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1066 and all that

Michael Gove argues that schools should teach children about kings, queens and wars. He's offering a

"Fewer and fewer students want to study the past," complained the Tory MP and historian Chris Skidmore recently, adding: "[G]iven the way it is currently presented in schools, who can blame them?" In 2011, in 159 schools no pupils at all were entered for GCSE history. "We are facing a situation," he warns, "where history is at risk of dying out in schools and regions in the country." His remedy is to reorient the GCSE towards "our national history, rather than focusing on Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia or the history of medicine. We should introduce a narrative-based exam that covers every age in British history across a broad chronological span", instead of focusing on isolated "bite-sized" chunks of history. "Local history," he adds, would bring it all to life and "can easily be woven into the school curriculum".

Skidmore joins a swelling chorus of voices clamouring for a restoration of a British history narrative at the core of the curriculum as a means of halting the subject's decline in schools. It has been led by the Education Secretary, Michael Gove. The current National Curriculum, he says, neglects our national history: "Most parents would rather their children had a traditional education, with children sitting in rows, learning the kings and queens of England." David Cameron has lamented the "tragedy that we have swept away the teaching of narrative history and replaced it with a bite-sized, disjointed approach to learning about historical events . . . [in a] shift away from learning actual knowledge, such as facts and dates."

Some historians take the same view. "The syllabus," thunders Dominic Sandbrook, "has been a shambles for years. Fragmented and fractured, obsessed with the Nazis and apparently indifferent to the pleasures of narrative, it leaves students struggling for a sense of the contours of our national story." The Labour MP and historian Tristram Hunt has added his voice to those demanding a replacement of the current National Curriculum with a British-focused national narrative, showing there is a cross-party consensus behind these criticisms.

But is history in our schools really in a state of terminal crisis? As David Cannadine has shown in his new book The Right Kind of History: Teaching the Past in Twentieth-Century England, such complaints are not new. They were made by Margaret Thatcher's government in the 1980s and by others long before, all of whom wanted history-teaching to be a vehicle for the creation of a unified sense of national identity. Indeed, at the beginning of the 20th century, history was barely taught in schools at all. When GCSEs were introduced in the 1980s, history, unlike many other subjects, was not made compulsory; still, about a third of all GCSE candidates voluntarily studied it as one of their exam subjects. Over the following years the spread of thematic and social history approaches pioneered by the Schools History Project, including the history of medicine, far from plunging the subject into crisis, actually led to an increase in its popularity and GCSE history entries reached 40 per cent by 1995.

The introduction of league tables in the 1990s, however, focused schools' attention on maths, English and science at primary level. The result was a rapid and drastic fall in history teaching, so that nowadays only 4 per cent of class time in primary schools is devoted to the subject. League tables based on GCSE and A-level results have led secondary schools to focus on subjects in which better GCSE results can be achieved, and pupils often prefer to take a GCSE in a subject that's compulsory until the age of 16 than add to their workload by taking one that's not - such as history. All this has led to a 10 per cent drop in history GCSE entries since 1995, putting it back to around 30 per cent. However, this is roughly where it was when the GCSE was introduced; it's not, as Skidmore implies, a decline from some past golden age when all 14-to-16-year-olds took the subject.

Blaming the curriculum is wrong. In 2007 the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority reported that a survey of 1,700 children, two-thirds of whom gave up the subject at 14, found that half of them liked and enjoyed the subject. And it's important not to exaggerate the decline either. A recent Ofsted report on the teaching of history in 166 primary and secondary schools noted that between 2007 and 2010 "there were more examination entries for history than for any other optional subject at GCSE level apart from design and technology".

The number of students taking GCSE history remained stable from 2000 to 2010. Moreover, Ofsted reported that "numbers taking the subject at A-level have risen steadily over the past ten years", making history one of the "top five subject choices at A-level". The report found the subject was well taught at a majority of schools at all levels, and that pupils enjoyed their lessons, found history fun, and praised it for making them think. Far from being in a state of terminal decay, then, history in schools is actually a success story.

Still, nobody seriously interested in the subject would want to disagree with the proposition that more schoolchildren should study it. Is the way forward to focus it exclusively on British history? In fact, the National Curriculum for children up to the age of 14 already has a chronological account of British history from 1066 to the present as its core, surrounding it with forays into European and extra-European history to introduce pupils to other countries and cultures. And local history is also a key part of the curriculum, as Skidmore would discover if he actually bothered to read it. So the Ofsted report, surveying the content of teaching across the country, concludes firmly that "the view that too little British history is taught in secondary schools in England is a myth". Complaints about the "Nazification" of the curriculum are mere rhetoric and nothing more. One can smell more than a whiff of Tory Euro-scepticism in the complaint that pupils learn more about Russia and Germany than they do about England.

Would a greater emphasis on kings and queens help? Dominic Sandbrook notes that, "for all the efforts of academic historians, popular history is still dominated by vivid characters and bloody battles, often shot through with a deep sense of national pride". But many of the most popular history books don't deal with British history at all, even if they do focus on vivid characters and bloody battles: Antony Beevor's Stalingrad, for instance; or Jung Chang and Jon Halliday's Mao: The Untold Story; or, in a rather different way, Edmund de Waal's bestselling part-history, part-memoir, The Hare with Amber Eyes. And many popular history books deal with social and cultural history, including, ironically, Sandbrook's own marvellous, best-selling trilogy of books on post-war Britain; some of the greatest bestsellers of recent years, such as Dava Sobel's Longitude, are on subjects about as far away as one could imagine from kings and battles.

How about teaching narrative rather than analysis, then? It is wrong, David Starkey has asserted, that history in the schools has modelled itself on university research. What we need, he declares, is to give children "a sense of change and development over time . . . The skills-based teaching of history is a catastrophe." But what sells in the bookshops or what succeeds on TV is not necessarily what should be taught in schools. Teaching is a profession with its own skills and techniques, different from those needed to present a television programme (as Starkey's performance on the reality TV show Jamie's Dream School dramatically indicated). Physics, biology and every other subject in schools is taught along lines that reflect research in the universities. One wouldn't expect physics teachers to ignore Stephen Hawking's ideas about black holes, or biology teachers to keep quiet about the discovery of DNA. So what makes history so different? Chemistry devotes a large amount of time to transmitting skills to students; why shouldn't history?

The narrative that the critics want shoved down pupils' throats in schools - as they sit in rows silently learning lists of kings and queens - is essentially what's been called the "Whig theory of history"; that is, telling a story of British history over a long period of time, stressing the development of parliamentary democracy in a narrative that culminates in a present viewed in self-congratulatory terms.

This theory was exploded by professional historians more than half a century ago, under the influence of the classic tract The Whig Interpretation of History by the conservative historian Herbert Butterfield. Yet it still has strong support in the media. The Daily Telegraph and the right-wing think tank Civitas even campaigned to get H E Marshall's patriotic textbook Our Island Story put on the National Curriculum. Dating from the Edwardian era, this book, with its stories of how the British brought freedom and justice to the Maoris of New Zealand and many other lucky peoples across the world, has rightly been described as "imperialist propaganda masquerading as history". In what other academic subject would people seriously advocate a return to a state of knowledge as it was a hundred years ago?

Perhaps instead of this outdated volume they might therefore use Simon Jenkins's new A Short History of England. But its message is in the end not very different. Interviewed in the Guardian, its author intoned with breathtaking complacency his view that "England really is a most successful country" and claimed that English history was separate from that of the other European powers. "The British talent," if we are to believe Jenkins, "had always been to keep away from wars overseas. We had kept out of Europe all the time."

Jenkins talks as if there had never been a Norman conquest, an Angevin regime, a hundred years war, a Dutch invasion (in 1688), joint rule of a large chunk of Germany (Hanover) from 1714 to 1837, or a series of wars with France, ranging across the world from India to the Americas, from the age of Louis XIV to that of Napoleon; as if there had never been any immigration or any cultural exchange with the Continent; as if our history had not been part of Europe's through two world wars and the ensuing decades of peace. The thought of such an ignorant and insular approach to English history finding its way into the hands of children is frightening; but on the other hand, its errors of fact and perspective are so egregious that it might provide a good starting point from which they can sharpen their critical faculties.

It's all very well demanding that the curriculum should be filled with facts, but what facts you choose depends on what vision you have of British national identity. The concept of "British history" itself is contentious and politically debatable, which perhaps is why some of the National Curriculum's critics advocate a narrative history of England instead; though in the case of Jenkins the justification for this, that "England is an island", is a geographical howler that even six-year-olds should be able to spot. Time and again, the advocates of a national narrative confuse English history with British history, in a way that would not go down well in Cardiff or Edinburgh.

History at every level, not just in the universities, is endlessly contentious and argumentative. How can this provide a basis for a unified national consciousness? Rote learning suppresses critical thought; narrative isn't something you can teach unless you subject it to critical analysis and for that you need the skills to interrogate it. For analysis, especially in depth, you need to study selected topics, even if it has to be within a broader chronological context. Critics who complain of the breaking up of the seamless web of chronology have no concept of what history teaching and learning actually involve.

Forcing students to study a narrowly focused curriculum based on British kings and queens would soon lead to students in their thousands being put off history as a subject. There would be a collapse of take-up at GCSE and A-level. Our culture and our national identity would be impoverished. A quack remedy for a misdiagnosed complaint, it would only make things worse. The real threat to history teaching in our schools doesn't come from the curriculum, it comes from somewhere else, not mentioned by Skidmore at all: it comes from the academies, Michael Gove's flagship secondary schools, which are free from local authority control and don't have to follow the National Curriculum. In 2011, just 20 per cent of academy students taking GCSEs included history among their subjects. As academies - which already make up 10 per cent of secondary schools - spread further, with government encouragement, the teaching of history really will be in crisis.

Richard J Evans is Regius Professor of History and president of Wolfson College, Cambridge. He is the author of "The Third Reich at War" (Penguin, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Has the Arab Spring been hijacked?

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Robert Macfarlane: why we need nature writing

A new “culture of nature” is changing the way we live – and could change our politics, too.

Mark Cocker’s interrogation of “the new nature writing”, which we published in June, provoked heated debate. Here is Robert Macfarlane's reply.

In 1972, Gregory Bateson published Steps to an Ecology of Mind, a collection of his essays from the previous three decades. Bateson was a dazzlingly versatile thinker, whose work shaped the fields of anthropology, linguistics and cybernetics, as well as the movement we now call environmentalism. Near the end of the book, Bateson deplored the delusion of human separation from nature. “We are not,” he warned, “outside the ecology for which we plan.” His remedy for this separatism was the development of an “ecology of mind”. The steps towards such a mind were to be taken by means of literature, art, music, play, wonder and attention to nature – what he called “ecological aesthetics”.

Bateson, who died in 1980, would have been excited by what has happened in the culture of our islands over the past 15 years. An ecology of mind has emerged that is extraordinary in its energies and its diversity. In nurseries and universities, apiaries and allotments, transition towns and theatres, woodlands and festivals, charities and campaigns – and in photography, film, music, the visual and plastic arts and throughout literature – a remarkable turn has occurred towards Bateson’s ecological aesthetics. A 21st-century culture of nature has sprung up, born of anxiety and anger but passionate and progressive in its temperament, involving millions of people and spilling across forms, media and behaviours.

This culture is not new in its concerns but it is distinctive in its contemporary intensity. Its politics is not easily placed on the conventional spectrum, so we would do better to speak of its values. Those values include placing community over commodity, modesty over mastery, connection over consumption, the deep over the shallow, and a version of what the American environmentalist Aldo Leopold called “the land ethic”: the double acknowledgement that, first, ­human beings are animals and, second, we are animals among other animals, sharing our habitat with members of the biota that also have meetable needs and rights.

The outcomes of this culture have ranged from the uncountable enrichments of individual lives to clear examples of political and social change with regard to conservation and our relationships with “landscape”, in the fullest sense of the word.

Co-operation is crucial. Poets are colla­borating with educationalists, printmakers with permaculturists, dramaturges with climate scientists, film-makers with folk singers, sculptors with physicians – all in a gumbo that would surely have met with Bateson’s approval, as would the underlying belief that, in Lucy Neal’s phrase, artists can be “agents of change”.

Here are just a few examples drawn from my acquaintance. In terms of charities, I think of young organisations such as Action for Conservation, which seeks to inspire teenagers to become “the next generation of nature conservationists”, or Onca, which has the mission “to inspire creativity and positive action in the face of environmental change” by means of the arts. In terms of publications, I think of the journal Archi­pelago, or the magazine EarthLines, run, until recently, out of a croft in the Outer Hebrides and standing for “a land ethic”. In education, I think of the huge rise of forest schools; in theatre, of agile, agitating political companies including Metis Arts and the surge in British climate-change drama. In terms of campaigns, I think of Rewilding Britain, arising from George Monbiot’s book Feral (2013) and seeking to replenish British biodiversity and “connect people with the wonder of nature”; the recent Hen Harrier Day, which brought together Chris Packham and Jeremy Deller to combat the extinction in England of these beautiful hawks as a result of the grouse-shooting industry; or the emerging New Commons campaign, with which I am involved, aiming for the creation of areas of common land around our biggest cities.

In all of these cases, the natural good, cultural activity and human well-being are mingled rather than separable categories. As Ali Smith has observed, “The place where the natural world meets the arts is a fruitful, fertile place for both.” We might think of that place as an “ecotone” – the biological term for a transition zone between biomes, where two communities meet and integrate. That integration is excitingly visible on the Caught by the River website, where scientists and river restorationists share terrain with experimental musicians and urban birders.

As a writer and an academic, I also think of books. W H Auden once said that, among scientists, he felt like “a shabby curate . . . [in] a roomful of dukes”. When I am with serious conservationists – the people at the delivery end of saving the planet – I often feel like that shabby curate. I also ask them what switched on their passion for protecting nature and the answer is almost always the same: an encounter with a wild creature and an encounter with a book.

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Literature has the ability to change us for good, in both senses of the phrase. Powerful writing can revise our ethical relations with the natural world, shaping our place consciousness and our place conscience. Roger Deakin’s Waterlog (1999) prompted the revival of lido culture in Britain and the founding of the “wild swimming” movement. Richard Mabey’s Nature Cure (2005) is recommended by mental health professionals. Chris Packham fell in love with wild cats and golden eagles because he read Lea MacNally’s Highland Deer Forest (1970), as a child growing up in suburban Southampton.

“Nature writing” has become a cant phrase, branded and bandied out of any useful existence, and I would be glad to see its deletion from the current discourse. Yet it is clear that in Britain we are living through a golden age of literature that explores relations between selfhood, landscape and ethics and addresses what Mabey has described as the “growing fault line in the way we perceive and talk about nature”. I don’t know what to call this writing, nor am I persuaded that it needs a name. It is not a genre or a school. An ecology, perhaps? In the Guardian in 2003, I described what I saw as the green shoots of a revival of such writing. Twelve years on, those shoots have flourished into a forest, richly diverse in its understory as well as its canopy.

I would love to name a hundred writers here but lists soon get boring. Let me indicate something of the range of what is being undertaken, however, by acclaiming non-fiction that reaches from George Monbiot to Kathleen Jamie, by way of Dave Goulson, Philip Hoare, Sara Maitland, Tim Dee and John Burnside, and includes Helen Macdonald’s soaring H Is for Hawk, as well as such giants as Mabey and Tim Robinson. In the past nine months alone, we have had Michael McCarthy’s moving memoir The Moth Snowstorm, Rob Cowen’s bold and beautiful Common Ground and James Rebanks’s The Shepherd’s Life, bringing in an important voice from the world of farming.

In the coming months, we will have a defence of landscape “beauty” from Fiona Reynolds, a towering figure in British conservation, Nina Lyon’s pursuit of the Green Man and Mabey’s botanical magnum opus, The Cabaret of Plants. The first-person voice is strong in many of these books – but it was also strong in Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854), a founding text of modern environmentalism. Indeed, it was so strong that the printer who typeset the first edition ran out of capital Is.

Recent British poetry is deeply involved with landscape and nature, from Katrina Porteous on the Northumberland coast to Alice Oswald in Devon, by way of Debjani Chatterjee and Sean Borodale, to the experimental work of Richard Skelton, Autumn Richardson and Colin Simms’s lifelong project of natural-historical verse (see his recent Hen Harrier Poems). Fiction spans the rural violence of Cynan Jones and Ben Myers, through Kirsty Gunn, Laura Beatty, Melissa Harrison and Sarah Hall, all the way to China Miéville’s thrillingly weird prose. Alongside this new work has come the rediscovery of remarkable writing from the 19th and 20th centuries. Edward Thomas, J A Baker, Nan Shepherd and others have found fresh generations of readers, often thanks to the efforts of small publishers such as the superb Little Toller Books.

The best of the recent writing is ethically alert, theoretically literate and wary of the seductions and corruptions of the pastoral. It is sensitive to the dark histories of landscapes and to the structures of ownership and capital that organise – though do not wholly produce – our relations with the natural world. One might as reasonably expect to meet the geographer Doreen Massey or the philosopher Gilles Deleuze in its pages as Gilbert White or the bar-tailed godwit. Nor does this literature advocate a Luddite environmentalism: it tends to be anti-technocracy but not anti-technology.

Some of this writing is kick-up-the-arse furious, some is elegiac, some is about disease and dispossession, some is about dignity and the deepening of knowledge. Across its range, moral engagement and hope are consistently in evidence. Every contemporary writer about nature of my acquaintance is not “only” a writer but is also involved in political agitation, campaigns and volunteer work on behalf of the living world. This is far from the caricature of the 18th-century picturesque, in which moneyed artists sketch the Wye while peasants expire at their ankles and gouty aristos gaze dreamily through their Claude glasses.

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Not everything in the forest is lovely and not all of this writing is to the taste of every reader. More voices need to be heard from ethnic-minority writers and from a wider range of identities and backgrounds. There could also be a lot more jokes. But there is no one true way of writing about nature and place. The tradition of such literature has always been, as I argued in 2003, “passionate, pluriform and essential”. Our contemporary version mixes ire, irony and the irenic; green ecologies with dark ecologies.

It is the hopefulness, commitment and diversity of the current field that made Mark Cocker’s recent attack on it seem so disappointingly crabbed. In June, Cocker wrote an article for this magazine suggesting that the so-called new nature writers – including me and Helen Macdonald – were politically passive and insufficiently invested in the natural world. The standfirst asked: “How much do [these] authors truly care about our wild places?” Cocker went on to caricature much of the recent work as “pastoral narratives” that fail to engage with the “troubling realities” of modern Britain.

Nature books, he wrote, must navigate “between joy and anxiety” (as if they didn’t already, obsessively) and must have “real soil” at their roots. Does Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk – which never self-identifies as nature writing anyway – not have real soil at its roots in the form of her father’s sudden death and her grief? Implicit throughout Cocker’s article were the ideas that only those with “naturalist” knowledge should be writing about nature and that nature is a category confined to the non-human, as separable from “landscape” as “culture” is separable from “literature”.

It was a regrettable piece of policing. Its manners were especially unfortunate, because at its heart Cocker – a fine writer and ornithologist – was asking valuable questions about how cultural activity connects to political change. He was right to sound the alarm for the living world but his suggestion that any literary engagement with nature must be noisily game-changing was wrong. Such an instrumentalising view subdues literature to a single end and presupposes a simplistic model of consequence: that Cultural Action A leads to ­Political Outcome B.

The great American activist and writer Rebecca Solnit, a hero of mine, explains the limits of this view. “A lot of activists expect that for every action there is an equal and opposite and punctual reaction,” she writes in Hope in the Dark (2005), in a passage to which I find myself often returning:

 

[They] regard the lack of one as failure . . . But history is shaped by the groundswells and common dreams that single acts and moments only represent. It’s a landscape more complicated than commensurate cause and effect. Politics is a surface in which transformation comes about as much because of pervasive changes in the depths of the collective imagination as because of visible acts, though both are necessary . . . Writers need to understand that action is seldom direct. You write your books. You scatter your seeds. Rats might eat them or they might just rot . . .
Some seeds lie dormant for decades because they only germinate after fire.

 

Numerous literary examples prove Solnit’s “indirect action” thesis. My favourite is that of John Muir, the Scottish-born father of American conservation. In 1869, Muir washed up in the Sierra Nevada range of California, where he took a job as a shepherd. His first summer in the mountains inspired him to write ecstatic essays about the landscape of the Sierra and the intrinsic value of nature. Years later, some of those essays were by chance read by Theodore Roosevelt, who was wonderstruck by them. He travelled to meet Muir in 1903 and the two men walked and talked for three days. Roosevelt went on to place the Yosemite Valley under federal protection and to sign into existence during his presidency five national parks, 55 national bird sanctuaries and 150 national forests.

Muir’s writing lives on in today’s Britain in the form of the John Muir Trust, which campaigns to protect and enhance our wild places, and the John Muir Award, which has introduced 250,000 people in Britain to Muir’s philosophy of conservation (with over a quarter of those from disadvantaged areas or with disabilities). Literature usually works not in straight lines but in cat’s cradles of cause and effect. Vital connections sometimes manifest themselves only in retrospect – or even remain unseen.

Here are some other, more direct examples. J A Baker’s book The Peregrine (1967) motivated a student of mine to join the protests at the Kingsnorth power station. Charles Rangeley-Wilson’s subtle book Silt Road (2013) was read by a council officer in High Wycombe and has energised plans to de-culvert the River Wye in the town: what a joyous, unforeseeable outcome!

My writing has led me into close collaborations with dozens of local protest groups, conservation charities and nature-minded initiatives, not to mention its shaping of my work as a teacher. The idea of endorsing a naive pastoralism is anathema to me. In the same week as Cocker’s New Statesman piece was published, I was writing the script for an angry, hour-long documentary about oil, climate change and environmental damage in the Alaskan Arctic. I am currently working on a very short book about British nuclear bombs with the artist Stanley Donwood and a very long book about mining, death and underworlds.

A fortnight after Cocker’s piece was published, the Guardian reviewed my most recent book, Landmarks, which is about community resistance, pollution and species loss, as well as language and landscape. The final lines of the article read: “Landmarks is a book that ought to be read by policymakers, educators, armchair environmentalists and active conservationists the world over. If we are to defend the land from further degradation, we have to begin by knowing what it is we are talking about.”

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Literature can lead to activism and can feed into policymaking. But as Jonathan Bate has written, it need not explicitly “pronounce an ecological message” to perform ecological work. Take Julian Hoffman’s finely focused essays in The Small Heart of Things (2012), or the sparsely contemplative poetry of Thomas A Clark. For both writers, concentration is an ethical act. With his tiny, delicate poems, Clark has said that he hopes to do nothing less vital than “celebrate the life around them”. In so doing, they ask readers to approach the living world not as a standing reserve but as a precious gift. In Tim Dee’s striking phrase, “We need bird poems as much as [we need] the RSPB.”

George Monbiot, another of my heroes, has written stirringly about why we “fight for the living world”:

 

The reality is that we care because we love. Nature appealed to our hearts, when we were children, long before it appealed to our heads, let alone our pockets . . . Acknowledging our love for the living world does something that a library full of papers on sustainable development and ecosystem services cannot: it engages the imagination as well as the intellect. It inspires belief; and this is essential to the lasting success of any movement.

 

Yes, yes and yes again. And literature is exceptionally good at acknowledging love, inspiring belief and engaging “the imagination as well as the intellect”. That is why we should welcome the full range of “ecological aesthetics”. To see ourselves as within the ecology for which we plan, we require fury, burn, scorch and scour in our contemporary nature culture – but also wonder, joy, beauty, grace, play and concentration.

We must bring about the “major reawakening by our political classes to the idea that civilisation is rooted in a genuine and benign transaction with non-human life”, as Cocker puts it. But this won’t be magically managed by a single silver bullet – rather by what the climate scientist Richard Somerville brilliantly calls “silver buckshot, the large number of worthwhile efforts that all need to take place”. So down with disdain and division, up with celebration and connection – and onwards in a hundred hopeful steps towards an ecology of mind.

Robert Macfarlane is a fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. His award-winning books include “Mountains of the Mind” (Granta) and “The Old Ways” (Penguin). He is an honorary patron of the Cambridge Literary Festival, where he appears on 29 November, interviewing Simon Armitage and Alexandra Harris

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses