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Lostralia

The Australians voted this weekend to destroy their own home. To their credit, the election just passed is the first election in the English-speaking world to hinge on climate change, which is itself a huge step. But ScoMo stayed in power on a platform that commits Australia to being Asia’s coal mine and China’s factory farm.

I’ll leave the political classes to dissect the political results, but here are some random observations on the Australian view of the world which led them to vote to become Lostralians.

First, nature. Australia is as urbanised as every other developed economy, but Australians stand in a uniquely mechanistic relationship to their country. Fraser Island, for example, is a singularity: it’s the world’s biggest island made completely of sand. As such, it has all sorts of weird geographical and ecological features. When I went there, I was hoping for something special; what I got was Disneyland on four-wheel drives.

A friend of mine’s aunt decided it was time to drive around the continent. She purchased a massive mobile home – essentially a truck – and put a trailer on the back. The trailer was for her four-wheel drive. Fuel consumption aside, she created an environment which put a layer of metal between herself and the country she purported to be exploring. Nature, but from behind the windshield. Another friend has been through the red centre on the Simpson Highway using – you guessed it – a four wheel drive. Not on a camel, not on a horse, not part of the environment, but an observer from inside a car.

Nature seems, for many Australians, to be something you vanquish or hide from. There is no equivalent of the Appalachian Trail, the West Highland Way, or the other multi-day and multi-week walks in other parts of the world. Nature is not a place for contemplation and quietude; it’s somewhere you go for school trips and thrills.

Second, although a “No one’s going to tell me what to do” attitude prevails everywhere, it is very strong in Australia. This, I think, is an expression of the split in Anglosphere politics, described by many as that between right- and left-wing politics. This distinction is well past its sell-by date; the split is between selfishness and public-spiritedness in politics – and I mean in politics, not private life. Many people’s politics lean to the right, but those same people are generous in time and money on public-spirited causes. The distinction is whether politics should institutionalise that public-spiritedness.

In the case of many charities, the distinction amounts to whether I donate time and money to my own pet causes (“no one’s going to tell me what to do”), or whether I have it collected as tax dollars and redistributed according to the politico-social consensus that democracies are supposed to encapsulate. I won’t address the general case, but I will say that for climate change, relying on public-spirited private action amounts at best to doing nothing, and at worst to destruction.

On the hand of doing nothing, those who protest most loudly about the incompetence and arbitrariness of public support for social goods are those most blinkered to the massive subsidies that the fossil fuel and agri- industries have claimed for themselves. We are continuously hectored by the mantra of free markets, but many mines and factory farms would go broke, unsubsidized by tax dollars, in a true free-market system.

On a more quotidian basis, doing nothing amounts to maintaining the status quo, and look where it’s got Lostralia: the Murray-Darling River system is more or less trashed; business-as-usual threatens a large swathe of the Great Barrier Reef so that Lostralian coal can spread Australia’s carbon footprint yet wider by worsening India’s already appalling air quality; inaction has seen drought, floods, heat waves and desertification become the norm in ever-widening swathes of the country.

On the hand of active destruction, “no-one’s-going-to-tell-me-what-to-do” is a notion of freedom that amounts to license; to the idea that I shouldn’t be prevented from driving my SUV just because some greeny tells me, that I shouldn’t have to eat less meat just because some bunny-lover gets offended. You don’t have to take this argument to ridiculous lengths – I shouldn’t be prevented from murder just because of some grieving relatives – to see how shallow it is; but it is this argument that underpins the frontier mentality that dominates the way Australians think of themselves.

But climate breakdown is fuelled first and foremost by private excess, and it is only through public action that behaviour will change. Only if tomorrow’s SUV-carnivores are treated with the same public disgust as today’s drunk drivers, will we avert disaster (and not only in Australia). The ecosphere is the most public of all public goods, and as such, should be publically managed, not privately apportioned. If that means putting limits on behaviour, so be it: not driving drunk is the price we pay for safe streets; consuming less is the price we pay for a planet that’s habitable.

The great irony is that Australia was the last continent to adopt a carbon economy. Until the white settlers arrived in the late eighteenth century, Australians lived a carbon-neutral existence. Given the newcomer’s attitudes to those who preceded them, the hardest pill for many to swallow would be to learn from those who arrived forty millennia earlier. That learning may or may not have happened under a Labor government; it won’t even be considered under ScoMo. So welcome, Lostralia, to climate collapse.

Nine Innocent Men

The Hong Kong government succeeded in stitching up nine people for the peaceful protests that shook the city in 2014. Their convictions are a death knell for civic society in Hong Kong. This is for them:

 

Nine innocent men face prison today

A priest, a lawyer, what can we say,

Public nuisances all of them, they

Incited inciting others to play.

 

The prosecution had work to do

Set up a show trial, witnesses few,

Archaic doctrines exhumed for view,

Whose meanings they could easily skew.

 

The defence in turn stated its fears

A chilling effect down through the years;

The verdict was writ, it became clear,

Before the counsel rose from his chair.

 

The ruling elite who run this place,

Their arrogance like a spit in the face,

Gloated away with absence of grace,

The masses put back again in their place.

 

Too far removed in their own Holy See,

They took their revenge, savoured with glee,

Killed the bête noir of democracy,

Revelling in their hypocrisy.

 

As to the other ninety percent,

Lacking a means to their grievances vent,

No legal channel for civil dissent,

Given up now, their energies spent.

 

Hopes for a voice, the Party won’t meet,

The law now a stick, dissent to beat,

No longer shall we take to the street.

But do the right thing: vote with our feet.

 

Dedicated to: Chan Kin-man (16 months), Benny Tai (16 months), Rev. Chu Yiu-ming (16 months, suspended), Raphael Wong (8 months), Siu Ka-chun (8 months), Eason Chung (8 months, suspended), Lee Wing-tat (8 months, suspended), Tommy Cheung (200 hours community service), Tanya Chan (sentence delayed pending medical treatment).

On My Shelf

I first came across Angela Clarke at last year’s Writers’ Day put on by The Literary Consultancy. She gave a great talk about how she maintains a web presence – tips I have aspired to live up to – but her fiction was a genre I’m not a great fan of so I didn’t, ahem, read any of her books. Until, that is, she sent me a pre-publication one for free.

On My Life is a book I read in three sessions and which will stay on my shelf rather than being given away. This is a psychological thriller that transcends its genre, with an indictment of how the UK criminal justice system fails women prisoners in general, and the unborn babies of pregnant women prisoners in particular. Add to this the underlying themes of class and addiction, and this is one powerful novel.

The plot is simple: Jenna is arrested for a gruesome crime she did not commit. She is thrown in jail, and has to find a way to survive. The system in which she finds herself is brutal and that brutality is reinforced by being impersonal. Her case grinds on almost in her absence with her access to her lawyer, and to the courts, being through video rather than in person; as there are hints of sexual deviancy in her crime, she is forced to shun the other prisoners lest they find out. And, to add to this, she finds out (it’s on the front cover, which I think is a mistake by the marketing department) she is pregnant.

The story is narrated in two times streams, now and then, the then narrating the events leading up to the crime, and the now narrating Jenna’s bleak and increasingly violent time in prison. Both streams move at a cracking pace, with short sentences, short chapters and hooks to keep you reading. Yet, despite this, the author manages to convey the claustrophobic atmosphere, the oppression, and how there is little in prison to do but brood.

And Jenna does brood. In the then time stream, she stumbles upon bits of information, little hints and giveaways that ultimately solve her crime: how the man of her dreams turned out to be a flawed man from a flawed family, how her own past with a substance-addicted mother and no father came to catch up on her, and how in leaving her past behind, she had also left behind an important part of her identity. The passages describing how her dream relationship forced her to be someone she was not were amongst the strongest in the book:

But I do love him. I love him and Emily [his daughter] so much. I have never felt as happy as I do when we’re together. And every relationship involves compromise, doesn’t it? That’s just what this is. Robert is not your average man, he needs a wife who will support him and the business. Plenty of Emily’s friends’ mothers don’t work. It’s normal in this world. I squash the panicked thought of a life full of charity lunches and organizing Robert’s shirts.

The sense of self-deception is wonderfully portrayed, and much of the crime hinges on it. But the now, too, has some wonderful passages:

I don’t tell her that I’m into my second [trimester], that I should have had my scan, that I’ve been so frightened of anyone finding out I haven’t fought for my baby’s rights. That I’ve already failed by child. I should get up. I should be working on a new plan. A baby can’t live in here.

And this part of the underlying message of the book is what carries it beyond the genre: the author does voluntary work with prisoners, and what she’s learned shows.

There are a couple of loose ends. The book mentions in the earlier passages that Jenna’s dream man, is part of the “Freemasons Club.” As a freemason myself, I often have a chuckle at what authors think we get up to (Jo Nesbo had us standing around with our willies out, which I found downright hilarious), but that particular aspect of the plot went nowhere. I also found myself becoming impatient with Jenna’s inability to come to terms with the fact that the system is broken – deal with it, survive, I found myself shouting. But these flaws are trifles. This is a great read, fast-paced and intelligent. Keep an eye open for when it hits the shelves.

Conversion! I’m a Brexiteer

I didn’t think it could be done. Me, a died-in-the-blood European, spinning on a dime to become a Brexiteer. But – hats off, put out the flags and bunting – the EU did it. It wasn’t the EU’s disastrous Common Agricultural Policy, which locks in long-term environmental damage and vastly wasteful agricultural practices; it wasn’t the pseudo-democratic system in which only EU commissioners can propose legislation and all the elected representatives, the MEPs, can do is vote on it; it wasn’t even the madness of promoting wood-chips as biofuel.

No, it was this: as a long-term vegetarian, no longer am I allowed to eat veggie burgers, quorn sausages or even the utterly innocuous soya milk, but am now compelled to call them veggie patties, quorn cylinders and soya drink.

And “The meat lobby is not involved in this” quoted in the article from – I name him to shame him – MEP Éric Andrieu, is the crowning touch. If Éric is not a bare-faced liar, he is an imbecile.

Brexit for veggies. Bring it on!

Rescind Article 50 Petition

Here’s the petition: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/241584

Whatever your position on Brexit – and I’m no great fan of the EU – the past three months have proved beyond doubt that Britain is quite incapable of ruling itself. Even if you support Brexit, consider that rescinding article 50 need not be permanent.

What Britain needs is not Brexit / Remain, but a common view of what Britain will be in a generation’s time. Once that’s formed, we can work out whether being part of the EU serves or detracts from that vision, and whether the EU can be reformed to fit it, or if Britain would be better off out of the EU to realize it.

No Apologies from Me

I enjoy George Monbiot‘s columns. He is incisive, informed and, even if I don’t agree with some of his views, the world needs people like him to be a thorn in the side of the complacent. But his most recent post pissed me off. Framed as an apology from my generation and his (born in the 60s and 70s) to younger generations, he shoulders the blame for first failing to spot the coming environmental (and other) apocalypse(s) and, when we did, for despairing rather than acting.

What bollocks. Firstly, he wasn’t and isn’t the only one out there who recognised the science early on and tried to do something about it. Second, the science we had in the 1990s, when it was starting to register that we were damaging our home, the planet, is nowhere near as good as the science we have now (ditto for the food crisis and, though to a much lesser extent, soil erosion), so we had less of an idea of the urgency of the problem and the scale of the solution. But third, and most of all, to quote Philip Larkin “They fuck you up, your mum and dad / They don’t mean to but they do”: the generation on whose behalf George Monbiot takes it upon himself to apologise may have fucked up, but we didn’t mean to.

Elder generations have been fucking things up for younger ones, without meaning to, since the dawn of time. My father’s generation bequeathed my generation a world on the edge of a nuclear holocaust, so my generation walked the streets and agitated until we got nukes under control. My generation inherited a world in which over 50% lived in dire poverty, so we spread the money around and dire poverty is now down to about 10% – still 10% too many, but an improvement. Going back in time, my father’s generation inherited a world of infant mortality and colonialism; his father’s generation inherited a world turning to fascism, and their children’s generations turned those around. Those evils, of nuclear proliferation, poverty, avoidable infant diseases and fascism were not planted there as a trap or a test of manhood by one generation for the next; they were unintended consequences of the solutions the previous generation deployed to solve problems they themselves had inherited. Each generation must fix the ills the last unintentionally bequeathed it, and invents the tools needed to do so.

And this is one of the many areas in which Monbiot’s dismal column falls short. Yes, vested interests have held back the introduction of cleaner technologies; yes, the oligarchs who run the planet are babbling about green this and sustainable that from the cocoons of their gas-guzzling private jets; yes, global corporations have subverted democracies and purchased autocracies. But when in history haven’t they? That’s why we have politics.

But Monbiot also misses a bigger picture. I rolled my eyes when I heard Trump boast – as he did in his State of the Union speech – that America is producing more oil than ever, as if that’s a good thing; I was angry when Bolsonaro turned control of the Amazon over to the agribusiness that will clear cut it; when the US, Russia, Saudi and Kuwait used procedural niceties to torpedo the latest set of climate talks. But, when I hear these boasts, I remind myself change has never come from incumbents. Apple was a (failing) PC manufacturer when it invented the smartphone, pushing Nokia, Motorola and Ericsson to the edge of bankruptcy; Nokia in turn was a timber company when it produced the world’s first mega-cheap mobile phone. Trump and his backers have the money and the political power to switch off fossil fuels and switch on solar, switch off the internal combustion engine and switch on the brushless AC motor, switch off mono-cultural farming and switch on food that tastes like food. But they won’t. Because they know no other way.

And that’s when I stop being depressed and laugh. Trump exemplifies the people who brag about how “smart” they are yet, rather than take advantage of the massive opportunity cleaner technologies bring, position themselves to be squashed by history’s juggernaut. Solar and other renewables are coming whether Trump and his backers like it or not; electric (and probably ownerless) vehicles are coming whether the automotive industry wants it or not, farming is set to transform whether Bolsonaro’s ranching buddy’s like it or not. Even if the first investors in these technologies invested for ideological reasons, the reason fossil fuels, electric cars and sustainable food are coming is not ideological, it is because these new technologies do things better.

We know today how to harvest today’s free sunlight straight from source, for a fraction of the cost of extracting fossil fuels; anyone still extracting yesterday’s buried sunlight from a deep hole in the ground will join the dinosaurs in that hole. We know today how to build cars with a couple of dozen moving parts (four wheels, the four motors that power them, the steering train and the doors); anyone still building cars from thousands of moving parts is going to be sitting on a scrapheap surrounded by them. We are rapidly finding out how to use much less ground, fertiliser and pesticide to produce far more – and tastier and healthier – food; anyone producing food the old way is sitting on compost. Incumbents are nearly always the losers when new technologies come along, and there’s little indication that this round of technological innovation will be any different. When there’s better product for less money, we change our behavior, fast.

Very fast. In 1915, New York city was debating the traffic arrangements to keep cars and horses separate; by 1925, nothing remained to debate – no horse-drawn carriages were left. I was one of the first buyers of a CD player in 1984; by 1994, although there was a nostalgia for vinyl ,no one spun ’45s. In the 1990s, entire countries leapfrogged over fixed-line phone systems and went from nothing to mobile networks. The then incumbents fell by the wayside. Monbiot’s guilt and pessimism is misplaced.

That is not to say that the technology we use to get climate change under control will have its own unexpected and nasty consequences, and – “They fuck you up, your mum and dad” – we’ll leave those consequences to the next generation. This is the human condition.

But Monbiot’s apology is meant not as such, but as a call to arms: I get it. But the tone is so self-righteous that it borders on the obnoxious, and the language is so steeped in Marxist rhetoric – rise-up-ye-masses – that it will likely repel more than it attracts. This is a shame because, despite the allusions, he is onto something that matters. It is all very well saying – hoping – that better products and technology will save the day, but incumbents are protecting their interests, the lengths to which the current global incumbents are going are dangerous. That these lengths are an expression of desperation is neither here nor there: these guys will go down fighting, and if that means taking us with them, along with the natural world and this beautiful planet we call home, that’s a price they seem willing – if not determined – to pay.

Political movements are part of the solution. But so is understanding the problem. The examples I cited above, of new technologies shoving old ones to the side, are well-known and often quoted by the rah-rah technology crowd. But while technologies come and go, what cherry-picked examples can obscure is that there are underlying systems of incumbency that are far more difficult to disrupt. And here lies the deep problem. It isn’t only about oil, cars and food. It’s about a way of conducting our affairs. And here, the need is not merely for innovation – which is a constant of human endeavour – but for a paradigm shift in the way we deploy them.

Let me draw an analogy. There are two big voices in the philosophy of science: the first is Karl Popper and the second, Thomas Kuhn. Popper characterised science as being a long series of incremental, very minor advances, each building on what had gone before, mostly by trying to replicate what had gone before, but replicating it a little better. Kuhn characterised science as being a series of “paradigm shifts” – think Newton, Einstein and Hawkings in physics. Spectacular as smartphones have been, I believe such innovations are in fact minor advances of the type Popper writes about. The spectacular technological innovations are systemic, not incremental. Democracy is a technology; so are political and civil rights. Urbanisation is another one; real-time communications one more – and I don’t mean the smartphone.

