Beastly business: The Dig by Cynan Jones

Welsh novelist Cynan Jones has written a compressed, terse novel, which beautifully captures the sadness and brutality of rural life.

The Dig 
Cynan Jones
Granta, 156pp, £12.99

Badger-baiting was outlawed across Britain in 1835 and yet it never fully died out. In 1914, the Anglo-Welsh poet Edward Thomas wrote about an old, briar-covered hollow near his cottage in east Hampshire. The scene of a brutal crime: “But far more ancient and dark/The Combe looks since they killed the badger there,/Dug him out and gave him to the hounds,/That most ancient Briton of English beasts.”

The recent plan to cull thousands of badgers in Gloucestershire and Somerset may have been abandoned but the practice of baiting – digging badgers from their setts in order to pit them against dogs for money or sport – has increased by a third since 2010. In Cynan Jones’s terse new novel, digging for badgers becomes a metaphor for human wantonness but also human frailty.

Daniel, a grieving sheep farmer in west Wales, attempts to improve the lives of his animals by seeing them safely through lambing season. At every step he is haunted by reminders of his wife’s death – she was kicked in the head by a friend’s horse. In one sequence, he struggles to deliver a still-born lamb, hacking away at a malformed second head while the creature is still in the womb. He leaves to get a sack, returning to see “the ewe was licking the severed head . . . he felt sick well up in him. He tried to fight off the image of the destroyed head, of her destroyed head.”

Daniel is trapped in an unfeeling world where nature is anything but benign. Meanwhile a badger-baiter stalks the land. Referred to variously as “the big man” and “the big gypsy”, he hunts badger sows to sell to men, “mostly Midlanders or from the Valleys”, who torture and kill them. His knowledge and methods are impressive (as, in turn, is Jones’s capacity to describe them). Where Daniel is a sensitive, ordering consciousness, the big man’s internal life is governed by fear of capture by the police. Both men want things from beneath the soil. When Daniel visits his wife’s grave, he has to fight the urge to “put his hand in the dirt” and “drag her from the earth”.

The Dig explores its central themes – loss, isolation, nature – through dry, punchy storytelling. Each sentence has been neatly sculpted to develop a rich poetry from the stuff of rural life. The same was true of Jones’s previous two novels, both to be republished by Granta this year.

At the book’s denouement, following a confrontation between the two men, the big man thinks back to “the earth of the sett, its witness”. After pages of mulchy, terrestrial prose, one could be forgiven for reading “wetness” by mistake. But Jones’s noun does more than describe. It adds a moral quality. It points to the residue of destruction symbolised by the slaughter of that “most ancient Briton”, the badger.

Not a black and white issue: an anti-culling protest. Photograph: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The radicalism of fools

Photo: Getty Images/AFP
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Is Yvette Cooper surging?

The bookmakers and Westminster are in a flurry. Is Yvette Cooper going to win after all? I'm not convinced. 

Is Yvette Cooper surging? The bookmakers have cut her odds, making her the second favourite after Jeremy Corbyn, and Westminster – and Labour more generally – is abuzz with chatter that it will be her, not Corbyn, who becomes leader on September 12. Are they right? A couple of thoughts:

I wouldn’t trust the bookmakers’ odds as far as I could throw them

When Jeremy Corbyn first entered the race his odds were at 100 to 1. When he secured the endorsement of Unite, Britain’s trade union, his odds were tied with Liz Kendall, who nobody – not even her closest allies – now believes will win the Labour leadership. When I first tipped the Islington North MP for the top job, his odds were still at 3 to 1.

Remember bookmakers aren’t trying to predict the future, they’re trying to turn a profit. (As are experienced betters – when Cooper’s odds were long, it was good sense to chuck some money on there, just to secure a win-win scenario. I wouldn’t be surprised if Burnham’s odds improve a bit as some people hedge for a surprise win for the shadow health secretary, too.)

I still don’t think that there is a plausible path to victory for Yvette Cooper

There is a lively debate playing out – much of it in on The Staggers – about which one of Cooper or Burnham is best-placed to stop Corbyn. Team Cooper say that their data shows that their candidate is the one to stop Corbyn. Team Burnham, unsurprisingly, say the reverse. But Team Kendall, the mayoral campaigns, and the Corbyn team also believe that it is Burnham, not Cooper, who can stop Corbyn.

They think that the shadow health secretary is a “bad bank”: full of second preferences for Corbyn. One senior Blairite, who loathes Burnham with a passion, told me that “only Andy can stop Corbyn, it’s as simple as that”.

I haven’t seen a complete breakdown of every CLP nomination – but I have seen around 40, and they support that argument. Luke Akehurst, a cheerleader for Cooper, published figures that support the “bad bank” theory as well.   Both YouGov polls show a larger pool of Corbyn second preferences among Burnham’s votes than Cooper’s.

But it doesn’t matter, because Andy Burnham can’t make the final round anyway

The “bad bank” row, while souring relations between Burnhamettes and Cooperinos even further, is interesting but academic.  Either Jeremy Corbyn will win outright or he will face Cooper in the final round. If Liz Kendall is eliminated, her second preferences will go to Cooper by an overwhelming margin.

Yes, large numbers of Kendall-supporting MPs are throwing their weight behind Burnham. But Kendall’s supporters are overwhelmingly giving their second preferences to Cooper regardless. My estimate, from both looking at CLP nominations and speaking to party members, is that around 80 to 90 per cent of Kendall’s second preferences will go to Cooper. Burnham’s gaffes – his “when it’s time” remark about Labour having a woman leader, that he appears to have a clapometer instead of a moral compass – have discredited him in him the eyes of many. While Burnham has shrunk, Cooper has grown. And for others, who can’t distinguish between Burnham and Cooper, they’d prefer to have “a crap woman rather than another crap man” in the words of one.

This holds even for Kendall backers who believe that Burnham is a bad bank. A repeated refrain from her supporters is that they simply couldn’t bring themselves to give Burnham their 2nd preference over Cooper. One senior insider, who has been telling his friends that they have to opt for Burnham over Cooper, told me that “faced with my own paper, I can’t vote for that man”.

Interventions from past leaders fall on deaf ears

A lot has happened to change the Labour party in recent years, but one often neglected aspect is this: the Labour right has lost two elections on the bounce. Yes, Ed Miliband may have rejected most of New Labour’s legacy and approach, but he was still a protégé of Gordon Brown and included figures like Rachel Reeves, Ed Balls and Jim Murphy in his shadow cabinet.  Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham were senior figures during both defeats. And the same MPs who are now warning that Corbyn will doom the Labour Party to defeat were, just months ago, saying that Miliband was destined for Downing Street and only five years ago were saying that Gordon Brown was going to stay there.

Labour members don’t trust the press

A sizeable number of Labour party activists believe that the media is against them and will always have it in for them. They are not listening to articles about Jeremy Corbyn’s past associations or reading analyses of why Labour lost. Those big, gamechanging moments in the last month? Didn’t change anything.

100,000 people didn’t join the Labour party on deadline day to vote against Jeremy Corbyn

On the last day of registration, so many people tried to register to vote in the Labour leadership election that they broke the website. They weren’t doing so on the off-chance that the day after, Yvette Cooper would deliver the speech of her life. Yes, some of those sign-ups were duplicates, and 3,000 of them have been “purged”.  That still leaves an overwhelmingly large number of sign-ups who are going to go for Corbyn.

It doesn’t look as if anyone is turning off Corbyn

Yes, Sky News’ self-selecting poll is not representative of anything other than enthusiasm. But, equally, if Yvette Cooper is really going to beat Jeremy Corbyn, surely, surely, she wouldn’t be in third place behind Liz Kendall according to Sky’s post-debate poll. Surely she wouldn’t have been the winner according to just 6.1 per cent of viewers against Corbyn’s 80.7 per cent. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.