“The Buddha’s Return” by Gaito Gazdanov

In The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, Gaito Gazdanov isolates the physical and psychological; he leaves his characters stranded in a half-reality, a philosophical dream of their own creation; and asks searching questions about what it means to be alive and conscious of one’s inner life. In The Buddha’s Return, he takes that discombobulation to its extreme – the unnamed narrator who drifts through the novel in a fog of uncertainty, suffers a kind of sporadic delirium which sees him slip constantly from reality into incredibly vivid, nightmarish constructs. These waking dreams almost always involve the narrator punishing himself in some way – the opening words of the novel, for instance, are “I died”; and later he finds himself a prisoner of a fictional state, accused of a crime he didn’t commit but cannot deny in a kind of Kafkaesque nightmare (and neatly foreshadowing the second half of the novel). The fiction is as convincing as reality, and as the reader you have to try to follow the narrative thread like a trail of breadcrumbs through the narrator’s consciousness. It is very unusual, and despite being so fragmentary in some ways, incredibly gripping.

The central premise is that the narrator is imprisoned for killing a friend of his – a wealthy man called Pavel Alexandrovich, whom the narrator first met when Pavel was still a beggar on the streets of Paris. The one thing that offers the narrator some hope is that as well as killing Pavel, the murderer stole a golden statue of Buddha from Pavel’s apartment – a crime which the narrator could not have committed. In that sense this is, as is The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, an accomplished thriller, and it certainly has the pace and intrigue of a great piece of crime fiction. However that plot also functions as a vehicle allowing the narrator, and therefore Gazdanov, to explore issues of identity; alienation; loneliness; the power of our fictional inner lives; and a kind of social justice. The idea of justice in particular figures large here – both in the criminal sense, and with regard to a kind of broader social consciousness. The narrator is imprisoned by two justice systems in this novel – one fictional, and the other real – and in both cases he is urged to confess to a crime he didn’t commit, in order to satisfy the requirements of a monstrous judiciary. As a fictional interrogator tells him:

They will sentence you and adopt punitive measures – not because you’re guilty and it has been proven, but because this is how they understand the task of the Central Judiciary. Objection is unfavourable and punishable in principle. To argue with the law is a crime against the state, as is to doubt its inerrancy. 

When the legal system itself is so caught up with such corkscrewing levels of bureaucracy, what hope is there for the individual? The narrator is entirely alone in Paris – friendless, but for the enigmatic Pavel – and as such, wholly at the whim of the state. Indeed the entire cast of the novel is made up of foreigners, beggars, and prostitutes – everyone playing the hand life has dealt them, trying to surviving in what can often be an anarchic, unkind world. It’s a feeling of separation and unreality that feels very timely as we debate privacy laws, immigration, and live in dissonance with the natural world. Indeed in a novel that relies so much on mirroring, chance connections and repetition, there are only really two moments in which a genuine human connection is either promised or realised – the first being the conversation between the narrator and Pavel shortly before Pavel’s death, and the second offering a ray of hope at the end of the novel, as the narrator rediscovers the importance of a lost love. It’s comforting that even in a novel which is distinguished by their absence, mutual understanding and love are what the narrator finds himself striving for.

The Buddha’s Return is at heart a very European novel, which draws on the work of writers like Freud, Proust and Schnitzler (and of course, Dostoevsky) whilst being very critical of the continent’s history and class system. (As Pavel says at one point, “Here, every stone is dripped in blood. Wars, revolutions, barricades, crimes, despotic regimes, inquisitions, famine, devastation, and this whole historical gallery of horrors...” Europe, like the narrator’s internal life, is full of monsters.)  Managing to combine pace, great sensory detail and an ongoing psychological examination of his character, Gazdanov has achieved something very special. A novel like Rogue Male owes a debt, I think, to The Buddha’s Return – it’s a real feat to combine suspense and psychological analysis with such flair.

