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


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.


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.


“Delusions of Gender” by Cordelia Fine

A friend mentioned Delusions of Gender to me a few weeks ago, and, sucker for a good pun and a spot of neuroscience, I knew I’d have to read it.

This is an absolutely fascinating book, packed with wit, scholarship, and good ol’ fashioned feminism. Essentially Fine uses a combination of wry humour, memorable analogies, and her hugely impressive assimilation of information from a range of academic fields to dissect the ways in which popular neuroscience perpetuates a deeply pernicious kind of sexism. Bookshops are full of paperbacks telling us that men and women are simply wired differently; that girls are preconditioned to want to nurture, dust, and wear pink. Not only is that a very dangerous fiction, but it’s supported by what Fine reveals to be fatally flawed scholarship from the highest level: “The results of this study suggest that girls are born to be prewired to be interested in faces while boys are prewired to be more interested in moving objects,” writes Leonard Sax in his book “Why Gender Matters”, a conclusion echoed in the popular media around the world. The implications for career choices are clear. Cambridge academic Peter Lawrence, citing the newborn study, argues that men and women are “constitutionally different” and thus unlikely to ever become professors of physics and literature in equal numbers….

What she shows, very compellingly, is that society conditions us to associate traits, jobs, colours and shapes with maleness and femaleness almost from the moment we’re conceived. Once a mother knows the sex of her foetus, she quite literally starts to talk to it in a different way – she’ll soften her voice for a girl, focus on describing emotions, and speak to it more frequently. Even before our children are born, we’re trying to compartmentalize them according to their gender.

Which is greatly exacerbated as soon as children start to interact with the world around them. Liberal, educated parents with the best of intentions with regard to gender-neutral parenting reportedly attribute their daughters’ inevitable fascination with dolls and princesses all too readily to biology – if they’ve spent two years giving their little girl trucks and building blocks, but she still insists on cradling the truck like a baby or wrapping it in a pink blanket, surely it shows that her preferences are innate? Nonsense – what Fine portrays so shrewdly is that none of us lives in a vacuum. Even liberal, feminist parents probably own a T.V., and as Fine points out, the adverts which run between cartoons betray a startlingly sexism, which inevitably shapes children’s views of what’s “normal” for their gender (hence the brilliant campaign Let Toys Be Toys). Children develop their tastes not in response to their parents’ politics, but as a direct result of the way in which they learn to engage with their peers –and if every little girl in a pre-school group comes to a party dresses as a princess (an image which has been sold to her relentlessly from birth), the solitary female pioneer dressed as an astronaut will feel distraught, and instantly beg her parents for an Elsa costume. The same applies just as much to boys as it does to girls, of course – a young boy who might enjoy playing with dolls at home will soon learn to feel embarrassed by it at school, because those aren’t the sort of toys consumerism pushes onto his “group”. Grimly, but entirely logically, it isn’t enough to raise a family in an equality bubble if the rest of the world still runs along astonishingly gendered lines.

And it only gets worse as the years roll by. As children, we grow up watching Disney movies in which the lead female characters are left in the shade by their male counterparts when it comes to dialogue. When we get to school, we’re separated more and more – we play different sports, are encouraged to pursue different hobbies, are told that girls are somehow genetically disadvantaged when it comes to STEM subjects. Again what I found so astonishing was Fine’s explanation of the immediate and crippling effect these stereotypes have: if a group of girls are told just before taking a maths test that women are genetically less able at those sorts of tasks than men, they get a worse score than girls of equal ability who aren’t told anything of the sort. These stereotypes instantly become self-fulfilling prophecies. As she points out so effectively, if we were applying the same kind of segregation to left-handers and right-handers rather than to men and women, these societal pressures and assumptions would look nonsensical. And yet they persist.

