Lucy and Todd

Archive for the ‘Stuff We Like’ Category

The Prescient Miss Jane Porter

In Stuff We Like on August 9, 2014 at 10:27 am

Bright was the summer of 1296. The war which had desolated Scotland was then at an end. Ambition seemed satiated; and the vanquished, after having passed under the yoke of their enemy, concluded they might wear their chains in peace. Such were the hopes of those Scottish noblemen who, early in the preceding spring, had signed the bond of submission to a ruthless conqueror, purchasing life at the price of all that makes life estimable – liberty and honour.

(The opening of Jane Porter’s The Scottish Chiefs, 1810)



Farmageddon — Philip Lymbery (& Isabel Oakeshott)

In Stuff We Like on June 16, 2014 at 12:18 pm

I just read this book about factory farming, and highly recommend it. I don’t find it easy to process nonfiction at the best of times, but this book was especially hard to take because it’s so sad. It’s no fun to hear about the stress cows are put through, only to die at half the age they should or Mao’s insistence on the annihilation of sparrows. But this is what’s been going on. Rainforests are stolen from native peoples in order to grow GM soya for cattle. Wildlife is in worldwide decline. The mega pig farms around La Gloria in Mexico, now notorious as the spot where the H1N1 virus began, are a source of widespread poverty and disease. And there are many, many other examples of human indifference, even outright objection, to life on earth.

According to the campaign group Animal Equality, things are even worse than Farmageddon claims. There’s so much cruelty involved even in free-range farming methods (including the grinding up alive of newborn chicks deemed surplus to requirements) they would probably say Lymbery doesn’t go far enough. But his book, linked to a documentary of the same name that he’s produced, forms a good basis for thinking about the whole issue, and much effort has been put into making it readable. Every chapter starts with a personal story, about Lymbery or someone he meets, that eases you into the more abstract political and philosophical questions.

Philip Lymbery is the head of Compassion in World Farming. Despite the horror stories he tells, he doesn’t insist on veganism: he maintains a kindly stance and tries to be fair to the farming industry whenever possible. But he is vehemently opposed to mass production, and does NOT see it as the only economically viable way to feed the world. Quite the reverse. He mildly recommends that for the sake of our own health as well as that of animals and the environment, we should eat meat less often and, when we do, make sure it’s grass-fed (allowed to roam outdoors) and organic (spared growth hormones and pre-emptive antibiotics). We should also stop wasting food, he says: ‘half the food produced worldwide is squandered – binned, left to rot or fed to farm animals’. A quarter of UK food is thrown away; a third in the US.

I’ve long thought over-population was the real impediment to feeding the world, but it’s not just human numbers that are rising alarmingly. The UN predicts the number of livestock will go up from the current 70 billion slaughtered every year to 120 billion by 2050. Most of these deaths now involve unfathomable amounts of pain, distress, injustice and disrespect inflicted on animals. There are profiteers who think they can do whatever they like, to animals, to our air, our land, our water, to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness! These things cannot ultimately be OWNED by anyone – but they have been stolen.

We are never usually told what conditions are really like for animals on farms. Products are labelled ‘farm-fresh’ to reassure us, and city farms painstakingly promote the idea of traditional farming techniques and sentiments. It’s all a lie. More and more of our food originates in mega-prisons. It’s no accident that factory farms resemble concentration camps: that’s exactly what they are. ‘Much of the meat on many supermarket shelves has a dirty secret,’ writes Lymbery. ‘The way it was produced.’ Along with the illusion of contentment and cud-chewing, there is an illusion of cheapness too, promoted by supermarkets, that ignores the human, animal and environmental costs: from super bugs to suicide, poverty, land-grabbing, climate change, pollution, water shortages, starvation, and animal mistreatment (which is ingrained in the industry as if it were an absolute requirement). Those whopper bonus super-duper special-offer chicken deals actually come at a very high price.

The philosophy behind industrial farming was cracked from the start, founded not just on assumptions of human superiority but on the impulses of war. The organophosphates that farmers widely adopted for use on crops were originated by Nazi scientists for use as chemical weapons. ‘After the war, US companies adopted the technology for agricultural use… the scene was set for weapons of destruction to become the means for mass production in farming’, writes Lymbery. Similarly, Rachel Carson pointed out in Silent Spring that the aerial spraying of pesticides all over America in the 50s and 60s was partly inspired by a surplus of bombers from WWII. So poisoning the environment with DDT, killing birds, dogs and cats, and giving everybody cancer, had a pragmatic side: retired pilots needed something to do.

There seems no end to the number of bad ideas people can come up with, or their willingness to despoil the earth. Not surprisingly, these farms, born out of war and defended on grounds of practicality and profit, are making us sick, causing a million mysterious and not so mysterious ailments. And after all the technological ‘advancement’ of farming from a modest activity to one that is monstrous, the nutritional value of factory-farmed meat is really low. According to Lymbery, you would need to eat four factory-farmed chickens to get the nutritional benefits of one 1970s organic chicken. Factory-farmed meat is much fattier than grass-fed free-range meat, because factory animals aren’t allowed to MOVE.

Lymbery describes a horrific pig farm he visited in China, that’s ‘so automated that a single stock man can “take care” of 3,000 pigs [making it] the ultimate factory farm, inhumane and utterly divorced from nature’. To enable these perverse farming practices to work, animals are not only punitively penned but regularly dosed with antibiotics, which are passed on down the food chain. The majority of the world’s antibiotics is now administered to livestock, a situation linked to the rise of MRSA, salmonella outbreaks, bird flu and swine flu (the latter farm-bred diseases are the direct consequences of mass production).

The new interest in cloning animals for meat is a similarly sorry tale and on this Farmageddon is truly frightening, describing the way chickens are bred with the intention that they will be unable to walk. As Lymbery puts it, ‘cloning threatens to multiply animals that are genetically programmed to suffer. It is a way of locking in misery’. They’re now breeding featherless chickens, to save us the bother of plucking. No thought is given to the bird’s quality of life. They are mere units of profit – as we all are, to our sinister betters. Cruelty is first practised on animals, then on humans: a system beloved of psychopaths.

The news on the farming of arable land isn’t good either. Because animals are now entombed in vast barns, their manure no longer fertilises the soil. All the useful dung beetles are gone, and the birds that ate them. The butterflies are gone, and bees have to be flown or trucked in to fields to do their duty. Even bees are now stressed out and overworked! Farms are increasingly devoted to single crops, without rotation, with the soil ‘enriched’ (or rather, killed and controlled) by pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilisers. Much of the soil in California is now like styrofoam, Lymbery reports. In Mexico, France, Holland and elsewhere, huge lagoons of pink slurry pollute the air and the water for miles around pig farms – and regularly overflow – making people ill and generating toxic algae. People and animals have died from inhaling these algae fumes along the coast of Brittany. Which used to be a beautiful place.

Fishing practices have been distorted by greed too. As a result, seabird populations are down by 95%. Off the Peruvian coast, which is now devoted to producing fishmeal (anchovy mush) for fish farms across the globe, they estimate there are only 1.8 million birds – a century ago there were 48 million. There’s nothing left for them to eat! Fish farms are also full of disease and parasites that threaten wild species and, in step with their mammalian counterparts in factory farms, farmed fish are kept in miserably overcrowded conditions. And Scottish farmers shoot the seals that the farms attract.

I would quibble with Lymbery’s phrase, ‘farming as nature intended’. Nature never intended farming, but there are certainly ways of working with nature, not against it. Agriculture, invented by women, was the basis for human civilisation, and it worked for thousands of years without hurting the environment. This symbiotic interaction has been completely abandoned in favor of intensive, destructive usurpation, whereby plants are cultivated in barren soil with the help of poisonous artificial substances, and animals are removed from the land, prematurely weaned, forced to grow at an unnatural rate, locked up, kicked around, and shunted across vast distances for slaughter. Just as in human slavery and sweat shops, a million reasons are offered for the need to abandon all compassion and restraint. Monsanto’s giving us all a good thrashing now.

Fox-hunting and vivisection labs begin to look fairly restrained, compared to the constant flagrant torture inflicted on the animals we eat. I know it’s awful even to mention this stuff, who wants to hear it? But it seems right to acknowledge the matter, because if people don’t realise what goes on, they’ll continue to support this endless cruelty by buying the products.

Farmageddon does a great job of delineating these issues, though it is admittedly long and somewhat prone to repetition, and contains one rather scary dangling participle: ‘Steamed, roasted, barbecued or minced in dim sum dishes, the Chinese are big on pork …’ It is not true, Lymber says, that free-range farming would take up too much space. He suggests that all of Britain’s chickens could enjoy a free-range life in a space a third the size of the Isle of Wight. This sounds like quite a good use for the Isle of Wight – but why not give chickens the whole place, so they can really gambol? They deserve it.


Free copy of Doctors & Nurses – quiz closed June 15

In Stuff We Like, The Gloves Are Off : Thoughts on Literature on June 6, 2014 at 10:44 am

In Lucy Ellmann’s rather outrageous study of medicine post-Harold Shipman, the main character was originally called “Loathe Self”. This later seemed too explicit a cross for her to bear, so she was reduced to the humbler name of “Jen”, Jen with her trademark cargo pants, ravenous appetite, and handbag fetish.

All you need to do to win your free copy of Doctors & Nurses is: guess the novel from which the following quote comes.

Three winners will be picked indiscriminately from a handbag, during a ceremony courteously witnessed by pigeons, sparrows and French marigolds (in honour of the apparent advent of summer). Winners will then be contacted and asked for an address to which to send the book.

(NB Former Atelier quiz winners may not participate, on the grounds of being too smart – apologies.)


The quote:

Drearily I wound my way downstairs: I knew what I had to do, and I did it mechanically. I sought the key of the side-door in the kitchen. I sought too, a phial of oil and a feather; I oiled the key and the lock. I got some water, I got some bread: for perhaps I should have to walk far; and my strength, sorely shaken of late, must not break down. All this I did without one sound. I opened the door, passed out, shut it softly. Dim dawn glimmered in the yard. The great gates were closed and locked; but a wicket in one of them was only latched. Through that I departed…

…  I skirted fields, and hedges, and lanes till after sunrise. I believe it was a lovely summer morning: I know my shoes, which I had put on when I left the house, were soon wet with dew. But I looked neither to rising sun, nor smiling sky, nor wakening nature. He who is taken out to pass through a fair scene to the scaffold, thinks not of the flowers that smile on his road, but of the block and the axe-edge; of the disseverment of bone and vein; of the grave gaping at the end: and I thought of drear flight and homeless wandering–and oh! with agony I thought of what I left.  …  Birds began singing in brake and copse: birds were faithful to their mates; birds were emblems of love. What was I? In the midst of my pain of heart and frantic effort of principle, I abhorred myself. I had no solace from self-approbation; none even from self-respect. … I was hateful in my own eyes.



June 15:

Many thanks to all who participated. The answer was Jane Eyre, which had a big influence on Doctors & Nurses. This scenes sees Jane at her lowest point, beautifully described. She has just lost Rochester, she thinks, for ever. The contrast between the summeriness outside and the abyss inside her head is ferocious.



Five of the Best (plus one more)

In Recent Articles on March 3, 2014 at 5:57 pm

Mimi was inspired by a lot of great feminist books – as was my heroine Mimi herself. One of the books she may have read was, nepotistically, my mother’s sparklingly witty Thinking About Women. But Mimi was probably more influenced by the biologically-oriented The Story of V, in which Catherine Blackledge explains that the penis is an organ geared towards satisfying the female, not the male. Mimi interprets this to mean that our porn-ridden, globally-warmed disaster area of a society has totally misconstrued human sexuality, by thinking of sex mainly in terms of what men want, which is such a bore. Mimi points out to her new love, Harrison Hanafan, as they drink coffee on the roof of his Manhattan penthouse, that in nature it’s female pleasure that really matters. Even female fruit flies insist on orgasms!

Elizabeth Gould Davis’s The First Sex, Penelope Shuttle and Peter Redgrove’s The Wise Wound, Valerie Solanas’s superb (but also meandering and wacko) S.C.U.M. Manifesto, and the embarrassingly named The Great Cosmic Mother, by Monica Sjöö and Barbara Mor, all contributed to Mimi’s understanding of matriarchal prehistory, as did Marija Gimbutas’s absorbing The Language of the Goddess. An archaeologist, Gimbutas examines the female-oriented arts and symbolism that flourished in European ‘goddess’ or mother-worshipping cultures for over a hundred thousand years. Patriarchal tribes upset this tranquility in favour of the type of society which now dominates, fixated on power, property, violence, misogyny, and catastrophic attitudes toward nature. Things went downhill fast after metallurgy was used to make weapons, and horses were tamed. (Poor horses – it wasn’t their fault.)

Without such books to read, Mimi would have had nothing to harangue Harrison about. He’s charmed.

Mimi is now out in paperback (Bloomsbury, £7.99). Join the Odalisque Revolution today!


(A version of this article appeared in the Sunday Telegraph, March 2, 2014)

FREE COPY OF MIMI: quiz closed

In Stuff We Like on February 9, 2014 at 10:14 am

Spring has come, and Mimi (Bloomsbury), by Lucy Ellmann, comes out in paperback on February 14, 2014.

In honour of this occasion, the Fiction Atelier proudly announces that three free copies of the novel will be given out to winners of today’s quiz. (More literary identification quizzes will be posted soon.)

And the question is………………………………

Who wrote the following poem?


It is not growing like a tree

In bulke, doth make man better bee;

Or, standing long an Oake, three hundred yeare,

To fall a logge, at last, dry, bald, and seare:

A Lillie of a Day

Is fairer farre, in May,

Although it fall, and die that night;

It was the Plant, and flowre of light.

In small proportions, we just beauties see:

And in short measures, life may perfect bee.


Answers should be sent by Feb. 14 2014 to:

The names of people offering the correct answer will be chosen from a hat on Valentine’s Day, and published on the blog – unless you prefer anonymity. If you win, you will be contacted by email in order to get an address to which to send your copy of Mimi. Good luck!


Feb. 14


Ben Jonson

(from The Oxford Book of Seventeenth Century Verse, eds. H J C Grierson and G Bullough, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1934. 171-175.)

The poem features in Mimi, in commemoration of Bee.

Thanks to all who took part, and look out for future literary quizzes on!