 

The Buddha's Return

“Mona Lisa” by Alexander Lernet-Holenia

Mona-Lisa by Alexander Lernet-Holenia is a jewel of a novella, seamlessly blending theories about the power of art with slap-stick comedy. The premise is simple enough – reminiscent of the Pygmalion myth, a young French nobleman called Bougainville finds himself in Florence, in the home of the great Leonardo di Vinci. Wrapped up in the task of trying to catch a fly in Leonardo’s workshop (in order to settle a sudden argument about how many legs the insect has), Bougainville accidentally reveals the artist’s most famous painting, whose bewitching smile had been hidden behind a curtain. He immediately experiences an overwhelming feeling of love for Di Vinci’s subject, and resolves to find her. Leonardo explains that she is a fiction, a combination of many women both real and imagined –although in an effort to get the young man out of his house, he implies that she may have been loosely based on the young wife of a Florentian nobleman. The woman, he explains, died some years ago, but Bougainville cannot believe this to be true. He convinces himself that she must be alive and in peril, hidden from the world by a jealous husband. His search gets more and more frantic and, as he blunders through the city, he manages to make himself both a figure of fun and deeply tragic.

The tone of the story is unusual, and perfectly judged. At times it is, as I say, extremely funny. There is one scene in particular in which Mona Lisa’s mostly-naked husband, interrupted by the questing Bougainville and his cronies in the middle of the night, slides down his banisters in a bid to escape their questions. In another, Bougainville’s furious commander berates him whilst at the same time retying his shot-brocade trouser laces tighter round his thighs – since, we are told, For over a century trouser laces were wound round the thighs, and for over a century they did not stay put, but slid down the legs. It’s pure Monty Python. In among these farcical scenes, however, are moments of real feeling – because as ridiculous as Bougainville’s love is for the woman in the painting, there is no doubt that it is sincere. As he says towards the end of the story, Nothing is capable of separating two people who love each other – these binary stars eternally revolving round each other – not even God. He is willing to sacrifice everything for the image of a woman he has never met, and in his sincerity manages to humble even Di Vinci.

Ultimately the blend of absurdity and tenderness poses genuine questions about our relationship with art; whether it is possible to feel real love if it is inspired by someone fictional or unknown; whether dreams can, in fact, be more authentic than life itself; and indeed, if we ever really know the people we love, or if their true selves are as removed from us as the Mona Lisa is from her audience. Bougainville may be a fool – but aren’t we all when we experience love for the first time, no matter how inappropriate the object of our affections?

The truth is, even had I wanted to paint her, it would have immediately turned into the likeness of someone else. After all, one always paints women who never exist, and the same goes for women one really loves.

Mona Lisa

As  a post-script, I had never heard of Lernet-Holenia before, but he sounds like an absolutely fascinating figure with a complicated story of his own. Veteran of the First World War, author of what has apparently been called “the only Austrian resistance novel”, part of an army film unit for the Germans during the Second World War…I intend to obtain a copy of I was Jack Mortimer as soon this long, lean month is finally over.

Tree Charter

In 1217 King Henry III sealed the Charter of the Forest, a companion document to 1215’s Magna Carta. In the reign of King John (signatory to the Magna Carta and notorious Robin Hood villain) roughly a third of the country was made up by the royal forests, and there had traditionally been brutal punishments for “forest offences” (like poaching, or hunting protected deer). The Charter of the Forest redressed some of those inequalities by establishing a right of common access, thereby enshrining the rights of people to farm, forage and use the land to support their livestock. In essence the Charter achieved two significant things: first, like the Magna Carta, it recognised the fundamental rights of the common man; and secondly, it acknowledged that critical relationship between the English and their woodland.

As the centuries have rolled by our landscape has been stripped of much of its woodland by industry, farming, an increase in the population and most recently, the effects of climate change. As I have mentioned previously, it now covers less than 2% of the country;  indeed Britain boasts less tree cover than any European country other than Malta, Ireland and the Netherlands. And our trees are constantly under threat from new pressures – like fracking, and the toothless National Planning Policy Framework, which gives politicians the right to cut through swathes of ancient woodland if they consider it to be economically expedient.

Which means that our remaining trees have become even more precious, and vulnerable, and deserve urgent protection. We need to remember that woods have always formed an integral part of our landscape, nature, infrastructure and folklore. From the totem-like pine poles at Stonehenge to Tolkein’s Ents, they are our symbols of the sacred and magical; our place of refuge; our resources; and, perhaps most important of all, our bastions of biodiversity. What is very clear, however, is that we cannot assume that our woods will be preserved indefinitely unless we take action.

It is very welcome news, then, to hear that the Woodland Trust is leading a call to establish a new Charter for Trees, Woods and People, with a view to building on that thirteenth century legacy. The Charter itself will be drafted in 2017; for now, the Trust is asking “people across the UK to reflect on the role of trees and woods in their lives, their history, and their culture. By sharing stories of real trees and real lives in communities we will build a national story of trees and woods – showing how important they are to people today and what role communities want them to play in our future.” 

When I look at a tree that’s lived for hundreds of years, surviving storms, frosts, and human intervention, it is a very visceral reminder of our history– English oaks gave us the gall ink which recorded the words of our nation’s authors and poets for hundreds of years; the willow gave us the cricket bat; our woods built our ships and our churches. Most importantly, though, when a piece of ancient woodland is destroyed we lose not only a link to that past, but also a vital piece of our natural world – because trees are, above all, habitats. At a time when climate change is already causing such damage, it’s crucial that we re-establish our connection with these parts of our countryside and articulate the things that are important to us. Taking part in the formation of this Charter seems like an excellent place to start – and we can start by adding our own stories to the Tree Charter website, explaining what trees mean to us:  https://treecharter.uk/

“A Possible Life” by Sebastian Faulks

I don’t think you ever understand your life – not till it’s finished and probably not then either. The more I live the less I seem to understand.

In A Possible Life, Sebastian Faulks tells five short, seemingly separate stories, plucked from different times, different countries, but with shared DNA. Each works as an independent tale, ranging from the horrors of the Second World War; a Victorian workhouse; a futuristic Italy; Napoleonic France; and 1960s California, and, as such, there is something to be said for the claim of some reviewers that this may not form a “novel” at all. That breadth, though, is surely the point of the structure –because in this ambitious book, Faulks isn’t just telling a single character’s story. He is distilling shared human experience into one expanded narrative, and very deliberately offering these five lives up as an examination of what we all have in common, not just what makes us unique.

I studied Birdsong when I was in my final year at school, and fell in love with it completely. It is, as I’m sure everyone knows by now, a story of two parts – a doomed pre-war love affair, which ultimately gives way to the horrors of the battlefield. One of that novel’s qualities is the mastery with which Faulks binds those two worlds together – images of Parisian waterways merge into trenches, and phrases echo one another across the years, offering tragic, clinging reminders of the proximity of life and death. Faulk’s has a way of concertinaing time, finding the epic rhythms which run through his characters’ lives, binding them to their forebears and descendants. It is not so much a democratization of experience as an insistence that what we think of as being our unique moments in fact ripple through time. It’s both an intellectual and tangible phenomenon – objects have tears in them, to quote Virgil, and Faulks uncovers this with rare skill.

A Possible Life exhibits that to maximum effect.  None of the stories are linked overtly, but the ripples are undoubtedly there. A chipped statue of the Madonna owned by one character finds itself in the hands of another, centuries later. The trauma of living through a war and bearing physical or mental scars is experienced keenly by three of the characters. A fleeting glimpse of a cricket match makes its way from the first story into the third. These people are explicitly bound by their things, their religion, their common humanity – and very literally, but the atoms from which they are made. At the end of the opening story, the main character experiences some subtle rearrangement of particles within himself. In another, as a character contemplates the death of her mother, she considers that the atoms that had made her mother had existed since the start of time. The sections of the novel aren’t just linked by themes and things, but by the matter which literally constitutes each character.

In the third story, a gifted scientist uncovers the mundane secret of human consciousness. It is the question which pervades each of these stories – how we cope with the weight of memory when we witness atrocities; whether our lives have a narrative we ought to be able to understand; the cost of creating a work of art so intimate that it speaks to the collective consciousness – essentially, how to understand the human condition. These are vast, existential ideas, but they aren’t overbearing. Instead the questions are woven lightly throughout narratives which otherwise deal with war, love, loss, art and loneliness; they flicker into focus occasionally, letting you know how connected we all are, even in isolation, but each section is otherwise allowed to have an arch of its own.

The only criticism I could offer is that, for me, the first story was so powerful that it rather overshadowed the rest of the novel. That perhaps betrays my own tastes rather than being an objective reflection on the success of the novel’s structure, but the poignancy of the opening story was only really recaptured by the beautiful closing lines. Notwithstanding that slight reservation, this is ambitious, protean, and thoroughly engaging. Faulks is the consummate master when it comes to revealing those minute, repeated details which pepper our lives, and as he has demonstrated so many times before, he can inhabit any number of characters completely believably (including, much to my delight, James Bond and Bertie Wooster). This is a very special, brave book.

“My time has come to disperse,” says my father. “We are made of fragments and they must go back. They have finished with this man.”

A possible life.jpg

“Montaigne” by Stefan Zweig

I only really discovered Montaigne through Sarah Bakewell’s excellent How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, though references to him (which I apparently failed to pursue) peppered many of my lectures at university. Bakewell’s book is incredibly entertaining and accessible, and was a perfect introduction to a writer who, at first glance, can seem so alien.  The reality, of course, is that Montaigne’s writing completely belies the stern portrait which glares at you from the cover of his Essays – he is funny, wise, thoughtful; the first writer to analyse his own internal life with such easy integrity and charm. I cannot think of a better guide through life’s thorniest questions.

Montaigne by Stefan Zweig is an exquisite offering from a writer who read the Essays with a particularly vivid intent; it is an excellent companion to the Essays, as well as being a remarkable work in its own right.

The context in which it was written imbues Zweig’s words with a terrible poignancy. Having been driven from Europe by the horrifying spread of Nazism, Zweig found himself in Brazil where, when exploring the damp cellar of his new flat, he found a copy of the Essais. It was a fateful discovery. For Zweig, the friendship and culture of Europe was everything, and he had been profoundly affected by his exile. In Zweig’s eyes, Montaigne had lived through a similar kind of cultural collapse – after the promise of the Renassiance where centuries were opening up where creative power, step by step, wave on wave, was carrying dark and chaotic existence towards the threshold of the divine, France has been struck by periods of incredible violence; the riots against the salt tax had been ferociously repressed in Bordeaux, and as a child, Montaigne witnessed terrible crimes against humanity. In spite of this, though, Montaigne successfully guarded his own, integral freedom – first through retiring to his tower and immersing himself in reading, and then later, through travel. For Zweig, who drew such important parallels between this and the violence of his own time, this was powerfully instructive; and ultimately, tragically, fatal. For at one point in his Essays, Montaigne suggests that a free man should choose the nature of his own death – and for Zweig, this became a very literal instruction. Over-burdened by the loss of his European ideals, and with no hope that the brutality sweeping across Europe would end, he eventually took his own life.

It isn’t something that Zweig addresses directly in Montaigne, and though it inevitably colours the experience of reading the book, Zweig’s writing, like Montaigne’s, is in fact full of an inspirational vitality. The challenge, he says, is to remain human in inhuman times; to live your own life, not simply to live. Zweig is brilliant at drawing out Montaigne’s most inspirational qualities – particularly his egalitarianism and tolerance. For the first few years of his life, he says, Montaigne’s father sent him to live with a family of poor woodcutters: In doing this, the father not only wants to accustom the child to “austerity and frugality”, in order to strength him, he wants to “bond him to the people from the outset and for him to experience the situation of those who have need of our assistance”, expressing a notion of egalitarian nurturing that seems almost inconceivable given the period. Of course, Montaigne’s life was cushioned by privilege, but those early ideals of freedom and egalitarianism stayed with him – as Zweig writes, He who demands freedom of thought for himself recognizes the same right for all men, and no one respected this tenet more than Montaigne…He who thinks freely for himself, honours all freedom on earth. What powerful ideals to speak across a span of four hundred years to a man who has just had to flee the genocial racism spreading across his own continent.

Zweig writes beautifully, transmitting Montaigne’s philosophy faithfully and without losing his own voice. I was, in particular, fascinated by the way in which he contextualises Montaigne’s life; the wheel of fortune, that favourite image of mediaeval literature, spins freely in Zweig’s account. Born at a time when the advancements of the Renaissance were at risk of being lost to a resurgent violence, Montaigne extracted himself from public life in order to focus on his own self-examination. In the late 1580s, when the Essays had given him such acclaim, he was summoned to negotiate a peace between the warring Henri de Navarre and Henri III, ultimately leading to the conversion of Henri de Navarre to Catholicism, guaranteeing centuries of peace and the glory of France. That’s quite a claim. Shortly before this zenith in his political life, though, Montaigne had been made a refugee from his home by the plague: Without even a coat, dressed in whatever he happens to have on, he flees the house without knowing where he is going, for no-one will take in a family fleeing a plague-ridden city. Far from being a recluse in a tower, Montaigne experienced life is all its glory and horror. It is in part what makes him such a timeless, wise literary friend, and what Zweig clearly found so compelling.

For Zweig, robbed of the Europe he valued so dearly, finishing the Essays marked the end of his own life. As Will Stone writes in the introduction to this beautiful Pushkin edition, he respectfully withdrew from the world, his artistic legacy to endure or fade at the discretion of posterity. The loss reminded me of a book I read last year, Antal Szerb’s The Third Tower, which offers a very different perspective on the same European crisis, and owes a similar debt to Montaigne’s incorruptible sense of self. For me, the last words of The Third Tower are the perfect articulation of Montaigne’s legacy – this, rather than Zweig’s final act, must be the true essence of the Essays.

Somehow, all it needs now is courage. Just don’t surrender your solitude for anything or anyone. How does Milton’s Satan put it? “What matters where, if I still be the same?” Whatever becomes of Europe, trust in your inner stars. Somewhere, always, a Third Tower will be waiting for you.

It’s enough.

Montaigne Zweig

“From Field to Fork: Food Ethics for Everyone” by Paul B. Thompson

The books I’ve read over the past year – particularly in relation to climate change – have undoubtedly made me question the choices I make about food. I can’t claim to have become a vegetarian, but I am eating a lot less meat, and choosing meat-free options where I can. The more I read about the ways in which we farm and consume meat in the west, the more convinced I am that change is unavoidable. We simply don’t need to eat meat every day – particularly low-quality, intensively farmed stuff which has been pumped full of antibiotics – and the longer we ignore the ethical conundrums which accompany our dietary choices, the harder it will be for us to cope with the consequences. 2015 has been the year in which the world’s leaders made their pledges at COP21; in which fires raged through Indonesia, in part as a result of the management of palm oil plantations; in which scientists discovered a gene which has developed resistance to colistin, a crisis created by the ways in which we farm meat; and in which floods have raged (and are still raging) through the UK, arguably exacerbated by the fact that our landscape has been stripped of trees for the purposes of farming. We are obviously affecting nature through our actions, in many cases with tragic results – and a great deal of this is linked to what we eat.

I have to say that I don’t relish the idea of eating less meat. I’ve always been a very willing carnivore; the emotional aspects of eating animals have never really perturbed me, and I love the culture of it – not to mention the taste. Black pudding in a fry up; the pork pies at a picnic; scratchings in the pub….there is a social bond created by sharing these foods, and it isn’t something I want to eschew. For me, the decision is wholly linked to the environmental and scientific impact of the quantity of meat we consume. We can’t maintain this rate of deforestation; methane production; and antibiotic abuse, and still hope to live within functioning ecosystems.

