Though not widely covered elsewhere, The Guardian newspaper recently reported the news that George Monbiot, the journalist and commentator – on ecological matters as well as much else – has won this year’s Orwell prize for journalism.
For many years, George Monbiot has been an indefatigable champion of what an increasing number of people across the globe are coming to recognise as “the most important, and most neglected crisis facing humanity.” That is, of course, the issue of global warming and its effects on all forms of life on earth.
The Guardian reports that, in a fitting tribute to Monbiot’s work, one of the judges for the award said, “In the finest traditions of George Orwell’s journalism, George Monbiot draws on a vast reserve of knowledge to write with wit, elegance, forensic insight, and sustained and justified anger on this crisis.”
So, at a time when the UK is experiencing a summer of unprecedented hot weather and high temperatures, due, in the opinion of many, to climate change brought about by the consequences of human activity, huge congratulations to George Monbiot on his Orwell prize for journalism.
Long may his efforts, and those of like-minded commentators and activists, continue.
This was also the week that saw me reading Richard Flanagan’s book The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Flanagan is an Australian writer, and his novel won the Man Booker literary prize in 2014. Flanagan is from Sydney and joins a distinguished list of Australian novelists, including Peter Carey and Thomas Keneally, to have won this coveted award.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North is broadly based on the experiences of Richard Flanagan’s father as a POW working on the so-called “death railway” – the line that ran from Burma to Thailand – during WW2. The unspeakable horrors of this Japanese construction project are well known to many Australians through experience, literature, and legend.
Reviews of the book suggest that the novel is not simply one of unremitting horror, suffering and inescapable death, for, as one reviewer put it: “Acts of terrifying violence and appalling humiliation are suddenly illumined by slivers of hope – expressed by the naked, skeletal prisoners in acts of unexpected generosity (the sharing of a rice ball or a joke) – and a central love story.”
The story of the novel is not without love and hope. Flanagan says that he had to find “a story from hope, and love is the greatest expression of hope. Love is the discovery of eternity in a moment that dies immediately.” He quotes the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in saying: “Hope is the cruellest of torments because it prolongs human suffering, but it is also the engine of us. Without it we die.”
The love element is provided by a tale that Flanagan heard about a Latvian man who scoured the earth in search of his wife at the end of the war. Moving to Tasmania, Australia’s southern-most state, the Latvian later caught sight of the woman in Sydney, a child holding each of her hands. This was a moment of decision. Gripping stuff!
Richard Flanagan is not, however, without a keen social and political consciousness. Following some remarks of Tony Abbott, a recent Australian Prime Minister, about coal being “good for humanity”, Flanagan is recorded as saying that he was “ashamed of being Australian”. So too, in one of the BBC’s Newsnight programmes, Flanagan spoke of his dismay at the repeal of the peace deal struck between logging companies and ecological activists in Tasmania. Clearly, Flanagan’s opposition is to policies, not to people.
In the past Flanagan has spoken eloquently about “the bankruptcy of political rhetoric in Australia” – the false myths; the conformity of political culture; the cynicism of political groupthink; and, with echoes of Richard Wagner, the twilight of the political gods. Again, “We are living in a new period where the old forms don’t hold – a new form hasn’t yet been invented.”
A quote from one reviewer of The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Charlotte Higgins, seems to encapsulate the ideas behind both the prize-winning book and Richard Flanagan’s philosophy of life: “I get more optimistic as I get older. If you choose to take your compass from power, in the end you find only despair. But if you look around the world you can see and touch – the everyday world that is too easily dismissed as everyday – you see largeness, generosity, hope, change for the better. It’s always small but it’s real.”
And, in an analogy that could only come from a typical, down-to-earth Australian, Flanagan said: “We need politics like we need a good sewerage system – it should be run properly and efficiently. But over the last century we have made a fetish of politics and we believe too much in it; we invest too much of ourselves in it and we don’t recognise the wonder in ourselves.”
Not only is Richard Flanagan a prize-winning novelist; he could be considered a modern philosopher. His novel provides a sliver of hope, as does the work of Orwell prize winning writer, George Monbiot, in a world where new forms of living are urgently required.