I was very thrilled and grateful to be chosen as one of the featured writers in my online writing community, the international London Writers Salon group – see the interview written by fellow writer Lauren McMenemy below, herself an accomplished creative writer and copywriter/writer.
As I have mentioned previously, joining this group – and especially the Weekend Writers offshoot available to Silver patrons – has helped me to stay focused on writing my historical fiction novel all through lockdown, and even now with the new demands of a full-time editing job and things beginning to return to ‘normal’.
I am currently nearing the end of the first draft if chapter 12 / the first act of the novel, and have written at least 65,000 words – it is clearly turning into an epic! Because it takes in several geographies over a period of around 10 years, and features both imaginary and real historical persons, it is quite a labour of imagination and research – perfect for a fact-checking geek like me who is also an unabashed romantic!
It has been an ongoing process of research, writing, more research, more writing and revising as I discover new facts and work with a large canvas, all the while seeing a very rapidly changing and dynamic situation through the eyes of my chief characters – a young Dutch artist who is sent to early Edo era Japan in 1635 to become a silk merchant with the Dutch East India Company and the kabuki-trained Japanese courtesan who becomes his secret lover.
Amid the wealth of historical detail, I aim to keep the pace exciting and filled with lively characters, drama and action-packed sequences. At its heart, it is a culture-clash love story, an exploration of the first seeds of the multiculturalism we know today and how these very disparate cultures and peoples inspired each other, creating a rich fusion of artistic traditions. Watch this space!
Writer, journalist/editor, poet, visual artist, dancer and environmental activist: this week’s patron profilee wears many hats. As “une femme d’un certain age”, Jane Cahane has lots of experience in the writing world. She’s joined the Salon to get working on her novel, which focuses on a restless adventurer — just like Jane herself. We head just north of London to meet this Salonista.
Jane (Hurd) Cahane
Based in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, UK
“Je suis une femme d’un certain age”
What do you write, in general?
I’m a freelance journalist and copywriter/editor by trade; used to be a poet primarily, now focusing on fiction.
What are you working on right now?
I am currently writing a novel — historical fiction, with elements of worldview, romance and action/adventure. I also have a blog and write/pitch other articles as commissioned.
Where and when do you write?
I am a natural owl but have been waking early, so typically join the 8am UK Writers Hour session, sometimes the 1pm or 4pm (in the UK) sessions, and generally on the weekends, too. I usually use the morning session to do a half-hour of morning pages/journalling and then start work on the novel, which is good to continue with or return to later (work permitting).
How do you write?
I usually type directly onto my laptop; however, it is nice to switch to longhand occasionally. My journals are also full of stray dreams, ideas and conversations with myself regarding my novel — I’ve learned the hard way that if I wake up in the night with a brilliant idea, I won’t remember it in the morning unless I make myself get up and write it down!
Why do you write?
Apart from professional reasons — for example, to earn money — I would say my motivations for writing an article as a journalist or pursuing an investigation are very similar to my motivations as a novelist: it begins with a question, a ‘what if?’. That is what leads to research, more questions, and then ideas or threads start to appear, and you can then follow that line of questioning through your writing. Sometimes a character just appears to you almost fully formed — you can hear their voice and feel compelled to tell their story. When I was more fluent in poetry, I also often experienced that the lines also just came to me fully formed, but that was also about expressing something I feel in what I see or experience, even for a fleeting moment.
What inspires your creativity?
I’m an artist so visual images are very important, as are dreams and nature. As I’ve always been a bit of a restless adventurer, loving travel and exploring new ‘exotic’ things, I love the fact my novel’s main character is travelling to all these far-flung destinations that change him so profoundly. There’s definitely a lot of me in that.
Creativity for me is often about putting together seemingly incongruous things, people or situations — perhaps different art styles or genres — to see what new things can emerge from that process. It’s also about discovering solutions and seeing the impossible.
What’s your favourite book?
The Bible; D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths; Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. Poets: John Donne, Seamus Heaney, Dante.
What’s the best advice you’ve received about creativity?
It’s not advice, really — just the value of focusing on the process, of layering, as one does in art. Focusing on process rather than perfection is important. The journey is as important as the final destination, as it is a craft we are learning and perfecting as we go. I find that exceedingly liberating.
What’s the one thing you would tell other or aspiring writers?
Don’t be afraid to step out into unfamiliar territory. Life — and art — are an adventure of becoming. So enjoy the ride! And don’t quit.
How can we discover more about you and your work?
My blog (www.smallwriteratlarge.com) has examples of my professional and published work (some of which will turn up on a Google search of my name), as well as several articles and interviews I’ve written concerning a few of my other interests and passions (the environment, art, faith, dance, etc).
✍️ Write with Jane and hundreds of other writers each weekday at Writers’ Hour (it’s free).
I first became aware of Magda Sobolewska’s amazing talent as a performer when I saw her dance a very memorable and dramatic tango based on a scene in Moulin Rouge. I later learned that as well as an international salsa teacher and performer, she has a dynamic career as a casting director for films — including one of my favourites, Loving Vincent — and runs her own successful casting company, Limelight People. Here she tells me of her exciting journey in both careers.
Magda is a very ambitious, hard-working, goal-driven, dedicated professional; it is clear her successes derive from those attributes. She first came to London from Poland after finishing university 24 years ago. Originally from a town some 200km south of Krakow, she studied marketing managing, which at the time was a very new thing in Poland. While she had several interviews for marketing roles in Poland, nothing happened. Then her dad suggested she come to London for a year to do some English classes. Although she didn’t really plan to stay in the UK, she now considers it her home. “I love London!” she says. “I love the fact you can do anything here – there are so many opportunities.”
While studying English in London, she met a hotel manager through some friends who invited her to work for the hotel. Eventually she was promoted to supervisor and then to manager, where she also worked in hospitality. Through this, she began working in the events industry, and found she really loved the buzz of organising events. She did some very big events, some of which involved even being in very close proximity to the Queen. “No, I didn’t meet her,” she laughs, “but I walked past her a few times!”
While working in the hotel industry, she got to know several film crews staying there. Some were doing big Bollywood productions, with many films being done back to back. When they were short of extras and materials for the shoots, she helped them out by sourcing extra people and props for the scenes. Through this, she got to know the owner of a modelling agency who was supplying the extras for the films, and who was very keen for her to work for him.
Later, after she became pregnant with her son, she got a job in the marketing department of a Polish newspaper and worked there for a while, but she found she preferred the buzz of working in events. When the modelling agency guy asked her to help him with work on a film, she agreed. As soon as she started working on the set, she realised “I can really do this!” and decided to commit to this.
Creating Limelight People
In 2008, she set up her own casting agency, Limelight People, initially working with an American business partner. The agency focuses on supplying a pool of supporting artists, dancers and extras from a range of styles and disciplines, as well as other specialist performers.
Since then, Limelight People has become a fantastic success, although setting it up was initially challenging, since “there are no university courses in casting for being a casting director – you just have to learn by working with another casting director”. Although it was a steep learning curve at first, she was very determined. She thought, “If I am going to do this, I want to do it properly!”
The timing of films means work is often highly pressurised: “When I am working, I hardly sleep – only three hours when the film is on. Because of the timing and budgets for films, you usually only have a very tight time frame in which to film, so you have to get everything right – and if the extras don’t turn up, you have to think fast to find a solution.” She quickly developed excellent trouble-shooting skills – for example, making sure she wouldn’t be left with only 250 people when 300 were needed for a scene.
The film industry is very much about connections, so it helped that she had already developed many of these in her early work. The first film she did after setting up Limelight People was a psychological horror film (Fired); the second film (Housefull) was a very big Indian comedy film production with 3,000 extras, and it was quite challenging as they didn’t yet have the technology in place to help organise everything.
But with the money they earned on that film, she and her business partner were able to hire a space in Shoreditch that could serve as both an office and a dance studio, which they had built inside it. “This was also around the time I started teaching salsa, so it was a happy coincidence,” she explains. In the few years they were in that studio, they did two seasons of the TV series Luther and did X-Men, as well as several other films and shows (see her full filmography credits here.)
At one point, she and her business partner Ana were approached to help produce and stream a live show for seven days a week. At that time, they were swapping shifts – in the morning, they were doing casting; in the afternoon, producing; and in the evening, she was teaching as well as raising her son, with all the challenges of being a working single mother. “Thankfully, my mum has also been here to help look after my son while I was working. Although things are a little less manic now, it is still a challenge juggling everything – but I really couldn’t stop doing either job because they are both my passion!”
Soon, she was asked to do casting for feature parts, starting with small one-liners and going up to more involved roles: “I wasn’t that keen to get involved in handling lead parts because of the level of contracts involved. I work on a lot of foreign films and organise the secondary casting (supporting actors, dancers, extras, etc) – some of those are for one scene or only for a couple of days. I also don’t really do stunt actors, because they usually bring their own team – working with stunt actors is very specialised.”
Q: How do you ensure the people you hire are reliable?
“I have a database of actors, and from this I can work out how they will do. I go on the set and sometimes even do the casting while there, so I learn to know all the supporting artists by name, which is quite unusual in the industry. Through this, I show my interest and respect for the artists, so they respect me too because I treat them as a person not a number on the database.
“The film industry is very competitive, with more and more people getting into it. All the elements of the film are important – if you get one element wrong, the whole film can suffer. During the whole time of the shooting, I hardly sleep – my phone is always on in case people are letting me know the night before if they got sick, so then I have to be available to work until I can get a replacement.”
Finding a replacement at short notice can be very challenging especially with period films, because the costumes have to fit a certain size – for example, with Loving Vincent, she had to find actors who looked like the people in Vincent van Gogh’s paintings. So that can add an extra layer of difficulty to the casting.
Q: What have been the highest and the lowest points of the work so far?
“It’s always a buzz seeing every film I’ve worked on, especially to see that the artists I cast were a part of it. I love to see my people in the film and see how well they are doing. I also do my own research around the film themes and scenarios, reading the scripts to get the background, etc and to ensure the actors are a good fit for the film and are what the director wants.
“Last year, I did a film about cricket players called 83; it should be shown this year. It required 6,000 people. The work on the film from the beginning of the main casting to completing the shoot went on for nine months. The film was about the Cricket World Cup in the 1980s, so the cast had to have the looks and the skills, as well as availability. The film is called 83 and should be shown this year.
“It’s very challenging, but I love it – it’s such an adrenaline rush. On the first day I say, ‘I can’t wait till the last day’, but on the last day, I have a rest, and then the next day I am already looking for the next film. It’s the same adrenaline rush I had when I was doing events – there’s so much to do to organise it. And then after the event finishes you rest, and then you’re like, ‘What’s next?'”
Q: What advice do you have about getting into the film industry?
“You just have to keep trying to get into the industry. You have to do your research to know what films are shooting, and then get your foot in the door by starting as an assistant, being a shadow or a runner. It isn’t glamorous waking up at 4am, commuting to the site, doing a 12-hour shoot sometimes outdoors in bad weather, but that is all part of the job.
“Sometimes things go wrong – for example, I lost a booking sheet the day before and had no backup; you just have to find a way to make it fix it. Twice or thrice I almost quit, but I always persevered, and my producer helped me stay. I believe if someone offers you an opportunity, but you are not sure you can do it, you should say ‘yes’ and learn how to do it later. I tend to agree to things a lot not even though I don’t know how I am going to do it, but I always find a way. I do a lot of research and ask a lot of questions.
“The perks of the job are that you get to work with some amazing people and see some amazing places that you normally wouldn’t have a chance to see. Seeing your name in the film credits is also great!”
The filming is usually in the UK, but she does travel a bit (France, Ireland, Scotland), and also sends actors abroad – including to India, as she’s still got a long-term connection with Bollywood. She has worked with all the big production companies in India, and laughs that she is probably better known there than in the UK.
She loves observing the whole project and getting involved in the project early because it does take time to get the whole film together, and she likes to get a feel of what the director wants. She casts extras a few weeks before the shoot once the scenes are all set up as they then have a better idea of what they need from the extras. “The casting process is really fascinating – there’s so many elements involved!”
Q: What about acting? Have you ever wanted to be in the limelight yourself?
“I have never really had a desire to be an actress – I love being behind the camera. The only time I would like to be in front of the camera is for dancing – for example, when I did Cuban Fury [for which she joined as a dancer]. I do have two acting credits though – for example, I played the mother of my son when he was cast in films.
“My dance performance experience is similar to my casting work, because when you are dancing on stage, you get into character – that is the bit of acting I enjoy.”
Q: So how did you get into dancing and teaching salsa professionally?
“Although I had done ballroom and musical theatre back in Poland, dancing wasn’t a priority for me when I first came to London. However, there was a dance company in the same building where I was working with the modelling agency, and the beginnings of a dance company at City Academy. After I became friends with them, I decided to check it out when they started teaching salsa classes there in 2007.
As soon as she had her first lesson in salsa, she was hooked. Soon she started assisting the teacher, Silvio, and within a year she was teaching her own classes. As Silvio was going away, and as she needed someone to teach with her, she met Dani K and in 2009, they started teaching together. They have now been teaching together for 12 years. Dani also encouraged her to learn to lead to help her develop as a dancer.
She has since learned a lot from other teachers – for example, she took part in Adolfo Indacochea and Tania Cannarsa’s student team in London, and honed her performance skills with Terry Allianz and Cecile Ovide. She started going to congresses and watching how teachers taught beginners. “This helped me a lot as I am now able to adapt myself to whoever I am teaching.”
Alongside teaching with Dani, Magda has been performing with Otra Danz since 2011, and is now a renowned and sought-after guest teacher at many international salsa festivals. She also became Head of Partnerwork (jive, swing, Latin ballroom, salsa, etc) classes for London’s City Academy. When she left Otra Danz in November 2019, it was to show her journey as a dancer. Cha cha is current love, and the project her heart is in.
For Magda, concentrating on the basics so she can teach everyone and explain how to do everything properly – all the mechanisms of the moves – is very important. She always tries to give her students something they can connect with, so it’s not just a mechanical thing but it becomes part of their soul, and they can feel the move as well as do it. “If you don’t have the soul when you’re dancing, then you are only half-dancing – you are just practising. To really dance, you have to have your technique and the feeling. Only when you have both together does it become dancing.”
But it was only when she found that connection in herself that she understood what to do to help others to learn. “I always try to give them something personal – just one small tip to help them to click – even when they are in a big group. It also is important to engage their minds. And when that happens – when they engage both the mind and the feelings – even those who only wanted to learn a few steps will start to see the possibilities of what they can do with it. And when they get hooked, it’s amazing!
Although she does have a rigorously perfectionist side, her goal is to ensure her students learn. “I love teaching – and now I have more patience and willingness to work with people personally to help them grow. I love seeing the smiles on the dancers’ faces when they start to get it and their movements improve.”
She also dances socially as a leader so people can see she practises what she preaches. Magda’s goal is to help followers know how to respond – not because they know what’s coming, but because they can feel the response – and teaches leaders what the follower needs to feel, too. Several leaders have said they’d never been taught those things.
Magda has since been offered to teaching of partnerwork classes as a solo female teacher at events and congresses – including Berlin – which she says felt like “a confirmation that I am doing the right thing”.
Q: So how have you managed in lockdown, both with casting and dance teaching?
“Being in lockdown has given me the time to think about what I want to do – I want to develop my own things, not in competition to City Academy but as a compliment to it. The cha cha is something I want to fully focus on, because I love it – I have started doing a Latin fusion thing for the ladies, with heel classes, combining the ballroom Latin thing with the salsa Latin thing. In ballroom, you’ve got the standard, and then you’ve got Latin American, whereas salsa is like the street version. So I want to combine some movements and techniques from ballroom Latin in what I teach.”
She is also interested in doing something specifically for ladies – especially older ladies, because it is difficult for them because they are often labelled and subjected to limits. She knows some older ladies are scared and don’t have the confidence to try, therefore she wants to try to reach those ladies and give them a second youth, to help them to feel young and happy again via dance.
“I got this idea from another friend in Poland, who was doing something similar. I believe this can be a good thing, a niche market. I used to teach elderly people in a community centre, and I recently taught a class of elderly people, even a lady who was 94 who joined in, and this gave her a lot of joy. So I believe dance can help you to keep your youth.” One of her challenges recently was teaching a deaf girl, by tapping the rhythm on the girl’s hands – and it gave the girl a lot of joy just being able to move.
Being in lockdown gave her a lot – she bought a flat and has had a lot of time with her son. It has also meant she has had more time to work through her ideas for the future, which is still a work in progress.
Now that lockdown is easing and dance classes are resuming, so is her hectic filming schedule – so the time off has helped as she is now back to working 20-hour days. But, knowing Magda – who jokes that she has more energy than many people in their 20s, and is “like a prototype for a Duracell battery” – the demanding full-on schedule will surely see her thriving and truly in her element.
“I’m a fighter and an opportunist – I’m always looking for opportunities to create something new. If I have even the slightest chance to do something, I will do it. I approach everything with the attitude that I can at least try it – because if I don’t try it, I won’t know! Developing the confidence to try has given me the courage to look for opportunities and even create them.”
If you are interested in learning with Magda, you can see her full course and private session offerings on her website.
It’s been a while since I have added any new post here – although part of the delay is that I have been awaiting corrections from an interviewee (Magda Sobolewska) to the article I wrote some time ago about her, the rest has just been simple busyness, which is about to become exponential – therefore, I will simply have to write in smaller bursts than I usually do!
It’s not that I haven’t been writing, because I have been, every day. Some of my writing has been paid copywriting for a range of products and various start-up companies; I also recently wrote another piece for The Vegan Review on the challenges of trying to adopt eco-friendly food choices when you have dietary issues, which I’ve just been requested to give an interview on, and am now having to fend off other requests for further articles or commissions on a freelance basis, being that I’ve also just started an actual full-time job (subbing on financial news website capital.com). Yet even with a never-ending supply of fresh inspirations, there is, I am finding, a limit to how much time I can physically manage either sitting at a computer or even writing by hand.
Most of my current writing is daily journalling or morning pages (this is a reference to a stellar work by Julia Cameron called The Artists’ Way, which if you have never read, I encourage you to do so – it is a wonderful tool for creative unblocking, whether as an artist or a writer, or really for any other creative work) as a précis to continued work on my current creative work-in-progress, an historical fiction novel set in 17th century Amsterdam and Japan (I am now in chapter 10, which I hope will be the end of Act 1 and ready to be sent out to a few willing beta readers [at 48,000+ words, this will be a long one, but I am really enjoying it… more about that shortly]).
Occasionally I still write poetry, which used to be my main form of writing expression from the time I was very young, when I was typically either known as ‘Jane the poet’ or ‘Jane the artist’. That lasted until my early 30s, until my first husband’s insistence on the need for rhyme in poetry (he was a musician) had the unfortunate effect of killing my natural poetic voice, which wrought a deep grief in me – I don’t find it at all surprising that in the absence of being able to express myself with words that I next took up dancing as a way of expressing myself. I have still written a few; the sudden drought of poetry hasn’t stopped me getting the odd poempublished, but they are far rarer now than they used to be – I do hope that at some point the poetic muse will return, but at the moment I am at least pleased to be writing fiction fluently.
I am also still interviewing potential whistleblowers, collecting evidence and collaborating with others on a planned investigative exposé of all the different aspects of corruption behind HS2 as a follow-up to my previous shorter investigative article, which most readers of this blog and personal acquaintances will know I am quite passionate about.
Yet no matter what type of writing (or even editing, which at times involves substantial writing or rewriting) I am doing, I am doing my utmost now simply to just get on and do it – this is actually a huge step for me, since I have already had a lifetime of being blocked through being a perfectionist (a wonderful skill for an editor/proofreader, but it can be a real curse to any creative writer or artist). So it is a massive improvement for me that I now just focus on the processof writing. Because of my other creative work as a visual artist, I realise that writing is quite a lot like drawing and painting, in that you usually have to do an underdrawing or sketch to map out the correct positioning and perspective, and then begin to add other aspects such as shading and tonal layering to add depth and dimension. Sometimes you have to rework the whole thing, or do several different sketches to get it right, or spend a lot of time exploring similar themes – as, for example, Degas did in his many paintings of ballerinas, or Monet’s variations on the themes of waterlilies.
You realise when you work creatively that your first efforts may not be perfect right away, but that if you continue to work diligently, you will get there eventually – the important thing is not to focus on the finished product or be discouraged if it is not perfect right away, but to persist and eventually see improvement. It is the only way!
As well as learning so much daily in my own writing process, I also learn tremendously via exchanges with other writers around the world through my daily participation in the London Writers’ Salon‘s Writers’ Hour online writing sessions (and also the Weekend Writers subgroup, which is presently a real life-saver). In these daily “50 minutes of pure, focused writing” sessions, multiple writers of all styles and persuasions say hi in the Zoom chat window, then we set our intentions for the session, listen to or share some daily ‘words of wisdom’ from other writers, and then get down to the business of whatever we happen to be working on. Some are well-established, published novelists; some are jobbing copywriters, journalists, academicians and essayists; some are poets and short-story writers; some are bloggers; and several are newbie writers working on a first novel like me (well, I did write a full-length fantasy novella – a Narnia story – for my degree in English Literature and Creative Writing from Bard College in New York back in the 80s, but this is my first ‘serious’ novel attempt, and certainly my first attempt at writing historical fiction).
After the 50 minutes is up, we then report on our progress afterwards. I am always amazed at those who manage to write a 1,000 words or more in one session – my average is 400-450 – but you have to accept your own limits and not compare yourself with others. We are all running our own race, with our own end in sight – so even if I/we only manage to crawl a few inches per session, it is all progress towards our eventual goal. And this particular forum/writing group is always so encouraging – I am deeply grateful to Matt and Parul and ‘KK’ and all the other contributors to this group for providing an unfailingly encouraging writing environment – also to others like French poet and photographic artist Nicolas Laborie, who has provided me with so much help and inspiration for my novel, as well as guidance to other aspects of the different channels on the Slack forum we are able to access as patrons (although it is free to join London Writers’ Salon, becoming a silver patron for £15 a month enables access to the Slack chat as well as free talks with other writers every Tuesday, and a whole host of other benefits I have not fully explored yet).
Re my novel
In case you are wondering what made me take the leap to historical fiction, the answer is fairly simple: I thought about what I most like to read or watch as a film – and I suppose in my wildest dreams, yes I WOULD love to see my novel made into a film! – and that was that. I confess I did struggle a bit at the beginning with defining exactly which genre (and genre conventions) it would follow, especially being that at its heart, it is a love story, but it is also a world view story – and hopefully also a rollicking good adventure, at least in places (pirates! storms! sword fights! samurais! sexual attacks!).
Right or wrong, I am presently writing in the first person – and as my main protagonist is a young man, an artist sent against his will to work in the silk trade with the Dutch East India Company (or VOC), writing his first sexual encounter recently was certainly a unique challenge! – although I plan to introduce Act 2 from the perspective of his Japanese love interest, and perhaps intersperse their points of view(s) with that of a European and a Japanese observer – we’ll see.
As this novel is already quite long and there is still much more to uncover once my hero gets to Japan (he will eventually return to Amsterdam and then back to Japan again), it is possible it will end up being similar in length to James Clavell’s epic Shogun; I realise I may need to cut & refine it, which I will do at the second draft stage. At the moment I am mostly just focused on trying to get as much of the actual correct historical details (my real-life historical characters include Rembrandt, Hendrik Brouwer, Anthony van Diemen, Francois Caron, Joost Schouten, and Philips and Petronella Lucasz so far, to name a few) and plot structure + characters together as an outline, but I intend to go back to add depth to the characters while improving/fact-checking the language (some is Dutch, some Portuguese, some French, some Japanese and Balinese) and other historical details. It will take time to get it all write, but for now I am simply enjoying the adventure – both those of my character(s) and the sheer adventure of writing in a new genre.
The writing process for me – particularly for a historical novel, which just involves so much research – is very much like a cha cha: the rhythm is definitely a slow–slow–quick–quick–slow, as quite often I will need to spend time revising content I have already written. I do always make progress incrementally, but sometimes it is slower than others!
Meanwhile, as I now need to get on with the day job, I do have to say again that it is really thanks to the London Writers’ Salon that I have made as much progress as I have done so far with my novel – not to mention helping to keep me from going completely nuts during lockdown. Writing is generally a very solitary occupation, which is especially challenging for a natural extrovert like myself. In fact, I always fantasised when I was young about being in a salon, so the fact that this is part of its title makes it, ironically, a dream come true… and most certainly it has been one of the true gifts of lockdown.
After a week marked by prolonged social media discussions on how to deal with climate grief, a close friend’s profound grief and despair due to losing her mother to Covid, and an extremely moving vigil to mourn the loss of a uniquely beautiful, much-beloved and irreplaceable site of ancient woodland, the below is a meditation on these various forms of grief — climate grief, personal grief, and solastalgia (loss of place, specifically Jones Hill Wood) — and how to work through it.
Jones Hill Wood: a very poignant solastalgia
I recently attended a vigil at Jones Hill Wood in Wendover, along with some 30–40 people — or perhaps there were more in the trees, or huddled in cars and tents. Sadly, even as we sang, shared poems, stories, verses and personal remembrances, the chainsaws could be heard felling in the background, greedily destroying this incredibly beautiful ancient woodland, described even by its Government-authorised ecocidal murderers as “a habitat of principal importance”.
For all who have ever visited this wood — the inspiration for beloved children’s author Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox (the author lived in nearby Great Missenden, and one of the book’s principal characters is named Bunce, supposedly after farmer Kevin Bunce & Sons, on the edge of whose farm the wood sits) — Jones Hill Wood is a truly magical, irreplaceable site. For those of us who have been fighting long and hard to preserve it — even more so for the many who have been living here in the camp for over a year, as powerfully documented here — the beauty of this place has left a deep mark on our souls. The connection is so strong that its threatened loss leaves an overwhelming sense of grief and heartache — the kind of ‘homesickness’ now described as solastalgia, which is recognised as a key component of climate grief.
Tragically, despite the endless hard work by a crack ecological team in recording evidence of the increasingly rare and threatened Barbastelle bat (Barbastella barbastellus), supposedly protected by law (the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, for one), our hard-fought legal case against Natural England — which only recently resulted in an injunction being granted by sympathetic judge Justice Lang to stop the felling until 24 May — was overturned by HS2 ally Justice Holgate. This meant HS2 would be allowed to resume their deadly work with immediate effect, nesting/roosting season notwithstanding.
And so we gathered to grieve the loss of this precious habitat, a “mix of semi-natural broadleaved woodland dominated by beech”, and also home to oaks, ash, rowans, elders, holly, hawthorn, cherry, bluebells, foxes, glis glis, badgers, nesting birds, Natterer’s and other bats, and many other precious flora and fauna. We sat in a loose circle on the ground, near the fence HS2 workers keep moving (that part of the land belongs to Mr Liberty; they are in fact stealing an extra 1.5–2 metres all around it supposedly for ‘mitigation’ [their idea is translocate the ancient soil, a concept that is rejected on principle by the Woodland Trust and other leading ecologists — and don’t get me started on HS2’s ‘ecologists’, whom I have only ever observed arriving at a site, poking a stick in a tree or bush, shaking it around and then departing]; in reality, this further unlawful land grab is merely so they can destroy yet more ancient woodland to make way for a temporary haul road). Each person who wished to do so took turns sharing, all holding flickering candles. Local resident and bodging expert Stuart placed a crucified Mr Fox on the fence as a gentle protest.
One woman began by reeling off a few of her poems, hard-hitting rhymes that resonated with all of us. I read out the words of Psalm 24, which had echoed upliftingly in my head after a previous despair-filled episode in this year-long battle with HS2 (the infamous‘Battle of the Beancan’). Mark Keir shared the good news that at least one protestor’s case had been dropped. Val and Sylvia led us in a few gentle songs. Ghost read a history written by a World War II child evacuee of a local farm, the owners of which have since been evicted and the farm is soon to be destroyed by HS2. Jo placed a small cross on a temporary ‘grave’ made with a few feathers, twigs and stones, thanking many significant people – valiant local reporter Ann of Wendover, the team of volunteer ecologists tracking the bats, the helpful food suppliers, and all of us who cared enough to come, whether locally or from far away.
“But, take these several beings from their homes. Each beauteous thing a withered thought becomes; Association fades and like a dream They are but shadows of the things they seem. Torn from their homes and happiness they stand The poor dull captives of a foreign land.“
A visitor from Hemel shared memorably about how he had realised our spiritual energy never dies, but goes into something else. He said he had been pondering which animal he would want to come back as, but had finally concluded he would want to come back as a tree – “because then I would be giving oxygen to the world – and maybe some of you would climb up among my branches, and save me so I can keep on saving you”. Nearly last, but not least, legal warrior Kestrel stated that “until the last tree has been cut down, we will keep fighting”. That is indeed what all present have been doing fervently for a year or more, ever since the camp at Jones Hill Wood (JHW) was first erected.
And yet recent conversations reveal that responses to ecocidal grief and loss vary widely. Despite those of us who were present at this vigil – some, like me, local; others travelling for hours from all over the UK – frequently shouting out tirelessly for witnesses to come and share our grief, to assist us in honouring this magical wood before it is nearly completely destroyed, we encountered the usual excuses from many – “I can’t bear to see it – it makes me too upset”, “I’ve already done all I could”, “You can’t fight it, the system is totally corrupt”, “It’s a done deal, you’re wasting your time”, etc etc. I have lost much time and psychological energy this week contending with comments on social media from some who sadly chose to take my pleas for support and physical presence at JHW as an effort to make them feel guilty. This at times has felt deeply alienating, as what I had mostly hoped for was empathy. Grief of any kind is always so much harder to bear when those we think will support us don’t, for whatever reason. It makes the loss so much harder to shoulder.
But as I and several other vigil attenders commented, out of all the horror of this abysmal ecocide and the shattering loss of our legal battle to protect this ancient wood and its creatures, the very best thing to come out of it has been the sense of kinship, deep empathy, fondness and connection we have all felt towards each other in our shared grief and purpose.
I remember once hearing a saying that has stuck with me ever since, particularly whenever I have discovered a kindred spirit after feeling alienated because of my views or beliefs: A friend is someone who sees the same things you do. I may not otherwise have much in common with everyone present — we represent a wide range of creeds, colours, ages, tastes, education levels, skills, geographies and even nationalities — yet here in this wood, sharing this moment of grief together, we were all indeed one, and the same. As Jo said, “You’ve all become my family now.”
Climate despair: Suffer in silence or galvanise in action?
Probably one of the most profound things about grief is that it is a deeply personal issue – and being that we are all unique, one-of-a-kind individuals, we all have different ways of processing and responding to it. When our friends or loved ones are overwhelmed by grief, sadness and loss, we have to allow them to go through the process of grieving (as outlined below) in their own way and time. All of our good or best intentions, or efforts to cheer them up, can never make the pain go away — and in some cases, it may even make it worse. Therefore, if we love them, we have no other option but to practise “the radical act of letting things hurt”. There can be no moral judgement or standard, one-size-fits-all timetable for how long it takes to work through grief — it is not something one can simply ‘snap out of’ just because someone else says we have to.
The differences and similarities in the processes of dealing with grief are very clearly seen when it comes to dealing with the topic of climate grief, the emotional toll of which is now finally being recognised as a genuine psychopathological illness. According to a 2016 report on climate change and mental health, “perhaps one of the best ways to characterise the impacts of climate change on perceptions is the sense of loss”.
As mentioned above, solastalgia is the fancy scientific name for the sense of abject desolation arising from the loss of a significant or emotively charged place (such as JHW) — it is a psychological phenomenon most keenly observed in those forced to leave their homes or familiar terrain as a result of disaster, for example war, persecution, genocide, pollution, drought, famine, floods, avalanches, rising sea levels, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions and deforestation. Alas, we now know this phenomenon will only increase and become even more pervasive the hotter the planet gets, the more unsustainable this Earth we call ‘home’ becomes.
Ever since climate change started making international headlines — perhaps beginning with Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg‘s decision to sit alone outside her school in August 2018 holding a placard announcing Skolstrejk för klimatet (‘School strike for climate’) in a concerted protest about global leaders’ refusal to address the looming climate catastrophe — the world has been deeply divided about how to respond to climate grief and anxiety. In just 16 months, Greta’s actions launched a global youth protest movement that inspired over 4 million people to join the global climate strike on 20 September 2019. She met the Pope and the US President (then the resolutely climate-sceptical Donald Trump), and also became Time‘s 2019 Person of the Year — pretty impressive results for a then-15-year-old girl with Asperger’s!
However, perhaps Greta’s most significant achievement has been her ability to give voice to the sense of rage, futility, despair and grief many of us now feel about the inevitable losses we will all soon experience as a result of climate change. “How dare you?” she thundered at world leaders gathered at a UN Assembly in September 2019, “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.” She fearlessly and blatantly accused them of failing to act, of fiddling while the entire planet burns: “Sorry, you’re not doing enough!”
Greta’s courageous activism has also helped give birth or fresh impetus to many radical environmental groups such as Extinction Rebellion (XR), whose catchphrase, ‘Love and Rage’, sums up the emotional status behind this global effort to impact corporate and political decision-makers to do more to combat climate change before it is truly too late. Motivated by a deep sense of alarm, rage and grief about the coming environmental apocalypse if sufficient measures are not taken to prevent temperatures rising above the pre-industrial level 1.5°C threshold, as outlined in the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report, XR has consistently demanded the formation of a Citizen’s Assembly that will enable climate-alarmed citizens to take action to avert disaster.
As with any large-scale, global movement of diverse human beings, there have been some disagreements and diverging paths within XR; it has now developed several sub-groups, of which HS2 Rebellion is but one*. However, XR officially espouses a welcoming, tolerant and non-shaming/blaming culture that seeks to balance occasionally provocative, militant and/or disruptive activism — such as the October 2019 Canning Town tube incident, which divided many members and is currently perceived by several of its leaders as misguided —with a loving, self-compassionate emphasis on regenerative culture (or ‘regen’) — practising deep levels of community, interpersonal and self-care in order to be able to recuperate from intense actions or long-term resistance, and thus become more resilient in the face of adversity and hostile reactions so as to be able to continue the fight.
While the effect of such divergent movements has perhaps been to lessen the unity and thus overall impact of XR — not least also significantly hampered by the Covid-19 lockdown, as well as UK Government moves to add limitations and restrictions to democratic rights to protest — there have also been simple, but occasionally marked, differences in the practices, tools and methods its diverse individuals have chosen as aids in processing climate grief. Some are perhaps more naturally inclined to direct or ‘aggressive’ political actions, whereas others prefer a gentler path of helping to heal the Earth through a range of nature-friendly efforts such as rewilding or other ecologically important and sustaining work. Others are more comfortable, skilled and effective in petitioning, lobbying — for example, attempting to persuade MPs to back the Climate and Ecological Emergency (CEE) Bill — or utilising social media in “armchair activism”.
Yet whether XR rebels are happily risking arrest by engaging in radical, potentially dangerous actions such as lock-ons and recently tunnelling under Euston Station to get their points across, or are patiently doing most of the time-consuming legal or political legwork behind a computer screen, the effect for all of any prolonged interfacing with the spectre of potential planetary annihilation is often severe burnout, coupled with an overwhelming and psychologically disabling feeling of climate despair. Aware of the capacity for this, XR set up an Emotional Support Network to help activists who are burned out or so climate grief-stricken they are unable to function. This resource, along with other regenerative practices such as simply spending more time enjoying and appreciating the very nature we are fearful of losing, is seen as the best ways for individuals to combat climate grief.
Along with our common mortality, another facet of being human is our need for social connection, even in the midst of overwhelming and often isolating grief. This very human need for connection is so deeply woven into the fabric of our psyches that even the most introverted or rugged individualists need that sense of connection to manifest somehow — for example, American naturalist Henry David Thoreau, influential author of classics Walden and Civil Disobedience, who spent nearly his whole life living alone in a cabin in the woods by himself, still emerged with books eager to impart his story to society and ultimately change it as a result.
Unsurprisingly, XR itself arose from a small group of activists, friends and academics who all saw the same thing — the climate and ecological emergency — and, led by Gail Bradbrook and Roger Hallam, decided to do something about it collectively. Although ideas for something similar had been around for a few years, in October 2018, they decided to spawn a movement that could help empower others to “be (part of) the change you want to see”, and so officially launched XR.
Yet some will still ask: Why act? If the world will all end soon, and we are all powerless to stop it, what is the point? Shouldn’t we all just stay in a place of grief, embrace what little time we have left doing the things we love with the people we love? And what about our need to take time simply to enjoy the beauty and glory of this precious yet fragile planet, while we still can?
Of course, this is all true — and, as XR’s experience and tenets testify, any programme of activism MUST be balanced with regen practices, which for those who experience profound climate grief should certainly include time spent in nature. As has been noted:
“We are only just beginning to understand the effect of nature on human health. One in six of the UK population suffers from depression, anxiety, stress phobias, suicidal impulses, obsessive-compulsive disorders and panic attacks” [not to mention addictions caused by over-reliance on various substance — food, alcohol, drugs, nicotine, sex, etc]. Treating such mental health issues cost the National Health Service £12.5bn, and the economy up to £41.8bn in dealing with the human costs of reduced quality of or loss of life. Yet studies show that time spent in nature [even for hospitalised patients who have a view of nature form their windows] has the power to alleviate most of the symptoms of these disorders.”
So, for those feeling overwhelmed with personal or climate grief or stressed by thoughts of a potentially uninhabitable planet for their children and grandchildren, time out in nature is essential.
However, beyond the ever-present need for regen, the general consensus among the climate-concerned/climate grief-stricken (see below) is that the best tonic for the sense of futility and the ever-present guilt of “not doing enough” is action — specifically local, political or community-based actions that have a clear focus and an immediately observable, beneficial effect on the environment. Whether this will also involve more radical behaviours such as smashing windows, stopping trains or living in a treehouse in a threatened woodland is entirely up to the will, personalities, and mental/physical abilities of the individual — clearly, such actions may not be suitable or acceptable for everyone.
The five stages of grief: personal and climate grief
For those who have either not yet made the leap from awareness of climate change to alarm to despair and then to activism — as per my own personal trajectory, and that of many other environmental warriors and XR members I know — the process of working through climate grief follows a very similar pattern to Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s seminal 1969 work on grief, On Death and Dying.
Kübler-Ross’s outline of the five major stages of grief is now seen as a classic paradigm for counsellors seeking to help alleviate the depression and other mental health issues grievers experience. The received wisdom regarding these stages is that they tend to go in a cycle, and are not always linear — in fact, some may be repeated on and off as individuals process their grief. Some people experience all of the stages, occasionally simultaneously, while others may only experience a few — and some may experience none at all. However, as these are now accepted as fairly standard aspects of the grieving process, they are worth noting in any discussion of grief, as explained below.
I have summarised these and also made reference to the climate grief variation of this model, as first articulated by University of Montana professor Steve W. Running, who was a lead contributor to the Nobel Peace Prize-winning 2007 IPCC report.
5. acceptance — exploring options, new plan in place, moving on
Shock and denial are initially helpful in that they help to cushion the blow when you have suffered a really painful loss, such as the unexpected death of a loved one. You experience a kind of numbness where you can’t believe what has happened and how it has irrevocably changed your life. Denial is essentially your psyche’s way of saying, “I can’t handle this now”. But as it is only once the bandages are removed that the healing process in your body will begin, the same is true of how your psyche heals from grief. As the shock and denial start to fade, the healing process can begin.
When this stage is interpreted in the climate grief version, this is reflected as complete denial of the existence or reality of climate change. People simply refuse to accept that it is happening or to recognise the impacts of manmade greenhouses on a warming climate, and instead blame any temperature rises on natural processes. While there are many types of climate change denier and climate conspiracy theorists, typically this is intertwined with the vested interests of the fossil fuel industry. For the most part, those who reject the idea that climate change is happening tend to do so because they are aware on some level that if it is true — as those of us now familiar with the science know it is — it will necessitate massive amounts of personal and systemic change. And we all know that change of any kind is a very scary proposition for many, hence the resistance to the truth.
After the initial shock and denial subsides, suppressed emotions begin to arise — with angry thoughts being a predominant feature: Why me? It’s so unfair! Where are you God! How could you let this happen? In the midst of their confusion and distress, grievers often misdirect blame onto others to avoid experiencing the painful sense of helplessness and frustration at not having been able to stop the loss. Yet while anger is not always healthy, the anger connected with grief is actually a vital part of the healing process. Giving voice to feelings of rage helps channel the griever’s awakened energies into making the painful but necessary changes that will ultimately help the griever move forward.
Anger is also an extremely significant aspect of the climate grief cycle. Once it becomes undeniably evident that climate change is indeed happening —far faster and with far more devastating consequences than any single country or group of leaders is presently prepared to deal with —sheer, incandescent rage is typically the first emotion most people feel as the veil of denial lifts and acceptance occurs. Greta Thunberg’s incensed “How dare you!” echoes exactly the feelings of everyone who has suddenly woken up to the fact that all the dire scientific warnings and climate change models — many of which have actually been around since the 1970s, with varying degrees of accuracy — have been steadfastly ignored, hidden or covered up by world leaders and a heavily fossil fuel-dependent society. It is often this anger that prompts people to join activist groups such as XR (perhaps quite logical, then, that its catchphrase is ‘Love & Rage’).
The next classic stage of grief is bargaining. This often manifests as an attempt to ‘make a deal with God’: Please God, if you can only do just this one miracle, I promise to be a good/better person forever. You falsely believe that by negotiating, by offering to make some major sacrifice or commitment, it will enable you to get your life ‘back to normal’ (eg before the event that caused the grief) or forestall the grief in some way.
Most of this bargaining is fed and empowered by guilt, and attended by endless ‘if onlys’: If only I had done x, y wouldn’t have happened. My loved one might still be here today if only I had been there to get him/her to the hospital in time. If only I had not gone back to get my keys, the accident would never have happened. If only I had listened to my instincts and got him to see a doctor sooner. If only I had left work on time, I might have been able to save her. The list goes on. And on. Depending on their personality, cultural background and personal capacity for guilt or ‘navel-gazing’, some grievers can get stuck in this stage for a long time.
For those who began their journey from a place of climate change denialism and have now (technically) accepted it as a reality, the bargaining stage tends to take some form of reasoning that perhaps it is not really quite as bad as scientists predict. The bargainer will likely attempt to put a positive spin on such predictions by asserting that, for example, the warming of normally frozen locations might be good in that it will open up new places (Antarctica, for example) to tourism or human habitation. Or they may place their hopes in their political leaders’ commitment to achieving net-zero carbon-neutrality targets by 2050, or in other greenhouse gas-reducing solutions such as renewable energy technologies.
The penultimate stage is the most common, immediate and well-recognised form of grief. Those who have suffered a profound loss of any kind may speak of having their hearts broken, of feeling they are no longer able to go on, of feeling life no longer holds any joy or meaning for them, of being unable to stop crying, or of feeling overwhelmed by a sense of hopelessness, but not wishing to talk about it. They may feel as though a heavy fog has descended on them, and they may not wish to get out of bed or attend any normal activities, but instead seek to withdraw from others.
Although depression usually has the effect of flattening one’s mood, it can also manifest in many ‘hidden’ ways, such as a seemingly out-of-character or unnatural elation. Sufferers may seem agitated, extremely anxious or fearful, or physically affected such that they are no longer able to eat, sleep or work. The simplest tasks seemingly become impossible. Often, suddenly bereaved wives or husbands may not live long after their partner’s death, whether through desire to be reunited with their loved one in the hereafter or a simple loss of the will to live.
At this point, some may try to alleviate these unbearably painful feelings by turning to drink, drugs, sex or other addictive substances or behaviours, which only work as a mask in the short run, delaying or preventing the person from dealing with or moving on from their actual grief. In some cases, the secondary problems arising from reliance on these methods can take over, causing far more severe long-term issues such as complete mental or marital breakdown, job or home loss, physical injury or illness, or even death.
In fact, it is probable that depression is a constant throughout the grieving process; even when moving forward to the final stage, a sudden memory or reminder of the loss can trigger fresh feelings of depression or sadness.
The depression stage of climate grief will plunge some into a state of despair, alternating with panic about the inevitable and irretrievable doom of the planet. They often feel overwhelmed and bewildered by what seems an impossible situation, and find themselves unable to think clearly about or act to find any potential solution. However, even if they reach this state, they will eventually realise that it is simply impossible to live here forever — they must stir themselves to take some kind of action, however small, to feel satisfied they are at least ‘doing their bit’ to fight the situation. Doing so is a step forward, as it is effectively empowering them for the next step.
In Kübler-Ross’s final stage, the griever eventually works through the gamut of their feelings and begins to move into acceptance of the loss. While never admitting the loss as okay in itself, they begin to realise that life does go on, and so must they. They feel that despite the not-okay-ness of the loss, they themselves will eventually be okay — and they accept that that is what the person or thing lost would wish for them.
This time of adjustment will be marked by many ups and downs, by good days and bad days. Sometimes the sadness will flood them anew with fresh feelings of pain, but it will eventually lift. During this stage, people may find new friends or activities that, while never replacing the loss, will help provide a fresh focus and impetus to get on with the business of life. This process can eventually lead to a new direction or new purpose, for example remarriage or rebuilding one’s life in a new setting.
Those who have accepted the scientific reality of climate change and the present ecological emergency, and have begun to move forward from a place of climate grief and despair, generally recognise that they will need to make some necessary and radical changes to their own lifestyles. Frequently, having begun this process, they also seek to help and educate others, often by advocating for change through personal, local national or international policies or the political arena. They may become active in championing new technologies or even resuming ancient practices that seem to offer viable solutions, for example rewilding as a tactic to reduce biodiversity loss by the reintroduction into uninhabited landscapes of specific species such as bison, wolves or beavers.
For those at this stage, the only ‘solution’ that is non-viable is not doing anything — for them, inaction is simply unacceptable. As such, this final stage of activism, when balanced with understanding others who have not yet reached this place, acts like a resolution to the famous existential dilemma of ‘doing’ versus ‘being’: in this case, to be IS to do, and to do IS to be.
Alas, the very fact we are human means we are mortal — we all, at some point, will die. So, too, will everything in this present world. Even if we had succeeded in preserving the injunction against HS2 — or even yet win a further appeal, as the legal team are still working on it — the trees and creatures we gathered at Jones Hill Wood to honour will not last; they are made of the same perishable materials we ourselves are. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, atoms to atoms, Et in Arcadia ego. Yet it is the very fleeting essence, fragility and transitoriness of life is what gives it its greatest beauty and poignancy — like butterflies who hatch and spread their gorgeous wings but briefly, only to spawn eggs and then die within days, weeks, months or a year at best.
For those who believe in the resurrection as I do, who are persuaded that there is another life beyond this ‘veil of tears’, there is some consolation in knowing that death is not the final story, that indeed, “There is hope for a tree; though it is cut down, it will sprout again, and its new shoots will not fail” (Job 14:7). Yet even knowing that spiritually or intellectually doesn’t always immediately lift the deep sense of loss and distress we feel when something or someone we have loved and invested so much hope, tears and fervent prayers in saving leaves us alone finally and is with us no more.
“For there is hope for a tree; though it is cut down, it will sprout again, and its new shoots will not fail.”
Personally, I am deeply grieved by every single evidence of roadkill; it literally breaks my heart every time I drive past a dead bird, badger, deer or squirrel on the side of the road. While it is comforting to know Jesus said, “Not even a single sparrow falls to the ground without your Father knowing about it” (Matthew 10:29), it is less comforting to consider all the human injustice and corruption behind the destruction of our natural world, which is seemingly ‘allowed’ by God — not to mention the sense of betrayal occasionally felt because of unanswered prayers or unsympathetic humans. I have prayed fervently every day for HS2 to be stopped, for some kind of miraculous reprieve to save Jones Hill Wood; in this case, we nearly thought we had succeeded in stopping it, so the blow of the legal reversal and the imminent destruction of the wood feels incredibly disappointing.
Yet here we are, still fighting, still hoping, still praying. As Kestrel had said, “Until the very last tree is cut down, we will keep fighting.” For as the grief model we have looked at tells us, this is really the only way forward for such a profound place of grief.
*As a movement largely populated by either relatively well-off youths inspired by Greta or older activists often characterised as ‘aging hippies’ — many of whom have continued protesting various ecological, humanitarian and military causes since as far back as the late 1970s — XR has sometimes been criticised as being “too white”. Following the horrific, racist-inspired murder of black hip-hop artist George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in May 2020, XR began to embrace the Black Lives Matter movement in addition to the vegan movement now under Animal Rebellion, another XR division.
Someone in my writing group this morning shared this powerful poem by Maya Angelou – so sharing here:
When Great Trees Fall
When great trees fall, rocks on distant hills shudder, lions hunker down in tall grasses, and even elephants lumber after safety. When great trees fall in forests, small things recoil into silence, their senses eroded beyond fear. When great souls die, the air around us becomes light, rare, sterile. We breathe, briefly. Our eyes, briefly, see with a hurtful clarity. Our memory, suddenly sharpened, examines, gnaws on kind words unsaid, promised walks never taken. Great souls die and our reality, bound to them, takes leave of us. Our souls, dependent upon their nurture, now shrink, wizened. Our minds, formed and informed by their radiance, fall away. We are not so much maddened as reduced to the unutterable ignorance of dark, cold caves. And when great souls die, after a period peace blooms, slowly and always irregularly. Spaces fill with a kind of soothing electric vibration. Our senses, restored, never to be the same, whisper to us. They existed. They existed. We can be. Be and be better. For they existed.
In this time of global social distancing and virtual everything, how are global dance competitions surviving? Here I review some of the challenges and opportunities
Ever since the Covid-19 pandemic struck in March 2020, dance — that most physical form of creative expression — has been one of the hardest-hit creative industries, affecting performers, choreographers, teachers and promoters everywhere. Nowhere has this been more painfully seen than in the usually lucrative sphere of national and international dance competitions.
The traditional model of live events featuring scores of individual and group dancers in glittering venues packed with adoring fans and anxious families across multiple cities is now simply a no-go zone. Hundreds of events have been forced to cancel or shut down, resulting in massive financial loss or even bankruptcy as managers have had no option but to issue refunds. Some hoped to forestall financial troubles by offering partial refunds based on a future rescheduled event, yet even planning when and how to reschedule has proved a logistical nightmare, since no one knows how and when the pandemic restrictions will end, and physical competitions can safely resume.
Most competitions have attempted to adapt by adjusting live competition formats or by offering online versions — some more successfully than others. However, if — God forbid! — the pandemic continues to keep us all in a virtual limbo, it will ultimately serve the global dance community to use this time to discover what does or doesn’t work.
With that in mind, here are some of the more notable competition successes and failures, along with a few current online competitions whose unique approaches may offer fresh inspiration.
TV hits and misses
Amid initial speculation of a reschedule of NBC’s popular World of Dance Championship Series, Executive Producer Jennifer Lopez initially issued a statement announcing that the show would be “postponing or changing the dates of all domestic and international events based on the Centers for Disease Control recommendations and restrictions”, noting it is an “ever-changing situation”.
However, as of March 2021, World of Dance was firmly cancelled, blamed on reduced ratings and lack of a crucial viewing demographic following the final August 2020 show from Season 4. Although that show’s format was adapted significantly to accommodate Covid-19 restrictions, introducing new items like a “Blind Battle,” a “Callback Vote” and a “Qualifier Twist” in an effort to replace the missing live audience energy, it failed to fire viewers sufficiently to justify the show’s lavish production expenses and the whopping $1 million prize money.
As Lopez told Variety in an interview, “We were trying our very best to make it what it should have been for those people who fought so hard to get there… [but it was hard] without an audience cheering them on.” Co-judge Derek Hough had previously told the magazine, “It did feel a little weird in the ballroom”; while he had hoped “the magic of television to create that energy with pyros and sound effects” would still be able to “capture the energy”, it clearly wasn’t enough for viewers.
Likewise, So You Think You Can Dance?made headlines recently as the Fox TV favourite’s Summer 2021 season was also abruptly cancelled — a double letdown as it was hoped this year’s show would go ahead after the Summer 2020 cancellation. As Fox producers explained in a statement, “In response to the COVID-19 pandemic… we cannot meet the standards we’ve set for viewers and contestants in light of the show’s unique format, intricate production schedule and limited time.”
While other popular TV dance competition shows such as Dancing with the Stars and The Masked Dancer — which usefully featured its own creative version of face masks — did go ahead, one of the reasons So You Think You Can Dance was unable to proceed is that it has a strictly public audition process, which is impossible under the current government guidelines. This has also been a challenge for many other national and international dance competitions that rely on public auditions and audience reactions to help choose and eliminate contestants.
As for Strictly Come Dancing, the UK’s ever-popular version of Dancing with the Stars, despite reducing the show’s usual run of 13 episodes to nine, the 2020 season remained a huge hit as viewers flocked to their sets to receive the much-needed escapism the show reliably delivered. Clearly, the UK show’s tried-and-tested formula of celebrity contestants paired off with pro dancers is a winning theme even Covid can’t kill. As BBC Executive Producer Sarah James commented, “The passion and dedication for Strictly shone through more than ever last year as they all sacrificed so much to deliver an unforgettable series during unprecedented and challenging times.”
So, for TV competitions, it seems simply adding new variations on routines or relying on special effects doesn’t always guarantee the wow factor in these challenged times. There clearly must be something intrinsic to the content or format itself that makes the competitions work – and if that all-important je ne sais quoi can’t be a live show and audience, what elements are certain to deliver?
Salsa competitions — but not as we’ve known them
Thankfully, as those of us in the global salsa community know, the energy and fire of the best salsa shows can never be completely diminished by being a virtual-only offering — that at least eliminates one element of the risks of hosting competitions. Yet in a scene bursting with multi-talented, passionate solo, couple and group dancers, the main challenge for salsa and other dance competitions and contestants in transitioning to online is how to make these truly stand out.
Having made the move to virtual this year and partnered with Romania’s Fantastic Art Dance Company, World Dance Movement’s international virtual dance competition is highlighting the all-important aspect of having a stellar judging panel on board, giving aspiring contestants the extra incentive of an opportunity to showcase their skills in front of renowned celebrity judges for prizes including prestigious scholarships and contracts on Royal Caribbean cruise ships. The celebrity judges providing crucial feedback include Brian Friedman, Tiler Peck, Medhi Walerski, Tricia Miranda, Bill Goodson, Dusty Button, Kat Wildish, Joshua Pelatzky, Assaf, Peter Oxford, Claudia Cavalli, Vito Cassano, Jessica Franco, Karine Newborn, Phineas Newborn III, Emily Bufferd, Ginger Cox, Damiano Bisozzi, Ashley Carter and a surprise guest judge.
With 25 participating countries and over 200 categories in styles including bachata, salsa, samba, tango, mambo and urbana, the renowned World Latin Dance Cup took the bold step to host a month-long, virtual-only competition in February 2021, with the final qualifying competition taking place in April 2021. The virtual show didn’t disappoint in terms of sheer dazzlement of the performances, but apart from their Instagram clips, the competition can only be accessed by using the Settle app, which may have limited some audiences.
Although World Dance Group’s World Salsa Championship’s 2020 event for ESPN-TV was cancelled due to Covid, it was relaunched as a virtual-only event in Puerto Rico with the $2,020 prize money still on offer. One of its specific emphases was on looking for the “most liked dance video of 2020” in a nod to the power of social media to influence popularity and dancer recognition, which WDG CEO Noel Roque said in a blog is an essential tool for dancers who wish to build a ‘brand’ and public awareness of their skills and personalities, as well as to monetise their offerings.
Fired specifically by the challenges of pandemic-required virtual competitions, the latest global salsa and Latin dance competition to arise is Agozar’s Like My Dance. With the stated aim of “locating the most creative and innovative salsa dancers for the television and movie industry”, this competition has added a new dimension to the online dance competition format by inviting contestants to “go beyond their wildest dreams” by utilising video special effects, with the videography skills themselves featuring as an element of the judging. The competition on 12 June (final results on 19 June 2021) will be accessed both via the Like My Dance website and social media channels Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and TikTok. Offering a first prize of 1,000 euros from sponsors Agozar, Burju Shoes, All Out Salsa, CoBeat Party, Salsa Y Control, Planet Salsa, V Dance Club and Fuego Shoes, it will be judged across multiple areas including musicality, timing, chemistry, technique and choreography by world-renowned salsa performers and teachers Nelson Flores, Magna Gopal, Steve Star Mambo TV, Ismael Otero, Rodrigo Cortez, Paula & Ricardo, Osbanis & Anneta and Cecile Ovide.
Elsewhere around the globe, other initiatives are striving to keep contestants motivated and signing up to compete by adding new enticements to the competition programmes. The Canada Salsa and Bachata Congress has launched a Choreography Contest that is levelling the competitive playing field by offering all dancers an opportunity to create a winning choreo with a prize of C$400 to a brand-new, nationally themed song, “A Bailar Canada”. The track was specifically created for the contest by legendary Latin musicians Marc Quinones and Tony Succar.
Meanwhile, Down Under, Doudoule Latin Dance Camp has launched a Dance Battle Australia 101 competition via Facebook. Seeking to provide a platform for salsa dancers to “take their dancing to new heights”, the event offers dancers an opportunity to improve their musicality, improvisation, creativity, performance confidence and dance ability through battling it out with other dancers for an AU $5,000 prize.
A virtual future?
As in everything with the pandemic, it is hard at this stage to say what the future will hold, and when – and how, and where — competition events will be able to return to “normal”. For those studios and dance teachers struggling to make ends meet or adapt to the medium of online teaching — as well as for the millions of dancers whose ability to experience their chief joy in life has been challenged — getting back to the true physical sphere of dance can’t come fast enough. And yet for those whose creativity has been stretched and resulted in the emergence of brand-new approaches, the challenges of Covid have also brought many blessings and valuable lessons.
As World Salsa Championship’s Noel Roque reminds us in his blog, pandemic or no, we are already half-living in a virtual world, with most of our connections — even in dance — dominated by social media. Therefore, whatever the future has in store for all of us, for those dancers and competitions that wish not only to survive but to thrive, it will require not only reappraising the tried-and-tested formulas that are guaranteed crowd-pleasers, but also the wit and imaginative ability to create new formats, new channels and new methods for self-expression within the limits of a virtual-only space.
Beyond that, the challenge for both international competitions and the dancers who lead, judge and compete in them is how best to use social media and other tools to create memorable experiences and build a brand and platform. So here’s to all those channels that are presently earning their worth in cyberspace by keeping the competitive spirit alive and well!
Deforestation – the intentional eradication of trees by felling to clear land of forested areas to make way for other human-created uses (eg houses, buildings, runways, motorways, tunnels, trains and agricultural) – is a major contributor to climate change in general, and to flooding in particular.
Between 1990 and 2016 alone, the Earth lost a staggering 1.3 million square kilometres (502,000 square miles) of forests, according to figures from the World Bank. Since humans first began cutting down forests, 46% of the Earth’s total trees have been felled. Woodland comprises less than a third of the Earth’s surface (30%), but this is disappearing fast as a result of deforestation – in the past 50 years alone, at least 17% of all rainforest has gone as a result of intensive tree felling, with the past 12 years alone accounting for record highs of deforestation in the Amazon.
A significant factor is also the types of trees needed, and why. Although some have argued there have in fact been recent gains in total global tree canopy due to melting polar regions and the growth of man-made forests through timber plantations, mature palm oil plantations, and zealous tree-planting programmes in China and other countries, man-made forests can never compensate for the loss of primary forest – specifically primary tropical forests and savannahs, which host a wealth of unique flora, fauna and vital ecosystems that are irreparably lost when the land is cleared.
Tropical forests, such as those found in the Congo and Amazon river basins and Indonesia, are particularly critical to life on Earth as they are store the most carbon and are the most richly biodiverse regions on the planet, with some 90% of all species on Earth. Tropical forests are also home to many hardwood tree species that have no dormant period, and as such are vital to regulating the Earth’s atmosphere.
The UK is one of the least-forested (13%) nations in Europe (the total landmass of Europe is covered by 37% woodland), thanks to historic felling by the Romans and other invading peoples to clear land for roads and agriculture; further stripping of woodlands to provide ships during the height of Britain’s colonial and naval supremacy, and during the Second World War; and subsequent relentless felling for agriculture and building – including the current felling and irreparable destruction of 108 ancient woodlands to make way for the highly contentious high-speed railway (HS2) project, which some have referred to as ‘Britain’s Amazon’. Of this, most of the UK’s trees are in Wales and Scotland, with only 6.5% tree cover in Northern Ireland and 9.9% in England.
There are many impacts this substantial loss of tree canopy and forest cover will have on our planet if allowed to continue, not only because of their essential link to climate change and biodiversity loss, but because trees are also a vital deterrent to other ravages of a dramatically changing, overheated and destabilised climate, such as sea-level rise, water scarcity, drought and flooding. In this article, we will focus particularly on how deforestation contributes to flooding, both in the wider global picture and within the UK.
Forests serve as the Earth’s temperature regulator and pollution filter. They not only provide shade, material for building and food for creatures including man, but they also act as a vital ‘carbon sink’, meaning they absorb carbon dioxide and monoxide molecules from the air and lock them in, re-releasing them as oxygen through the process known as photosynthesis. Thus, they are effectively nature’s air-conditioning units and weather regulators, as they recycle water, which then forms clouds and later rain, thus helping to cool and water the Earth and enable to plants to grow.
“Without vast tracts of woodland covering every continent on the planet, humans – and indeed, all (or most) other life forms on Earth – would be completely wiped out, as they would not have sufficient clean air to breathe or food to eat.”
Therefore, without vast tracts of woodland covering every continent on the planet, humans – and indeed, all (or most) other life forms on Earth – would be completely wiped out, as they would not have sufficient clean air to breathe or food to eat. Without trees, the presence of the harmful carbon emissions and other noxious gases that have intensified through human fossil fuel-burning would make the air unbreathable.
If the pollution alone did not kill us, the heat would. Without vital tree cover, incremental temperature rises would diminish the protective layer of ozone in the Earth’s atmosphere, thereby exposing our planet to the sun’s harmful radiation. The entire land surface would become a scorching, uninhabitable desert, where nothing could grow – as is currently the case in regions of the world that are covered in desert, whether hot or cold (note, at 33% of the Earth’s total landmass, there is already more desert than forest).
The lack of trees would also mean the planet would be unable to internally regulate weather patterns; coupled with the impact of the ozone reduction and rising heat, Earth’s weather would rapidly plunge into a wildly destabilised, crisis situation – as it is already showing signs of doing.
We are all increasingly aware of the problem of climate change; we now know that if we do not act soon to reverse the ravages of climate change, our planet is on course for imminent untold disasters due to increasing wildfires, sea-level rise (SLR) and flooding, as well as decimation of vital plants, soils and species. The rise in global temperatures has accelerated the process of evaporation, which in turn has caused global wildfires to intensify in frequency, duration and prevalence, with some 8,100 wildfires in California alone in 2019–2020 and the fire season there now lasting 75 days longer than in the 1970s. Global SLR is also accelerating beyond predictions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC’s) 2013 report, with more recent data showing SLR could reach up to (or even over) 2m by 2100.
“Along with sea-level rise, wildly fluctuating weather patterns will mean increased and more severe flooding, as higher oceans and air temperatures also mean higher concentrations of evaporation and cloud formation… this then leads to an increase in storms, levels of precipitation (frequency, intensity and duration) and severe flooding”
— JANE CAHANE
Along with SLR, wildly fluctuating weather patterns will mean increased and more severe flooding, as higher ocean and air temperatures also mean higher concentrations of evaporation and cloud formation, which further increase the moisture content in the air. This then leads to an increase in storms, levels of precipitation (frequency, intensity and duration) and severe flooding, with many regions already experiencing higher-than-average rainfall – for example, in October 2019, more rain fell in areas of the UK within a single span of 48 hours than would normally occur over an entire month.
Yet while forests could provide more than one-third of the total CO2 reductions required to keep global warming below 2°C through to 2030, mankind unbelievably continues to chop trees down at an unprecedented rate. In the relatively short period between 2001–2015, over 300 million hectares (nearly the size of India) of tree cover was lost. Such short-sighted behaviour is essentially suicidal – if we continue chopping trees as we are, we will be unable to survive.
Deforestation and flooding
One of the biggest single causal factors in the devastating impacts of flooding is deforestation or de-vegetation. Deforestation contributes to the severity of flooding in a number of ways, both directly and indirectly, as described above in terms of the relation of the absence of trees to the overall impacts of climate change. Indirectly, forests also hold and use more water than agricultural lands or grasslands, which means some rainwater remains on the leaves and may evaporate directly into the air.
The most direct ways deforestation increases the impacts of flooding are by:
increasing the speed and amount of sedimentary run-off;
decreasing the amount of rainfall that is intercepted, as there are simply less leaves on trees and surrounding vegetation to absorb rainfall and reprocess it through photosynthesis; and
the simple fact there is literally nothing physically present to stem the tide of a fast-flowing flood, which may or may not contain additional sedimentary elements.
The top two impacts are connected to the mechanisms by which plants absorb and expunge water. The process of photosynthesis means water is first absorbed via tree leaves and then transmitted to the roots beneath the surface of the ground, which in turn release nutrients into the soil. The water that is not used then travels up along the underside of the leaves and is re-released into the atmosphere as oxygen via evaporation.
When there are no trees and vegetation to absorb the precipitation, the quantity of water continues to increase, yet has nowhere to go. Also, roots absorb water from the soil and make it drier and able to store more rainwater, thereby making the surrounding lands less prone to flooding. Without the roots of trees and other vegetation deep absorbing precipitation deep below the ground, the water will remain on the surface and can more easily become a flood.
Deforestation also results in the top layer of soil becoming dislodged – a process known as erosion – because without the roots of trees and other plants and vegetation to anchor this topsoil in place, it becomes unstable and is no longer able to retain or reprocess any of the water that falls on it. This loose soil then becomes run-off– rain that is not absorbed by the soil. The increased surface run-off in turn increases the risk of flooding, because there is no soil layer to stop or absorb the flow of water. It therefore becomes a fast-flowing stream, with the loose sediment mixing with it to become a mudslide.
A flood of fast-flowing water or mud can also be more dangerous if the force of the current is strong enough to uproot and transport rocks or heavier items. Such items would have more likely been filtered or intercepted by the network of branches, roots and leaves of smaller trees, shrubs, hedgerows and other low-lying but substantial vegetation. Further, the movement of sedimentary run-off can shrink river channels downstream, thereby constricting the flow of rivers and causing them to overflow and burst their banks. Without forests and vegetation present to stem the tides of rising waters, the flood waters surge and move faster, ultimately becoming uncontrollable.
According to Janet Abramovitz of WorldWatch, deforestation in the Yangtze river-basin area played a major role in the massive flood of 1998, which occurred as a result of the region losing 85% of its trees. Although the Chinese government blamed El Niño and denied any complicity due to its logging activities in causing the regional devastation, it subsequently launched a $2bn plan to reforest the Yangtze basin. Says Abramovitz, “[This was] certainly… a very clear sign from the government that deforestation was [the] problem.”
Deforestation and flooding: the case against HS2
As previously stated, the UK is one of the least-forested nations in Europe, with less than 13% of tree cover. Therefore, any programme of deforestation for building, infrastructure and large-scale agricultural projects threatens to increase both the levels of climate change-related air pollution and the risk of flooding in the UK – not to mention severely impacting fragile wetland ecosystems and many unique, rare, threatened and protected species.
One of the UK government’s most ambitious, expensive and deeply controversial infrastructure projects is the high-speed railway (HS2), phase 1 of which is currently being built, with an escalating cost to taxpayers of some £106bn. The HS2 railway scheme proposes to connect London and Birmingham (and, at a later stage, areas of the Midlands, the North of England and Scotland). To build it, engineers have drawn straight lines bisecting large swaths of countryside, including several Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), such as the Chilterns; HS2 officials have also contentiously seized houses and farms and evicted families along the proposed route, citing a World War Two law that allows the government to grab land and houses for ‘a national emergency’.
Yet, according to a survey conducted by the Wildlife Trusts, the work will destroy or irreparably damage108 irreplaceable ancient woodlands (these once covered Britain, but now only 2.5% remain), plus 693 local wildlife sites, five internationally protected wildlife sites and 33 legally protected sites of special scientific interest (SSIs).
While some see the proposed train route as an advantageous – even ‘green’ – development, both for facilitating business and reducing the amount of car traffic through ostensibly providing faster connections between major UK cities, the journey from London to Birmingham will only be 20 minutes shorter, which hardly seems to justify such excessive expenditure and destruction.
Also, HS2 will in fact add carbon dioxide (1.49 million tonnes of carbon emissions) rather than reducing it over its projected 120-year lifespan. And then there is the fact that overall, rail travel is down – the pandemic has proven that remote working not only could become the norm, but for many workers, is preferable. Indeed, even long before the pandemic, train use was in decline; it is hardly likely demand will ever justify its construction.
But despite the risks and the clear lack of viable green credentials, the project poses an even greater risk: increased flooding. This is because several areas across which HS2 is being built are floodplains, and without the farmland and forests – which HS2 is commandeering all across the route – to soak up the surface water and serve as a natural flood defence, this leaves these flood-prone areas even more exposed to the freakish extremes of the weather and precipitation patterns, which have clearly increased in recent years.
Understandably, many residents, particularly in the Midlands and areas of the North of England along the proposed HS2 route, are fearful that its construction will put their homes at even greater risk of flooding. Some critical MPs and reporters such as BBC News Chief Political Correspondent Norman Smith have even suggested that HS2 itself will be a casualty of flooding. Indeed, a map produced by the Environment Agency revealed that areas already severely hit by flooding run an almost indentical course to the proposed rail line, including a 45-mile section of Staffordshire and a large area around Leeds station. In fact, had the rail line already been built through this section, it would likely have been submerged several times over.
While various spokespersons for HS2 have claimed, and continue to claim, that drainage systems near the construction locations will be put in place as works continue, recent flooding of what was formerly the South Cubbington Woods – home to ancient woodlands and the beloved Cubbington 2015 ‘Tree of the Year’ pear tree, which were recently felled to make may for HS2 – makes such claims vastly unreliable. In view of such evident increase of flooding in an area that would have otherwise been soaked up by these woods, local residents are justifiably angry that money being spent on what many see as a ‘white elephant vanity project’ has not instead been directed towards erecting greater flood-prevention defences.
