Reading a recent review of Claire-Louise Bennett’s, Checkout 19, by Clair Wills (London Review of Books, 12 August 2021) gave energy to what is likely to be my last blog. According to Wills, Bennett’s character realises that she doesn’t have to be drawn into plots written by others; that we can leave the book unopened. To open the book is to be drawn into the hope that others promise us; we might be challenged to do something that leads us away from ourselves, from our own hopes. Better not, she suggests, open the book but imagine what the cover promises us.
The review reminded me of my own despair, which is why this might be my last airing on a blog which seems to be about voicing fury that is really meaningless to anyone other than myself. The despair comes out of the loss of hope and optimism that was authored by the advent of the pandemic. Like so many I had hoped this would wake us up to the need for change: to take action to preserve our environment, to reduce polluting emissions, to reach out to those less fortunate countries and nations and help them manage the pandemic and obtain sufficient vaccines to protect themselves, and to reduce the disparity between rich and poor. It was a metaphorical book cover that looked enticing and promising. Like the book that sits under the cash register at Checkout 19 where Bennett’s protagonist works, I think it was best left unopened.
Afghanistan has been abandoned. Nothing appears to have been achieved in the last 20 years other than the dashing of hope. The Middle East is a mess and vast tracts of South East Asia and Africa have insufficient assistance to manage whichever mutation of the Corona virus is wreaking havoc. Governments promise action on mitigating climate change but it is all just noise. I think I understand the protests of the far-right and anti-vaxxers, meaningless and self-defeating as they are. They are shouting out their hapless fury.
Much of the current sound coming from leaders and governments points to potential war. Diplomacy, it seems, is so last century! How this helps us survive climate change, heaven only knows. But hold on, it is not about saving anyone or anything. Money is to be made as arms dealers become more powerful and immoral. These are the people who have the ear and support of governments. You only need to look towards Yemen to see how it plays out. Has anyone costed the impact of war on the environment? Silly me, it is not about the environment, stupid. Voices raised in protest are lost, a rumble of sound, barely noticed.
In his overview of Angela Merkel’s time in office, Jan-Werner Müller discusses in The Guardian Weekly, 1st October, her achievements along with her failures. Merkel is widely regarded as competent, principled, and pragmatic. However, despite hot air about human rights and climate change, actions were limited and human rights were not written into the EU-China investment pact and little was really done on climate change. She is admired as an uncorrupted politician. Müller asks whether “this self-restraint (which) becomes a matter of moral merit (shows) how little we expect from leaders today”.
So, what had I hoped for last year? Greater equality across gender and wealth: women, the disadvantaged and poor nations have lost equity and are worse off. More compassionate policies: they were enacted briefly but as the pandemic has continued, the policies have been clawed back, diluted amid political squabbles. The realisation that we need to be more conscious of the fragility of our environment in order to protect species and biodiversity: the fossil fuel, mining and forestry industries are forging ahead and forests are being destroyed at a greater rate than ever; environmentalists and journalists who report on these matters are being assassinated. The Artic ice is crashing into the sea resulting in changed currents and disturbance to weather patterns. The hot air and political machinations to avoid active policy in the forthcoming Cop26 in Glasgow will be watched with despair. Even the British Queen sounds exasperated.
The book that I thought I had bought with such eager anticipation at the beginning of the pandemic is a book that I wish I had not opened. When I saw the cover, I thought it would tell a different story. I wish I had left it unread and that I could return it to where it came from. But I can’t. It comes in so many forms: a newspaper or journal article, a radio interview, a passing conversation. I want to stop up my ears and close my eyes. I want to put the book on my bedside table and ponder the cover, imagining the hope within. I want to live in that hope and not in this atmosphere of sound and fury that signifies so little.