33 Readers
16 Sages

shell pebble

Reply of the Literate Ape

The Naked Ape: A Zoologist's Study of the Human Animal - Desmond Morris

Morris makes a great song and dance about the 'outrage' with which his book was first received. Why, he wonders, are people so resistant to contemplating, in the cool light of scientific 'objectivity', their 'animal nature'? However, Morris' claim to neutrality is highly suspect. He urges us to learn from and accept the picture he presents of human beings, saying

homo sapiens has remained a naked ape... in acquiring lofty new motives, he has lost none of the earthy old ones. This is frequently a cause of embarrassment to him, but his old impulses have been with him for millions of years, his new ones only a few thousand at the most - and there is no hope of shrugging off the accumulated genetic legacy of his evolutionary past. He would be a far less worried and more fulfilled animal if he would face up to this fact

He contrasts the 'biological view' with that of anthropologists, whose methods he treats with derision, since they have tended to give attention to exceptional, often fairly isolated societies. His comments on this subject are not encouraging:

The simple tribal groups that are living today are not primitive, they are stultified... the naked ape is essentially an exploratory species and any society that has failed to advance has in some sense failed

This amounts to a ringing endorsement for imperialist colonisation and cultural hegemony. He compares such 'biological failures' with 'the ordinary successful members of the major cultures'.

As well as anthropologists, he has issues with psychologists who have, laudably(!) stuck to 'mainstream specimens' but these have unfortunately been 'aberrant or failed... in some respect' he quotes an unnamed practitioner from the field in question approvingly: 'We have tackled the abnormals and we are only now beginning, a little late in the day, to concentrate on the normals'. Apparently this horrifically ableist language is unproblematic because we are dealing with the human animal as a mere meaty hunk of biological data, not with personhood. I begin to wonder about Morris' views on eugenics, or rather more saliently, eugenicists' views on Morris.

As usual, my heckles are raised by the use of the male pronoun for humans in general, and I usually try hard to make allowances for this old-fashioned unmarked masculine, but in this case 'he' is indicative of Morris' stance. His naked ape is a male and hislifestyle is characteristic of the species and shaped its evolution. He describes how males became hunters and thus developed sophisticated cooperative, communicative and planning skills. There must be something missing from this picture, as female humans have equally well-developed abilities in these areas and they are strictly excluded from hunting in Dennis' account. Perhaps child-rearing, which they are credited with, made equal demands (I doubt it) but in that case why is hunting the primary influence rather than infantilism and childcare?

On the fascinating subject of how homo sapiens became hairless (I prefer this description to Morris' sexually loaded term 'naked' which he claims is neutral), he outlines various theories. I'm most interested in the aquatic ape hypothesis, and keen to read about it next, but Dennis favours a hunting-related hypothesis, which leaves the hairlessness of female humans unexplained. Morris' fondness for hunting is much in evidence, in the lack of mention afforded to the food gathering practices of our (probably mainly female) ancestors, description of carnivores vs omnivorous primates, his derision for vegetarians, and most importantly in his description of work as the direct modern analogue of hunting. Thus, women ought not to work/hunt; their 'biologically correct' place is at home caring for the young. All-male clubs and sporting activities are obvious extensions of the need to hunt. I'm grateful to Morris for thereby explaining why women have no interest in sports, athletic pursuits or group socialising activities.

This book apparently caused much offence with its 'frank' descriptions of sexual activity. Morris admits these are based on studies in North America, but claims this is fine because 'that culture' is 'biologically large and successful' and therefore 'representative of the naked ape' in general. Morris' account of intercourse is clinical. What offends me is his unabashedly homophobic stance. He explains homosexual behaviour, which must be 'normal' since all mammals engage in it, as adolescent exploration and an inevitable consequence of young people spending time in unisexual groups 'such as boys schools' but long-term homosexuality is an 'aberrant' 'fixation'. Grudgingly he admits that 'permanent homosexuals' are 'valuable non-contributors' in the present context of the current population explosion, which Dennis regards as a serious coming crisis.

These regressive views on sexuality were commonplace when Dennis wrote the book in 1967, but when he was invited to update it in 1994, he saw no reason to change anything but the figure he originally gave for the size of the population. Man's essential biological nature can change only over evolutionary time scales, he might say. There's the rub. Morris is an essentialist, for whom biology is destiny. However hard we try to 'twist' and 'distort' our true nature, we will keep returning to the animal truth.

This position has generally been rejected by philosophers and social scientists, with good reason. Since zoology is a field of study undertaken by socialised humans, its premises are culturally constructed and determined. I am not trying to deny physical reality or suggest that nothing can be learned from research, but we can't seriously talk about 'facts' isolated from culture, as Morris tries to do. The simple example of his account of taste sensation is instructive. He repeats the 'fact' that we detect four tastes and the 'fact' that different parts of the tongue are sensitive to each of them. Both of these 'facts' are wrong - they are mistaken interpretations which other cultures have not shared. This reminds me of a lecture I once heard, in which we were asked to state the number of our senses. Pliny said five, and so we English all say; it's a cultural commonplace. But, our teacher said, it's no more than that; consider the sense of 'touch', in our five-sense framing made to cover hot/cold, pain, proprioception, contact detection. Are these not rather distinct 'senses'?

Morris says that as his book is intended for popular consumption it would be silly to include references. Except on the rare occasions when he actually indicates that 'research has shown' etc, I have to assume that this book is educated speculation. His procedure is to reverse-engineer primitive humans based on a white male North American interpretation of what is observed in the species today, supplementing this with our knowledge of prehistoric environmental conditions, the famously patchy fossil record and comparisons with primates and predators. And why not? The effort is worthy and the results interesting, though I believe they have been much-contested since first published. Where Dennis oversteps the mark is in attempting to apply his picture of our ancestors, gained from studying modern humans, to show us modern humans where we are going wrong. Call me culturally indoctrinated Morris, but that sounds like circular reasoning. 

Morris claims that he wants us to embrace our biological nature, and poses the zoological perspective as ideologically neutral, but it's obvious that this book is drenched in the ideology of 'biological morality', the agenda of the gene. My genes regard me as an instrument for their replication, and everything else I do (and feel and think) is irrelevant to them. Their motive is identical to that of a virus. My glorious birthright, as a human being, is the ability to choose otherwise.

Ideas of stage

Talking Theatre: Interviews with Theatre People - Richard Eyre

I thought this was going to be a very dull book at first, with little interest for people outside of the theatre world. However, Peter Brook's fascinating, insight-filled reflections and reminiscences quickly reversed that impression. He has an intriguing idea about 'the richness of English inner life' and how cripplingly embarrassed we are by our emotionality. 'The theatre is the only area where the hidden Englishness can reveal itself respectably' he says. Hiding behind the facades created by the class system, the English are the opposite of the Irish who 'allow their deep natural poetry and imagination to come out all the time'. Thus, Irish writers have dominated the English theatre for three hundred years.

Brook also talks about inclusion in theatre (related to classism) and the need to tackle this locally and event by event, and for the theatre to make amends for its history of exclusion and 'letting people down'. He identifies the essential quality of Shakespeare as his anti-authoritarianism and distrust of all authority figures, which perhaps part-explains the rich radical tradition in English theatre, along with the dominance of Irish writers, essentially post-colonial and chafing at the language imposed on them, as Fiona Shaw eloquently points out in another interview.

This set the tone for a wonderful read. Most of the interviews are very good, and a few of them are dazzling, for example with Steven Berkoff and Willem Dafoe. Peter Hall is also fascinating, pointing out that in two or three hundred years Shakespeare will be unreadable and will need to be translated. He also quips that 'the theatre is always dying', hinting at the cycles of renewal and reinvigoration. He identifies Joan Littlewood, who directed Shelagh Delaney's groundbreaking little play 'A Taste of Honey', as truly revolutionary, and I was fascinated to read accounts of her methods and personality through the eyes of designer John Bury and actor Victor Spinetti.

Impressively, Eyre has managed to fashion this varied set of interviews into a story arc, taking the reader on a journey from the 'golden age' of actors like Olivier and the founding of the National Theatre and the RSC to the avant garde, interactive, de/reconstructed theatre of today , with frequent comfortable detours to the USA. Shakespeare, Brecht and Beckett cast their huge shadows across the book, yielding endless discussion and contrasting opinions. Each page presented a fresh testimony of the power and infinite potential of theatre. I defy anyone who reads not to feel inspired to go out and see more plays.

My favourite interview of all is with American playwright Tony Kushner, sections of which I am compelled to transcribe, possibly onto my bedroom walls. Here's a sample

Well, The Lion King is a right-wing fantasy about social domination and the supremacy of men everywhere. It’s a completely beautifully packaged, neo-con parable for neo-con times and neo-con audiences and their creepy little children. The ideology Brecht says is there: the absence of an ideology is an ideology. It’s just a conservative ideology and everything that you see has it.

wrong about Japan

Kata: The Key to Understanding & Dealing with the Japanese! - Boyé Lafayette de Mente

I find the instrumentalist premise of this book offensive, but could not resist reading it; my brother left it behind when he recently moved out of his flat. I was ashamed to be seen reading it, and found myself hiding the cover on the tube - how foolish! Still, it proved every bit as vile as its title hinted. De Mente constructs a concept of kata, translated as form, as the central principle of Japanese culture, from an entirely Western (USA) perspective. As anthropology, this is racist, orientalist carnage. Though De Mente clearly admires aspects of Japanese culture-as-he-sees-it (he's especially keen on banquet parties) and often 'defends' it from other Western critics, he never questions his own assumptions and steam-rollers subtlety, blithely remarking 'nothing beats the rational, fact-based and fair approach to business, diplomatic and personal relationships that is the bedrock of the American way, and a principle that the Japanese appreciate, and are gradually absorbing into their own culture.'

Perhaps I am being too harsh; De Mente has no pretentions to ethnography here; he is writing an instrumentalist book for Westerners who presumably share aspects of his Western perspective. This book describes many of the features of Japanese society and attempts to explain the shared values, customs and language-concepts that structure it. It contains some interesting historical information, such as the fact thathiragana, the phonetic alphabet used to write Japanese words, was developed by women to write notes, poems and novels, and was originally called onna-te (women's hand). Because they were not allowed to learn kanji, the system of Chinese letters, sophisticated upper-class women crafted their own (more practical) system. Perhaps I'm taking a prejudicial view of De Mente's book because I dislike his language (using demonyms as nouns, using the male pronoun for everyone, referring to women as 'females').

Here's a typical example of something that got my back up:

'At 6am in a New York hotel coffee shop I met the sales manager of a major Japanese company whom I knew was from Tokyo. I made the casual comment "You're up early this morning!" - a common greeting. 
The man very seriously replied "because I am a diligent Japanese!" His tone of voice and manner implied very emphatically that other people did not get up early because they were not diligent and did not measure up to Japanese standards. he simply did not recognise that I and many other non-Japanese were up and busy.'

My interpretation is that the sales manager was simply irritated by the implicit 'but not as early as me!'. If 'losing face' is a serious matter for the Japanese as De Mente asserts, surely the thought that the other man was defending his 'face' and even national character (we all represent our countries abroad I suppose) would have occurred to him?

I'll indulge in a digression here: this early-bird one-upmanship [sic] is a pet hate of mine. My grandmother and many other people I've known had a near-unbearable habit of prefacing a morning telephone call with 'Did I wake you?'. I think it's absurd to assume moral superiority in the practice of getting up before others. I am an extreme early riser, routinely leaping from my bed in advance of 0500, but I'm completely bushed by 2000 and find evening socialising extremely difficult. My flatmate (who happens to be Japanese) is the opposite, an extreme night owl, she can barely stand pleasantries over morning coffee, but feels 'my day is just beginning' when she leaves work in early afternoon. Both of us have had to adapt ourselves to the demands of our work, and adopted unusual practices. We're just different in this way, and happily accept and accommodate each other's habits.

Ultimately, the problem here is that De Mente talks about the advantages and disadvantages of kata and other concepts valued by Japanese culture in terms of economic success in a globalized economy. That is a very narrow metric, and arguably a very poor one; personally I think libertarian capitalism, founded on selfish individualism, slave labour and deeply conditioned hierarchies (eg gender roles - women performing unpaid domestic labour and childcare), is destroying the biosphere and has trapped many well-intentioned people around the world in a spreading disease of cognitive dissonance between the imperative to manage resources sustainably and maintain healthy ecosystems, and the desire to express status and to enjoy life through material goods. De Mente devotes a whole chapter to 'Weaknesses of the Japanese System' and while some of what he says in it, and elsewhere of the disadvantages of valuing form over content, rings true (much is drawn from the work of Japanese social anthropologists. The many quoted opinions of fellow gaijin business-people are less helpful to the reader, I feel.) I can't trust someone whose concession to the other view is so meagre and ill-considered. De Mente uncritically repeats the words of a western critic: 'What they are watching is not only meaningless, attending kabuki has become a kata within itself', not seeing the absurdity and ignorance of this dismissal - of course attending kabuki is a 'kata'; so is going to the opera, as any afficionado would surely agree.

I know precious little of Japanese culture. I have Japanese friends, and once trained in kara-te, and have had opportunities to appreciate the joy of kata, the pleasure in the way of doing things, such that each aspect can be isolated and improved, such that the whole expresses each time a unique harmony. Viewing life from a more 'Japanese' perspective, prioritising form and harmony, makes it possible to make every action and moment of life a potential source of individual or shared gratification and self-awareness, self-development. De Mente thinks 'groupism' stops people from excelling or innovating - I've read another western view on the same issue, that 'collectivism' removes the pressure western school children feel against excelling, because team members will do their utmost for the team. I can't comment on Japanese people, except that they seem to have invented a lot and produced a lot of famous master arts/crafts people, but I do remember being the only kid raising a hand in hundreds of lessons (I'm not a supergenius, just a show-off, heedless of the social pressure against teacher's pet-ism)

These are just a couple of examples where I think De Mente might meet opposition. The confidence his I-know-best tone might inspire is, I feel, unwarranted. (In fact, I don't trust a word of this, and worry about the effect on my mind of the stereotypes I've possibly absorbed from it. I advise you to avoid it!) My final point is a pretty cheap shot, but I can't resist: De Mente goes on and on about superior American [sic] rationality, morals and fairness, and he regards Japanese 'hostility' to foreigners as one of the culture's worst aspects. But stepping back for a moment, I can't help wondering whether a country that dropped two atom bombs on densely populated cities more or less to see what would happen, has set such a great example for cultural imitation...

Post coded speech

NW - Zadie Smith

I read this book with Rowena so I'm writing with the benefit of her illuminating comments. You can read her review here.

3.5 stars

The book is divided into sections narrated by different characters. Our first storyteller is Leah, a young white woman from North West London with Irish parents, married to a black African francophone immigrant, Michel. The initial encounter Leah has with a young woman begging for help at her door reveals her generous nature, while the fragmentary style of the writing seems designed to show us the style of her thought. We learn that Leah is resisting uncomfortable pressure on her from all sides to get pregnant. We realise that she and Michel have got married hastily, each naive about the other's life plans. While Michel has unexamined patriarchal attitudes playing out in his relationship to Leah, claiming her property, being & body as his own, she has been attracted by his beauty and kindness, and for her the relationship is based on lust.

I was struck by the way Leah's encounter with the desperate woman was reconstructed by Michel and her mother, and how this changed her behaviour. This kind of skilfully handled detail built up an impression of Leah as very passive and easily swayed, like my younger self. I found Leah and her mother Pauline very realistic as white people who have generationally graduated levels of ignorance about race. While Pauline is ridiculous and ignorant in her attitudes, Leah is embarrassed by her mother's racism, but she is no more able to see whiteness; Smith shows this very skilfully though Leah's resentful and self-pitying feelings about her relationships with her co-workers, particularly her black boss. By presenting this from Leah's viewpoint without author-voice judgement or caricature, Smith helps me to see the same attitudes in myself forgivingly but critically.

Leah narrates encounters with her black friend Natalie and her husband and children. Leah sees her as grown up and her life as meaningful - this is partly conferred by motherhood - only giving birth legitimises a woman's existence, according to the overt & implicit messages Leah constantly receives from husband, mother, friends. Natalie remains mysterious; Leah does not seem to understand anyone very well and especially lacks self awareness.

There is a wonderful middle section of the book narrated by Felix, a character whose story intersects only briefly with the core narrative around Natalie and Leah. I think Smith has written this section because it's important to her that this character be a site of empathy in the book, rather than a stereotyped stock figure. She breathes life into everyone as far as possible; I feel she takes pains to stop us from making assumptions, while at the same time drawing on familiarity to create recognition and identification. She uses dialogue to this end, very acutely observed as critics have praisingly noted, though it makes the book almost untranslatable and probably very difficult for readers unfamiliar with British English.

Natalie/Keisha is the most fully realised character and has the clearest, most direct style. Shar, the desperate young woman Leah initially encounters, remembers her from high school as 'coconut'. This excellent article helped me to understand more about this racist term, and how it is used both by white and black people to criticise black people, usually because they are successful, hard working etc, as if, ridiculously, these are 'white' traits. Keisha Blake feels out of place in her own life; she seems to lack helpful role models. She changes her name to Natalie and pursues a high-powered career.

There is a brilliantly crafted tension between perceptions of Natalie. She is stereotypically seen as concerned with social justice because she is black - she does not actually articulate such a commitment. Her blackness is exploited in court for this purpose - to whitewash. She is courted by controversial clients who only want to use her as a fig-leaf for their unethical behaviour. For this she is lectured by her mother and friends. Her sister and old friends snub her for being insincere and lacking self-awareness - their criticisms hurt because they are laced with painful truth.

I found this piece very helpful to my understanding of the relationship between Natalie and Leah. I urgently wanted both of them to wise up, but Smith remained true to them and the realism of the novel and resisted such temptations. As it is, the book's commentary on vital, highly relevant issues of racism and sexism is sophisticated and enlightening. Another dimension was introduced in the case of Natalie's husband Frank; although black, he was raised solely by his wealthy white Italian mother and suffers a strangely nuanced isolation. His story makes me think of black (and others who are not white) children who are adopted into white families.

I felt that the plot was the least successful aspect of the book; the late stages of drama were protracted and lacked the rich emotional resonance that made other parts, such as Natalie's childhood memories, so haunting and captivating.

The bard does race

Othello - William Shakespeare

This is my father's favourite of Shakespeare's plays, and having seen the new production (in contemporary setting) at the National Theatre yesterday & knowing my dad, I can see why (I read the play a few years ago).


It is the story of a lying villain, Iago, whose motivation is pure malice and hatred of his Black boss, the honoured general Othello. Against the latter's nature he is made jealous of his young White lieutenant Cassio.


Apart from that of the raving racist Brabantio, the prejudice against Othello is as subtle and insidious as racism is today. His second-in-command feels he should have the general's place and uses White supremacy to undermine him out of spite.


Patriarchy is another issue in the play; Desdemona is passed as a chattel from father to husband, each feeling inclined to dispose of her at his will. In the conversation she has with Iago's wife Emilia, the latter expresses quite a strong feminist idea


"... Let husbands know
Their wives have sense like them: they see and smell
And have their palates both for sweet and sour,
As husbands have. What is it that they do
When they change us for others? Is it sport?
I think it is: and doth affection breed it?
I think it doth: is't frailty that thus errs?
It is so too: and have not we affections,
Desires for sport, and frailty, as men have?
Then let them use us well: else let them know,
The ills we do, their ills instruct us so."


So, not only is Othello a well structured play, with an engaging cast, powerful speeches and immortal lines; it's also one of the most stingingly 'relevant' of Shakespeare's works.

feeling with you

The Pit (Phoenix 60p Paperbacks) - Doris Lessing

Here are three stories in which the narrator sees into the mind of someone else.

The title story is by far the longest. Its narrator, Sarah, has attained independence in maturity, long separated from her husband and quite content, self-contained and self-aware. A sudden visit from her husband is the only event; she takes pleasure in it, and his offer of a shared holiday tempts her; she imagines the companionship 'with someone who truly understands her'. James' claim on her is possessive and patriarchal, reeking of unexamined male privilege. It's interesting but consistent that calm, intelligent Sarah, a self-identified feminist, has always accepted the inevitably narrow socially defined space for women's existence within marriage and family life.

More disturbing are Sarah's reflections on the racial/tribal similarity between herself and James; she repeatedly describes them as Vikings, closely matched physically and psychologically. This problematic thread shades into supremacy as Lessing fleshes out the description of Rose, perhaps the most important character in the story and James' second wife, who in Sarah's words is 'dark' 'duplicitous' and 'female in a basic gutter way that every decent woman hates'. She is also a Holocaust survivor. After James leaves, Sarah enters an agitated trace-like state in which she imagines how jealous Rose will react to James' illicit visit to her. She is contemptuous at first, and admits that Rose's background as a victim has always made her uncomfortable as it has restricted that contempt: this is perhaps a root of personal but 'unintentional' manifestations of racism (microaggressions) and white supremacy in UK and maybe USA: this discomfort that goes unexamined, chafing at the white mind.

This is explored in this article about the problem of terminology - rightly unresolved - white discomfort is a good thing and should be maintained to spur us into learning and action.

As Sarah enters into a deeper empathy with Rose, she thinks herself into a horrific experience, a Holocaust image, and emerges from it, now taking her rival’s perspective and taking action to help her. Thus, the point of the story is the power of imaginative, meaning-making engagement with history to precipitate the empathy that destroys prejudice, although it does not take us beyond a 'white saviour' narrative.

Tempestuous text

The Tempest - William Shakespeare

In this very lyrical, poetic play, rich in imagery of water and musical sounds, Shakespeare engages with mystical themes and ideas taken from magic stories. Ariel is like a djinn from the 1001 Nights.

The text also engages with colonialism through the character of Caliban, who like Prospero has been disenfranchised. He is the original inhabitant of the island, demonised in his own description and through his mother, whose 'witch' status is devilish in contrast to Prospero's noble, white 'magician' role. This reflects the misogyny around the idea of sorcery. Caliban's behaviour is erratic and ambiguous. He has tried to rape Miranda and alternates between defiance and self-abasing deference, but his beautiful speeches indicate sensibilities that are not acknowledged by Prospero and Miranda, who see no injustice in his enslavement.

Miranda even has the gall to expect gratitude from Caliban because she has taught him their language. In this ignorance and in her passivity, she is on reflection an unsympathetic character, despite her obvious heroine role and her beauty.

The theme of colonial rule is also evident in the temptation the island exerts on everyone who comes to it to make himself king - comically so in the case of Stephano, whose clownishness perhaps underlines the foolishness and irrationality of the desire for power. The theme of master/servant is also reproduced time after time, as is the desire for liberation, through Ariel's bargaining with Prospero.

I saw a production of The Tempest at Shakespeare's Globe this week and had a bit of discussion about the problematic playing of Caliban in it (I read the play a few years ago)

The Fire Next Time - James Baldwin

First read in 2008.

This book is so beautiful and clear. Baldwin has forced himself, against all the violence heaped upon him and those around him, not to see through hatred and think through hatred, which would be just after all. He outlines and touches on so many of the issues that are still real and painful in America and in the UK too, where white supremacy persists like a weed that keeps springing back up. It's almost depressing to read his words in 1963, words of courageous optimism and hope, and see that we have failed, White people have failed to 'end the racial nightmare'

Baldwin's formulation of the issues here is brief, poetic, rich and heartfelt, and the ideas are still instrumental. If all of this book were history, that would be a good thing. Sadly, it is very much vital and needed.

Suffering & Obedience

Murder in the Cathedral - T.S. Eliot

I read this because I had heard it drew on the tradition of Greek drama when I was revising the source history with a student, and spotted it in my local charity bookshop.

The Greek drama aspects give the best scope for Eliot to experiment with Christian theology and imagery, which he does in quite a fresh and original way - to me though (I'm an atheist) this just emphasised how unappealing Catholic philosophy and oratory can be, full of references to violence, purity and corruption, the denigration of the body, submission and humiliation. Voiced by the chorus, these references sketch the relationship between the Church 'supreme as long as men will die for it' and the laypeople who 'know and do not know' (ie experience but are too stupid to intellectually grasp!) that 'action is suffering'

Feeling good

Feral: Searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding - George Monbiot

I read Monbiot's book Heat, in which he sets out a plan of how the UK could and should repond to human-made climate change by cutting carbon emissions by 90%, in 2010. I was convinced, but not optimistic; the changes we need to make are radical; the restructuring in transport for example, would be deep, and despite the strength of the argument against doing so even I have failed to stop flying (I have restricted myself somewhat, but totally failed to persuade anyone else), which has become so integral to working life and family together-time as we spread ourselves across the globe. 

So when I took up Feral I wasn't expecting to find a carnival of hope and joy! There is no single narrative here; Monbiot alternates and weaves together anecdotes of his fishing expeditions, intense, dramatic and dense with description and encounters with wildlife and rural places, with discussions of progressive biodiversity loss and habitat destruction caused throughout our history by gratuitous hunting, agricultural practices and often bizarre regulation. He describes how ecosystems are kept healthy by large predators, and explores the potential for reintroducing animals such as lynx and even wolves to the UK, as well as less controversial animals like the beaver, a herbivore whose dam-building habits create opportunities for a variety of fish and all sorts of other fauna and flora to thrive. Some readers might wish Monbiot would cut to the chase but it's obviously important to him to share the sense of 'enchantment' and revitalisation that has informed his conception of 'rewilding'.

This rewilding is not a monolithic concept; it is being constructed differently by varied groups of advocates. Monbiot freely admits that, while he can make an impressive economic case, his real motivation is the yearning for reconnection and encounters with exciting ecosystems. He points out that sheep farming has left large areas of the UK biodiversity deserts, which without our intervention, would surprisingly be covered in rainforest, as diverse as the Brazilian Mata Atlantica of which it was once a part! He argues against the 'conservation prison'; the preservation of ecosystems that are actually severely depleted, having been created by historic farming practices and industrial processes. Do we really want our environment to be a museum? Monbiot wants to see areas of 'self-willed' land.

The effects of stepping back and letting nature recover are inspiring. Simply fencing out sheep for twenty years produces a startlingly rich and varied patch of woodland where previously nothing lived but grass. In the ocean, where the biodiversity disaster has been even more dramatic than on land due to destructive fishing practices and the misguided removal of predators, it is even easier to restore biodiversity and ecosystem health; simply by creating marine reserves. This is one example among many in the book of the need for nothing but political will to bring about a hugely beneficial (to the fishing industry and seafood-lovers as much as to wildlife) change at no or minimal cost and with no investment in technology or R & D. In the case of agricultural practice, one solution Monbiot advocates is the removal of a rule that forces farmers to work or graze land they would otherwise leave fallow. One of the more difficult problems is the vice-like grip of extremely wealthy landowners, often living overseas, who wield extremely disproportionate influence in government.

Monbiot is not naïve about the problems with rewilding areas of land. This is NOT a call for a return to ANY earlier stage of civilisation, to stop cultivation or reduce human populations. He balances his argument with chapters about his discussions with sheep farmers, and a cautionary discussion of the harrowing history of 'Nazi rewilding projects' that Simon Schama wrote about in Landscape and Memory. Monbiot also notes indefensible colonial 'conservation' projects, such as in Kenya, where imperial rulers have appropriated land from local people such as the Maasai, leaving them without homes or property, to create reserves.

On the other side of the argument is another example of colonial thinking; asking people in African and Asian countries to conserve dangerous animals such as big cats and rhinos sits ill with our unwillingness to tolerate predators on our own shores. The reintroduction of the wolf to Yellowstone in the USA is an incredible success story, and its slow reappearance in continental Europe is having similar effects, with many benefits to people.

Rewilding, Monbiot stresses, must be a democratic process, fully negotiated with all the stakeholders involved, but it has huge potential to enrich our land, seas and lives. Read and feel good!

Bitter & sweet

A Taste of Honey: A Play - Shelagh Delaney

Delaney wrote this little play, about a working class mother and daughter struggling in Manchester, when she was only 18. Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop developed and produced it in 1958.

It was a radical production because it starred two women. That Jo's nameless boyfriend (and therefore, to her mother's distress, her baby) is Black, that her kind and caring male friend is (implicitly) gay, and that her absent father's mental disability hangs troublingly over her must all have been highly provocative at the time.

I love this funny, painful play and other working-class dramas like those of Willy Russell in the English theatre tradition. The theatre has been a great place for the the British and Irish to shout back at oppression, ask questions, reveal their feelings and demand their rights. The tradition of radical theatre is still strong, growing and changing, and Delaney, like Littlewood is one of its brilliant pathmakers.

You can also watch the utterly wonderful film adaptation. I think the sound is fantastic, and the shooting style is classic in the best possible way. The National Theatre in London did a production this season, but I couldn't get an affordable ticket, which felt a bit ironic.

Bad pharma: white saviour edition

The Constant Gardener: A Novel - John le Carre

I made rapid progress through this long book thanks to an intriguing plot, empathy with the protagonists, a serious socio-political backdrop and plenty of interesting peripheral characters.

Le Carre has been very careful to make Tessa and her husband Justin humble, passionate and self-effacing, since the role of White Saviour in Africa is, to say the least, problematic. Tessa is almost beyond reproach, and the book was morally comfortable for me with its predictably ignorant, self-interested colonial officials, dubiously spiritual white aid workers, insidiously amoral big pharma, naive-but-intelligent-and-incorruptible mixed-race admin staff, prophetic African wise women and so on, and even the pessimistic conclusion had me nodding sagely along, emotionally affected but unperturbed in my beliefs...

As critique perhaps this is unfair - there is enough discomfort in this sad book to make it a good and serious read, and doubtless its targets are broadly the right ones. But the message I took, and felt dissatisfied with, was that the well-meaning white person (that scourge of the Earth that is every irresponsible and ignorant one of us) is off the hook, and in any case helpless, in the face of corporate injustice in Africa.

thinking easy and hard

Thinking, Fast and Slow - Daniel Kahneman

I feel this book richly deserves its status. Kahneman has handed over the rich & surprising fruits of a lifetime of creative thought and research, in a well-organised book free of academiese (hurrah!) He also makes the material interactive by inviting us to do little mental activities to illustrate his simple study methods and assist the delight of recognition that makes this such an enjoyable read.

One of his goals is to provide ways to talk about and tackle some everyday problems by considering the way we think as two interacting systems, and to point out the weaknesses and mistakes that arise from ways these tend to (co)operate. He frankly admits that it is easier to see others' sub-optimal performance than our own, and the tools he offers are generally for 'water-cooler talk' or gossiping about co-workers and negotiation partners. This is a lot better than it sounds, I promise!

I would have to type out almost the entire book to share all the insights that impressed me, but I will pick out a few of my favourite themes:

People use an 'availability heuristic' to make judgements about how often things occur - if you can think of a lot of examples of something, you tend to assume it is common. This makes us vulnerable to subtle propaganda techniques, and gives rise to an uncritical conflation of what-is-in-the-news with what-is-happening-in-the-world. Kahneman points out that we tend to ignore absent evidence: what-you-see-is-all-there-is (WYSIATI)

People do not behave 'rationally' when faced with many types of wager that map onto real life decisions. Most people, in fact, behave in predictably irrational ways. Economic models that treat people as rational agents ('Econs') are deeply flawed. Which is a shame, because economists are using those models

Intuition is not magic. People who are very experienced and highly trained have the ability to process sense data and make snap decisions before going through the laborious work of stringing verbal thoughts or calculations together. This works well in many situations: for firefighters, sportspeople, medics etc. However, there is a tendency to overinflate the importance of hunches and intuitions in other situations, particularly stock market trading, where Kahneman's statistical analysis shows that people (even experienced workers) are worse than computer programs, and even WORSE THAN RANDOM CHOICE at predicting and picking winners and losers.

Perhaps especially in Euro-USian white culture, most of us tend to privilege our 'remembering self' over our 'experiencing self'. We tend to care disproportionately about the end of a story, and the ends of people's lives. People asked whether they would bother going on holiday if they had to have the memory of the holiday erased at the end of it often say they wouldn't. Kahneman's (very gentle!) experiments on pain showed that privileging the remembering self resulted in people choosing to experience MORE pain because of the way the experience was presented. He suggests that giving more thought to the experiencing self could improve life for many people. This echoes the concept of mindfulness that is important in some cultural traditions, therapies and religious practices. A friend pointed out that it was similar to Zen.

So, that's your taster; I strongly recommend the whole smorgasbord. I'll definitely be reading this again.

Alice is right...

The Color Purple - Alice Walker

I don't feel that I have much to add to the discussion on this book, which has enjoyed so much deserved appreciation and critique (the section in Africa is problematic, I know) I only want to say that my favourite aspect of it is the positioning of the support and love between women as a revolutionary: loving women (not necessarily having sex with women) is a radical act against patriarchy, exclusion and abuse. Walker's comments on her own sexuality are so inspiring for me as is the way Celie cares for Shug and then how Shug cares for Celie in this book. There is terrible violence and sadness in this story, but it is one of the most beautiful life-affirming and comforting texts I have ever read nonetheless.

I was reminded of The Colour Purple when I read this article oncompulsory heterosexuality. <3women love<3

reading along

A Twentieth-Century Literature Reader: Texts and Debates - Suman Gupta, David Johnson

This book of extracts and critical essays aims to illuminate and contextualise important twentieth century memes such as classicism, Marxism, feminism and the post-colonial as they were played out in the literature of (and occasionally from outside) the European tradition. The texts are all authentic material - the editors have only added a brief note to introduce each one with minimal commentary, so the reader shouldn't expect to be spoon-fed! This book was written for an Open University course, and is meant to stimulate critical consciousness and raise starting points for debate.

Having read the book through, I am still re-reading sections of it and trying to respond to them by writing, especially as I encounter relevant longer texts. The reviews (one by George Orwell) are particularly helpful for developing a sense of the histories and societies permeated by C20th literature, and there are some excellent essays, such as Abdulrazak Gurnah's onImagining the Postcolonial Writer.

For someone like me, trying to teach myself literary criticism, this is a very helpful work; I keep coming back to it, not for reference but out of a keen-ness to chew on an idea and take it further than I could before. It's nice to find a 'textbook' that understands what a mature learning process needs to drive it forward: mind-as-searchlight, not as-bucket.

My thoughts on Virginia Woolf's lecture The Leaning Tower 

ice cold

Berg - Ann Quin

Quin narrates a gruesome little plot from inside a schizophrenic mind. As Berg unravels he is aided in his downward spiral by the dehumanised, puppet-like figures of his beloved doting mother, despised unscrupulous father and their infantile 'bitch goddess' archetypally feminine mistress