Activism Archive

Activism, Animals, Blog, Churchill 2014, Reviews

The Ghosts in Our Machine

Ghosts-1

There is a guy sitting in front of me crying. He looks like the kind of person I’d be friends with—I don’t know why, it’s just a look. I later find out his name is Dan, he’s a schoolteacher, and just a year ago he met the woman sitting next to him, with her hand on his shoulder, at a half-marathon race. She was vegan at the time, active in animal rights; he was vegetarian, sometimes. (Over the next year Dan turned vegan, dropped ten pounds, took ten minutes off his half-marathon time. He speaks of quickened muscle recovery and ‘living aligned’. They both think that each of them has lucked-out in finding the other. He tells me all this the next morning as we run together. Near the end of the run he stops, waits for his girlfriend, and I go on alone.) There is a fresh and loving intimacy between them, as she cares for this man crying in her arms, that I crave. It is perhaps a little of why I’m crying too, because what I’m watching is hurting, and I need support.

It’s the scene in the fur farm. It’s Jo-Anne McArthur’s still pictures, used so affectively as they are woven into the urgency of having to break in to the farm facility, take her pictures, and then leave without being discovered, and without saving a single one of these scared creatures. It is what McArthur says in the foreword to her book We Animals: for all those I could not save. It is why I am crying now (watching the film; writing these words). For every good thing we do, we don’t save these individuals in front of us. They are already dead. The use of the stilled images makes this point strongly, sadly.

Still life. It makes me think of when my grandmother died. I was in Australia on a gap year, travelling. My family told me not to come back, to continue on my journey. My grandmother was ill, cantankerous, gave up on life early, except her sherry and her cigs. The only affection she ever really showed late in life was not towards us, but towards Scruffy and Tigger, their cats. So I did not go back. I send instead to my grandfather a condolence card with the image of a bowl of fruit on the front. On the back, it’s title: Still life. But she was dead. I don’t think my grandfather ever forgave me for not returning, for doing everything I could to get there. This is strangely the same feeling the film leads me to: please, let me go back to this farm, save them, do more. This is perhaps why Dan, I, others, so many others, are crying here as we watch The Ghosts in the People Barn at Farm Sanctuary. Have we done everything we can? For these foxes in the fur farm, death is not still life. Who will forgive us for not doing more?

The Ghosts in Our Machine is an elegy. A plaintive poem, a funeral song and lament for the dead. And because it is this, it knows it needs to hold its nerve. To stay in this tone of the elegiac, edited to perfection in the film, never missing a melancholic beat. To break this tone will be to lessen the story’s power. Even when animal protection workers know that a single story is more powerful than the facts and figures (85 billion animals each year, one cow every 12 seconds…) or a combination of both, they cannot seem to resist drawing us back to the incomprehensible, the overwhelming. I don’t know why this is. It’s like that episode of Friends where Monica wants to make everyone cry at her parents’ wedding anniversary. Perhaps the animal rights campaigners and communicators secretly want to not only stir emotions in others, but overwhelm us, be the one who has the power to do that. Secretly, they all want to be Ross (his first word has everyone crying; Monica flounces off). Ok! I admit it—I want to be like Ross, to write with impact. Comically, Ross has ‘it’. The Ghosts has ‘it’ too, but with a markedly different soul. What makes The Ghosts exquisite is that it holds its nerve all the way through, beyond the credits. The tone never wavers. And so, pure, it will linger on in ways that is, most of all, respectful to the lives lost, of all the lives lost.

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Activism, Animals, Blog, Churchill 2014

Forty-five days

The chickens are 20 to a crate, and the crates are moved in piles of 2 x 5 by a fast-moving forklift truck driver in dark blue overalls and a thick white mask over his mouth and nose. We’re in the (public) lane between the two buildings of the chicken packing factory at the corner of Hastings and Commercial Drive in East Vancouver. The building on the right as we look up the lane is the warehouse where stacks of crates, some 20 or 30 high, are kept in holding. On the left is the slaughterhouse.

warehouseThe forklift brings 40 or so crates from the towering columns to the open door of the warehouse, and from here he maintains a steady speed of loading the 2x5s onto the automated conveyor belt on the other side of the lane, into the open end of the slaughterhouse. The chickens are now minutes from death. They are 45 days old.

“Just babies,” said Mary-chris Staples, a maths teacher and organiser of the weekly vigils outside the slaughterhouse. She holds up two fingers to the birds in the crates as they are transported between the two buildings, a victory sign. “Bye babies,” she says as we take their pictures. The thought flashes through my mind that the ultimate sponsor of my trip, Winston Churchill (on this Churchill Fellowship), also used, became famous for, using this V-for-victory sign, long before victory was ever in sight.

*

A truck loaded with chickens will travel hours from the many broiler farms around Vancouver and beyond to this chicken processing plant. Earlier we watched one turn off Hastings into Frasier, but it looked empty. While we’re in the alley another, presumably full, pulls in, ready to unload. I’m with the 2×5 crates, the 200 chickens, that have just been loaded onto the heavy duty conveyor belt. Taking pictures. Mary-chris points past it.

chicken crate“In a minute that one will tip up 45 degrees and empty them all out into the processing line,” she explains. A moment later that’s what happens. The 200 birds are unceremoniously dumped out of the crate – and disappear from sight. The floor of the conveyor drops, the crate is rolled back and moved out of the way back to the open side of the space, so the forklift can come pick it up and return it to the warehouse, where it can either be repaired, or loaded back onto an empty truck and taken back to the broiler farms, for repacking. The other crates, still full of birds, move one space along in the line. The chickens I have been taking photos of, the ones I have been watching, slip slowly to the side, slip slowly away on the floating, buzzing machine.

Behind me the forklift driver quickly drives across the lane and loads up another 2×5 in the empty space. The next 200 chickens, to make sure the processing does not stop.

“Be careful,” says Mary-chris. “He won’t slow down for you.”

If this is the input line, round the corner, where a large refrigerated lorry container is fixed to he building, is the output. And the door adjacent to where we’re standing is in effect the garbage chute. The garage-style door is open and we watch as a huge container is loaded with animal slurry, chicken-flesh pink, pouring down funnels and pipes, some into the container, much of it simply onto the floor.

slurry guyWe take videos and photographs until the container is full, the waste products bound for dog food or some other product with standards lower than what is expected for human consumption, and the slaughterhouse worker shuts the roller door, Mary-chris still filming until its fully closed. I wonder why the forklift driver wears a mask but the slurry guy doesn’t. In the lane it smells but not as bad as I’d imagined.  The smell is not the worst thing. Even the confusion and fear in the eyes of the chickens is not the worst thing. The worst thing is the mechanisation. The numbers. It’s the first time I’ve seen it up close. I want to cry and I also don’t want to cry. I do not want to seem as if I’m shocked.

*

Earlier I’d joined Mary-chris on this regular Friday vigil at the corner of Hastings and Commercial Drive, where every week she and others from Liberation BC and the other animal rights groups in the city meet and bear witness so that others also might not forget what happens behind the walls of this nondescript building, hidden on the slope down to the traffic lights by 12 broad-leaved trees. A dozen placards are tied to lampposts and electricity boxes so the commuters on their way to work can see the messages: “Honk to stop the abuse”; a picture of a dog and a chicken with the now well-served slogan “Why love one and not the other?”.

Mary-chris stands with another placard around her neck, smiling and waving at the passing traffic. “It’s an invitation,” she explains. “If you don’t make eye contact with the drivers and passengers, they don’t really respond. But if you smile and wave, it’s an invitation. People can see you’re not here to shout at them. They can see that, ‘look, here’s a happy person doing something for the animals’ and that’s the invitation, to see what we’re saying. There’s a place for all types of activism.”

mary-chris

This one clearly works. While we’re talking Mary-chris keeps smiling and waving and she gets plenty of people smiling and waving back, and a regular orchestra of honking horns. She tells me about one young boy whose car had stopped at the lights, who read the placard and then whose eyes lifted to the building, and she could see something had happened in his mind.  “Even if it’s just one person…” she adds.

And then it’s my turn. “Can you hold this while I run to the washroom?” she asks, taking off her placard and handing it to me. Of course, I say. And then she runs up the street, leaving me standing on my own. I’m too self-conscious to wave. But I stand there and I face the traffic. No one honks. I’m not smiling, so no one smiles back. But then a bus driver, who pass by here every day, raises his hand to me, and I think, yes, okay.

When Mary-chris gets back she thanks me for doing my bit. It’s nearly 9am now, and Mary-chris is off to join the striking teachers on the picket line, defending Canada’s free education. She tells me that in fact as of today she’s officially retired. She wanted to retire early so she could spend more time on her animal rights work. We collect in the placards from along the street, and load them in the back of her car. The boot is covered with animal stickers, the back seat already down and the car half-full with other posters and the paraphernalia of an activist’s cause. Some of the pictures are of the abuse uncovered in the Mercy for Animals investigation last week at the Chilliwack Cattle Sales.

Before Mary-chris heads off to her picket line she gives me a hug and tells me that coming out here in the rain, all the way from the UK, has made her day, already an emotional one, even better. As she drives off I change into my running gear. Landed only last night, I don’t know my way around the public transport, so the best way, anyway, to discover a new place is always to run through it. I’ll leave here and do another 11 miles around the beautiful Stanley Park and English Bay.

As I leave I cross the alley again and look up. The forklift is still crossing back and forth, back and forth. The cages empty, full, full, then empty. This is what he will do all day. It is hard labour, and Mary-chris, as with Timothy Pachirat’s book Every 12 Seconds, about his year as a slaughterhouse worker, is at pains to point out, the activists’ vigils and protests are not aimed at the workers, but at the system.

As I’m watching two crows swoop down the lane and one dives and picks up a small morsel of escaped chicken flesh. The other crow bombs its back with its talons, hoping to make the first bird drop its prize. And rather than think how awful this is, I’m thinking why don’t people eat crow instead of chicken, or seagull, or eagle—the eagle I saw a few hours later surrounded by crows out at the very tip of Stanley Park. Why is it the chicken—the hundreds of millions of chickens—are the ones who only get to live to be 45 days old?

Click through for more images.

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Activism, Nature Stories, VB40

‘Don’t tell me that, I’ll never go to Nando’s again’

Or why did the chicken cross the road…

As said by Nicky Campbell, Radio 5 Live DJ and “animal lover” this morning at around 7.56am. It was in response to an item on the Radio 5 breakfast show when the director of Omlet, the company behind the eglu and now a hi-vis jacket for chickens crossing the road, was asked what type of companionship chickens provide as pets.

‘You’re doing the chicken a disservice,’ said Johannes Paul, the director of Omlet, who make the jackets. ‘Chickens are great companions, they’re sociable, they come to the sound of your voice, they…’

Not hearing the voices

‘Don’t say that!’ shouted Nicky. ‘I’ll never go to Nando’s again.’ He then actually went ‘La La La La La…’ so as not to hear anything else the Omlet director said about the intelligence, sociability and sentient behaviour of the chicken.

And there it was. The meat eater’s response to the knowledge of cruelty and injustice: I don’t want to know. La la la la la. Rather than listen, and face the terrible knowledge of who, not what, these nonhuman animals are, it’s so much easier to maintain the dissociation.

It’s a strange one for Nicky Campbell. On his Twitter account, he calls himself an “animal lover” and retweets the stories of animal abuse from other Twitter followers.

If you are an animal lover, Nicky, I’d like to challenge you to think about the chicken in the way you think about your dog or cat. Just for five minutes. Think about the reasons not to eat chickens. Can you do it?

For many it can take strength of will to overcome all those obstacles to knowing–and feeling–what happens to the animals that are consumed for food and products. It is difficult, for so many reasons. To begin to face the truth about nonhuman animals, particularly those used for food, is to acknowledge your role in their ill treatment and abuse, before turning to a plant-based diet. That can be an emotionally traumatic process.

But small steps. As Johannes Paul pointed out, chickens are now in the top 10 pets kept in the UK. They are kept for companionship as well as by those people who want to harvest their eggs, often as a way to bypass the cruelty or antibiotics that are inherent in the egg industry. That means more people are living with chickens and seeing their personalities and having to face, perhaps, the choices of eating chicken, perhaps the most hard-done by of all the farmed animals we as a human species consume.

(By the way, the hi-vis chicken vest is not a new story – most other media outlets ran this story back in October 2013.)

Finding voice

After hearing Nicky Campbell do the ‘la la la’ to maintain his cognitive dissonance, I picked up my phone and wrote out a text to Radio 5 to comment on what had happened. And then I deleted the text, and carried on with my morning.

It was the same yesterday, when I posted on Facebook challenging people to ‘carry on, you have your bacon sandwich’ after reading about the tragedy of the pigs who are being live transported to the slaughterhouse in Toronto in the polar vortex that’s hitting North America, of temperatures as low as -23C.

There was the witness account of one pig having to be scraped off the side of the metal truck to which it had frozen with a big wooden panel. This pig was still alive. Most of the pigs had chilblains and purple frostbitten ears. The witnesses of Toronto Pig Save ran to the slaughterhouse to hear the worst screams from the pigs they had ever heard. Pigs who are as social and as intelligent as a three year old child.

And I wrote all this in my post on Facebook to share the story. And then I deleted it. La La La. Let people carry on with their bacon sandwiches.

Why did I delete both? Because I’m wary of being the vegan killjoy. I’m tired of living in a world of meat eaters who will not show compassion towards these nonhuman animals with needs, desires and a will to live, and who clearly suffer a great deal of pain at our hands.

Or rather, I was tired yesterday. Just very tired, due to work, starting running again, getting into a routine. And I do care what people think of me, and don’t want to alienate people. I want to ‘save face’. And am also, I suppose, coming to the knowledge that such anger is not productive in changing people’s attitudes. But it’s something I feel rise up now and then.

It all goes into the pot to think about, and help me answer the important questions. What can I do to stop this? What is the maximum impact I can have?

I thought that I was being less courageous. But silence isn’t always about losing your voice. It can be about having patience, and finding the right voice, much like a writer needs to sometimes not share what she is saying, to speak only to herself, hear the voice in her own head first, and then speak.

(A shorter version was published on the Animal Welfare Party’s website this morning)

Activism, Novel Writing, The Fire Bible, VB40, Writing

World Vegan Day (of the Dead)

“If you could plant one seed,” David asks Esther, “what would it be?”

He didn’t mean the seed of a vegetable or flower; but he suppose he might have, and that she would respond like that. She was always far more literal than he was. Her favourite joke was the one where a woman, after being with her boyfriend for two years, asked him, “Should we talk about the future?” And he replies, “what, you mean flying cars and things?” Even though for them it was the other way round. David was always the one worried about the future.

It was November 1st. It used to be the day before his birthday, when they remembered birthdays, when then was still a calendar. David carries an old almanac and records the passage of days in it. It was also World Vegan Day, he remembers suddenly, when there was collective action, when there were vegans, when there was something that resembled a world into which celebrations or commemorations could be brought to mind, with some conjuring of pleasure, peace. World Vegan Day. It made no sense any more.

“Any seed,” she says. She is thinking. She has crossed her legs and is pointing her toes. Beyond her the tall pines are swaying in a light wind that has picked up suddenly. He sniffs the air for scents, human, animal. There is only the sap.

“It doesn’t have to be literal,” he says. He is thinking all of a sudden of an article he read once, by an academic he used to like, someone who wrote about animals, he read it, he realises, exactly on this date, November 1st, many years ago. He was an academic then. He had begun to care. And then it all got fucked up anyway, and the world collapsed, but he’d been caught caring and it stuck, like that old childhood scare story of pulling a face one too many times and it sticking.

“The tasks we perform to reproduce our biological existence are all politically and culturally relevant,” wrote the academic James Stanescu, in his article. “What food to eat and how to eat it, what shelters to build and how to arrange them, what clothes to wear and when to wear them: these are markers or culture; these are all markers of the political.”

And he thought at the time–and what about who to love and how to love them? Who to communicate with and how we communicate with them?

“You know what today used to be?” Esther asks him, out of the green-blue sky that is still swinging, shifting behind her head. He is startled. He did not think she would know either what day it was in the old calendar, nor remember that they were once not the only two vegans on the planet. At least the continent.

“Dia de Muertos,” she says. He is confused. She cocks her head at him, smiles. “The Day of the Dead. In Mexico. Remember? They all get dressed up. Like Hallowe’en. They celebrate the lives of the family and friends they’ve lost.”

He is sitting cross-legged on the floor of the clearing. Below him he watches an ant, oblivious, walk across a grass stalk. Maybe she went to Mexico with other people, he thinks, before he arrived. But there were enough Mexicans in Santa Cruz to mark the occasion, of course. The students would have picked up on the theme.

“I remember,” he says. “You know it’s World Vegan Day, too. Was.”

She looks at him, and doesn’t turn away. “It still is.”

“Is it?”

She leans over and takes his hand. “While we are still here. Yes.”

“So it’s the day of the dead too,” he says. “Still.”

“And your birthday,” she says. She smiles. “Well, tomorrow of course. Did you think I would forget?”

He laughs despite himself. Why despite? Because, outrageously, there is the hope that she has made him a present. Even a cake? No, impossible. But a present. And for a moment he has a surge of pleasure in his gut, that rushes through into his chest, that it is all okay, that it is still 2014 or 2017 before they lost the sanctuary, and he has to turn away because there are at least two conflicting measures of hurt and love in his face and to be the spectacle of grief, all of a sudden, on this day, when she is being so caring, would drive him insane.

She sits back, turns away. It was too late, anyway.

“Mourning,” she says, after a while, after they have both listened to the absences of the forest for a little while, long enough. “Corpses. The seed of remembering the dead.”

So we don’t lose any more,” he says quickly.

“So we can get on with loving,” she says instead.

She stands up, and offers her hand. He takes it. She pulls him up, and then walk a little way, leaving their gear, but no-one is close, they have smelt nothing, heard nothing, they are safe here tonight. They walk a little way through the trees, the dead pine needles soft underfoot, and they find a small rise from where they can look back down over the valley they have passaged. And they are both thinking, he knows, of their flock and pigs, of Bruce and Django, of Pale and King, of Lucy, of each of the animals they had taken in and cared for before the raid happened, and they were all slaughtered, and he could hear the moans of the three cows, a sound people used to think was normal, but what was ever normal in that world? And for some reason he thinks of a woman who was a friend once, who became over-dependent, and manipulative, and how he spent weeks frustrated with her, angry, until he learnt the Buddhist trick of carrying around with him a spoon to pick up and put down again like unwanted thoughts and emotions, to wash the spoon when done with, in forgiveness. To forget. How much energy and life he wasted on anger. And yet if he met the people now who took his animals, who slaughtered them with no compunction nor grace nor compassion, he would kill them, still. Carve their hearts out with that spoon.

“I didn’t think you’d come up with an abstract noun,” he says to Esther.

She laughs as loudly as she had done in a long while. Doubles up, even. He laughs too. She stands, kisses him.

“And there was me thinking I was not the romantic,” she says.

*

Later, before it gets too dark, he begins to write in the new bible. He is recalling as well as he can the words he remembers from that article he read on this day however many years ago–seven or eight, he thinks. But no, he can work it out. Today is November 1st 2018. So it could have been, only… he was in Santa Cruz. Working. It must have been 2013. The year of the badger cull in England. The year Tyson Foods sold their production to the Chinese. The year he thought it had begun, this awakening to what they were doing. The year before he had the idea for the sanctuary. Or rather, he smiles, not the idea, but the compulsion, and the accident of Bruce, the feisty Toggenburg, a beautiful sage coat, once he’d recovered from the abuse, once they had fed him, and gained his trust.

So he recalls as well as he can. It is the right subject, full of earth, and soil, and sadness. It is a lesson he wants the future to remember that he remembered.

Earth Ch. 23 V.3: Seeds of Mourning
“Mourning sets up connections. The most obvious one is toward the precarious life we are grieving. But mourning also has the possibility of introducing a community, a social reality of those who also mourn the passing of that life. We who mourn other animals, particularly those killed by humans for humans, are going to have to risk much for our recognition of that mourning. The first hope is the more we talk about it, the more we risk our social intelligibility, the more we will find others who will mourn with us, we will find others who understand the loss of these others. As we strive to make ghostly connections to slaughtered animals real, we will also make connections with others. In this sense, the social intelligibility of mourning is never permanent, but exists at every iteration of mourning. It can be changed at any moment, and every time we iterate that grief is a possibility for that change.” – James Stanescu, Summer 2012.

Mourning is perpetual, he adds in his own coda to this Verse.

Can one live in perpetual mourning? He looks up, sees Esther whittling at another icon. He remembers the touch of her hand, the hardness of her skin. Her words from earlier. While we are still here. Yes.

(Extract from a work in progress, a novel about boy-meets-girl as the world collapses and their attempts to build a sanctuary for animals in the new future)

Image (C) Jo-Anne McArthur, We Animals

Activism, Writing

Lee Halpin was too young to die for a story – even one that needed telling

This article was originally published on the Guardian Northerner Blog

I am angry with Lee Halpin. I am angry because, as a journalism educator and as a friend, I cannot get my head around his loss. He was too young to give his life away in pursuit of a story – even one that needed telling. He needed to make this film. As many have said in their tributes, he was a brave journalist with necessary and original things to say.

Lee HalpinI met Lee during a writing workshop three years ago. He was feisty, generous with his comments, nattily dressed, interested in the voices of others. When Lee and his friend Kerry Kitchin launched the arts and culture magazine Novel, I asked them to run a journalism class for me. Lee commanded the room of aspiring writers with an attention to detail and maturity that belied his age – he was only 24 at the time.

Lee was not my student, but he was a courageous journalist who was willing to tackle difficult stories by placing himself in dangerous and frightening situations. I wish he had been my student – maybe then we would have talked about fearlessness in covering a story.

Lee was investigating the rise in homelessness and the repercussions of the ‘bedroom tax’ in the North East. His body was found in a derelict hostel on Westgate Road in the city’s West End. He was following the story as part of a call by Channel 4’s Dispatches on ‘fearless journalism’ to win a 12-month contract. He had set out to “sleep rough, scrounge for my food, interact with homeless people and immerse myself in that lifestyle as deeply as I can”.

Lee believed the issue of homelessness was “politically, socially and culturally” important, especially in the region. Official figures from March show homelessness has increased 10% in the last year and, according to his contact at the Crisis Centre in the city, the figure of those sleeping rough had risen by 31%.

Socrates defined courage as the knowledge of what is and is not to be feared; not every fear should be ignored. Perhaps those who had slept rough all winter knew it was too cold a night to stay out – Lee had earlier put out a tweet for a sleeping bag. Perhaps they knew better than to sleep in derelict buildings. The cause of death has not yet been found – but it is certain his fearlessness contributed to his death.

I came up against my own limits as a journalist when I was offered a role in Palestine. I didn’t go, partly because of fear of the situation. I am now trying to understand what has happened to Lee for my students, who I want to encourage to be curious, courageous journalists. Where is the boundary? When is fear a good fear? How do you combine fearlessness with safety, with knowing when to step away? In his final video for the competition Lee said his approach “certainly feels brave from where I’m sitting now”. He cannot be criticised for that. But I’m still angry with him for it.

“Trash the supplements, trash the columnists, fire the editorial writers but don’t fire the frontline reporters,” said Andrew Marr in 2008, awarding another friend and fearless reporter, the Times’ Deborah Haynes, with her investigative journalism award into the plight of Iraqi translators working with the British.

Lee was a frontline reporter at the beginning of his career. I am angry with Lee for dying before that career developed, before we could learn from his work, or invite him to come and inspire future journalism students.

It is not lasting anger, of course. It is sadness. And more than both, it is admiration for Lee’s work and his sacrifice in wanting to tell this story that often goes unnoticed, about homelessness and vulnerable people. Homeless people do die in the cold. If we only identify Lee’s death as tragic because he was a journalist who didn’t need to be there, then we will not have listened to his story.

Picture (C) North News and Pictures

Activism, Writing

Watching videos of Madonna

The library was in Ashburton Park, round the corner from where we grew up. I went there and rode my skateboard down the small slopes, travelling further and faster than I ever had before. It was in the small gardens outside the library where me and Maryann first split up; got back together; split up again. I remember the library as foreboding. But that wasn’t a kid word. That was a word I must have picked up later.

My sister was bunking off on days she had Mr Moore. Had her first period in his class. He stopped her going to the loo. So she went to the park, hung around the library. It had dirty red brick walls and its entrance was behind gates in the children’s playground, full of mums in sportsgear with loud voices and needling movements. My sister didn’t usually go in. When it rained she stood under the bandstand, if no kids were drinking or smoking there. She took my Nan’s Catherine Cookson’s back though, if they were late. But she didn’t borrow books. She liked watching videos of Madonna.

Sitting under the horse chestnut my sister had a view of the pond and the buses to Beckenham. She also had a view of the lane that led to our house so she could see if mum came along. Mum was the reader. She got me into the library and fantasy, the Belgariad and the ones with the Ws in the title (Wizards and the War Guild the one I remember). Libraries were posh and unknown then, like kisses. I came to like both. I believed in books even if I didn’t believe in myself. The library loaned it to me.

I learnt later my sister never had a library card. It was during a dinner with her boyfriend George who buttoned his shirt to the top and ‘didn’t drink anymore’ and told us my sister was afraid of the library. Not like her smart little brother, he said, and I felt ashamed for what I’d believed in. Her little brother who was reading Hornblower and throwing his smartness in her face. I don’t remember doing that. Maybe I did. I doubt I was any less cruel than the next kid. My sister was bullied since thirteen. It turned out, I discovered later, she was dyslexic, and never learnt to read.

(First published at Writers For Libraries, a campaign to protest Newcastle City Council’s proposals to close 10 out of the city’s 18 libraries, as well as other leisure services such as swimming pools, and to cut 100% of its support for the arts.)

Image (c) Shemer

Activism, Projects

Save Our Woods

Save Our Woods is a grassroots organisation that was born in 2010 to ensure that our public forest estate remains in public ownership. The people behind SoW (Hen, Karen, Nick and now also Pip) believe this is the best way to protect those woodlands for future generations, ensuring their access and biodiversity are maintained and enhanced, and their resources are managed sustainably and in the best interests for wildlife and local communities.

The campaign began when the Government announced plans to sell off up to 100% of the Public Forestry Estate. The campaign was incredible, and forced the government into a ‘Yew Turn’. SoW are now engaged with Government on formulating their response to the Forestry Panels’ recommendations.

Here’s my contribution to the Save Our Woods campaign via their website. I also wrote a number of academic papers which were presented at conferences and a final version of which will be published in the collection Environmental Crisis and the Media (edited by Libby Lester and Brett Hutchins). The chapter can be downloaded from my Academic CV page.

Activism, Green Feeling Archive, Momentary Affects, Writing

Sharkwater

The local Cinema Politica group put on a showing of Rob Stewart’s film Sharkwater. It’s a big audience for an environmental documentary—perhaps fifty or so people on a cool Thursday night in the North East of England.

The film is Stewart’s love letter to sharks, and his attempt to redress both the myths we hold about sharks and to do something about their impending mass extinction at the hands of humans. Shark populations have fallen by anything between 90%-98% and there are no international regulations limiting or banning shark fishing. It is, according to many of the sources in the film, the greatest global biodiversity catastrophe waiting to happen. Sharks have been around for 400m years, and have shaped the entire ecosystem. Their removal will also shape it.

The film is in places graphic and hard to watch. It shows fins being cut from sharks, and those sharks, mostly dead, but sometimes still alive, being cast back into the water. It shows the billion pound shark industry that spans the globe for a tasteless soup that is a sign of privilege in Asian societies, and for herbal medicines that do not work. It shows the corruption of governments and the desperation of poor people who have little, except this unbounded resource at the edge of the shore as a way to lift themselves out of poverty. It shows the self-importance of stupid humans who are utterly unable to recognise the importance of sentient animal life.

I see C wipe away a tear at one point. I sit as monumentally as I can, thinking of Caravaggio’s sketch of St Matthew as he turns away from the man-made gospel he has just written, thinking: what have we done? Not to be overwhelmed. Why I try so hard is not clear to me.

The first comment, from one of the Cinema Politica organisers, is that although the subject matter is obviously serious and tragic, she felt its treatment was at sometimes ‘crude’ in its manipulations of the emotive nature of the story. From the other side of the room, a small voice confers: ‘agree’.

Two experts from the universities Marine Science Department are invited up to help begin a debate. Both manage the debate excellently. Fair, polite, knowledgeable, and pragmatic, they also negotiate through to the core of what’s being discussed: the emotive nature of what we’ve just witnessed. Without taking sides, they re-emphasise the facts, contribute additional information, bear witness to the contribution that people can make if, as Paul Watson, of Sea Shepherd, in the film suggests, we choose to devote our lives to solving these problems.

I dig myself out of the frustration I’m feeling at those two first comments to try and model the experts: how they are handling this, even though I want to ask those first two contributors why they think the sanctity of their emotional freedom is the important thing to be discussed here. Why first comment on the mechanisms of film-making? Didn’t they just see what I saw? Why do they have to detach themselves from the content because they are uncomfortable with the form? Why can’t they just feel, and act?

A reasonable debate gets going. I think it is the same girl who said ‘agree’ who later asks the experts if they think Sea Shepherd’s tactics might turn people against conservation? Expert N is polite and considered in his response. It’s a tough question. But is it? In a world of seven billion people, there is one ship, with perhaps 50-200 people within his organisation, patrolling two thirds of the world’s surface, against the illegal activities taking place, where obvious government and organisational complicity and corruption obstruct them at every turn (Both experts agreed the corruption in the film was credible; from my own time as ELDIS/ID21.org editor on global issues, including illegal fishing, I know this is the case).

What is wrong with this person that she cannot take a step back and do the maths? One ship, perhaps 200 people in the Sea Shepherd organisation. Is it really even worth asking that question? Did she not listen when Paul said his organisation was not a campaigning organisation? Does she know the history of direct action and indirect action? Did she not believe the figures of shark loss, which Expert S has just confirmed, and actually said are often worse?

The last comment of the night: a woman in the row in front, who carefully, softly, expresses what we were, I think, both feeling; a need to respond to those first commenters who felt the film ‘crude’ and ‘too emotive’ – that she didn’t mind that it was emotive; that due to the seriousness of the situation, it needed to be blunt, a slap in the face. I’m glad it was her who said it and not me. I would have been much more antagonistic. All I could think about were the words of Thich Nhat Hahn I’d read earlier in the Ecologist magazine, that perhaps humans would be extinct in 100 years, and that we should begin with those first couple of people who made comments tonight.

I go home. I sign up to the United Conservationists’ email list. I order Brendan Brazier’s book Thrive, on how to combine a vegan and sports lifestyle. I talk to C later about uncertainties and about designations. We don’t talk about the film. The next morning I think about why I fought so hard against being moved. I think about if there is any real difference between my end of the spectrum (the self-dissolving end) and the other end (the self-centred end) where I immediately, ‘crudely’, judged those two girls to sit. It’s differences along that axis that are were the central division between myself and C, but if it just comes round and meets at the two ends anyway…?

This isn’t a long-thought out argument. I’m sure there are holes in it. I’m just fed up with humanity. It’s not that our emotions are manipulated by such films as Sharkwater that are the problem. It is that they usually have to be. Modernity has privileged the self. Self-awareness, self-actualisation, the great Romantic project, has found its self-centred apogee in the industrialised deracination of the planet via the mechanisms of capital production, particularly inequality and poverty. In other words, we’re selfish, and we fuck things up—for other humans as well as animals and plants. And that’s the corrupt governments, the greedy businessmen, and the self-indulgent graduate student whose emotions have been affronted. And I shamefully include myself in that categorisation.

What is ‘crude’ is that our emotions have become more important realities to us than the lives of hundreds of millions of intelligent and beautiful sharks. Instead, in Rob Stewart, and Paul Watson, and those who act, we have models to follow where emotions are in the service of the world, not above it.