The story so far – fifteen months on the disaster trail

The shadow over politics, the Brexit shadow, is one vast distraction. I feel I have to escape the shadow before I address other political subjects. But those other subjects – they’re all impacted in some way by Brexit, not least by the uncertainty associated with Brexit.

Take the environment, for example. UK environmental law is tied into European. Projects are EU-financed, standards, ideals, aspirations are shared. I remember at Finistera, at the end of the Camino, last autumn, noting how environment projects there were funded by the EU. I’d shared the Camino with many nations, and I loved that confirmation that many nations shared those standards, lived by a common framework. We know that Brexit free-traders cosy up to climate-change deniers, are casual about man-made changes to the environment – human ingenuity, they argue, has coped, and will always cope. All hinges on that one word ‘cope’.  Does the world we have around us, and that we’re projecting for our futures, mean that we’ve ‘coped’?

Human rights – the European Convention on Human Rights, which followed on from the UN Convention, and unlike the UN Convention is legally enforceable. Before the European courts. So for that reason we should exit it, according to Theresa May. As Philippe Sands (author of the remarkable East-West Street) pointed out when talking at the Cheltenham Literary Festival last Sunday, more than any other country we – the UK – gave Europe the convention. It was a British inspiration. Hersch Lauterpacht, who pioneered so much (beginning life in Lviv, in modern Ukraine: he left in the 1920s, his family were wiped out in the holocaust), was latterly a Cambridge professor.

Farming policy: how will policy change, how will farmers be financed, once we exit the EU, and exit the Common Agricultural Policy? CAP funding is based primarily on the amount of land farmed , so big farmers (mostly Tory supporters) benefit most. On the other hand, to quote a Scottish hill-farmer in a Reuters report: ‘The bloody-mindedness of the French or the Irish in standing up for agriculture was not just standing up for their farmers but brought a good deal for us as well.’ Post-Brexit, where will the money be directed? We are promised ‘a major policy overhaul’. Will the acreage farmed continue to dictate funding?  How might our landscapes change? Will the much-hyped new trade deals bring in cheaper farm imports , with knock-on effects on farm prices – other farming countries have more clout than we do. And what of cheap farm labour from Eastern Europe?  Michael Gove wants to prioritise the environment in any new scheme. But we’ve no idea how that will work out in practice, and legislation will be fast-tracked through parliament – fundamental changes pushed through with minimal public debate.

The Cheltenham Literary Festival has brought to the town an impressive range of politicians, journalists, singers (Peggy Seeger), mountaineers (Chris Bonington), sportsmen (Mike Brearley, Jonny Bairstow), TV stars, performers, poets, novelists….

Among the politicians was Chris Patten. I’ll leave his words to speak for themselves.

Referenda ‘are fundamentally anti-democratic in our system and I wouldn’t have anything to do with them’. (I can’t recall Patten’s exact words in Cheltenham – I’m quoting from another interview he gave.) Leavers in the Brexit campaign peddled a dubious notion of sovereignty (‘dubious’ was his polite word in Cheltenham – I see that elsewhere he’s spoken of ‘all this ideological crap about sovereignty and taking back control’). Brexit itself is ‘the single most calamitous act of self-harm in my lifetime’.

Philippe Sands, also at Cheltenham, put the remarkable achievement that the EU represents in the context of the preceding centuries of war. How casual can we be to turn our backs? He mentioned that Boris Johnson has been a friend for thirty years. How, he wondered, do you sustain such friendships in present times? Brexit has brought the obsessive tendencies of the further reaches of the Right, and Left, to centre stage. The centre ground of rational idea-based, truth-invigilated debate, is out of fashion.

Boris’s dad, Stanley, has written a novel. He and Vince Cable, also a new novelist, were a Cheltenham double-act. Boris’s novel assumes a Russian plot behind Brexit, enough to bring Brexit down. But he himself has changed sides from EU-supporting environmentalist to that contradiction in terms, a Brexit-supporting environmentalist.

Vince Cable outlined how higher education, the number of foreign students in the UK, intra-university cooperation across Europe were being threatened by Brexit. Stanley’s response, ‘Vince may be right, but he may not be.’ That was the limit of his response.

‘He may not be’ – that is standard Brexit-speak. You don’t need to address the detailed argument. It’s enough to suggest these days that’s there’s another point of view, however weak. And that point of view gets equal billing. The climate-change debate over again.

Jeremy Hunt, health secretary, is a one-time Remainer, now a Leaver – the damage, he suggests, to the economy that leaving was supposed to cause hasn’t happened. Is he now a convert to the hard-Brexit free-traders’ prognosis of a free-trade nirvana which will somehow subvert a world where protectionism and self interest are ever more asserting themselves? Or the Hammond soft version?

As the economy,  we haven’t left yet, we’re in a phoney-war period, a state of suspended grace which might just allow us to pull back from the brink – but the brink is too enticing. That itself is another aspect of Brexit – how supposed conservatives, the slow and steady incremental movers of politics, overnight become practitioners of brinkmanship.

Brexit is not only a bizarre course in terms of the economy, it is extraordinarily damaging to the democratic process, not just by giving referenda precedence over parliamentary democracy (so we have the question, can an act of parliament over-ride a referendum result – where does sovereignty lie?) but by polarising debate, taking out the common ground that most of the Right and Left shared until 2015.

Not only is the common ground not shared – it’s now scorned. So the John Majors, Chris Pattens, Nick Cleggs – they are old-school, flag-wavers of a different age. That would apply to me, and to most of my peers …

 

Impermanence

We conjured a turtle on a Cornish beach last Sunday, and slates gathered on the beach were scales for its back. Five hours later, in the gloaming, I watched the incoming tide, the waves creeping, maybe one in three or one in four, a little closer, until they trickled into the ditch we’d dug around the turtle. The shell held out a little longer, maybe ten minutes, until a small wave sloshed gently over the top, and then the undermining was really underway. By the time I took my leave, reluctantly, ten minutes later, there was barely a hump to be seen, as the tide pushed further in.

Impermanence… I’ve also been walking the coast path, from Trevose Head to Morgan Porth, and back, the same terrain, yes, but different perspectives, as if two separate journeys. The coves bite deep, and the caves and sink-holes provide sounding-boards for the waves. The rocks break and twist, as the strata and lines of weakness, and all the vagaries of weather and climate over many millions of years, dictate. And yet it all seems so permanent. Even the flock of oyster-catchers, which piped on a rock platform far below: they were there both outward and inward, though inward the black-backed gulls had flown.

Looking down on Bedruthan Sands from the cliff top, the sand was fresh-swept – the tide bites the cliff, no soft or littered sand, and four girls were playing boule, and their cries just carried to me. The waves which had been a high surf were lapping low, or seemed to from my elevation, and all seemed … well, yes, permanent.  I didn’t want to walk on, and lose that sense of forever.

I found a grassy slope, and sat and looked out to see, blue under blue, aquamarine closer in, where it shallowed, and the rippling smoothness extended in a great curve around me. Another cliff, another cove – snorkellers were taking advantage of low tide and swimming out to a sandy beach.

Where the cliffs come down to Treyarnon beach there’s a steep gully which you can swim through at lowest tide. This, my imagination tells me, is what they do, what I could do, as the observer, every day, and yet – such moments, such times, are rare. The tide will rise, the mists sweep in, and the storms, and the winter …

Joy and a gentle melancholy combine, and a sense of peace, and fragility … that sense of living in the moment, and yet living forever.

 

 

Connections…

How we each connect to events and stories … how our personal connections make them more real for us. My context here is the story Philippe Sands tells in East West Street. (See my last post.)

Poetry is a powerful connector. Sands quotes the Polish poet, Jozef Wittlin, ‘the poet of hopeful idylls’.

‘Where are you now, park benches of Lwow, blackened with age and rain, coarse and  cracked like the bark of medieval olive trees,’ he wrote in 1946.  (Lwow has many names – Lvov, Lemberg, Lviv.)

‘I can hear the bells of Lwow ringing, each one rings differently. I can hear the splash of the fountains in market square, and the soughing of fragrant trees, which the spring rain has washed clean of dust.’

I was reminded of a powerful poem I discovered two or three years ago, To Go To Lvov, by Adam Zagajewski.

To leave/in haste for Lvov, night or day, in September/or in March. But only if Lvov exists,/if it is to be found within the frontiers and not just/in my new passport, if lances of trees/—of poplar and ash—still breathe aloud …

Why do I connect to this – to the many identities of Lvov, its history, the frontiers that change around the city, but the city remains?

In part because in the foolishness of our own times, and the mega-weight of warfare we can bring to bear, and the arrogance of our notions of superiority, we have destroyed cities and communities which date back to biblical times. ‘Our notions’ – innocent, protesting our innocence, we have disturbed the age-old patterns, the habits and simple tolerance that allowed people’s and ways of life to rub along – sometime only just, but they did –  they rubbed along together.

But more, even more, because of the destruction of the Jewish community in Poland and Ukraine.

Martin Buber lectured in Lemberg. He was a passionate advocate of Jewish and Arab coexistence in Palestine, and author of ‘I and Thou’, and he’s long-time hero of mine. Coexistence. Two peoples, side by side. 

Sands’ grandfather moved from Lemberg to Vienna, his mother Ruth escaped Vienna on a train in 1939. Also in that decade, though earlier, my professor at the Warburg Institute, Ernst Gombrich, had left Vienna for London, along with many others from the Jewish community of that remarkable city.

Gombrich suggested to me I might make the Jewish ghetto in 18th century Venice my subject for a PhD thesis. That sadly never happened.

One final link. I see that Sands serves on the board of the Hay Festival, from which we’ve just returned. His advocacy of human rights in the context of international law matches the mood and commitment of many of the speakers at Hay … matches the mood of so many people around the world, their belief that their own small contributions, taking in the aggregate, will ultimately turn the tides of history around, and we as individuals whatever our groups, communities, countries, will come to see ourselves as citizens of the world.

Genocide and crimes against humanity 

This may sound a brutal heading, but it is what this post is about.

I’ve just finished reading Philippe Sands’ East West Street, his remarkable, moving and very personal exploration of the concepts of individual human rights and genocide, and their two great advocates and protagonists, Hersch Lauterpacht and Rafael Lemkin.

The theme is human rights, in their broadest context. For too long, down the ages, the state overrode individual rights in the service of its own interests. On the one hand western European states developed social welfare programmes, on the other, when it came to war, they tyrannised populations, their own and others.

At the level of individual human rights – think of Erdogan’s Turkey, and China, where the interests of the party are paramount.

It begins with the very personal story of Lauterpacht and Lemkin, and takes us from the home city they both shared, Lemberg (also known as Lvov and Lviv), to Vienna, Paris, the USA, Cambridge, and ultimately Nuremberg.

Lemberg, at the time both men were born, was in Galicia, part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire – and later in Poland, in Russia, in Germany, and now in Ukraine. Sands’ grandfather, Leon Buchholz, on his mother’s side was also from Lemberg.

Lauterpacht and Lemberg both became international lawyers of repute and the great stage to which Sands story leads is the Nuremberg trials of 1945-6, when twenty-four leading Nazis were put in trial, including the governor-general of Poland, Hans Frank, who oversaw the destruction of the Jewish population of Poland, and of Austrian Jews sent to the deaths at Treblinka and elsewhere.

Lauterpacht and Lemkin both saw their families who had remained behind wiped out. So too Sands’ family.

The Nuremberg trial gave form and substance to the concepts of individual human rights and crimes against humanity. The British attorney-general Hartley Shawcross’s final statement for the prosecution relied extensively on the work on Lauterpacht, by that time a Cambridge academic of many years standing. Sands captured the intensity of the trial with great skill. Shawcross, basing himself of Lauterpacht, emphasised the individual as the ‘ultimate unit of all law’. There are limits to the omnipotence of the state… ‘the individual human being, the ultimate impunity of all law, is not disentitled to the protection of mankind’.

Both Lemkin and Lauterpacht ‘agreed on the value of a single human life, and the importance of being part of a community’. But genocide, the idea behind genocide, the reality of genocide, gaining acceptance for which was Lemkin’s passion and obsession, was never accepted by Lauterpacht.

The two men never met. But Nuremberg was in a very real sense a stage they both shared. And where they in a sense competed.

Lauterpacht argued that a focus on groups would take the focus off the individual victim, and encourage a sense of group identity in the perpetrator as well as the victim.

Sands sees the merit in both arguments. How could one not see the carefully planned and stage-by- stage reduction of the Jewish people to people without rights, without work, to forced labour, to ghettos, to starvation, to extermination, as actions against a race? As genocide. Likewise the Armenian massacres of 1915.

On other side of the argument, Sands quotes the biologist, Edward O. Wilson, writing in our own time, on ‘group-versus-group’ being ‘a principal driving force that made us what we are … people feel compelled to belong to groups and, having joined, consider themselves superior to competing groups’.

We may talk, some of us, of being citizens of the world, but that sense of competing groups, defined in modern terms as identity politics, is still very much with us. Nonetheless the framework of an individual and group-rights based international order is in place, as it never has been in human history. Sands lays out the sequence.

On 9 December 1948 the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, ‘the first human rights treaty of the modern era’. A day later, the assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document inspired by Lauterpacht’s work.

1998 saw the establishment of the International Criminal Court.

In 2015 the UN’s international law commission started to work actively on the subject of crimes against humanity, opening the way to a possible companion to the convention on genocide.

So we come right up against all the trials and evils of the present. Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Darfur. Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen. So much of it targeting groups, tribes, nations within nations. The latest UN report (February 2017) states that over 65 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes. According to the UNHCR a refugee is ‘someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence’. There are just under 16 million refugees.

And at the individual level, we have Turkey, China, Russia, and many another. We have a long lon way to go. Eternal vigilance, and engagement, is the only way forward.

The Hay Book Festival 2017 

It’s May 2017. The Hay Book Festival surprises yet again. You know it will, one of the great joys is turning up to talks you may have booked in advance – but you never quite know what to expect.

And what you can do of course is not book in advance, head for the box office, see what’s still available, which is most talks, if you’re early enough, and simply take pot luck. Serendipity can have big surprises in store, and rarely disappoints.

Hazel and I took in some talks together, for others we split up and compared notes afterwards.

For anyone interested in getting a flavour of Hay Festival, and not averse to reading something of the ideas and arguments, and the sheer variety of subjects, and the passionate advocacy of many of the speakers – please do read on!

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Wednesday 31st May

11.30. I began with Cambridge historian John Guy on the subject of Thomas More. He traced the remarkable history of More’s ‘Utopia’, its influence worldwide, and disabused us of the notion that More was a serial torturer. John Foxe in his Book of Martyrs, hagiography of the Protestant reformers who suffered in Catholic hands, had a vested interest in accusing More. Hilary Mantel in Wolf Hall follows Foxe, but Guy holds back from criticising her too harshly. Like all of us he’s in a little in awe of her ability to brings characters to life. Guy is also an admirer of Paul Scofield in ‘A Man for all Seasons’, but he stressed that More as a man with an individual conscience that he could not deny (Robert Bolt’s spin on More in his play) is a misrepresentation. More belonged in a 1500 year old Catholic tradition, and his conscience was formed within the church’s teaching.

Why did More write ‘Utopia’? A radical democrat? The reverse is closer to the truth.  He was an elitist, who feared the demos, just as Plato had done, and saw a guardian class as the natural protectors and rulers of the land.

Hazel skipped Thomas More and took in Artemis Cooper (biographer of Patrick Leigh Fermor) on Elizabeth Jane Howard, author The Cazalet Chronicle, the wife of naturalist Peter Scott (when she was still a teenager) and Kingsley Amis, and lover of Arthur Koestler and Laurie Lee. Sounds like someone it would have been interesting to know….

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1pm. We followed with Alistair Sawday, famous for his Special Places travel guides. What struck me above all is Sawday’s ability to talk in a relaxed conversational way, and I could imagine him talking to hotel and inn owners all over Europe, charming, enthusiastic, interested. Pulping 25,000 copies of an early travel guide almost brought the company down early on. He’s an enthusiast for earth closets. He fears that special places, which aren’t smartened up and denuded of character, are getting fewer. But they survive. Telling a wider world where to find them is a double-edged sword – great for the hotels, helping them survive, but a wider awareness and clientele can damage that sense of places apart.

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2.30. My day’s highlight was Cambridge lecturer (in public policy), Finbarr Livesey, in conversation with Andy Fryers. ‘From Global to Local.’ Is globalisation the only paradigm, is hyper-globalisation inevitable?

Livesey puts up powerful counter-arguments, well summed up in one comment: ‘As countries commit to harder, binding targets for emissions reductions, the ideas of reuse, remanufacturing, circularity [as opposed to the linear nature of globalisation, long lines of travel across the ocean] and zero waste will all gain more currency and increase the uptake of these ideas across industry.’ In the light of Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement (yesterday, 2nd June), Livesey’s comment finds an even sharper focus. Industry around the world, we must hope.

Hazel took in Mary Aiken on The Cyber Effect, on how human behaviour changes online, taking in the impact on the developing child to teen sexting. Quoting the Hay programme: ‘She examines the acceleration of compulsive and addictive online behaviours (gaming, shopping, pornography) and the escalation of cyberchondria (self-diagnosis online), cyberstalking and organised crime on the Deep Web.’

Hazel was impressed – wished I’d been there. An example of how you can’t be everywhere at Hay!

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4pm. We ended our afternoon with Hazel listening to Roy Hattersley talking too fast and quietly about his new book in The Catholics, ‘history from the Reformation to the present day’ – and I took in (Thomas More enough for me for one day!) Jeanette Littlemore, professor at Birmingham University, with a talk entitled The Way You Tell It. Her subject being non-literal expression, in this case metaphor, metonymy, irony and hyperbole, in everyday life. College students who don’t have English as their first language can radically misinterpret metaphor. Parents can enjoy themselves on touchline shouting encouragement to their children – but do their children understand? Advertisers have thought it through rather more – one example was a wonderful Boddingtons ad from the 70 with the head (appalling froth to the modern ale drinker!) combed into a quiff, with a comb nearby.

She brought in a wide range of research findings, could have been too many, but she was mistress of her subject, and handled questions brilliantly. Makes you all the more aware of the way we use language.

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Thursday 1st June

We stayed down in the Usk valley, amid pasture and woodlands, with a trip in bright morning sunshine through the Black Mountains back to the Wye valley and Hay. Valley to valley…

11.30. We began our day with an inspiring talk by doctor and pyschiatrist Lynne Jones on her work with her work in disaster zones from Bosnia, to Indonesia, to Haiti, to the Jungle in Calais. The title of her talk (wait for it!): Outside the Asylum: a Memoir of War, Disaster and Humanitarian Psychiatry. PTSD and counselling is what a lot of funding goes into, but Jones provided ample evidence that listening, patient listening, is what’s required more than anything else. She recalled how a Bosnian man apparently objected to her taking photographs – it turned out he wanted his photograph taken, in front of the ruined house where his mother had been killed. He wanted someone with whom to share the experience. Where there are real and serious psychiatric problems it’s above all medication that’s needed.

Jones has a history as a passionate activist, doctor, psychiatrist. She was probably the highpoint of our Hay visit. She is only happy when involved, when engaged, and she puts politicians who rejoice in a narrow homeland focus to shame.

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1pm. Jeremy Bowen talking about his many years as BBC Middle East Editor was next. Title: Our Man in the Middle East. He’s informed, wide-ranging, tolerant, a natural talker, and I’m sure a listener, and one of the wisest voices on the BBC. That came over strongly. I’ve been critical of (sometimes angry at) the BBC’s coverage of the Middle East over the years – too much focused on immediate calamities and picking up the latest Western government line, which has often been too much focused on the horror of it all, and apportioning blame, at the expense of hard and difficult talk about solutions. Talking to a Hay audience Bowen allows himself a broader understanding, the Saudis in Yemen and Assad in Syria both perpetrators of appalling violence – taking sides and demanding retribution something he avoided. Bowen has to practise his trade in a world of instant news which sometimes runs counter to a proper understanding of the issues – and he copes with this probably as well if not better than anyone else. In short – he’s a good guy.

