In environmental justice, the wind still rides roughshod over the rules

The proposed Viking development, which would have seen 103 wind turbines erected on the central mainland of Shetland, mostly on peatland, has been prevented. For once, it seemed as if democracy and environmental concerns had prevailed over big business in

On 24 September, Lady Clark of Calton, the chair of the Scottish Law Commission, ruled against the proposed Viking development in which 103 wind turbines would have been erected on the central mainland of Shetland, mostly on peatland.

The Scottish government had manhandled the project through the final planning phase, despite massive community opposition and the objections of the RSPB, the John Muir Trust, Shetland Amenity Trust, Sustainable Shetland and Scottish Natural Heritage. Citing a range of concerns, Lady Clark made particular note that she was not satisfied Scottish ministers had complied with their obligations under the Wild Birds Directive 2009, adding: “it appears not to be disputed by anyone that whimbrel [a curlewlike member of the snipe family] are a declining species in the UK, with approximately 95 per cent of 290 breeding pairs in Shetland”.

This ruling was, as my mother used to say, “a real tonic” for Scots who, over the past several years, have seen our wildlands and their birds subjected to senseless damage by ill-considered rural projects ranging from the 220km Beauly-Denny super-pylon line to that now-notorious luxury golf resort on a Site of Special Scientific Interest at Menie, imposed by imperial fiat from Holyrood after it was rejected by local decision-makers. For once, it seemed as if democracy and environmental concerns had prevailed over big business interests and the whims of high office.

This hope for environmental justice may be short-lived, however, as the Scottish government quickly announced its decision to appeal Lady Clark’s ruling. It has every right to do so, but one wonders why a government that constantly trumpets its sustainable credentials and commitment to “freedom” would be so intent on ignoring not only a piece of European legislation designed to protect endangered birds, but the outcome of a High Court judicial review in which a very small David rightfully triumphed over a very large Goliath.

Sadly, the threat to Shetland’s wild birds continues, considering the resources that big corporations, backed by government, can bring to bear against a local environmental group such as Sustainable Shetland, whose only funds come from members’ donations.

I suppose there are those in Holyrood who take the view that, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan, “if you’ve seen one whimbrel, you’ve seen ’em all”. One can but hope that others would echo recent comments in the Lords by Viscount Ridley, when he points out that “There is a feeling that wind seems to be exempt from the normal rules. If I were to erect a structure 140 metres high, doubling the height above sea level of the hills alongside the valley of the Stinchar in Ayrshire, for example, there would rightly be an outcry. If I were to kill hundreds of birds of prey every year, there would be outrage. If I were to kill thousands of bats, I would go to jail. How can it be that the wind industry uniquely is allowed to ride roughshod over the environmental rules that protect the rest of us from anyone spoiling the view, killing eagles and pouring concrete into peatland?”

I believe that there are many Scottish politicians, even within the SNP, who worry not only about the land but about their government’s propensity to override any local decision it finds inconvenient. Unless they speak out now, we will see a real blot on Scotland’s environmental copybook.

If Judge Clark’s ruling stands, it sets the stage for a new era of serious environmental protection throughout these islands.

If it does not, a few people will become very rich indeed, but the whimbrel (to use the Gaelic name, Guilbneach-bheag, or “little lamenting one”) may well vanish from Shetland, lamenting to the end, not only for itself, but for us all.

 

Gannets above stormy seas in the Shetland islands, where a wind farm plan has been rejected. Photo: Corbis

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Exodus

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear