Richard Smyth’s fascinating piece (“The green roots of fascism”, 5 April), sheds light on modern nature writing’s problematic relationship with fascism and quite rightly points out the danger of poisonous ideology creeping by stealth into modern ecological movements. I was surprised, however, that no reference or allusion was made to the recent climate strikes, or to the fact that much of the current environmental debate is being led by children and young adults. It seems to me that hundreds of thousands of conscientious youngsters making sacrifices in order to fight for the future of the planet are an optimistic counterpoint to Smyth’s concerns about eco-fascism – although perhaps, too, these are the very people at risk “when the snake whispers”.
It’s sad that one of your rare excursions into green issues should have been devoted to Richard Smyth’s very selective truffling for signs of fascism in modern nature writing (“The green roots of fascism”, 5 April). Many of us working in this genre have no interest in nativism or lost rural Arcadias, and are as described – writers about nature. Our White is not TH, but Gilbert, whose Natural History (1789) was the first work of literary ecology, and who started a tradition of attentive respect that came down through John Clare’s radical poems of solidarity with his fellow beings, to generations of biologically literate US authors, from Aldo Leopold to Annie Dillard and Richard Powers. All insist that nature has agency.
For all his concern about inclusivity, Smyth comes across as a bit of a human supremacist, and exclusive humanism is a dangerous ideology today. What David Abram calls “the more-than-human world” is now recognised as an interconnected commonwealth in which every component is irreplaceably significant. This, the subject of much “new nature writing”, isn’t a model with appeal to authoritarians and fascists, I would have thought.
Reading Richard Smyth’s penetrating piece, I reflected that not only in Britain did fascism draw on the seemingly innocent love of unspoiled nature. In Germany, the Blut und Boden (Blood and Soil) movement – which advocated rural values and “back to the land” aspirations and was enthusiastically adopted by the Nazis – harked back to German romantic writers of the 19th century such as Eichendorff and Mörike.
It’s a link powerfully dramatised in the famous biergarten scene from Cabaret where an angelic-looking blond lad stands up and starts to sing, to a lilting waltz tune, “The sun on the meadow is summery warm, the deer in the forest runs free…” – only for the camera to tilt down to reveal his swastika armband as the song mutates into a terrifying Nazi anthem.
While it is true that radical-right politics were a significant feature of the early organic movement, Richard Smyth’s article offers an oversimplified picture.
One of the movement’s most important initiatives, the Pioneer Health Centre in Peckham, was established largely thanks to financial support from JGS Donaldson, later minister for the arts in Callaghan’s government. For six decades, the centre’s ideas were promoted by Ewen Montagu, the wartime “Man who never was” and president of the United Synagogue from 1954 until 1962. The NS contributor and historian Edward Hyams wrote a classic “organicist” text, Soil and Civilisation, and co-authored Prophecy of Famine with noted ruralist HJ Massingham.
Hans Lobstein, a Jewish refugee from Czechoslovakia, spent time early in the Second World War on the farm of Eve Balfour, the Soil Association’s co-founder and first president. Lobstein told me he saw no trace of anti-Semitism during his stay, but was welcomed and given sanctuary. Richard Smyth might do well to recall the title of Ben Goldacre’s book I Think You’ll Find It’s a Bit More Complicated Than That.
I was rather disappointed by Richard Smyth’s article on the links between the far right and back-to-nature movements. If his intention was to examine eco-fascism in writing, and Henry Williamson’s work in particular, it seems distinctly odd that he should fail even to mention his 15-book series A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight.
While Smyth’s omission of The Patriot’s Progress (1930) is understandable, since it is “pure” fascism along the path well-trodden by, for example, AK Chesterton, the juxtaposition of scenes from the misty Edwardian afternoon and the horrors of the Western Front in the Chronicle clearly signpost Williamson’s intellectual path.
Dr Bob Watt
Vera Lustig’s letter concerning her reservations about so-called identity politics seemed wide of the mark to me (Correspondence, 5 April). She seems to think that a commitment to listening to the voices of black women, however educated and middle class they are, must be at the expense of deprived white women. The idea that “intersectionality” involves some sort of hierarchy of suffering is in fact precisely what it is designed to avoid.
That some white women are very poor does not mean that black educated women have no right to speak out about how racism affects them. The politics of identity is not an arena where only certain oppressed categories get to voice their concerns. It is about solidarity across difference to recognise how much liberal capitalism reinforces inequality through the prism of race, class and gender. To tell black women who have managed to carve out some sort of public platform for themselves to shut up because some white women are worse off does nobody any favours, least of all the voiceless poor.
Flying the flag
Your leader (“The New Europeans”, 29 March) raised an interesting conundrum: many pro-EU Brits only became proudly pro-European after the referendum. We took our membership for granted.
Visit nearly any other European country and you find EU flags flown with pride. Yet in the UK we realised our European identity too late.
Perhaps, though, it’s not too late after all. As you note, recent demonstrations have shown a new passion has been ignited: a British-European identity that was muted before the referendum. One small but powerful gesture could be for Remainers to fly the EU flag alongside the union flag.
I’m British and European – and there are millions who feel the same. It may be time for us to show it.
Editor, Left Foot Forward
Jason Cowley quoting from Charles Masterman’s book The Condition of England (Editor’s Note, 1 March) prompts me, belatedly, to mention a verdict by Shepard B Clough on the Crimean War: “[It] was not the result of a calculated plan, nor even of hasty last-minute decisions made under stress. It was the consequence of more than two years of fatal blundering in slow-motion by inept statesmen who had months to reflect upon the actions they took.”
It seems like a wonderfully succinct description of what we have experienced recently.
Ali Smith, as Erica Wagner wrote (“The national novelist we need”, 5 April), is indeed a worthy contender for national novelist for our times, while Ian McEwan is also a serious candidate.
But surely the standout award-winning English novelist who has consistently had his finger on the nation’s pulse is Jonathan Coe. His acclaimed What a Carve Up! (1994) was an ingenious and savage satire of privilege and Thatcherism, while his most recent books, Number 11 (2015) and Middle England (2018), vividly depict the growing inequalities engendered by austerity politics and the impact of popular media in reinforcing prejudice and social divisions. Coe has shown himself to be the most socially aware novelist of his generation.
Could it be that the glitterati critics have sometimes been less than fulsome about his work precisely because his main characters, more often than not, are flawed provincial middle and working class rather than cosmopolitan intellectuals? You can see Brexit coming in his novels.
Roth the master
Who could possibly disagree with Jason Cowley’s admiration for the late Philip Roth (Editor’s Note, 29 March)? More puzzling is his singling out of Cormac McCarthy among living American writers as the only figure worthy of being placed alongside the Master, rather than, say, Jay McInerney, Paul Auster, Curtis Sittenfeld, Jeffrey Eugenides or Jonathan Franzen, among a few others.
All of them are, in my humble view, more gifted and compelling in “defining the particulars of our age” than the Sage of El Paso. Puzzling, too, is his preference for Ishiguro over Julian Barnes.
As a recent subscriber, I would like to put on record that I think Stephen Bush is doing a cracking job in deciphering and explaining the various twists and turns in the Brexit tragicomedy. I always look for his articles first, as they are concise and well written. I can only hope that he gets a good holiday when all this is over.
Matthew Engel’s “Letter from” pieces continue to paint pictures with effortlessness and fluidity. They are a joy to read on a rail journey across the equally beautiful Somerset levels. Please keep these going.
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