Reaching through Despair


A few years ago, I was staying at my aunt’s flat in Edinburgh. Probably, she was away for the weekend and I had gone up to check on my grandmother, who lives nearby. In the morning, I found that she had left some yoghurt and cereal for me, and instructions to pick some raspberries from her garden.

Outside, the morning sun struck through the spires of lavender, alive with bees. As I stepped through the french windows into the garden, the flags were warm underfoot. The raspberries were at blood-heat; crushed against my tongue, they tasted like a concentrate of summer. Bowl in hand, I flung myself down upon the grass and basked in the sun.

But, although every sense was gratified by that lovely, teeming garden, in the fullness of its midsummer glory, nothing could soothe or blind me to my ever-present distress.

I was an anxious child and a histrionic teenager. In my late twenties, the anxiety hardened into a paralysing despair. Concerns about climate change, the future of societies and, above all, artificial intelligence, obsessed me so much that I gradually withdrew from thinking too hard; it always led me to reiterate my despair. I came to fear any reminders of it, even though it was omnipresent. I was scared to read the news in case it featured a story about technology. I was scared to use public transport in case I ended up trapped next to someone using a smartphone.

Sometimes, during my thirties, I functioned reasonably well. I hung on to some of my old friends, and even made some new ones, which says a lot about the tolerance and kindness of the people I know. I did a lot of singing, and held down a proper job for a while.

At other times despair made me intemperate. Since I was constantly obsessed with hopeless thoughts, almost anything could make me break down entirely. Kindness and unkindness alike, and above all, music, would take away the last of my self-control, and I would weep and rage at anyone who would listen, and many who wouldn’t, perhaps, have chosen to. (It is a sad fact that nobody will ever be able to give a very depressed person quite as much attention as she is able to absorb.)

During those years, whenever anyone announced a pregnancy to me, I was hard pressed not to reply, “What on earth do you want to do that for?” What stopped me was not so much consideration for my friends’ feelings, as an unwillingness to give my terrors life by talking about them. Children represent the future; therefore, the idea of bringing people into the world who would be growing up in the terrifying, dark and insecure future of my imagining seemed too dreadful to contemplate. Certainly I didn’t think I would ever have children. I was haunted by the climactic event in Toni Morrison’s classic novel “Beloved”: the protagonist, Sethe, who has escaped slavery and knows she is about to be recaptured, kills her baby daughter, Beloved, to save her from it. It wasn’t, of course, that I thought my comfortable life had, or was likely to have, much in common with that of a nineteenth-century slave; what I recognised was the despair. We sometimes read sad little stories in the news of mothers who kill their children and then themselves. I feared for what the future might do to my hypothetical children, but I also feared what I might do to them.

What changed? It was a gradual rather than a sudden process. A lot of people did me a lot of good turns, and I had a couple of strokes of good luck, and my friends, family and husband showed their affection and care for me to be so resilient that I had to reassess my belief that anything good must be shifting and insecure. Last autumn I found myself, almost by chance, associating with various environmental campaigners and academics and having lots of fun talking and arguing about sustainable development – albeit not making all that much money. For the first time in decades I found myself in a position where thinking was  – interesting, rather than terrifying; laudable, rather than transgressive.

Which is probably why the effort needed not to get pregnant didn’t seem so important any more, because I wasn’t spending so much time in the pits of despair.  Which is why I became pregnant.

My reaction to this was, predictably, not jubilant; but nor was it appalled. I assumed that I would simply have the pregnancy terminated and that my life would return to the semi-stasis that I had decided was tolerable.

Then I dithered horribly.

“I’m more interested in you than I am in any other hypothetical person you might produce,” said my husband, “and I don’t want to be a father if you don’t want to be a mother.”

I didn’t know the answer to his implicit question. I asked carefully-selected friends what to do about it. Not happy mothers, oh, God, no. Hardly any parents at all. Childless people of my own age or older, mostly; nobody who I thought would be likely to undermine my determined nihilism. And, damn their eyes, they nearly all told me to keep it.

Or, perhaps, after all, that’s what I wanted them to tell me. Why? Because if they told me not to, they would be supporting and reinforcing my own despair. I realised that, while all the reasons for keeping the baby – a new phase of my own life, giving someone else a pitch at existence – were positive, the only reason I had for not keeping it – to avoid a horrific future – was entirely, unremittingly, negative.

(This isn’t, by the way, an essay about the redemptive power of rejecting abortion. It’s every woman’s right to decide what she wants to do with her own reproductive organs. It’s an essay about the redemptive power of rejecting despair.)

And so I came to cling, gratefully, to everything that my friends said that opened up the possibility of a new and more hopeful way of being: me believing that my child could have a happy existence.

I can’t remember the exact words one of them said to me, but it was something like this:

“But we never know how long we have in this world. What we know is that it’s here, now. And don’t you think – when you look outside – that it is so beautiful,  that it makes it worth living in, for however short a time? That maybe – that’s enough?”

I thought about that when, almost lightheaded with nausea, I took the train through the Tyne Valley to meet an old friend – one of the mothers whose advice I’d shunned. I was looking forward to telling her about the baby; and the weak winter sun, breaking through the clouds, lit up the grass in the sodden fields next to the curve of the river, and the slender graceful trees which fringe it. So much beauty and so much love for my child to bask in.


The Other Way of Seeing: a spooky story

Susanna could remember, very vaguely, a time when she thought she was normal, but the memories were fragmentary.

Once, she thought, she had been somewhere green and spacious – probably nothing more exotic than the local park. She was conscious of the unfamiliar feel of her new shoes – emerald green, with a little leather flower opposite each buckle. Enjoying the novelty of it, she skipped alongside the wheels of her brother’s pushchair, running ahead to jump into puddles.

“Stop that, now,” her mother said, “you’ll spoil Millie’s lovely shoes.”
Susanna desisted – she was a good child – and returned to her mother’s side. She didn’t even ask why they were Millie’s shoes when they’d been given to her. As it happened, at that moment she saw Millie herself, just ahead of her, holding her mother’s hand.

“Look,” she said, pointing, “there’s Millie, there.”
To her surprise, instead of rushing to greet Millie’s mother, her own mother laughed and said, “Silly billy! She’ll be at school, now.”

More dreadful was the time when Susanna told her mother that she could see Grandma in a box. She expected some sort of approval, of the kind she got when she drew a picture of Grandma or made her a birthday card. But her mother’s face twisted so that it looked angrier and sadder than Susanna had ever seen it, and she said, in an odd sort of voice, “You must never – never say things like that again.”

Things like what? Things about Grandma, or about people being in boxes? Only a little while later, Susanna’s mother took her to a place where everyone was dressed in black, and they all stood around a box with Grandma in it, so it couldn’t be that. But Susanna could tell that the – way she’d seen Grandma in the box, and Millie in the park, and things like that, was different to the way she saw other things. It was like your reflection in a window compared with the view through it. You could talk about reflections but it must be really, really naughty to talk about the sort-of-reflected people that you sometimes saw. So Susanna never did again.

As she grew older, she came to realise that this other way of seeing wasn’t something that everyone shared. But, since she had learnt early on not to speak of it, she made quite a good show of being normal; and, as her teens progressed, she became, rather to her surprise, accepted as such. It turned out that if she pretended to be like everyone else then they would let her hang around with them in the schoolyard, and if she told her mother that she was going to watch a film at her friend Christina’s that she would be allowed to stay out late, even though they were actually going to join the others in the park.

What were they doing there? Not much. It was the days before smartphones. They didn’t play games. They didn’t so much converse as issue verbal nudges. They were young animals who simply needed to herd together. And they watched each other: the boys watched Chris, who always looked so sleek; and Susanna watched Duncan Fraser.

