“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.

Wood

 

“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…

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Flora-Mackintosh-Hungarian-Affair-Reader-ebook/dp/B01C5TC4P2/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1457016235&sr=8-1&keywords=flora+mackintosh+and+the+hungarian+affair

 

“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

Brexit

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.

War_and_peace_2016_tv_series_titlecard

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/

“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/