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Where two kinds of wildness collide

In the second in a series of essays on nature and landscape, Richard Mabey sees a premonition of spr

Psychogeographers, the cognoscenti tell us, have been rebranded less dizzily as “deep topographers”. The BBC’s arts editor, Will Gompertz, is making a film about an aspiring new acolyte, and is asking me if I see myself as one of their company. We’re sitting on a bench in the Oxford Botanic Garden, surrounded by irises and service trees, and I answer, too snappily, no, I’m a shallow topographer. It’s a smart-arsed, irritable reflex at these tiresome abstractions but I realise that I’m serious.

I try to explain how, for me, landscapes are paramountly about their present life, their vivacious, protean, membranous surfaces, not some intangible, semi-mystical motherlode. By lucky chance there’s a visual aid on tap.  From where we’re sitting, the gate of the Botanic Gardens, built in 1633, was intended to perfectly frame the Great Tower of Magdalen College, and form a kind of Age of Enlightenment ley line. The wild card intervened and
the local builders misaligned it by a jarring five degrees.

I was being disingenuous, of course. Landscapes and nature work by a constant juggle ­between pattern and process, chaos and order. Rock meets weather. Evanescent greenleaf generates hardwood trunk. Instinct negotiates with opportunism. Migration becomes settlement. Above ancient seasonal rhythms and inscrutable connectivities, life skits about like a cursor on a ouija board, guided by chance and exuberant inventiveness as much as deep-rooted imperatives. And especially so in spring. Gretel Ehrlich, gazing over the Wyo­ming Hills at flocks of migrating finches, falls
of hail, crashings of orchard branches, concluded that in spring, “the general law of increasing disorder is on the take”.

I get disorderly and fidgety, too, after the months of rutted inertia, and wait for that day in early March when there is a kind of pre-spring overture, when the light seems to open out, lose the brittle clarity of winter sunshine and dust the leafless landscape with the merest hint of pollen. It happened on 2 March this year and, guessing where the action would be, I sped to the vast liminal marshlands of north Norfolk. The atmosphere on the coast was electric. The sky was full of jitterbugging birds, windblown flurries of lapwing, chattering, cantankerous mobs of brent geese, flocks of golden plover, invisible until they turned in synchrony and the sun tinselled the undersides of their wings. I soon saw one reason for their restlessness. A juvenile peregrine falcon, driven by rapacious instincts, adolescent hormones and sheer devilment, was repeatedly scything at 150mph through a shape-shifting plume of starlings – and missing every time. But I sensed another thrill running through the masses of birds. They were poised for their journey home, back to the northern tundra.

Do we still have this restless itch to move on somewhere deep in our own biology? We’re touched by migration, bird migration especially, more than can be explained by the simple associations it has with the new seasons. The pioneering US nature writer Aldo Leopold envisioned the migration of geese as a kind of eco-poetic commerce, the corn of the mid-west combining with the light of the tundra to generate “as net profit a wild poem dropped from the murky skies upon the muds of March”. Do the airy, swooping flights of swallows and other summer migrants from Africa, so different from the movements of northern birds, sound faint cultural – maybe even genetic – echoes of that warm southern landscape from which the first nomadic humans emerged? Most of these annual visitors are in alarming and inexplicable decline, and we can have no idea of what we may lose if that link with our origins finally vanishes.

In the summer of 2010, just a few miles east of where I watched the peregrine, archaeologists discovered the oldest evidence yet of human occupation in Britain, a cache of flint tools probably 900,000 years old. They identified the likely makers as Homo antecessor, a group of nomadic hunter-gatherers who had risked the journey up from the continent to what was probably the northernmost habitable part of the European land mass. Happisburgh, where the find was, is currently falling into the sea, but at that time was a bone-chilling boreal forest like northern Scandinavia. When the bitter 2010 winter struck, we locals took some pride in our antecessors’ gutsiness.

I migrated to Norfolk myself ten years ago, swapping beech-clad hills for windswept flatlands. With hindsight, my journey seems as serendipitous as H. antecessor’s. It was driven by necessity (I’d been ill and needed to move away) but guided by chance – fortunate encounters, tangy memories of once-visited spots and longed-for creatures. Wafted north-east like a speck of spindrift, I ended up in the Waveney Valley, where I’ve lived ever since. I see it as home but not as a place of new roots. It’s not that I now feel rootless but that I seem to have become capable of briefly putting down new tendrils anywhere I go. As Bruce Chatwin argued, we’re more nomadic as a species than it’s politically convenient to admit.

But if I’m less deep topographer than landscape tart, I still have my manor, an entirely subjective parish that encompasses the land within a roughly ten-mile radius of my home. And every so often I beat the bounds, see what’s up, what’s about. I’m not, I hope, laying any kind of claim, just acting out that old warp and weave of nomadic curiosity and territorial affection. I looked up the exact time of the spring equinox the night before: 20 March, 5.40am. And just as one often does with a flight to catch, I woke exactly at that moment. It was barely light and the world looked flat and
lifeless. I imagined the earth enjoying a brief moment of equipoise, just before it began to tilt again. What a hope!

I head west, out into the sand country. It’s a mild, sunny day but the drought is biting hard here. The ditches are empty and the hedges leafless – except that, thanks to another kind of migration, they’re foaming with the white blossom of cherry plum, “fools’ blackthorn”, brought here from the Middle East 1,000 years ago. Much of the farmland here looks as if it’s been imported from a Martian agribusiness. Immense fields are entirely shrouded in moisture-retaining plastic sheets, as shiny as mountain lakes. Bare-earth pig ranches are sprouting everywhere. Pigs in wooden pens, corrugated iron bungalows, canvas marquees like a porcine Glastonbury. Nothing deeper in the topography here than a hog wallow.

I drive past the farm where in February an animal-rights activist filmed the most horrific violence against stock that the RSPCA has ever seen. A few days later the farmer, an honourable and much-respected man by all accounts, killed himself. There has been no identification or even rumours about the workers responsible, but I notice that the ubiquitous billboards, urging us to “Support our higher welfare standards. Buy British pork” are beginning to disappear and be replaced by “Keep out” notices.

A few miles on, I climb over a fence, out toward a big sheep pasture, and hear the heart-stirring bubbling of curlews. I can’t see them, but a buzzard glides overhead. They’re now coming back to East Anglia, after generations of persecution by gamekeepers. Then I turn round and see a trapped magpie frantic in a cage I can’t even reach, and along the barbed wire round it a dozen shrivelling moles, impaled by their noses. Even William Blake might have seen this spot as some kind of psychogeographical axis mundi, where two different kinds of wildness have collided.

This is edgy country, nervous of water shortage, EU regulations and a public scrutiny unlike anything it has experienced before, and I’m relieved to move east and south into the clay country. It’s a gentler, more intimate countryside, with small fields and smallholdings, old lanes and even older echoes. When I first came to live here I was browsing a large-scale map and was astonished to see that all the ancient features – green lanes, wood edges, field boundaries – were roughly aligned in a north-west/ south-east direction. A few local historians had spotted it, too. This fragment of landscape, dating from the Iron Age, has a four-degree tilt to the west. It is invisible from ground level, so how it happened is a mystery. Thoreau had a theory that our species has a ­natural instinct to move in a westerly direction, following the course of the sun.

I follow my own instincts along this maze of lanes, through the village where, in the 1920s, two London socialists defied the local gentry and clergy and set up a community school that lasted until the outbreak of the Second World War. I find thin secluded valleys I’ve never been in before, pass fuzzy commons, snail farms, otter streams, craft studios, a whole magpie ecology blessedly free of a cage. These valleys and wet patches have been the protectors of East Anglia’s distinct sense of identity. They’ve kept the big roads away and people come to East Anglia, not through it.

I end up in one of these miniature flood-plain valleys, where I saw my first local barn owl, that ancient parish familiar. I haven’t seen one here for two years but just as the sun sets one skews out of a ditch. It flies off like the dismissive wave of a white cape, on an incompre­hensible course over a dog-walking green. Barn owls do not fly high, but if it had and had looked down on the parish I’d just circumnavigated, it would have seen a pattern that turned upside-down my glib dismissal of deep topography. The surface membrane, inert, plastic, barbed and private; and, flowing around and through it, these thin meandering ribbons of life, first carved out at the end of the Ice Age.

Richard Mabey’s latest book is “The Perfumier and the Stinkhorn” (Profile Books, £9.99)
 

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

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The biggest blunder of them all

It was a catastrophic error of judgement that produced the referendum – and now the British political class is paying the price.

AAs dawn broke on Friday morning and I turned over in bed to grab my phone and Twitter, I thought immediately of G K Chesterton’s poem from 1915, about the secret people of England:

 

Smile at us, pay us, pass us; but do not quite forget.
For we are the people of England, that never have spoken yet.
There is many a fat farmer that drinks less cheerfully,
There is many a free French peasant who is richer and sadder than we.
There are no folk in the whole world so helpless or so wise.
There is hunger in our bellies, there is laughter in our eyes;
You laugh at us and love us, both mugs and eyes are wet:
Only you do not know us. For we have not spoken yet.

 

Well, they have spoken now. This was a quietly devastating revolt by the English heartlands – southern and western suburbs; the urban sprawls of the Midlands and the north; former mining areas and devastated ex-industrial towns – against London, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the so-called elites. Looking at the numbers, one sees that it was a revolt also by older voters against younger voters and by poorer against richer, better-educated voters. It was, of course, a great democratic moment. Apart from the hideous and probably unconnected murder of Jo Cox, it was accomplished peacefully, and by a majority of well over a million. That sets it aside from Chesterton’s vision, which moves on from benign, bucolic defiance to outright anti-Semitism and warnings of blood-drenched revolution. Well, that’s the beauty of modern democracy . . .

The decision by the British people to leave the European Union is this country’s single biggest democratic act in modern times – indeed, as far as I can make out, the biggest ever. But it is also one of the elite’s most significant blunders, provoked by the most senior politicians for the wrong reasons and then pursued in what (to use a crude but apposite phrase) is the biggest establishment cock-up in my lifetime.

We should not fall into the trap, though, of seeing this as a purely British story. It is also about the EU, now looking more fragile than at any other time since the 1950s, and about what is still our common European home. There are calls for national revolt against the EU coming from across the continent. Far too many of the continent’s leaders welcoming our decision were the wrong sort of people. Mostly, the congratulations are coming from far-right parties, whose most lurid and upsetting rhetoric has emerged from central and eastern Europe. If you think I’m exaggerating, go on to YouTube, type “Visegrad”, and spend ten minutes watching. If this vote presages a process of messy and angry dissolution, it’s a story that will have started here. But that is only the beginning. If Marine Le Pen wins the French presidential election, then a French exit from the EU looks very likely – and that really is the end of it all.

Hurrah, many people will say: but we should reflect that this will demand negotiation of many individual trade deals with the leaders of angry and fractured European nations, which will clearly be a lot harder than any single deal with the EU. And then, there are the darker forebodings about Europe, which has never managed to stay at peace with itself for long as a constellation of independent countries. Immigration pressures and the Russian threat are just a couple of possible sources of future conflict.

But there are better outcomes. For the UK the optimal one now is clearly “Norway-plus”: meaning, in essence, restrictions on the free movement of people but access to the single market. Unless the victorious team of Brexit Tories is bonkers, this is what they will try to negotiate. It would minimise the threat of all-out economic disruption, which has already begun, and answer the biggest complaint from Leave voters. To which the obvious retort is: “Why in a million years would they give us that?” Well, as leaders in France, Germany, the Netherlands and other countries contemplate their own populist insurgencies, they must know that a rethink of freedom to work across borders is their best card against the insurgent right. There is a slim, but not entirely negligible, chance that a much wider rethink across the EU will now be prompted by the British decision.

This is not something that will be decided here. Is it possible that leaders in Brussels will eventually react, once the anger has cooled, to take a different path: to listen much more acutely to the sounds of pain caused by the euro experiment; to do a proper deal for Greece; to reassert democratic accountability (much more Council of Ministers, much less Commission); and to reassess free movement? Writing it, I know that I sound like a deluded optimist, but the possibility deserves to be filed alongside all the grimmest alternatives.

Keeping all this cautiously in mind, let’s look at the British establishment cock-up. According to one of those involved, this all started at a pizza restaurant at Chicago O’Hare Airport at the time of a Nato conference in 2012, when David Cameron and his closest political allies decided that the only way of scuppering Ukip and the Euro-hostile right of the Conservative Party was to give the British people a referendum.

The brutal way of putting this is that Cameron decided to put party management and tactics ahead of grand strategy, grossly overrated his own negotiating skills, and has been badly bitten in the bottom accordingly. He has often looked like a chess player who plays the next move brilliantly yet fails to see three moves ahead. There is, however, a more generous explanation – which is simply that this referendum was inevitable; that it was more than time for restless British voters to reassess their membership of a union that has changed dramatically since we joined, both in extent and in depth.

***

At any rate, whatever his mixed motives, Cameron believed that he could negotiate a deal with his EU partners so good that he would win a subsequent referendum. A great deal of this was based on a second huge miscalculation – about his friend Angela Merkel.

As a result, the whole referendum process was fixed around the negotiation. In other words, the feeling was: “Give the plebs their plebiscite. It’s pretty safe. The Continentals will be scared enough to give us a great deal and, therefore, the people will vote for Nurse.” As soon as it became clear that Mrs Merkel was not prepared to countenance an end to the free movement of people, the plan began to fall apart. I vividly remember interviewing Cameron as the details of the negotiation became clear and thinking to myself, between his explanations: “This isn’t nearly enough.”

This mistake was followed by another – one that the Scottish National Party leader, Nicola Sturgeon, publicly warned against months ago. Those running the Remain campaign always believed in “Project Fear”; that a barrage of warnings by the Treasury, big business, banks and international organisations would simply terrify ordinary voters – pensioners and workers alike – and pulverise the arguments for leaving.

It had worked, after all, hadn’t it, in Scotland in 2014? A close confidant of the Prime Minister told me, when I questioned him about the wisdom of this: “On the contrary, we need more fear. Fear is the only thing that can win it for us . . . We need lots of fear. We need as much fear as we can get.”

But the Scottish parallel proved to be a delusion. First, this kind of “you will lose your pensions, you will lose your jobs” warning infuriated many Scottish voters in 2014, who stuck their fingers in their ears and moved over to the Yes campaign. Second, although in the end threats of doom may have swung things, Scotland was a country of five million people, suffering from a falling oil price and taking a decision about a union that had been around for three centuries. If, right at the end and by a narrow margin, Scots voted two years ago to stay inside the UK, that was not a close enough comparison for this referendum; there were far more people involved, a bigger country, a much looser and more recent union.

It was the specificity of the Project Fear warnings that did most damage: households £4,300 worse off, house prices falling by 18 per cent, and so forth. By being incredibly detailed, the Remain campaigners lost the ear of a dubious public. That meant that the much more frightening warnings by business leaders, talking about companies they knew and understood, didn’t get enough traction. Granted, we still don’t know; Project Fear may be vindicated yet. (The early falls on the money markets and stock markets tell us very little – they may be an overreaction to previous and recent complacency.)

But the most significant reason Project Fear failed was that it was confronted by a larger project of fear: the fear of uncontrolled and uncontrollable migration running, cumulatively, into the millions for many years ahead. Frank lies were told. Gross exaggeration ran riot. This was a fight between people who like living among migrants from Europe and employing them, on the one hand, and those competing against migrants (and failing) for jobs and wages. Neither David Cameron nor Theresa May seemed to have a plausible response to “uncontrolled immigration”. That may be because, inside the EU, there wasn’t one. Jeremy Corbyn responded with interesting ideas about wage rates and employment laws which did not address, at all, central fears about numbers and identity.

It is on this, above all issues, that “the plain people of England” spoke most compellingly against the elites, from Westminster politicians and Whitehall mandarins to London actresses, pop stars and media grandees. Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Nigel Farage were absolutely right to point out that immigration from eastern Europe – though it has hugely benefited people who employ drivers and domestic servants, and who want to pay less for their electrical or plumbing repairs – keeps down the wages of indigenous working-class people and, in many cases, makes it harder for them to find work in hotels, in restaurants, on farms and elsewhere. Aggregated economic statistics mean nothing compared to personal experience. If you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose. (Well, in fact, you have got something, but it feels that way.) When George Osborne warned of an economic apocalypse, people with nothing who felt they had no opportunities just put their fingers in their ears and went “la-la-la”.

There were people who saw what was happening and understood that disregarded Lower and Middle Britain was fed up to the back teeth and ready to revolt: some trade union leaders – whose job it was, after all, to represent them – and some Labour MPs.

***

The Labour leadership, however, seems to have got the message far too late and far too weakly, and that was a function of its own political philosophy. Labour leaders of the Jeremy Corbyn era don’t like to talk about immigration and have based much of their inner-city politics on the rights and causes of migrant communities already in the UK. The menacing noises about a leadership challenge grew louder by the hour and then turned into open revolt.

There is something tragicomic about this. The Corbyn revolution was about the overthrow of the last remnants of the Blairites, accused by party activists of not thinking enough or caring enough about ordinary Labour voters – of becoming too rich, too close to the elites, and infatuated by neoliberal, post-Thatcher economic solutions. The Corbyn movement began as an anti-elitist rebellion. But now, from their base among Londoners and students whose politics are a million miles away from the views of angry, white, non-metropolitan, working-class voters the Corbynistas, too, found themselves unable to get a hearing.

So, what is the result of all this? Wherever one looks, the British political class has come close to destroying itself. There is no source of authority. As Kenneth Clarke has noted, we have a hole, in effect, where a government should be.

The Remain faction of Tory MPs has no leader now. Many of them are bruised and livid against the triumphant Brexiteers. Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Iain Duncan Smith and the rest now have to deal with outraged Tories who accused them of lying, a panicky and angry City, big business leaders who feel betrayed, and an EU in a dark mood. All of this is taking place during the inevitable turmoil and struggle of a Conservative leadership campaign. It is no doubt hyperbole to say we have absolutely no government at the moment: there is still a prime minister, there is a cabinet, and there is a party with a paper majority in the Commons. But if “government” means a group of people with a mandate and a plan, and the parliamentary authority to carry it through – well, we certainly don’t have that.

What happens in Scotland and Northern Ireland now adds to the sense of crisis. Nicola Sturgeon has this problem: she would very much like to secure terms for Scotland staying inside the EU before the rest of the UK leaves. That would minimise disruption, give Scots a secure alternative haven and prepare perfectly for a successful referendum on independence. The problem is that the EU is unlikely to countenance this. First, Scotland may be a country but it is not a nation in EU terms, and therefore has no locus. At the very least, under current EU law, Scotland would need to be a customs union – which it isn’t.

The alternative is that Scotland leaves alongside the rest of the UK and then has to reapply, after an independence referendum. The problems here multiply: Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP may have lost momentum and because new applicants have to join the euro, and will be under great pressure to ­accept the Schengen Agreement, she would be going to the Scottish electorate offering an independent Scotland using the euro (not the world’s most popular currency at the moment, to put it gently) and requiring a hard border with England. This seems to me a hard sell to Scottish voters, especially long after the initial Brexit shock will have faded. What we don’t know is how enthusiastic the rest of the European Union would be about bringing in an independent Scotland briskly, to punish Westminster, and how threateningly Spain’s Catalan/Basque difficulties will loom.

In Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein is calling for an all-Ireland referendum. There is now a border problem there as well, for the first time since the 1998 peace agreement. Tory ministers dismiss this but the dynamics of Irish politics, too, have been dramatically changed by the Brexit vote.

The UK could, naturally, survive all of this completely intact. But the possibility, at least, of a relatively lonely England is something that the new and victorious Brexit Tories now have to confront.

In usual circumstances, we would expect an early general election. There is a strong basic democratic case for one: otherwise, we get a prime minister, never chosen by the country, attempting to enact a manifesto no party has ever stood on in a general election. But we don’t really have the political parties to contest it, do we? Ukip is in chipper form. Like so many nationalist movements, it may survive achieving its goal. But the Conservatives are hopelessly divided. The outgoing Prime Minister believes the likely incoming Tory leader – a certain flaxen-haired fellow – is going to put a bomb under the British economy and has told outright untruths. He is trying hard to stop Boris but Boris may well be unstoppable. Another (former) prime minister, Sir John Major, tells us we cannot trust the National Health Service into the hands of Johnson, Gove and Duncan Smith. The amiable Alistair Burt, the MP for North-East Bedfordshire, has promised Brexit Tories that what is to come will make the Maastricht rebellion seem like a tea party.

No, on the whole, they don’t look like a party aching to face the electorate. You might expect the Labour leader to fight for an early election and try to rally the Commons to his side. But then Jeremy Corbyn faces his own rebellion.

At the moment, the coup against him seems to face insuperable hurdles. There isn’t a plausible alternative candidate so far. Above all, he retains the support of most Labour members, and it is they and trade unionists who will have the final say, whatever the Parliamentary Labour Party does.

If Corbyn sees off the plotters, what next? A united Labour opposition could go into a general election saying explicitly that it rejected the Brexit decision – that the vote was based on lies and scaremongering – and that, if elected, they would not implement Article 50: in effect, not leave the EU. That is what the Liberal Democrats are doing. For Labour, it would be a huge gamble. It would be a slap in the face for the majority who voted on 23 June and could lead to a different kind of revolt. But it would give the Labour Party a very clear purpose and agenda that could reach out into parts of Britain Corbyn has no chance of reaching just now.

Naturally, the politicians have noticed all this. So we are hearing a great deal of optimistic whistling from leading Conservatives, insisting that they can work together happily and cordially for the rest of this parliament – trying to persuade us that they’ve forgotten everything they said about each other during the referendum campaign, and that people who believe Brexit is an economic catastrophe will nevertheless roll up their sleeves and . . . er . . . make it happen.

Clearly, the best hope for the Conservatives is that such warnings turn out to be piffle and that we are soon enjoying an economic upswing, even as the EU continues to struggle. If Boris Johnson or another leader is indeed able to achieve “Norway-plus” then the Brexiteers are close to being home free. Yet there are signs already that the Boris camp is slightly panicky – as well it might be – about a rash of racist and xenophobic politics immediately after the results. He is right, of course, to call for inclusion and calm, though it is fatuous to suggest that immigration was not a critical issue in the campaign. If he wants to win long term, he has to get a different deal from Brussels, much better than the one that Cameron got – a long shot, but not impossible. For the Brexiteers, time is very short. They have to stay together, and yet there will be tensions: Rupert Murdoch is running Gove against Johnson, or, at any rate, would like to.

My guess is that parliamentary chaos and an overwhelming sense of drift at the centre of politics will nevertheless propel us into an election later this year or early next year. If so, that will mean that, tactically, the Brexiteers, who don’t want to trigger Article 50 just yet, must do so before the people are asked for their view again.

And, of course, if it turns out that George Osborne’s blood-curdling warnings about jobs and investment turn out to be even half accurate, then those same cheerful gentlemen will have many personal apologies to make to people who do lose their jobs, or see prices rise and their pensions fall. There is plenty of anger still to come.

That’s not so surprising: after all, this was a kind of revolution. It has been a very British revolution, accomplished through the ballot box and after a great deal of nonsense spoken on all sides. The plain people, of England, mainly, have spoken at last and their voice has blown over not just a constitutional link with the European continent but also almost the entire political class – and most of the pollsters – and oh, go on, then – us clever-Dick journalists as well.

Andrew Marr presents “The Andrew Marr Show” on BBC1. His Brexit thriller, “Head of State”, is published by Fourth Estate

Andrew Marr is a broadcaster and journalist. Formerly the BBC’s Political Editor, he presents the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 on Sundays and Start the Week on Monday mornings on Radio 4.

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies