Angus Wilson once described Aldous Huxley as ‘the god of my adolescence’. When I read those words as a teenager, I was sure I’d one day want to borrow them. It’s a hundred years since the publication of Huxley’s first novel, Crome Yellow, and I’ve been rereading his books at twice the age I was when I first encountered them.
Regardless of its dubious etymology, ‘Everest’ – a hyperbolic adverb raised to the superlative degree – is a fitting appellation for an extreme, lawless world in which ordinary moral conduct is suspended. Above eight thousand metres, acclimatisation is impossible. (The highest human settlements are at five thousand metres.) Everest stands at 8849 metres, which means climbers are effectively dying in a queue and must get to the summit and back before they succumb. If the person ahead of you keels over or goes blind, it isn’t unusual to step over them and carry on. Should someone else’s oxygen canister jam or explode, you wouldn’t be the only one keeping quiet about your spare. Climbers pause for a rest beside the body of ‘Green Boots’, thought to be Tsewang Paljor, who died in a blizzard in 1996. All this is normal on the ‘roof of the world’.
Part of the trouble is the idea that trees are just wood, wood is carbon, and carbon is fungible. Most of the wood pellets burned in the UK are imported from Canada and the United States, where mature forests which underwrite vast, complex ecosystems are being felled to meet the growing European demand for ‘renewable’ energy. The official line is that pellets are made from offcuts from the timber industry, but scientists and environmentalists report that trees are being felled to go straight to biomass.
When I was eleven, my mother sat my older sister and me down and told us a man had attacked a girl in our neighbourhood. From now on we were to be careful walking to and from school. She didn’t use the word ‘rape’ but my sister told me afterwards that was what she meant. It wasn’t clear what we were supposed to do to be more careful, but that wasn’t my mother’s point. She was training us in a grim new way of life: be fearful, be alert, treat every man as a potential threat.
The argument that nurses are ‘healthcare heroes’ who deserve a pay rise for going ‘above and beyond’ during the pandemic should be resisted. Decent pay shouldn’t be a prize for supererogatory acts. Nurses have long been underpaid, and their work has always been demanding and essential. Discourses of heroism are a poisoned chalice. ‘Heroism’ describes voluntary acts of undue risk or sacrifice. But nurses’ labour through the pandemic was not voluntary. They worked to pay their bills and put food on the table.
‘A change in the name of the US War Department to “Defense Department” in 1947,’ Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman wrote in After the Cataclysm, ‘signalled that henceforth the state would be shifting from defence to aggressive war.’ I was reminded of this a few days ago, when the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, proposed the appointment of a ‘free speech and academic freedom champion’ for universities, tasked with investigating breaches and issuing fines. The move comes despite a 2018 parliamentary committee report that ‘did not find the wholesale censorship of debate in universities which media coverage has suggested’, and a review of ten thousand student union events which found that only six had been cancelled (four missed deadlines for paperwork, one was a scam, and the other was a Jeremy Corbyn rally arranged without sufficient notice). Williamson is not reacting to a problem; he is reifying the illusion of one. The government is reaching for the fig leaf of a ‘free speech champion’ after a year of escalating authoritarianism in education and culture.
High streets were the landscapes of my teens, and they are now set to vanish. That would be fine if it also spelled the end of consumerism and an opening for something more decent. Instead, like a resistant bug, fast fashion rages on, from sweatshop to warehouse to doorstep, via a growing precariat of exhausted delivery drivers, alienated on all fronts: from the products they deliver, the means of production, their fellow workers and consumers. The ‘alien object that has power over him’, as Marx put it, is packaged in cardboard and scheduled for next-day delivery.
In my first year of secondary school, a science teacher began a lesson on nutrition by asking us to tell her what we ate for dinner so we could categorise the components of our meals into their correct food groups. She looked aghast as child after child muttered ‘chips and beans’. For some, ‘chips and beans’ was cover for something less wholesome and dependable. The teacher quickly abandoned the exercise and instead reverted to the mythical meal on the ‘food wheel’ poster Blu-tacked to the wall, a testament to our parents’ failings.
In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII issued a papal bull endorsing the ‘correcting, imprisoning, punishing and chastising’ of witches, who stood accused – among other crimes – of devising and applying methods of contraception that ‘hinder men from begetting and women from conceiving’, and creating abortifacients which ‘ruin and cause to perish the offspring of women’. The population of Europe still hadn’t recovered from the ravages of the Black Death and other disasters; it was critical that women be punished for these nascent forms of birth control.
‘Blue Collar Conservatives’ is a caucus of Tory MPs chaired by Ben Bradley, the MP for Mansfield, who self-identifies as working-class even though he went to a private school where the fees are nearly as much as the annual salary of someone earning minimum wage. Bradley’s misrepresentations don’t stop there. For such a young politician (he was born in 1989) he has an impressive record for dishonesty. In 2016, he claimed that a nearby council had spent £17,000 employing call centre workers in Mumbai. When challenged, he admitted the claim was pure invention, contrived to convince people the council was wasting money. (And if you’re going to tell a fib, why not build in a racist dog whistle?) In 2018, he tweeted that Jeremy Corbyn had ‘sold British secrets to communist spies’, a lie that cost him £15,000 in damages. Luckily for this ‘blue collar’ fabulist, two wealthy Conservative donors swept in to cover the cost of his blunder. Corbyn asked that the money be divided between a homeless charity and a food bank in Mansfield.