Apology gets political

Apologia: ‘a formal written defence of one’s opinions or conduct.’

Apology: ‘a regretful acknowledgement of an offence or failure.’

The focus these days is on regret. It’s easier it seems to regret than defend.

‘Democrats are a sorry bunch,’ always expressing regrets, ‘for racial, gay or women’s rights, failing to call out sexism and harassment, dubiously claiming ethnic heritage and for being white and privileged.’ (David Charter writing in The Times last Saturday)

Their ‘apology tour’, Charter continues, ‘contrasts with the man they all hope to beat next year. President Trump has tweeted that it is the media that owes the nation an apology after the Mueller report…’

Charter’s is an odd piece. It almost reads as if he’s on Trump’s side. But he makes a powerful point. If you not only dictate the agenda, if you set the agenda, as Trump has done to a remarkable degree, you’re in the driving seat. If you’re always looking over your shoulder you won’t win the race.

On the same day there was a good piece in The Guardian on this subject. But a very different context. Entitled ‘Battle lines’, it’s well-summed up by the intro: ‘It’s given us Harry Potter, The Hunger Games and many spellbinding stories. But now the world of Young Adult fiction is at war with itself. There have been accusations and public apologies, novels have been boycotted and withdrawn. There have even been death threats against authors. What is going on?’

The vehicle for all this is of course social media. I’m not a regular user. But if I was an author wanting to get to the widest audience, I would be.

Put a racist character in a book, and they might assume your racist. Write outside your own colour, or indeed gender, and you run a risk. Your perception might not be another’s, and they may be vociferous on the subject.

My answer, for what it’s worth… Avoid correction and apology. (And avoid apologias as well.) For publishers as much as authors. If criticism is legitimate, acknowledge it. Otherwise hold out. Easy to say, I admit.  But as the author of the Guardian article (and it is, unlike Charter’s, a very good piece), Leo Benedictus, says, ‘It may not be realistic to hope for restraint from social media, but it is clearly what’s required.’

One consequence is that supporters of gender and racial equality damage their own cause by this relentless and sometimes vicious self-examination. Supposed supporters of Democratic candidates for the presidency likewise. Give authors, give candidates space to breathe. Recognise they make mistakes, leave them be, save for the most egregious offences. It doesn’t mean you don’t criticise. But you don’t harangue. Avoid instant reactions, that immediate resort to social media when something offends.

Go beyond that, and the wider public you’re looking to influence, or looking to for support, will turn to the likes of Trump instead, and say they prefer the simple, the unvarnished, the non-truth, to all this argument and introspection. Gender and racial issues are inconvenient for many. They don’t wish to face up to them. Don’t give them a let-out – an easy, Trumpian let-out.

The beech and the oak – and the ash

So much going on out there… and a nature diary?

Yes indeed – time to walk, or if you’re so inclined, as I am, to run, out into the hills, through the woods, and the farmland. Seek out another perspective on the world.

Six weeks ago the first pale green leaves showed on the beech, now the wood is dark, and the light seeks out chinks, or clearings where the foliage is less intense. Many climb tall, planted close together. In time, many years hence, they will be harvested, fuel for our wood burners.

But, given the chance, beeches spread their trunks wide. On one, pollarded long ago, I counted ten trunks. It and its fellows mark the edge of the woodland, where it meets the big hedge-less field, where the barley now four-feet tall is growing abundantly.

Oaks are fewer where I run, but they are there. I know of none of the old, the 500-or-600-year-old, oaks. But across the Severn estuary, into the Forest of Dean, they are abundant. Felled for shipbuilding – and replanted (at Nelson’s instigation, so I read) for the same purpose. But by the time the trees had matured iron had become the main building material.

Can you mention the oak, without mentioning the ash? I often wondered about the old saw, ‘when the ash’s before the oak, there’s bound to be a soak’. When in my experience was the ash in leaf before the oak? Never. (I read that, back in the 18th century, the ash did sometimes beat the oak. But our climate has changed.)

The ash. … the ash is in crisis. They always gave a lighter cover, with their compound leaves. But now leaves are fewer, twigs and branches bare.

I used to sing the old Welsh folk song, The Ash Grove, at school.

The ash grove, how graceful, how plainly ’tis speaking;/The harp through it playing has language for me…/I lift up my eyes to the broad leafy dome…/The ash grove, the ash grove again is my home.

The lover found solace beneath the ash. And now it seems it is the ash itself we must weep for. Our only solace – there are resistant strains, we can replant.

The ash is woven not only into song but into our history – and Norse mythology. What off Yggdrasil, the great ash if Norse mythology? Must the tree of the gods also suffer dieback? (There is a symbol for our times!)

‘The ash is of all trees the biggest and the best. Its branches spread out over the world and extend across the sky. Three of the tree’s roots support it and extend very, very far. …The third … root of the ash extends to heaven, and beneath that root … [there] the gods have their court.’ (Extract from the Prose Edda, see also below.)

Tree recognition hasn’t been a strong point of mine.  How might ash differ from sycamore or oak, or lime or white poplar? I knew the shapes, sort of, but I guessed. Now I know the ash. They are in groves, and near me, lining hedges, and especially, they’re where local farmland rises to a gentle summit, prominent, lording over the land. They are thinner now, you can see through them. When they go, so will our landmarks.

(Ash and sycamore – I puzzled a day or two ago over two trees apparently growing together, their trunks conjoined – it’s called inosculation.)

At a more mundane level, we were wondering over lunch – is there a plan, a national plan, to replant? Or at least recommendations? Or guidance? None as far as we can tell. A recent report in Current Biology estimated a total cost to the nation of the loss of trees (no mention as far as I am aware of replanting – of ultimately restoring the landscape) at £15 billion.

And the ash trees that line our lanes? Are they the farmer’s responsibility? The local council? Primarily the latter, according to the report. I’m told when they’re felled in the diseased state, weakened by fungus, they shatter, and there is a mighty mess.

I’ve recently returned from the Hay Book Festival. Robert Macfarlane was there, talking about his new book, ‘Underland’. There’s a marvelous chapter that focuses on the ‘understorey’ in woodland, where fungi spread their hyphae, a network which not only consumes dying matter but also supports the living.

‘The relationship between plant and fungi is all about exchange, swapping chlorophyll for nutrients, but far more than this, ‘the fungal network also allows plants to distribute resources between one another … sugars, nitrogen and phosphorus can be shared between trees in a forest:  a dying tree might divest its resources into the network for the benefit of the community, for example, or a struggling tree might be supported with extra resources by its neighbours.’ (Underland, p98)

But the dieback fungus is at another level, a fungus which feeds only to destroy. A dead-end fungus.

So I despair to see the ash die back. And I wonder what lies ahead. But I also wonder at what lies beneath. My eyes have been opened to something extraordinary. But as town-dwellers, most of us, we take it all for granted.

We take the ash for granted.

**

(Prose Edda, Gylfaginning, 15) “The ash is of all trees the biggest and the best. Its branches spread out over the world and extend across the sky. Three of the tree’s roots support it and extend very, very far. One is among the Æsir, the second among the frost-giants, where Ginnungagap once was. The third extends over Niflheim, and under that root is Hvergelmir, and Nidhogg gnaws the bottom of the root. But under the root that reaches towards the the frost-giants, there is where Mimir’s well is, which has wisdom and intelligence contained in it, and the master of the well is called Mimir. …The third root of the ash extends to heaven, and beneath that root is a well which is very holy, called Weird’s well (Urd’s well). There the gods have their court.

George Orwell – lessons for a post-truth world

How do you define an essay, and how does an essay differ from a blog, or an article by a newspaper columnist?

Bernard Crick in his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition (published in 2000)  of George Orwell’s essays attempts a definition: it can be moral, didactic and serious … it can be informal and flexible, ‘above all it leaves the reader in some uncertainty about what is going to be said next’.

By comparison so much contemporary discourse is predictable: read a blog, your favourite blog, and you’ve a good idea what it might say.

Orwell as we all do had favourite themes (though he often surprises), but he approaches them in ways that are never tedious or predictable. The Prevention of Literature begins at a PEN Club meeting, ostensibly celebrating John Milton and freedom of the press, where none of the speakers highlight that freedom of the press means the freedom to criticise and oppose. (Two speakers eulogise the Soviet Union.) Antisemitism in Britain begins with specific examples (‘No, I do not like the Jews … Mind you, I’m not anti-Semitic, of course’), Politics and the English Language with passages which exemplify ‘a few of the bad habits which spread by imitation’, and How the Poor Die takes off on a harrowing journey based on his own experience in Hopital X in Paris in 1929.

The greatest joy in reading Orwell is his lucidity – and the sheer breadth of his experience and reading. (In Books v Cigarettes he owns to having just 442 books, and yet his range of reference and quotation is remarkable. There were of course always libraries.) His essays are models – and reminders – for our own time, as they were for the 1940s.

Likewise his conclusions. ‘The Catholic and Communist are alike in assuming that an opponent cannot both be honest and intelligent.’ We no longer have a Russian ‘mythos’ (‘true individuality is only attained through identification with the community’) but we have ‘mythos’ which are all our own, and a society which in recent years has become more divided and less tolerant.

We don’t play with ideologies as they did in Orwell’s time. But we tailor what we say or write, more dangerously, we tailor what we think, to received notions, put identity and security before intellectual challenge.  ‘A bought mind’, now as then, ‘is a spoilt mind.’

Orwell continues: ‘Unless spontaneity enters at some point or another literary creation is impossible, and language itself becomes ossified.’ What applies to literature also applies to politics.

What we also get from Orwell is a portrayal of the mood of his times, the anxieties of a wartime and immediately post-war would where one spectre of totalitarianism has been removed but another is asserting itself ever more strongly, good minds all around Orwell are signing up, and tempering their beliefs and writing to what they deem a higher cause. Orwell doesn’t question the aim, the emancipation of the working class, but is adamant that Soviet Russia isn’t the vehicle by which that might be achieved.

(We also pick up on his anxieties about a post-Christian, avowedly humanist society, where socialism as as an ideal, as an alternative to the afterlife, has been compromised, maybe fatally.)

Totalitarian regimes require misinformation, they write and re-write their own histories (pro-Soviet intellectuals were caught out by the 1939 German/Soviet pact, and caught out again when Germany invaded Russia in 1941). But apologists for Russia weren’t the only enemy.

‘Any writer or journalist who wants to retain his integrity finds himself thwarted by the general drift of society rather than active persecution.’ Examples include ‘the concentration of the press in the hands of a few rich men, the grip of monopoly radio and films, the unwillingness of the public to spend money on books…’

Misinformation in our own time has been well-disguised: it’s about how the news is framed and who does the framing – about how we, as watchers and listeners and readers with it, are manipulated. But post-Brexit, post-Trump, in the recent German election, it’s out in the open. Which side is putting out ‘fake news’?

Many of the essays were written for Tribune, and that meant a left-wing and intellectual audience. I’d guess that Orwell would love to have written for a wider audience, to have hustled in alongside a newspaper magnate (or maybe not!) as Michael Foot did with Beaverbrook in the 1930s, or better still find popular media outlets that weren’t in the hands of rich men. 1984 and Animal Farm, written at the same time as the Tribune essays, did of course break through, but at the level of the educated middle- not working-class. So the best Orwell could do, the best he could hope for, was to influence other writers, other opinion-formers, to lay out a course between the intolerancies of the Tory (and Catholic, as he saw it) right and the radical and Sovietised left.

He does this with grace and precision at the conclusion of his essay of antisemitism, arguing for integrity based on self-examination:

‘I defy any modern intellectual to look closely and honestly into his own mind without coming upon nationalistic loyalties and hatreds of one kind or another. It is the fact that he can feel the emotional tug of such things, and yet see them dispassionately for what they are, that gives him his status as an intellectual.’

Hatreds and loyalties aren’t confined to nationalism of course. (Another subject on which Orwell writes with great insight.) My only caveat is his use of the word ‘intellectual’. It is not beyond all of us in our educated world to step back and step back and view our world dispassionately.

One obstacle, a fundamental one, to our doing so, is our use of language.  Orwell is explicit on the subject in Politics and the English language:

‘…the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language … one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy … where you make a stupid remark it will be obvious, even to yourself. Political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change all this in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits …’

There’s a mighty challenge here, and the first thing I must do is re-read what I’ve written here – is it an essay or a blog or just a few ruminations ? – and see how it fares when judged against Orwell’s high aspiration.