Speaking after the major flooding incidents caused by Storms Desmond and Eva during the Christmas 2015 holidays, which saw record-breaking rainfall hit Lancashire, Cumbria, southern Scotland and parts of Wales, former UK MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber Mike Hookem said: “Flood defences are not something that the government can palm off on charities and communities… rather than pouring billions of pounds into projects like HS2 – while at the same time cutting the flood defence budget, as it did in its recent spending review – the government must get its priorities right and make protecting the homes and businesses of hundreds and thousands of people from flooding an absolute priority.”
As an island nation normally subject to intensive rainfall, it is clear flooding is about to become even more intense for the UK due to rising sea levels, increasingly erratic and dangerous weather patterns, and the other issues of climate change-induced flooding made infinitely worse through deforestation. While the government has recently agreed to new 2050 targets for achieving net carbon neutrality and becoming a net-zero emitter of greenhouse gases, its continued support for the HS2 project is in direct opposition to these goals, due to the fact the project itself is adding to rather subtracting carbon emissions.
Perhaps the flooding in areas already deforested for HS2 is a sign that even if the government refuses to halt this work, nature herself will ultimately have the final say.
This article was originally written for the Earth Fast 2021 website in relation to this year’s theme on water – please see here for further articles and information about how to join the fast, and how to fast safely.
Like many of you, I rejoice that creativity in all forms is not in lockdown – and as I posted previously, I am very grateful to remain a connected, active member of a number of groups, including the Shoal of Art Meetup group, which I first got involved with a few years ago when I joined the Meetup group that usually meets at the National Gallery in London, and also for various portrait sessions likewise based in London.
As I mentioned in last month’s post, I am also writing an historical novel, and grateful for the daily discipline of joining the Writers’ Hour sessions at the London Writers Salon to aid my progress in that. Being connected with other artists, writers and creators online during this time has been a huge part of the reason I have rarely, if at all, felt lonely, and instead have remained upbeat, fulfilled – even excited – throughout lockdown.
So, here is a small sample of artworks I have created since lockdown began – mostly in order of creation from most recent to shortly after lockdown began in 2020, they include: various portrait and landscape sketches (charcoal, pastel, watercolour, pencil); watercolours, pastels and acrylic paintings of animals (birds, particularly, as well as some animal-themed banners and sashes I created for the HS2 Rebellion March in June 2020 [I have also made countless effective placards, some of which have been lost while en route to protests in London and elsewhere]); contour pen and pencil drawings of live and static models; a few autumn-themed acrylic, watercolour and mixed-media landscape paintings; and interpretative copies of works of known artists (Monet, Rembrandt, Matisse, Gauguin, Bonnard, etc) from the National Gallery and other sources. Most of the portrait sketches were 15–30 minute poses.
Below: various images of sashes and placards I created to highlight specific species threatened by HS2 for the June 2020 HS2 Rebellion March
I certainly have a long way to go yet in developing my skills, individual style and knowledge of various media; while I have been drawing and painting all my life (and only with a small amount of university, etc art training), I am unable to say whether much of the below constitutes improvement.
However, I do consider that, as God has given me some measure of natural talent and/or artistic ability, the only way I will ever really improve is through practice – and so I continue to do just that. Thank God for lockdown giving us the time and space to do it!
What began as an intended series of light-hearted travel-and-food blogs (it still is, in part – see rijstaffel recipe below) has now become a compendium of thoughts and reflections on Amsterdam and its impact on the world (and on me). That is because it is both a chief location for the historical novel I am writing (as explained below), as well as a place in which I formerly briefly lived, and which radically altered my life. Therefore, I invite you to take from this what you wish and leave the rest – like a liquorice all-sorts, some flavours may appeal more than others!
Since mid-October, when an ornament on display at the ‘Kimono: From Kyoto to Catwalk’ exhibition at the V&A gave me the initial idea and inspiration, I began working on the preliminary concepts, genres, character sketches and plotting for an historical novel, which is set in mid-17th century Amsterdam and Japan. (Note: The above image is a collage I created during a recent Shoal of Art session where we were looking at surrealism; as I had just come fresh from my research, the image I created ended up being a mix of Dutch-, Japan- and VOC-related paintings with some of Meret Oppenheim’s surrealist creations, including her blood-stained gloves – which I decided are a perfect metaphor for the ‘staining’ power of colonialism.)
As I’ve discovered, writing an historical novel requires a tremendous amount of research and total immersion into the period, locations, conventions, clothing, habits, morals and attitudes to make the characters believable and as factually accurate as possible (some are based on real-life characters). This can be both fascinating and frustrating. I’ve already learned quite a lot about my subject(s) and the time period, as well as some of the conventions of historical fiction, but I have also realised how even tiny details require an awful lot of time to find on a Google search, and how easy it is to get sidetracked or fall down research rabbit holes in the process. That is one reason for sharing some of this excess information here – it’s a golden opportunity to tell rather than show!
To aid my progress, I’ve joined an online writing group – the London Writers Salon (it’s called that, even though many participants are actually based in the US, Europe and further afield) where you log on to Zoom and write collectively for a solid hour, with a few minutes’ check-in with other writers at the beginning and end. It’s perfect for writers like me who often write best when held to account by others or to an external deadline – and while it is a different incentive to the paid writing commissions I do as a freelance journalist, copywriter and editor, it still gives me a deep sense of satisfaction in setting and achieving goals (I am still working on getting my novel research and plotting, etc NaNoWriMo ready by January – but am nearly there).
Writing a novel is something I have intended to do all my life, but have somehow been too distracted (usually with salsa, which of course I cannot do now) or discouraged (eg not believing in my message or talent) to get down to it. Therefore, I am grateful to the coronavirus for giving me the incentive to forget all that and get on with it. This quote from a recent LWS session has really resonated with me: “Remember this year? It was a good year, actually. This was the year you stopped waiting around for things to happen. And somehow, as soon as you stopped waiting, as soon as you started doing things, making things, claiming your own space, speaking up for yourself? That’s when your real-life began.” (Heather Havrilesky, How to Be a Person in the World).
Being that my novel will focus on the explorations of new worlds, among other things, here’s to all of us continuing to explore and discover the ‘brave new worlds’ and exotic riches of creativity within us all, and to a new year full of new beginnings!
Travel and spices: how a craving for exotic flavours led to capitalism
In the same way probably the most British dish you can eat is curry, as a result of the colonial heritage from the days of British Raj in India, the most Dutch thing you can eat is likely an Indonesian rijstaffel (see recipe below), thanks to the Netherlands’ long-term trade via the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (the VOC, or the Dutch East India Company) with the famed Spice Islands of the East (the Maluku or Molucca Islands). This small group of islands in the Molucca Sea, in the north-east of Indonesia between Sulawesi and Papua New Guinea, is the world’s largest producers of mace, cloves, nutmeg and pepper. As a result, Indonesian spices and flavours have long been familiar Dutch staples, including in the wonderful street varieties found in Amsterdam.
European trade with the Spice Islands began in 1512 after Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama discovered a sea route to India that connected the Indian and Atlantic oceans; before that, obtaining spices, Chinese silks, Indian cottons, Arabian coffee and African ivory was a costly and time-consuming affair, as these goods had to be shipped and then transported overland, passing through many traders’ hands before eventually reaching Venice – the chief point of trade contact between Europe and Asia – where their cost was up to 1,000% higher than the price originally paid for them in the Spice Islands.
You may wonder why the desire for such a small and unnecessary-seeming thing as the subtle, delicate flavourings and aromas of a certain spice or herbal ingredient would motivate our European forebears to undertake such long and arduous sea journeys to unknown lands, yet if you try removing all spices and herbs from your cooking, you’ll soon understand how valuable these indeed are.
Once you discover how much depth, texture, pungency and richness of taste these can add to your otherwise boring or bland-tasting food, your desire to repeat these sensations becomes very addictive, and you experience an intense craving for more of these amazing taste-sense experiences.
Therefore, an insatiable desire for these pungent ingredients is what drove the expeditions and travel of these brave, curious explorers, who succeeded in opening up new transcontinental maritime routes, ultimately paving the way for our modern globalised world and its complicated (and ecologically disastrous) supply chains.
Such demand led to many wars and acts of piracy between European and Asian nations as they fought to outdo each other in the race to claim ‘ownership’ of these exotic lands and their goods, thereby creating the ensuing horrors of slavery, exploitation of indigenous peoples, deforestation and ethnic wars caused by the disrespectful mapping of colonial conquerors, who simply drew up boundary lines willy-nilly to suit their own aims, which were utterly out of sync with tribal peoples’ boundaries.
Another factor in terms of what motivated this vastly lucrative, competitive and destructive trade is that, while spices and extra ingredients were hardly the stuff of necessity – you could still eat potatoes, vegetables and meat without them, as sadly the poor who could not afford them had to do – their very subtlety and unnecessariness is actually what made these goods so compelling (the spice equivalent of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’, if you will). The ownership and use of such luxuriously unnecessary spices became a distinct mark of social and economic ‘arrival’ for many of the ambitious VOC merchants’ families and the other wealthy patrons who could afford them.
These spices were also deemed valuable because they derived from mysterious far-away lands, which their purchasers could boast of either visiting or financing expeditions to. Well-off hosts revelled in the one-upmanship of displaying their ostentatious wealth through hosting elaborate banquets. This desire to show off their exotic acquisitions in turn gave rise to the artistic trend that emerged during the Dutch Golden Age of depicting fruits, shells and flowers from these strange new lands in meticulously detailed and expertly crafted still lives, which became very fashionable at that time – the 17th century version of Instagram, if you will.
Another direct result of this demand for spices was the VOC’s creation of our now-familiar, but then-pioneering financing methods. The VOC was the world’s first corporation, and financing it relied on the purchase of stocks, joint stock corporations, investments in maritime insurance, futures trading, favourably (or unjustly) tilted trade negotiations and agreements, warfare, actual and financial acts of piracy, and (often violently) enforced monopolies. It was the first conglomerate, and the first company to be listed on international stock exchange – in effect, the beginning of capitalism as we know it.
“Exposure to new lands through travel and the sense-stirring revelations of heady new spices made our world what it is today. The demand for these far-flung fragrant spices and other exotic goods not only contributed to laying the foundations of today’s consumerist society, but also to all of the horrendous after-effects of colonialism and the global supply chain – the single-biggest driver of climate change”
It is probably no surprise, then, that the originally Dutch settlement of 1624 on the southern tip of the Hudson River, known then as Nieuw Amsterdam, eventually became Manhattan, New York – and the world’s leading exponent of capitalism.
Therefore, it was due to this exposure to new lands through travel and the sense-stirring revelations of heady new spices that made our world what it is today. The insatiable demand for these far-flung fragrant spices and other exotic goods not only contributed to laying the foundations of today’s consumerist society, but also to all of the horrendous after-effects of colonialism and the global supply chain – the single-biggest driver of climate change, the greatest existential threat mankind has ever known.
If you think about how we ‘commoners’ today enjoy goods from far-flung lands as everyday ingredients in our mass-produced food, you can see how the ‘trickle-down’ economic concept was expected to work; of course what you don’t see is all the dreadful exploitation, slavery, child labour, deforestation and devastation of resources going on in these countries now – but that is a topic for another blog.
Yet we would not recognise our modern life if we did not have what has now become daily access to commodities such as:
chocolate (cacao – from South American and Asian rainforests);
cinnamon (from Sri Lanka, India and Burma, also the West Indies and South America);
garlic (China and Middle Asia [Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan; from there to Egypt]);
pepper (India and Indonesia);
sugar (originally, Papua New Guinea, then South East Asia, China, India, Haiti and Dominican Republic);
turmeric (South East Asia and Pacific islands [Tahiti, Hawaii, Easter Island]);
tea (China, then Japan and later India);
ginger (India and China; throughout South East Asia);
coffee (North Africa, originally; now South East Asia, Central and South America, predominantly);
tobacco (originally South and North America; today, China, India, Brazil and the US are the top producers);
vanilla (originally Mexico, now mostly Madagascar, Tahiti, Indonesia and Uganda);
chilli and paprika (Mexico); and
saffron – officially the world’s costliest spice by weight, it comes from the dried stigmas of a particular crocus flower, Crocus sativus (originally cultivated in Greece, now also cultivated in Iran, India and Morocco).
Amsterdam and the Netherlands – in all their spicy ‘glory’
They say if you like Amsterdam, you will love Europe; while every European city is different, it is true that, being a seafaring country and having both a Catholic and Protestant heritage – not to mention all those amazing canals, frequently superior in construction to their Venetian cousins – Amsterdam reflects some elements of nearly every European country.
Thanks to its early explorations of Asia, South America, Africa and the Caribbean during the Dutch Golden Age period of (particularly) the 17th century – and its colonial acquisitions in countries and islands such as Curaçao, Aruba, New Zealand Surinam, South Africa, Indonesia, Sint Maarten and Dutch Guiana, and parts of Australia, North America, Japan and India – Amsterdam has long had a tradition of open-mindedness, tolerance and outward-lookingness, especially towards other cultures and religions (not excluding its famously liberal attitudes towards sexuality – an altogether different form of spiciness! – as a more recent development).
In the late 1960s and 1970s, Dutch culture became a model of tolerance and leniency towards drug use, euthanasia, abortion/birth control, prostitution and homosexuality, with a globalised sex industry expanding beyond the red-light districts in Amsterdam and other Dutch cities (as I myself have experience of through outreach to prostitutes from Santo Domingo and other colonial outposts, as I explain later). However, the influence of a heavily judgemental Calvinistic streak has also left its mark on the psyche of the nation; even if 82% of Dutch people no longer believe in God or attend church these days, they still adhere to the virtues of integrity, truthfulness, hard work, respectfulness, reliability, acceptance, self-discipline and efficiency that derive from a heavily Calvinistic background.
For those who do not know, John Calvin was a highly influential theologian and preacher of the Reformation movement that swept Europe in the mid-16th century as a result of the teachings of German Martin Luther, which emphasised a personal faith through one’s own reading and interpretation of the scriptures. Later, the French-Swiss Catholic-turned-Protestant John Calvin became a leading proponent of Protestantism, and his teachings were eagerly embraced by the Dutch people – including then-leader William of Orange, as well as a large percentage of commoners.
Prior to the Reformation, all of Europe was Catholic, and therefore under rule from Rome. However, there were also many inter-national economic rivalries and wars – such as the Eighty Years’ War between Spain (under Philip II) and the Netherlands. This war came about as Spanish Catholics began a campaign of harsh persecutions against Dutch Calvinists, which led to resentment and resistance via a wave of rebellious, disorderly attacks known as the Beeldenstorm (image storm) of 1566, in which Catholic images and statues were destroyed. Inevitably, the Dutch broke free from Spain in 1581 and formed the Dutch Republic. One wonders what the world might have been like were it not for Calvin’s preaching!
The Dutch rebellion against Catholic and Spanish rule also ignited their determination to overthrow the monopoly of the spice trade and send their own ships east, thus forgoing the necessity of trading with Spain and Portugal. The Dutch soon became the leading maritime explorers of the 17th century, thanks in part to the fleet construction of their East Indiaman ships, which were lighter and more compactly built than the heavy Portuguese and Spanish war ships (they were also initially faster than other European ships, however, as the British began to use copper sheathing in the construction of their ships’ hulls, their speed eventually overtook the Dutch, who delayed using this innovation for various reasons).
The Dutch are certainly some of the world’s most incredibly ingenious, hard-working, tenacious and resourceful peoples – for example, their advanced abilities to reclaim land from the sea using dikes and polders is an amazing feat of engineering. After the catastrophic North Sea flood of 1287 (aka ‘St Lucia’s Flood’ – considered one of the worst floods in history), which killed 50,000 people and destroyed the many small earth-mound villages protected by dikes at the time, the Dutch had to work extra hard to push back the newly formed Zuiderzee (‘South sea’) created by this flood. They slowly pushed back the Zuiderzee by building newer, stronger dikes and creating polders (land reclaimed from the sea through draining water using canals and pumps, which were then maintained to keep the land dry and prevent further flooding). This ingenuity has given rise to the proverb, ‘While God created the Earth, the Dutch created the Netherlands’.
The Dutch are also master linguists; while their own language is incredibly difficult for any non-native to pronounce correctly or master, they seem to make up for that by mastering everyone else’s language, so if you but open your mouth to speak – even if you are trying really hard to learn and practise speaking Dutch – they will immediately discern your language and start communicating with you in it instead. Whether this is because they are proud of their seemingly almost supernatural gift for this, or embarrassed that their own language is so difficult and contains so many challenging sounds, is hard to say. (Dutch is actually the closest linguistic relative to English, specifically the version (Frisian) spoken in its most westerly area – Friesland, or the Frisian Islands. The Frisii (Frisians) were the first tribe to settle the Netherlands in 400 BC.)
It was also largely in part due to French-Dutch explorer François Caron’s mastery of Japanese (one of the factors in my novel) and other languages that the Dutch ended up having a trading monopoly in Japan – which goes to show how essential language skills are to the evolving development of international trade and diplomacy.
Chiaroscuro: my personal history lessons in Amsterdam
I lived in Amsterdam (or A’dam, as we called it) for a brief two years during my early 20s, during which time I worked in the fundraising and communications office of Jeugdt Met Een Opdracht (Youth With A Mission, an international, interdenominational Christian missionary and relief organisation, which I had previously trained and travelled with in Latin America before I felt specifically compelled to come to Europe). YWAM’s Amsterdam HQ – situated in a large building opposite Amsterdam’s Centraal Station (main train station), which proclaimed ‘God Roept U’ (God Loves You) from its top storey – was set up by The Father Heart of God writer Floyd McClung, Jr. and other former hippie-trailsters-turned-Christian-evangelists who had previously used two disused house boats (known collectively as ‘The Ark’) as a base for outreach to the city’s large drug-using/abusing community, and to scores of disillusioned young people asking deep questions about the meaning of life.