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4pm. Hugh Warwick, on Linescapes: Remapping and Reconnecting Britain’s Fragmented Wildlife, was our next port of call. Passionate and amusing, he’s probably our greatest expert on the hedgehog which for him is an emblematic animal, which has suffered more than most from our practice of dividing the land by way of roads, canals and railways. Hedges, walks, ditches and dykes are a man-made but natural landscape in which wildlife flourished. Take out a hedge and build a fence and wall – and don’t expect to find hedgehogs in your garden. Warwick is passionate about raising awareness, and optimist about solutions such as the wild areas left by motorways along which wildlife can travel, and green areas left on the margins of cropped fields in which plants and habitats can flourish. He argues passionately against the fracturing of ‘wildlife habitats into ever smaller and increasingly unviable habitats’.

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5.30. At the end of the day Hazel headed for ‘Countryfile star and visionary farmer’, and all-round good guy, Adam Henson, on the subject of his Cotswold farm park, set up by his father (‘Like Father, Like Son.‘) And I went for something TOTALLY DIFFERENT! Physicist Roger Penrose talking to Marcus du Sautoy about string theory, which posits too many extra dimensions to be convincing for Penrose, though he’s a fan of the theory, as a theory… about quantum mechanics and Newtonian physics and their incompatibility when it comes ‘reasonably massive objects’, and the predilection among many scientists that it must be Newtonian physics that ultimately must adjust (must they be compatible?)… and about cosmology, and the origins of the universe, and his own theory that mass may ultimately simply fade away, with only photons surviving, and at that point the universe returns to a singularity, out of which a new universe is born, and that process is beyond either birth or death of the universe… I don’t claim reliability or accuracy for my summary!! Roger Penrose is like Stephen Hawking a marvellous example of mental acuity remaining as sharp as ever with advancing age. And good to see Marcus du Sautoy, who took over as Oxford’s professor for the public understanding of science from Richard Dawkins, and whom I’d not come across in person before.

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Saturday 3rd June. We decided two days were not enough. So on a brilliant sunny morning we took the road to Hay in time for a coffee and then three more talks.

10am. We began with Nick Crane and a talk based around his new book, The Making of the British Landscape. We’re back post Ice age, after the Younger Dryas period, 9,600BC and a time of rapid warming, then almost 4,000 years in the blink of an eye to the major inundation (possibly the result of giant landslides which saw 180 miles of Norwegian coastal shelf slip into the North Sea) which finally put the Dogger Bank under water, and turned us into an island. An island of only 12,000 people, on one estimate, no towns, so Roman towns were a radical landscape change. I’ll have to read the book to discover how he thinks villages changed the landscape, and to compare with WG Hoskins’ The Making of the English Landscape, which has always been my bible in the subject. One question I tried to ask – but you have to be aggressive waving your hand! – was whether he thinks the proposal to make the Lake District a World Heritage Site is a good thing. George Monbiot in a powerful and I think misguided piece in the Guardian argued against. Monbiot fears stasis, and would like to ‘re-wild’.

Crane, intentionally he said, didn’t mention either the Bronze Age or Iron Age. He put his reason in the context of politicians misrepresenting history. I should have asked a question – I am of course with him all the way. I’m assuming the issue for him is too-easy and misleading labelling.

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11.30: Hazel checked out a hero of hers, Noel Fitzpatrick, Channel 4’s Supervet, on the subject of ‘Global Health in Man and Animal’. He’s arguing passionately for ‘a single shared medicine linking human and animal health’. Cancer in a dog is almost identical to cancer in a human. Medicine would be shared between species, not one species exploiting another for its own gain. How this might work in practice I don’t know – again, wish I could have been there.

Instead I chose almost on a whim to head off to hear the Turkish novelist Elif Shafak talking about her new novel, Three Daughters of Eve. It was an inspired choice. She talked brilliantly about Turkey, about the language (modern Turkish has been pared back to exclude Persian and Arabic words, to its great detriment), about liberals and academics operating in a hostile world where loss of job or imprisonment could follow any kind of mis-step. (Turkey she pointed out has long had a sense of being threatened by hostile countries on all sides, which puts recent events in an interesting context.) English is a third language, and yet she writes her novels in English – writing in a foreign language heightens your awareness – translating, from my very limited experience, does likewise. But Shafik is operating at a whole other level.

Her novel has three Turkish girls, brought up in Istanbul, studying in Oxford. She describes,a seminar where the lecturer tries to separate the pursuit of an understanding of God from religion. Without success. I’d have asked her about the Sufi tradition in Turkey had I had the chance – how it links with the current resurgence of Sunni Islam. Shafik had earlier brought the 12th century poet and mystic Ibn el Arabi into her talk.

If you think that all this suggests she lives in a rarefied world, you’d be wrong. She’s a powerful advocate of feminist and minority including LGBT rights. A long queue formed for her book signing: when we returned to the bookshop 1 ½ hours later she was still signing – and still talking.

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1pm, positively our last talk! QC and human rights lawyer Dexter Dias talking about his new book, The Ten Types of Human. Trying to illustrate some of the ten types in response to questions from an interviewer initially made it hard going. What Dias has done is use the structure of the ten types, all the product of human evolution, to produce a 800 page book passionately arguing for our engagement – the engagement of all of us – with human rights. The case he took up for the mother of a 15-year-old boy who died in custody, the victim of prison officer violence, was his starting -point for both his advocacy of human rights, and for the book.

I found this summary online of his work, and it’s very helpful as background to a remarkable man: ‘As Queen’s Counsel, he has been involved in some of the biggest cases of recent years involving human rights, murder, terrorism, crimes against humanity and genocide. He chaired and co-wrote the influential Bar Human Rights report to the Parliamentary Inquiry into FGM, has briefed and written reports for the UN around gender-based violence, and works pro bono internationally with survivors of modern day slavery, human trafficking and Violence Against Women and Girls.’

It’s encountering people such as this, and being inspired by them, that’s one of the glories of Hay.

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And that’s it. Another Hay, another year. If you’ve stayed with me this far, thank you – and well done. If you not a Hay habitue, then do head off there, one year, some time soon.

Hay’s slogan this year is Hay 30: Imagine the World. Hay is thirty years old this year. But Hay does more than encourage us to imagine – it inspires us to change it. Advocates of the status quo, or turning inward, of identity politics and self-interest, would get short shrift.

Among the islands

What’s in a name, Juliet asks, as I did in another post, seven years ago, which I’m sure you’ll all remember… or maybe not.

I’m in the Scilly Islands, among the islands and the rocks and ledges, and stories of wrecks abound. Even the smallest rock it seems has a name, testimony to their place in island life. They lie on the horizons, east, west or north, and between them run narrow channels through which for three hundred years pilot gigs (powerful six-oared boats) guided ships coming into harbour at Tresco or St Mary’s.

There are rocks, out-there, obvious, unmissable, save in a storm … and there are ledges, underwater ledges, underhand, lurking as might a shark, and jagged as shark’s teeth.

And the names – I’ll start out west – Great Minalto, Little Minalto, tiny islands with ledges adjacent, and further north, south-west of Samson (an island with its very own tragic story to tell), Castinicks and Peaked Rock. I wonder at Castinicks… To the their north, between Westward Ledge and Middle Ledge, we’ve Stippit, Maiden Bower, Picket Rock and Illiswilgig. There’s deadpan, deadman humour here, Maiden Bower would shelter neither lover or beast, or anyone in between, and what mysteries lie in Illiswilgig?

Off the Bryher coast Moon Rock and Buzza Rock … Why the moon? A crescent moon, above a wave-ripped sea? Who was Buzza? On the coast there’s Droppy Nose Point, which just might be descriptive, if I knew what a droppy nose was. Drooping or dripping….

To the north, Westward and Eastward Ledges, and nearby North Cuckoo and South Cuckoo, and to the south of South Cuckoo, an island or ledge simply named The Flat.
Kettle and Kettle Bottom welcome sailors entering the channel between Bryher and Tresco. The channel is protected by the two large islands east and west, and Hangman Island doesn’t seem quite as ominous as the name suggests – might it just have reminded someone of a gibbet? To the south Appletree Point and Puffin Island seem to welcome you, but beware Great Rag Ledge – and Paper Ledge – I sense understatement here. South of Tresco, more ledges, Conger, Yellow, Mare. And Tobaccoman’s Point.

North of Tresco, Men-a-Vaur reminds us of a Cornish language past. To the south, south of St Helens and Tean, we have yet more ledges – Little Cheese, Great Cheese, Rascal’s, Dog and the disappointingly prosaic Long. South of St Martin’s, Broad and Pigs and Wra lie in wait. And why the name Damasinnas, for a small group of islands? Suggestive of both sin and damnation, and probably having no connection with either.