These changes were systemic, sweeping and societal. Much blood was spilt in achieving some of them; many lives were saved or made possible in others. If we are to rise to challenge of saving our planet, we need to understand how these societal and political paradigm shifts have worked in the past in order that we can at least prevent the next from being bloody, and perhaps even tailor one that makes the future brighter.

So, between the top of this post and here, I’ve decided that this will be the first of a series of posts, spread over many months, that will look at some of those paradigm shifts and see what lies for their futures. It won’t be as easy as slagging off the Great Confusicator and holding my head in my hands with despair at the antics of the Tin Lady, but it may perhaps be more useful.

Two Must-Reads

Amongst the latest batch of second-hand books I was given were Purple Hibiscus and The Summer Book. These are both about growing up, are both moving and beautifully written, yet the childhoods they depict are polar opposites.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a Nigerian novelist, and Purple Hibiscus, published in 2003, her first book. I have not yet read any others, but I will be looking for them.

The central character is Kambili, a teenager living in a wealthy Nigerian family, but with a father who is a strict Catholic. Her father is a deeply conflicted person, willing to support a free press during a time of violence and repression by a military regime that comes to power in a coup, and resistant to calls to take a second wife to bear more sons, but a tyrant at home. While he loves his wife, Kambili and her brother Jaja, he himself was raised by Catholics who often used violent punishments, and, in his zeal, he inflicts the same on his family. Despite the blurb, the core of the book is the troubled relationship between Kambili and her father.

Here’s the father:

As we drove home [from confession], Papa talked loudly, above the “Ave Maria.” “I am spotless now. We are all spotless.. If God calls us right now, we going straight to Heaven. Straight to Heaven. We will not require the cleansing of Purgatory.” He was smiling, his eyes bright, his hand gently drumming the steering wheel. And he was still smiling when he called Aunty Ifeoma soon after we got back home, before he had his tea.

A brilliant depiction of the zealot’s mindset – a mindset which allows him to love his family at the same time that he inflicts brutal, violent punishments for sins real and imagined. Only hinted at in the early stages of the book – and all the more menacing for it – this sense of foreboding grows during the book and is amplified by the understated yet powerful descriptions of how repressed children act:

“Kambili Achike, please start the pledge,” she said.

Mother Lucy had never chosen me before. I opened my mouth but the words would not come out.

“Kambili Achike?” Mother Lucy and the rest of the school had turned to stare at me.

I cleared my throat, willed the words to come. I knew them, thought them. But they would not come. The sweat was warm and wet under my arms.

“Kambili?”

Finally, stuttering, I said “I pledge to Nigeria, my country…”

And again, later

“Can we watch CNN?”

I forced a cough out of my throat; I hoped I would not stutter.

“Maybe tomorrow,” Amaka continued, “because right now I think we’re going to visit my dad’s family at Ukpo.”

“We don’t watch a lot of TV,” I said.

A stunning description of a child too terrified to speak.

Amaka in the second passage is Kambili’s cousin, and Amaka’s mother, Aunty Ifeoma, runs a house very different from Kambili’s. Where Kambili’s own household is silent, Ifeoma’s is full of laughter, children who speak back, misbehave, yet are loved.

While there, Kambili meets and develops a crush on the local priest, Father Amadi. Aunty’s family know no fear in their own home, and Kambili starts to emerge from her shell. Aunty Ifeoma manages to talk the father into a return visit, which sees Kambili’s grandfather come to stay. He is a pagan and, to stay in the same house as a pagan is a sin. When Kambili’s father finds out, he inflicts a punishment the depiction of which sent shivers up my spine; when he finds out that Kambili harbours a painting of the grandfather, he beats Kambili to a pulp and, when she is released from hospital, she returns to Aunty Ifeoma’s to recuperate and comes to a kind of reconciliation.

Purple Hibiscus could be a grim read; it isn’t. The tension is largely created by the undercurrents of violence rather than the violence itself, but the joy is wonderful and the ending left a smile on my face. Nigeria itself, which I visited briefly once, comes to life in colour and smell, the people and cultural mores, the mixture of paganism and Christianity (the father is the only abusive Christian in the book), the background of a country in political turmoil, and endemic corruption. It’s on my read-again bookshelf.

