In praise of the compromised, the partial and the temporary

We who care about the health of the planet, social justice and combatting poverty, live in a time of betrayal and rage. There is no need to rehearse yet again the manifest lunacy of Brexit, Trump and the rising tide of hyper-nationalism in India, but a few reminders wont hurt.

The US, via Trump, has walked away from the Paris accord, while its government scraps with Russia on mining in the Arctic. Violence against women remains an epidemic while a bunch of fundamentalist religionists try to control our reproductive systems, even calling us ‘hosts’ when pregnant. (Yes, the shades of Gilead are inescapable.) Britain plunges into unwonted self-destruction on the back of lies so huge they needed a big red bus to carry them, and its commentators continue to peddle contradictory fantasies and blame anyone but themselves. Meantime, oceans rise, swelling with our own poisonous detritus and the atmosphere approaches thermal runaway.

The savage pessimism of such times is alleviated by some optimistic signals: the American leaders signing their cities and states up to the principles of Paris; Macron and Trudeau’s elections and successes; Wales and Scotland supporting the reproductive rights of the women of Northern Ireland; the rescue of some of the girls of Chibok. Perhaps the most hopeful of all is the rise of indigenous peoples and self-organised communities, and of women – the growth of resistance.

A core feature of the rise of the authoritarian alt-right and some of the left-leaning opposition is an obsession with purity. The fixation on ethnicity and borders, the cult of the hero-leader (note that none of them are heroines), the requirement to toe the line. Many better analysts than me have noted these tendencies in American and UK politics: it is also true in the left attacks on Hillary Clinton, the personality cult of Corbyn, the criticisms of Macron’s labour proposals as if a better alternative had been available.

I am reminded of Ax Preston, the rock and roll hero of Gwyneth Jones quintet Bold as Love. He works to defend the heritage of the Enlightenment, the civil liberties fights of the 20th century, the poorest people mired in despair, and the English environment, from anarchy and rage. Much of the time he fails. His credo is that in protecting the good and working for the better, solutions will and must be, partial, compromised f**ked-up and temporary. Yet those solutions are necessary.

As environmentalists, advocates for the planet, we have different areas of action. Here in Sea Dragon making our #exxpeditionroundbritain, we are centrally concerned with plastic pollution, its pervasive and unmapped effects on our oceans and our bodies. As I write, other crew members are sieving the water trawled from Loch Ness and even here finding eye-visible scraps, in addition to the larger debris we’ve seen here.

Scientists and advocates elsewhere are working on air pollution, climate change, sea level rise, glacial melt, species extinction, deforestation – other parts of the jigsaw of impending change. Richard Heinberg, on postcarbon.org this week, reminds us we must think holistically and globally, even as we act within our local professions and geographies.

We must take our opportunities for the partial and the compromised. At the moment, we’ve been unable to source non-vinyl sources of window stickers for the Plastic Clever campaign run by the wonderful Meek Family. So we have to tolerate this horrible material with its disadvantages if we want cafes to promote their willingness to refill your metal water bottle for free. At the same time, we are challenging product designers to come up with better solutions for the long term.

One way of looking at this is to remember that we fight the battles best suited to our skills, location and histories. In the more privileged parts of the UK we might be supporting refugees, protecting newts, fighting for justice, working in hospitals, reporting the truth, bringing up children. All of them are necessary but very few of us can do them all.

Whether we talk about governments, businesses, researchers or our own private lives, we must find ways to tolerate the compromised and the partial. Maybe you cannot cycle to work every day, but if you made it once a fortnight, you’ve reduced your commuting emissions by a whacking 10%. That’s really worth having. Perhaps you can wait a day or so for your new order and use the mail, not a prime same-day delivery, thus reducing the congestion on your street. You can buy a reusable water bottle and fill it from the tap, and refuse a straw in your G&T. A little is better, much better, than nothing.

(The picture below, courtesy of Deborah Maw shows plastic nurdles picked up in our Firth of Forth trawl on our way in to Edinburgh. Nurdles are plastic pellets pre-formation into usable items.)

Nurdles collected by Sea Dragon 24 August 2017

 

Footnotethis short essay was originally written as an update from an eXXpedition crew member and posted on their site as such.  Some of their followers found it a bit rich so, as a Community Interest Company, eXXpedition decided to remove it. That is their choice. I stand by what I have said, and the importance of linking together the manifold different struggles concerning the health of the planet, our societies and our bodies. 

 

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Bridges down for #exxpeditionroundbritain

Sea Dragon has finished her traverse of the Caledonian Canal. It was (as expected) spectacularly beautiful, with the mountains reaching up around us. The route illustrates the profound language of landscape: the landskein of sillouhetted mountains, the ffird of mosaiced habitats on the edge of high upland, the scree, heather and high paths surrounding the lochs. The water itself is dark and mysterious, silk torn by our passage into smooth ruffles which might indeed hide some unseen monsters.

There are monsters in there of course: some seen and others awaiting the microscopic examination. We used the manta trawl twice yesterday: the second had visible plastic in and the first almost certainly contained smaller particles. Bottles bob at the entrances to the lochs, and many litter the crowded locks which just have room for Sea Dragon. The monster is our waste, our disregard and laziness. We ourselves are not the monsters, but some of our behaviour is monstrous.

We came into Muirtown yesterday afternoon to learn that the swing bridge at the bottom of the next five locks is bust. Its brakes are broken. I have no idea what that means but it doesn’t sound good. We had a peaceful night here and several of us found a nice bar 20 minutes walk away in Inverness. (More whisky!) It was a pleasure to stretch our legs and along the way we collected street litter to help our events in Edinburgh and make Inverness (even) cleaner.

This morning we planned to be away at 0840. Sadly, the bridge is still bust. So we are sitting here having an unaccustomed hour of relaxation. Some are science get: Deborah is teaching Jessica to put on the air pollution monitor, Cat and I are blogging, our co-mission leaders are catching up and some of us have rushed to the distant shower for a scrub up.  Given the ongoing intensity of this trip it is a welcome break.

Diane, our redoubtable skipper is less happy of course, because she needs to recalculate all our tidal gates and rethink the weather routing. We are on the edge of the high currently enjoyed by the east coast, and ahead of the low squeezing in from the Atlantic. At the moment we are (again) anticipating headwinds around the major headland on this passage – which is Cape Rattray, famous from the inshore weather forecasts. At the same time, Edinburgh is not Cardiff: it has no sills, shallows, tidal gates and locks to trap us in the wrong place.  

If you want to follow us, don’t forget to go to http://tracking.redportglobal.com/Track to find where Sea Dragon has got to. The shot shows our track through the Canal.

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Hunting for plastic with #exxpeditionroundbritain

We have four missions on Sea Dragon: raising awareness about pollution, empowering women, creating strong networks and champions for environmental advocacy – and of course collecting data about plastic in our waters.

There are several research institutes and universities for whom we are sampling, mostly in America and Europe; eXXpedition is well networked with ocean scientists trying to piece together the jigsaw of what is going on out there. And of course it is a changing and evolving situation. Many people have now heard of the Pacific Garbage Patch, but that’s really a bit of a misleading image. Yes, there are places where ocean plastic gathers. There are five gyres in the world’s oceans, areas where currents swirl in ways which allow stuff to gather – materials such as weed, plankton, timber and – of course – plastic. But when you go and look at them, there’s less big, visible chunks of plastic than you’d expect.

This discovery led to the work of trawling for smaller pieces. Plastic – a range of complex compounds – does not decompose in that it does not break down into its chemical components. On the contrary it breaks up, retaining its molecular integrity but in smaller and smaller bits. Right down to fragments smaller than plankton, mixed in with the plankton at such a scale that even under a microscope it is hard to see. Of course, the fish can’t tell the difference, which is a key way the stuff enters the food chain. That’s our human food chain, by the way. 

This non-disintegration also means that plastic bits can travel all over the world, and indeed up and down the water column, at different depths. A plastic soup is now spreading across our oceans. But we do not know much about how thick it is, where is strongest or how tides and currents affect its dispersion. Our mission is helping to fill in a few of the gaps.
So on this mission, we are looking for plastic pollutants at different scales. We record larger bits using an app called the Marine Debris Tracker which collects data from all over and which we can use to say whether it is a bottle cap, or a toothbrush or whatever. We also put out trawls which capture materials down to 1/3 of a millimetre in diameter. That’s pretty small. Those samples get bottled up and labelled and sent off to various places, along with tests of salinity, ph and turbidity (light in the water). On the metal frame over the aft hatch sits our air pollution monitor, measuring particulates along our route. Our bodies also carry pollutants and betray our exposure. We’ve all provided hair samples for testing for mercury which will be fascinating,

Not all our tests can happen every day.  The manta trawl needs the sea to be flat enough to get the spinnaker pole rigged at 90degrees for the mast and then the trawl to ride alongside the boat, skimming off the top 10cm or so of water into its trailing net. It spend half an hour out there while we poodle along at 2 knots and then we bring it all in again. In contrast the phytoplankton trawl, a little torpedo that trails off our stern is much easier to put out and retrieve, and we can travel at 6kts while it is in the water.  But that doesn’t go out in the sort of weather we’ve seen at sea since Our trawl just outside Belfast harbour.

But whenever we can, we put the trawls out. This morning, in Loch Lochy, were perfect flat conditions monitoring for plastic in the stunning waters and hills of the Great Glen. 

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#exxpeditionroundbritain does Force 8

We pulled away from the quay in Belfast prompt at 0800 yesterday, Wednesday, on a quiet, still morning. Out on the Lough the clouds capped the green, green hills and the wind was ruffling the surface. Out of the channel we put the manta trawl over and for half an hour it was calm enough to seize up seaweed, crustaceans and whatever else we find when we can analyse it.

It wasn’t going to happen at the time. As we hauled it in, the forecast wind began to blow and soon was grey closed in and the rain began. The mainsail was set with two reefs, our course laid north east for one long board to Arran and off we went.

It was a hell of a sleigh ride. The wind blew a sustained 40 knots with gusts up to 46 knots while 2m waves surged and rolled and hissed beneath us. We enjoyed a good consistent southerly, giving us a broad reach with a strong preventer on the boom. The wheel was a living connection to gale and sea. It quivered and pulled, sometimes helping Sea Dragon find her course, at others pulling her away to Scotland or off to the outer Hebrides.  Over the whole trip we averaged over 10 knots.
We stormed past the unmistakeable sugar load of Ailsa Craig to draw level with Holy Island, the small Buddhist islet protecting the bay at LamLash. Driving into the wind, we wrestled down the main sail, which needed both Cat and Holly’s weight to drag down the last few hanks. Hauling in the reeling lines, I leant forward just in time to get a faceful of cold sea water. That’s the dollop which meant my bra was wet when I finally got below.

Before then we came round into the beautiful bay and dropped anchor. We stayed in board all evening, reliving the highlights of leg 1 and laughing a lot; the night was calm and quiet, and my anchor watch at 0400 saw the sun rise slowly over the hills in hazy pink and gold. 

The pix are Sea Dragon at anchor off the beach and a big panorama of the whole gorgeous bay.

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Cardiff Bay to Belfast Lough 

We are entering Belfast Lough. It’s been a mixture of weather over the last two days. Once we left the sandy shallows of Cardiff – six hours late thanks to the eel – the weather has blown up to a F5, right on the nose. The sea was a yucky brown colour and ruffled into steep, irritable waves. We got the main up (with two reefs) and the staysail and slowly beat our way westwards. 

The sea stayed rough for while. I was on galley duty for the day. Lunch had been pretty easy, sitting at anchor. My biggest problem had been lack of access to the fridge, as the crew had tools all over it while they fixed the engine. No cheese! The evening was a bit harder and after directing operations and Sue womanfully delivering, I retired.

At 0400 I got up, only for the skipper to remind me that as chef I was excused the night watch. But it was a beautiful night with shooting stars, moonshine, dolphins and a smooth sea. (Too smooth really: much motor sailing.) It was delightful so I stayed up. I love being at sea during a night watch.

Yesterday, Sunday, was very busy on Sea Dragon. We finally got the manta trawl in the water, a tool designed to capture different grades of material in the water for analysis. It was exciting as up to now the weather has been too poor to get it in. And when we were finally ready, spinnaker pole rigged up and all set, a curious seal popped up to examine our antics. After she had gone away, we waited the prescribed 20 minutes; fortunately she did not come back till later. We hauled it in and immediately found we had caught a compass jellyfish who was duly measured and returned to the sea.

We also trawled for phytoplankton, observed gannets, dolphins and other wildlife, and even saw some plastic. Oilskins disappeared to be replaced with shorts and suncream. A good day all round, and with no signal so we could not report to anyone on our progress.

In fact we were doing well. The flat seas allowed us to ride the tide up north, past Milford Haven and St David’s, Cardigan Bay and Anglesey. All the time we were in Welsh waters and latitude, it did not rain even when windy. 

By the turn of last night though, things were changing., I was on watch 2000-0000. By then it was getting pretty windy, at 25-30 knots. It kept coming from the south, so although the waves were building, it was a comfortable, if rolly ride. Unlike Lands End, there was no vomit. Our watch jibed in quite big seas. The whole operation took an hour. I spent it all on the helm and by the time we were done my arms and shoulders were sore with keeping us on a safe course as other crew slowly winched and eased sheets, preventer guys and the back runners. Yes it was complicated.

Today has stayed rolly and intermittently wet. Just now, in the shelter of the Lough, we are managing some science. As I type, we are approaching fairway bout number 5, so I want to go up on deck and see our arrival.  I’ve never been to Belfast before.

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http://tracking.redportglobal.com/TrackSuper busy kick-off for #exxpeditionroundbritain

I took the train to Plymouth on Sunday, and had a great conversation with a new friend on the way.  The space between Totnes and Plymouth feels like the last moment of calm. I can’t wait for a night watch!

On Sunday night four of us converged in a great AirBnB in Plymouth and promptly went to the pub. First thing Monday we converged on Sea Dragon sitting on the dock at Sutton Harbour. Whirlwind briefings, frantic unpacking and introductions took an hour or so before an excellent lunch prepared by mate Holly. More briefings and introductions followed before our first casting off!  We motored about 100 yards to another pontoon outside Plymouth University’s marine headquarters where we *launched* #exxpeditionroundbritain properly.  Many thanks to the microplastics team there who have been great champions of our work.

We returned to our own pontoon and straggled to bed. I was exhausted. This morning has been spent on a beach clean and boat tours. (Though I’ve spent the morning doing some work – that’s #freelancelife for you.) And now we are settling down to a full scale boat and safety briefing.  We’re due to leave at 1830 to 1900. 

Sky news will have a drone up for our departure so look out for us. The press coverage has been astonishing: it’s great people are so interested and I hope inspired to reduce their reliance on plastic.
(When I’ve persuaded my iPad to show me a photo I took on my phone – there will be pictures.)

This time tomorrow we will be in the Bristol Channel, due to arrive at the Barrage in Cardiff at 0800 GMT (that’s 0900 BST) on Thursday morning. See you there.

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Getting ready (at last)

On Sunday (this Sunday – eek) I am leaving my beloved flat in Penarth to head to Plymouth and once more step afloat. This is rather different from last year’s adventure (see that site here), not least because we are not planning on leaving the UK.  You can see more about this voyage at my intro page on this site, and on the mission site too. There’s even my FB page about it at plastic, the sea and me.

Another big difference is that I have been super-busy right up to the last minute on the day job, so preparing a blog and so on has been a slower business. But I’m looking forward to writing about it, posting pictures and talking about the importance of tackling pollution.

You probably know lots about the horrors of plastic already and you’re going to learn more in the coming weeks. So here’s one thought to start with.  That plastic bottle will last 450 years.

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Flight between capitals

A criss-cross copse, paths meeting at some clearing in the trees, is clear as day from seat 18A. Down there the wood is a maze, a mysterious place where unseen arrows may fly, or a deer appear, hoof raised as it scents the air.

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The Home Counties of England sprawl in fields of autumn gold and chestnut, some dark-brown turned-earth and patches of pale-washed grazing green or the seedling flush of winter crops. Their curving, erratic boundaries were laid down by centuries of strip-farming, irrigation or plague, Enclosure and the machine-demands of agri-business. The hedgerow-decimation has not made them tidily square, though right-angles at the edges of woods, ruler roads and arrow-straight railways, shout out beneath the shifting cloud shadows.

Hamlets cluster on the flatlands, placed at seeming random; the niceties of fordable streams, convenient look-outs or other magnets for settlement invisible from the air. Village positions are hallowed by time, proud of their Domesday legacy, jealous of Tudor mansions, reliving the tides of civil war or Napoleonic defense. Iron Age forts, meanwhile, are shrouded in long grass on forgotten tumuli. Sacred wells are mere springs beneath a boggy corner. History acknowledges the Romans, remembers the Saxons and got going with the Normans. Conquest; assimilation and now urgent defense against imaginary enemies trump realities of escapees from  contemporary invasions.

The Dartford Crossing is a toy with spikes as a container ship inches up-river, the water muddy and opaque. Tilbury is left behind as our wings tilt again, turning back towards the reaching roads and crescents, passing the armadillo hats of the Thames Barrier. The dense City reaches up at our undercarriage while docks and roads alike glitter in September sun. Churches sit in their green graveyards and trees flourish in municipal heartlands and wealthy enclaves. Our shadow crosses the roof of Excel before we swoop, low and loud, over Galleon’s Reach.

We have arrived in that fifth country of the Union. London.

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Stand your ground: on having opinions

My pal Chris is a good man. He’s moral, thoughtful, concerned, rational. And he is sounding a bit desperate about the impossibility of ‘having a well-founded opinion on most things’. He says that when he strips his opinions to the bare metal, he finds elements of fear and clannish news and prejudice and guess/gut operating, as well as stronger planks of argument and some ‘facts’ The quotation marks are his.

This dismaying realisation, alongside time-starvation, leads him to wonder about the impossibility of having opinions. But of course that leaves the field clear for Mensch and Hopkins, let alone senior politicians who don’t seem to have noticed that the Eire/NI border is a land frontier for the UK.

What to do about this? Let’s start with the experts, so chillingly dismissed by Gove. This week (during one my endless train journeys) I talked to a 41 year-old  woman who has had a hip operation, her original ambition to avoid surgery overtaken by the unanimous voices of her medical team. Looking supremely chic on her crutches (my opinion), she said ‘I listened to the experts. That’s what they’re there for.’  As for me, her opinions are in part (a large part) based on sources she considered authoritative.

What makes for authority?  Prof Brian Cox is an expert on a a number of subjects including advancing the public understanding of science. That makes his view relevant in how to think about difficult, complex topics which require substantial study. He  said (in a Guardian interview on  2 July ‘The way we got out of the caves and into modern civilisation is through the process of understanding and thinking. Those things were not done by gut instinct. Being an expert does not mean that you are someone with a vested interest in something; it means you spend your life studying something. You’re not necessarily right – but you’re more likely to be right than someone who’s not spent their life studying it.’

This  distinction between studying and vested interest is fundamental and clearly profoundly confused in the current public ‘debate’ ion both the UK and US. Behind his words lie the importance of the scientific method, the development, falsification and re-development of hypotheses based on rigorous and repeatable experimental data. Of course, exploring the surface of Pluto doesn’t involve the unacceptable ethical cost (or sheer impossibility) of testing social theorems but that does not invalidate the findings of social science, psychology or even economics. It means we need to understand better the restrictions on the testing, we need to achieve a basic literacy in the scientific method.

So, yes, I base some of my opinions on people I judge to be experts in the relevant field. I wouldn’t ask Clive James his opinion on climate science but his views on poetry have my respect.

Then those pesky ‘facts’. Chris seems to doubt there are such things, in a rather more everyday and urgent fashion than Bishop Berkeley or Wittgenstein. There are facts out there. Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty explicitly requires the Council of Ministers to act unanimously in agreeing the accession of a new member state. That hasn’t changed. Of course, one day it might change but it is vanishingly unlikely – but today, mid-2016, that is a fact. The last 70 years have seen one of the longest periods of peace across the continent of Europe ever known. We might well argue about the reasons for that, and there are many I’m sure (not just NATO, not just Mutually Assured Destruction or solely the EU, but all of them contributed) but that long summer in which I have lived is, if not unprecedented, extremely unusual.

We can check those facts. Go and look up the Lisbon Treaty, ask an expert, conduct our own experiments in the kitchen if you wish. But (in my non-philosopher mode) I will stick up for facts and their importance when we are being fed such a shed-load of lies.

And, of course, we can see what people we respect think about something. We cannot fact check everything, take the time to read the Labour Party Constitution or understand the way traffic flows work in your local road bottleneck. We cannot find the trustworthy expert every time: there may not even be one. So we can see who we respect and understand their opinion. Treated with care that’s a perfectly valid approach it seems to me.

I tend to use some bellwether issues in considering some of my choices. For me, continued opposition to the UK’s departure from the European Union is fundamental. Oppostion to Trident is pretty important too, and for some people the single most important thing. (I’d like to be absolutely certain it would not cost us the permanent seat on the UN Security Council, by the way.) Such an approach can be helpful in assessing a complicated mixture of ideas, right now epitomised in the Labour Party leadership debate.

It has two traps, though. Just because I agree with you on most things doesn’t necessarily mean we concur on everything. We might diverge on Trident, or the best way to lose weight or how to encourage your child to love maths. Or the other side of the coin – by talking only to people we agree with, we operate in a bubble which doesn’t enable us to learn or understand other points of view. I am sure I am guilty of that, and I cannot simply blame the algorithms of FB or Twitter. I too have to get out more.

Despite those traps, though, understanding something about people’s value’s is central. If I know you to be moral, thoughtful, concerned, rational, if I think you too believe in evidence and enlightenment, in compassion and uncommon sense, I will give your opinions and insights more weight in forming my own. Of course, many people we might disagree with passionately consider themselves to be moral, rational and right.

We need too, to understand our own biases, the limits of our experience and perception, and the uncomfortable truth that individual anecdote does not equal a valid hypothesis. I am certainly on the upside of the long destruction of communities that started with the miners’  strike; for instance I have a degree along with other privileges of race and class. There are many experiences I have been fortunate enough to be spared – for example, I have not been raped or had an abortion and I have not had to endure poverty for long at a time. In thinking about my gut-instinct, what stands to reason or I take as common sense, all those biases are part of the evidence, need to feed into my evaluation of my opinion. Do I believe this commentator rather than that, privilege one experience over another (which may be a reverse snobbery of course). Again, understanding the prior limitations of the evidence and one’s analysis are part of basic literacy in the scientific method.

Not having an opinion is often to take a position. Doing nothing, saying nothing, is also an intervention. The exhortations to speak out in the face of evil can feel overblown sometimes, but nonetheless supporting  rational, adult conversations about the mess we are in has seldom been more important. So for those of us who do care, who worry about the handbasket in which we are careering towards the flames, we want to have opinions, for them to be well-founded and defensible. Leaving the field to the anti-rationalists, the can’t-be-arsed and the haters is not acceptable.

All the same though – it’s not essential to have an opinion on everything. (Memo to self: remember this point.). We  can’t all be on the barricades and writing the undying literature of protest or the poems defining a nation, while  toiling in  the trenches limiting the worst of the damage as best we can and  raising the heroes of the future.

We do what we can, those things to which are best shaped, where our dreams and lives take us. We pick those battles where we uniquely may make a difference. Sometimes it is ok not to have a view, but some of the time, on something we must stand our ground.

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Stepping up, not moving on: #artistsforeurope

 

The boundary between cultural and political leadership has always been vexed and unclear. Right now, it’s pretty meaningless as Westminster descends into unmannered chaos and no-one (except Nicola) has a plan. On the streets xenophobia is becoming commonplace and our workplaces, schools and pubs, even our family dinner-tables, are fraught. No-one knows how this is going to end, but it’s not looking good for that central, enigmatic character ‘the country’.  It’s time for the artists – writers and photographers, film-makers and dancers, all of us – to step up. 

Let us make #artistsforeurope, a movement to weave us into patterns that sustain us, to draw us together and consciously create the future. That is, after all, what we do.

18 days in

Two weeks on and the absurd nightmare just seems to get worse, the list of political humiliations getting longer by the hour. The urgent question is what should the 48% do next? And of course I’m interested in my roles, as a writer, a networker, an activist, as something of a governance nerd. A stereotype of the middle-class remainer who could not believe that the sky would fall on her bubble of conformity and convenience.

How can I simply move on, as the comments threads urge? The tone of sneery bias and belittling nastiness sticks in my throat, as if this was the end of an adolescent fling or a lost football match. I am a UK baby, with Welsh, Scottish, English and Jewish blood. I was born and brought up in Kent and now I live just outside Caerdydd. I’ve always been a proud European: I was too young to vote in 1975 but campaigned for a yes vote, to the surprise of my family who were secretive about such matters.

Rather than cowering behind the sofa, watching the unfolding drama through spread fingers like a ten-year old in Doctor Who, we need to find other ways to come together and change the ending. Waiting for the nice woman to settle herself in the armchair and ask if we are sitting comfortably is not going to work.

Who are our leaders now?

We all want our political leadership to sort itself out, for the adults to take back the nursery. To me, though, the leadership battles are a bit of a sideshow, a distraction from the grim reality. The ongoing quest of the Labour party to eat its own backside, the  Queen of the Cage tory fight and the Green’s efforts at collectivism are all taking up precious time, while the world watches and Brussels (understandably) fumes. Of course, focusing on the Eaglet and women-in-suits rather suits the chatterati, who can go on sitting on sofas stoking up enmity rather than getting out a bit.

I want to see leaders who will build alliances, represent all of us (including the half who voted to remain), seek to rebuild the tattered economy, community and countries in which we live. I’m not seeing many of those fluttering around Westminster at the moment, though there are stronger signs in Belfast, Edinburgh and Cardiff. (As I prepared this Andrea Leadsom stood down: although we have been forced to accept Theresa May as preferable, she is hardly a unifying leader.) I want to understand what May, Letwin and the rest of the as yet un-named team will do to include me, to represent the 48%, when they talk to Brussels.

So far, though, I’m waiting in vain.

The practicalities

I have not given up on the marriage yet. I do not believe that Brexit has to happen. Whether or not it does, there is work to be done, detailed practical work, over the next few months.

We have seen many petitions and the legal battleground is taking shape. Philosophers and  lawyer-historians are pointing to the real constitutional and legal hurdles to implementing the will of the 52%. We will even struggle to negotiate: about 40 years ago we decided to share the work of negotiating trade deals (as so many lower levels of government are urged to share services) and we haven’t kept sufficient resource in-house to deliver the tasks ahead.

