Notes from Notting Hill: a Labour councillor's view of one of London's wealthiest boroughs. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Notting Hill notebook: a Labour councillor doing politics in the Royal Borough

Andrew Lomas is new to the borough of Kensington and Chelsea as a Labour councillor. Here are his first impressions of canvassing in one of London's wealthiest areas.

Save money, buy a Bentley

Kensington and Chelsea has the reputation of being a playground for the wealthy global elite. As a new Labour councillor in the borough, it sometimes seems that the ruling Tories enjoy playing up to the image: this is, after all, a council that funds the only municipal opera company in the country and saw its (now former) leader justify his extensive use of the Mayoral Bentley on the grounds it saved on taxi fares. There is also no reticence from the Mayor about cracking open the bubbly when the occasion merits it, something that this particular Bollinger Bolshevik can only applaud. That said, decanting new members to the Mayor’s parlour for champagne in the aftermath of May's local elections – directly after an induction talk from the council's legal officers warning about the pitfalls of accepting free hospitality – was not entirely without irony.

Getting elected, getting the beers in

Getting out the vote on election day can be a slog and sometimes fate intervenes to tell you to have a break. So it was this year: mid-afternoon approaching, I started down a new street.

First Door:           Can I speak to your wife?”

                 “She died six months ago…”

                 “Oh God, I am so sorry”

Undeterred, I pressed on.

Second Door:      Rings doorbell, baby starts crying, door opens

                “Are you kidding me? I just got her off to sleep, what do you want?”

Avoiding the temptation to say I was the Conservative candidate, I apologised profusely and scurried away.

A few steps from the third door, I looked down at my clipboard to see a previous canvasser had written “BIG DOG” in red biro as a warning. This was quickly confirmed by basso profundo notes barking out a message that seemed to say, “go have a pint and a sit down.” Five minutes later, I was sitting in the Earl of Lonsdale contemplating the supreme wisdom of man’s best friend.

Maiden speeches and multi-millionaires

In Foote’s Nocturnal Revels, a brothel-keeper remarks that a maidenhead was “as easily made as a pudding.” If only maiden speeches were as easily made. However, the planning system – while not exactly providing a rich seam of comic potential – did provide the opportunity to break my duck and speak against plans to allow a hospital wing to be turned into luxury flats. Such a position was apparently controversial: indeed, readers may not be aware that there is a grave shortage of luxury properties in Kensington and Chelsea for dodgy foreigners to launder hot money much-needed inward investment. That one proposed alternative use would create a wing for cancer patients only added to the controversy. Who will speak up for the poor, oppressed oligarchs being denied the chance to own a multi-million pound pad of their own?

That said, rather than rush to make a maiden speech I could have instead followed the example of one of Foote’s companions. George Augustus Selwyn was famous for a 44-year parliamentary career in which he managed to avoid making a single speech. (Selwyn was also a cross-dressing bisexual who dabbled in necrophilia. Visiting a dying Henry Fox, he was refused admission. When Fox learned of this he joked: “If Mr. Selwyn calls again, show him up. If I am alive, I shall be glad to see him, and if I am dead, I am sure he will be delighted to see me!” On second thoughts then, perhaps not an ideal role model...)

Irritable Vowel Syndrome

On the subject of maiden speeches, there was a degree of sympathy for the new Conservative councillor for Earl’s Court Fenella Aouane following an otherwise solid debut. While most members were quick to congratulate Cllr Aouane’s effort, there was unfortunately less consensus from those gathered on how one actually pronounces “Aouane”.

Andrew Lomas is a Labour councillor for Kensington and Chelsea (Colville Ward). He tweets @andrewlomas

Show Hide image

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.