So too is The Summer Book. Tove Jansson is largely remembered for the Moomins, the television series of which I vaguely remember from my childhood, but which I never read (or remember reading). This highly autobiographical novel is set during a single summer as Sophia is about six or seven years old: the stage when memories start to join up.

The Summer Book is not a novel in the conventional meaning of the word. As the blurb says, it’s a series of vignettes. They could be in almost any order, and the only  characters who persist are Sophia, her father, and her grandmother. The father flits in and out of the book; we never get to meet him. The heart of the book is the relationship between Sophia, her grandmother, and the island they live on during the summer.

This work does not have the same strong first-person narrator as Purple Hibiscus, and there isn’t the faintest whiff of violence. It is, rather, a book of exploration, of a child starting to discover the world. As with Purple Hibiscus, you can feel the earth on your palms and smell the flowers, feel the sea air on your cheeks and hear the rustling of wind in the trees. The sense of discovery, of novelty, as the ancient grandmother and the young Sophia argue, connive and misbehave is almost palpable. Here is one of their antics:

Toward the end of the week, Grandmother and Sophia took the dory out for a little row. When they came to the perch shallows, they decided to go on to Squire Skerry to look for seaweed, and once in the lagoon behind Squire Skerry, it was only a stroke of the oars to Blustergull Rock. In the middle of the gravel was a large sign with black letters that said PRIVATE PROPERTY – NO TRESPASSING.

“We’ll go ashore,” Grandmother said. She was very angry. Sophia looked frightened. “There’s a big difference,” her grandmother explained. “No well-bred person goes ashore on someone else’s island when there’s no one home. But if they put up a sign, then you do it anyway because it’s a slap in the face.”

“Naturally,” Sophia said, increasing her knowledge of life considerably. They tied up to the sign.

“What we are now doing,” Grandmother said, “is a demonstration. We are showing our disapproval. Do you understand?”

“A demonstration,” her grandchild repeated, adding, loyally, “This will never make a good harbour.”

“No,” Grandmother said. “And they have the door on the wrong side of the house. They’ll never get it open in a southwester. And look at their water barrels. Ha-ha. Plastic, of course.”

“Ha-ha,” Sophia said. “Plastic, of course.”

And here they are on a summer’s day:

They walked into the pasture and sat down in the grass, which was tall and not a bit dusty. It was full of bluebells and cat’s-foot and buttercups.

“Are there ants in Heaven?” Sophia asked.

“No,” said Grandmother, and laid down carefully on her back. She propped up her hat on her nose and tried to sneak a little sleep. Some kind of farm machinery was running steadily and peacefully in the distance. If you turned it off – which was easy to do – and listened only to the insects, you could hear thousands of millions of them, and they filled the whole world with rising and falling waves of ecstasy and summer. Sophia picked some flowers and held them in them hand until they got warm and unpleasant…

What a great piece of evocative writing!

Dark Materials

It has been a long while since I read any new (to me) fantasy. I’ve re-read Lord of the Rings a few times, will probably give Dune a second go at some point and, like millions of others, am waiting for George R. R. Martin to pull his finger out and finish Game of Thrones. But, those aside, and after cramming as much of the genre as I could into myself during early years, I kind of lost interest.

Phillip Pullman’s Dark Materials series is not new – the first volume came out in 1995 and the series was completed in 2000 – but I’d never heard of it until I visited Scotland last autumn and was given all three volumes – Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.

The first is by far the best. Northern Lights concerns the tale of Lyra, a deliciously repulsive young girl whose adolescence in an alternate-world Oxford is interrupted when her estranged father comes by and reveals a horrible secret. Lyra is then for all practical purposes kidnapped by her estranged mother, who she finds out to be horrid; Lyra escapes, takes up with alternate world travellers (gypsies) and sets off to the northern part of the planet.

Lyra, like all people in her world, has a daemon, a shape-changing animal that expresses the type of personality a person is. Children’s daemons, like children’s personalities, change; adults’ daemons are set in their form. The link between a person and her daemon is sacred and breakable only upon death – or so everyone believes. But both Lyra’s father and mother, for very different reasons, are finding ways to break those links. Lyra’s mother is trying, if not out of gratuitous cruelty, at least on behalf of the forces of nastiness (a kind of other-world Catholic Church); to her father, however, the severance of the bond is for a greater good.

What’s delightful about the first book is the inventiveness, the charming bond between daemon and child, the fact that Lyra is an obnoxious child but one who is interesting, and the setting, for most of the book, in the frozen wastes of the north. With the exception of a hook at the finale into the trilogy – which has the feeling of a hook grafted on – the book stands alone.

The second volume, The Subtle Knife, introduces Will, a boy in this universe, who stumbles into an alternate universe – and another – and another. Eventually he stumbles into one that Lyra has found herself in, and the two become friends. They become part of a cosmic conflict which builds further in the third part, The Amber Spyglass. This conflict is central to the plot, but I never really understood it. Sure, good versus evil, but why now? And the finale happens off-camera so I wasn’t sure who won or, come to that why it mattered. Or even why it happened – it seemed more of a plot device to bring Lyra and Will to their destiny than part of the plot. But, by then, Lyra has become such a sweet, well-behaved little girl that she’s completely uninteresting. As to WIll, I struggled to be interested in him from page one.

The two later volumes reminded me, in other words, why I lost interest in the genre: unchecked inventiveness. In Northern Lights, the inventiveness serves the plot. In the final battle of The Amber Spyglass, weird creatures are being introduced for no other reason than to be paired off with other weird creatures in mutual annihilation. Where Tolkien had orcs, goblins, trolls and elves, dwarves and hobbits each with distinct histories, Pullman’s creatures are a menagerie of placeholders, none convincing and few of them interesting.

Which is a shame. There were lots of parts of the trilogy I enjoyed. But somehow, the whole was less than the sum of its parts.

Two Books About Hong Kong

Hong Kong Review of Books asked me to review two books on Hong Kong. Here are the reviews for Hong Kong on the Brink and Hong Kong Confidential.

AirBnB Books

I stayed at Rhona and Hugh’s excellent AirBnB in November. Apart from being wonderful hosts and fully deserving their five star rating, they introduced me to the writing of Sebastian Barry.

Days Without End is set in the latter half of the nineteenth century in America, and follows Thomas McNulty and John Cole through their military lives. A Long Long Way is also a soldier’s story, the life of Willie Dunne in the trenches in the First World War. So, two war stories. I’m not a great fan of war fiction as poetry to me seems the only way to do justice to the horror that is war, but these came pretty close.

Days Without End sees Thomas start as a teenage dancer, dressed in woman’s clothes at a coal-mining town. I have no doubt that Sebastian did his research and that such things happened in the lawless America of the mid-nineteenth century; I am far less convinced that the relationship between Thomas, who ends the book as a cross-dressing gay man, and a his partner, John, would go undetected or unpunished in that era – and that relationship is the plot. The wars, the atrocities against the native Americans, their effective adoption of a young girl, are all well-depicted in their futility, brutality and tenderness, yet are background. The plot is the relationship, yet, a homophobic era, Thomas’s and John’s fellow soldiers don’t even remark on it. This detracted from the overall believability of the story, which is a shame. It wouldn’t have taken much to address this.

A Long Long Way was the better book. The boredom, terror and strangeness of war are laid bare, as is its ultimate futility. What let me down was the ending, and this on two points. The first was a plot twist I found difficult to believe – not because I thought the betrayer would not do the thing that he did, but because I didn’t see how he was able to do it. But, more than that, the final two pages of the book shift voice – we go from being inside Willie’s head to outside. The book, it is true, starts outside his head when he was born. But there are 290 intervening pages, and all the shift did was tie up a loose end.

The plots of both books are linear, with almost no twists or turns, but this does is not to say there are predictable. What distinguishes the books, however, is not their plots, but the writing. Days Without End is told in the first-person using a semi-literate voice, yet one with great lyricism. Here’s a short passage:

Two miles on we got the shackles of heat lying on us again, so hot the country starts to shimmer like the desert. We had the sun half behind us to the south which was some mercy. Wasn’t a man among hadn’t had his nose skinned off a hundred times. Bear grease is good for that but it stinks like an arsehole and anyhow we ain’t seen bears for a long time.

And from the better-educated Willie Dunne of A Long Long Way

He sang like an angel might sing if an angel were ever so foolish as to sing for mortal men. His voice seemed strange and high, but not a counter-tenor. It just seemed to put a knife into the air; the notes were so clear and strong. Like a true singer, he could sing soft with strength, and sing loud without hurting the ears.

The language is polished and lyric: a pleasure to read. This wonderful use of the language made the books worth their flaws. I’m not sure I’ll finish Sebastian’s canon, but these two books were well worth the read. So thank you, Rhona and Hugh, for introducing me to his writing.