Germaine Greer on the environment

Germaine Greer

White Beech: the Rainforest Years
@Bristol, 12 June

The packed audience for Germaine Greer’s talk at Bristol Festival of Ideas were mostly women, as you might expect, but for once the topic at hand was not feminism but the environment and conservation. Greer was introducing her new book White Beech: the Rainforest Years by giving some background to what might seem like a surprising episode of her life.

In 2001 Greer bought an abandoned farm in Australia with the sole intention of returning the land to the sub-tropical rainforest it once had been, a small area of which remained. She had very clear ideas about how and why she wanted to do this and had spent some time choosing the right piece of land, but where did this unusual idea come from?

Greer spoke eloquently and passionately about her lifelong love for nature and her growing realisation, as she got older, that she preferred “real” nature to anything artificially managed. She spoke about the difference between the artistic notion of “landscape” and the Aboriginal term “country”, which encompasses not only land and vegetation but also sky above and creatures living there. (I say “creatures” deliberately because as president of the charity Bug Life, Greer tends to be more concerned with insects, crustaceans and the like rather than birds or mammals). While landscaped land can be pretty or picturesque, Greer finds real beauty in wilder nature. She also finds that natural plants in their natural habitat tend to make sense and work together, creating more biodiversity than anything artificial manages.

Which led her to begin educating herself about natural vegetation versus introduced species. She has become pretty knowledgeable on this subject about both the UK and Australia. The UK’s long history of landscaped gardens and parks hasn’t done our native species any favours. There are now more monkey puzzle trees in the UK than in their native Chile but the very British larch tree is struggling.

Greer is nothing if not opinionated and while her passion and her project are both wonderful, there are points on which she seems wilfully naïve. For instance, she is very against captive breeding programmes for endangered animals and says that we should instead declare their habitats protected areas and leave them to regenerate. It would be a wonderful world if that were possible but look at the number of protected reserves around the world that have failed to protect animals from poachers or illegal tree felling or other damaging human activity. Humans are just not that easy to control.

Greer also says that her hope with this project is to start a trend, to encourage others to do as she has. Which is all very well for her to say but most of us don’t have the time or the money for such a huge project, or even a smaller version of it. She employs a staff of botanists on her bit of Australian rainforest and made sure we all knew that she pays them a decent wage (apparently paid work is a bit of a rarity for botanists these days). I’m glad for them but perhaps this section of the talk would be better saved for audiences of the very rich, rather than having multiple questions from the audience about what the average person can do be dismissed out of hand. Not a lot, was the largely disguised answer. This is a rich person’s solution.

However, Greer’s eagerness to do what she considers to be the right thing and her pleasure in the success she has had so far on her own project shone through. She describes the experience as “fun, surprising, joyful, unalloyed, exciting and dramatic”.

Chris Brookmyre at Bristol Festival of Ideas

Flesh Wounds
Foyles, Bristol, 11 September

I really like Christopher Brookmyre, or Chris Brookmyre, as he’s branded these days. His books (or at least the ones I’ve read, which is quite a few) are funny, clever, insightful, satirical, sharply observed and just plain well written. But I tend to forget him when listing authors I admire (sorry, Chris) and that’s a shame because I really do. So big thanks to my friend L for asking me to go tonight’s talk with her. A quick glance at the number of his books I own gives some indication of the love I have for him.

Brookmyre books

The first Brookmyre book I read was A Big Boy Did It and Ran Away, which Tim borrowed from his friend (actually, the same friend who originally helped me to set up this website) and then told me I should read it as well because it would apparently explain to me why computer games, especially Quake, are so great. As well as being a good crime novel. And also funny. I very bravely (I’m shy, remember) put up my hand and asked Chris about this book tonight and he confirmed that he was indeed a lover of the Quake games, and he felt that those early days of online gaming made a really interesting subject for a book, though sadly he doesn’t play much these days.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Chris Brookmyre was interviewed (in front of a surprisingly small audience – I feel I should reassure Chris that he is loved, though I’m sure his sales figures attest to that) by Julian Baggini about his new book Flesh Wounds and his career to date. Baggini asked some really interesting questions about the sociological and psychological insights into crime that Brookmyre excels at. I did enjoy Brookmyre’s insistence that he couldn’t pull off the perfect crime because he’s no good at standing up to authority (which is a little surprising considering how many of his books satirise major establishments) and in real life you can’t predict what the police will do, the way you can when you’re the novelist controlling them (fair point).

Brookmyre was refreshingly down to earth and accessible. He enjoys language, especially dialect, which I think clearly shows in his work. And he’s very self aware. He says that the violence in his books is deliberately slightly cartoonish because he wants to distance the reader from the reality of that side of things, because it’s never central to the story. I hadn’t really noticed that but on reflection it’s obviously true. As he said, there’s one book in which he contrives to have a character cut off their own head!

Brookmyre is also honorary president of the Humanist Society of Scotland and apparently has written some articles on the subject, which perhaps isn’t surprising having read some of his earlier books that talk about the Catholic Church. Interestingly he said tonight that back when he wrote those books he felt frustrated and angry that there wasn’t a voice for non-believers and that there was an unquestioned respect for organised religion, but now he feels that in many ways the war has been won – religion no longer has a free pass and atheism is widely accepted. Certainly, I’d agree that huge progress has been made but I definitely wouldn’t say the fight is over, even here in the UK, let alone elsewhere in the world. If I wasn’t so uselessly shy we could probably have had a good chat about that afterwards.

As it was, I got two books signed (including an embarrassingly dog-eared and tea-stained copy of The Sacred Art of Stealing that I had to reassure him was in that state because it’s “well loved”, which it absolutely is) and, possibly more importantly, was reminded that I greatly enjoy and admire this author and should read more of his work.

This event was part of the Bristol Festival of Ideas.

What's the blogging story?

This was a debate held at the Watershed in Bristol tonight as part of the Festival of Ideas and an NUJ/MediaAct/Media Wise joint project to look at the future of journalism and the impact of the blogosphere. It was a lively event with a well chosen panel (actually two panels) and the whole thing was streamed, tweeted and no doubt heavily blogged so I won’t summarise everything here but I will give my reaction.

The internet is full of a lot of stuff and of course it’s not all of a high ethical and moral standard with diligently checked sources and open, honest debate, but then neither is the mainstream media. Some of tonight’s speakers mentioned the continuous lies and disinformation printed by certain widely read newspapers and, to be honest, it’s amazing that there is still such widespread trust in the printed word. An intelligent, interested person can easily find the facts (or lies) behind most, if not all, news stories with a little bit of digging around on the internet. In most cases you’ll likely find a number of blogs have done the hard work for you, providing links to verify the information.

There was a lot of talk about regulation, whether it’s necessary or helpful, and whether it could or should be applied to blogs. The PCC came in for a lot of criticism but of course any code will have its restrictions, both in what it can cover and how it can be applied. A lot of panel-members felt this was covered by self-policing, which is in some ways laughable if we’re just talking about the Fleet Street old boys club, but when you take the internet into account it does begin to make sense. There are lots of people out there ready to point out your mistakes and this actually makes it a little scary publishing anything at all on the internet. Once it’s out there it’s out there, even if there wasn’t a general rule that you shouldn’t remove your mistakes but instead add an update explaining them, or that you shouldn’t delete the comments that point them out. Both rules, by the way, that I don’t think are as widely known and acted on as some of tonight’s speakers seemed to think.

And that, I suppose, would be the point of having some kind of code of conduct that bloggers could sign up to. Yes, it’s only those who would have followed the rules anyway who would sign up, but not every reader is internet-savvy enough to know the rules of netiquette and I think it would help some of those people to sift through the endless words on the internet to find ones that have some semblance of trustworthiness.

Unsurprisingly I think the internet is a wonderful thing, a gigantic leap forward for humankind, and it saddens me that there are people who think of it as a means of opting out from “real” interaction and action. I doubt I have to persuade anyone reading this, but that opinion was voiced tonight and I have to rebut. How many campaigns, marches, demonstrations, petitions and meetings are organised on the internet, using blogs, Twitter, Facebook, etc? How many local events have been revitalised since they gained the tool that is the internet to communicate, research and publicise? How many genuine, true, life-changing friendships are forged on its pages, or kept alive by it? I could go on and on. I won’t.

It was a privilege to hear Iqbal Tamimi speak about her work since having to leave her home in Palestine, how she has used the internet to get information out and voices heard. This matter of getting news from behind closed doors, getting deep into human rights issues, raised the question (again) of anonymity and whether it should be a right, covered in law or at least some journalism code of conduct. The ever eloquent Brooke Magnanti reminded us how near impossible it is to maintain anonymity, whether in the face of hungry tabloids or extreme governments there will be someone who has the ability to track down and identify you. Here in the privileged West it’s easy to say that anyone who has something to say should be willing to put their name to it and that may or may not be true, but it’s a very different story when simply speaking the truth about your daily life, your government, your country can land you in jail or have you killed. That people are brave enough to write in the face of horrific punishments, simply because they want the world to know what’s happening, that is true journalism.

A huge thank you to all who those behind tonight’s event. It was fantastically interesting and I think by the end everyone was nodding along in agreement to all the very reasonable things being said.