Saturday, 23 July 2016

Exit from Brexit

I must confess that I still feel extremely angry about the outcome of the absurd and unnecessary EU “referendum” yet I am beginning to think that the UK might remain in the EU after all.  I put the chances of this possibility at about 30 % for the following reasons:

i)         The political, economic, cultural, and also scientific damage to the UK has already begun, and is becoming more widely recognized even among those who voted to leave.  Will there be more money for the NHS or other public services?  Rather unlikely with slower economic growth and even a recession in the offing.

ii)        Within the governing Conservative Party that caused this mess there is a majority of MPs who wish to remain in the EU.  Do they really want to press the article 50 self destruct button for the UK?

iii)       The legal challenge to the use of royal prerogative to trigger article 50 exposes the absurdity of potentially far reaching constitutional change undertaken by accident without parliamentary scrutiny or approval.  If the UK really is a parliamentary democracy (and this formed the basis of widespread unease with the extent of EU legislative powers) then it would be strange if the UK parliament were now effectively excluded from this process.

iv)       After triggering article 50 there would be many years of wasted effort and resources put into the process of leaving the EU to create a weaker and more isolated (and isolationist) UK.  These are years that could be spent on more productive and useful aims such as investing in the technologies of the future rather than splurging on consultancy and legal fees (there are always some beneficiaries from a bad decision).

v)        The UK’s new Prime Minister Theresa May has appointed three leading advocates for the Leave campaign to senior positions overseeing the Brexit negotiations (the so-called three Brexiteers comprising Liam Fox, David Davis, and Boris Johnson).  Is this a question of political balance for senior ministerial appointments or a Machiavellian plot to ensure that the negotiations fail?  As a Remain advocate it is unlikely that May really does want to damage the future of the UK and her own political legacy to boot.   There are already signs that the idiocy of the Brexiteers is bearing fruit: Davis claims that trade opportunities for the UK are ten times greater outside the EU but as contributors to The Financial Times have pointed out, this must surely involve trade negotiations with another planet.  It is time to push back against the advance of post-factual politics.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Landscape as political transect

Tower Hamlets (32.5 % Leave  67.5 % Remain)

It is the afternoon of Saturday 25th June and my train draws out of London’s Liverpool Street Station amid a thunderstorm, heading east for Ipswich and Norwich.  It is a grubby poorly upholstered train with many empty first class carriages whilst the rest of us are crammed into the other half of the train.

As the train leaves the station I can see a familiar mix of Victorian terraces interspersed with post-war social housing. 

Newham  (47.2 % Leave  52.8 % Remain)

The Olympic Park, Westfield shopping centre, and high-rise student accommodation.
Cranes, tents, and half-finished buildings in the rain.
Cemetery, pylons, overpass.
Car parks, transport depots, inter-war retail units.

Barking and Dagenham (62.4 % Leave  37.6 % Remain)

Petrol stations, big box Wickes store.
The train slows slightly but does not stop at Chadwell Heath station.
Semi-suburbia and standardized poor quality new build housing.

Havering (69.7 % Leave  30.3 % Remain)

Sports playing fields and multiplex cinema.
We pass through Romford and Gidea Park stations.
Pylons, undulating suburbia, copses.
We are now leaving the administrative boundary of London and entering Essex.

Brentwood (59.2 % Leave  40.8 % Remain)

Sewage works
We pass over the M25 orbital
Splash of green graffiti
Pipe sections by the railway tracks
Heaps of gravel, greenhouses.
Fields fringed with white flowering umbellifers.
Bird on a wire.
Isolated homestead near the tracks.
Muddy brook and country lane.
The white of willow leaves flashing in the sunshine against a dark grey thundery sky.

Chelmsford (52.8 % Leave  47.2 % Remain)

We draw into Chelmsford station, the tracks lined with buddleia, elder, and sycamore.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Political vandals

Last Sunday I followed the lead of Unison's Dave Prentis and reported Nigel Farage to the police for inciting racial hatred: his now notorious poster depicting refugees seeking a safe haven from war and violence marks a debasement of our political culture that cannot go unchallenged.  Given the murder of the Labour MP Jo Cox, and rising levels of racism and xenophobia in the UK not seen since the 1970s, the task of defending society from the politics of hate is a responsibility for every citizen.

When the UK Prime Minister David Cameron foolishly called for a referendum on UK membership of the European Union he set in train a process that has yet to be fully played out regardless of the final outcome on 23 June.   At one level we have the spectacle of a Conservative leadership campaign in which political recklessness has been re-fashioned as an absurd bid for English independence that further divides the different nations, regions, and communities of the UK.  And standing behind the right-wing populist Boris Johnson is his new aide-de-camp Michael Gove, a curious ideological zealot, still smarting from being sacked by Cameron as Secretary of State for Education.  The simmering internal disputes over Europe within the Conservative Party have been re-energized by a cocktail of bitterness and political ambition.  

Among the glaring features of this referendum, illustrated yet again by the final debate at Wembley last night, is a pervasive hostility towards “experts” and rational argument.  Millions of voters are convinced that the decline of manufacturing industry, falling living standards, and underinvestment in public services is the fault of the European Union and not successive UK governments.  The longstanding lack of investment in education, skills, innovation, infrastructure, and all the other ingredients of economic success has scarcely been addressed.

If there was ever an illustration of why a referendum is a crude and dangerous political tool this Thursday’s polarized and unnecessary choice shows why.  The EU is not perfect but to leave would be an act of political vandalism based on a misreading of history and a retreat from reality.

Sunday, 29 May 2016

The attraction to moths

“We know that moths are attracted to light, but what attracted you to moths?”

I have been puzzling over this question ever since it was posed to me a few weeks ago by a biochemist.  I think my childhood curiosity for insects was initially spurred by noticing bees, bugs, and other insects, but especially butterflies, which descended in great numbers every summer onto the buddleia bushes that grew in the former “bomb sites” and wastelands of London.  Butterflies often serve as an “entomological portal” to the vast and mysterious world of moths: whilst the UK has only around 60 species of butterflies there are over 2,500 species of moths (including only a tiny number that can truly be considered pests or devourers of woollen clothes).  In practice, however, the distinction between moths and butterflies has always been more cultural than taxonomic in origin since they are grouped together under the same order called “Lepidoptera” (on account of the distinctive scales on their wings that give rise to the enormous range of colours and patterns).  Even the observation that most moths fly by night is only part of the full story of their diversity and fascinating life histories: there are actually more species of day-flying moths than there are species of butterflies.

As a teenager I bought a moth trap consisting of a bright mercury vapour bulb that attracted nocturnal species that would spiral towards the light during the night, falling down into a plastic drum where the moths would settle under egg boxes so that they could be observed the next day, after which they were released unharmed back into their environment.  Even in the heart of London there were dozens of species I had never encountered before such as the Dog’s Tooth, the Setaceous Hebrew Character, and the Shuttle-shaped Dart.  The names were a source of fascination in themselves.  And then I tried using the moth trap one warm and humid July night in the Teifi Valley, West Wales, and experienced what I would describe as the “entomological sublime”: moths swirled about me from every direction, just as the German writer W.G. Sebald has described in his novel Austerlitz, whilst dozens of bats swooped between the trees.  I will never forget the passage of a Barn Owl overhead, eerily lit up by the light of the moth trap against the deep darkness of the sky.  The next morning there were over a thousand jewels awaiting me of every conceivable shape and colour.  There were dozens of hawk-moths that I had previously only seen depicted in the striking plates of identification guides such as Richard South’s Moths of the British Isles.  I was hooked.

But moths are far more than just a focus of intrigue and delight.  They constitute a vital component of global bio-diversity, reaching their peak diversity in the Andes.  Many individual species serve as sensitive indicators, demonstrating the effects of environmental degradation, ranging from the creeping menace of climate change to the irreversible destruction of complex ecosystems.   Moths also play a significant role in pollination including species that have co-evolved with specific plants such as the remarkable relationship between a long-tongued hawk-moth and a long-spurred orchid in Madagascar that was first realized by Charles Darwin.  There is even a moth that has shaped human history:  the silk trade could not have emerged without the domesticated silk moth and its diligent “worm” (caterpillar) that produces the finest, strongest, and most versatile thread that has ever been known.  Whether visiting our dreams or circling around street lights the moth is undoubtedly one of the wonders of nature.


I saw Aferim! at the Berlinale last year and the film has stayed with me ever since.  Finally, it is getting the wider release that it deserves.  This remarkable film, directed by the Romanian filmmaker Radu Jude, is set in nineteenth-century Wallachia, a region in what is now Romania but was then part of the Ottoman Empire. The narrative is framed around a policeman and his son who are sent to find a runaway Roma slave and return him to his owner, a boyar (a kind of feudal lord).  The widescreen black and white photography lends the landscapes a vivid verisimilitude and belies the desperate poverty and violence that lurk everywhere.  I can think of no other film that so brilliantly and devastatingly depicts the historical plight of the Roma (and illuminates the contemporary weight of the past).  Aferim! is surely a milestone in European cinema.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Street scenes: Thomas Struth and the distillation of vision

Among the eighteen photographers featured in the recent show Constructing Worlds at the Barbican Centre in London I want to reflect for a moment on the work of the German artist Thomas Struth.  Struth forms part of an influential circle of former students of Bernd and Hilla Becher at the Düsseldorf Academy where significant advances were made in the use of large format black and white photographs to record the scale and detail of urban and industrial landscapes.

One of Struth’s photograph stands out for me in particular, entitled Clinton Road, London (1977), which captures a wide-angle view of an empty London street, perhaps on a Sunday morning so as to be as unobtrusive as possible (save for a possible curtain twitch to the left).   In a series of photos taken in the late 1970s in several cities—among them Brussels, Cologne, and New York—Struth sought to distil the essence of an entire city into a single image.  In the case of London this is no easy task.  Nevertheless, this street is instantly recognizable as an example of the type of turn of the century terrace housing that dominates many of London’s newly built suburbs of the late nineteenth- and early-twentieth centuries.  There is a studied ordinariness to this image that captures something of the enigma of London as a city.  

Sometimes it takes an outsider to notice what is taken for granted.  Like the Danish architect Steen Eiler Rasmussen achieved, with his marvellous book London: the unique city, first published in 1934, Struth has also managed in the field of photography with his carefully chosen location.   That this image is a large format image, with all the skill and technical complexity that that entails, merely adds to its poignancy.  And with the use of black-and-white rather than colour, the image seems to be both closer in time and yet simultaneously further away.

Thomas Struth, Clinton Road, London (1977)