The year of the spat

Ben Coren looks back at the various rows and spats that characterised the UK arts and culture scene

As 2008 looms, the arts media has been busying itself reviewing the cultural highs and lows of the past year.

Despite gloomy news of drastic cuts in arts funding and continued predictions of the death of the book, the general consensus is that 2007 has seen a lot of interesting work produced (although some of it, as our film critic Ryan Gilbey observes, has been hard to find).

But aside from praising or damning individual work, and without meaning to be unduly reductive, what were the trends that summed up 2007?

In the UK, celebrity meltdowns and popular environmentalism were both high on the agenda and we’ve also seen an above average number of spats tangentially linked to issues surrounding freedom of speech and the limits of acceptability.

The year kicked off with a ratings grabbing race row in Celebrity Big Brother (more of the same was to follow in the summer series) and since then new cultural brouhahas have been arriving very regularly. This week the BBC was criticised for editing the word ‘faggot’ out of The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York” and in recent months we’ve had both Mozgate and the Amis/Eagleton controversy to keep us suitably outraged, whichever side we’re on.

Of course, the arts have always been an area where debates over what is permissible are played out and a good cultural/political ruckus certainly makes for attention-grabbing headlines. But an argument could be made that the prevalence of these kinds of stories in 2007 paint a picture of a country with a worryingly uncertain set of attitudes towards what can reasonably be said and what can’t.

Perhaps the spats at least brought such issues to wider attention, but did they generate more heat than light? In the case of several of the controversies most of the debate was conducted not by specialists, or by members of the respective minority communities under discussion, but by white, predominantly male celebrities, which is surely somewhat amiss…

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Our comprehensive review of the year in arts and politics.

Critiquing the Critics

One response to all this would be to criticise the media for covering these sensationalised quarrels at the expense of more reflective content. Cultural journalism has itself been at the centre of a diverse range of rows this year, with the critics especially under attack. Nicholas Hytner, Artistic Director of the National Theatre, took a swipe at the “dead white men” of theatre criticism and Philip Roth allowed one of his characters a ferocious diatribe against the “ideological simplification and biographical reductionism” of all literary journalism in his latest novel, Exit Ghost.

Meanwhile, the Booker Prize Chair Howard Davies infamously railed against the failings of book reviewers and the Observer’s pop critic Kitty Empire has recently come over all self-flagellating and lamented that most critics’ tips for bands to watch in 2008 represent an “effort to funnel listeners into pens of the industry's making.”

It is debatable if these events constitute a telling trend of some kind or are just a series of essentially self-contained, unrelated incidents. Comments on this, and on whether interventions like those of Hytner and Davies really do serve to make journalists more self aware, are welcome below.

In any case, despite the criticism, no one’s denying that there is still a lot of very good arts writing around: at the risk of seeming immodest, our own Arts & Books pages currently include interesting pieces by David Hare and Toby Litt and we will endeavour to go on providing the best in arts coverage in 2008.

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A recent blog on literary reviews.

News Round Up

This week reality TV, the Golden Globes shortlist, an art heist in Brazil and Amy Winehouse’slatest misdemeanours all generated a lot of coverage, but the most remarkable story must be the news that the planned loan of Russian owned paintings to the Royal Academy may not go ahead, possibly for politically motivated reasons.

Meanwhile, Tory about town & one time NS Theatre Critic Michael Portillo was revealed as the Chair of next year’s Booker panel, and, as the TV networks tried to whip up excitement over their Christmas schedules, The Guardian was keeping things resolutely high-brow, offering blogs on academic obfuscation, neglected Central Asian writers and the death of the cultural elite.

For those of a more spiritual bent, a debate was going on over whether Christmas in the West has become overly secular, while the web hosted an amusing dispatch from the “Mind, Body and Soul Expo” and Franco Zeffirelli announced that he is keen to give the Pope a makeover. Happy holidays.

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Out with the old: how new species are evolving faster than ever

A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of diversification, as well as extinction.

Human population growth, increased consumption, hunting, habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species and now climate change are turning the biological world on its head. The consequence is that species are becoming extinct, perhaps faster than at any time since the dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago. This is an inconvenient truth.

But there are also convenient truths. Britain has gained about 2,000 new species over the past two millennia, because our predecessors converted forests into managed woodlands, orchards, meadows, wheat fields, roadsides, hedgerows, ponds and ditches, as well as gardens and urban sprawl, each providing new opportunities.

Then we started to transport species deliberately. We have the Romans to thank for brown hares and the Normans for rabbits. In the 20th century, ring-necked parakeets escaped from captivity and now adorn London’s parks and gardens.

Climate warming is bringing yet more new species to our shores, including little egrets and tree bumblebees, both of which have colonised Britain in recent years and then spread so far north that I can see them at home in Yorkshire. Convenient truth No 1 is that more species have arrived than have died out: most American states, most islands in the Pacific and most countries in Europe, including Britain, support more species today than they did centuries ago.

Evolution has also gone into overdrive. Just as some species are thriving on a human-dominated planet, the same is true of genes. Some genes are surviving better than others. Brown argus butterflies in my meadow have evolved a change in diet (their caterpillars now eat dove’s-foot cranesbill plants, which are common in human-disturbed landscapes), enabling them to take advantage of a warming climate and spread northwards.

Evolution is a second convenient truth. Many species are surviving better than we might have expected because they are becoming adapted to the human-altered world – although this is not such good news when diseases evolve immunity to medicines or crop pests become resistant to insecticides.

A third convenient truth is that new species are coming into existence. The hybrid Italian sparrow was born one spring day when a male Spanish sparrow (the “original” Mediterranean species) hitched up with a female house sparrow (which had spread from Asia into newly created farmland). The descendants of this happy union live on, purloining dropped grains and scraps from the farms and towns of the Italian peninsula. Some of those grains are wheat, which is also a hybrid species that originated as crosses between wild grasses in the Middle East.

This is not the only process by which new species are arising. On a much longer time scale, all of the species that we have released on thousands of islands across the world’s oceans and transported to new continents will start to become more distinct in their new homes, eventually separating into entirely new creatures. The current rate at which new species are forming may well be the highest ever. A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of great diversification on Earth, as well as a time of extinction.

The processes of ecological and evolutionary change that brought all of Earth’s existing biological diversity into being – including ourselves – is continuing to generate new diversity in today’s human-altered world. Unless we sterilise our planet in some unimagined way, this will continue. In my book Inheritors of the Earth, I criss-cross the world to survey the growth in biological diversity (as well as to chart some of the losses) that has taken place in the human epoch and argue that this growth fundamentally alters our relationship with nature.

We need to walk a tightrope between saving “old nature” (some of which might be useful) and facilitating what will enable the biological world to adjust to its changed state. Humans are integral to Earth’s “new nature”, and we should not presume that the old was better than the new.

“Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction” by Chris D Thomas is published by Allen Lane

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