Across history, birds have bewitched poets and scientists alike. Photograph: Ruggero Maramotti/Gallery Stock
Show Hide image

Hope is a thing with feathers

Birds are all around us. They appear and disappear; they go between worlds as we never can.

We read so much into birds. The canary down the mine whose death warns miners of gas and the dove with a green twig that tells Noah the flood is receding feed into a feeling that birds are sign-bearers, omens, the gods’ messengers. Across history, across cultures, birds are also an image of escape. “Oh, for the wings of a dove,” says King David, so he could fly to the wilderness and be at rest.

Birds spell renewal. Children in ancient Greece welcomed the swallow as a messenger of spring. “Hope,” Emily Dickinson writes, “is the thing with feathers/That perches in the soul” – and when I hear a wren singing in the freezing cold of the early morning (how can something so small fill the backstreets of Kentish Town?), my heart does something that approximates to lifting.

But all this is just our imagination, as we plunder nature for symbols. In biological reality, birds are even more extraordinary. They are evolved creatures, programmed by their DNA, adapted to a particular place or trajectory, which fulfil the destiny written in their genes through behaviour that bewitches poets and scientists alike.

I spent Christmas and New Year in Assam, India. In the grasslands, I was thrilled to see a rare Asian otter climb out of the river among grazing rhinos and stand up like a periscope to look over reeds. On Christmas Day, I saw a tiger stalking deer. On New Year’s Day, I watched the red sun rise through strata of blue mist from an elephant’s back.

All of that was wonderful but, for me, one of the most exciting things was seeing bar-headed geese graze among wild buffalos. Their migration, a story of fortitude, risk and adaptation, demonstrates how ancient birds are. Their migration routes record the shift in the planet’s tectonic plates. Bar-headed geese nest in central Asia but they winter on the other side of the Himalayas and cross Everest to get there. The oxygen a bird needs to keep flying is 20 times what it needs at rest. The air over Everest has a quarter of the oxygen available at sea level. The haemoglobin of these geese absorbs oxygen faster than most other birds’ and their capillaries penetrate deep into the muscle, so the oxygen reaches further and they get more from each breath. The geese evolved like this because they and their route are older than the Himalayas. As rocks rose across their path, they didn’t look for a new route – they just changed their haemoglobin and went where their DNA said.

Birds are all around us. They appear and disappear; they go between worlds as we never can. They speak to us of distance, other countries, other ways of being. The medieval alchemists had a mystical language of birds which translated what was divine and of the air into the base earth of humanity. That’s why, curating this summer’s new writers’ talks at ZSL London Zoo, I picked the tropical bird house. Each writer will read a specially commissioned piece on an endangered animal in that animal’s presence, alongside one of ZSL’s conservationists. Helen Dunmore will take the Sumatran tiger; Glyn Maxwell has the Majorcan midwife toad; Mark Haddon has the Galapagos tortoise. Jo Shapcott began on 14 May with the slender loris and Andrew O’Hagan ends the series with Malaysian tapirs. I’m concentrating on bleedingheart doves, whose homes in the Philippines are vanishing as forests are cut down.

One of the main roles of the zoo is to fund conservation projects carried out across the globe by the Zoological Society, supported by research from its Institute of Zoology. This conservation work is the envy of the world but also, surprisingly, one of London’s best-kept secrets.

Today, the wren singing in my garden is doing its bird thing, giving me hope as I write – hope that these writers’ talks will light a few candles for urgent conservation.

For details of the writers’ talks at ZSL London Zoo, visit: Ruth Padel’s book on migration, “The Mara Crossing”, is published by Chatto & Windus (£14.99)

Ruth is a British poet and author with close connections to conservation, wildlife, Greece and music. She has published a novel, eight works of non-fiction and eight poetry collections, most recently The Mara Crossing, which mixes poems and prose to explore migration. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a Council Member for the Zoological Society of London.  See her website for more.

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, You were the future once

Show Hide image

Jeremy Corbyn has transformed Labour from resisting social movements to supporting them

The opposition's new leadership has brought about a historic shift in its relationship with social movements.

“Another world is possible,” declared John McDonnell last month in his first major speech as Labour’s new shadow chancellor. These four words show how Labour’s leadership views its relationship with activists and campaigners outside the Westminster system. The slogan is the motto of the World Social Forum, an annual alternative to the ultra-elite World Economic Forum, formed by social movements across the world to struggle against, and build alternatives to, neoliberalism.

How times change. In a speech given at the George Bush Senior Presidential Library in Texas, United States, in April 2002, Labour leader and British Prime Minister Tony Blair offered his support to the administrators of the global economy, not those demonstrating against them.

He said: “It's time we took on the anti-globalisation protestors who seek to disrupt the meetings international leaders have on these issues. What the poor world needs is not less globalisation but more. Their injustice is not globalisation but being excluded from it. Free enterprise is not their enemy; but their friend.”

In 2002, Labour’s leadership wanted to take on social movements. Now, it intends to engage with and support them. “The new kind of politics” of Labour’s new leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is about more than focusing on issues over personalities and (anti-) presentational changes.

It is also “a new politics which is based on returning the Labour party to its roots. And the roots of the Labour party was as a social movement, representing the vast majority of working people in this country,” as McDonnell, Corbyn’s closest political ally, explains to the New Statesman.

Campaigners outside of the Labour party are excited. John Hilary, executive director of War on Want, a campaigning anti-poverty NGO, tells the New Statesman, “there’s a really positive impulse to the Corbyn/McDonnell leadership reaching out” to social movements. For Hilary, the immediate policy changes on TTIP – the EU-US investor rights, regulation harmonisation and non-tariff barriers deal negotiated behind closed doors – and a Financial Transaction Tax have already sent “a message to a disenfranchised part of the electorate that Labour is back”.

But, for the campaigners outside of the Labour party, this moment is not without risks. Political parties have a long record of crushing the autonomy of social movements.

“It’s important they aren’t incorporated or have to work on the terms of the political system. It’s a matter of a respectful relationship,” explains Hilary Wainwright, a political activist and founder and co-editor of Red Pepper magazine. Wainwright argues for “close engagement [between Labour and outside campaigners] that isn’t a bossy dominating one. One that seeks to collaborate, not govern”.

McDonnell agrees. “The most important thing,” he says, “is that all of the campaigns and social movements that are campaigning at the moment and those that will campaign in the future, need to maintain their autonomy from government and political parties. We respect that . . . Otherwise, we’ll undermine their vitality and their independence.”

To remain “strong, independent and radical” is “the most helpful” campaigners can be to Labour’s leadership, according to Hilary. Labour’s leadership “don’t look to us to make the sort of political compromises that they might have to do in order to hold a much broader spectrum of people together. What we can do best is hold that line as we believe it be right and support the Labour leadership in taking a line as close as possible to that”, he says.

The task for social movements and campaigners outside of the party is “to show how there will be popular support for radical and principled positions”, according to Hilary.

To win in 2020, Labour will “bring together a coalition of social movements that have changed the political climate in this country and, as a result of that, changed the electoral potential of the Labour Party as well”, says McDonnell. For Labour’s shadow chancellor, the people's views on issues are complex and fluid rather than static, making the job of politicians to bump up as close to them as possible.

Movements can help shift political common sense in Labour’s direction. Just as UK Uncut placed the issue of tax avoidance and tax justice firmly on the political map, so too can other campaigners shift the political terrain.

This movement-focused perspective may, in part, explain why the Corbyn campaign chose to transform itself last week into the Momentum movement, a grassroots network open to those without Labour membership cards. This approach stands in contrast to Blair’s leadership campaign that evolved into Progress, a New Labour pressure group and think tank made up of party members.

In order to allow movements the space to change the terms of the debate and for Labour to develop policy in conjunction with them, the party needs “to engage with movements on their own terms”, according to Wainwright. This means “the party leadership need to find out where people are struggling and where people are campaigning and specifically work with them”, she continues.

McDonnell says it will. He says Labour “want to work alongside them, give them a parliamentary voice, give them a voice in government but, more importantly, assist them in the work that they do within the wide community, both in meetings, demonstrations and on picket lines”.

This position is not one you would expect from McDonnell’s five more recent predecessors: Chris Leslie, Ed Balls, Alan Johnson, Alistair Darling, Gordon Brown. So, “this may seem like a unique moment if you’re looking just within the British context. But, if you look outside Britain it’s actually much more in touch with movements in many places in the world”, says Hilary.

He adds: “Political parties are going to have to have much more honest engagements between parliamentary politics and the social movement hinterland. For us, it just means that in a wonderful way, Britain is catching up with the rest of the world.”

McDonnell too sees this shift in how Labour engages with movements as “a historic change that modernises the Labour party”.

But, perhaps for Labour, this is a recurrence rather than a transformation. The party grew out of Britain’s biggest social movement: the unions. Labour’s new leadership’s openness to campaigners “modernises it by taking it back to being a social movement again”, says McDonnell. 

Show Hide image

What Jeremy Corbyn can learn from Orwell

Corbyn’s ideas may echo George Orwell’s – but they’d need Orwell’s Britain to work. It’s time Corbyn accepted the British as they are today.

All Labour Party leaderships since 1900 have offered themselves as “new”, but Tony Blair’s succession in 1994 triggered a break with the past so ruthless that the Labour leadership virtually declared war on the party. Now it is party members’ turn and they, for now at any rate, think that real Labour is Jeremy.

To Keir Hardie, real Labour had been a trade union lobby expounding Fellowship. To the Webbs, real Labour was “common ownership” by the best means available. Sidney’s Clause Four (adopted 1918) left open what that might be. In the 1920s, the Christian Socialist R H Tawney stitched Equality into the banner, but during the Depression young intellectuals such as Evan Durbin and Hugh Gaitskell designated Planning as Labour’s modern mission. After the Second World War, Clement Attlee followed the miners (and the London Passenger Transport Board) into Nationalisation. Harold Wilson tried to inject Science and Technology into the mix but everything after that was an attempt to move Labour away from state-regulated markets and in the direction of market-regulated states.

What made the recent leadership contest so alarming was how broken was the intellectual tradition. None of the candidates made anything of a long history of thinking about the relationship between socialism and what the people want. Yvette Cooper wanted to go over the numbers; only they were the wrong numbers. Andy Burnham twisted and turned. Liz Kendall based her bid on two words: “Have me.” Only Jeremy Corbyn seemed to have any kind of Labour narrative to tell and, of course, ever the ­rebel, he was not responsible for any of it. His conference address in Brighton was little more than the notes of a street-corner campaigner to a small crowd.

Given the paucity of thinking, and this being an English party for now, it is only a matter of time before George Orwell is brought in to see how Jeremy measures up. In fact, it’s happened already. Rafael Behr in the Guardian and Nick Cohen in the Spectator both see him as the kind of hard-left intellectual Orwell dreaded, while Charles Cooke in the National Review and Jason Cowley in the New Statesman joined unlikely fashion forces to take a side-look at Jeremy’s dreadful dress sense – to Orwell, a sure sign of a socialist. Cooke thought he looked like a “burned-out geography teacher at a third-rate comprehensive”. Cowley thought he looked like a red-brick university sociology lecturer circa 1978. Fair enough. He does. But there is more. Being a middle-class teetotal vegetarian bicycling socialistic feministic atheistic metropolitan anti-racist republican nice guy, with allotment and “squashily pacifist” leanings to match, clearly puts him in the land of the cranks as described by Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) – one of “that dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandal-wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers who come flocking towards the smell of ‘progress’ like bluebottles to a dead cat”. And though Corbyn, as “a fully fledged, fully bearded, unabashed socialist” (Huffington Post), might make all true Orwellians twitch, he really made their day when he refused to sing the National Anthem. Orwell cited precisely that (see “The Lion and the Unicorn”, 1941) as an example of the distance between left-wing intellectuals and the people. It seemed that, by standing there, mouth shut, Comrade Corbyn didn’t just cut his wrists, he lay down full length in the coffin and pulled the lid shut.


Trouble is, this line of attack not only misrepresents the Labour leader, it misrepresents Orwell. For the great man was not as unflinchingly straight and true as some people think. It is impossible, for instance, to think of Orwell singing “God Save the King”, because he, too, was one of that “dreary tribe” of London lefties, and even when he joined Labour he remained ever the rebel. As for Corbyn, for a start, he is not badly dressed. He just doesn’t look like Chuka or Tristram. He may look like a threadbare schoolteacher, but Orwell was one twice over. Orwell was never a vegetarian or a teetotaller, but, like Corbyn, neither was he interested in fancy food (or drink), he kept an allotment, drove a motorbike, bicycled, cared about the poor, cared about the environment, loathed the empire, came close to pacifism at one point, and opposed war with Germany well past the time when it was reasonable to do so.

In Orwell’s thinking about socialism, for too long his main reference point was the London Marxist left. Not only did he make speeches in favour of revolutions, he took part in one with a gun in his hand. Orwell was far more interested, as Corbyn has been far more interested, in speaking truth to power than in holding office. His loyalty was to the movement, or at least the idea of the movement, not to MPs or the front bench, which he rarely mentioned. There is nothing in Corbyn’s position that would have shocked Orwell and, should they have met, there’d have been much to talk about: belief in public ownership and non-economic values, confidence in the state’s ability to make life better, progressive taxation, national health, state education, social care, anti-socially useless banking, anti-colonialism and a whole lot of other anti-isms besides. It’s hard to be sure what Orwell’s position would have been on Trident and immigration. Not Corbyn’s, I suspect. He was not as alert to feminism as he might have been but equally, few men try to write novels from a woman’s point of view and all Orwellians recognise that Julia is the dark hero of Nineteen Eighty-Four. In truth they are both austere types, not in it for themselves and not on anyone else’s expense account either. Corbyn won the leadership because this shone through from the very beginning. He came across as unaffected and straightforward – much as Orwell tried to be in his writing.

Except, as powerfully expressed in these pages by John Gray, Corbyn’s politics were made for another world. What sort of world would he need? First off, he’d need a regulated labour market: regulated by the state in partnership with a labour movement sensitive to what people wanted and experienced in trying to provide it. He would also need capital controls, a manufacturing base capable of building the new investment with Keynesian payback, an efficient and motivated Inland Revenue, a widespread public-service ethos that sees the country as an asset, not a market, and an overwhelming democratic mandate to get things done. In other words, Corbyn needs Orwell’s Britain – not this one – and at the very least, if he can’t have that, he needs the freedom to act that the European Commission forbids.

There’s another problem. Orwell did not trust left-wing intellectuals and spent half his life trying to work out their motivations as a class who spoke for the people, went in search of the people, and praised the people, but did not know them or believe in them. True, Corbyn says he wants to be open and inclusive, but we know he can’t possibly mean it when he says it will be the party, not him or the PLP, that will decide policy, just as we knew it couldn’t possibly be true when he said he’d turn PMQs into the People’s Question Time. Jeremy hasn’t changed his mind in forty years, appears to have great difficulty (unlike Tony Benn) in fusing socialism to national identity or experience (Hardie, Ben Okri and Maya Angelou were bolted on to his Brighton speech) and seems to think that not being happy with what you are given somehow captures the historic essence of socialism (rather than its opposite).

Granted, not thinking outside the ­circle is an inherent fault of the sectarian left but some of our most prominent left-wing journalists have it, too. Working-class support for nationalisation? Good. Right answer! Working-class opposition to benefit scroungers and further mass immigration? Bad. Wrong answer! Would you like to try again? In his essay “In Defence of Comrade Zilliacus” (1947) Orwell reckoned that left-wing intellectuals saw only what they wanted to see. For all their talk of representing the people, they hated the masses. “What they are frightened of is the prevailing opinion within their own group . . . there is always an orthodoxy, a parrot-cry . . .”

The game is hard and he may go down in a welter of knives, yet Corbyn still has time. He may go on making the same speech – on the benefits of apple pie to apple growers – but at some point he will have to drop the wish-list and get on the side of the British people as they are, and live with that, and build into it. Only the nation state can even begin to do the things he wants to do. The quicker he gets that, the quicker we can see if the latest incarnation of new Labour has a future.

Robert Colls is the author of “George Orwell: English Rebel” (Oxford University Press)

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis