Reason in an age of terror: vital reading from Albert Camus

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Photography by Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images

As I write this, I am being told by an incessant stream of news and media outlets that I am living in a city and a world in which an astonishing number of my fellow human beings are trying to kill me.

This is not true.

One cannot see the modern world as it is unless we are able to lift the veil of hyper-sensationalist media coverage, which increasingly fictionalises reality.

The overall average likelihood of dying in any kind of terrorist attack worldwide is 1 in 9,300,000 (9.3 million).

You are 14 times more likely to die in your bathtub than in a terrorist attack, 11 times more likely to die by slipping during a shower, 16 times by lightning, 517 times more likely to be murdered (there is on average one murder every 60 seconds worldwide), 991 times by self-injury, 500 times in a car accident (3,000 people die every day in road accidents worldwide), 450 times by falling, 118 times by accidental drowning, 41 times in natural disasters (earthquake, flood etc.), 25 times by choking on food, 13 times by a dog bite, 4 times by falling off a ladder, 1.8 million times by a heart disease, 1860 times by electrocution, 93 times by bee sting, and 3 times more likely to die by a snake bite or food poisoning. (Source)

There are, of course, acts of terror committed by individuals across the world in which innocent people are killed. 2017 was ushered in with a shooting at a nightclub in Istanbul; and has since seen car bombs kill civilians in Mogadishu and Kabul, a shooting in Belfast, and – this week – a rogue vehicle and knife attack  in London. These events are, undeniably, terrible. Yet they remain incredibly rare. Of 162 terrorist attacks worldwide in January this year, only 14 caused more than ten deaths – and these all took place in countries suffering extreme political unrest, including war-torn Syria. The fact remains that the chances of being caught up in such an attack in any Western country remains almost infinitesimally small.

Yet our 24-hour news culture would have us believe that those around us would sooner seek to attack, injure or kill us than help us; and this helps perpetuate the fear of terrorism. See for example, the extremely emotive and theatrical language used in the Daily Mail’s front page story that claims “Jihadis” can find instructions on how to implement a rogue vehicle terrorist attack using Google in less than two minutes.  Such lack of consideration for either facts or for the language with which outlets report the news reinforces the idea that we live in a manufactured and artificial world, where it is difficult to attain a semblance of actuality or reality – and nigh impossible to separate fact from fiction.

This hysterical response also helps spread the ideas that terrorism requires in order to have any meaningful impact. It distorts reality by not providing the full context of attacks, nor considering the wider-influences of them. We are limited only to the immediate background and ideology of attackers, and perhaps some consideration may be given to their state of mental health. But we are not reminded of the sources of different strains of terrorism: British Imperialism in Ireland; Globalisation; the fall of European empires; war in the pursuit of oil; the deals made shortly after the second world war between leaders of the Western world and neo-conservative leaders in Islamic states to consolidate power in the hands of followers of Wahhabism and other extreme forms of Islam.

Without the benefit of context, our world becomes that much more terrifying.

This is because human beings are, and will continue to be, ultimately rational creatures who look to make decisions based on reasoned logic. We are tool makers and problem solvers; yet our brains can only process the information they are given – and it is this information that is increasingly distorted, so that we are only ever presented with a world that is bleak and terrible and awful; and this in turn leads us to fear those around us, which itself leads to more anger and suffering.

Because we are rational, it is vital we remember we live in a world of contradictions; one that is both beautiful and good, and one that can be ugly and evil.

Few authors have written on this with as much clarity or astute insight as Albert Camus.

Writing in the mid-1940s, a time in so many ways as bleak – if not more so – as our current climate of shootings, catastrophic climate breakdown, unacceptable wealth inequality, and globalised conflict, Camus’ magnificent essay ‘The Almond Trees’, calls on us to remember what it is to be human.

We’ve picked out a few choice extracts below:

“We have not overcome our condition, and yet we know it better. We know that we live in contradiction, but we also know that we must refuse this contradiction and do what is needed to reduce it. Our task as [humans] is to find the few principles that will calm the infinite anguish of free souls. We must mend what has been torn apart, make justice imaginable again in a world so obviously unjust, give happiness a meaning once more to peoples poisoned by the misery of the century. Naturally, it is a superhuman task. But superhuman is the term for tasks [we] take a long time to accomplish, that’s all.

Let us know our aims then, holding fast to the mind, even if force puts on a thoughtful or a comfortable face in order to seduce us. The first thing is not to despair. Let us not listen too much to those who proclaim that the world is at an end. Civilizations do not die so easily, and even if our world were to collapse, it would not have been the first. It is indeed true that we live in tragic times. But too many people confuse tragedy with despair. “Tragedy,” [D.H.] Lawrence said, “ought to be a great kick at misery.” This is a healthy and immediately applicable thought. There are many things today deserving such a kick.”

How should we deliver such a kick to our propensity to fall into thoughts of misery and tragedy? Camus argues it requires us to cultivate our minds, and recall our propensity for rationality of thought. He explains, “We will not win our happiness with symbols.  We’ll need something more soild.”

Continuing with this train of thought, he adds:

“If we are to save the mind we must ignore its gloomy virtues and celebrate its strength and wonder. Our world is poisoned by its misery, and seems to wallow in it. It has utterly surrendered to that evil which Nietzsche called the spirit of heaviness. Let us not add to this. It is futile to weep over the mind, it is enough to labor for it.

But where are the conquering virtues of the mind? The same Nietzsche listed them as mortal enemies to heaviness of the spirit. For him, they are strength of character, taste, the “world,” classical happiness, severe pride, the cold frugality of the wise. More than ever, these virtues are necessary today, and each of us can choose the one that suits him best. Before the vastness of the undertaking, let no one forget strength of character. I don’t mean the theatrical kind on political platforms, complete with frowns and threatening gestures. But the kind that through the virtue of its purity and its sap, stands up to all the winds that blow in from the sea. Such is the strength of character that in the winter of the world will prepare the fruit.”

As writers, creatives, and free-thinking individuals, it is vital we use our ability to articulate reasoned thought and ideas into responsible arguments and theses. We must not be caught up in the traps of misery and despair so many media outlets create for us. As Camus notes, this requires a great strength of character – even “superhuman” effort – but this doesn’t make it any less necessary or vital today.

Read Camus’ full essay online.

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“You had me at ‘haiku’” – why so many people wrote haikus for the NHS

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When we first launched our inaugural poetry project, ‘Haikus for the NHS’, we couldn’t have predicted the incredible response we received. With over 200 haiku submissions from poets and writers across the world, the team here at Nothing in the Rulebook were, quite simply, blown away by the support and eagerness of fellow creatives to get involved.

Our competition winner, John Blackmore, spoke movingly about how he “found the poetry project and felt literally moved to write.”

So what exactly was it that moved so many people to contribute their haikus in support of this project?

We spoke to dozens of those poets who made our short-and long-lists (read their haikus online here) to find out. Their responses are published here below:

Shortlisted poet Sarah Purvis was moved by the power of protest poetry to inspire others to action:

“I chose to submit a haiku to be used to support this campaign because I believe that effective protest poetry is a powerful way to ignite emotion and create a lasting imprint on the human conscience. I believe that our NHS is invaluable and have witnessed first hand the dedication, passion and kindness that NHS staff innately possess, through various hospital stays and care provided for myself and my family. Our NHS reflects the values of our society as it supports inclusion and compassion. The conservative government continues to eradicate all that is ‘human’ in society, casting an impersonal blanket of privatisation, which continues to suffocate our NHS. I wanted to show my support for the NHS in a very human, subjective way; a way in which we can all freely express the essence of important issues – through creativity.”

Many poets, including Katie Bell, Joan Barker and Charlie Rowland, spoke about their personal experiences of using the UK’s National Health Service and the importance for all of us to support it through any means necessary.

“I entered the Haikus for the NHS poetry project mainly due to the fact I rely heavily on the NHS – I have marfan syndrome and scoliosis, which meant I had to undergo numerous cases of major surgery. Without the NHS’ support, I would’ve been unable to afford the surgery. It really shocks me how the system is failing, and I hope the haikus everyone submitted help the NHS start to try their best to reform and survive.” – Katie Bell

“I recently started taking part in a Monthly Creative Writing Competition being run by my mobile phone provider.

I would see the title of that month’s competition and within a few days my work was thought out, sketched out, fleshed out and then finally sent out with a sense of achievement (and not a little excitement that it might win).

Then my husband was diagnosed with cancer and my time and energy was focused on him and our interaction with the NHS.

I found that the choice of topics for the competition no longer inspired me and I stopped submitting an entry.

It  was with a wonderful sense of irony therefore that, when I found out about your competition I was immediately enthused and the words came without any effort.

The end result succinctly summed up what I feel about the people who are looking after my husband and the knowledge that we are all responsible for keeping them safe; not just physically but as part of an essential organisation.

Is there a point to “Poetry as Protest”?

Poems themselves may not cause change to happen but their creation may encourage others to action.

They can also alert those who are part of the change-making process that people are aware of what is going on. They can never say that didn’t know how people felt and that they did what they did because no one cared.

I would say that anything that can affect others on an emotional level has to make a difference.” – Joan Barker

“I wanted to submit to this particular project, probably for the same reason that a lot of people strongly about the NHS.

They have helped my family countless times without ever wanting thanks. They provided palliative care for my Grandma in her final days; they nursed my son back to health when he had pneumonia. My mum was also a Nurse when I was young, so the NHS was part of our household income.

Let’s not forget the families on the other side of the care workers lives who rely on the NHS for their income. Funding cuts will dramatically effect their financial security and cause stress and worry. We have a right to say we’re not happy about the Government’s decisions especially as it effects millions of people lives.” – Charlie Rowland.

For others, such as Karen Rodgers, Robert Holtom and Sean Smith, the NHS is a vital part of society, and hugely symbolic of the power of political ideals that have been systematically attacked and undermined by the incumbent Conservative Government. And, as such, they felt moved to use any form of resistance – including poetry – to protest these devastating and ideological tory policies to help save the NHS.

“I entered the NHS Haiku competition because I feel strongly about how important the health service is to the community. I think good health can be taken for granted, sometimes, but when you’re sick the health service is there to help and support people and their families, hopefully, back to good health. Being sick is stressful enough, without the worry of financial issues. Doctors and nurses should be celebrated for their caring and professional manners. Writing expresses feelings and thoughts, and is such a powerful tool.” – Karen Rodgers

“Hundreds of nurses with patients on beds flooded the stadium, a giant Queen of Hearts was there and lots of Mary Poppins flying about by umbrella. As the dance unfolded the beds were pushed together and lights were lit to spell the ‘NHS’ – it was epic. That was part of the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics and I can still picture it now. Given the government was already imposing austerity and cutting our public health services it was also a moment of beautiful protest. The NHS is testimony to what can be achieved when people come together to improve all the nation’s health and well-being. And it must be free at the point of delivery to ensure it transcends our abysmal class system and the inequality it creates. We can’t give up on the NHS and whether it’s a display of Olympian proportions or the three lines of a Haiku we must keep celebrating and defending it.” – Robert Holtom

“I live in Ireland but was born in Manchester so experienced the NHS at first hand in 1962. My Mum also worked as a nurse so had a direct input into the NHS at the time. I believe the NHS to be one of the most important progressive pieces of social legislation in the twentieth century. The thought that governments in Westminster have spent the last twenty or so years trying to dismantle the NHS is extremely worrying. Having experienced the Irish health system, I know that allowing a small sector of business people to turn public health into profit is a recipe for disaster and will have a direct negative effect on the most vulnerable people in society. If poetry can be used to bring attention, consideration and protest to this impending debacle then it serves a very worthwhile purpose. Long live the NHS!” – Sean Smith

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Photo credit: Ed Lederman/PEN America

And other creative comrades were inspired by the power of poetry – and the arts in general – to facilitate change and serve as tools of protest:

“I work for a charity with strong links to healthcare and am very angry about the number of privatised services in my city – it’s happening very much under the radar and it’s frontline services- those which should be responsive to patients not beholden to shareholders. I also love poetry and a challenge – a triple whammy- although to be honest, you had me at ‘haiku’!” – Andrea Mbarushimana

“I believe the arts in general are a powerful protest tool, whether that be through film, theatre, photography, painting, prose or poetry. I think the way NITRB is planning to disseminate the poetry is an effective way to show our support for the NHS and make various salient points to the government. (Some would even make great placards.) I have always been passionate about the NHS, it is our civil right to have a fully effective and free health service regardless of income. It is perhaps the greatest institution to have ever been introduced to Britain not just for the health benefits, but for social equality, too.” – David Milligan-Croft

“I always believe in the power of poetry, and to me good poetry is like a national healthcare service that should be available to all. Ah, a person without healthcare is like a poet without a poem.” – Ernesto P. Santiago

“As a young man growing up in Cardiff, I came upon a statue of Aneurin Bevan.  I remember feeling immensely proud that a welshman had come up with the idea of a socially inclusive and nationally supportive idea, that is the NHS.  At its inception in 1948, Bevan, the then Labour Health Minister, famously said; ‘The NHS will last as long as there are folk left with the fate to fight for it ’ – That is precisely why I am compelled and proud to add my voice to this campaign.

A little over a year ago, I stumbled on a book of Haiku poetry, in a wonderful little bookshop in Bath.  I fell for this very poignant style of sketching out a thought or idea, in a naturally free and impulsive style.  Ever since, Haiku has provided me with the opportunity to take a creative time-out moment.  It allows for me to capture a feeling or moment in words, in much the same way a photograph can capture a visual image.

As we have seen, from the popular idea that the Haikus for the NHS project has presented; a few carefully chosen words, committed to a single idea, can have a profoundly powerful and emotional impact. Words can and do make a difference.” – Michael Gerard

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And we also heard stories from Maureen Miller and Courtney Lesa Minto that provided us with two international perspectives on how both the NHS, and the idea of using haiku as a medium of creative protest, literally transcended international and geographical borders, spanning oceans and cultures:

“Like most Yanks, I was introduced to the National Health by a Beatles lyric. Not that pop lyrics are poetry, but they help you to understand when you’re being stopped from doing everything you can. My workplace, one of the largest government hospitals in the US, pops songs without lyrics in the halls between the new and old buildings at all hours. Lost patients and doctors walk it dazed and out of step, their back-and-forths through the additions fighting death Muzak from above. It’s poetic, by which I mean tragic, romantic and tragic, maybe recognizable. That’s the vibe I got from British junior doctors in the London Review of Books, anyway, and they have a bang-up poetry section, plus their payroll gave this editor I know insurance for eyeglasses he couldn’t get here. My brother, paraphrasing Shelley, once made fun of people who need poetry to protest by saying his eighth grade English students were the unacknowledged legislators of the world. He meant that children already knew what Shelley meant without having read him. The same is true of doctors who see everyday with those specs that universal health care works. If saving the NHS requires a schoolchildren’s scrum, so be it. Get in it. The people in charge need to be knocked into some sense from the adults in the room.” – Maureen Miller

“I may not be a UK resident, however across the 16,000 kilometres between us, I stand with the poetry for protest movement and I stand with the National Health Service.

Upon learning of the ‘Winter Crisis’ and the planned March movement, paired with [Nothing in the Rulebook’s] planned poetry for protest distribution, both the movement and the heart of the NHS captivated my support.

To protest with such a loud silence… to give the most silent and meditative form of poetry the power to communicate volumes to the hearts and ears of a crowd… it leaves one beyond words.

I think that the way people protest says a lot about who they are protesting for, and so I felt compelled to write and submit my haiku on behalf of the hearts across the world who stand with the NHS.

I may be only one seventeen year old Australian girl, however I stand proudly for the hearts outside of UK borders who have been touched in some way or another, be it family members or friends or simply admiration, by the health of the NHS.

The National Health Service and all of the life saving doctors and nurses and all in between who have suffered from funding cuts and staff salary reductions, have international support.

I stand and write, beyond her borders, in support for the NHS.” – Courtney Lesa Minto, Australia

What so many of these moving and inspiring comments prove is poetry’s ability to produce a visceral effect that can inspirit, inspire, and transform those who read and hear it. And it is this that makes poetry such a powerful tool for speaking out against the wrongs of the day – for channelling the universal human feelings of every man and every woman into something meaningful and real, into a form of protest and resistance.

 

Faking Lit: A serious podcast about books

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Faking Lit is a new podcast in which five rising comedians (Chin Tee, Daniel Offen, Haran X, Alice Burden and Josh Bellman) get together to discuss the finest works of classic literature, the twist being that none of them have actually read the book.

The podcast has been started primarily as an excuse to eat various pies, which are lovingly produced each week by Alice. Ideas about growing the profiles of five talented young comedians are very much secondary to this objective.

“In essence, we’re five comedians who met at the Edinburgh festival (where most of us took successful shows) and we’re incapable of hanging out without the excuse of some sort of content to produce. We hope that Faking Lit will become a roaring success, not only for the good of our careers, but also our social lives,” Offen explains.

The opening episode features Paulo Coelho’s 1988 novel “The Alchemist”. Talk of the book somehow leads to discussion of which is the best House Robot on “Robot Wars”, the underlying racial themes in the movie “Predator” and that this book isn’t all that forthcoming on how to actually turn base metals into gold. Also, somehow along with all of this, the episode features a fair amount of discussion of classical literature and is occasionally insightful as well as nonsensical.

You can listen to the podcast here below:

The podcast will be released weekly, from now until the end of time.

Lines with dots under them: exclamation points and how writers use them! (or don’t use them!)

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In one of his most memorable pieces of advice for writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald voiced his disdain for exclamation points, writing: “cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.”

This has become a (moderately) consensual belief in the writing, publishing and generally literary spheres. The British journalist and writer Miles Kingston, for instance, opined: “so far as good writing goes, the use of the exclamation mark is a sign of failure. It is the literary equivalent of a man holding up a card reading ‘laughter’ to a studio audience.” Meanwhile, in his book How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them—A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide, Howard Mittelmark writes: “In almost all situations that do not involve immediate physical danger or great surprise, you should think twice before using an exclamation mark. If you have thought twice and the exclamation mark is still there, think about it three times, or however many times it takes until you delete it.”

But, of course, it is easy to advise one thing and practice another. So is it true that using exclamation marks is a sign of poor writing?

Not necessarily. In Ben Blatt’s new book, Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing, we are given fantastic, empirical data that proves you can use exclamation points and still go down in history as one of the greatest writers.

Consider the chart below, for example, which shows how many exclamation marks ten of the most revered literary legends used per 100,000 words of prose writing:

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You will see that James Joyce – that modernist, avant-garde author of Ulysses, and arguably one of the most influential and important writers of the 20th century – tops the list at over 1000 exclamation points per 100,000 words. That’s an exclamation point roughly every 100 words.

Does this mean Joyce was simply laughing at his own jokes? One suspects not. In second place, we have Tom Wolfe – one of the founding fathers of the New Journalism literary movement and winner of the notorious ‘Bad Sex in Fiction’ awards. Writing only slightly fewer exclamation points per 100,000 words than Joyce, one finds that a liberal use of exclamation points is not an anomaly among the literary elite.

Even Elmore Leonard, who, in his book ‘10 Rules of Writing’ stated: “you are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose” ignored his own advice. In his career he wrote 40 novels, totalling 3.4 million words. If he had followed his own advice, he would have used only 102 exclamation points in his writing. As it happens, in the end he used 1651 – sixteen times as many as he recommended.

So, why is it that, despite the perceived literary consensus that exclamation points should be avoided, so many of the ‘greatest’ writers continue to use them so frequently in their prose?

In her now famous book, Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, Lynne Truss, posits her own theory for this:

“As if by common consent, people turned to the ellipsis and the exclamation point. There must have been a reason for this. My theory is that both of these marks are ways of trying to keep the attention of the reader. One of them says, ‘Don’t go away, I haven’t finished, don’t go, don’t go,’ while the other says, ‘Listen! I’m talking to you!’”

Perhaps then, the use of exclamation points by writers – great and small – is a subconscious call for attention; an attempt to hold the attention of readers they fear they might lose without such punctuation use.

This line of logic doesn’t really provide an argument in favour of using the exclamation point. Indeed, it is difficult to find many writers willing to vocally challenge the assumption that it is best to avoid them.

Writer Tom Ewing explains there can be benefits of using what Jerry Seinfield memorably described simply as “a line with a dot under it”; however, he, too, urges caution: “(The) exclamation point becomes a way to disarm the reader and pierce their shell, a kind of textual fluttering of eyelashes,” he writes. “And that’s cool! But once you notice it, you get suspicious.”

It is perhaps worth noting at this point the origins of the exclamation point: being that they were originally called the “note of admiration.” They are still, to this day, used to express excitement. They are also used to express surprise, astonishment, or any other such strong emotion. Any exclamatory sentence can be properly followed by an exclamation mark, to add additional emphasis.

This, perhaps, is the crux of the matter; since it goes to the root of what makes exclamation points such attractive tools for writing, but which also carries their own limitations. They can easily add emphasis to your writing; however, by overusing them, it takes the power out of it. What are your readers supposed to be excited about if it’s everywhere? If everything is exciting then nothing is exciting, because it’s all the same.

Perhaps, then, it is best to aspire to write beautiful prose where enthusiasm is conveyed by word choice and grammar – instead of relying on lines with dots under them.

Breaking Free: Prisons in Margaret Atwood’s ‘Alias Grace’ and Sarah Waters’s ‘Affinity’

 

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Breaking free. Photography by Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images

We must actively engage in releasing women from their physical and culturally constructed ‘prisons’ by re-creating their stories and finally giving them a voice, writes Jessamy Baldwin.

By reading Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace,which is set in C19th Colonial Canada and Sarah Waters’s Affinity, which is set in Britain in the 1870s, we are able to travel back in time and bear witness to significant female narratives that would most certainly have been repressed during the Victorian period in which they are set. Negotiating our way through the various physical and culturally constructed ‘prisons’ of these two historical novels, we too experience the numerous dark and claustrophobic realities with which many women were faced in this era.

Atwood and Waters, like their female characters, “throw the system out, make it stagger” (Waters 209) as they challenge female captivity, cultural constructions of femininity and inescapable female physiology that led to the social imprisonment of women and their exclusion from public discourse.

Affinity dismantles conventional notions regarding heterosexual relationships through Margaret’s rejection of marriage and by the potent insinuation of sexual bonds between women. Waters also presents us with the “queer career” (162) of Spiritualism where female passion can be performed and the gothic physicality of Millbank prison, a place which is symbolic of other ‘prisons’ such as Margaret’s own home.

By contrast, Alias Grace follows the fictional account of Grace Marks, the “celebrated murderess” (Atwood 25), as she recalls her life and imprisonment to Dr.Jordan. We feel the oppressive atmosphere of The Kingston Penitentiary and sense Atwood addressing larger issues surrounding the countless confinements imposed on women in the Victorian period. The women of Affinity and Alias Grace refuse to be bound within culturally constructed binaries of femininity and their stories present us with brave and stimulating narratives that break free of female imprisonment, in all its forms.

Both these novels express the significant struggles for women in the Victorian period to fulfill the culturally constructed feminine ideal of being “disembodied, spiritual and above all, chaste” (King 10). The model Victorian woman was supposed to be virtuous, devoted and submissive, similar to the ‘Angel’ depicted in Coventry Patmore’s 1854 poem ‘The Angel in the House’ or was otherwise considered the other end of the scale, the ‘Whore’. The friction between these contrasting archetypes is epitomised in the dualistic qualities of Grace who is seen as “a model prisoner” (Atwood 5) but admits “It’s not easy being quiet and good, it’s like hanging onto the edge of a bridge when you’ve already fallen over” (Atwood 6). She is portrayed in varying lights, sometimes as “an innocent victim…too ignorant to know how to act…a good girl with a pliable nature” (Atwood 25) and others as “an inhuman female demon” (Atwood 25) in the form of her dark double Mary Whitney. Jamie Walsh, Grace’s previous admirer and eventual husband articulates these contrasting ideologies when she goes “from being an angel in his eyes and fit to be idolized and worshipped… to a demon” (Atwood 418). Indeed, women could quickly descend into dishonour or rise into adoration and the boundaries between these positions were hazy and volatile. Therefore, imprisonment in either of these categories was both likely and extremely limiting.

However, while such regressive beliefs of women’s roles dominated society, they were not universal. Many women wanted to escape the prison of domesticity and the obligation to fulfill these normative social roles, yet this was easier said than done in a society where “gentlemen’s voices carry so clearly [and] women’s are so easily stifled” (Waters 229). Yet the introduction of factories due to the Industrial Revolution in the C19th meant working class women could earn money for themselves and thus be incorporated into the public workplace. Middle class women were increasingly able to walk for pleasure, an activity that had been previously frowned upon, suggesting some progress. Moreover, Barbara Bodichon’s setting up of the Women’s Suffrage Committee in 1866 helped lay the foundations for the Suffragette campaigns that were to come.

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In Alias Grace, Mrs Quennell exemplifies this desire for increased opportunities for women by advocating “an enlarged sphere for women” (Atwood 94). Her Spiritualist gatherings at the Governor’s house, where Grace works during a period of her imprisonment, allow women to gather in a free space away from their private, domestic spheres. Opinions among men also varied. In 1869 John Stuart Mill argued that women should be given the vote in The Subjection of Women. Yet John Ruskin’s famous lecture ‘Of Queen’s Garden’ given in 1865 maintains a similar view to Patmore’s vision of woman as the sacred guardian of the home. Certainly, views on women differed greatly and Atwood states in the afterword to her novel that “attitudes towards [Grace] reflected contemporary ambiguity about the nature of women” (538).

Such ambiguity was increased due to socially conditioned notions of femininity that were projected onto society, meaning that many women became imprisoned by the narrow lives they were expected to lead as pure, mythologised entities. Many women, such as Margaret’s mother in Affinity, were indeed happy to stay within the traditional female stereotype of a good wife and mother and “there were many women, including feminists, who argued that woman’s highest fulfillment came from motherhood” (King 9). Interestingly, Elizabeth Blackwell, who was the world’s first trained, registered woman doctor, still claimed that women should look after their bodies so that they may be fit and healthy for motherhood.

However, many women struggled to keep up with the ideal that was expected of them. They were supposed to be nurturing, natural mothers because “that is their function” (Waters 209) and at the same time fulfill a virginal and delicate role of femininity all at once. Thus the path to being a perfect woman was extremely narrow, contradictory and confining. Indeed, the ways of Millbank, like the ways of Victorian society, were “rather narrow ones” (Waters 215).

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“Like swans drifting along on unseen feet” – descriptions of women in Alias Grace. Photography by Sankar Govind, via Flickr Creative Commons

A poignant image from Alias Grace in relation to this is when the women visitors to the Governor’s household are portrayed “like swans drifting along on unseen feet; or else like the jellyfish in the waters of the rocky harbour” (Atwood 24). Swans appear virginal, white and regal and yet if one looks at their feet below all the angelic splendour and moving water, the desperate struggle to stay afloat is clearly evident. Women in the Victorian era had to convey outward composure, yet beneath this calm exterior they too struggled to remain above water as they attempted to achieve the ‘Angel’ status. Similarly, the female prisoners in Affinity are expected to “be silent, and still, [but] they are restless and pacing their cells” (Waters 71). Atwood’s use of the jellyfish image is also interesting because it conveys the sense of invisible female strength. Even though women were supposedly transparent and lacking in substance, they could sting and show initiative if necessary, as Grace and Selina both demonstrate.

The novels also deal with contemporary anxiety over what would happen if women were to ‘break out’ of their socially conditioned roles as wives and mothers. Atwood and Waters’s female criminals remain “undetectable and unknowable” (King 72) because they reject “the terms by which Victorian gender discourse attempts to categorise them” (King 72).

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Howells argues that Alias Grace is “very much tied up with C19th anxieties about women and what they might be capable of (151). Margaret contemplates what would frighten her family more, Selina “being a spirit medium, or a convict, or a girl” (Waters 315) emphasizing social anxiety over all these entities. When Miss Haxby speaks of how “the urge that has been slumbering is woken in her; and then she almost cannot help herself” (Waters 177), we can recognise apprehension over female autonomy. Mr. Shillitoe also conveys this desire to mould women who are “ignorant of shame and duty and all the finer feelings” (Waters 11) into the Victorian ‘Angel’  ideal and imprison them physically and intellectually, as “they must spend the great part of the days alone, with their cell walls about them…their tongues we still” (Waters 11). The matrons at Millbank also use hobbles “on women only, never on men…to restrain a prisoner when she has a mind- as they often do” (Waters 179). Indeed, to have a mind of one’s own was not part of the ideal Victorian woman’s composition.

Moreover, sexuality was not something Victorian women were expected to possess or display. Therefore, Selina and Grace’s sexuality is “what really interests them” (Atwood 30) and anxiety over this contributes to their imprisonment. Margaret and Dr. Jordan are enthralled by the subtle sexuality of their charges and Grace knows that “they don’t care if I killed anyone, I could have cut dozens of throats, it’s only what they admire in a soldier” (Atwood 30). Therefore, fear of female sexuality and the male desire to lock this away from the public domain is clearly evident through the novels’ linking of female criminality and sexuality. Indeed, Grace’s gender greatly affected her destiny because so deeply does her crime transgress the womanly ideal that “the authorities are still driven to either find her innocent, or to classify her as ‘criminal’, ‘idiot’ or ‘minor’ in order to explain that transgression” (King 72) .

Many people at the time felt the female body was always “the potential source of deviance, particularly of sexual deviance, and consequently requires constant observation, in the form of surveillance and treatment or even punishment” (King 67). Therefore, Grace’s gender may have saved her life but it also leads to her loss of freedom due to her ensuing imprisonment and continual observation by authority, something we also see in Affinity. However, a failure to maintain such authority can be seen in Dr. Jordan as he tries to use his “forbidden knowledge” (Atwood 94) on Grace in his attempt to “open her up like an oyster” (Atwood 153). Despite supposedly possessing the “powers of life and death” (Atwood 94) and the possibility that he “may once have held a beating female heart” (Atwood 94), Grace never succumbs to giving into his genuine desire which is to have her confess her sins to him. Indeed, it is as though people want Grace to judge herself and “confession is presented to her as the only route to freedom” (King 73). Reverend Verringer, the prison chaplain, urges her to confess because “the truth shall make you free” (Atwood 91) but it will merely imprison her in her role as evil murderess and allow others the satisfaction of solving her puzzle.

Dr. Jordan becomes infuriated by the knowledge that Grace is withholding information from him and deduces that “her strongest prison is of her own construction” (Atwood 421), yet this mental prison is what keeps her alive. “Her only way of claiming any private space is by refusing to have her identity defined by men in authority… whether they be lawyers, jailers, clergymen or doctors.” (Howells 32). However, while Grace avoids mental imprisonment, she is still physically confined in Kingston Penitentiary. While James McDermott is hanged, she is sentenced to prolonged suffering because she is a young female. The sense of female violation is poignantly depicted in the image of her being torn open like a peach that is “too ripe and splitting open of its own accord” (Atwood 79). Still, “ a prison does not only lock its inmates inside, it keeps all others out” (Atwood 421) and despite this potential for weak flesh, she says, “inside the peach there’s a stone” (Atwood 79) suggesting she is far stronger and determined than Dr. Jordan and other male authorities have assumed. In order to preserve the ‘alias’ of female grace and innocence, she “must conceal her more knowing, sexualised self” (King 81), she must hide her stone among the fleshy peach.

Waters describes Millbank as being extremely similar to Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon. It “is so curious a shape, and must be approached, so darkly, through so many gates and twisting passages” (Waters 7). There is a “tower set at the centre of the pentagon yards, so that the view from it is of all the walls and barred windows that make up the interior of the women’s buildings” (Waters 10). Continual observation is fundamental to this design, the lack of privacy is essential not only for security purposes but as a means of punishment which will ideally lead to degradation, submission and repentance. Grace also notes how in Kingston “nobody…does you the courtesy of knocking” (Atwood 39) and “they make the windows high up … they do not want you looking out, they do not want you thinking the word out” (Atwood 275).

Such focus on the interior relates to the Victorian notion of women as unsuitable for intellectual thinking and the belief that their energy should always be directed to the intramural, the private and the domestic. Such confinement and lack of communication makes the prison inmates mad and alone. Thus the symbolic function of Millbank and Kingston represents the isolation many women, like Margaret, would have felt in their destined roles and their own homes during this period.

Indeed, Margaret distances herself from the expected dominant Victorian ideology of femininity, admitting that “idleness did not suit me “(Waters 46). She also resists from submitting to the normative heterosexual relationships all women were supposed to take part in. Dr. Jordan, like Margaret, is also afraid to marry and be “imprisoned in an armchair by the fire, frozen in a kind of paralysed stupor, with his dear wife winding him up gradually…like a cocoon, or like a fly snarled in the web of a spider” (Atwood 340). This anxiety of being imprisoned or trapped by normative social functions is clearly evident and we can see how these characters across these novels are endeavouring to resist these cultural constructions.

However, while Margaret “may attempt to make the system ‘stagger’, as an unmarried female, she must suffer for her difference…a prisoner not in Millbank but in her own home” (Kontou 183). Even though she does not have to answer to a husband, she is stuck in a state of limbo, she is merely “a paper doll, nodding its head” (Waters 242), with no real independence due to her mother’s domineering presence. The ‘dose’ of medicine given to her every day makes her flesh go “quite numb” (Waters 205), thus emphasizing her anaesthetized and prison-like circumstances.  She is well aware of the monotony that awaits her in the future because she does not adhere to the traditional ideology of Victorian femininity, she believes she “shall grow dry and pale and paper thin…like a leaf, pressed tight inside the pages of a dreary black book and then forgotten” (Waters 201). She is caged in, “more firmly unevolved than ever” (Waters 208) and Selina even tells her that she is “like all of us at Millbank” (Waters 208).

The road she lives on is also named ‘Cheyne Walk’ which can be taken to symbolise her invisible chains and disguised imprisonment where she has begun to “feel myself a ghost” (Waters 307). Her mother tells her “your place is here…not at the prison…you must take up your proper duties in the house…you are not, in fact, Mrs. Anybody. You are only Miss. Prior” (Waters 252-3). Her mother’s condemnation over her single status and adamant orders to fulfil her duty all resemble the degrading and officious attitude of many of the prison warders and matrons across Alias Grace and Affinity.

The compelling physical descriptions of Millbank prison in Affinity and The Kingston Penitentiary in Alias Grace are extensions of the physical imprisonment of women in a patriarchal society where their physiology is seen as their only value and their social role is extensively conditioned. The correlation between Millbank and the individual female body and the female body at large is evident when the Porter speaks to Margaret about Millbank, “she seems quiet to you, I dare say. But some nights, Miss. Prior, when there ain’t a breath of wind, I have stood where you are standing now and heard her groan – plain as a lady” (Waters 312). The personification of the building greatly emphasizes the larger issues of the era where ‘prisons’, both physical and mental, were imposed on women. The groaning accentuates not just the unhappiness of the women inside Millbank, but the desperation and entrapment of women outside the gaol walls. With tightly corseted bodies and restricted intellectual development, we can see how the representation of such longstanding physical and mental confinement is implied in the prison buildings which are suffocating and “so solid and so antique” (Waters 7). The Governor’s wife in Alias Grace says to a group of women, “we are virtually prisoners ourselves” (Atwood 26) highlighting this link between institutional and domestic prisons.

During the period in which these novels are set, women’s bodies were subject to male desire and scrutiny, resulting in unwanted pregnancy, disease and sometimes death as a result of both, they had a serious lack of control over what they did with their bodies and how they were seen in society. Nancy’s illegitimate pregnancy with Thomas Kinnear and Mary Whitney’s death due to a botched abortion, after being made pregnant by her employer’s son, show Atwood engaging with how the female body was subject to male desire and the physical peril and social oppression that resulted from such domination. The restricting and male-dominated society in which the characters live traps women from all angles and punishes them for their natural physiology. Physical abuse of the female body is also alluded to as the prisoners are restrained by “handcuffs…gags [and] and strips of leather” (Waters 179) which has violent sexual undertones.

Indeed, both novels suggest that the majority of female prisoners are mere victims of sexual exploitation and poverty. The crimes for which many of the women are imprisoned, such as theft and prostitution, are not even proven and undertaken through a desperation to survive. Margaret illustrates anxiety over this volatile sentencing and false incarceration when she admits “I had begun to worry that the men might take me for a convict just arrived and lead me to a cell and leave me there” (Waters 9). Also, Grace notes how many of the women in the Toronto Lunatic Asylum, where she spends some of her imprisonment, are “no madder than the Queen of England” (Atwood 34) but simulate insanity in order to escape domestic abuse or the harshness of the winter weather, thus emphasizing the absurd nature of a patriarchal culture that imprisons women regardless of whether they fulfil their role as the ‘Angel’ or as the ‘Whore’. Psychiatrists such as Henry Maudsley argued in the early 1870s, that women were prisoners because of their sex and that their mental ability was directly related to their reproductive organs.  He stated that “whether they care to be mothers or not they cannot dispense with those psychological functions of their nature…however much they might wish it…they cannot choose but to be women” (qtd in Kontou 183). By contrast, I would argue that while female physiology was important in a woman’s life, it was the socially conditioned view of femininity, domestic confinement and the divergence between sexuality, marriage and motherhood which imprisoned them in their bodies.

Even though Grace eventually marries, it is not a young or reckless marriage; she says “at least the two of us know what sort of bargain we have got into” (Atwood 526). The power she holds over Mr. Walsh, because he continually pleads for her forgiveness, ensures she has authority in the union. However, the nature of the marriage is undoubtedly disturbing as he betrayed her at her trial, it calls into question the degree to which it will offer her ultimate freedom, as Lovelady remarks, “it is an improvement but not a triumph” (205).

Though she is free from Kingston Penitentiary, she is reliant on a male, admitting “I did not have many other choices” (Atwood 524) and Lovelady argues this points “to a certain inevitability of marriage at the end of a woman’s story” (204). Mr. Walsh, as she prefers to call him, is only aroused through Grace’s retellings of her victimisation in prison which prolongs her feelings of entrapment and subjection. Howells argues that she “remains trapped within a variety of male fantasy scripts which are moulded by medical and social discourses about criminals and women” (36).  Indeed, “she is freer than she was at the beginning of the novel, but she is not altogether free” (Lovelady 192) and this ambivalent ending is emphasized even further when she believes herself to be three months pregnant. The heaviness she feels “might as easily be a tumour, such as killed my poor mother… it is strange to know you carry within yourself either a life or a death” (Atwood 533). Once again this notion of the female body as important to a woman’s destiny is significant.

The female body is given more freedom through the use of Spiritualism in both novels and lesbian power in Affinity. Waters and Atwood give their female characters a chance to break free from the culturally constructed ‘prisons’ that defined normal female behaviour and femininity often depicted in contemporary Victorian fiction. In this sense, they become spirit mediums themselves as they connect the modern voice with the Victorian past. Kontou argues that Waters “creates a fictive (and potentially subversive) space in which stories that have been previously suppressed or untold can find a home” (172), she creates a kind of “counter history, the antithesis of the ‘great lives’ and ‘great works’ of men” (172). Moreover, she states that Waters “uses Spiritualism as a way of imagining a Victorian lesbianism without forcing a modern, anachronistic conception of same sex desire into a world that could not openly accommodate it” (Kontou 186).

The Spiritualist Movement was particularly popular in the 1850s and it certainly represented a blurring between the public and private spheres as men, women and children would gather in the drawing room of a house to interact with spirits. Such distortion and breaking down of socially conditioned and imprisoning spaces illustrates how female imprisonment in the domestic sphere could be improved through such gatherings. Spirit mediums such as Florence Cook became famous and were invited to work in both public lecture halls and private homes therefore illustrating how the profession enabled such women to transverse social boundaries by possessing a job in a time where female professions were extremely limited. Indeed, Spiritualism was a means by which women could influence those around them and Atwood said that it “was the one quasi-religious activity of the time in which women were allowed a position of power” (‘Afterword’ 540).

This is evident in Grace’s ‘double consciousness’ which is the explanation she gives for not remembering how the murders took place. Grace uses contemporary dependency on the supernatural to insist that any evil resulted from possession by Mary Whitney. Moreover, in Affinity, Selina and Ruth’s séances allow them to engage in suggestively sexual experiences with both women and men which were usually forbidden outside the bonds of marriage. Indeed, Waters’s novel certainly explores how “oppressive social forces drive women into assumed heterosexual identities and how suppressed lesbian desire could express itself through what outlets were available” (Kontou 179).

However, some people regarded such autonomy through Spiritualism as limited because spirits chose to possess the bodies of women due to their passivity and therefore increased likelihood of possession. Yet, while many people held this view, which was not surprising considering the notion of the ideal Victorian woman as passive and lacking in physical and mental strength, there can be no denying that it did offer more physical and mental freedom for women. The sitters were allowed to physically interact with the female medium; she had her hair loose, wore no shoes and had on loose clothing rather than a restricting corset. Therefore the traditional Victorian customs and laws of decency were abandoned.

While the medium may perform passivity, she is also being able to perform passion and therefore engage in actions outside social convention. Many women made money through Spiritualism and were able to break free of cultural constructions of femininity, thus showing that it was a complex means of introducing female empowerment. Waters said in an interview that her novel was “about the pleasures and dangers of darkness, the pleasures of it being when you are in control of it and the dangers coming from when you are at its mercy” (123). Indeed, we can see how Spiritualism allows women to have a voice and be in control of the darkness but in other physical and socially conditioned ‘prisons’, the women are vulnerable and left in the darkness, at the mercy of an external authority.

Women who were literally sent to prison in the C19th had no voice at all. Grace conveys her anxiety about being forgotten, she thinks she “will shrivel…dry out…turn into a skeleton…be found months, years, centuries from now and they will say who is this, she must have slipped our mind” (Atwood 38). Waters even noted how many of the records she used from Millbank “tended to be official records that were written by men” (‘Interview with Sarah Waters’ 123) and therefore the stories of individual women needed to be re- imagined by her in order to escape the ‘male gaze’. Affinity and Alias Grace fit into the attempt by second wave feminists to “map out an alternative female historical landscape” (King 3) which will free stories that have been silenced or imprisoned in supposedly irrelevant chambers of history.

The novels are examples of “herstory rather than history, offering alternative feminine perspectives on a tales of criminality and violence” (Howells 29), something which was not permitted in public discourse at the time. Grace is made to represent a wide range of Victorian constructs of ‘Woman’, she is “victim, madwoman, murderess, Dr. Jordan’s muse” (Howells 152) and an individual female voice. Atwood, like Waters, is rebelling against a history which has not allowed “the real woman’s voice or the true story of the past to be recovered” (Howells 152). Indeed, David Glover and Cora Kaplan argue that “modern feminist critics use the Victorian period to revisit the unresolved issues of what kind of opposition gender is and what kind of ethics and politics can be assigned to traditional femininity” (qtd. in King 6). By freeing the stories of these women and filling in the gaps where their particular stories were lost or forgotten, Atwood and Waters help to resolve issues from the past by building a female literary tradition that considers all types of women and relationships, regardless of what was considered socially acceptable at the time in which the writing is set.

Alias Grace and Affinity provide us, as modern readers, with contemporary female narratives that certainly would have been silenced in the Victorian era itself. By exploring anxieties surrounding the female body, tackling Spiritualism and lesbianism as well as the culturally constructed and physical ‘prisons’ in which women were placed, we are given an opportunity to appreciate  perspectives that have been imprisoned in the past. Moreover, whilst Waters and Atwood address problems felt by the female population at large, they concentrate on specific women’s stories and particular female experiences which make them so engaging to read.

The novels themselves are all about actively voicing these stories and experiences, essentially giving such women “back their place in history, not just as victims but as agents” (King 3). The continual mystery surrounding Selina Dawes and Grace Marks “throws into sharp relief the inadequacy of so-called scientific knowledge to define or contain them” (King 72). We recognise through these women, as well as Margaret Prior, the “very real desire for literal escape” (Lovelady 183), whether that be from the prison buildings themselves, their homes or the socially conditioned roles assigned to them. Mrs. Quennell remarks that “stone walls do not a prison make” (Atwood 97) and this is what Atwood and Waters are essentially claiming in their novels. That an ‘Angel’ is never far from a ‘Whore’, and indeed, freedom never far from imprisonment. We must actively engage in releasing such women from their physical and culturally constructed ‘prisons’ by re-creating their stories and finally giving them a voice.

 

A fully referenced version of this article appears at www.jessamybaldwin.co.uk 

About the author of this essay

jessamy-baldwinJessamy Baldwin is an avid globetrotter and Bristol based freelance writer. She has a BA in English Literature, an MA in International Journalism and writes about travel, food, history, literature and current affairs among other topics. She has worked in New Zealand as a communications advisor within government relations and as a newspaper columnist, in Malawi as an English teacher, in the Channel Islands as a news reporter and in the UK as a deputy editor in chief and freelance journalist. Always on the look-out for her next adventure and the perfect ‘cosmo’, Jessamy’s dream is to run her own content agency and keep exploring the world, pen, paper and camera in hand.

We need to write about climate change

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Can we imagine the end of the world? Photography by Mike Dodson, via Vagabond Images.

In 2013, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published the most meticulous report and scientific peer-reviewed report on climate change and global warming in decades. Despite being viewed as a generally conservative association, the IPCC report describes, in dry, detailed language, the complete collapse of the benign climate in which humans evolved and have prospers, and the loss of the conditions upon which many other life forms and organisms depend.

What the report details, in other words, is the story of catastrophic climate breakdown – a story of such complete disaster and ill-consequence that climate change and global warming are entirely inadequate descriptive terms here.

As activist and writer George Monbiot notes, “this is a catastrophe we are capable of forseeing but incapable of imagining. It’s a catastrophe we are singularly ill-equipped to prevent.”

A problem of imagination

A key problem facing us, then, is that the stakes – while they couldn’t be higher – do not seem tangible enough to focus our attentions on the reality facing our species and the planet. While theorists such as Slavoj Zizek have argued it is “easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”, what we may in fact just be realising is that we aren’t even able to imagine the end of the world, either.

So, may all writers the world over step in at this moment. For, if it is a crisis of imagination we face, surely there are few warriors out there equipped with the skills and ability necessary to render this reality in ways that people can understand, comprehend, and realise in their own minds.

No time to lose

The urgency with which we must, as writers, act, is extreme. Donald Trump has, since his inauguration as the President of the Untied States, made persistent moves to attack what minimal environmental protection regulations and safety nets were in place, and the climate change denial he and his Republican administration advocate threatens our entire planet. We cannot deny or ignore the stakes at play here – we must move quickly to dispel any doubt over the future facing us if we do nothing.

However, such is the difficulty in imagining the potential future of our broken planet, there are precious few writers out there who are drawing attention to this most vital of causes.

As Amitav Ghosh, author of The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, writes in a Guardian article:

“It is a simple fact that climate change has a much smaller presence in contemporary literary fiction than it does even in public discussion. As proof of this, we need only glance through the pages of literary journals and book reviews. When the subject of climate change occurs, it is almost always in relation to nonfiction; novels and short stories are very rarely to be glimpsed within this horizon. Indeed, it could even be said that fiction that deals with climate change is almost by definition not of the kind that is taken seriously: the mere mention of the subject is often enough to relegate a novel or a short story to the genre of science fiction. It is as though in the literary imagination climate change were somehow akin to extraterrestrials or interplanetary travel. is a simple fact that climate change has a much smaller presence in contemporary literary fiction than it does even in public discussion. As proof of this, we need only glance through the pages of literary journals and book reviews. When the subject of climate change occurs, it is almost always in relation to nonfiction; novels and short stories are very rarely to be glimpsed within this horizon. Indeed, it could even be said that fiction that deals with climate change is almost by definition not of the kind that is taken seriously: the mere mention of the subject is often enough to relegate a novel or a short story to the genre of science fiction. It is as though in the literary imagination climate change were somehow akin to extraterrestrials or interplanetary travel.”

So what writers are out there who are currently writing about – or who have written about – climate change, and the consequences of ignoring it?

In a masterful letter to the future, Kurt Vonnegut puts the stakes pretty clearly as he tells us in no uncertain terms to “stop poisoning the air, water and topsoil.” Yet, as any writer knows, there is a difference between telling and showing: and while telling us to change our ways is one thing; what is needed now is for writers to show us what our future holds.

We need fiction, in other words.

Searching for ‘climate fiction’ on Amazon returns just over 1000 results – although the search algorithms mean that many self-published and a large quantity of non-fiction books also appear in this list. Yet there are “big-name” literary authors among them. Think, for instance of Margaret Atwood, J.G. Ballard, Barbar Kingsolver, Cormac McCarthy, Ian McEwan and T Coraghessan Boyle.

There are other great books written by brilliant authors, too – such as The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi, or Odds Against Tomorrow by Nathaniel Rich.

We have compiled a list of some of the most important – and best examples of – books about climate change here at Nothing in the Rulebook. And it’s vital we are able to read these and see what has been done – and is being done – in the world of ‘climate fiction’ (cli-fi, if you will). Because it is by reading the works of others that our own writing, and our own understanding of what writing works well, improves. And this knowledge will prove most critical as a new generation of aspiring writers finally starts to address the startling gap in our cultural narrative, and help make the “unimaginable” consequences of climate breakdown real.

 

 

 

Writing about climate change: the most important books about catastrophic climate breakdown

 

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A desolate world ravaged by climate change is hard to picture, but it could be our future, unless we start to imagine it. Photography by Mike Dodson, via Vagabond Images.

Despite the climate-denial of the Republican administration in the USA, and despite the fondness for fossil fuels most governments across the world continue to hold, the future facing our planet and our species is one of catastrophic climate breakdown, unless we act now.

The difficulty comes in imagining the consequences of global warming denial. They are, perhaps, so great that they seem impossible. It therefore falls to writers – imagination warriors, if you will – to paint a picture of the future in which the natural world is no longer the self-replenishing, bountiful support system needed to support human beings; but rather a desolate, ravaged, toxic place where no life can flourish.

Perhaps not the most-light hearted of subjects to write about; it is nonetheless a vital one. Below, we pick out a few of the most important books about climate change – call them examples of ‘cli-fi, if you must, which you should all read immediately:

  1. Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy

Three books here, by one of the greatest literary titans. Margaret Atwood’s trilogy of books variously imagine the sorry state of the planet, and the human responses to it. In Oryx and Crake, human beings are re-engineered to create a new brand of humans who lack “destructive features responsible for the world’s current illness”.

Then, in The Year of the Flood, Atwood’s speculative fiction explores the environmental ravages caused by our reliance on oil and the terrifying consequences of it running out.

MaddAddam itself concludes the trilogy, bringing various narrative strands from the previous two books to an end.

Backed up by extensive research, Atwood’s books encourage us to pose critical questions to ourselves, the most pressing of which is “what will happen if we continue on our current path?”

  1. Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow

A hurricane, caused by man-made climate change, destroys New York. Set in the not-so-distant future, the novel paints a picture of the world in which the catastrophic climate breakdown facing our planet has become all too real.

A darkly comic tone may suggest a somewhat nihilistic view to our predicament and our future. Yet Rich confronts us with the truly terrifying prospect of what awaits us in consequence of our failure to address the issue of climate change. The pressure is on us to avert disaster – or else realise we must live with it.

   3. JG Ballard’s The Wind from Nowhere

While Ballard himself has tried to dismiss his book as “forgettable”, The Wind from Nowhere is one of the first books written that can be fairly attributed to the ‘cli-fi’ genre.

First published in 1961, it deals with disasters afflicting the natural world and how human civilisation would cope with this increasing inevitability. Prolonged worldwide hurricane force winds reduce cities to ruins and the people who live in them irrevocable changed.

   4. David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks

Why does every human’s self interest conflict with the wider need for collective survival?

So runs the central theme Mitchell grapples with in his novel The Bone Clocks – and so too runs a question we must address sooner rather than later if we are to avoid the most catastrophic effects of man-made climate change.

The Bone Clocks, told in six parts, paints a picture of the world in which climate change depletes the resources of the earth to such a degree that the world ends in darkness and desperation as civilisation collapses and human beings descend into anarchy.

Believably bleak.

    5. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

It would have been remiss for us to leave one of the most obvious books from this list. One of McCarthy’s best known novels depicts a world of undeniable environmental apocalypse. Described as “the first great masterpiece of the globally warmed generation”, it imagines for us the terrifying consequences of our choices and vividly creates a desolate world that, though fictitious, feels all too familiar and real.

Creatives in Profile: Interview with Henningham Family Press

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It seems old hat to say that mainstream publishing has been facing an existential crisis in recent years. As profit margins thin, the go-to response from the biggest publishing houses has been to retreat from investing in new ideas, and to banking on “sure things” – which, as Julian Barnes has noted, essentially amounts to republishing copies (or imitations) of commercially successful novels. Indeed, the mainstream publishing industry has become so risk averse and sold on the idea that committees of sales and marketing gurus that millions are now spent on orange-headed celebrity books whose pie charts and spreadsheets appeared to augur well but are in the bargain buckets shortly after they first appear.

Within this risk averse culture, new outlets for unique and creative expression, through art, writing, and fine book making are increasingly rare. Those that do exist must therefore be cherished.

Henningham Family Press (HFP) is the collaborative art and writing of David and Ping Henningham. Both Artists and Authors, HFP combines writing and art through fine art printmaking, bookbinding and performance. Based in Dalston, London, the pair primarily work with National and Regional Cultural Institutions and civil society groups, and are always looking for new institutions, such as museums, libraries and publishers to collaborate with.

Collections that have acquired HFP’s work include the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Tate, Saison Poetry Library (Royal Festival Hall), UCL, Chelsea College of Art and UCLA. They have exhibited/performed at/in Christie’s Auction House (Multiplied), Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, the British Library, BBC Radio Theatre (BBC Radio 3 ‘The Verb’), Dundee Contemporary Arts, The Whitechapel Gallery, Black Rat Gallery, London Word Festival, Berlin, Ghent, Oslo, Bergen, Indiana and Virginia. David has also taught bookbinding at Central St. Martins College of Art and Design.

It is an honour to bring you this detailed interview…

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourselves, your background and ethos.

HENNINGHAM FAMILY PRESS (HFP)

We are David and Ping. We met at St Martins art school. We started Henningham Family Press in 2006 to bring together our writing, printing, binding and performance and make them presentable.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

HFP

Inspiration for our work tends to come from history, the natural world, museum collections, but in terms of surviving financially and explaining ourselves to others we’ve often turned to William Morris, Bauhaus, Woolf’s Hogarth Press days, David Bomberg, Edward Wadsworth and the Danielson Famile among many others.

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell us a bit about HFP – how was it borne into existence?

HFP

Ping did a presentation about my sculpture at the Slade, she did Art History at UCL, and my tutor Ed Allington spotted we should probably work together. We returned to this idea when we both developed an allergy to supporting ourselves with part-time office jobs; a common wasting condition that still goes unrecognised, despite the weight of evidence.

INTERVIEWER

 A number of your successes so far – hinted at in your site biography – beg to be elucidated further, such as your ‘Monday School’ project of 2011, which saw you write the only Bible commentary to feature a fight with Slavoj Zizek in a bookshop. Has the press evolved as you expected since you first set it up?

HFP

Ha! No. We thought we’d make four titles a year and sell them through bookshops. We didn’t reckon with the labyrinthine structure of publishing. We didn’t like having a gallery either, so we evolved a process of publishing books through and for choreographed live events, “performance publishing”. We’ve even got a couple of reputable magazines to use our phrase like it’s a real thing.

INTERVIEWER

What does the average day look like to you?

HFP

That’s a mythical beast! We used to work side by side on writing, printing, binding, but now with the kids we swap midday. When they are old enough they will do all the work while we sip martinis.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think a publishing house or printing press should be for? Why are they important?

HFP

It’s probably a best case scenario for the private ownership of the means of production. I associate it with freedom of speech. Books, I hope, will preserve the best our times have to offer, allow a conversation with the living, create some beautiful artefacts. I only wish adult minimum standards were as high as Childrens’ for book production. Adults would read a book made of gravy to save a pound. Kids demand quality.

INTERVIEWER

In Negotiating with the Dead, Margaret Atwood writes that “Language is not morally neutral because the human brain is not neutral in its desires. Neither is the dog brain. Neither is the bird brain: crows hate owls. We like some things and dislike others, we approve of some things and disapprove of others. Such is the nature of being an organism” – what art and writing do you approve of? Do you see your own work as having a political element to it at all?

HFP

Very much so. Multiples are suited to democratic and egalitarian distribution. Our writing reflects our economic and political opinions. But we totally overestimate our ability to change things when we begin a project, but even in the end it feels good to make sense of things a bit and create solidarity. Having said that, a handful of people have said to us “your book changed my life”.

So what we approve of coming out of our heads is relatively focused. Cosmopolitan, egalitarian, sceptical about rationalism, fascinated with how we organise our lives arbitrarily. We always take an original angle on subjects, rigorous, experimental in form, or what would be the point? But we tolerate a wide spectrum going in. Most of what I won’t read is because of it’s sloppy and cynical standards.

INTERVIEWER

Obviously, the rise of the internet has seen a big culture shift in the way we communicate. What role do you see traditional presses playing in this new “digital era”?

HFP

I’ve been asked this a lot. In a nutshell I’d say it’s proven to be the case that digital technology has made printing and binding far more affordable, accessible, cleaner and made distribution easier. It’s a boom in digital and physical publishing with a side effect of stimulating the finer bindings like we do. Now people read across platforms, they can see more clearly what a book is, and more people seek out a fine binding.

INTERVIEWER

The future of literature; of writing – and indeed the future of publishing – are all frequently discussed at great lengths. What are your thoughts on current  where are we heading?

INTERVIEWER

Well, what would you say to the industry? If you were a doctor? Look we can operate, but… It’s too slow, too many internal blockages. There’s been a move towards the idea of experimentation in literature, that goes with a centennial reappraisal of modernist writers, both of which I “approve” of to use Atwood’s earlier word, but I’m not sure anything with depth has happened there yet. But smart people are on it. I think agents and publishers will encourage their established writers to write with more formal invention, and the obsession with debut novels will lead to calls for established authors to write a sort of “second debut”. More explicitly mid career prizes will emerge to cater for the growing number of debut authors to enter.

But perhaps this return to modernism misses the point. The rupture in 1910 wasn’t just the playing with typography, but the idea that so many people have something to say, not just a few authors who, although often very good, do those standard readings followed by death-by-a-thousand-autographs. Modern writing showed that different kinds of perception exist, so there’s no point having an experimental writing scene populated by wealthy people from a single school, which does not reinvent the process of publishing and distributing many more authors to readers who read more widely. Manuscripts get missed and the quality sometimes suffers. A positive example of where publishing can go is Penned In The Margins, a great example, and if you go to Free Verse in Conway Hall, this sept, you’ll see that the poetry scene hasn’t got the same problems as the agent-fed industry. The fact that so many readers also write is a symmetry we should expect thanks to education, automation and digital. Really good novels will continue to get published, but I’ll stick my neck out and say that increasingly over the next two years people in the industry will worry about the bandwidth and creativity of the big publishing houses more. Some may even call it a crisis.

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HFP in action at the Central Hall of Artists, Moscow. Image via Henningham Family Press

 

INTERVIEWER

What are some of the main challenges you face?

HFP

Same as everyone. Brexit, with a side order of interminable recession, served on a bed of expensive higher education that is seen as a product to be sold. It all makes it harder to make a living, funds shows and sell books to people.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

HFP

A bucket of water balanced atop the doorway to routine

INTERVIEWER

You’ve recently been commissioned by The British Council to make a major public art contribution at The Central Hall of Artists, Moscow – could you tell us a little more about this project, and how you find more artistic-led projects such as this complement the other creative aspects of your press, including performance and writing?

HFP

We did the British council commission with BA Illustration students from the British higher school of art and design. It was a combination of teaching them, creating, screenprinting, binding publishing all on site. They built a temporary workshop in the UK guest of honour pavilion. We were part of a delegation with Jonathan Coe, Jim Crace, Paul Mason, Jenny Broom, Emma Healey, Tom Gould, lots of fine and inspiring people. We like to make things like this en educational experience for us and the students. Performance adds process, structure and duration.

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Preparing to Print: HFP in action in Moscow. Image via Henningham Family Press.

INTERVIEWER

What’s next for HFP after your project in Moscow? What should we look out for?

HFP

We just finished making a deluxe edition of The New Concrete for Victoria Bean and Chris McCabe, which will go to America. Some novels by me are mounting an escape attempt from their drawer, and we have a choral version of An Unknown Soldier in development for the stage.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in six words?

HFP

After impact, Helen could see wifi.

INTERVIEWER

What are your 5 – 10 top tips for aspiring writers and artists?

HFP

  1. If someone asks “can you do this?” Say yes. Find out how later if you can’t.
  2. If someone says “can you do that again and again and again…” You might eventually have to say no and get back to what motivates you.
  3. The world is very poorly organised and obsessed with money. Set your own criteria for success.
  4. Making space in the world for your work is different to the work itself. Make sure you keep energy and perspective in reserve to do good work.
  5. The artworld doesn’t really exist. You can gravitate towards other markets and other audiences and it’s still art.

 

To learn more about Henningham Family Press, visit their website, and find out about their latest shows via www.maximumwage.uk

Logodaedalus 

 

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“O’er Mendip, Dorset Downs and Glastonbury, to altitudes of Aeolian awe.” Photography by Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images

I

Of the apple, rotten to its core

Of gleaming realms decaying in the wake

Of terror, mass-destruction, debt and war

That then caused mankind’s foundations to shake.

Of mistrust, fear, corruption and deceit;

Of Earth and human nature, good and ill;

Ten years of violence, crime, atrocious feats

Committed by those who exploit free will.

Ten years that shaped a poet’s life and words

Success and sorrow, solitude and love;

An unrelenting passage through a world

Both helped and hindered by all things above.

Oh Muse, let not my young years be dismissed—

I have but lived a rambling rustic score

Beneath the gaze of Kings—I bid you list

Where my words will be whispered evermore.

A Milton not of mill towns but of hills

Like Barnes and Hardy led through Wessex Lanes

A man of worthy words and winding rills

Whose rural life by avarice is stained.

Memory! Fail me not, but let me see

Beyond the haze and gaze of those before,

O’er Mendip, Dorset Downs and Glastonbury,

To altitudes of Aeolian awe.

Dear reader triumph not in life’s disasters,

Be not unmoved by suffering and pain

Read what was done, by whom, and wonder after

Whether life can continue just the same.

There’s little I can change in modest verse,

This history holds but one didactic charm:

Change the world for better, not for worse

And close the stubborn door on years of harm;

I write in hope of happiness, health and calm.

* * *

Ten days of Autumn stole into the world

And I returned to noble school pursuits

With little fear or worry in my heart.

Pensive boy: enthralled by Summer’s embers,

Restlessly dreaming of odysseys gone

To darkling moors and warm littoral sand,

Keeper of a blithe and youthful mind,

Captive to the ocean’s ebb and flow

And rural bonds of homely love alone,

Yours were the final throes of blameless bliss,

The simple earth, a lucid life since lost.

Somnolence can never last forever:

Grieving for a close grand matriarch,

A Hibernian Muse unparalleled

In wit and loving care, demanded strength

And, single figures gone, long leafy lanes

Could harbour such a boy little longer.

Nine months—less: ’til June the following year

Were mine to grow, to prove my worth and leave;

Age and time demanded greater knowledge,

New faces, forums, large amphitheatres.

These were then beyond remit and mind:

Transpositions past all those then perceived.

But as the bell that tolls chimes for us all,

And ripples disperse from the pebble thrown

In fits of rage and malice from afar,

The world as known was shaken, shattered, bruised

By New York City’s flaming, falling towers.

For, Babel like, yet at the hand of man,

A proud nation’s glittering spires fell

Confounding all four corners of the Earth.

The eleventh of September saw dark Hell

Return the globe to chaos and conflict

Unseen in over sixty years since war

Threatened to terminate mankind for good.

Oh evil churlish men! What agonies

Must you inflict on fellow man?

Samsons from all seasons, sides, époques

Are claimed and crushed in West and East alike.

Was not one fall enough to see the fault?

We seem’d determined to resign ourselves

To second state of envy, blood and hate;

Two toppl’ng tow’rs, when selfishly destroyed,

Undermined hopes of an Edenic state.

A child returned to have this chaos eek

From moving image into heart and soul:

Memory fragments, metal shards imbibed

And drunk unwillingly through enfant eyes.

What words might best describe existence since

Than anger, fear and sadness, death and war?

In days revenge was waged anew on him

With whom responsibility seemed to fall

Thousands of miles away across great seas

And deserts; an elusive figure, Bin

Laden was named and soon all Hell ensued.

“What made him send those young men off to die?”

“Suicide bombs or brainwashed murderers?”

“How can we stop this happening again?”

“Is any place on earth considered safe?”

Murmured questions hung on every lip;

Whispering women soothed unknowing babes

Unknowing what the future held themselves.

For that is what terror prescribes to do.

To shake, to doubt, to question and to stop

Actions others envy and disapprove.

A War on Terror?—An oxymoron;

Fire fighting fire fighting fire

‘Till all are burnt and all resigned to lose.

Still in rural calm, young minds perceived

The world had changed, digressed on roads all new.

A father’s fear was intangibly felt;

Innocent anxiety, deep and dark

Half-eased and quelled in fierce loving embrace,

All while macabre jets of light laid waste

To Afghan men, women and children far

Beyond the realms of infant cognisance.

And daily torrents, hails of bullets flew:

Fountains of fire streamed all around the world;

Visceral libations floridly hurled

By morbid media to quench our minds,

Satisfy unsavoury appetites,

Until this daily death and destruction

Made us impervious to Afghan plights.

A captain, Hamid Khazi, was sworn in,

To steady a nation which was breaking,

Almost unnoticed by the wider world—

His steering brave, unfeared, yet Hamletic:

Taking arms against a sea of troubles

That broiled and brothed far out of his control.

Within a month another vice arose

As if to warn of what was yet to come.

The price of Avarice and Greed supplanted

Deeds of War that raged afar elsewhere;

The blind and stumbling Cyclops, Enron Corp.

Collapsed and died, it seemed, at No-one’s hands

In the vein of that old Polyphemus.

The guilty few who tumbled cared little:

While those left fleeced would suffer evermore.

Soon int’rest here, too, waned like aging moons:

Our local screens proclaimed a global news

Skewed to the supposed int’rest of the main,

That sowed unconscious, silent ignorance

Of agony, deep hurt and destruction

Like holy fire through society.

So closed a year that left the world on edge:

An occidental civilisation

Had creaked and heaved as if in Portland’s Race.

A Rome, Carthage and Greece that stumbles on,

Connected? Logged on? Yes—but not to life.

To money. Moral worries all unheard

As Christmas light and song brought distraction.

At midnight, at Burn’s Auld Lang Syne we cheered

To welcome in a palindromic year.

 

~ Written by John Blackmore 

About Logodaedalus

Logodaedalus is a modern-day epic poem, written by the Somerset-based Poet John Blackmore. With his permission, we have serialised the poem, and will be bringing you further instalments over the coming weeks. Keep an eye out for book II in this epic.

About the poet

john-blackmoreJohn Blackmore is a singer, songwriter, poet and English teacher based in Somerset. Much of his music and writing draws on his experiences of, and interactions with, the people and places of his native west country. In 2011, John was a semi-finalist in the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award and, in 2014, he contributed music and literary comment to a BBC Radio 4 documentary concerning the Victorian Dorset Dialect poet William Barnes.
You can listen to John’s music on Sound Cloud: https://soundcloud.com/j-blackmore
John is part of the Poetry Society’s ‘Young Poets Network’. You can read some of John’s prize-winning poems online: http://poems.poetrysociety.org.uk/poets/john-blackmore/

Poetry as protest

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We live in a time when language is deliberately misused and manipulated – frequently for malicious purposes – to serve and support those in power. This is a time of ‘alt-facts’, an Orwellian landscape in which language is a tool of deception and demagoguery.

The cries against this state of affairs are often silenced or minimised precisely because there is a lack of available tools to articulate an effective challenge. Beyond the obvious decline of trade unions and collective action, there is also a lack of control over language itself; we are unable to change the terms of argument because we are not in control of the narrative or discourse in which we find ourselves.

The reason for this is two-fold.

Firstly, the mainstream media is controlled by elite corporate power – 6 corporations own 90% of the media in the USA, and just 3 corporations control 70% of the media in the UK. The media therefore has none of the independence or freedom that is supposed to make it a tool of the people to challenge power. Noam Chomsky explains this problem pretty succinctly:

“The media serve, and propagandize on behalf of, the powerful societal interests that control and finance them. The representatives of these interests have important agendas and principles that they want to advance, and they are well positioned to shape and constrain media policy.”

Secondly, the rise of social media – which was trumpeted by many as a means of empowering the people and removing the power of corporatized media – has not delivered an age of enlightened thought. In fact, the opposite has occurred; with a rise of misinformation, and the creation of siloed communities of likeminds who more often than not confirm, rather than challenge, existing biases held by individuals. Rather than open people’s minds to new ways of thinking, social media reduces our willingness to be open minded and reinforces our entrenched opinions. Recent studies have shown that documentary maker, Adam Curtis, was perhaps right when he claimed the internet and social media were doing the opposite of what they were created to do:

 “[They] facilitate communities of solipsists, interpassive networks of like-minds who confirm, rather than challenge, each other’s assumptions and prejudices. Instead of having to confront other points of view in a contested public space, these communities retreat into closed circuits.”

If the problem lies within articulation of thought, therefore, the solution must be one which enables effective expression of ideas just as effectively as the political language of our current demagogues currently delivers a succession of political victories for neo-fascists like Donald Trump and the extreme right wing of the Conservative Party that currently finds itself leading the UK with an unelected Prime Minister.

And so this leads us to poetry – which perhaps may be surprising, given we live in a time when poetry is so often dismissed as being irrelevant.

Yet while poetry may now be found on the margins of public discourse, it is no less important. This is because poetry, like political language, is rarely spoken without intention. Furthermore, poetry has advantages and intrinsic attributes that political language and rhetoric lacks: including – but not limited to – a drive towards articulating a truth that is universal. Consider the words of the brilliant activist and poet Audre Lorde:

“Poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.”

Rather than seek to confuse the listener and disguise meaning in order to achieve malicious objectives, in the way politicians so frequently use ‘triangulation’ and jargon to cover their true intentions; poetry by contrast seeks to make clear that which was uncertain or hidden.

Unlike political speech, poetry cannot afford to misuse language. Should a poet do otherwise, they sacrifice the very reason for a poem’s existence. Because above all else the language used in a poem must be precise and accurate. Every word must be chosen with the utmost care. Every word must count towards an ultimate goal – which is the delivery of meaning to the reader or listener of the poem. Above all, this goal must be towards truth – as Wilfred Owen wrote: “true poets, must be truthful”.

The poet must therefore labour over exact, precise articulation – since the poet understands that every word used creates a world, creates a meaning (to follow Derrida and Lacan), and that each word added or removed alters this meaning, and alters the world.

This touches upon what makes poetry so powerful as a tool of protest – as a weapon we can use to challenge the malicious powers that have risen to prominence in this age. Because poetry is far more than grammar and syntax – the terms and measurements that help us identify and discuss language scientifically. It is more than copy on a page. It is rhythm; it is sensations; it is incantation. And, through this, poetry becomes meaning. It becomes truth.

Poetry’s essence, therefore, produces a visceral effect that can inspirit, inspire, and transform those who read and hear it. And it is this that makes poetry such a powerful tool for speaking out against the wrongs of the day – for channelling the universal human feelings of every man and every woman into something meaningful and real, into a form of protest and resistance.

Of course, the idea of poetry as protest is not new. In 1819, for instance, Percy Bysshe Shelley was moved to pen poetic verse in protest at the Peterloo massacre. The Masque of Anarchy advocates radical social action and non-violent resistance: “Shake your chains to earth like dew / Which in sleep had fallen on you- / Ye are many — they are few”.

More recently, the swinging sixties and the Vietnam war also saw protest poetry emerge and blossom. See, for instance, Adrian Mitchell’s Tell me lies about Vietnam (available for free via The Guardian), a few lines of which are printed below:

“Every time I shut my eyes, all I see is flames
I made a marble phone-book, and I carved all the names
So coat my eyes with butter
Fill my ears with silver
Stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam”

Then you have the searing, satirical masterpiece The Revolution Will Not Be Televised by Gil Scott-Heron, featuring lines that simultaneously call for change while comically critiquing the current state of affairs:

The revolution will not be televised.
The revolution will not be brought to you by the
Schaefer Award Theatre and will not star Natalie
Woods and Steve McQueen or Bullwinkle and Julia.
The revolution will not give your mouth sex appeal.
The revolution will not get rid of the nubs.
The revolution will not make you look five pounds
Thinner, because the revolution will not be televised, Brother.

Scott-Heron’s lines work on the page; but they are also made more powerful by his own incantatory delivery of them. His voice electrifies the poem and gives it new meaning, and – for some – makes the possibility of revolution and protest more real.

Yet the performative element of spoken word poetry perhaps is also one of the charges sometimes levied against it. Scott-Heron’s poem even serves as an example here: precisely because his call for the revolution not to be televised will for most people be watched on television screens (or, in this age, on computer screens). There is a touch of cynicism to Scott-Heron’s poem, too – an acknowledgement that his poetry lives in a world in which a protest against mainstream media is the exact sort of thing that will be broadcast across mainstream media.

This, of course, is a paradox of modern capitalism, touched upon by the late, great political theorist and writer Mark Fisher in his book Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative, who uses the example of Kurt Cobain to illustrate the point:

“In his dreadful lassitude and objectless rage, Cobain seemed to have give wearied voice to the despondency of the generation that had come after history, whose every move was anticipated, tracked, bought and sold before it had even happened. Cobain knew he was just another piece of spectacle, that nothing runs better on MTV than a protest against MTV; knew that his every move was a cliché scripted in advance, knew that even realising it is a cliché. The impasse that paralysed Cobain in precisely the one that Fredric Jameson described: like postmodern culture in general, Cobain found himself in ‘a world in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, where all that is left is to imitate dead styles in the imaginary museum’.”

Fisher’s outlook on our future hinges on our ability to effect radical social change. Yet he is pessimistic mainly because he does not identify a clear tool or solution to help us achieve this. He does, however, hint at what any theoretical tool must be able to do:

“If capitalist realism is so seamless, and if current forms of resistance are so hopeless and impotent, where can an effective challenge come from? A moral critique of capitalism, emphasizing the ways in which it leads to suffering, only reinforces capitalist realism. Poverty, famine and war can be presented as an inevitable part of reality, while the hope that these forms of suffering could be eliminated easily painted as naive utopianism. Capitalist realism can only be threatened if it is shown to be in some way inconsistent or untenable; if, that is to say, capitalism’s ostensible ‘realism’ turns out to be nothing of the sort.”

The final sentence is crucial, here – because it highlights the way forward. In order to overcome the capitalist system that has produced the age of Donald Trump and ‘alt-facts’, it must be shown to be unreal – it must be shown to be false.

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Will writers lead the next revolution against the world of alt-facts? Photo credit: Ed Lederman/PEN America

Once again, poetry appears as a real solution – for it is perhaps only poetry that has the ability to reveal this reality effectively. To return once more to Lorde, by revealing those in power for what they really are, poetry can become more than protest – it can incite the radical change needed for revolution:

“I want my poems–I want all of my work–to engage, and to empower people to speak, to strengthen themselves into who they most want and need to be and then to act, to do what needs being done. In other words, learn to use themselves in the service of what I believe. As we move toward empowerment, we face the other inseparable question, what are we empowering ourselves for? In other words, how do we use this power we are reaching for? We can’t separate those two. June Jordan once said something which is just wonderful. I’m paraphrasing her–that her function as a poet was to make revolution irresistible. Well o.k. that is the function of us all, as creative artists, to make the truth, as we see it irresistible. That’s what I want to do with all of my writing.”

Regardless of whether the revolution is televised or not, if it is poetically led, it will become irresistible; and if it becomes irresistible, then perhaps it will also become inevitable.

So, where is this poet-warrior-led revolution going to start? And where are the poems to inspire it? Well, we’ve launched our Haikus for the NHS’ poetry project to – hopefully – ignite the initial revolutionary flames. Why not let the spirit of poetry as protest burn in your inkwells and get involved ahead of the national demonstration in support of the UK’s National Health Service on 4 March?