It really made me think. As I was walking around the park on my lunch-break earlier today, I decided to listen to the Woman’s Hour podcast (with which I am currently obsessed). The topic up for debate was the controversial new junior doctor’s contract on the cusp being imposed on the NHS (for those of you not in the UK, the government is trying to overhaul the contracts of our national health service’s junior doctors, and it’s proving to be hugely inflammatory – in part because the new terms arguably discriminate against young female doctors). The show’s host asked the Tory MP being interviewed if the move was in fact a cynical way of trying to de-feminize our medical profession. I have to say that I agreed with a lot of what he said in general terms – but my hackles flew up when he suggested that female doctors are particularly useful because they demonstrate empathy, and a rapport with their patients. No! This is exactly the sort of language Cordelia Fine calls out in her excellent book. Empathy is a human quality, not a female quality; skilled female doctors, like skilled male doctors, are valuable because they’re good at their job, irrespective of their supposed ability to emote; and we shouldn’t take issue with sex discrimination just because we think women make up the “caring” part of the workforce, and are therefore useful in emotional situations. It’s utter madness, and does neither gender any favours.

I would absolutely recommend this book to anyone with any interest in gender politics; psychology; genetics; education; advertising; children; being left-handed; the human condition; and good jokes. Everybody, really. In the meantime, I just need to work out what’s to be done in the face of so much deep-rooted bias…

delusions of gender

Lower Thames Crossing

After reading This Changes Everything I decided I had to hit the books when  it comes to environmentalism – with the result that I’m studying for an Environmental Studies A-Level over the next couple of years. I’ve got my first exams in May, which is an odd thought – it’s been a good thirteen years since I sat in the gym at school doing the last lot – but I’ve absolutely loved feeling as though I’m starting to get a proper grip on the science behind the statistics. It’s given me the confidence to talk about environmentalism more freely, and every time I sit down to do my homework (with the aid of white wine, these days…)  it is forcefully hammered home to me how cavalier we are in the way we treat our natural environment.

With COP21; world leaders like Obama and Trudeau taking the lead when it comes to talking about the importance of combating climate change; and high profile protests over Arctic drilling and fracking, its seems as though more and more people are taking notice. But it’s still very high level – we know something needs to change, but it’s hard to know what we can do – and all the while, local decisions are made every day which incrementally chip away at our wildlife and natural habitats.

Things slip under the radar. There may be public consultations about proposed developments, for example, but who actually hears about them? Take the recent EU Refit  – without the brilliantly coordinated work of charities like the Woodland Trust and RSPB, how would the average person have been aware they were being given an opportunity to voice an opinion on something they may  care deeply about? It can feel obscure, buried beneath layers of bureaucracy. Which is why it’s so important to participate when you get a chance; and the Woodland Trust is championing just such a chance at the moment.

Highway England have recently floated five proposals with a view to building  a new tunnel under the River Thames linking Essex and Kent. As the Trust has pointed out, three of those proposals involve cutting a swathe through areas of ancient woodland – with the worst offending proposal affecting eight woods in total. If you think that ancient woods are, by definition, areas which have been continuously wooded since 1600 AD, knocking them down for the sake of a road is not a decision to be taken lightly; nor is it something to be imposed on an area if the public don’t support it.

There’s a disconnect, somewhere, in the way we treat our woods. On the one hand we know that they’re vital carbon sinks; that they’re greatly valued for the way in which they shape our landscape; that they’re hugely important when it comes to offering a habitat for native flora and fauna; and that they have a key role to play when it comes to flood management. And yet on the other, we’re distressingly ready to lop them down if there’s money to be made, or if it suits our program of modernization or urban expansion.

There’s a public consultation running until 24 March, which gives us a chance to defend the woods affected by Highway England’s plans: the Woodland Trust has lots of helpful information on its website, making responding as easy as possible. I’m definitely going to be adding my penny’s worth – because these are the local skirmishes we can win, one at a time. And as a pragmatist, it’s just as important to sustain these local victories as it is to participate in the sweeping, international movements.



“Flora Mackintosh and the Hungarian Affair”

Afternoon, all!

I wanted to let you know that I’ve recently published my second novel on Amazon – “Flora Mackintosh and the Hungarian Affair”.

