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!

https://collectively.org/en/article/valentines-day-commodified-sexism-day-more-like/

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/

“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.

“A Philosophy of Walking” by Frédéric Gros

When you walk, the basso continuo of joy comes from feeling the extent to which the body is made for this movement, the way it finds each pace the resource for the next.

Anyone who loves long, tiring walks probably already has any instinctive appreciation of why the process is so satisfying. It’s something to do with the rhythm; the physical endeavour; the distance from telephones and schedules. I’d always enjoyed being outside, and exercise, but over the past few years I’ve found that long walks are the only way I ever really get close to shedding the burden of work. Walking has become something of a necessity. I wrote about this back in the summer, when Neil and I had just finished Hadrian’s Way; as I said then, for a few days everything slips away in the rhythm of the trail, and the modern demand for distraction is replaced by attention to maps and stiles and aching feet.

In A Philosophy of Walking, Frédéric Gros interrogates that sensation, and isolates the pleasures to be found in a long walk. Interwoven in his gentle philosophizing are histories of some of the most famous walkers and the impact it had on their lives, art and politics: Nietzsche, Rimbaud, Rousseau, Wordsworth, Thoreau and Gandhi. None of them are figures I know a great deal about, but I enjoyed Gros’ exploration of their lives through the prism of their walking. I can only imagine that the book would be even more pleasurable if you had an existing interest in any of these men. (It would have been interesting to include a woman’s story here, too – someone like Robyn Davidson, perhaps.)

For me, the book struck an ideal balance between ratifying feelings I was already half-aware of, and introducing me to entirely new people and ideas. He begins, for example, by explaining the tantalizing anonymity of walking. By walking you escape from the very idea of identity, the temptation to be someone, to have a name and a history. Being someone is all very well for smart parties where everyone is telling their story, it’s all very well for the psychologists’ consulting rooms. But isn’t being someone also a social obligation which trails in its wake – for one has to be faithful to the self-portrait – a stupid and burdensome fiction? That expresses it perfectly – it isn’t that walking is a kind of self-abnegation, more that the “selves” you require day to day become surplus to requirement, like the extra jumper you thought you ought to pack for the journey. It’s a relief to shed job-titles and status-updates, and by extension the labels people may use to define you at home. In Wild Cheryl Strayed doesn’t travel as a griever, a daughter or a divorcee – she is a walker, and the process of leaving those identities by the side of the trail is her salvation. When you encounter fellow-walkers, they don’t care what you do, what your circumstances are, or even if you’re happy. They just want to know how far you’ve come, if there’s a camp-site ahead, or somewhere to get food.

There is a playful, rebellious political undercurrent here, too. In a consumer-driven world, one of the most shocking things an individual can do is to strip their life back to the essentials. Like Patrick Leigh Fermor striding across Europe with nothing but some books, a walking stick and a limited supply of clothes, walking necessitates simplicity. Just below the useful, there is necessary, as Gros says. In one chapter, Gros explains just how subversive a figure the urban flâneur can be: because in the world of crowds and merchandise, he does nothing other than look – he subverts solitude, speed, dubious business politics and consumerism. A walk may last a few hours, a few days, a few weeks – but in that time, you are doing nothing other than move, sleep, and eat. You can step away from the grindstone, your wallet, and your status, and rediscover the wild.

If walking is subversive for the flâneur, it was also the ideal means of protest for Gandhi. In 1930, at the age of sixty and after years of failing to overthrow the rule of Empire through his entirely peaceful methods, he decided to march to the coast to collect salt. For years, Gros says, the British had held a monopoly over salt. There was even recourse to destruction of deposits when natural salt was found close to populations who might take it for their own use. Salt: a free gift from the sea, a humble but indispensable foodstuff. It was an obvious injustice, and Gandhi decided to use it as a symbolic destination for a long journey. This is a particularly beautiful, and timely chapter; ahead of the launch of COP21 this week, hundreds of thousands of people around the world took to the streets to demonstrate how important an issue climate change is to them. The legacy of Gandhi’s peaceful march lives on in moments like this, where walking takes on a particular significance.

Gros’ book put something I enjoy very much into a fascinating new context. The best way I can think to describe it is to say that it reminded me of the way in which the Greeks have different words for love – and in that way, the most simple of things can acquire a myriad of different meanings.

In the run-up to COP21…

In his latest article, False Promise, George Monbiot has again explained something unnerving about climate change politics, shepherding the latest revelation from the world of scientific journals to a wider audience.

Essentially he unpacks the great fiction of western consumerism: the idea that we can, as he puts it, live like monarchs without compromising the Earth’s capacity to sustain us. Economists, he says, explain sustainable growth by using the phrases “relative” and “absolute” decoupling. The theory of decoupling – which has the ring of the celebrity divorce court about it – is that an economy can indeed grow without putting natural resources under increasing pressure; as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development puts it, the idea is to separate “environmental bads” from “economic goods.” It works by enabling capitalist expansion to continue whilst relying on greener methods – the bottom line being the fact that the exploitation must be slower than growth.

That makes sense to me. Whether or not capitalism itself is compatible with a sustainable future is a separate argument (and I am about to read a book about that very thing, called Climate Change, Capitalism, and Corporations), but I understand the theory.

The problem though, as George Monbiot explains it, is that we are measuring decoupling in the wrong way. At present, countries add together the raw materials they extract and the goods they import, and then subtract the goods they export – which gives them “domestic material consumption.” What this  formula ignores, though, is the fact that the imported goods are not in and of themselves truly representative of the resources which were expended to make them. In other words, we are outsourcing production of our goods, and forgetting to account for the raw materials and manufacturing process which went into creating them – rather than decoupling, we are passing the buck. It’s the environmental equivalent of saying that eating a chip from someone else’s plate doesn’t count.

Naomi Klein talks about something similar in This Changes Everything. International trade deals, based on fast-and-dirty, export led development, have underpinned our obsession with endless economic growth for decades. As a result, When China became the “workshop of the world” it also became the coal-spewing “chimney of the world.” By 2007, China was responsible for two thirds of the annual increase in global emissions. Some of that was the result of China’s own internal development…But a lot was directly tied to foreign trade: according to one study, between 2002 and 2008, 48 percent of China’s total emissions was related to producing goods for export.

The West can’t claim that it’s improving its practices if its simply retaining the same scale of the same kind of consumption, and simply outsourcing production to the East. Neither should it convince itself that the same rate of growth can be maintained sustainably if decoupling is based on a miscalculation. There is a doctrine in English law which says that you cannot seek to rely on an equitable defence unless you come to the court with “clean hands.” The same applies to sustainability. Our politicians cannot go to Paris with half-promises of improvement, if they consistently fail to address the underlying problem. It is not enough just to pass the pollution and extractivism around the world – we all need to come to the table with clean hands.

Works cited:

False Promise

This Changes Everything, by Naomi Klein (Penguin Books 2015)

 

 

Antibiotics and Ecocide: You Can’t Have Your Steak And Treat It

According to today’s papers, Chinese experts have found a gene that makes it possible for resistance to antibiotics to spread between different kinds of bacteria; the gene (MRC-1) enables a range of common bacteria to develop resistance to the last fully functional class of antibiotics, called polymyxins. This isn’t the first time that bacteria have developed resistance to polymyxins, apparently – the difference now, though, is that the mutation has occurred in such a way as to make it very easily transferable between species.

Professor Timothy Walsh, who collaborated on the study, has said: “All the key players are now in place to make the post-antibiotic world a reality. If MRC-1 becomes global, which is a case of when not if, and the gene aligns itself with other antibiotic resistance genes, which is inevitable, then we will have very likely reached the start of the post-antibiotic era.” It’s hard not to be terrified. As the BBC puts it, a world without antibiotics “could plunge medicine back into the dark ages.”

As I was trying to wrap my head around the enormity of this earlier, it struck me that the most frustrating aspect of these reports is the link to agriculture. In this case, the gene was discovered during a routine inspection of pig meat destined for market. It was then identified in a pig living on an intensive pig farm in Shanghai, and has since been found in 166 out of 804 animals tested across a variety of provinces in China. There are even suggestions that it has already spread to Laos and Malaysia. Experts believe that the resistance actually began in animals just like this, when the antibiotic was overused in farming – this link isn’t just evidence of the spread.

I was vaguely aware of the controversy surrounding the use of antibiotics in farming, but I certainly didn’t understand either the detail or the scale of the issue. There have, it seems, been campaigns for some time to try force the farming industry to use different antibiotics to those used by humans – although so far they seem to have been unsuccessful. In 2014, for example, following the WHO’s finding that “Antibiotic resistance–when bacteria change so antibiotics no longer work in people who need them to treat infections–is now a major threat to public health”, vets and MPs urged the government and drugs companies to develop antibiotics specifically for animals. Today’s reports show just how frightening it can be when calls like that are ignored. China is one of the world’s largest users of colistin in agriculture – colistin being the antibiotic the bacteria have become resistant to – but this is very much an international problem. Europe still uses colistin widely in its agriculture – according to the Soil Association, 45% of all antibiotics used in the UK are used in farming – and although it is regulated in the EU, there are parts of the world where there is no regulation, or where it simply isn’t enforced.

The antibiotics, as I understand it, are added to the animals’ food and water in order to ward of illness and to boost growth. According to EU law, the animals don’t actually need to be ill to be treated – the antibiotics can simply be used as a preventative measure. Farmers’ unions have argued that the use is absolutely necessary to sustain industrial scale farming – and that without antibiotics, farms would have to raise their hygiene standards to be better than hospitals in order to enable enough animals to survive. Opponents to the practice, however, insist that this is leading us ever closer to a post-antibiotic era.

Although this is obviously a very different issue to climate change, there are clear similarities. Industrial scale agriculture is a major contributor to the damage we are doing to the natural world. Huge swathes of forest are cleared to make way for agriculture, bulldozing through carbon sequestration and threatening the long-term health of the soil; the gases produced by the feeding, digestion and transportation of farm animals are together one of the most significant contributors to greenhouse gas emissions; leaked fertilisers pollute sea and river water, killing wildlife and de-oxygenating the water; and extraordinary quantities of water are needed to keep operations like this running. It is, ultimately, unsustainable.

Like the antibiotics crisis, this is very much an issue of scale: the bottom line is that we consume huge amounts of meat. According to Greenpeace, “if all wild terrestrial mammals climbed on the biomass scale together, the worlds cattle would still outweigh them by 16 times.” That’s barely comprehensible – which is perhaps part of the problem. Statistics are like that are incredibly alarming for a moment, but the reality is that we still head to the supermarket after work to find shelves fully stocked with polythene-wrapped meat. It’s difficult to equate the sausages in your basket with an antibiotic apocalypse, or the beef mince with devastating deforestation. When you start to look at these problems in the round, though, the need to find a solution seems blindingly obvious.

The thing I find particularly humbling about campaigns regarding meat consumption is that we are not even being asked to make huge changes to our lives. Campaigns like “Take Extinction Off Your Plate” ask you to try just having one meat-free night a week. Just one. “If every American eliminated meat just one night a week, the emissions savings would be like taking 30 million to 40 million cars off the road for a year.” Personal health aside – and as we’ve all been told recently, there are apparently many benefits to reducing meat consumption – this is such a small sacrifice to make to address these fundamental crises. I’m not a vegetarian and have no intention of becoming one, but surely I can have pasta a couple of nights a week without losing the will to live. And if I thought the next bout of cystitis might kill me, I think I’d be OK with passing on a burger or two. It seems so basic – if there was less demand for meat, farmers surely wouldn’t be under such pressure to pump their livestock full of the kinds of antibiotics which should be preserved for human medicine, and we could begin to address the catastrophic damage this is doing to the environment.  Two birds, one stone – and I can still have the occasional steak.

I’ve elided two issues here, and obviously our diets alone can’t solve the world’s problems. One would hope that this discovery in China will lead to widespread shift in industry practice and tighter regulation of the use of antibiotics, and millions of us will be following the Climate Change Conference in Paris in a couple of weeks, willing our politicians to start setting a programme for change. But there has to be an element of personal responsibility here too, and global education. I’m as guilty of this as anyone, but we must stop viewing the resources we depend on as unlimited and unassailable. Water isn’t limitless; soil can’t regenerate indefinitely; our environment can only withstand a limited increase in temperature; and the medicines we have relied on so heavily for less than a century are no longer invincible.

 

Articles cited:

http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/jul/07/reduce-antibiotics-farm-animals-resistant-bacteria

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-34857015

http://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/nov/18/antibiotic-defences-against-serious-diseases-under-threat-experts-warn

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/may/19/antibiotic-resistance-farm-animals-threatened-uk-cuts

http://www.takeextinctionoffyourplate.com/how_to.html#steps

http://www.soilassociation.org/antibiotics

http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2014/amr-report/en/

Time to Take Extinction Off Our Plates

“Grief is the Thing with Feathers” by Max Porter

A book about grief, published by Faber, part-grafted onto the mythology of Ted Hughes “Crow” – I was very excited indeed when my copy of Grief is the Thing with Feathers finally arrived. Since I first bought a copy of The Birthday Letters when I was about fifteen, desperately lost in the poetry section of a bookshop, trying to look knowledgeable and seizing an ice-blue collection I’d never heard of, I have loved Ted Hughes. I’ve spent hours poring over those poems; I wrote about him in my finals when everything else eluded me; and now, as I’m finally beginning to take a real interest in the natural world, his are the words which accompany me. Max Porter, though, is a next-level Hughes fan. I may have a picture postcard of Ted Hughes pinned to my wall at work, but he has taken Hughes’ “crow” and turned him into a puckish, violent, sentimental guardian in his debut novel, leading a young family through the first throes of hopeless grief and back into the light.

I’ve called it a novel, but I’m not sure that’s necessarily accurate. The slim volume is really a hybrid of prose fiction; poetry; fable; essay; and a kind of sparse, talking-head dialogue. Divided into three short sections, Grief is the Thing with Feathers begins just after the death of a young mother. Her husband is left in their London home with their two young sons, trying to write a book about Hughes whilst also coping with the agony of loss and the perversity of everyday life continuing around him. Into this chaos marches Crow – the embodiment of Hughes’ vision, a foul carrion bird determined to carry the family through their grief: I won’t leave until you don’t need me anymore, Crow promises. He is a brutal, hilarious, sentimental creation, nursing the boys through their sorrow like a perversion of Mary Poppins, and haunting their father like a kind of tender poltergeist.

Porter has made it clear that his book is inspired by rather than wedded to Hughes’ Crow, and you don’t need any familiarity with the poems to appreciate Grief is the Thing with Feathers. Perhaps it adds to the mythology, though to know that Crow was first conceived as Hughes’ visceral response to Plath’s suicide,  and that, like Porter’s Crow, he lives in the shades of death, fable, guilt and love, searching for something female. He gripped her hard so that life/ Should not drag her from that moment/ He wanted all future to cease….

The story is told from the three perspectives of “Dad”, “Boys” and “Crow”, and their voices intertwine as the strange family navigate loss together. It is at once grounded in a shockingly funny, jet-black comedy, and also drifting in a kind of timeless semi-psychosis. Which makes it feel vital, and incredibly real – because grief is fragmenting and can make you lose your grip on reality, but it also lives in the every day. The practical shock that she won’t ever use (make-up turmeric, hairbrush, thesaurus) and that She will never finish (Patricia Highsmith novel, peanut butter, lip balm) is as shocking as the dream-like passage in which the boys sprint downstairs to open the door to a demon who feeds on grief, chambers of the baffled  baby hearts filled with yearning. And the comedy – mainly supplied by Crow – is perfect. Crow, we learn, likes history books, is composing a memoir, and has nightmares about singing like a blackbird. In one passage, as Dad tries to articulate the depth of his loss (concluding that The whole city is my missing her), Crow accuses him of sounding like a fridge magnet. It’s how, eventually, we recover – finding the ability to laugh at ourselves as we make ourselves ridiculous, even in the depths of despair.

It is essentially a cruel, violent process. No-one is spared here. Crow tells Dad that if his wife were a ghost, she certainly wouldn’t be wailing in the cupboards and corners of this house, or mooching about bemoaning the loss of her motherhood – no, she would have side-stepped her husband to find herself in the golden days of her childhood. In one fairy-tale re-imagining of their plight, the porcine King (Dad) tells his unruly Princes (the Boys) that their mother was certainly not the friend-of-a-friend I called Queen. The boys fight and bleed and mock their father, Crow weeps and is cooked alive. Grief is wild and uncontrollable. The family, though, are also resilient and gentle with one another, until hopelessness is replaced by long-term grief – which they will carry all their lives, but which is manageable, and will not stop them rediscovering joy. Finally, when Crow eventually takes his leave, you feel as though you can hear their mother’s voice, just for a moment, in his tender parting advice. Horror is eventually replaced by kindness, and the worst is behind them.

It’s an exquisite, agonising, wonderfully funny book, staring grief in the eye with an ego-less intelligence and humanity. There is even a cameo from Hughes himself. I couldn’t have hoped for anything more.

Crow_(poem)Grief is the thing with feathers

“Tisala” by Richard Seward Newton

One of my favourite passages in Wildwood is the description of the language of jackdaws. Deakin says that one of the books that inspired him as a child was Konrad Lorenz’s King Solomon’s Ring, and that in his favourite chapter, Lorenz begins to learn the language of jackdaws. The cry “kiaw”, he says, is uttered by dominant jackdaws to urge the flock homewards. When a marten broke into the aviary at Lorenz’s home and killed all but one of the jackdaws, the lone survivor sat all day on the weathervane and sang. The dominant theme of her song, repeated over and over, was “Kiaw,” “Come back, oh, come back.” It was a song of heartbreak.

In Tisala, Richard Seward Newton attempts to portray something like this on a massive scale. A young biologist called David finds himself alone on a remote Scottish island, supposedly studying the local deer population for his PhD. One evening when he is rowing around his island, he notices a disturbance in the water nearby. He assumes it’s a shoal of fish, and then, when he sees the curve of a huge back, perhaps a basking shark. It is only when he catches a flash of blue slate that he realises he is looking at a blue whale. In a frenzy of excitement David greets the whale, which circles around his small boat in curiosity. The pair meet again the next night, and the night after that, until it becomes clear that the whale is trying to communicate with David. After months of trying and with the use of scientific equipment, the pair finally manage to strike up a conversation which shapes the rest of their lives.

The idea is a fascinating one; and as a history of one of the more brutal, unsustainable methods used by humans to exploit the natural world, I can’t think that Tisala has many rivals. The author’s knowledge of the whaling industry over the centuries is vast, and related in a very accessible, devastating way. Interwoven with this is the whale, Tisala’s, own story – a narration of how the world he knew has been destroyed by centuries of relentlessly cruel hunting, and his quest to save his species from extinction. Like the jackdaws, Tisala is anthropomorphized, and clearly experiences profound grief. In particular, he is bewildered by the fact that what he calls the genocide of his species was in part motivated by the need to provide whalebone for hats and corsets, and latterly, to make cheap food for cattle. And David can find no justification.

From a philosophical and historical point of view, the novel has a lot to recommend it. I had had a vague knowledge of whaling (gleaned mostly from Moby Dick…) and understood from occasional news articles that, much like EU fishing quotas, the IWC struggled with enforceability. I learnt a great deal more here, though; and I can appreciate the value of trying to look at human behaviour through the lens of another species.

That being said, I did have a number of reservations. First, I think there is a danger in over-sentimentalising and anthropormorphising animals as a way of persuading humans not to harm them. It may well be that cetaceans grieve as profoundly as we do, and it is almost certainly true that most of us at least have almost no understanding of the language, emotional intelligence and societal structures of other species. That, though, cannot be the main argument for preserving biodiversity. Although it’s beguiling, it seems dangerous to rank species relative to how like humans they are – the reduction in the number of Antarctic krill is no less worthy of our attention, for example. The catastrophic destruction of whale populations as a direct result of human activity is shameful and very easy to feel enraged by, and to mourn – I cried plenty during reading this book – but we shouldn’t just conserve wildlife because its destruction is distressing. There is a moment in the book when Tisala accuses humans of destroying miracles you do not even see. It’s a very quotable line, and one that resonated. Of course we should question the ethics of the ways in which we treat the natural world – but surely we will have a better chance of protecting it if we stop using human characteristics as a yardstick to measure a species’ value by.

I also really struggled to connect with the human characters in the novel. Tisala, with his rumbling laugh and keen intelligence, is beautifully drawn, and I’d say the novel’s real success. David, though, occasionally makes odd, inexplicable missteps – early on, for example, he describes the marital successes of various types of girl in a bizarrely sexist way: the timid, plainer and conventional girls are given a chance at parties to establish their often kind and competent qualities, which enable them to win a husband; but woe betide the girls who, having played the game too long or with too much looseness, choosiness or pride, remained unmarried…and on party nights [would] apply more make-up with creeping apprehension. I couldn’t quite believe it. In the context of this vast novel it’s perhaps unfair of me to focus on such a fleeting moment – but it’s alienating, and is the sort of sweeping, slightly unthinking language which bought me up short, and meant I struggled to empathise with David. Essentially there are times when the language just lost its fluency, and seemed unnatural.

For me, it was also far too long. It’s such an interesting idea, but I felt as though it could have been pared down to its core components – Tisala, whaling, and the need for humans to reconsider the way they treat the natural world. A great deal of the book is given over to David and Tisala’s extended conversations on education, and population size, and warfare, for example – and I can appreciate why, as Tisala functions almost like an aquatic Montaigne, holding a mirror up to human life. For me, though, there was just too much – I couldn’t switch between the brutal, compelling story of Tisala’s family to these esoteric conversations; and in the effort of trying to do so, I lost the story’s rhythm.

Overall, I’m pleased I found Tisala. It talks about things I’m very interested in in an inventive and thoughtful way; it never quite captivated me, and from time to time the style or an opinion jarred, but as an impassioned record of a brutal industry, it is a very interesting book.

“Death of an Avid Reader” by Frances Brody

I came across Frances Brody on Tales from the Reading Room a couple of weeks’ ago, and had an inkling she might offer a welcome spot of light relief. I’ve raced through Death of an Avid Reader over the past few days – it was just what I hoped it would be; a cosy, pleasurable whodunnit with some splendid characters.

This is one of the most recent novels in an established series, but Brody gets you up to speed quickly, and with ease. Kate Shackleton is our heroine: a former VAD Nurse who lost her husband during the First World War, she now works as a private detective in Leeds with her stalwart friend Mr Sykes. As the novel opens, Kate is asked by one Lady Coulton to track down her daughter, Sophia, born out of wedlock many years ago and raised by the younger sister of Lady Coulton’s nanny. Lady Coulton had received sporadic updates about her child, until they stopped in 1911 – all she knows is that Sophia was raised in Scarborough, and that her adoptive parents were fishmongers.

The plot thickens when Kate is then asked to attend a blessing at Leeds Library, where she is a respected member of the board – apparently the basement has been the victim of hauntings for many years, and the deputy librarian has summoned a local priest to rid the place of any evil spirits. When Kate heads to the library to meet the the chosen priest on a cold, miserable night, she stumbles across the body of her friend, Dr. Horatio Potter, sprawled in the basement beneath a pile of books. Her search for Sophia becomes embroiled in the ensuing murder investigation, and the story swiftly becomes populated with thieves, lawyers, academics, missing girls, and, naturally, a monkey.

The novel gallops along at an enjoyable pace, and the characterisations and visual details are excellent – “She bustled towards me, being a person who walks like a crowd, dangerously swinging her string bag full of borrowed books into the thigh of a passing businessman.” It doesn’t quite have the nail-biting denouement of an Agatha Christie, or the wonderful, period madness of Gladys Mitchell, but still, I found myself returning to Kate’s quest eagerly at the end of each day. It is, essentially, a very comfortable book – the novel equivalent of sitting by a roaring fire with a buttered crumpet. And that’s not to detract from the skilful plotting – Brody links the two mysteries superbly. The true test, I suppose, is that I’ve just ordered the next book in the series: I very much look forward to following Kate on another adventure soon.  Death of an Avid Reader