Tea at Terminal One: a very civilised sit-in against Heathrow expansion in 2009. Photo: Rex Features
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Felicity Cloake: How your picnic hamper can change the world

A picnic seems an apposite choice for anarchists – a meal exempt from the usual formalities, sweet and savoury mixed in a glorious jumble and eaten supine on the ground.

On May Day 1978, Finsbury Park played host to an unusual party. A yellowing flyer for the Anarchist Picnic (dedicated to “all prisoners rotting in the world’s jails”), now in the archives of the Bishopsgate Institute, urges freethinkers to bring their own food, drink, musical instruments and kites, promising in return “mass football (N London v S London)” and a Punch and Judy show.

A picnic seems an apposite choice for anarchists – a meal exempt from the usual formalities, sweet and savoury mixed in a glorious jumble and eaten supine on the ground, often with scant regard for “table” manners or even cutlery: as the anthropologist Margaret Visser puts it, “a thrilling reversal of normal rules”.

A brief rummage online produces a recent “picnic protest” against Windermere parking charges, an “axe the bedroom tax protest and picnic” in Margate, and innumerable munchie-heavy cannabis “picnics” in support of drug legalisation from Surrey to Sydney.

The 2009 picnic protest against Heathrow expansion, conducted on the floor of Terminal One, was particularly sumptuously catered for, with a journalist reporting “scotch eggs, Carr’s water biscuits . . . wild-rice salad, a broccoli and brown pasta dish, couscous, cupcakes and beautifully made cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off”. (The slogan? “Climate change is no picnic”.)

There are fewer green issues on the menu, and less broccoli, at Kentucky’s annual Fancy Farm Picnic, where politicians come to canvass votes, often by pledging their support for the local coal industry, from an audience visiting primarily for the nine tonnes of barbecue pork and mutton.

But politicians love their barbecue, too. President Obama soured his already fractious relationship with Congress last year by cancelling their customary White House picnic, usually held in early summer – “in time” (as the congressional commentator David Hawkings explains) “for the afterglow to shine favourably on some bipartisan deal-making in even the most rancorous election years”.

Whether that was to blame for the subsequent government shutdown is unclear, but this year it’s back on – scheduled for 17 September, just a week before the House breaks up for the midterms, and “essentially too late, in other words, to ratify before the election any legislative breakthrough that might get scrawled on to the red-checked tablecloths”.

Britain also has a proud history of political picnicking; in its heyday, the Northumberland Miners’ Picnic attracted speakers such as Arthur Scargill, John Prescott and Clement Attlee. Now it seems we’re reduced to feminists scoffing sushi on the Circle Line to protest a woman’s right to eat in public, in the wake of the risible “Women Who Eat on Tubes” Facebook furore.

And yet, around the world, people are still fighting for the right to protest at all – last year several Vietnamese activists were arrested at human rights picnics in public parks; and in the Islamic state of Algeria, hundreds risked their freedom at public picnics during the Ramadan fast. More recently, demonstrators against the Thai military coup were reduced to giving away their food under the slogan “Sandwiches for democracy!”, after the park where they had planned to hold a picnic rally was sealed off by the authorities.

Lest you doubt the power of the picnic, in August 1989 the Iron Curtain was lifted briefly to allow a pan-European picnic on the border between Austria and Hungary. Six hundred East Germans managed to escape through the open gates – an event Helmut Kohl later described as hammering the first brick from the Berlin Wall. It fell three months later. Perhaps a picnic can change the world, after all.

Next issue: Nina Caplan on drink

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double 2014

Photo: Getty
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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