Ganinick and Ganilly lie west and east, in the Eastern Islands, but what of Great and Little Arthur? Shades of Lyonnese, Arthur’s ancient kingdom, which lies forever drowned between the Scillies and Lands End. Maybe the Seven Steps, also the name of splendid pub on St Martin’s, roughly marks the location.

To the east of Ganilly, Great and Little Innisvouls, to the south Menawethan, to their north, Hanjague (most names have an almost lyrical feel, not this one), and then Hard Lewis Rocks brings us down, down to earth, or to rough water. Far out east, beyond Ganilly, we’re into the wild sea, beyond any island shelter.

Between St Mary’s, Tresco, St Martin’s and the Eastern Isles there’s a wonderful protected space, an ocean Shangri-la, where waves don’t beat and the storm waters don’t surge as they do beyond. A safe haven – but first you have to find your way in.

Finally, circling round, south of St Agnes and Annet, back to extreme danger. The Bishop Rock lighthouse warns you. Rosevean and Rosevear tease you with their gentle names. Trenemene suggests a gentle soul…. and Rags and Inner Rags sound as if they should be good friends.

What should I make of the Biggal of Gorregan – probably my favourite name of all? Jacky’s Rock and Jolly Rock sound cheerful, but I wouldn’t be too cheerful here. I could write a children’s novel with the title ‘The Round Rock of Crebawethan’, I just love the name. I will have to think of what it might be about. To its south is Crebawethan Neck, a narrow and risky-looking channel. And just west of the channel we have Wee, yes, Wee.

Close to St Agnes there’s Menrounds, Menpingrim, Great Menbeam, and to their south, Doctor’s Hole, to their north Old Woman’s House and finally – something simple and brutally honest, Hellweathers. South of St Agnes, another favourite – Great Wingletang, next to Grandfather Hugh’s Point.

And that, my friends, is it. We’ve come full circle, back where we started, to the North West Passage, Minalto to the north, Annet (and Minmanueth and Butterman’s Point) to the south, and The Road, heading hopefully into St Mary’s and Hugh Town, to the east.

But better if you can to skirt all this trouble, head to the north, with your cargoes of spices and other Eastern wonders, or to the south, heading for the English Channel. But countless ships never made it, and their wrecks make for wonderful stories, read by the firelight, on a stormy night… and so too the names of the rocks and ledges that brought them down.

Out on to the Silk Road …

The new Silk Road – will the direction of traffic be primarily east to west, west to east, or both – and who will control the flow?

I’ve posted recently on the subject of history, and how we abuse it. But sometimes we do need the big picture, and I’m thinking here of China President Xi’s $900 million Belt and Road initiative to build a modern-day Silk Road.

History provides a vital context, and a warning.

Forty-six nations attended a gathering in Beijing last weekend. Heads of state from Rusia and Turkey were there, though not from Europe. The EU held back from endorsing a final statement because it didn’t stress ‘transparency and co-ownership’. India argued the scheme is ‘little more than a colonial enterprise [that would leave] debt and broken communities in its wake’.

Philip Hammond attended (not our high-risk foreign secretary, I note), relishing the opportunity for trade deals. In his speech to delegates he argued Britain was a ‘natural partner’ for China. ‘China and the UK have a long and rich trading history…’  Others have commented that the Chinese, remembering the 19th century Opium Wars, and the great British imperial enterprise, might see this ‘natural partnership’ in  different way.

There’s something telling in this sycophancy. Sycophancy comes out of weakness, not strength. The EU holds back, argues from a position of strength. India is rebarbative, confrontational, overstates it – yet there’s truth lurking there. Circumspection has its merits.

Britain in the 16th century set up its own maritime Silk Road, along with the Dutch, Portuguese and (less successfully) the French. The Belt and Road initiative is the land route reasserting itself. The old oceanic skills of Empire will no longer help us. We are one of many, supplicants, out on a western European limb.

There will be many camel trains along the new road, if it develops the way the Chinese wish. We might just be a little lonely. On a camel train, as out on the ocean, there is strength in numbers.