Vermin

I haven’t read this book yet – it’s on its way to me- but I’m keen to do so because it connects with something that I’ve been thinking for a while, which is that, even in their concern to protect ‘nature’ against the depredations of humans, human beings are anthropocentric. The ‘nature’ people seek to protect is a kind of much loved park or garden that they don’t want to change in any way.

For instance, people who worry about species becoming extinct are often in favour of measures that would involve killing large numbers of animals that are thriving and prospering. Red squirrels (‘indigenous’) must be protected. Grey squirrels (originating from North America) are ‘vermin’ to be controlled.

‘Vermin’, like ‘weed’, is an entirely human category which means ‘successful species we don’t like’. Some flightless bird that stumbles about on a small island off New Zealand, and survives only because for thousands of years there have been no ground-living animals to prey on it or compete with it, must be protected by killing any new arrival that threatens it. But possums, introduced to New Zealand by humans, and now thriving there, are vermin to be wiped out.

I don’t say that people aren’t entitled to make these choices -I’d be sad myself if red squirrels died out, and sad if New Zealand’s flora and fauna became simply a compendium of European and Australian species. I’m just pointing out that they are essentially aesthetic choices, based on human preferences, and have nothing to do either with animal welfare (I’m sure British grey squirrels and New Zealand possums enjoy being alive every bit as much as the animals they are supplanting) or with protecting nature. Species evolving in isolation, and species competing with one another when circumstances bring them together are equally natural processes (see for instance The Great American Interchange) and are both important drivers for evolution.

So, if you deliberately protect species against their competitors, you are actually stopping one of the ways in which new species come into being. British grey squirrels and New Zealand possums may threaten indigenous animals, but, given time, they themselves will evolve and diversify into new indigenous forms. Admittedly this takes tens or hundreds of thousands of years*, but the fact that this is longer than the lifespan of human beings or human cultures is our problem, not nature’s.

*PS Having since read the book, which gives many examples, I have now learned that new varieties, and even new species, can sometimes emerge much more quickly than this.

Hard to categorize

I was asked by this website (shepherd.com) to pick a category of book, and then list five favourites in that category. I picked the category ‘hard to categorize’. My list is here.

The first four books I’ve been aware of for a long time (since my teens in a couple of cases). The Molly Keane I only came across recently.

Lorry Drivers

I heard a news item on the radio last week about the department store chain, John Lewis, getting ready for Christmas. It concluded with a reassurance from John Lewis that there would be no shortage of lorry drivers because they had put up lorry drivers’ pay and were busy recruiting. In fact, they have put up pay by £5,000. Many other chain stores have done the same.

The current shortage of lorry drivers in the UK is due in part to Covid, but there seems to be general agreement that Brexit is also a factor, because companies can no longer recruit drivers from other parts of Europe.

I’ve seen this presented in Remainer contexts as another example of how bad Brexit is, but if I was a lorry driver who’d voted for Brexit, I wouldn’t take that view. I’d see it an example of Brexit helping me, just as I’d hoped, and I’d be pleased. Driving lorries isn’t an easy job, and up to now it hasn’t been particularly well paid. £5,000 a year is a big raise.

And, if I was lorry driver who’d argued in the past that companies were holding wages down by bringing in workers from poorer parts of Europe, I’d be angry. I’d be angry that up to now I’d been told that this was a myth put about by racists and xenophobes.

A very Remainer friend of mine once said that Brexit would be bad because we’d no longer have access to all these excellent plumbers and cleaners from Eastern Europe. Bad for the cleaner- and plumber-using classes perhaps, was my thought at the time, but not necessarily bad for the cleaning and plumbing classes.

September

I’ve been known to say that September is my favourite month. There’s still a bit of summer left, but also some autumn. Sometimes in September the light has a particularly kind of intensity that’s unique to this time of year.

So I love September, but I also hate it. I associate it with coming back from a holiday, when the grass is overgrown and strewn with dead leaves and rotting apples, and I know that I’m going to have to go back to school very soon, or back to work at a job that worries me sick – and when I know that next it will be October, and then November and winter.

My feelings about months and seasons are different now from how they were when I was young, because time flows much more quickly – months come and go, seasons whirl round, I never have the feeling that I once did of summer stretching ahead almost forever, or of winter doing so either – but I still have the same ambivalence about this time of year.

Assuming I live until my mid-eighties, as my parents did, I’m in the mid-September of my life, which is to say, about three quarters of the way through. At the end of this year I will start receiving my state pension. It will be nice to have of course, but at the same time it is a message from the state: ‘nothing is expected of you any more.’ The fact that nothing is expected doesn’t mean I don’t have anything to give, of course – I think I have a couple more books in me, I still have things to give as a father and a grandfather… – but still, the message is a reminder that I’m entering the final part of my life.

I’m not like Frank Sinatra. I do have regrets. I’ve done many shitty things. But I think what I regret most of all is my own timidity, which I think lies at the core of most of those shitty things anyway. Timidity, I’m calling it, though I could call it cowardice: the thing that stopped me from grasping nettles, the thing that stopped me properly confronting things that needed to be confronted. At the root of timidity, or so it seems to me, is a lack of trust in one’s own self: ‘I do not trust myself to be able to deal with this situation,’ the timid person says, ‘and so I’m going to avoid it altogether, and maybe even pretend to myself that I haven’t even noticed it.’

But of course one shouldn’t spend September thinking about all the things you should have done in April or May or June. The winter is coming. No sense in wasting this time too.

(Postscript: on reflection, it isn’t particularly original to say that a lack of trust in one’s self causes timidity! After all, ‘trust’ is a synonym of ‘confidence’, and so all I am really talking about is a lack of self-confidence. But interestingly using the word ‘trust’ made the idea seem fresh to me, so that it had the force of a sudden flash of insight! I suppose this is simply because ‘self-confidence’ has become such a widely used term that its meaning has become blunted. When I was a child, teachers also talked a lot about ‘self-respect’, which is a different idea and an important one: more of an ethical principle, a duty towards oneself which is akin to the duty one had towards others.)

Two Principles

I think all belief systems that deal with human conduct are attempts to reconcile two principles. One: self-centredness, our tendency to prioritise our own experience, our own feelings, our own needs. Two: empathy, our ability to recognise that the feelings, needs and experience of others are equivalent to our own. I guess some other animals have no capacity for empathy at all. They experience themselves as being the entire universe. (I wrote a story called ‘Ooze’, in which I attempted to think myself into the mind of such a creature.) But very few humans are completely devoid of empathy.

Some people say that what we should strive for is to be completely un-self-centred, and completely empathetic, treating other people’s needs as equally important to our own (there are even those who would have us treat other people’s needs as more important). Such people might argue that self-centredness is not a principle at all. It is simply a falling short. This strikes me as a somewhat empty piety. I say that not just because most of us are incapable of being entirely selfless, but also because I don’t think that would even be desirable. Happiness is only possible because we are able, at least sometimes, to shut out the suffering of others. At any moment of time, someone is being tortured, someone is starving. How could we ever laugh, or fall in love, or savour life in any way, if we were never able to set that to one side, just as we set aside our own future and past suffering?

But even our limited capacity for empathy is, for most of us, enough to make it impossible to completely disregard the needs of other people. So our belief systems are all designed to allow us to think of ourselves as ‘good’ even though our behaviour suggests that we are quite largely motivated by self-interest. Christian theology for example includes the idea of original sin -we can’t help being bad- but also includes a way of nevertheless being redeemable by faith, even if not by deeds, a formulation that also rather neatly serves the self-interest of priests, who provide the formula we need to believe in in order to be saved. Under all the theological elaboration, though, this idea does contain a simple truth: we are bad (selfish), but we are not completely bad. It also has the effect of burying the unworkable morality of absolute empathy which some sayings of Christ rather inconveniently imply. (Easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven… etc)

Or, another example, Adam Smith argued that the mechanism of the market place meant that more good was done by people pursuing their own interests, than by people trying to be good. This idea is as comforting for rich people as the idea of salvation through faith alone is for Christians, (and of course it isn’t unusual to combine the two). How nice to think that buying nice things and having lovely holidays are actually morally good things to do! But then again, attempts to impose economic systems that are not driven by the pursuit of personal gain have tended to end in tyranny. And, since fear is no less selfish a driver of human activity than the pursuit of pleasure or status, but is a lot less efficient, maybe Adam Smith had a point.

Anyone who ever spends any money on nonessential things -and I don’t know anyone personally who doesn’t- is placing his or her own pleasure or comfort in that moment above the needs of people who are hungry, or homeless, or unable to afford treatment for illness. Our awareness of this stops most of us from being entirely selfish, but we remain selfish all the same. One way out is to blame the unhappy for their own misfortunes. Another is to look for others who are more selfish than we are, and build up a sense of moral superiority by condemning them. (It is a common activity to condemn the extravagance of folk who are richer than we are, even though we ourselves are many times richer than most people on the planet.) In this way, morality itself is turned upside down, becoming, not a system of guidance for ourselves, but a means of proving our superiority to others. This technique is as old as history and now forms a staple of arguments on social media.

Horror stories

Just over a week ago, in Bury, in Greater Manchester, a woman called Sarah Hussein was set alight in the street and subsequently died of her burns.

It’s surprising how little prominence this story has been given. I only happen to know about it because I saw it posted on social media by someone of fairly right wing political views, who for convenience I’ll call X. X’s angle on this was to compare the coverage given to this Sarah with that given to another Sarah, Sarah Everard, who was kidnapped, raped and murdered by a police officer earlier this year, and whose case was very widely discussed, and made into something of a political cause. Since both cases involved murderous violence directed at a woman by a man or men (the details don’t yet seem to be clear in Hussein’s case but three men were arrested), why, X wonders, did one horrific crime become a feminist cause celebre and not the other?

Hussein had a Pakistani background, and X, apparently assuming that her assailants had the same background, seems to think that her case has not been taken up in the way that Everard’s was, because ugly behaviour in a Muslim community can’t be fitted neatly into a liberal narrative, and risks accusations of racism. X’s belief that the media is controlled by liberals and leftists seems questionable (!) but the underlying point may have some validity: we are all prone to focus on stories that can be fitted into our preferred worldview (or at least into a worldview which we imagine other people expect of us), and steer away from those that don’t.

X is doing the very same thing of course. He is picking up on the lack of coverage of this story because he feels it supports a right wing narrative of his own in which people on the left are hypocrites whose claims to be the caring ones are shallow and self-serving (a view of the left, incidentally, shared by my late, and rather right wing, father). It’s agreeable to X, no doubt, to feel himself to be the one saying that a Pakistani woman deserves the same attention as a white one, while those lefties who are always going on about racism remain (as he sees it) silent. It reassures him about the virtue of his own position, the dishonesty of theirs. (They, whoever they are, would of course have a different view.)

I’m not sneering at X here, though, because I’m no different. I too notice stories that fit into my own worldview. I’ve picked up on the lack of coverage of this story and X’s reaction to it because both connect with a topic that preoccupies me: the self-serving nature of the narratives that each human individual and each human tribe is constantly telling itself about the world.

Can we make anything of a news item like this, I wonder, other than by either ignoring it, or else connecting it up with things we feel we already know?

There are people to whom this event is not reducible to a story: first and foremost poor Sarah herself and those who love her. To them it wasn’t a story about horror, but horror itself, the thing we are all constantly seeking to avoid, to manage, to hold at a distance. The rest of us, though, carry on trying to avoid it, or manage it, or hold it at a distance – as I’m doing now, for instance, by writing about a young woman being burned to death in this distanced and dispassionate way.

Patriotism

Liberal friends claiming not to like this country and to much prefer other countries…

Hmmph. This has become more widespread after Brexit, but it’s been around for a long time. I don’t like it. A lot of funny stuff going on, it seems to me, in those kinds of claims. A lot of idealisation of the foreign other. A lot of taking your least favourite Brits (or more usually, your least favourite English people, since there’s been a certain amount of idealisation of Scotland too), and comparing them, not with their equivalents in other countries, but with the foreign equivalents of the English people you do like.

A fair amount of ‘classism’ in the mix too: Middle-class folk trying to distance themselves from their ‘own’ plebs in order to ingratiate themselves (if only in their imaginations) with middle class folk in other countries.

Jingoistic patriotism is unattractive, but equally so, I think, is the affectation of despising your own country.

Parents are not appealing when they’re always bragging about how much better their own kids are than anyone else’s or shoving other people’s kids aside to get the best for their own. But the opposite is, if anything, even worse: parents who put their own kids down and say other people’s kids are better.

My subjective feeling is that my children and grandchildren are the best in the world. I know this is subjective and that other parents and grandparents quite naturally feel the same about their own, but it still seems natural and appropriate to feel that way.

Not an exact parallel, obviously, but to have a special feeling for my own country seems natural and appropriate in the same kind of way, while similarly recognizing that it is subjective and personal. A special contempt for my own country would no less subjective, but also feels mean spirited and perverse.

What next?

Although the current Corvus version of The Holy Machine was published in 2010, I actually wrote it in the mid-nineties. The backdrop for the book is a global phenomenon called The Reaction, in which people all over the world, alienated by liberal, secular, scientific modernism, have reverted, violently, to older religious ways of seeing the world. (I had watched the Iranian revolution and I thought something similar might happen in the West.) In the world of the story, the old liberal order has been overthrown and replaced by theocracy in most countries, including Britain and America. Among others, scientists of any kind are actively persecuted.

(My second novel, Marcher, had a similar theme, though here I described a threat to modernity posed by pagan intruders from other dimensions, whose desire to take the world back to the age of the Vikings had a strong appeal among those on the margins of society. The short story, ‘To Become a Warrior‘ was a precursor of this novel).

In a way, I was proved right. The real Reaction is much more complex and varied than my fictional one -among other things, it was naive of me to think that fundamentalist theocratic regimes would not be perfectly happy to make use of science when it suited them- but it has happened (or would it be more accurate to say, ‘it has begun’?) We’ve seen a shift away from secularism in Palestine, Israel, India, Turkey, America, and the rise of Hindu nationalism, Islamism and Christian fundamentalism. We’ve experienced the phenomenon of Trump, and so-called populism in many countries (a rather vague word, but it seems to mean a kind of politics that privileges the values of the general public over those of the most educated section of the population). And, while scientists are not (yet) actively being persecuted in the way described in the book, there is a distinct anti-science strand in all this: anti-vaxxers, creationists, climate change denialists are all part of it.

Continue reading “What next?”