Some interest groups are already pulling together. The Arts Councils of England and Wales, like Scientists for the EU, and I am sure many others have asked for evidence of impact. We already know about funding pulled or deferred, travel risks affecting teams and companies, and overall uncertainty. Archant Group did an impressive job of producing the pop-up New European so fast: I wonder if we could do such a thing specifically for Wales?

The practical work must be done. We need to know what’s going on, whether it’s the Tata talks hitting Port Talbot, or Seimens nervousness costing Hull new investment. (Both areas voted over 58% to leave, by the way.) We need the information which helps the negotiating teams at all levels to seek the best outcomes for the UK as a whole and for its constituent nations. We desperately need those negotiations to contain some facts that our UK leadership can understand and use for good, so that they are not conducted with faragist brutality, but rather in the spirit of the man in seat 123.

But it is not enough. Where are the bigger visions, the weaving together that might bring us all to a better place?

Planning taking shape

Whether Brexit happens or not, we are not returning to the dewy-eyed comfort of three weeks ago. The volcano has erupted, with plenty more lava still to spew. The landscape has changed, not just for us but across Europe and beyond. Which future are we living in? Who owns it?

There are political leaders urging thought. Vince Cable’s article last week was at least the beginning of a manifesto. He talks about fighting recession and developing a tough industrial strategy, about immigration and local power. All good stuff. I’m glad someone is trying to set out the glimmerings of a plan. Corbyn, too, has at last started to spell out the importance of building alliances across parties and movements. Some people’s movements are emerging around these arguments, moving beyond the party-based stalemates.

Cable also  talked about inequality. No less a neo-capitalist than Christine Lagarde has been banging the drum about the impact of inequality within countries for some time; her speech last June spells out the issues the IMF sees but which the UK government seemed happy to ignore in the name of austerity and rolling back the welfare state. This week, I listened to an artist talking about people in Blackburn who won’t go to Preston to shop, for whom Paris is a different world, who might see the fancy baubles on the screen but have no reason to believe that such opportunities will come to them any time soon. Inequality led to the referendum outcome.

Any substantive plan for the future must address that inequality, should look at jobs in the Valleys and coalfields, build education and pathways to real employment, improve our care and health system and encourage investors from all over the world into our poorest areas. I’m not holding my breath, though, for the overwhelming narrative remains metropolitan and backward-looking, focused on short-term fights rather than long-term gains. Even the eruption has not changed the paradigm.

Changing the ending

That curious entity, the United Kingdom, may not survive. The bigger project, the EU, may fail too. Whatever the institutional projects we believe in, these islands will stay anchored in the North Atlantic mud. We have roiled in founding myths of Arthur and Agincourt, of Windrush and Kipling, the stories of border wars and the soil of northern France. Opposition in Europe and aggrandisement beyond has become our definition, our excuse and now our failure. We need to change the ending.

We – the story tellers and dreamers, the weavers and painters, the designers, singers, musicians, the curators, producers and poets – are the creative myth-makers. My friend Marcus Romer says the future story of this country is in all of our hands.’ Like him, I have spent a lot of time with artists in the last fortnight, and I share the imperative to listen, to reflect and to rebuild.

We need not only a plan but a story, or rather, many, many stories. We need to reimagine who we are who we will become. In Gwynedd or Glamorgan, Caithness or London/Derry, in Cornwall, Lincolnshire or Sunderland, from Liverpool to London, who are we and where are we going?

#artistsforeurope

I would like to find a way to create an Artists for Europe, a movement coming from the well-springs of creative practice. We need both the work we are already making, and the new material that we are driven to make now.  We need to be both hyper-local and focused, while looking outward across the UK and the continent. I’d love to see us all, in our creative work, in our political practice and in our institutional strategies, find ways to re-weave, re-dream, reimagine what it means to be here, on these islands, in the twenty-second century rather than the nineteenth. I’m not moving on, but I am stepping up.

If you are interested in this nascent idea, then share and like this. Use the hashtag. I can be reached on info@artistsforeurope.org. (There is no website yet: so far this is only me.) I am curious to know what happens next.

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