As ever, government policy dovetails with the tabloid press. Last week, the Daily Mail complained that ‘it is clear that the Royal National Lifeboat Institution – the registered charity so many of us help fund through donations, garden fetes and collection boxes – is regularly sending its vessels into French waters to bring in migrants.’ In response, the RNLI issued a patient statement reminding Britons that a lifeboat institution really does have to save people from drowning.
Growing up in a household in which Kurdish and Farsi were mixed in with English, I sometimes struggled to tell which words belonged to which language. When I was four or five, I was about to remark to classmates that the colour of a particular wax crayon was ‘gorgeous’. I stopped mid-sentence, suddenly aware that I’d laid my own trap. ‘Gorgeous’? That seemed very obviously Kurdish. (Even now, the sibilant /dʒ/ in the middle sounds suspiciously flavourful.) It felt like something my father would say with a smile before taking a photo of us. I chose a plainer word. I was ashamed, and had already taken to hiding the ‘other’ part of me.
Angus Wilson once described Aldous Huxley as ‘the god of my adolescence’. When I read those words as a teenager, I was sure I’d one day want to borrow them. It’s a hundred years since the publication of Huxley’s first novel, Crome Yellow, and I’ve been rereading his books at twice the age I was when I first encountered them.
Regardless of its dubious etymology, ‘Everest’ – a hyperbolic adverb raised to the superlative degree – is a fitting appellation for an extreme, lawless world in which ordinary moral conduct is suspended. Above eight thousand metres, acclimatisation is impossible. (The highest human settlements are at five thousand metres.) Everest stands at 8849 metres, which means climbers are effectively dying in a queue and must get to the summit and back before they succumb. If the person ahead of you keels over or goes blind, it isn’t unusual to step over them and carry on. Should someone else’s oxygen canister jam or explode, you wouldn’t be the only one keeping quiet about your spare. Climbers pause for a rest beside the body of ‘Green Boots’, thought to be Tsewang Paljor, who died in a blizzard in 1996. All this is normal on the ‘roof of the world’.
Part of the trouble is the idea that trees are just wood, wood is carbon, and carbon is fungible. Most of the wood pellets burned in the UK are imported from Canada and the United States, where mature forests which underwrite vast, complex ecosystems are being felled to meet the growing European demand for ‘renewable’ energy. The official line is that pellets are made from offcuts from the timber industry, but scientists and environmentalists report that trees are being felled to go straight to biomass.
When I was eleven, my mother sat my older sister and me down and told us a man had attacked a girl in our neighbourhood. From now on we were to be careful walking to and from school. She didn’t use the word ‘rape’ but my sister told me afterwards that was what she meant. It wasn’t clear what we were supposed to do to be more careful, but that wasn’t my mother’s point. She was training us in a grim new way of life: be fearful, be alert, treat every man as a potential threat.
The argument that nurses are ‘healthcare heroes’ who deserve a pay rise for going ‘above and beyond’ during the pandemic should be resisted. Decent pay shouldn’t be a prize for supererogatory acts. Nurses have long been underpaid, and their work has always been demanding and essential. Discourses of heroism are a poisoned chalice. ‘Heroism’ describes voluntary acts of undue risk or sacrifice. But nurses’ labour through the pandemic was not voluntary. They worked to pay their bills and put food on the table.
‘A change in the name of the US War Department to “Defense Department” in 1947,’ Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman wrote in After the Cataclysm, ‘signalled that henceforth the state would be shifting from defence to aggressive war.’ I was reminded of this a few days ago, when the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, proposed the appointment of a ‘free speech and academic freedom champion’ for universities, tasked with investigating breaches and issuing fines. The move comes despite a 2018 parliamentary committee report that ‘did not find the wholesale censorship of debate in universities which media coverage has suggested’, and a review of ten thousand student union events which found that only six had been cancelled (four missed deadlines for paperwork, one was a scam, and the other was a Jeremy Corbyn rally arranged without sufficient notice). Williamson is not reacting to a problem; he is reifying the illusion of one. The government is reaching for the fig leaf of a ‘free speech champion’ after a year of escalating authoritarianism in education and culture.
High streets were the landscapes of my teens, and they are now set to vanish. That would be fine if it also spelled the end of consumerism and an opening for something more decent. Instead, like a resistant bug, fast fashion rages on, from sweatshop to warehouse to doorstep, via a growing precariat of exhausted delivery drivers, alienated on all fronts: from the products they deliver, the means of production, their fellow workers and consumers. The ‘alien object that has power over him’, as Marx put it, is packaged in cardboard and scheduled for next-day delivery.
In my first year of secondary school, a science teacher began a lesson on nutrition by asking us to tell her what we ate for dinner so we could categorise the components of our meals into their correct food groups. She looked aghast as child after child muttered ‘chips and beans’. For some, ‘chips and beans’ was cover for something less wholesome and dependable. The teacher quickly abandoned the exercise and instead reverted to the mythical meal on the ‘food wheel’ poster Blu-tacked to the wall, a testament to our parents’ failings.