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Monday, March 08, 2010

Bleak Prospects and the Non-Existent Wildcats Society

Humanity’s long war on nature, as described in Christopher Reid’s ‘Men Against Trees’, with its legion of anti-arborealists:

I saw one last week on a daylight job:
reversing under the boughs of an ash,
he tore a limb and left an enormous gash.
You had to admire the insouciant slob!

The environmental theme I will return to in a moment, but first, a question. Can living people have ghosts? Dante confers ghosts on selected then-still-living Florentines, but if we extend the principle slightly, then hark, what is that knocking sound I hear? It can only be the ghost Christopher Reid left behind to pace the corridors of Hull University, banging his head repeatedly against the nearest whiteboard or drinks dispenser. And why? Robert McCrum, in a discussion of writers and fame in today’s Observer (‘In the 1980s writers entered a world of large cheques, literary awards and celebrity’) cites ‘the intriguing case of Christopher Reid, the Costa prize-winning poet.’ Go on. ‘On the face of it, Reid, who is 60, has the profile of a writer marginalised by dominant market forces. (...) A Scattering was a well-kept secret, shunned by the book trade. Waterstone’s, for instance, declined to stock it. Until Reid won the prize, his prospects were bleak.’ Alas, McCrum could only have whispered to anyone who still remembered this witty, entertaining, moving poet, editor of Ted Hughes’s letters, former Faber poetry editor, and more recently Professor of Creative Writing in t’North Country, or somewhere north of the Watford gap at any rate, to anyone who still remembered a time when Reid too might have entered that world of ‘large cheques’ and ‘celebrity’, and then to our collective dismay didn’t: his pre-Costa PROSPECTS WERE BLEAK, McCrumb would regretfully have averred.

The Observer newspaper, historians record, was once in the habit of acknowledging the existence of poetry, or at least allowing A. Alvarez to review the odd book in its pages half a century ago. There was a brief recrudescence of reviews, by Adam Phillips, about three years ago, but having gone away again (though I notice Katie Price bagged an Observer review for her last novel) their prospects of return look, well, bleak.

Now, back to those trees. Elevating a position of unexamined individual privilege into a general rule (‘In the 1980s writers entered a world of large cheques...’) is certainly an unpleasant sight. Reviewing John Lister-Kaye’s At the Water’s Edge: A Personal Quest for Wilderness in the Guardian, Sean O’Brien cannot help noticing how its author’s sensitivity to nature is helped along by his owning a loch in the Scottish highlands:

He is clearly a man of principle, but his immediate world is very different from one occupied by the long-term unemployed on a sink estate in Hull or in small towns in Northern Scotland. In the afterword, stung by accusations of privilege he states: ‘As with any situation in life, it ultimately boils down to what you make of it and how determined you are to stick at things when the going gets tough.’

This sounds pretty lame, does it not. But when O’Brien moves on to attacking Lister-Kaye’s desire to emulate or enter the world of a wildcat, a fairly tough call while we insist on holding onto to human consciousness, I feel he overplays his hand:

[Love and hate] are characteristics that accompany consciousness, which is exactly what we don’t share with the animals Lister-Kaye so admires. His longing to surrender a sophisticated self in favour of the animals’ natural fit with their environment, to stop thinking and simply be present, would make no sense to a wildcat. Nor would the sheep and deer he resents for replacing older Highland fauna be concerned that they are beneficiaries of environmental damage by early farmers who cleared the forest and killed the bears and wolves. In this sense, there may be no nature to go back to.


The opening ‘is’, rather than an ‘are’, suggests it isn’t love and hate O’Brien believes we do not share with animals, but consciousness. Animals are devoid of consciousness? That’s harsh. But our respectful attention to a wildcat is compromised by our inability to shed our humanity and be wildcats ourselves? This position sounds to me like D.H. Lawrence’s Walt Whitman: I empathize with you by becoming you. Should I do something about your pain? Why would I, when I’m sitting here feeling it with you? There has be another way of getting closer to that elusive Big Other. But, getting back to Lister-Kaye, we contemplate the wild things across a species divide, and if we feel L-K is getting sentimental about it, then do it some other way, or ponder the insuperability of it all. But O’Brien’s response to this is a mixture of the salutary-sceptical and an apparent desire not to have the debate at all:

Above all, though, nature doesn’t care whether you’re on its side. And perhaps what makes the piety of some environmentalism so annoying is the sense of being addressed by someone who thinks they’re a member of a club that doesn’t actually exist.


The fact that a wildcat doesn’t care if you’re on its side or not strikes me as an excellent basis for starting, not ceasing to have this debate. The idea is to get yourself out of the way, and doing this probably shouldn’t involve displays of piety or unselfconsciously privileged guilt. But, to invert Groucho Marx, I can’t think of a club I’d be happier to belong to then one that ‘doesn’t actually exist’. It strikes me as objectively the right side to be on, in any given argument.

And, my God, as Sean O’Brien would be the first person to tell any of us, but there’s a lot of wildlife on Hull council estates that would make any wildcat turn tail and run. But prospects of making contact with it are, well, here again, bleak.

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