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The irresistible rise of the octopus, the closest creature to an intelligent alien

Perhaps it is the octopus’s talent for trickery that has blinded us to its qualities.

Have we underestimated the octopus? Far from a childhood memory from a Disney film, or something tasty on your plate in a seafood restaurant, the wriggling cephalopod is suddenly in the news. One might be forgiven for thinking some mollusc mastermind was running a very successful PR campaign. But it’s not as if the animals have just started doing all this stuff – they’ve been around for 300 million years.  It’s just that we’ve taken a long time to realise it.

Last week on a Welsh beach, 25 curled octopuses were seen crawling out of the sea and along the strand at night like some eldritch alien invasion. The animals may be ailing, or possibly confused by the recent storms. David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II, which began screening on 29 October, features an armoured octopus off the South African coast filmed for the first time. Living in constant danger from shark-filled waters, the animal picks up stones and shells when threatened, cladding itself in a protective carapace. In a current YouTube sensation, an octopus imprisoned in a jar is seen to unscrew the top and emerge triumphant like some strange unfolding flower.

Then there’s the tale of the fish that were repeatedly going missing overnight in an aquarium. CCTV revealed that a resident octopus would wait till the building was empty, then lift the lid on its own tank, slither over to its supper, collect it, then replace that lid and its own, once it had returned.

In The Soul of an Octopus (2015) Sy Montgomery’s love letter to the animal – the result of her long-time study of octopuses in the New England Aquarium in Boston – the author observed the apparent bonds these captive cephalopods established with some of their keepers and visitors, and how they expressed their literal distaste for others by squirting water at them. Montgomery noted that the animals used their arms to taste during interactions with humans, and took against visitors who smoked because they could sense it on their skin. 

Inevitably, we project our characteristics on to these creatures (of which there are more than 300 species). Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner imagines the eerie deep where, “Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs/Upon the slimy sea”, while during an extended stay on Guernsey, Victor Hugo observed, “all ideals being admitted, if terror be the object, the octopus is a masterpiece. Its most terrible quality is its softness”, he declared in Toilers of the Sea (1866). “It draws you to it, and bound, ensnared, powerless, you slowly feel yourself emptied into that frightful pond, which is the monster itself.” Counterpoint that tactile terror with the octopus’s role in a celebrated erotic woodcut by Hokusai from 1814, depicting a female pearl diver being pleasured by those wandering arms.

The modern evidence for a sentient octopus is increasing. Earlier this year the philosopher of science, Peter Godfrey-Smith, published, an acclaimed study of octopus communities off the east coast of Australia. It revealed the existence of Octopia, coherent social settlements of octopuses that were once believed to be loners, meeting only once a year to mate. Instead, they had formed a kind of artificial reef that to its occupants represents, as Godfrey-Smith speculates, “an island of safety in a dangerous area”.

Then came the news last month of an even more developed Australian cephalopod urb, nicknamed Octlantis. Here common Sydney octopuses have constructed rudimentary “walls” from the shells of their former meals, and there is inner-city strife in the form of inter-octopus fights over living space.

Perhaps it is the octopus’s talent for trickery that has blinded us to its qualities; it covers its traces, literally: the octopus uses millions of chromatophores in its skin to mimic the pattern and even the texture of its terrain. But as Caspar Henderson observes in his Book of Barely Imagined Beings, some commentators have long been aware of its metaphysical qualities. He quotes the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne, writing in 1567, who noted “the octopus assumes whatever colour it likes to suit the occasion, hiding, say, from something fearful or lurking for its prey”. The French philosopher suggested that we might consider our own solipsistic perceptions somewhat lacking, and that we could learn from this multi-sensual shape-shifter.

Montaigne was nearer the mark than he knew: scientists have established that each of the octopus’s arms contains an independent “brain”, to the extent that one might fight with another. Montgomery describes this as an intelligence “without a centralised self”. This is an astonishing, different kind of existence, and it challenges our own physical selves and our assumptions about life on our planet. The octopus evolved on an entirely other evolutionary branch than us; it is not subordinate, but parallel. It really is the alien among us. 

Philip Hoare’s latest book is “RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR” (Fourth Estate) 

Philip Hoare’s books include Wilde’s Last Stand, England’s Lost Eden, and Spike IslandLeviathan or, The Whale won the Samuel Johnson Prize for 2009, and The Sea Inside was published in 2013. He is professor of creative writing at the University of Southampton, and co-curator of the Moby-Dick Big Read. His website is www.philiphoare.co.uk, and he is on Twitter @philipwhale.

This article first appeared in the 02 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Boris: the joke’s over

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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist