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Laurie Penny on Kate Middleton: benefit scrounging mother moves into palace at taxpayer's expense

Britain only permits two types of outrage today: dog-whistle disgust for the extremely poor and spanielish devotion to the aristocracy.

“Dole Queen Owns Horse!” screeched the front page of yesterday's Sun. This masterpiece of balanced headlining ran alongside a full-length picture of a distressed-looking pregnant woman who is due to be relocated into an extravagant new home at the government’s expense. The thirty-one year old, who has never held a full-time job, will shortly be moving into a twenty-bedroom palace with a fleet of staff, all funded by the taxpayer at a cost of hundreds of thousands of pounds per year. Kensington Palace, to be precise. The state is to fund the redecoration of every room to suit the unemployed mother-to-be and her husband, who is also out of work after a brief stint in the army. 

By now, the twisted logic of tabloid mob-whippery dictates that a small host of outraged citizens carrying pitchforks, cameras and branding-irons should be forming to descend on Kensington. The public must be demanding to know who this brazen madam thinks she is and why she's being allowed to have a kid on the state and hundreds of millions of pounds in handouts instead of accepting a slow slide into alienated penury like the rest of us. Throw the hussy to the vultures! Smear her face over every front-page, have her chased from her home by packs of wild paparazzi! Confiscate her uterus! Rent out the offending organ to wealthy Chinese families until the surrogacy fees have paid back the exorbitant cost of her outrageous hyperfecundity to the public purse! If we’re not careful, every scrounging harlot this side of Anglesey will grow up thinking that the recipe for an easy life is to amass a collection of elegant wrap-dresses and marry the hereditary heir to the Duchy of Cornwall. The shame of it. 

Rather than string this one out until it snaps, let's be absolutely clear that we're talking about the Duchess of Cambridge here. By an unhappy oversight of tabloid subediting, Kate Middleton’s picture appeared yesterday in every paper looking slightly sad about some slightly mean things said about her by a Booker Prize-winning author, alongside headlines attacking Heather Frost, mother-of-eleven, for daring to be rehoused by a local council that has a statutory duty to do so. That these two stories have hit the front pages this week tells you most of what you need to know about class and media manipulation in Britain today. 

Tabloid persecution of individuals in receipt of welfare benefits is practically encouraged by the Department for Work and Pensions, which has been known to feed its tame papers stories about "benefit scroungers" to drum up support for its policy of plunging hundreds of thousands of children into poverty. Say anything the least bit critical about the Duchess of Cambridge, however, and you’ll get an official reprimand from the PM, or worse. If Hilary Mantel’s subtle and incisive essay merits public excoriation of this sort, I’m expecting a team of black-baggers to burst through my window at any second once they find my back-catalogue of republican rantery - so please forgive any spelling mistakes. I’m writing this column at speed, in the dark, hiding under the bed.

Before they come to take me away, let's look at the figures. Frost's large family costs the British state some £30,000 a year, as opposed to the £30m paid to the Queen per annum, on top of the Royal family’s land-based income and travel and living expenses. The morality of having a child at state expense is not what I want to discuss here: the key difference between Kate Middleton and Heather Frost is that the Duchess’ future children will never be at risk of poverty, whereas Frost’s are. In fact, in the sixth richest country in the world, over a quarter of children and young people live in poverty. The morality of that uncomfortable little statistic is never questioned, because Frost’s real crime in the ledger of proto-fascist tabloid morality is not the fact that she has a lot of children, but the fact that she is poor. Every millionaire in Britain will be receiving a £42,000 tax cut come April, and none of them are being shamed for it on the front page of the Sun.

There are two types of outrage permitted on of this bitter little island right now: dog-whistle disgust for the extremely poor and spanielish devotion to the aristocracy. If we're going to talk about large, dysfunctional families gaming the system and spoiling democracy for hard-working, law-abiding, ordinary citizens, the discussion should start and finish with the House of Windsor. The royals and their retinue cause more damage to the British psyche than any luckless single-parent family scapegoated by the tabloids, and it's a cost that goes way beyond the financial implications of the Civil List. Yesterday’s headlines, like tomorrow’s and next week’s, tell the people of Britain in terms as stark and brutal as an eviction notice: ask for nothing, doff your cap, and know your place.


Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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How “cli-fi” novels humanise the science of climate change

The paradox is that the harder climate-fiction novels try, the less effective they are.

When the Paris UN Climate Change Conference begins at the end of November, the world’s leaders will review the climate framework agreed in Rio in 1992. For well over 20 years, the world has not just been thinking and talking about climate change, it has also been writing and reading about it, in blogs, newspapers, magazines – and in novels.

Climate change fiction is now a recognisable literary phenomenon replete with its own nickname: “cli-fi”. The term was coined in 2007 by Taiwan-based blogger Dan Bloom. Since then, its use has spread: it was even tweeted by Margaret Atwood in 2013:

It is not a genre in the accepted scholarly sense, since it lacks the plot formulas or stylistic conventions that tend to define genres (such as science fiction or the western). However, it does name a remarkable recent literary and publishing trend.

A 21st-century phenomenon?

Putting a number to this phenomenon depends, partly, on how one defines cli-fi. How much of a novel has to be devoted to climate change before it is considered cli-fi? Should we restrict the term to novels about man-made global warming? (If we don’t, we should remember that narratives about global climatic change are as old as The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Biblical story of the flood.) If we define cli-fi as fictional treatments of climate change caused by human activity in terms of setting, theme or plot – and accept there will be grey areas in the extent of this treatment – a conservative estimate would put the all-time number of cli-fi novels at 150 and growing. This is the figure put forward by Adam Trexler, who has worked with me to survey the development of cli-fi.

This definition also gives us a start date for cli-fi’s history. While planetary climatic change occurs in much 20th-century science fiction, it is only after growing scientific awareness of specifically man-made, carbon-induced climate change in the 1960s and 1970s that novels on this subject emerged. The first is Arthur Herzog’s Heat in 1976, followed by George Turner’s The Sun and the Summer (published in the US as Drowning Towers) in 1987.

At the turn of this century, Maggie Gee and TC Boyle were among the first mainstream authors to publish climate change novels. In this century, we can count Atwood, Michael Crichton, Barbara Kingsolver, Ian McEwan, Kim Stanley Robinson, Ilija Trojanow and Jeanette Winterson as major authors who have written about climate change. The past five years have given us notable examples of cli-fi by emerging authors, such as Steven Amsterdam, Edan Lepucki, Jane Rawson, Nathaniel Rich and Antti Tuomainen.

Creative challenges

Cli-fi is all the more noteworthy considering the creative challenge posed by climate change. First, there is the problem of scale – spatial and temporal. Climate change affects the entire planet and all its species – and concerns the end of this planet as we know it. Novels, by contrast, conventionally concern the actions of individual protagonists and/or, sometimes, small communities.

Added to this is the networked nature of climate change: in physical terms, the climate is a large, complex system whose effects are difficult to model. In socio-cultural terms, solutions require intergovernmental agreement – just what COP21 intends – and various top-down and bottom-up transformations. Finally, there exists the difficulty of translating scientific information, with all its predictive uncertainty, into something both accurate and interesting to the average reader.

Still, cli-fi writers have adopted a range of strategies to engage their readers. Many cli-fi novels could be classified as dystopian, post-apocalyptic or, indeed, both – depicting nightmarish societies triggered by sometimes catastrophic climate events. A future world is one effective way of narrating the planetary condition of climate change.

Some novelists are also careful to underpin their scenarios with rigorous climatic predictions and, in this way, translate science fact into a fictional setting. Kingsolver, who trained as an ecologist, is the best example of this – and Atwood and Robinson are also known for their attempts at making their speculations scientifically plausible. Also, cli-fi novels, particularly those set in the present day or very near future rather than in a dystopian future, tend to show the political or psychological dimensions of living with climate change. Readers can identify with protagonists. To some extent, the global community is represented in fictional everymen or everywomen. Or, often, it is through such characters that science is humanised and its role in combating climate change better understood.

Can cli-fi lead to change?

Could cli-fi affect how we think and act on climate change? The paradox is that the harder cli-fi tries, the less effective it is. Many writers want to inspire change, not insist on it: the line between literature and propaganda is one that most novelists respect. Literature invites us to inhabit other worlds and live other lives. Cli-fi at its best lets us travel to climate-changed worlds, to strive there alongside others and then to return armed with that experience.

In Paris, the UN will seek a global agreement on climate action for the first time in more than 20 years. There is plenty of climate change fiction out there to help provide the mental and psychological space to consider that action.

The Conversation

Adeline Johns-Putra, Reader in English Literature, University of Surrey

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.