I was hoping that From Field to Fork: Food Ethics for Everyone would be an interesting exploration of the kinds of issues I’ve already been starting to think about: unfortunately, though, I couldn’t take to it, and upon reflection think that I’m not its target audience. It did raise some new ideas for me: whether GM foods can be ethically justified because of their ability to feed the poorest communities; whether obesity results from personal choice or genetic predisposition caused by the diets of our grandparents; and the key role that literature has played in exposing the least ethical practices within the food industry (such as, for example, Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.) For me, it was too full of academic jargon, and simply too inaccessible for someone without a background in ethics – the “everyone” part of the title is perhaps a bit misleading. I also prefer something with a clear, emphatic argument – as in This Changes Everything and Climate Change, Capitalism and Corporations, both of which are impassionate and wholly engaging. This is more of a neutral exploration of various ethical issues, which, unfortunately, when combined with the language, wasn’t enough to keep my attention. For someone with the right background, I’m sure this would be an excellent book. For a layman, though, it’s not very easy going.

From Field to Form

“Pomfret Towers” by Angela Thirkell

Visitors are requested not to ring for their servants between the hours of twelve and one, or six and seven.

“Did you see this?” said Alice, showing it to her new friend.

“Like their cheek,” said the girl, glancing at it. “It’s some mouldy idea of Lord Pomfret’s. He was a vegetarian or a philanderer or something and that’s how it took him.”

Alice, guessing that philanthropist or humanitarian were probably the words in her new friend’s mind, asked if it was out of kindness for servants…

If you’re looking for a jolly festive read, Pomfret Towers would be a fun place to start.

Set in Angela Thirkell’s 1930’s Barsetshire, the novel tells the story of Alice Barton, a terribly shy nineteen year-old  set to attend her first proper house party at the neighbouring Pomfret Towers. A delicate girl who trembles in the presence of dogs and sobs at the very idea of social interaction, Alice is terrified by the prospect – yet with the promise of the support of her brother and closest friends, Sally and Roddy, she girds her loins and sets forth to join the party.

Once she arrives Alice is taken under the wing of a ravishing young actress, Phoebe Rivers, and finds that Society is not nearly as gruesome as she had feared. Indeed, much to Roddy’s chagrin she promptly falls in love with Phoebe’s brother, Julian, a self-important young artist who insists on dragging Alice into corners so that he can Talk about Himself at length, whilst Lady Pomfret becomes convinced that she should instead marry her husband’s young heir, a very kind young man called Giles Foster. Gentle confusion ensures as the young people form attachments, accidentally become engaged to one another, and thwart their parents’ plans.

The only disappointment here is that Alice never really ceases being fairly wet and irritating. Her foray into Society gives her the first glimmers of self-confidence, but she is not a particularly beguiling heroine. That almost becomes irrelevant, however, in light of the wonderful supporting cast of bores; eccentrics; artists; and hearty country types crying “Gad!” at every available opportunity. Julian Rivers is a particularly excellent creation – a handsome, sulky young modernist who bangs on about surrealism, maintains that he is Misunderstood and at one point leaps out of the casement window in a fit of pique. It is a brilliant skewering not only of the Bloomsbury set, but also the kind of narcissistic young poet many of us thought we wanted to fall in love with when we were teenagers.

It is immensely readable, full of light-hearted absurdity, and offers a very happy escape from the EastEnders Christmas special, should one be required!

Pomfret Towers

“Apple Acre” by Adrian Bell

It is a relaxation to sit here and watch the wildness, after a day of order and cultivation; to exercise the power of stillness, that the wild things may come near. There is a pleasure in a well-kept oak wood, and also in the farmer’s little island of wilderness – his plantation. This is a long-neglected estate wood, and here I am in awe of the old, old England, and feel the spirit of the island abbeys, forest-islanded each from each, rejoicing to be alone with God.

There is a deep pleasure to be had in reading the writings of someone entirely content with their life and home. Cider with Rosie is an exquisite window into a since-passed England, described in that famously rich prose, borne out of a profound connection to a childhood home. Apple Acre has the same fundamental love of the English countryside and a contagious sense of peace – entirely at odds with the martial context in which it was written.

During the Second World War Adrian Bell lived in the Suffolk countryside with his wife and three small children. As the entire country returned to subsistence farming, eking out their rations with whatever they could grow, the Bells and their neighbours found themselves thrust back into a very simple way of life. They farmed their land; helped their neighbours; shared clothes; and, though it was borne from the very worst of times, found a kind of joy in this new-ancient rhythm. As the author says in his foreword, I think that, but for the war, they could have been the happiest days of my life.  In essence, Apple Acre is a description of a year in this family’s life, centred on their relationship with the land. In Adrian Bell’s hands, though, and through his wise, poetic voice, a philosophy of living emerges too: you are left with a tender portrait of his family; an intoxicating description of the English countryside; and a feeling that you want to change your own life, too.

I was so moved by this book, by Bell’s appreciation of his countryside and relationship with his family, which colours every page. He obviously delights, in particular, in his children’s voyages around the house and in the garden – he doesn’t romanticise them in the least, but finds the magic in their childhood logic, and the gentle comedy in their mannerisms.  One of his toddling twins, Martin, is frequently described as “strutting” naked around the kitchen – occasionally looking “profoundly wise” – which always made me laugh. The four year-old Anthea stands in her coat and gaiters holding Janet’s hand and facing the big door, waiting for it to be opened. She has formed in an hour such a perfect speechless friendship with Janet that she would walk straight out into the night with her anywhere. When his wife, Nora, and the children have to go to Northumberland for a time, the threat of a Nazi invasion having reached its peak, he doesn’t sentimentalise the separation. He says only that It is sufficient to record that the time passed. To write more is unnecessary, and there is a world of experience buried in this line; the simplicity of this, and the final sentence of the book, nearly brought me to tears.

The poetic quality of Bell’s language is very special. The image of a woman and her young child embalmed in the sunlight; the harvests that gleamed to him from a pint of golden ale; the toddling girl moving about the garden with blossomy gusts of movement; his belief that we are a firmament and have our inward sun – it has that vividly spun Laurie Lee quality, and must surely be one of the finest evocations of a disappearing England.

His philosophies, too, have a strange pertinence and immediacy. More than anything, he regrets the passing of the old ways. He believes that England hides bits of her old craft, deliberately, from the modern world, as though they were a persecuted religion, by putting up a machine-made façade. How wonderful to think of our traditions hidden behind panels, like Catholic Priests in Tudor England, still serving the loyal few. He notes that his farming friends’ sons, who are moving from horse-power to technology, now have to work so much harder than their fathers that they have no time to enjoy the land. He describes the popular feeling that something that has grown should almost be a gift, has cost nothing; I don’t know why. This in particular seems so relevant to our modern lives. He says that Ours is the age of mechanical perfection and therefore a perfect loss of sensibility – industrialisation gutted our traditions and our communities and left nothing in their place. Above all, though – and as I say, his observations seem even more urgent today than they were in 1942 – he is profoundly hopeful. Despite our century of reckless expenditure, he believes that the motley architecture of commerce will pass away; that the power of wind and water could be harnessed again with new skill by men (eerily prescient!); and that we will, eventually, return to working in the light and the air, and find the kind of integrity which was rediscovered by his village during the 1940s. Apple Acre is a hymn addressed to family, nature, and living with the rhythms of the countryside. If only these were the voices we listened to, rather than those that tell us to frack and shop and burn our way through fossil fuels.

I was given this book as a present, and I’m so grateful for it. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.

 

Apple Acre

“Climate Change, Capitalism and Corporations” by Christopher Wright and Daniel Nyberg

It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.*

Internet shopping; social media; consumerism; celebrity TV shows; fast food; cheap air travel…they have all been a part of our lives for so long that it’s increasingly difficult to remember a time when this wasn’t our landscape. Perhaps that’s partly why it seems to be so impossible to ingest the realities of climate change, and what it means for our society – our hyper-materialism has thrived for decades, and scaling back now seems incomprehensible. Things will change – they are changing already – and experts are telling us in unison that we cannot keep consuming natural resources at the same rate. Still, though, action remains elusive.   

Climate Change, Capitalism and Corporations is a brilliantly accessible analysis of the realities of the Anthropocene, and the barriers corporations erect to prevent us from making critically urgent societal changes. In a world which is visibly and dramatically altering as a result of man-made climate change, capitalism remains supported by its trio of carefully constructed, mythical pillars: the idea that we can continue to grow our economies whilst still addressing the climate change crisis; that omnipotent corporations will in fact save us from climate change through technology; and that corporations are essentially citizens of our societies, with a human moral code. As far as corporations are concerned, then, and supported by this mythic infrastructure, climate change need not interrupt “business as usual”.

Successful decoupling (which I mentioned a couple of weeks ago) is shown here to be illusory. Capitalism, the authors say, depends on compound economic growth and, as such, the entire model is based on identifying a hierarchy of resources – humans and carbon are essential, whereas other species are expendable. In order to continue in this vein, and whilst society gradually begins to respond to the threat of climate change, corporations have hijacked the highly emotive dialogue around the crisis with stunning results: rather than being a reason to reduce consumption, climate change is being sold to us as  an “opportunity for growth.” It is, in the minds of corporate managers, a quantifiable risk, which is something to be commoditised, controlled, and converted into profit.

As they continue to try to shape public discourse on climate change, major car manufacturers and fossil fuel companies have spent the past few years refining their brands to buy themselves social legitimacy, whilst in the background, creating “an echo chamber of climate change denial” by engaging with the right-wing media, and funding incredibly damaging campaigns. In one section, for example, the authors note that, In 2012, the Heartland Institute, which is funded by the fossil fuel industry, even ran a billboard campaign associating those who believe in climate change with mass murderers, juxtaposing a mugshot of Unabomber Ted Kaczinsky with the tag line: “I still believe in global warming. Do you?” It’s an outrageous, and so far highly successful, hypocrisy.

There are so many fascinating arguments here. In the context of an issue which can seem overwhelming, I particularly liked how the authors focused on the impact this conversation has on individuals – especially those who hold sustainability roles within corporations. In order to function both as an employee and an agent of change, managers cling on to their rational business arguments: specifically, the fact that a greener economy creates exciting space for growth. “Green” arguments are stripped of legitimacy in the board room, but if a sustainability manager can show that recycling is good for business, then she has a chance of effecting change. At home, the same individuals may be passionate advocates for environmentalism, but at work, their arguments need to be tempered by this apparent rationality and corporate loyalty. Wearing these different hats is exhausting, and it also leaves individuals with a lack of identity coherence. We are “meaning-seeking” creatures and like to be able to view ourselves as having integrity. Until acting to curb climate change is recognised in and of itself as being for the public good, without corporate carve-outs, there may be a limit on the number of people who manage successfully to work a response to the crisis into their own personal narratives – which is precisely what is needed.

It is also intriguing and hugely frustrating, that, as Nyberg and Wright say, we happily grant corporations a civic status – they are legal “people” with rights and obligations, and by implication, a supposed moral duty to abide by our societal ethics – but that nature has been denied the same respect. When Christopher Stone argued in Should Trees Have Standing that entities such as forests, oceans and rivers, along with the natural environment as a whole, should be safeguarded through inclusion in the civic sphere, the claim failed because rights for natural objects proved too strange. In short, conferring rights on the ocean seems eccentric, whereas turning companies into “people” is uncontroversial. I was relieved, then, that the authors go on to reference a tribunal in New Zealand which recently recognised a river as a legal entity, echoing analogous initiatives in Bolivia and Ecuador, where constitutional amendments have included specific rights for the environment.” It is entirely ludicrous to confer such a civic personality upon finance-driven corporate structures whilst withholding the same rights from the natural resources we depend upon; particularly when 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. Ecocide should surely be made an international crime without any more delay.

This is a brilliant book, clearly and engagingly written, offering fascinating perspectives on a terrifying crisis. For anyone who has already read This Changes Everything, this is a perfect follow-up – and like Naomi Klein, the authors end here with a road-map for change; albeit one which acknowledges how much damage we have already done: Extreme weather events, record heat, the melting Arctic, and acidifying oceans lay bare the folly of advocating “solutions” in the strictest sense. There will be no silver bullet. There will be no heroic, cure-all act of salvation. Our only hope is damage limitation.