It’s very light-hearted, silly, and (I hope!) will make you laugh. The aim was to write something hovering between St. Trinian’s and The 39 Steps, and it’s inspired by the characters my friend Sarah and I invented together over instant messenger at law school, when we were trying to avoid work…



“Cheerful Weather for the Wedding” by Julia Strachey

I’m getting married on 2 April, and it just so happens that the novel chosen by my book club – and which we’re due to discuss the week before the big day – was Cheerful Weather for the Wedding, by Julia Strachey. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the book, which I hope is a good omen.

All I knew about Julia Strachey was that she was part of the famous Bloomsbury Group – and I suppose that invokes certain preconceptions about a novel. I’d expected it to be something akin to Virginia Woolf: a tale of aristocrats set in their domestic sphere, probably coupled with streams of consciousness; perhaps featuring the odd artist or academic, and a tension between the Edwardian and the “modern”. And to an extent those assumptions hold true – this is very much a story taken from the world of wealth, set in that strange limbo period between an old-fashioned England and something more bohemian. There, though, the writers diverge. Whereas Woolf conjured painful psychological truths, laid bare in such extraordinary prose, Strachey comes at her story from a totally different angle. There’s a moment early on when a character looks into an old mirror so that the drawing-room, as reflected in its corpse-like face, seemed forever swimming in an eerie, dead-looking, metallic twilight, such as is never experienced in the actual world outside, and that description holds a clue about what it feels like to read Cheerful Weather. If Woolf was an author hunting for verisimilitude, then Strachey is someone who revelled (from a distance) in the strange tragi-comedy in everyday life. It’s a surreal, funny, coolly detached, and even slightly sinister portrait of a single day. Let’s just say I hope my wedding day is a happier occasion.

It’s a short story of just 114 pages, and there isn’t much plot to speak of. The wedding in question is between Dolly Thatcham and her fiancé, the Hon Owen Bigham. Evidently it isn’t a particularly happy affair – Dolly consumes half a bottle of rum before lunch, and the characters all exist in a perpetual state of physical discomfort. There’s also a rumbling threat throughout that the occasion will be disrupted by Dolly’s morose friend, Joseph, who’s either suffering from a bad cold or repressed love.

The narrator’s eye never lingers on a single character for long; it’s Dolly’s day, but the supporting cast are just as important as the bride. Dolly’s overbearing sister Kitty charges about, braying at the other guests and bemoaning the fact that she has ugly hands and no urban polish. Their mother, Mrs Thatcham, bustles about the house in a constant state of surprise, disappointment and confusion, criticising the servants for following her own muddled orders. There are two brothers who move from room to room – the younger being persecuted relentlessly by the older for wearing the wrong socks (the shame, the older says, if another Rugby man should be present and notice the youngster’s inappropriate choice as he kneels in church), in a dynamic which is both oddly sinister and very funny. Everyone looks constantly frozen and chafed, with mottled skin and raw hands: Had it not been for the uncomfortable streaks of yellow, and the dark patches, now apparent over his neck and on the sides of his cheeks, no one would have guessed that in Joseph, during the last few minutes, a mistral had started up, and that deep waters were being severely ruffled. 

There’s a general feeling of madness in the air – half the guests are three sheets to the wind, and no-one seems to be listening to anything anyone else says. As the cheerful Lob says at one point, ignoring Aunt Bella’s story about her affectionate servants, My dear lady…I don’t care two pins about all that! No! The question, as I see it, is quite a different one. The whole thing is simply this: Is it possible to be a Reckless Libertine without spending a great deal of money? Quite.

If the novel were longer the wholesale unlikeability of the cast might be a problem. As it is the whole thing is perfectly judged – you’re able to observe the characters as though looking at a peculiar species of animal, marvelling at their strangeness. It’s a vivid, unusual little story, which reminded me in some ways of the tone used by Jane Hervey in Vain Shadow. I really enjoyed being a voyeur into such a sad, funny little world for an hour or so – and will try to steer clear of the rum on 2 April.Cheerful Weather for the Wedding


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!