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Off the Record: how old books help us deal with new - and frightening - times

The best course of action in these times? Read old books for all the answers.

I made two resolutions back in January. 1) To keep a reading journal, recording the books I read, with a few notes on them, maybe a quote or two. 2) To spend at least the first half of the year reading old books. No specific era or genre in mind, just anything that wasn’t published in the past fifty years or so.

I love reading new fiction, and non-fiction, for that matter. Being part of the conversation about the latest books, sharing ideas with others reading a book at the same time, is one of the best bits of Twitter, when it operates like a huge and friendly book group. But sometimes I can feel caught in a race to keep up. The pile on the bedside table stares at me accusingly. Enough.

I started with the audiobook of Madame Bovary, listening to it on foggy Heath walks over the New Year period, lines leaping out at me in the gloom: “She wanted to die, but she also wanted to live in Paris”; “He felt dreary as an empty house”; “Never touch your idols: the gilding will stick to your fingers”. It reminds me that many writers say you should always read aloud anything you’ve written, in order to feel its rhythms and cadence. By the end of the 14 hours of listening, the book is inside my head and my head has gone somewhere else entirely, which I like.

Meanwhile, I’ve also read Bonjour tristesse and the first two books of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, and I’m planning to work my way through John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, Muriel Spark and Barbara Pym, something by Raymond Carver, more by James Baldwin, Train Dreams by Denis Johnson, and War and Peace. Oh no, look at me: I’ve gone and made a list again.

It’s a list without pressure, though, as no one cares when or if I read these books and my opinions don’t need to keep pace with anyone else’s. And it feels like a relief not to have to be current. Is it wrong to want to distract myself? Am I in denial? It feels good, like changing channels, or turning the dial on a radio – other lives going on in other times. It makes me feel we’re not alone, stranded here in the present.

And relevance springs up everywhere. People have always felt like us; things we think we invented turn out to have been there all the time, and you’ll be reading away, merrily cocooned in the past, when you stumble across some observation that sounds like it was made yesterday.

For instance, this from my latest read, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, by Barbara Comyns: “The sun seemed to shine perpetually . . . The summers used to be like that when I was a child, and in the winters there was always deep snow or hard frost. The weather has grown all half-hearted now.” We all claim that nowadays, whatever our age, but she wrote it back in 1950.

In A Buyer’s Market by Anthony Powell (1952), I find this quotation that perfectly describes the supposedly modern teen phenomenon of FOMO (fear of missing out): “There is a strong disposition in youth, from which some individuals never escape, to suppose that everyone else is having a more enjoyable time than we are ourselves . . .”

And finally – this passage from Powell’s A Question of Upbringing, where Nick Jenkins is talking about his disreputable uncle, made me sit up straight, in astonished recognition of the kind of chancer who now seems everywhere to be in power:


. . . Uncle Giles had been relegated by most of the people who knew him at all well to that limbo where nothing is expected of a person, and where more than usually outrageous actions are approached, at least conversationally, as if they constituted a series of practical jokes . . . The curious thing about persons regarding whom society has taken this largely self-defensive measure is that the existence of the individual himself reaches a pitch when nothing he does can ever be accepted as serious.


Oh Lord, I thought, there really is nothing new under the sun. You go reading old books looking for an escape into the past, and where do you find yourself? Slap bang in the middle of the present, as usual. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 09 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The May Doctrine

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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