Writing Needs to be Offered as a Gift to its AudienceTom Bullough Interviews Jay Griffiths

Jay Griffiths
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Tom Bullough
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Tom Bullough is the author of four novels – most recently Addlands, a story of seventy years on a Radnorshire hill farm, which, among other plaudits, was the subject of a sermon in Westminster Abbey. At present, he is working on his fifth book, Sarn Helen - a study of Welsh history and the climate crisis - which will be published by Granta in 2022. He lives in the Brecon Beacons.

Jay, what a treat to fire you questions. As you know, I think Why Rebel is a wonder – and, really, it answers this first in itself – but all the same it is such a central question for you, for me, for so many writers: How do you square the urgency of the CEE (Climate and Ecological Emergency) with books? Or, to put it another way, how do you square campaigning with art?

Propaganda is rude. It implies the reader is an idiot. But it is not so: the reader can see propaganda coming a mile off. Propaganda makes a demand: pay me now. It comes as a loan shark seeking repayment. Writing needs to be offered as a gift to its audience, not a bill.

Then there is the issue of its subject matter and it seems to me that writers write about whatever they are immersed in, and then it feels natural to write about that. Writers immersed in twattish celebrity-culture will write about that. For me the living, true, actual world is where I dwell, in my mind as well as my body, so it feels inevitable that I write about that.

At the same time, there is an urgency in these times that seems to need bodies on the streets, as you, Tom, so courageously did, and as many, many people do. It does sometimes feel despairing that words are not enough, because my credo as a writer is that words are more than enough, that they carry the living and true world within them, and are transformative. But these are not times when writers have the luxury of ignoring reality.

No, indeed. And there’s one of the things that I love about this book – that it’s entirely honest about the depth of the crisis while resisting the easy, established paths: on the one hand doom, on the other hand optimism or, as you hear so often, “cautious optimism”. Can you tell us a bit about the path you’ve chosen?

I find the stance of enforced hope and mandatory optimism is just fake. We are in a situation of such jeopardy that collectively we have to behave as any other sensible mammal would: show the fear, sound the alarm. Any self-respecting meerkat knows this, and given the danger we face, a meerkat would not meekly squeak a little polite hint, but would properly communicate alarm. That said, the words for alarm, the ‘doom’ words don’t actually carry much weight, which is an odd trick of language, but it is true. The thing is that language buckles in this heat: at the level of such death and damage, it seems that language is often forced towards the big abstractions: ‘doom’, ‘crisis’, ‘collective insanity’ etc.  And yet paradoxically those big abstractions do not carry the tender meaning and significance that actually touches people. That is one of the reasons why I ask in this book a primary question: what do you love? Who, or what, gives your life meaning? And from that question flows the Everything.

We have made cliches of so many things, so glibly and so readily, that the possibility of the collapse of civilizations becomes just an over-used and therefore lifeless term. I think the very fact that these phrases move so quickly into cliche in fact illustrates a very basic thing: the majority of us still do not fully, imaginatively, inhabit these truths.

It has struck me often, during my time in XR, how much to rebel against the existing system can mean firstly to rebel against yourself. To accept, for instance, that the BBC has been failing in its duty as a public service broadcaster – this I have found incredibly difficult, even though the CEE rarely troubles its headlines. Or to accept, as somebody raised on a sheep farm, that livestock farming will be drastically curtailed – and indeed that I can no longer justify eating meat. Such things, these are the stuff of our being. Your book charts years of exploration. It contains so much that could help those of us struggling to come to terms with the CEE. Among all those journeys and encounters, have there been any key lessons? Any transformative moments?

Yes, two. One was the insects. I think that I, like many people, found the climate crisis too abstract, and too large. But then in late 2018, when I read about the death of the insects, I cried for three days. It was as if I suddenly and completely understood the enormity of it, through the tiniest of creatures. Partly it was because of the scale of it, that this powerful machine-creature of the dominant culture could kill through entire swathes of the tiny and iridescent insect populations. Partly it was because of the sheer stupidity of it, that mass use of insecticides leads to mass death of insects, and I’m like duh, who knew? And insects are necessary for us humans, and for so much life. They are the angels, by another name, the real angels, and I wish those who claim to believe in angels would actually believe in insects.

Somehow that combination of outrage and aghast pity joined with my feeling of fury at the stupidity of our times. And that was when a friend of mine passed a little scruffy leaflet covered in mud, from a late summer festival, to another friend, saying ‘give this to Jay. She will like this.’ It was the first thing I’d heard about Extinction Rebellion. I just saw those two words, and felt this was something to support with all my heart.

The second key transformative moment was when I was writing Wild: An Elemental Journey, and had gone to the Amazon, to visit shamans and to take ayahuasca as a medicine for a terrible episode of depression that I could not get free of. In that time with the shamans, I felt a profound sense of apprenticeship, to a jaguar, who could teach me. Putting it baldly like this slightly offends my memory, and I don’t particularly like summing up something so profound within Indigenous ways of knowing, but it was an entirely and life-transforming time because it gave me a sense of absolute humility, that a human life is precious and sacred and so, just so, is the being and life of any creature or plant. From that flowed a sense of implacable service to this thing called life.

I love to hear you speak of XR and this sense of service as aligned, as natural companions. I feel very much the same (though still sometimes it helps to be reminded). You’ve been part of XR in so many ways now: arrestee, Red Rebel, tireless proponent… Here we are, in 2021, emerging – possibly – from yet another lockdown. The CEE, it seems, is more entrenched, the government more hostile than ever. What does XR mean for you now? How do you imagine your involvement over these next few months?

Here’s the thing: like everyone else, I have no idea how the next few months will pan out, both inside my life and outside it. I have a plan for a new book that I would like to research deeply and immersively. I will also be working for and with XR, including an exciting land-art project. I imagine I will also be putting on that Red Rebel costume again, as there is something in that timeless, uncanny and prayerful witness that is, I think, very moving and profound. I think the general right to protest is also something that has to be reclaimed, which is rather stating the obvious, but how the younger generations are being treated really stings. They are being given a poisoned world and a depleted one, a climate crisis and a tragedy of extinctions. On a personal level, they are forced to begin adult life in enormous debt if they want an education and a home. And then, the salt in the wound, here is an extra cruelty: they are not even allowed to raise their voices in protest. It’s a horrible act of intergenerational bullying. It is unforgiveable.

Well, unless you surprise me very much, I don’t think we’re going to do an Attenborough here and conclude on a major chord. Which is a refreshing change, I say. You’re a good one for jokes, though. Have you got any new ones?

‘What’s the difference between a joke and a rhetorical question?’

Or even:

Q: What’s the difference between a canary?

A: One wing is yellow. The other is also blue.

And: ‘Everyone makes mistakes, said the Dalek, climbing off the dustbin.’

 

Tom Bullough is the author of four novels – most recently Addlands, a story of seventy years on a Radnorshire hill farm, which, among other plaudits, was the subject of a sermon in Westminster Abbey. At present, he is working on his fifth book, Sarn Helen – a study of Welsh history and the climate crisis – which will be published by Granta in 2022. He lives in the Brecon Beacons.

Jay Griffiths has written on the politics of time, and the importance of wildness in the human spirit, the natural world in childhood and rebellion. With her first book, Pip Pip: A Sideways Look at Time, she won the Discover award for the best new non-fiction writer to be published in the USA and with her second, Wild: An Elemental Journey she won the inaugural 2007 Orion Book Award. She is the author of Tristimania: A Diary of Manic Depression and Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape. Her book Why Rebel is now published as a Penguin Special.