He was the year above her; they weren’t in the same group at school. In subsequent years she could only remember him in shadow. His hair, cropped short, might have been anything from dark blonde to dark brown. Perhaps he was a little taller and broader than average. She remembered snapshots: the angles of his nose and cheekbone lit up by a cigarette lighter as he leant into it; his broad-shouldered silhouette disappearing into the darkness at the end of the night. He lived near to her, but they never walked home together.

It was an evening in June, and it barely felt late, because the air, smelling of grass-clippings, was so warm, and because it had only just got dark. However, there was school tomorrow and people had begun to slip away homewards.

As Susanna reached the park gates, the ones with “1882” in cast-iron, a voice said, “Susie!” And there, as if he’d been waiting, was Duncan – the lit end of his cigarette glowing. She had no need to see his face to know it was him.
“I’ve come in the car,” he said, “I’ll give you a lift home.”

“Thanks!” she said, unable to stop the grin from spreading across her face. “It’s just round the corner,” he said, and they walked on together. Presently he put his arm, heavy in his coat, around her shoulders, and she settled into the side of his body. Their feet fell into step.

A few yards further on, there was a high, stone-pillared gateway, set back slightly from the road – the entrance to a Victorian Gentleman’s Residence. They paused; then Duncan half lifted, half pushed her into the gateway, and kissed her.

For an instant there was nothing but the warmth of his arms around her body, and his lips on her cold face, and his smell of boy and Lynx and cigarettes.

And then. She saw hands on a steering wheel, tense and knuckly under street-lights, and his body in the driver’s seat, braced against the brake pedal. She heard a scream and a sickening crunch of scraping metal, and saw it crumpling and lurching like geological strata.

“‘C’mon,” he said, “it’s just round here.”
“Let’s walk!”
“It’s getting cold. C’mon.” And she followed.

As they crossed the road to the car-park, Susanna heard her own name again: “Susie! Soo-seeee!” She turned; it was Chris, almost trotting to catch them up.

“Hi, Chris,” said Duncan, as if nothing had happened. “Fancy a lift?”
“Don’t!” cried Susanna, caught off-guard.
The others looked at her. “Why not?” said Duncan, and Chris’s eyes said, “I know why not.”
“We can walk,” said Susanna, “it’s a nice night.”
You can walk!” said Chris.
“What’s wrong? C’mon!” said Duncan again, keys at the ready.
“Don’t!” repeated Susanna. “I can’t explain, just..”

But she had already lost them, she knew. They were high on the midsummer night and on their youth and beauty and their sense of endless possibility. She had no more right to ask them not to go, and no more hope of being obeyed, than if she’d asked Duncan not to smoke. And she couldn’t go with them: she tried stepping nearer to the car and it made her stomach lurch and her head spin, as if she were standing on a clifftop looking down at rough seas.

The next morning, her anxious eyes scanned the schoolyard for him; but she knew, first of all, that this was nothing but habit, retained after it could be any use; and, secondly, that it was delusional – seeking a refutation of something that she knew to be true.

Miss Bryant entered the classroom, her face set into a mask of noble suffering. Sit down, she said, be quiet, I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news for you. But Susanna barely listened while the others heard that Duncan and Chris were dead, because we don’t want to hear bad news twice. As some of the other girls cried and hugged one another, their hair entangling, she held herself poised in her grief, as she had done throughout the whole of the previous, dreadful night.

Straw Establishments

Like many people, I have a great respect for David Attenborough. However, I was surprised to read his opinion that the BBC should have kept Jeremy Clarkson, citing a need for his “profoundly anti-establishment” voice.

To me, Clarkson seems the very epitome of a certain kind of Establishment. He is a middle-aged, privately-educated white man whose career has been built on driving powerful cars very fast, like Toad of Toad Hall; who thought that public sector workers on strike should be killed in front of their families; and who was eventually sacked for hitting an underling who failed to bring him a steak. A breaker of rules, yes; but only of those rules (road safety legislation, the right to go on strike, and constraints on violence and the treatment of employees) that curtail the powerful.

Attenborough’s comments reveal, I think, the belief we still have that there is a homogeneous, powerful elite that make all the rules, and that those rules serve “them” and not “us”. As part of the Establishment himself, Attenborough believes, democratically, that it should be challenged and questioned; but because he believes that it is homogeneous, he believes that anyone who breaks rules must be anti-Establishment.

Perhaps it was like that, in the past. There is a good case for saying that the legal system and social mores in the pre-modern era were set up to protect the powerful. Draconian penalties were carried out against those who undermined these mechanisms by stealing, or by failing to work, while the wealthy oppressors went free – hence the bitter little Enclosure-era rhyme:

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common;
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from off the goose.

Forging money, as a particularly direct attack on the distribution of wealth, was treason; as late as the eighteenth century, female coiners were still being burnt at the stake. The Church, meanwhile, the other element of the Establishment, provided “parish relief” to prevent outright destitution – always a cause of unrest – but otherwise acted as a cheerleader of whatever government was in power:

And this is law, I will maintain
Unto my Dying Day, Sir.
That whatsoever King may reign,
I will be the Vicar of Bray, Sir!

Perhaps at this point you are shaking your head and saying “But really, what’s changed?” To which I would reply: not everything, but much. I would not argue that society is completely fair, or that inherited wealth and privilege have had their day. I would, however, argue that alongside the rules which protect the wealthy and powerful, we have developed structures and rules which protect the rest of society: those which support taxation for public services, protect employees’ rights, enforce environmental protection, and criminalise violence.

It seems to me that there are two different concepts of “Establishment” prevalent in our society. One is the old Establishment of wealth, inherited privilege and exploitation of the less powerful; the other is the new Establishment of “red tape”, taxation, and controls on what people may do or say. It is the latter which Clarkson is against.

We all wish to liberate ourselves from whichever Establishment we feel is controlling us. But “liberty” is as slippery a word as “Establishment”. The Political Compass Organisation has been arguing for decades that the traditional division between “left” and “right” is inadequate and that it is necessary to consider an individual or organisation’s position, first, with regard to economics (redistributive or not) and secondly, with regard to society (authoritarian versus libertarian). Traditionally, the Left stood for more redistribution and more social liberties. However, in recent years the less redistributive Right has been less concerned than, perhaps, it used to be with controlling sexual and social behaviour, and, since it favours light-touch regulation, has come to position itself as libertarian.

But there is a distinction to be drawn between regulating behaviour for the preservation of the social status quo, and regulating behaviour to mitigate the power of the powerful. In truth, there can be no liberty for all without rules. In a lawless society the powerful always become more so, and the weaker always have their rights curtailed. This is true when common criminals, wife-beaters and muggers and dangerous drivers, are allowed to carry on, and it’s true when employers are allowed to bully their staff, or when companies are allowed to damage the environment, or when landlords are allowed to let out sub-standard dwellings for astronomical prices.

But the belief that regulation is the Establishment and therefore to be resisted is irritatingly prevalent. It was present in the “Brexit” campaign, in which the “Out” campaigners presented themselves as rebels wanting to break free from the shackles of an overweening and ponderous super-state. Britain in Europe was presented as a subject rather than a participant – an impression which was not helped by the equivocal attitude towards the EU from both the main party leaders.

This week, Gina Miller won a court case in which she argued that the Government could not start the formal process of leaving the EU without consulting Parliament. That is, she argued that significant constitutional changes could not be made without the approval of the country’s elected representatives. “We do not live in a tinpot dictatorship,” she said, “we live in a country that has a sovereign Parliament.” The tabloid press described the judges who agreed with her as “Enemies of the People.”

It’s the eve of the US election; Donald Trump has just described his desired victory as “Brexit plus, plus, plus.” Again, an older, wealthy white man – this time with a repellent attitude towards women and immigrants, and a track record of bullying weaker people – is, to some extent, portrayed as an anti-Establishment figure – despite his authoritarian attitude to law and order, abortion and immigration. According to the Washington Post, his supporters believe: “He’s not a politician and not part of the corrupt system. He’s honest and speaks his mind, even if it gets him in trouble.”

Recently, Trump said that he would not accept defeat in the election if it occurred, and claimed that he is the victim of a rigged system. He, at any rate, seems to think he is not of the Establishment. Like a big, greedy toddler likely (let’s hope!) to lose a game, he pleads, “It’s not fair!”

Perhaps this is the big problem with our construction of Straw Establishments: it’s not quite grown-up. In a properly functioning civic society we should all have the right and the ability to participate in governance. As for social mores, we all contribute to establishing and shaping them, whether we do so consciously or not.

Authority, John Humphrys said recently, should always be questioned. But it is not the concept of authority, or of a system of rules, that should be questioned, but how that authority is made up, who contributes to it, and in whose interest its rules are made.

If we insist on defining ourselves as political children who must always either submit to an Establishment, or rebel against it, we fail to participate in it. Then the risk is that, rather than giving ourselves liberty, we throw off the control of the teachers and deliver ourselves into the hands of the school bullies.

Staying Alive in the Supermarket


The modern supermarket is designed to appeal to three of humanity’s baser instincts: firstly, to gather as much food as possible in the shortest possible time; secondly, to minimise effort; thirdly, to avoid contact with strangers.

It wasn’t always that way. A few years ago, when people recognised that town centres were effectively being killed off by supermarkets and started to speak in wistful terms about human contact and being able to choose your own food, the supermarkets responded by pretending they were just the same as a high street, only with all the shops under one roof. Morrisons called its meat, cheese and food counters “Market Street” and publicised it with pictures of beaming apron-clad staff welcoming customers to an Elysium of retail.

But very soon after that, supermarkets began to offer Internet shopping. And then, perhaps, they realised that engaging socially with strangers is never entirely comfortable. It makes our caveman minds apprehensive, nervous of those outside our tribe. It is an effort – as anyone who has gone to any social gathering with a group of friends or colleagues will appreciate: we tend to cling to our gang, and, if we make forays away from it, gravitate back towards them.

Once this was recognised, supermarkets knew which way to go. Maximising ease, and minimising effort, including that human contact which represents wasted effort in our atomised society, determines every aspect of the modern supermarket trip. There is the smooth drive though the spacious car-park, where there are always spaces free and where the shortest destination from your car is always the brightly-lit door of the store itself. Once inside, there are wide aisles, where you need never move from your path to avoid another person; “Deli Express” fridges where cheese and ham are neatly sliced for you to take without pausing or asking; and a soothing mash of unremarkable music so that nobody feels that the silence ought to be broken.

Normally it’s unremarkable. But occasionally they slip up.

The other night I was wandering round Morrisons, wondering if intensive care would feel a bit like this, when “Stayin’ Alive” struck up over the sound system. Now, I don’t listen to the Bee Gees by choice when I’m feeling sad or philosophical, or when I wish to generate an atmosphere of quiet study. But I do have a massive affection for them. When we were teenagers I and my siblings used to celebrate them by dressing up in a parody of 1970s disco – mocking what we really loved, as teenagers do. For me, they still represent a dream of a brighter and lighter-hearted age, in which three oddly-coiffured men in garish suits could conquer the world with their enthusiasm and falsetto.

So I was smiling to myself as I rounded the end of the drinks aisle. And then I saw – or rather heard – someone whistling along, under his breath. It was a man, fortysomething, shabbily-dressed – and I swear he was strutting slightly in his grubby trainers. In his head, surely, he was dressed in sky-blue diamante-studded flares, and any minute now he was going to spin on the heel of his platform shoes and strike a pose.

He saw me smile and looked away, embarrassed.

Of course he was embarrassed: isn’t it transgressive to wander round the supermarket whistling along to the Bee Gees? You’re making a noise, for one thing, which is only permitted to children. And you’re revealing some degree of emotion or inclination beside mere acquisition, within that atmosphere of enforced apathy. And above all, you’re demonstrating human contact – with the absent Barry Gibb and his brothers and with anyone else who might notice the tune on your lips and the spring in your step.

Which just goes to show that being transgressive can sometimes be a good thing. When you are in an environment which effectively forbids so much of what makes us human, it’s good to have a chance event that assists us with – stayin’ alive.





Charmaine Sings “The House Carpenter”.

The Cumberland Arms Come-all-Ye is both remarkably predictable in terms of its format and remarkably unpredictable in terms of its atmosphere. Once a month, a collection of people assemble in the pub’s back room to sing songs at each other, working strictly round the room, with an air of decorum and ceremony.

There are nights when it almost approaches Outsider Art. Those are the nights when everyone forgets their words, or not enough people turn up, or those who do just aren’t that up for it. Then the back room – battered panelling, friezes of torn flyers, and rips in the seats – loses all its chic and becomes merely shabby.

The Come-all-Ye’s best nights are those where people are able to genuinely enjoy each others’ singing, and the gathering coalesces into a good-tempered gang, safe in the Cumberland’s unadorned Arms. Occasionally, then, something magical happens.

When Charmaine started to sing “The House Carpenter”, the semi-occult account of a wayward wife’s comeuppance, I almost resented it in her. For I love everything about that song, in every version I’ve ever heard of it. I love its plaintive and unsettled melody, and the sense of inexorable doom which is present in the lovers’ first parley and ends with their sight of the Hills of Hell. It’s also, oddly enough, the only song that my husband has ever actually told me I ought to sing. Like a good father who hates the thought of a boy pawing his daughter, I didn’t want to hear anyone else carelessly taking possession of and sullying something that I thought belonged to me by virtue of my love for it.

What I had forgotten was that when Charmaine sings it is as though a certain self-protective layer that most of us keep on all the time has been stripped away like orange peel, leaving the tender flesh underneath entirely visible and, for the same reason, entirely bruisable. So, without any apparent modulation of her voice in terms of volume or timbre, she lays the pathos of the tale at our feet. Through her we hear the demon lover’s insistent desire, the wife’s despair when she realises she has left her child for ever, and the quiet horror of her fate.

Perhaps it struck me more because I know that it isn’t just an act. Charmaine’s had serious emotional turmoil in her life. Despair, and sinking, and losing contact with children, are remembered, not imagined, by her.

Now, I’m wary of any critic who puts too much value on “authenticity” in art. It’s a problematic ideology, one which, taken to extremes, can establish a series of barriers to participation – wishing to control people’s access to particular songs, or whole genres of music, on the grounds of their background or life experiences; judging the performer’s fitness to perform rather than the performance; and tending to disdain practice and learning in favour of the more romantic “inspiration”. All art has an element of artifice, and we wouldn’t expect actors only to speak the lines they felt – because then they wouldn’t be acting. Didn’t Laurence Olivier sigh at a method actor, “Why not try acting, dear boy?” And of course, if authenticity implies truth, then it can’t possibly apply to a legend about a demon lover.

Besides, it doesn’t even follow that you sound like you feel. Whitney Houston’s version of “I Will Always Love You” is so polished it’s almost inhuman. Comparing it to the original, people muttered, “Ah, but you can hear that Dolly Parton really meant it.” Which, I understand, she may well have done; but it turned out that the self-abasing vulnerability which the song expresses may have haunted Whitney much more.

All the same, Charmaine’s performance stands out as an example of how no state of mind, however dreadful, is entirely without consolation if some inspiration can be drawn from it. Her singing has a liminal quality – part performance, and part entering for real into the trauma of the ballad and living it again. It is almost painful to hear it, and I don’t think it is easy to live it; but it gives her a touch of genius.

The Beliefs we Don’t Know we Have

I believe that the sky, on a sunny day, is blue.

Of course, in a way, that’s indisputable; the way that light behaves as it passes through the atmosphere causes the sky to appear to human eyes in a shade which, in English, we call “blue.”

But I also believe that the sea on a sunny day is blue – that it’s the same sort of colour as the sky. If you showed me pictures of the sea, the sky, and a glass of red wine, and asked me to choose the odd one out, I’d pick the wine (I often do.) So would you, probably, since you are reading this in English in the twenty-first century.

If you are a classicist, you’ll know where I’m going with this – Homer wouldn’t. He famously referred to “the wine-dark sea.” It’s an odd and striking phrase to us – did he set off at night? Was the sea red with blood? Or was Homer actually colour-blind?

According to Guy Deutscher’s fascinating book “Through the Language Glass”, the phrase made perfect sense to Homer because the form of Ancient Greek which he spoke had a poorer colour vocabulary than English, in which the principal distinction was between “light” and “dark”. Relatively speaking, the sea is dark, almost as dark as wine. The sky is light. They are nothing like one another.

From our birth, we learn how to see the world; and we learn what to think about it, too. And, just as our perception of the colour of the sea seems indisputable, it’s the assumptions about culture that we don’t know we’re making that can sometimes have the deepest roots, because we don’t know they can be questioned. When we observe other cultures, we are more likely to notice the attitudes and behaviours which we do not share.

Perhaps that’s why, lately, it’s seemed to me that every film from the USA that I’ve seen ends with an endorsement of the American Dream and, in particular, the version of it which ends with a hard-working man getting his just deserts in the form of a country farmstead that he can pass on to his children. This even applies to narratives which entail an explicit or implicit criticism of mainstream lifestyles and attitudes, and encourage us to sympathise with those who challenge them.

In Matt Ross’s “Captain Fantastic”, the titular character has brought up his children off-grid in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. They learn self-sufficiency and political theory, celebrate “Uncle Noam” Chomsky’s birthday in lieu of Christmas, and despise wealth. However, when a crisis forces them to re-engage with the outside world, the patriarch comes to question the rigidity of his position. The compromise reached at the end of the firm is that the family settle down in a sunlit smallholding. The eldest boy joins the Ivy League and his siblings go to school.

In David Mackenzie and Taylor Sheridan’s “Hell or High Water”, two bickering brothers rob banks, pursued across the dusty and dilapidated Texas landscape by two bickering cops. The picaresque tale takes a nasty turn when a heist goes wrong. People are killed – including one of the cops and one of the robbers – and it looks as if the game is up.

But there’s a twist. The surviving brother’s motivation for his crime spree is to pay off the mortgage on his family ranch with the money he’s just stolen from the lender. Having done so, he’s able to install his sons and ex-wife, and the discovery of oil beneath the land further ensures their prosperity. The surviving cop works out the full story, but takes pity on the survivor and allows him to escape.

Both films are excellent. They are funny, nuanced, insightful, and deftly evoke a spirit of place. But in both cases, the ostensibly bohemian protagonists end up living the American Dream in its most fully realised form. The patriarch of “Captain Fantastic” has taught his children libertarian socialism, but nothing in either his original isolated establishment, nor his more sedate farmstead, indicates co-operation or redistribution involving anyone apart from his own progeny. The ending of “Hell or High Water” at least seems to imply that if you are working hard for your family’s benefit, then it is only right that you should become rich – even if becoming rich involves robbing banks. (The surviving robber rails against the bank’s extortionate practices, but his eventual solution is not really to challenge them, but to work within them.)

Why does this matter? There is a lot that is good about the American Dream. A belief in potential, in equality of opportunity, and in working towards desired goals, are all good things.

Well, firstly, a philosophy that believes too firmly that the relationship between effort and destiny is predictable – that people create their own destiny by how hard they work – and that any right-thinking person’s desired destiny must entail the accumulation of wealth, is likely to end up socially stratified. Those who are not born to money, and aren’t fortunate enough to make it, will be left behind by a society that doesn’t feel it has to cater for them – and then despised as people who obviously haven’t made the effort.The belief that the individual’s primary responsibility is to his or her own household doesn’t lend itself to helping those who are outside it

But I think an even more significant problem, in this age of climate change, may be the American Dream’s impact upon efforts to bring about a more sustainable society.

Individualism is a poor philosophical framework for dealing with shared assets. Without a sense of collective possession and responsibility, the “tragedy of the commons” results – that which is available to everyone (land, fish stocks, the atmosphere) becomes used to excess so that it is less useful to everyone. In “Hell or High Water” the surviving robber will become rich due to his oil reserves. That’s wonderful for him. But, even in the sweaty, arid Texan setting, the idea that burning his oil might have undesirable impacts is never mentioned. Too much of a belief in individual liberties doesn’t sit comfortably with environmental protection, which requires regulation of resource consumption and waste disposal.

The belief that a family ought to aspire to a ranch, or, at least, a large house with grounds, isn’t compatible with sustainable patterns of development. Lower-density development – many detached houses set apart from one another in mass-produced individualism – is greedy of land. First World cities sprawl across the landscape, replacing habitats, farmland and carbon sinks. It is hard or impossible to serve low-density suburbs with public transport, and walking routes are often absent; the distances involved are too great. So everyone drives, wherever they go, with consequences in terms of carbon emissions and land-take for roads and parking.

It might be seen as foolish or arrogant of me to criticise a culture other than my own as particularly socially and environmentally damaging. However, we are talking about global threats here, and the culture of the world’s second-largest emitter of CO2 can’t be ignored.

Furthermore, the culture of the UK interacts with that of the US – and always has done. I think it would be stretching a point to argue that there is an English Dream which is entirely like the American one, but we still believe in the figure of the “local boy made good” and one of the signs of his having made good is the house in the country. The higher prices developers can command for detached houses – even if their detachment is achieved only by inserting a narrow and functionless gully in between each house and its neighbour – shows that this country, too, puts a high value on individualism. So does our appetite for narratives berating “benefit scroungers” and our recent decision not to co-operate with Europe.

Bringing about behavioural, institutional, and political change, which is required for carbon emissions to be reduced, requires attitudinal change. When a set of beliefs inimical to environmental protection run so deep within a culture that even such adept film-makers as Ross, Mackenzie and Sheridan don’t notice them, and attribute them even to their counter-cultural characters, it seems to me that we have got a long way to go.



We plodded to the bluff, and saw a void
Between striated and serrated walls
Of stone. The raptors ruled that absence, toyed
With’the wind that herds and harries clouds, and bawls
Around the pinnacles, and, crumbling, falls.
Those currents which they’ve bridled, can they see
As interweaving pathways in the air?
And do they revel in their mastery,
Who seem to move in that which is not there,
And dance in three dimensions, debonair?
Perhaps in every life, though feebly planned,
One time arrives – perhaps, in some, it’s more –
When that which you inhabit, you command,
And, rapt in being, in your sky you soar.


We were convinced that the birds we’d seen were eagles. When we got back and zoomed in on our grainy photos, we realised – there was no getting away from it – that they were vultures.

Well, what does it matter? I reckon, it’s all about what G. K. Chesterton meant when he talked about the difference between the mythical lion (the symbol of chivalry which appears on shields and the England shirt) and the real lion (which lives in Africa and is probably no more noble than any other predator). He argues that the mythical one, firstly, does actually exist as a concept, even if it hasn’t got a physical incarnation; and secondly, that it actually matters more, in cultural terms, than the real lion – which most of us are also quite unlikely to see from day to day. What we wanted to have seen was a flock – if they would deign to appear in flocks – of mythical eagles, which are noble and valiant and monarchs of all they survey. We didn’t want to have seen a flock of vultures, who, as we know, work in estate agents or the City of London or the nastier end of journalism.

What we actually saw, however, was a phenomenal spectacle. And there’s nothing like finding yourself admiring something you didn’t expect to like, to make you acknowledge the prejudices you didn’t know you had.

You will see, even now, that I have felt obliged to call this poem “Griffons”.