If Such a Thing Exists

Nick Richardson

  • Beast by Paul Kingsnorth
    Faber, 164 pp, £12.99, July 2016, ISBN 978 0 571 32207 7

In 2011 Paul Kingsnorth announced his withdrawal from the environmental movement after twenty years of activism. Environmentalists, he complained in a long article published in Orion magazine, had stopped caring about the environment: ‘We are environmentalists now in order to promote something called “sustainability”’, which means ‘sustaining human civilisation at the comfort level that the world’s rich people – us – feel is their right, without destroying the “natural capital” or the “resource base” that is needed to do so.’ According to Kingsnorth, ‘disillusioned socialists, Trots, Marxists and a ragbag of fellow travellers’ had changed the aims and language of the green movement: the worry was no longer about the effects on nature of population growth and consumerism; the environmentalists’ preoccupation was now with ‘social justice’ rather than the protection of the non-human world. ‘Sustainability’ was to be achieved via ‘carbon solutions’ that entailed more environmental destruction: vast ‘solar arrays’ in the deserts; industrial wind power stations in the British uplands. The arguments of the new greens, Kingsnorth claimed, were underwritten by a crude equation: ‘Destruction minus carbon equals sustainability.’

Kingsnorth’s criticisms weren’t popular with the new greens, who called him a reactionary and a Nimby. There was a lot of mud-slinging, which is what environmentalists call a quarrel. When he grew sick of that, Kingsnorth decided to go his own way: ‘I withdraw from the campaigning and the marching, I withdraw from the arguing and the talked-up necessity and all of the false assumptions. I withdraw from the words. I am leaving. I am going to go out walking.’

Kingsnorth’s new novel, Beast, is a horror story about withdrawing from society, and about going out walking. It is narrated by a man called Edward Buckmaster, who, as the novel opens, has been living on his own in an isolated farmhouse for just over a year. The reasons he gives for cutting himself off from the world he used to belong to – one in which he was forced to endure ‘office cubicles’ and ‘supermarkets’ – echo the grudges of the Orion piece. But where Kingsnorth was merely impassioned and intemperate, Buckmaster, after a year of solitude, is nearly insane. His unsettled state of mind comes across in his incontinent use of metaphor: he has escaped ‘from the encircling, from the furious thoughts and opinions, the views and the positions soldered together with impatience and anger, enfolding the world in underwater cables and radio waves, singing in the air, darting from brain to brain, jumping from raindrop to thundercloud, glueing the world up, roaring like a storm wave’. The things he dislikes about modernity have fused with one another, becoming a clustered monstrosity of smaller horrors: the forces of outraged opinion are in collusion with heavy industry (‘soldered together’); they are strangling the world in cables as well as glueing it up, but are also light enough and insidious enough to dart between brains and poison raindrops. The scenario might have seemed twee and over-familiar – middle-class person escapes to the countryside to find himself – were it not for Buckmaster’s madness, and his desire to be madder still. ‘Perhaps I am losing my mind,’ he says: ‘I do hope so.’

He isn’t only running away, he’s trying to find something; he seems uncertain of what it is, though certain it will arrive. ‘I will know when it is done. There will be some kind of sign, some kind of feeling.’ He subsists on potatoes, beans, water and black tea and spends a lot of time sitting cross-legged on the farmhouse floor waiting for enlightenment. He compares himself to saints, hermits and religious ascetics, but points out that accounts of the lives of religious ascetics don’t tell you much about the people they were before they became enlightened: ‘They never tell you about what was left behind, about who was left behind, about what had to be broken.’ Buckmaster, for his part, lets the reader know that he has left a wife and children behind at home. He reports some of the conversation in which he told his wife he was going to go and be a hermit for a while: ‘Are you looking for God or looking for your self? she said. Can you even tell the difference any more? … Six years, she said, it’s been six years, and you leave now, at the worst time there could be, and for nothing … You are a child, she said, you always have been, and now I have two children.’ We’re prompted to wonder, along with Buckmaster himself, just what kind of a man Buckmaster is. What can he have done to be so fearful of going home to where, as he puts it, the people he used to know would ‘draw round me in a ring, baring their teeth like apes on the savannah’?

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