Acres of oilseed rape in flower amid the limestone hills of Yunnan, southern China. Photo: George Steinmetz/Corbis
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There is nothing very lovely about oilseed rape

Don’t be fooled by its seas of scented acid-yellow blooms, the plant otherwise known as canola is one of the world’s most unethical crops.

It was an awkward moment. I had been in Yangzhou a week, one of a dozen foreign writers attending the Slender West Lake Poetry Festival, and throughout the trip, our very diligent hosts had conspired to show us all that was best about the local culture, from brush painting to fine cuisine to the live traditions of calligraphy and guzheng (Chinese zither).

Best of all, for me at least, were the gardens, from the parkland around the lake itself to classical courtyards where extraordinary specimens of penjing (the Chinese equivalent of bonsai) stood proud amid the jade flowers and flowering plums. Every turn had presented new pleasures: not just the orientalism that this hurried description might suggest, but living examples of how human beings can get it right in their dealings with the land. Yet, according to my hosts, one particularly memorable sight was to come.

From the one hint I’d been given I should have guessed – I would see a great expanse of sweetly scented yellow flowers, running all the way to the horizon. But how could I have known, in that Eden of cherry groves and jade flowers, that the coming treat would be nothing more than a Chinese version of those industrial-scale oilseed rape fields that, supported by extravagant subsidies, have come to dominate the British landscape? Was it possible, as we descended from our coach after a two-hour drive, that we, and the thousands of others abandoning their cars anywhere they could and streaming down this gridlocked road, had come to see a rape field?

It was, as I say, an awkward moment – and yet there was something magical about it, too. Unable to push any further through the crowds, our driver had simply stopped and let us off to walk the last mile with the other pilgrims, some carrying babies and toddlers in their arms, many wearing surgical-style masks over their mouths. By the roadside, enthusiastic country folk peddled rapeseed honey (apparently considered to possess healing properties) and when we finally reached the main field, a five-storey pagoda at its centre, something like a fair was in progress, with people selling everything from pig meat to inflatable plastic toys. The smell – boiled pork mixed with candy sugar and rapeseed pollen – was overwhelming, but the exhilaration was strangely contagious, and when one of our host party turned to me, smiling, waiting for my positive reaction, I found myself nodding and mumbling that most British of compliments. “Lovely,” I said. “It’s just . . . lovely.”

But is it? For many, oilseed rape (marketed as “canola” in the United States after the original tag, “Lear” – for “low erucic acid rapeseed” – failed to catch on) is a classic indicator of all that is dubious about industrialised agriculture.

It was made infamous when the agrochemical giant Monsanto sought damages of $400,000 from Percy Schmeiser, a Canadian grain farmer, after he was found to be growing Monsanto’s patented genetically modified rapeseed. The seed had blown into Schmeiser’s field: a common problem, as most North American rapeseed production is GM-based. Rape is prized for its high tolerance of herbicides, while the oil is commonly obtained by solvent-based processes, with further chemicals employed to bleach and deodorise it. Moreover, after these initial treatments, it is often used in the production of processed food where, some researchers claim, trans fatty acid levels of up to 40 per cent can occur during hydrogenation.

The jury is still out on the consequences for land use and consumer health. So, as pretty as it may be in full flower beneath the early summer sun, oilseed rape may not be so lovely after all.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The elites vs the people

Photo: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder