for some time now, and here’s my analysis in all it’s world-weary glory: our current Conservative Government is incapable of prioritising anything over money.

r3fsro8z9d0lo

Now I’m really not having a dig at anyone who votes Tory – I’m the only leftie in my family, for a start, and I do get it, to an extent. I appreciate that a society needs economic stability in order to thrive – but my god, this bunch uses that justification to cover a multitude of sins. Here are just a few of their policies that have been keeping me up at night.

(1)    Austerity: I’m no expert in economics (which by Michael Gove’s standards should fast-track me to the Treasury) but it’s abundantly clear that this policy is something of a clusterfudge. Leaving deficits to one side, how can it be justifiable to penalise the poorest and most vulnerable through endless cuts to public services, whilst continuing to offer tax breaks to big business and the fossil fuel industry? How is it reasonable or sustainable to promote a policy which is going so far as to breach international human rights – hammering, in particular, women, young people, ethnic minorities and disabled people? Why are we surprised when the “post-fact” promises peddled during the EU referendum nudged struggling communities into voting against their own interests? And then there’s nasty old climate change to think about – cutting funding for first responders and flood defences isn’t ideal when we can reasonably expect some pretty extreme weather in the coming years. It’s pretty diabolical.

(2)    Fracking: Let’s take a moment to remember that the EU Referendum was run on the promise of giving power back to the people – cocking a snook at those nasty Brussels bureaucrats and making sure that if we want flammable flags, then dammit we shall have them. You could almost hear Henry V’s rousing speech running through Boris’ head as he whanged on about independence day. It was all very Last Night of the Proms. And yet…the Government doesn’t really believe in giving power to local communities. Not when there’s a risk of us exercising our right to make a decision they don’t particularly like. Take fracking, for instance. When Lancashire County Council decided to reject a fracking application last year, the Government responded by changing the rules. Now any decision regarding fracking can be made by the government, if they consider the application to be in the national interest – which, given that they’re the party going “all out for shale”, casts serious doubt on the idea that an application will ever be turned down. So much for people power, chaps – when they want our opinion, they’ll give it to us.

(3)    Subsidies: Most of us are agreed that climate change is, in the words of Harrison Ford, a clear and present danger. In principle, I think it’s fair to say the majority of us have also made the connection between burning fossil fuels and global warming – apart from Donald Trump, who thinks it’s a Chinese conspiracy. Essentially if we’re to have any hope of keeping the temperature increase below  2°c, we have to stop now. This is not a drill. In fact, in most cases it is a drill, because our energy policy seems to be frack in national parks like your life depended on it.

Which brings us to the issue of subsidies. Not only are our leaders failing to support the renewable energy sector – subsidies for green energy were slashed last year – but they are actively propping up coal. The Paris Deal becomes depressingly theoretical when you read George Monbiot’s comment that ,“In Britain for example, tax rebates for North Sea oil and gas companies are so generous that over the next five years the government is likely to give them around £5 billion more than it receives in revenues. There are similar tax breaks for fracking companies – but not, of course, for renewable energy.” A child could identify the problem with this set-up: it’s short-sighted, hypocritical, and essentially driven by the fact that there is no chance of a right-wing government alienating insanely wealthy fossil fuel companies. The stakes literally couldn’t be any higher, and all they’re concerned about is the bottom line.

(4)    Hinkley Point: Now I don’t have any particular beef with nuclear power. My dad worked on a nuclear submarine, for heaven’s sake, so joining the CND isn’t really an option in my house. There are huge questions to be answered about how we store nuclear waste safely, but in principle this is surely something that needs to be explored if we’re going to wean ourselves off coal and oil. Hinkley, however, does yank my chain, for the simple reason that this is being presented as a green solution by the government when (i) see points 2 and 3 above: what’s the point of promoting this whilst hamstringing other forms of green energy (ii) it’s going to cost a fortune and the technology, by all accounts, is the equivalent of trying to “build a cathedral within a cathedral” and (iii) it seems likely that it’ll take a good ten years for this plant to be generating energy when we need to tackle our energy crisis now. Not in 2020. It’s hardly the silver bullet.

(5)    Bake Off: As if the summer couldn’t get any worse, now the Tories have stolen cake. Cake. What’s next?! Christmas?!                                                                                                        

So here’s my dilemma: is it possible to talk about all that in an up-beat way? How can I evolve from teeth-gnashing into charm? Is there a more effective way to convince people than to collar them at parties and scream that we’re doomed? If there is, I haven’t found it – and  I suspect that my rage is as ineffectual as it is exhausting. Any tips most welcome – and in the meantime, it’s best to avoid me during cocktail hour.

 

 

“Is the Planet Full?” Editor Ian Goldin

We are living, apparently, in a post-factual age – where a referendum can be won on the basis of myths, lies and soundbites, and in which there is no place for experts. Our carefully curated Facebook feeds, driven by algorithm and assumption, create the echo-chamber in which we receive the constant positive reinforcement of our opinions. The BBC, hamstrung by its need to remain impartial at all times, can actually end up lending validity to the crack-pot ideas demanding equal airtime. Politics has become farcical, the fictions created in the social media bubble are reported as bring truths, and all the while our government offers us endlessly limp nautical metaphors about the need to “steady the ship”. Yes, we’re all likely to become poorer as a result of Brexit, and yes, our leading universities are already beginning to feel the effects of being NFI’d when it comes to EU funding. But the right-wing enclave of the Conservatives will no doubt be congratulating themselves on maintaining the neo-liberal status quo through Theresa May, and will ultimately get the split from Europe they’ve been squabbling over for generations.

Meanwhile, and despite the apparently imminent implosion of the Labour party, the left is organising. The Greens are assembling a petition calling on the Labour Party, SNP, Plaid Cymru, and the Liberal Democrats to form an alliance with them – with a view to blocking the Tories, rather than one another, when it comes to election season. Apart from the UKIPpers sculling around on the extreme edges, the Conservative party essentially has a monopoly on being right-wing. There are, however, myriad ways of being a liberal, with the result that centrists and leftists inevitably spread their votes too thinly across too many parties – fatal in a first past a post electoral system like ours. For the first time, it looks as though there may be a move towards collaboration.

I’m giving this as context, really: because it’s in the priorities of that embryonic Progressive Alliance that I hear echoes of the things explained so clearly in Is the Planet Full?

For the past eighteen months I’ve been swimming around in books about climate change; environmentalism; and sustainability. It was all triggered by Naomi Klein, of course. The books I’ve been reading aren’t “extreme” – although Michael Gove may disagree, given that they are written by experts – but translating any of the ideas from those works into a political arena is somehow seen as being an eccentric thing to do. It is accepted as fact that climate change is a critical threat, and that we need to amend our ways if we have any hope of preventing the most catastrophic levels of change. Articulating how to achieve that adaptation, though, and trying to implement it through a political manifesto is a very difficult prospect.

I don’t want to suggest that my enjoyment of this book relied too much on my post-referendum political obsession… However, I do think the timely idea of a Progressive Alliance gives this collection of essays a particularly interesting context. The premise of the volume is that a group of academics specialising in a range of disciplines are asked to answer the same question:“Is the Planet Full?” Each contributor focuses on a different ranges of priorities and perspectives – from sustainable food production to welfare economics – and in each case, the response is offered in an accessible and hugely engaging way. This is just as readable as “Feral” by George Monbiot, for example, or “Climate Change, Capitalism and Corporations” by Christopher Wright and Daniel Nyberg, and certainly focused my mind.

I’ll admit, for example, that I’ve been guilty of twitching in self-righteous horror at the idea of British parents choosing to have huge families when our global commons are already under such immense pressure. And I don’t think it’s wrong to have a sense of self-awareness about a growing population, or to moderate your decisions accordingly. What these essays demonstrate, though, is that this really isn’t just a question of numbers. Yes we’re still growing at an alarming rate, but the global population will inevitably stabilise and even decline as the developing world becomes developed, and as more women are educated and given choices regarding their fertility. The problem is not really one of numbers – it’s one of consumption. Because it’s not the growing populations in the developing world which are putting our shared resources under such pressure – it’s the consumerist, extractivist mentality of the already developed world. As Goldin puts it in his introduction, “Is it just and fair that the 19.5 million residents of New York State consume as much energy as the 800 million residents of sub-Saharan Africa?”

As I say, this book definitely isn’t a political manifesto – it’s an exploration of the ways we need to think about our global population if we want to stay within the planet’s carrying capacity. In an immensely readable way, it identifies the fact that “major accommodations” will need to be made to find a way to share our resources more equitably, and to change the lifestyles which are driving global consumption, if we are to have any hope of living sustainably. When sentiments like that are offered by politicians, of course – say, by the UK Green party – it’s still seen as being hugely radical. The redistribution of wealth, reduction in meat consumption and divestment from fossil fuel are seen as being properly leftie issues. When academic volumes like this are sounding exactly the same warnings, however, then surely the radical decision is to ignore what they experts are saying, rely on the post-factual status quo, and keep on flogging neo-liberalism to an ever-burgeoning middle class.

If Brexit genuinely kick-starts a Progressive Alliance with these questions at the top of its agenda, then maybe this grizzly referendum won’t have been for nothing. In the meantime, this is a really fascinating read.

Overpopulation

Brexit: perhaps it is a drill after all…

This time last week, I was fairly upset. I couldn’t even begin to comprehend why someone would have voted Leave, and was enraged by the idea that I was going to have part of my identity erased by Westminster. I’ve signed every petition, I’ve written letters, and I’ve roared at the news whenever they’ve shown another clip about the fresh wave of hate crimes which seem to have been legitimised by the vote.

It’s been a tough, strange, disorientating week, and the dust hasn’t even begun to settle. The Tory Leavers are ducking and weaving in the hope that they won’t have to accept responsibility for the fissures creeping across the country, and there isn’t a coherent opposition to speak of. For a lot of the Remainers, and the Leavers who now regret the result, the hope is that the constitutional niceties of this will somehow block Brexit. Lawyers aren’t sure whether the Prime Minister can trigger Article 50 without the prior consent of Parliament; it’s possible that the 1972 Act which introduced us to the EU will need to be repealed; and Holyrood may try to block Brexit given the overwhelming support in Scotland for remain. It’s conceivable that this will all just…fizzle out – that the new Prime Minister will go into Brussels with a view to negotiating a compromise rather than actually pressing the button. For many, including me, that’s the hope.

But. The past few days have also been humbling. I fit squarely in the demographic for remain: I’m 31, a graduate, I live in a city, I have a steady income…I’ve never really felt the pressures of austerity, or immigration. And in retrospect, it looks as though many of the votes have been a response to a combination of those things. According to a report issued by the UN Human Rights Commission last Friday:

The Committee is seriously concerned about the disproportionate adverse impact that austerity measures, introduced since 2010, are having on the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights by disadvantaged and marginalized individuals and groups. The Committee is concerned that the State party has not undertaken a comprehensive assessment of the cumulative impact of such measures on the realization of economic, social and cultural rights, in a way that is recognized by civil society and national independent monitoring mechanisms (art. 2, para. 1).

The same friend who pointed that out on Facebook also shared the following chart from the Washington Post, which shows how little the income of many families in the UK has increased over recent years.

Brexit chart

Reviewing the past few months with that in mind, the referendum suddenly looks like a tinderbox. Even from my liberal Oxford echo-chamber, I could see that the rhetoric used during the campaign was reductive, dangerous, and at times openly xenophobic. Combine that with Austerity Britain, and you’ve got a perfect cocktail of blame and confusion. Perhaps immigration really is putting impossible pressure on the schools and hospitals in some regions – but underlying all of that is the fact that our infrastructure has been hamstrung by years of funding cuts. The EU, with all of its flaws, became a useful scapegoat for years of financial struggle precipitated in part by this government’s economic policies.

And I’m not saying that that is the only reason people voted to Leave. We all responded to this in a myriad of different ways – rightly or wrongly – and the problem with the way this has been presented is that it all become so binary. You’re in or you’re out. Global or isolationist. Urban or rural. The 48 or the 52. In a political and economic context this complicated, that’s a recipe for disaster – because none of us fit neatly into one of two boxes, and the problems the people of this country (and Europe) are facing can’t be reduced to “Leave” or “Remain.” Our politicians failed us when they reduced this blend of issues into a series of inflammatory soundbites, and we’re failing each other if we start to view Britain through that over-simplified prism.

I’m not saying that I’m going to accept the result, or stop kicking back against the way this has been handled. A lot of people I have a great deal of respect for, like George Monbiot, have been saying this week that we have to accept the democratic outcome of the referendum. If the Tory Government has taught me anything, it’s that democracy is a flexible beast. When a County Council voted to block Cuadrilla fracking in a national park, for example, the Government suggested that they were going to centralise fracking decisions going forwards, as a way of thwarting local opposition. When democracy didn’t suit them, they decided to adapt it. With that in mind, going on marches, writing letters and fighting this outcome to the end is the least I can do. I believe in my bones that the referendum was a mistake, that the Tories don’t have a mandate to take us out of the EU subject to their own terms, and that the best hope all of us have is to try to fix this thing from the inside.

However. I will stop referring to myself as part of the 48%, as though that makes us the rebellious, liberal soul of this country. We’re in this together, chaps. We’re not Leavers and Remainers – we’re a struggling nation which hasn’t been communicating. Yes, the wave of xenophobia and racism needs to be stamped out urgently, and we really need to stop sending Farage out into the world as our envoy. But we can’t leave this up to Westminster anymore, or what’s left of it. We need to start talking.

 

 

1972 European Communities Act

In case it’s of interest, friends, I sent the following to my MP yesterday evening.

Dear Ms Blackwood
I am writing to you in relation to the recent referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, to urge you not to vote to repeal the 1972 European Communities Act, if and when such a vote comes to pass.

It has become abundantly clear over the past few days that the referendum has left the country in turmoil. Many people who voted to leave the EU have since expressed dismay that their vote contributed towards the overall 52% majority, and in any event given the proximity of the 48% v. 52% split, it is in no way clear that there is overwhelming support for a deeply controversial break from Europe.

The referendum has raised many fundamental questions for voters: should teenagers have the right to voice an opinion in these kinds of referendums; should English voters have the right to bind Scots who so clearly want to remain (particularly when EU membership was such a prominent issue in the independence referendum in 2014); and should such a complex political decision be left in the hands of voters in the first place. The economy has already suffered – as it was predicted would be the case – and it looks very much as though Brexit would fulfil the predictions of the various experts who urged us to remain. Further, the Leave campaigners have already acknowledged that many of the promises they made were completely hollow.

As you will be very well aware, Oxfordshire voted to remain. Your constituents sent a very clear signal on 23 June, and demonstrated their wish to remain part of the union. I would, with the greatest respect, urge you to bear that in mind if a vote comes to pass, and to remember that the referendum was advisory, that it has no binding legal or constitutional effect, and that it would so clearly be in the nation’s best interests to do what our Prime Minister advised during the campaign.

I appreciate that this is an extremely difficult time for the UK Government, and that maintaining unity is a priority. However, I also fervently believe that our Government has a responsibility to act in the interests of the nation, not in the interests of a narrow, fluctuating and misled majority.

With continued thanks for all the hard work you do for our constituency.

Anna Sadler

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Brexit: this is not a drill

Waking up to the referendum result on Friday morning is something I’ll never forget. It may well sound melodramatic but I felt genuinely heartbreak, and a vacuum replacing the cautious optimism and hope that had been there the night before. Of course there was the knee-jerk reaction too, the tears and the anguish over the fact that I no longer felt “English”. After three days, I can appreciate that grandiose statements about identity politics possibly aren’t helpful, but the feeling still hasn’t subsided. My values and political beliefs are based on the idea of global cooperation, and the idea that I will, over the course of the next two years, lose first my European identity and then my Britishness, fills me with deep sadness. My darling Dad used to say we were internationalists – he’d cheer a foreign team playing against the English if it would make for a better game of rugby – and I don’t think I’d appreciated until Friday how much that had influenced me.

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And images like this? That isn’t helping. I’m not ready for twee platitudes, gallows humour, being told to “keep calm and carry on” and that I ought to respect this democratic result and somehow live with the consequences. The Leavers in Westminster are claiming that they now have a “clear mandate” to extricate us from the EU, and social media is telling me that I ought to make the best of it.

No. I reject that absolutely. This was an advisory referendum, and the results are a confusion of prejudices, divisions and misinformation. 48% of the portion of people who voted want to remain. That is a significant chunk of the British population, particularly when you consider that Scotland was so pro-Europe (and that they were told to remain in Britain during the independence referendum in part because it guaranteed them EU membership). 75% of 18-24 year olds wanted to stay in the EU. Lord knows what British teenagers think – the generation which will inherit the consequences of this decision – because they weren’t asked. That doesn’t offer a clear mandate as far as I’m concerned, and neither does it smack of democracy.

Would I think the same if the 48/52 split had gone the other way? I don’t know, and I appreciate that there’s a level of arrogance in assuming Remainers should have the right to unpick this because they believe it’s the wrong decision. (Although for the record, it’s deeply frustrating to read world-weary articles about the sudden hysteria of the “leftie intelligentsia”. Really? The 48% aren’t even allowed a few days to grieve this nightmare scenario without snide mockery? Given that I’ve been bombarded with nonsensical Leave propaganda for months, that seems a little rich.) I know that for some there were genuine, rational, heartfelt reasons to Leave, buried in the mire of Nigel Farage’s 1930s manifesto.  And where those arguments can be made I’ll try to have the humility to respect them. I know that for a lot of people, Leave offered a way to rebel against a status quo which has failed them. That some voters were genuinely – rightly – disgusted by the prospect of the TTIP deal and the seemingly inevitable privatisation of the NHS. The EU, in its current form, is in urgent need of reform. But I also don’t believe that the majority of Leave voters could actually give you a clear, justifiable reason for wanting to go, based on something other than Boris’ absurd references to “Independence Day”, and Farage’s xenophobic scare-mongering. And the point is that when Cameron decided to hand this over to the public (in itself a ridiculous and irresponsible decision), it became incumbent on everyone who put a cross in the “Leave” box to be able to justify themselves with something other than sound-bites. When every financial, environmental and political expert is saying that Brexit could destabilise not just our British future but the future of the European project as a whole, you’d better have a damn good reason for wanting to go the other way. And if you don’t, then I think it’s fair to accept that the Remainers will be pretty hacked off with you for a while.

The environmental consequences of all of this are also utterly bleak. After COP21 in December last year, it seemed as though we were actually on the cusp of a unified, global response to climate change. Brexit will almost certainly de-rail that. Instead of helping to build a harmonised, EU-wide initiative to develop green technology and phase out fossil fuels, Britain has decided to go it alone. Which may not be so terrifying if we had a better track record, but we could soon find ourselves at the mercy of a Conservative government which fracks in national parks and slashes subsidies for the green sector. Lord knows what will happen to the EU legislation which underpins our already-inadequate national environmental framework. We’ve lost the right to sit at the TTIP negotiating table, and to block a treaty which would give corporations the right to sue European governments if environmental legislation threatens their bottom line. And instead of asking the EU to focus on climate change now, urgently, recognising it as the existential threat it truly is, we’ve ensured that the next couple of years will be taken up by protracted exit-negotiations and economic uncertainty. We’re wasting time, and turning our backs on the very idea of international cooperation and global leadership. “One just hopes that collaboration on these issues, conservation issues, will transcend political divisions,” David Attenborough said, post-referendum. Collaboration now seems wholly unlikely from where I’m sitting. So yes, I am frightened, and disgusted – and don’t you dare accuse me of self-righteous hysteria, or try to placate me by mauling A.A. Milne.

For now, I can’t just sit back and bask in the glow of democracy at work, just because a couple of old Etonians decided to play a game of chicken in Westminster. History is unlikely to look kindly on the last few months, and I don’t want to reflect on this period in the years to come and remember my apathy. There’s a time to be angry. This is it.Brexit(Image taken from: https://www.socialeurope.eu/2016/03/why-there-will-be-no-brexit/)

“All The Light We Cannot See”, by Anthony Doerr

After a long absence (due to a happy cocktail of getting married a few months’ ago; taking an Environmental Studies AS level; and trying my hand at a few pieces of freelance writing for Collectively) I finished All the Light We Cannot See last night, and, once the sobs had subsided, immediately felt the need to write a review.

This Pulitzer Prize winning novel is one of the most stirring and tender pieces of fiction I’ve read in a long time. Centred around the build up to, and fall out from, the Second World War, it tells the story of two children – Marie-Laure and Werner.

Marie-Laure is a young Parisian who, having lost her sight as a little girl, learns to revel in the mysteries of the world through the patience and love of her father. Her Papa is a locksmith at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, and as well as designing impregnable cases for the Muséum’s treasures, builds his daughter a miniature version of Paris as a way of teaching her how to find her way through the city. Their relationship is beautifully drawn – the way in which Marie-Laure’s father teases the confidence and imagination out of her, and, as the story progresses, shields her from the horrors of war, is deeply moving without ever feeling sentimental.

Just before she loses her sight, Marie-Laure is told the story of a large blue diamond locked up somewhere in the Muséum, which confers eternal life on whoever carries it whilst inflicting destruction on their loved-ones: the Sea of Flame. As the Nazis swarm across Europe (and unbeknownst to his daughter) Marie-Laure’s father is entrusted either with the real diamond or a decoy, and told to get it out of Paris. The pair make their way to Saint-Malo; to the home of Marie-Laure’s brilliant great-uncle, Etienne, a man still deeply scarred by the horrors he witnessed in the First World War. Inevitably the legend of the diamond obsesses one particularly cruel treasure-hunting Nazi, who pursues the small family to their hiding-place and threatens to destroy their sanctuary.

Woven into these scenes is the story of Werner Pfennig and his sister, Jutta, both snow-haired orphans living in a mining town in Germany. When he is still very young Werner finds a discarded radio, which he teaches himself how to fix. As he is flicking through the static one evening, he discovers a distant French voice giving dream-like lectures to children on science and the mysteries of the universe. He and Jutta fall in love with the voice and the worlds of knowledge it opens up to them. For Werner in particular, the mysterious Frenchman inspires a deep fascination in mathematics and engineering, and before long he has become a prodigious radio-engineer. His remarkable academic abilities win him a scholarship to one of the Nazi’s top boys’ schools, and as Jutta looks on in despair, her gentle, curious brother becomes mired in the moral horrors of Hitler’s programme for Germany’s elite children.

In one respect, this is a good old-fashioned page-turner: in addition to inter-weaving the stories of Marie-Laure and Werner, Doerr also takes you backwards and forwards in time so that their denouement is teased from the very beginning. It’s wholly gripping, and I simply couldn’t put the book down until I’d finished it last night. More than that, though, the novel unravels the ways that war strips the magic and wonder from life. In their own ways, the novel’s children are fascinated by the natural world – by molluscs and radio waves, botany and birds. The machine of war corrupts, steals and warps those passions, threatening not just the characters’ lives but also the inexplicable mix of kindness and intellectual curiosity which defines them. One of the questions which is asked time and time again throughout the story is what these children might have been had it not been for the barbarity of that war: yes, the novel is affirming in many ways and there’s a vein of indomitable humanity throughout, but it is also, inevitably, completely heart-breaking, as each of the characters loses the world they’d known and the life they might have lived.

When I’d finished snivelling into the kitchen roll, I have to say that it all felt quite timely and political, too. Hopping onto my soap box for a minute, I’ll be voting to remain in the EU for a raft of reasons (it makes economic sense; our only hope of decent environmental legislation comes from Europe; the immigration scare-mongering is Daily Mail nonsense; and we need to avoid the TTIP by being part of Europe, not by substituting it for something more sinister (as George Monbiot wrote today)). But it’s also more fundamental than that. The EU may primarily have an economic raison d’être, but it was essentially assembled in the wake of this very war to create a united, peaceful, prosperous Europe. I defy anyone to read a novel like this and to feel isolationist.

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