In the Review section of Saturday’s Guardian – my favourite bit of newspaper – John Crace, writer of the Guardian’s Digested Reads, composed a fantasy literary cabinet. He’s a very clever man, and his list made me smirk in a rather smugly erudite fashion. I particularly liked his putting JG Ballard up for Transport Secretary because of his book Crash (see my post on it here).
But I was somewhat disappointed with his choice for Environment Secretary, Graham Greene (it’s in the name). Yes, ha ha, but surely there are better candidates.
The environment is terribly in vogue at the moment and several authors are addressing issues of climate change – in both non-fiction (An Inconvenient Truth, The World Without Bees, The Plundered Planet etc.) and fiction (Margaret Atwood’s Year of the Flood, Ian McEwan’s Solar, Douglas Coupland’s Generation A).
But I don’t think that one would have to choose from today’s crop of climate-change-aware writers. Frankly, I can’t think of anything worse than making Ian McEwan more smug than he is already. Although climate change and the environment are quite modern concerns, if one combs through Britain’s literary past there are several environmentally-aware writers waiting to be picked.
Of course the Victorians would be out of the picture. The Industrial Revolution, perceived by most of them as brilliant change and progress is now acknowledged as probably the biggest man-made environmental disaster ever. If only Dickens had been as concerned about emissions levels as he was about the slums.
But the Romantics would be good. Nature was terribly important to Wordsworth and Coleridge. Perhaps they’d incentivise Staycations in the Lake District.
For my ideal literary Environment Secretary, however, I’d go back to Andrew Marvell. He was a politician, serving as MP for Hull from 1659 until his death, but also appreciated nature, images of which frequent his poetry. In fact Marvell often uses nature as metaphor for politics. In his poem ‘Upon the Hill and Grove at Bilbrough‘, he shuns mountains, which ‘fright’ Heaven and ‘deform’ Earth, in favour of hills, more ‘courteous’ to travellers:
Not for it self the height does gain,
But only strives to raise the Plain.
He transforms a hill into a symbol for democracy, a way of raising everybody, preferring it to a mountain which is harder to climb. I rather like this idea. Perhaps his Republican politics and love of hills would lead to a policy of ‘Hill-Walking For All’ – everyone would be entitled to a few days a year in which they should go rambling through nature. I often think, having grown up in London, how easy it is to be divorced from nature. Remember that Ali G clip when he goes to the countryside and sees a cow? (‘What the fuck is that?’ he asked in horror/shock/bemusement.) If every city-dweller had to spend just a bit of time in the countryside it would increase people’s awareness of nature and – one hopes – would increase their respect for the environment.
Elsewhere Marvell writes about gardens, comparing them rather unfavourably with fields and untampered-with Nature. In ‘The Mower against Gardens‘ he portrays gardens as artificial, as ‘vex’ed, a place where flowers are ‘taught to paint’, the result of some gross fecundity. Fields, on the other hand, are ‘plain and pure’. Gardens are shown to be artificial places of seclusion from the public world (the fields) and Marvell’s disdain for the private world, separated from public life is clear in this unflattering portrayal.
Gardens are better for Marvell in ‘The Nymph Complaining for the Death of her Faun‘, in which the garden is so overgrown that it is ‘a little Wilderness’. I can imagine that this wouldn’t go down quite so well in Middle England. No water features, exotic flowers and gnomes – replace them with local wildflowers and let them get overgrown. Not quite Alan Titchmarsh.
But if gardens are metaphors for poetry, Marvell suggests that poetry shouldn’t be full of artificial beauty, gaudy colours, flowery lines, cut off from the public world, but should in fact be a way of engaging with the wilderness – with public life – just in a smaller, more manageable, contained form. Art should engage with politics, in other words, rather than only being concerned with its own aesthetic ends. I wonder how that would go down with the East End art scene. It would be a shame if this idea sparked a resurgence of the Tony Blair days, when Oasis were round at Downing Street for tea all the time. But I suppose it could be a way of spreading political awareness to the masses. Perhaps the Lib Dems could get Banksy to do their next campaign.
It’s just a shame that Marvell’s engagement with politics, and nature, was predominantly only in his poems. Although he became an MP in 1659, until then he spent most of his life as an academic, tutoring rather than being politically active. But I’m sure we could get him to agree to be Environment Secretary. All we’d have to do to cajole him out of his cloistered garden would be to make a wild roof garden on top of the Houses of Parliament. And, best of all, it would have to be open to the public.