By the time I joined YWAM in A’dam, it had attracted a fairly large corps of international volunteers, most of whom either lived in shared temporary communal housing or in flats in various parts of the city (I lived for a time in the Bijlmermeer – at that time, a cheap but very rough neighbourhood, considered a Dutch ghetto – and afterwards in the outlying provincial [and then rather boring, though much safer] village of Purmerend).
While my ‘day job’ was all about boosting funding through producing a newsletter for the ‘Friends of Amsterdam’ and recording various audio-visual productions, I spent much of my spare time doing outreach to the (mostly) Spanish-speaking prostitutes in De Wallen, Amsterdam’s Red-Light District. This is one of the reasons why, despite my efforts to practise and learn Dutch properly in the two years I lived there, I could never master it – instead, my daily language ended up being a very weird kind of ‘Danglish’ (Dutch-Spanish-English) hybrid; for some reason, I also developed another weird habit of speaking in a form of transliterated English whenever I find myself in any situation where I feel like a foreigner – which I still do occasionally even now!
During my time in A’dam, I experienced much of the sharp moral and other contrasts of its inhabitants, witnessing at first hand their inherently Calvinistic qualities and simultaneous liberal attitudes. Such ambiguity (hypocrisy?) was possibly a contributing factor in my personal experiences of spiritual abuse at the hands of YWAM Amsterdam’s leadership, as while seeming to be forward-thinking and open, and emphasising compassion, it was in fact controlling, legalistic, dismissive and misogynistic (after submitting something I’d been asked to write that displayed my command of vocabulary and contested the viewpoints of the main leader, I was criticised for being a ‘dangerous female intellectual’ and asked to leave the organisation – an event that subsequently caused me to stumble in my faith for several decades after [and which I can only recently claim to be healed of]).
Yet as I also witnessed some very powerful and dramatic spiritual confrontations between the powers of darkness and the power of light during various street-outreach sessions, I will forever associate Amsterdam with the concept of chiaroscuro – the technique of highlighting contrasts between dark and light, which Rembrandt and other Dutch Golden Age masters are famous for.
Despite the above negative experience and my fruitless efforts to acquire the Dutch language, those two years in Amsterdam changed my life immensely – for the better, mainly. I developed a more European (and truly cosmopolitan) view of life, and became very aware of (and deeply ashamed by) the US’s war-mongering footprint across the globe through understanding how this was perceived by other nations. While generally kind-natured, the Dutch are also typically very blunt, and do speak their minds; it took me a while not to take it personally if they criticised US foreign policy whenever I opened my mouth, though this certainly made me determined to develop a stronger Irish accent so I no longer felt obliged to apologise every time I opened my mouth!
By the time I returned to the US, I no longer considered myself American – the insular, imperialistic values the US manifested seemed completely out of sync with a more tolerant, globally aware and objective European vantage point. I felt like a stranger, a permanent exile (or expatriate), which led me to return to Ireland to study, and thence to my marriage and relocation to London.
I had also become used to the Dutch way of life – cycling to the shops each morning to fetch a bouquet of fresh tulips from the market, along with my food for the day (typically, some broodje [bread], kaas [cheese, usually Gouda], jam and koffee for breakfast and lunch, with the makings for a savoury pannekoeken [pancake], a rijstaffel, curry or vegetarian stir-fry for dinner).
I particularly loved the street snack of frites met sate (chips or French fries with spicy Indonesian satay sauce), available from many street vendors around the city, and the wonderful stroopwaffelen (two waffle biscuits or cookies cemented with a thick caramel-like syrup). I also learned to love (and still crave) the Dutch dubbel zoute (or double salted) liquorice, though even many Dutch people can’t take its strong flavour! I was thrilled to discover you can get a gluten-free version of this at London’s Borough Market.
As for raw herring – just… no! That was simply one cultural adaptation too far!
I am grateful for very fond memories of some lovely Dutch people I knew from that time, such as Peter and Marilyn Gruschka, who always demonstrated the most exemplary hospitality, fun and fellowship on their colourful houseboat, and other international friends I made during that time – some of whom I am still close to (or have renewed contact with, thanks to Facebook).
I am also deeply grateful for the many long hours I spent at the Rijksmuseum, admiring and sketching from the works of the Dutch Golden Age painters – Rembrandt van Rijn, Johannes Vermeer, Jacob van Ruisdael, Aelbert Cuyp, Pieter de Hooch, Adriaen van Ostade, Jan Steen, Nicholas Maes, Frans Hals and many others. This has made me a lifelong, devoted fan of this period of time, particularly of the genius of Rembrandt.
Being that we are unlikely to be able to travel any time soon (even short-haul, as in to Amsterdam), all this talk of far-flung spices has whetted my appetite – both for revisiting (mentally) many of the wonderful places I have traveled to or lived in, and the crave-inducing foods I savoured on these trips. So I hope to write a few more shorter travel-and-food blogs along this vein, but this will do for now. Meanwhile, I will leave you (and end this blog, finally) with the background about and a few recipes for creating a traditional Dutch-Indonesian rijstaffel. I intend to make this for a New Year’s treat – though I will hardly need to cook a whole rice ‘mountain’ just for two!
The famous Dutch-Indonesian Rijstaffel
The traditional Dutch-Indonesian rijstaffel (literally, ‘rice table’)was modelled on the Indonesian custom of serving a ritual feast, called a ‘selamantan’, which featured a variety of dishes surrounding a cone-shaped, turmeric-seasoned rice ‘mountain’ to represent the metaphysical Hindu Mount Meru – the sacred five-peaked mountain of Hindu, Jain and Buddhist cosmologies. The selamantan (and consequently the rijstaffel) was an elaborate spread of 11–21 dishes (always an uneven number, as even numbers were seen as somewhat inauspicious), served with various condiments and a literal mountain of rice.
One of the reasons the rijstaffel became so popular with the Dutch is that it offered the wealthy merchants and VOC colonists a way to sample and balance a range of exotic flavours and consistencies (salty, sweet, crunchy, smooth), and to show off all their spicy and exotic acquisitions to their friends and the business associates they wished to impress.
Below are a select few recipes for some of the more memorable dishes of the rijstaffel – once you get used to these wonderfully pungent and aromatic flavours, you’ll understand why the Dutch developed such an addictive craving for the exotic flavours of the Spice Islands that they outdid every other nation in dominating the East Indian trade – or at least I do! I’ll start with my favourite sauce in the whole world, Gado Gado – this crunchy spicy peanut sauce would certainly make me endure months at sea and travel halfway around the world, although obviously that isn’t necessary now.
Gado Gado 1 small onion, chopped 3 cloves garlic, minced 2 teaspoons ground coriander seed 1 teaspoon ground cumin seed 1 tablespoon dark-brown sugar 1–2 teaspoons sambal ulek (a spicy Indonesian pepper paste, found in the world foods aisles of many supermarkets) 2 tablespoons kecap manis (a thick, sweet soy sauce found in Asian food stores) 2 tablespoons rice-wine vinegar 1 1/2 cups smooth or crunchy peanut butter (according to taste) 1 tin of coconut milk chopped peanuts, as a garnish
Fry the onion, garlic, coriander and cumin in a little oil until the onion is soft. Add the sugar, kecap, vinegar and sambal, and stir until combined. Now add the peanut butter to make a thick paste. Slowly stir in the coconut milk and combine with the peanut-butter mixture, continuing to whisk the ingredients together.
Once the sauce is smooth, let it simmer on a low flame for about 10 minutes, remembering to keep stirring to keep it from burning. Thin with water or broth as needed, and then serve warm with salad, chopped raw or cooked vegetables, beancurd and egg. For grilled chicken, pork, fish or seafood kebab skewers, use the variant known as sate or satay* [see below for an easy recipe] – both versions go well with everything, and are great with chips (in Amsterdam, ask for ‘Frites met sate’ from a street vendor).
As a final touch/for extra crunch, add a few chopped peanuts as a garnish.
*Sate [or satay] sauce
1/2 lime, juiced 1 tsp honey 1 tbsp soy sauce (I use the gluten-free variety) 1 tbsp curry powder 3 tbsp peanut butter (smooth is best for this version) 165 ml coconut milk
Mix the first five ingredients in a bowl, blending well, then transfer to a small cooking pan. Gently pour in the coconut milk and heat, stirring continuously. Simmer for 5 minutes and serve.
Ajam Kecap (Chicken with Ginger and Soy Sauce) 900g chicken meat (preferably thighs; can use breasts) 4 tablespoons vegetable or coconut oil 2 large onions, chopped 3 cloves garlic, minced 3–4 tablespoons chopped fresh ginger root 2 tablespoons ground ginger 4 tablespoons kecap manis 2 tablespoons rice-wine vinegar 1 teaspoon sambal ulek 1/2 cups chopped crystallised ginger
Cut the chicken into one-inch pieces. Season the meat well with salt, pepper and two tablespoons of the ground ginger. Heat the oil and fry the chicken pieces until they begin to brown. Add the onion, garlic and ginger root. Cook until the onion softens, then add the kecap, vinegar and crystallised ginger pieces. Cover the pan and simmer on low heat for about 40 minutes.
For an alternative version with pork (known as babi kecap), substitute 900g of cubed pork; or for a vegetarian version, you could perhaps try tofu as a substitute.
Serundeng (Coconut Peanut Topping) 1 to 2 tablespoons coconut oil 1 medium onion, finely chopped 2 cloves garlic, minced 1-inch piece of ginger root, peeled and grated 1 teaspoon ground cumin seed 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander seed 1 tablespoon dark brown sugar Juice of 1 lime 11/2 cups dried unsweetened shredded coconut 1 cup roasted salted peanuts Salt to taste
In a large non-stick frying pan, fry the onion, garlic and ginger root in the oil until they are soft and fragrant. Add the dry spices and the brown sugar and continue to cook, so the sugar dissolves. Add the lime juice and 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Add the coconut and continue to cook, stirring all the time until the coconut has absorbed all the seasonings and is toasted and dry. (You can do this last step by spreading the mixture on a baking sheet and baking it in the oven. The coconut should be dry and golden; make sure it does not burn).
Last, add the peanuts and toss to blend. Serve this over rice, or over anything with peanut sauce.
Cook’s note: Serundeng is a condiment served with rijsttafel. It is like an Indian dry chutney, something to sprinkle over rice or vegetables. Its sweetness will balance out the heat from spicy dishes.
Udang Kuning (Shrimp in Turmeric Sauce) Note: You can prepare the spicy paste ahead of time, and lightly sauté the shrimp in the sauce just before you are ready to serve it.
1 tin coconut milk 2 djeruk purut (lime leaves; only use them fresh) Juice of 1 fresh lime Basil or coriander leaves for serving 450g raw shrimp, peeled and deveined
For the spicy paste: 1 medium onion 3 cloves garlic 1 teaspoon coriander seed 2 stalks of fresh lemongrass, inner white part only 2 inches fresh ginger root, chopped 1 tomato 1 teaspoon sambal ulek, or 1 fresh serrano or chili pepper 1 teaspoon turmeric powder 1 teaspoon salt
Chop all ingredients for the spice paste and blend them together in a food processor until smooth. Heat a little oil in a heavy saucepan and fry the spice paste for a few minutes, until it gives off a strong, fragrant aroma.
Then add the coconut milk and the lime leaves, and simmer on low heat for about 30 minutes. Strain the cooked mixture, squeezing the solids to extract the flavour. Add the lime juice for extra flavour. Before serving, lightly sauté the raw shrimp in the sauce until cooked through.
*Note: Most of these recipes have been adapted for UK shoppers and to suit my personal gluten-free needs, but derive from Josephine Nieuwenhuis’s blog on rijstaffel – please see her blog for the full-gluten, US version.
This is the first year I won’t, as a US expat living in the UK, be serving turkey for Thanksgiving, which I have celebrated faithfully in the traditional way for each of the 25+ years I have lived in the UK. But with the Covid lockdown, family gatherings aren’t happening – and anyway, who wants to cook a big turkey just for two?
So this Thanksgiving night, we are simply polishing off a moussaka I made earlier in the week. I know other US friends and family will likewise be giving the traditional turkey roast a miss, whether due to Covid or the ongoing economic crisis – at least it’s good news for turkeys everywhere!
But even where traditional festivities may be lacking, the main point for rejoicing – that is, for me personally, and at least circa six million of my fellow Americans – is that after four years of turmoil, racism and disgust, we are finally about to lose the perma-bronzed turkey in the White House. And to that most of us can say a heartfelt Amen!
With President-elect Joe Biden rapidly filling his cabinet with some forward-thinking and impressive appointments, and his affirmed commitment to addressing urgently the twin threats of Covid and climate change, we can at least feel some hope for moving forward in addressing these in 2021, even while the gloom persists as numbers of Covid cases continue to rise in the US (roughly 12.9 million cases, with 262,831 deaths recorded thus far).
This prompts some thoughts about how the present and following generations of Americans will come to view the past four years of Trump’s reign. A proud and ego-driven Trump now appears to be spiralling into a stupendous fall as his increasingly ludicrous claims of voter fraud fail to find any fruition.
In spectacular bad-loser fashion, Trump has instead eschewed the spotlight, holing himself up in the White House and making only rare appearances to negligible events, and generally appearing to be only a shell of his former bombastic self. He almost begins to acquire the patina of a tragic hero; one wonders what Shakespeare, was he around today, would have made of this – in the hands of a skilful writer, the real-life material presents an unbeatable opportunity to draw a brilliantly scathing portrait of a man both at war with his rival and himself (or, in Trump’s case, the facts). Not that anyone should feel sorry for such an innately self-centred individual, who has continually put his own needs and greed for power ahead of the good of the nation.
In the hands of a skilful writer, the real-life material presents an unbeatable opportunity to draw a brilliantly scathing portrait of a man both at war with his rival and himself (or, in Trump’s case, the facts)
One also wonders what the Pilgrim Fathers would have made of a Trump presidency. Surely the four freedoms – religion, speech, press and assembly – they originally fled to the US in the hopes of preserving have been severely threatened by the Trump administration, which has frighteningly evidenced many of the hallmarks of fascism in recent months.
A tradition born of conflict
Yet even as Biden has spoken today of the need to heal and move forward from “the grim season of division” that has riven America both before and since polling began, it is interesting to recall that the traditional Thanksgiving celebration was actually begun during a similar period of national division: the US Civil War – the very bloody, divisive and destructive ‘War Between the States’, which lasted from 1861–1865 (and for which, some argue, the rationale has never truly been resolved, as is indicated by the racist rhetoric and stance of many Trump supporters).
While the Pilgrim Fathers did indeed celebrate a feast to give thanks for their safe arrival in North America and the bountiful food generously provided by the Wampanoag Indians of Massachusetts (and no doubt to deeply resented by every Native tribe since), and this did indeed provide the inspiration for the official four-day holiday celebrated by Americans across the US (and the pond) ever since, the actual holiday came into practice directly as a result of the frictions that triggered the Civil War and its ensuing deadly battles.
After the Northern states of the US overwhelmingly elected abolitionist Abraham Lincoln as president, thus dealing a supremely enervating blow to the proud slave-owning Southerners who had profited enormously from the centuries of hard work done by their African ‘inferiors’, the South retaliated with their own brand of coup by firing on Fort Sumter – a strategic declaration of war directed at a federal fort smack in the harbour of the leading slave-port city of Charleston, South Carolina. This open declaration of rebellion and secession signified the South’s unrelenting unwillingness to submit to a unified federal government that denied it the power to continue twisting laws regarding slavery to its own benefit and thus enhance its power.
And so began four long years of hellish conflict as brother fought brother across borders demarcated by the famous Mason-Dixon line (a line separating the officially Northern [Union – Yankee] states of Pennsylvania and from the Southern [Confederate – Rebel] states) in what was then alternatively described as the ‘War Between the States’, the ‘War of Secession’, the ‘War of the Rebellion’ or the ‘Great Rebellion’, or the ‘War for Southern Independence’, depending which side of the line you fought on.
In late 1862, the Northern Yankees were returning home in the midst of what seemed an interminably long, dark, cold and depressing winter with their metaphorical tails between their legs. Many thought of giving up the fight. In acknowledgement of their pain and suffering, 17 governors instituted a four-day state-wide thanksgiving holiday
In late 1862, the Southern Confederate armies seemed to be winning. After suffering horrendous casualties in the first two years of fighting, the Northern Yankee troops were returning home in the midst of what seemed an interminably long, dark, cold and depressing winter with their metaphorical tails between their legs. Many on the front lines of the battle were demoralised and secretly thought of giving up the fight.
In acknowledgement of their suffering and hardship, 17 state governors decided to institute a four-day state-wide Thanksgiving holiday, with New York Governor Edwin Morgan declaring that despite it being “numbered among the dark periods of history” there were still reasons for giving thanks, because “Our Government and institutions [being] placed in jeopardy have brought us to a more just appreciation of their value”.
This prompted President ‘Honest Abe’ Lincoln to set a series of national days of thanksgiving over the next years of the war, in which the tides progressively turned, and the Rebel Confederate armies of South finally capitulated in shame and defeat.
These various days of celebrating thanksgiving at different times during the four long years of the Civil War ultimately culminated in the eventual date of the last Thursday of November, which was thereafter set as the day in which “all Americans in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea, and those who are sojourning in foreign lands” were urged to observe a day of thanksgiving to God for the endurance of democracy and the emancipation of formerly enslaved people and set as a permanent national holiday.
New rifts – and new urgencies
Now, nearly 150 years later, America faces new internal fractures and rifts, both to its population through the ever-increasing Covid toll and its economy.
As with Abraham Lincoln at the end of the Civil War attempting to heal the rifts caused by that bitter division through celebrating the lasting preservation of the unifying ideals of democracy and freedom, President-elect Biden has rightly chosen the theme of the war on Covid as a unifying rallying point in his Thanksgiving address: “We need to remember we’re at war with a virus — not with each other. This is the moment we need to steel our spines, redouble our efforts and recommit to the fight. Let’s remember – we’re all in this together.”
Biden reminded all Americans that staying home and forgoing traditional celebrations is actually a truly heroic act that can help save lives in a time where the country is seeing 160,000+ new cases of coronavirus a day. He is notably always publicly wearing a mask – unlike the prize turkey who has noticeably been without one more often than not, a signal of his carelessness and lack of empathy while presiding over the nation’s gruelling death tolls.
Biden also echoed Lincoln’s urge to celebrate America’s democratic institutions in a not-too-subtle slingshot at Trump’s efforts to overturn the election process by stating, “America was tested this year… [but] we are up to the task. [Here] we have full and fair and free elections, and then we honour the results. The people of this nation and the laws of this land won’t stand for anything else. Through the vote – the noblest instrument of non-violent protest ever conceived – we are reminded anew that progress is possible… [so] today can be better than yesterday, and tomorrow can be better still.”
I well remember the sleepless, nail-biting and near-despairing days of the election, watching anxiously as votes were counted and states turned red or blue, with some stripey-swings and others as yet uncounted, undecided. The time differences in the reporting of results regularly played havoc with my sleep schedules, with days spent fighting off the inevitable exhaustion and brain fog.
At one point when it all seemed to be too much, I lay down for a brief nap respite from all the stress, praying silently to God. And I then very clearly heard the words of the apostle James 4:7, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” As I closed my eyes, I suddenly had a very clear picture of Trump and Biden fly-fishing a few metres apart in a fast-flowing stream. Trump suddenly hoisted a big fish and began yelling out, “I got a whopper! I got a whopper!”
Meanwhile, ‘Sleepy Joe’ – as some have called him – then got a sudden tug on his line as a huge fish started to pull well below the surface. I took that vision as a much-needed reassurance to bide my time and trust, and so managed a few hours’ much-needed kip.
At that stage in the election drama, Trump was still all full of swagger and braggadocio about his sure win. Yet Bidenwas quietly, calmly and with an eye to the needs for unity for the whole nation just going about his business, already demonstrating a soundly presidential air
At that stage in the election drama, Trump was still all full of swagger and braggadocio about his sure win. Yet Biden was quietly, calmly, and with an eye to the needs for unity in the whole nation just going about his business, already demonstrating a soundly presidential air, just as he is currently doing in preparing to get on with job even while a defeated, ego-bruised Trump is lashing out like his grounded whopper in its last throes.
While we have yet to see what the new year will bring for the US and the rest of the world in the ongoing battles against Covid and to preserve democracy, we can be truly thankful that even in a quiet Thanksgiving 2020 where leftover moussaka takes the turkey’s pride of place on the table, we still have food to eat, we still have our hard-won democratic freedoms, and we still have the ability to choose whom and how we will serve. And as long as these last, let us indeed give thanks.
For all my friends on both sides of the pond, I urge you to continue to pray that wisdom, kindness, truth and justice for all will prevail.
I also wish to acknowledge Heather Cox Richardson’s excellent blog post for details of the Civil War background, forwarded by my mother while I was in the midst of writing this.
‘What is the use of a house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?’ — Henry David Thoreau
As it is now a year since I began my journey as an environmental activist last October, starting with Extinction Rebellion and continuing to the fight against HS2 (the high-speed train line from Euston to Birmingham, which will cut straight through the heart of 108 of the UK’s remaining ancient woodlands), it seems an appropriate time to reflect on my experiences – including a recent event that caused me to lose my voice. There’s a certain poetic irony in losing my physical voice while trying to speak for the birds and trees and woodland creatures that have no voice – but I hope this blog will help me to plead their case.
Extinction Rebellion: Affinity and anarchy I grew up in the US, where – even as far back as the early 1970s – scientists were already concerned about the impacts to the ozone (the part of the atmosphere that protects the Earth from the sun’s harmful rays) from global warming, which I have written about at length here. As a young adolescent, I was deeply disturbed by this, convinced the world would end in my lifetime. Back then, there were no teenage activists like Greta Thunberg around to confront the system – if so, I would have joined them.
My first encounter with Extinction Rebellion (XR) was in early April 2019. I was taking an alternate route home from work via the South Bank Centre when I heard a loud commotion coming from Waterloo Bridge. There, around 100 rebels were occupying the bridge and obstructing traffic. While amused at their hippie-style, rainbow-hued clothes, banners and makeshift tents, I felt a deep affinity with their message about climate change and their demand for the government to take this seriously, as this echoed everything I had been reading while researching topics for investigative reports for my then-job as editor-in-chief of an online investigative journalism start-up.
After the grim findings of the air pollution report I had recently commissioned and contributed to (see here), which revealed that inhaling London’s air was equivalent to inhaling a half a pack of cigarettes daily, it was delightful to see London’s normally grey and congested urban landscape transformed by their artfully arranged pop-up gardens and vegetation. I found the innocent-seeming joy emanating from the musicians strumming folk and reggae, and their shamanic (shambolic?) dancing uplifting and inspiring, so I determined to find out more about XR.
Towards the end of September 2019, a team of representatives from XR came to do a press conference at Reach (the commercial wing of the Mirror newspaper group in Canary Wharf, where I was then working) ahead of the planned two-week International Rebellion starting on 7 October. I went to one of their London-based meetings and immediately signed up to join the Rebellion and help with their media work.
I was soon contacted by an Oxford professor about joining the SE Press Working Group, whose task was to write press releases and articles for the national and regional newspapers about the Rebellion. This group comprised mostly white middle-aged female PR and media professionals from around SE England. As most of us were new to XR and so not clued in overly about the daily plans for the Rebellion – usually decided on the hoof and relayed through a plethora of social media channels – it was a challenge to keep up with all the various protest actions taking place all over London, while attending and then writing about them, which felt quite overwhelming, chaotic and confusing at times. We quickly decided to work from a generic press release template for each event, adapting it for our respective regional newspapers.
I also joined my local XR ‘Affinity Group’ in Marlow just before the Rebellion began, but as I hadn’t had time for a proper induction or to get to know my fellow local rebels, my initial efforts to interview them for press quotes were viewed suspiciously – understandable given XR’s reasonable distrust of journalists. As most of my local group were seasoned rebels, they seemed to know exactly what they were doing as soon as we arrived in London, whereas I quickly lost them amid the crowds at Whitehall. Eventually, a few of them talked openly to me about their reasons for joining XR, and I amassed some usable quotes. But I quickly realised gaining the trust and support of my local affinity group meant not only joining actions in London, but attending as many local evening meetings and discussions as I could.
One local event was actually a climate change comedy night in High Wycombe, which admirably managed to be funny while presenting some very hard-hitting climate facts. This included an infographic showing the spectrum from climate-change denialism to scepticism to the ‘cautious’ to the ‘concerned’ (eg those already ‘doing their bit’ by recycling, petitioning, using renewable energy, etc) and finally to the ‘alarmed’ – those deeply anxious and angry about the climate emergency and the failures of government to protect us — which was where most rebels found themselves on the spectrum.
The October 2019 Rebellion
The October Rebellion was planned with the aim of targeting the major tourism, financial, retail, media and government centres of London, with rebels occupying areas in an effort to stop ‘business as usual’ and force government leaders to confront the climate emergency. Most of the actions were centred in and around Whitehall, Westminster, The Mall, Trafalgar Square, Victoria Embankment, Downing Street, and Lambeth and Westminster Bridges, with additional protests in locations like Oxford Circus, Bank and Canary Wharf. Sub-groups, including Doctors for XR, Scientists for XR, Animal Rebellion, Ocean Rebellion and others featuring different threads of the extinction theme, also held actions in relevant locations.
I usually headed first to Trafalgar Square, from where I then joined marches and protests in and around Westminster and Whitehall, typically punctuated with dancing and music from the colourful samba bands. At the time, the famous Extinction Rebellion ‘Tell the Truth’ pink submarine boat was stationed in Oxford Circus, where celebrities such as Emma Thompson and Guardian columnist George Monbiot addressed the crowd before being dispersed by police – sometimes quite forcibly. Police aggression towards protestors usually provoked a chant of ‘We’re not violent, how about you?’
One evening after a day’s marching, I was sitting with a crowd the drizzling rain in Trafalgar Square, listening to a talk about the need to organise citizen assemblies, when someone asked if anyone was willing to be arrested. I suddenly thought, ‘Why not?’ and joined a band of young women ranged around the base of Nelson’s Column with their arms linked and knees covered by a plastic sheet – all singing and in good spirits, despite being soaked through.
Someone else passed through the crowd handing out ‘bust cards’ with instructions on what to do if arrested. While it didn’t concern me too much when the police began to surround us, I was a bit worried about how my husband would feel if I had to phone him from a jail cell, and also suddenly realised I’d left some medication at home.
As I was pondering this, a woman approached me, saying, ‘I feel very strongly you should not be arrested – you need to save your beautiful sword. Please, go home now.’ While I wasn’t exactly sure what she meant by ‘saving my beautiful sword’, I knew I hadn’t had any arrestee training yet, so didn’t feel ready. So I decided to take her advice and go home, stopping to watch in mesmerised awe as the mysterious Red Brigade (a group of men and women clad head to toe in red, with white mime-face makeup) enacted a solemn ceremony on Whitehall, which seemed to evoke a deep sense of grief and mourning for the planet.
Although I did get the arrestee training shortly afterwards, I realised it would not serve my purposes to be arrested. Yet in the coming days, it seemed progressively harder to avoid. While some police, such as the policewoman I spoke to as her fellow officers herded us out of the Bank area where we were protesting financial institutions’ support of fossil fuel industries, had initially seemed sympathetic, even laughing and joking with us or joining in the dancing, as of the 11th – only four days into the Rebellion – at least 1,000 activist arrests had been made, and were increasing. Tents were slashed open and goods confiscated from the occupied area of Trafalgar Square, while aggressive police carried protestors away forcibly, despite many of them being locked on (usually by supergluing themselves to statues or railings).
Suddenly, at 9pm on the 14th, the police banned all of the Extinction Rebellion protests in a move deemed ‘chilling and unlawful’ and ‘an attack on democracy’
Suddenly, at 9pm on the 14th, the police banned all of the Extinction Rebellion protests in a move deemed ‘chilling and unlawful’ and ‘an attack on democracy’. Green Party MP Caroline Lucas described the ban as a ‘huge overreach of police power’, while advocacy group Liberty said it was a ‘grossly disproportionate move by the Met and an assault on the right to protest’. Lawyers for XR launched a judicial review of the ban. But despite this police action, XR continued its protests at the Department for Transport, at which leader Gail Bradbrook was arrested after climbing atop its entrance, and the Google and YouTube headquarters, where Guardian journalist George Monbiot and Green Party leader Jonathan Bartley were also arrested.
However, it was the ‘surprise’ actions of a rogue contingent of XR activists (including a few Christian Climate Action members) who went against the general advice from many in XR with an action at Canning Town tube, which held up the trains from running during the morning rush hour. A handful of activists climbed on top of and then glued themselves to London Underground trains, thereby preventing many in the predominantly working-class region of East London from getting to work. I was against this action, as I knew only too well how unfair this would be to any London commuter, and how unlikely it was to gain any sympathy.
The resulting backlash in the press following the Canning Town incident was significant, and had the effect of splintering XR. Although the London Rebellion hadn’t officially ended until the last big action at Oxford Circus and Big Ben, in which activists climbed structures to lock on and unfurl banners announcing a Citizens Assembly and ‘No pride on a Dead Planet’, the negative press about Canning Town and increasing arrest momentum led many of my fellow local rebels to stay home and seek ‘regen’ (peaceful, healing, peace-affirming self-care actions). Other actions involved targeting airports.
When I later met up with members of the SE Press Group in London, we discussed the Canning Town incident and how this affected the success (or lack thereof) of the Rebellion. Over the next few days and weeks, this incident provoked heated debates across many XR social media channels, with some groups – including what I termed the ‘virulent vegans’ – seeming bent on making Extinction Rebellion all about their own particular cause, which had a dis-unifying and disarming effect.
Although I briefly considered joining a group going to Madrid for a protest around COP 25, in the end I did not go, preferring to take some time out to reflect and reconnect with myself, God and nature. Some members of my local XR group kindly provided some much-appreciated ‘regen’ sessions, however I felt I needed a different kind of regen – one where I could feel I was actively helping the environment. This led to my next phase of environmental activism.
It’s not really about a railway…
On the day of the Canning Town incident, a few of us from my local XR group decided not to go into London, but to support a local protest at Link Road in Great Missenden (near the Roald Dahl Museum, about a 20-minute drive from my house) instead. There, two hippie-ish, but very gentle-natured, well-informed and quite decent-seeming ‘tree protectors’ were camping out to stop the mature trees along Link Road being felled to make way for a haulage road for the HS2 railway project. Several local residents – most of whom were not aligned with XR, though some were members of the Stop HS2 campaign, the existence of which pre-dated Extinction Rebellion by a good six years – were also actively supporting this protest to fight HS2’s impact on our Chilterns Area of Natural Beauty (AONB).
One Link Road protestor, a member of the River Chess Association, told me the planned drilling into the River Chess’s chalk aquifers to create the tunnels for HS2 would be a major cause of pollution of the drinking water for local and London-based Thames Water and Affinity Water customers. (In the latest update, because pollution was seen immediately as the drilling into the chalk aquifer commenced, Affinity Water decided to cease abstracting from the two bore holes that descend deep into the source of the River Chess’s spring. This, and the agreement between HS2 Ltd and Buckinghamshire County Council to forego taking down most of the trees on Link Road, are two very small victories in the battle with HS2.)
This same protestor also explained that drilling into the aquifer would deplete much of what little remains of the once free-flowing and extremely rare chalk stream, which is home to many threatened wildlife species – including water voles (on which the character of Ratty in Wind and the Willows is based – now Britain’s most endangered species), ospreys, water rails, mayflies, brown trout and brook lamphreys, and the very rare, critically endangered Bechstein’s bat, which inhabits the Link Road trees. Please note: HS2 Ltd does not have now, nor has it ever had,any licencesto disturb or destroy bats’ habitats. (I later checked this out with HS2 Ltd and its allied vehicle, Natural England, both of which took several weeks to reply, and in the end only returned some vague PR spin that did nothing to address my complaint; I also attempted to get answers from the Bat Conservation Trust, and discovered they had also seemingly sold out to HS2 or could/would do nothing to stop the destruction of the bats’ habitats.)
Another knowledgeable Stop HS2 protestor explained that not only would this high-speed railway destroy our AONB, but it would also inevitably damage the hearing of local schoolchildren because the decibels of the screeching, fast-moving train would exceed the limits for safe noise levels. While I knew trees provide a vital first-line defence against respiratory conditions such as asthma and other health impacts of air pollution as they filter harmful carbon dioxide (CO2), I hadn’t considered the impacts of noise pollution until then.
As I made successive visits to Link Road and other nearby resistance camps (Dews Lane and Harvil Road), I met many local farmers threatened with eviction from their houses, farms and lands to make way for HS2 and its haulage works roads. According to several I spoke with, HS2 represents the greatest compulsory land-grab by the government since World War II – it is not at all about a railway, but is a massive government gambit to steal land from farmers and reclaim it for other purposes (for example, once the HS2 building work is done, the once-biodiversity- and soil-rich farm lands will likely become useless brownfield, and then be sold off for housing developments to profit private companies).
Many of these farmers have been bullied, threatened and intimidated into compliance, despite only being offered a pittance in comparison with the real value of their homes, farms, businesses and lands
Many of these farmers have been bullied, threatened and intimidated into compliance, despite only being offered a pittance in comparison to the real value of their homes, farms, businesses and lands; they have also been told they will not receive any compensation until after the works are completed. In many cases, their properties are literally miles away from the proposed railway path, compounding the sense of injustice. Most have welcomed the resistance campers on their grounds, as at least this has provided a delaying tactic; however others, like the Ryalls, have had their lives, businesses and lands (in their family’s possession since Shakespeare’s time) completely destroyed.
I later interviewed the Ryalls as I had heard one of their staff had committed suicide because of the unjust situation they face; other farmers I spoke with have revealed the terrible mental, emotional and financial suffering they have experienced as a result of having their homes and livelihoods effectively stolen from beneath their feet.
Until I met these protestors and learned of HS2’s looming impacts on families, nature and people’s health, I was completely unaware of the scale, cost, and lasting environmental and health damages HS2 will cause. Like many, I had ignorantly assumed that as a train, it would be good for the environment. However, HS2 is clearly not really about a railway; there is obviously another, more dubious agenda going on. It will also not be carbon-neutral not for 120 years – by which time it will be too late to do any good for the environment, and in fact will harm it greatly.
The UK is one of Europe’s least-forested nations, with only 13% tree cover left – therefore the carbon sink that would have been provided by the 108 ancient woodlands in HS2’s path will be lost forever– not to mention the loss of vital flood defencesthis represents
The UK is one of Europe’s least-forested nations, with only 13% tree cover left – therefore, the carbon sink that would have been provided by the 108 ancient woodlands in the path of HS2 will be lost forever – not to mention the loss of vital flood defences this represents. And there is no way HS2’s pathetic handfuls of newly planted saplings will reduce CO2 sufficiently to keep us all breathing healthily.
As my eyes began to be opened to this horrendous and tragic ecocide unfolding literally on my doorstep, I realised that this indeed is Britain’s Amazon, and therefore I must throw all my energies into fighting it.
Further HS2 revelations and actions Over the next weeks and months, all through the winter and into the new year, I continued to join various protests and resistance camps at Link Road and other sites along HS2’s proposed 125-mile route from Euston to Birmingham – Harvil Road, Dews Lane, Denham Country Park, Colne Valley Nature Reserve, Steeple Claydon, Poor’s Piece, Cubbington Woods, Crackley Woods, Calvert Jubilee Nature Reserve and Jones Hill Wood in Wendover.
I became determined to write an investigative report to expose HS2’s crimes, and eventually completed a short report – initially published on the Ecologist website, where it went viral overnight, and subsequently republished here and on the Stop HS2 website – highlighting the threatened, rare, endangered and legally protected wildlife species at Denham Country Park and Colne Valley Nature Reserve, which will be destroyed forever by HS2. I included all the wildlife laws (UK, EU and international) HS2 is breaking, and backed it up with ecologists’ evidence, checked by a wildlife biologist.
I have tried to urge other journalists to collaborate with me to expose HS2 further; to my knowledge, there has never been a thorough ‘follow the money trail’ investigation to expose the corruption behind HS2’s endlessly escalating costs (the most recent projection is a whopping £231.32bn). As this project is being paid for with taxpayers’ money, it raises immediate questions as to who stands to profit from it (apparently HS2 Ltd’s CEO Mark Thurston is earning ca. £650K a year for his ‘contributions’; I have heard HS2 construction workers, and the hired police and National Eviction Team [NET] thugs that enforce its evictions earn £250–£350 per day, which is a lot of money for them to stand around all day as most of them seem to do. Clearly, this is money that should be funding our cash-strapped NHS and helping struggling businesses, not this travesty!).
I have also witnessed HS2’s supposed ‘ecologists’ at work; they turn up, poke a stick around in a bush for a few minutes, and leave – there has never been any evidence of actual mitigation (apart from a few planted saplings, often left un-watered until they die) or translocation work to remove any threatened species.
As I began to question this, one of the Stop HS2 founders alleged there was copious evidence linking the HS2 project to trade deals with China as part of the latter’s Belt and Road Initiative, which intends to link routes from China across Europe. This seems a potentially likely explanation for why the project is being pushed through by the UK government, despite the fact the vast majority of the British populace never asked for and clearly do not want this railway. I am sure the facts will eventually become clear, but I do wonder why this project is not being challenged or investigated properly – most newspaper coverage only ever presents HS2’s positive PR spin, and (like Natural England, the Environment Agency and Buckinghamshire County and other entities) seem either to have taken backhanders from HS2 Ltd or otherwise been silenced.
Fortunately, BBC naturalist and presenter Chris Packham has taken a clear stand via his Stand for the Trees legal petition against HS2, launched in early 2020. I was at the resistance camp in Crackley Woods when everyone shouted with jubilation as we learned the lawyer representing the case had amassed irrefutable evidence showing HS2 had no licences for the bats and other wildlife ecocide it is committing.
Sadly, although Packham’s lawyer did an excellent job of arguing this evidence, his petition has so far been unsuccessful. And although work on HS2 was supposedly suspended while the Oakervee Review was being considered and before the PM officially gave the go-ahead in February 2020, the vegetation-clearing work and tree-felling had actually continued throughout Johnson’s supposed review, throughout the spring nesting season (which is illegal), and throughout the coronavirus lockdown. While the lockdown has certainly proven that no one needs this ludicrously expensive white elephant with its spiralling and vastly unjustifiable costs as so many workers have successfully transferred to working from home, even that has continually fallen on deaf Parliamentary ears.
I have also witnessed and recorded ample evidence of – and even personally been threatened by – violently aggressive acts against peaceful protestors by HS2 Ltd’s bevy of hired goons (construction workers, Metropolitan and Thames Valley Police, and NET officers) in the course of my visits to several HS2 sites.
Some activists who have been violently assaulted have shown me X-rays of broken collarbones and fingers, and I have been present when NET officers have cut tree protectors’ precarious zip lines, causing them to fall into streams or onto cherry pickers and tree grabbers.
Throughout my weekly visits to protest sites and woodland camps, which I continued to do during the Covid-19 lockdown period, I have met so many truly warm, compassionate, witty, dedicated, decent, caring and truly awe-inspiring activists, whose heroism and selfless commitment to protecting Britain’s countryside by persevering and camping out through all weathers is incredibly inspiring. Joining them in the front-line fight against HS2 has made me feel far more engaged in actively protecting the environment than marching through the streets of London with XR ever has. I began to ask the question, as had many of the other camp warriors, where was Extinction Rebellion, and why wasn’t it more actively engaging in this fight that so clearly constitutes Britain’s Amazon?
XR joins the fight against HS2
While I knew a few other XR members who had been actively resisting HS2 for several months – apparently, some scaled trees in an act of resistance at Colne Valley as far aback back as April 2019 – XR’s involvement with HS2 on the whole was a more gradual process, eventually culminating in a new channel called HS2 Rebellion, which became more publicly active towards the end of May 2020.
According to its Facebook page, HS2 Rebellion is ‘an alliance of various groups and individuals who are campaigning against HS2’ – including Stop HS2, Stand for the Trees, Save Cubbington Woods, Crackley Woods protection camp, Wendover Active Resistance camp, Harvil Road protection camp and Extinction Rebellion’– and alongside other XR splinter groups such as Wildlife Rebellion, Animal Rebellion and Global Rebellion.
One of HS2 Rebellion’s first organised protests, from 20–27 June 2020, was a high-profile Rebel Trail march, which galvanised XR and other local protestors to hike the full 125-mile length of the HS2 route from Birmingham Curzon Street to Euston Station in London. This helped focus media attention and divert some funding and needed supplies to the various HS2 resistance camps.
Although an untimely knee strain prevented me from joining the march, I at least succeeded in organising several of my local XR group to join, and made my presence felt by providing them with several hand-painted placards and clothing sashes highlighting the various wildlife species threatened with ecocide by HS2 (hedgehogs, barn owls, great crested newts, eels, European water voles, water bugs, hazel dormice, common shrews, stag beetles, tawny owls, European badgers, harvest mice, muntjac deer, polecats, snipes, teals, lapwings, and a range of bats – Leisler’s, Natterer’s, Serotine, Brandt’s and Bechstein’s).
Shortly after this march, HS2 Rebellion joined with other local groups to try to prevent HS2’s destruction of the Calvert Jubilee Nature Reserve, with several XR activists camping out there to delay the nature reserve being razed to the ground. Unfortunately, this tragic devastation went ahead after XR’s Red Brigade was despatched to perform their solemn mourning ceremony there, as they have done at other sites once the battle to save the trees appeared truly lost.
Sadly, efforts to save the much-loved, 250-year-old, 2015 ‘Tree of the Year’ Cubbington Pear Tree – including an action in which HS2 Rebellion activists turned up to sing to the tree – have thus far failed; even after over 20,000 petition signatures forced it to be addressed in Parliament, it has so far only received a temporary reprieve, and is still due to be felled soon.
Increasingly, and supposedly at the invitation of the HS2 resistance camps, young XR activists had begun to turn up at several of the camps, often remaining within their own cliques while drifting casually between the various camps. While I heard rumours of disputes over funding and leadership in the camps between the older members and the newer arrivals, with some grumbling about XR activists causing rifts by trying to impose XR’s values and culture on the camps (apparently, HS2 Rebellion had been awarded a total of £32,000 to help fund the camps, but had only distributed the funds to those camps that agreed to abide by XR rules), I have been assured these issues have since been resolved.
However, where there was a more harmonious integration between the younger XR campers and the veterans, this has been very effective. Some XR activists have got stuck into the camp life and have valuably contributed fresh skills, enthusiasm and creativity in places such as Jones Hill Wood in Wendover, where they recently helped host a family-friendly ecological discovery day to showcase these beautiful and biodiversity-rich woods, which has helped to increase support for the camp among local residents.
The two-week XR Rebellion in London in September 2020 was massively curtailed by a heavy police presence, who eventually confined most of the protest to a single square in Westminster, supposedly due to the Covid-19 pandemic restrictions. This Rebellion included a one-day march around Euston, where HS2 Rebellion activist Larch Maxey was among others camping in trees on the grounds near the building works until their recent arrest and eviction.
Up until this time, I had only participated in and written press releases about a few local XR actions ahead of the Rebellion, including a few Black Lives Matter protests and an action involving unfurling ecocide-themed XR banners on bridges over the M40, but I did feel motivated to join this particular London-based protest, as well as an ocean-themed event.
Towards the end of XR’s London Rebellion, there was a planned attack on Murdoch’s press empire as rebels mounted artfully erected wooden cranes to blockade the entrance to several printing presses. I had only heard about this after the fact as the action was kept secret to avoid police intervention. Although it only really caused a temporary delay to papers like The Sun reaching its mostly older newspaper-reading fans – so was actually more of a symbolic gesture, given that most people get their news digitally these days – It provoked quite a backlash in the press, with several arrests made in the following days and substantial fines imposed on the activists involved.
Swampy and the Battle of Jones Hill Wood (aka the ‘Battle of the Bean Can’) Shortly after this, the dreaded 1st of October arrived – the day anti-HS2 activists referred to as ‘National Tree Killing Day’ as it signalled the day HS2 would ‘begin’ felling trees at the various threatened sites. Despite being recently antagonised by XR, the UK national media suddenly switched tack and rushed to report on this, with BBC, ITV, Daily Mail and other cameramen and journalists turning up in droves to film at the Jones Hill Wood resistance camps.
Why the UK national media was suddenly so interested after months of unreported clashes between HS2 and the dedicated activists at other resistance camps is hard to say – although clearly they were expecting some sensational action, even if their news coverage of the events in Jones Hill Wood left a lot to be desired. No doubt they were also drawn because of the higher-profile XR activist presence and the fame of these woods’ associations with UK author Roald Dahl, and the boldly courageous dedication of camp protectors such as West Berkshire Green Party Councillor Steve Masters, who had been living in a treehouse in the section of the woods threatened with eviction. However, it seems their presence was most likely inspired by the rumour (subsequently confirmed) that famed 1990s eco warrior Dan Hooper (aka ‘Swampy’) had joined the battle at Jones Hill Woods, and was presently inhabiting a large treehouse atop a 30ft tree, known as the ‘Bean Can’, with his 16-year-old son Rory.
It seems the heavy media presence was most likely inspired by the rumour (subsequently confirmed) that famed 1990s eco warrior Dan Hooper (aka ‘Swampy’) had joined the battle at Jones Hill Wood, and was presently inhabiting a large treehouse atop a 30ft tree known as the ‘Bean Can’
On this day, I went along to join the protest with several other locals who regularly visit and support the camp with food, supplies and dry clothes, etc. As we began making our way across the field towards the camp, we encountered several BBC journalists flying camera drones over the woods – I can’t say why, as none of this aerial footage was reflected in the televised news reports I saw later that evening.
As soon as we were in the woods, it became clear HS2 workers, assisted by 40 of HS2’s hired NET and police officers who were out in force as of 5.30am, were going to become quite nasty and aggressive in their eviction attempts. As they began to erect fences to separate what was supposedly ‘their’ part of the woods, it also became clear they were putting fencing on parts of the wood that still belonged to local farmers, and had not been legally injuncted (or stolen) by HS2.
Because these farmers had given their permission to the camp members and protestors to be there, the protestors were actually within their legal rights to be present, but the HS2 workers were guilty of trespassing illegally on those areas of the woods they did not ‘own’. As has since been proven, the area of woods they fenced off encompasses sizeable chunks of the woods not included on any official maps of their works area, and therefore not belonging to them legally.
However, when I asked them civilly to produce paperwork showing they were within the boundaries of land they supposedly ‘owned’, they did not. Led by a particularly nasty NET thug named Lawrence, a physical struggle began between the NET and police officers as a few of the female protectors gently attempted to resist them and were manhandled aggressively. This was very alarming, as the majority of NET officers were disrespecting Covid distancing rules by crowding into protestors’ physical space.
As had happened to me at a few other HS2 sites on other occasions where I witnessed such out-of-order behaviour, criminal trespass, callous disregard for others’ safety and illegal disruption of peaceful protestors’ democratic rights to protest, my anger flared up. I began shouting at them to get behind their side of the fence, demanding loudly that they produce the paperwork to prove they were within their bounds and stop manhandling female protestors. As most of the other protestors present in this stand-off along the fencing were either quietly recording or observing, rather than displaying any fighting spirit, I felt my shouting was entirely necessary.
I continued shouting at them virtually non-stop for several hours, which at least had the effect of unnerving some of the HS2 goons, one of whom complained I ‘talked too much’ and was being ‘hysterical’. I retorted that he hadn’t seen hysterical yet, but if he wanted to, he would bloody well get it! While I was later ashamed of the language that came out of my mouth in those hours of wrangling with HS2 by their illegally erected fencing, I was not at all ashamed of having shouted to that extent – as I said to several there who expressed their admiration to me for my ‘heroic’ efforts to stand up to them and put them off, ‘What is the point of being a loud, annoying American when you can’t use it where it counts?’
‘What is the point of being a loud, annoying American when you can’t use it where it counts?’
Alas, exercising my vocal cords to that extent severely strained my voice, and it was not long before I effectively lost it. At this point I removed myself from the fray and sat on a log some distance from the battle, which at least allowed me a few moments’ peace to listen to the gorgeous birdsong in the trees, pray quietly and be reminded of the reason for our fight, which was to protect that beautiful wood and all of the lovely creatures that inhabit it, which we had recently observed ample evidence of. (I had camped there recently one night, and as I was too cold to sleep an wide awake, had heard several animals rummaging outside our tent through the night and observed bats flying as dawn broke; I also later saw night-vision recordings of badgers, glis glis [edible dormice] and rare Barbastelle bats, evidence of which is even now being used in further efforts to pause HS2 works).
I tried to alert some of the ITV and BBC cameramen to the locations of several badger setts, which were right below the fencing HS2 had just erected; having seen badger setts deliberately blocked by HS2 on other sites, as well as trees with nesting birds in them callously felled by HS2, I fully expect these will not be properly translocated by any of HS2’s supposed ‘ecologists’.
My woodland reverie was suddenly interrupted by loud shouting from the opposite end of the camp, where HS2’s tree grabbers and cherry pickers were forcibly attempting to remove tree protectors from their vertiginous perches. They had even cut the zip lines for one female, causing her to fall on top of the cherry picker. While this aroused immediate reaction from the protestors and witnesses at the camp who recorded it and later shared it on social media, these villainous actions by HS2 somehow escaped reporting by the BBC journalists present, who seemed too busy being distracted by ‘urgent’ phone calls.
This battle between the tree protectors and the NET raged on for several hours, punctuated by continual shouts and cries from tree protectors who were having their lives threatened by the wilfully violent and aggressive actions of the NET
This battle between the tree protectors and the NET raged on for several hours, punctuated by continual shouts and cries from tree protectors who were not only having their lives threatened by the wilfully violent and aggressive actions of the NET, but whose possessions were callously removed from their treehouses and cast onto the ground in heaps. I was horrified to read that HS2 Ltd had made all sorts of untrue allegations to the press, for example blaming the tree protectors for the piles of rubbish left on the forest floor that they themselves had created, and wildly claiming tree protectors had thrown their faeces at them, which I knew from subsequent visits to Jones Hill Wood and other channels was an outright lie.
Although my weakened vocal cords and painful feet forced me to go home and rest, I continued to monitor news reports and social media communications from the camps regarding Jones Hill Wood as the fierce battle between the protestors and HS2 raged on into the night and over the next several days, with a few tree protectors left dangerously dangling as cherry pickers ruthlessly cut their lines.
Eventually, after several days, the ‘Battle of the Bean Can’ stand-off between the NET and Swampy, along the other activists with him in the Bean Can treehouse – known by their code names Pigeon, Satchel, Scrap, Sky, Biscuit and Peahead – came to an end as they were all forcibly hauled out of the treehouse, arrested and led away in police vans, as the Daily Mail reported on 8 October.
While Swampy and the other evictees have since been charged with trespass and released on bail, other anti-HS2 camps are bravely continuing the fight, even amid further evidence of police brutality and NET aggression used against them. These include breaking a protestor’s jaw even while they were supposedly off-duty and hospitalising a 19-year-old protestor who was savagely cut down from a tree.
‘Extinction is Forever’ – so what about HS2?
Wary of straining my voice or any further antagonistic interactions with aggressive NET and police officers in the wake of these reports, I hesitated about joining the next HS2 Rebellion action held in front of the Denham HS2 works entrances on Friday, 9 October 2020. However, in the end I went with a few from my local XR group; on the whole, it was a peaceful and relatively easy-going protest, with good support from XR and other activists. Even though there were far more police present than was necessary given the peaceful nature of the protest, most of them (especially the Hertfordshire officers, who said they had instructed NET officers to leave) appeared to be relatively sympathetic to our cause.
In a show of great irony, this action was entitled ‘Extinction is Forever’ in allusion to PM Boris Johnson’s speech as he signed a biodiversity pledge along with other UN leaders in a virtual meeting on 27 September 2020. The PM verbally committed to ‘restoring nature to 30%’ by 2030, with a plan to protect an extra 40,000 ha of land. In the PM’s own words, ‘Biodiversity loss is happening today, at a frightening rate… if left unchecked, the consequences will be catastrophic for us all. Extinction is forever – so our actions must be immediate.’
It is hard to imagine how this same man, who gleefully authorised the lawless tree-felling only a few months ago, can sleep peacefully at night after uttering such words. The PM has consistently lied about his real intentions regarding the HS2 project; clearly, his concern about the urgent loss of biodiversity does not extend to all the UK nature reserves and unique biodiversity he has authorised to be destroyed to make way for HS2! One wonders if he wasn’t thinking of this as he mentioned it is ‘happening today at a frightening rate’, as surely this is the case.
Meanwhile, I and my other anti-HS2 activist comrades continue to hope against hope that someone will finally take those non-bat licences seriously, and work on HS2 will be stopped for good. Until then, we have no option but to keep up the fight!
Addendum:I’ve just received the positive news that, thanks to the work of diligent activists recording and recording rare Barbastelle bat activity at Jones Hill Wood, authorities have forced the HS2 works to be paused until 2021, until full bat surveys are completed. Although HS2 can never be trusted, let’s hope they will be paused for good!