Pineapple Juice 2: Out of the world’s heat
Fields, royals, Scholls, millennials, Oscars, vegetables and culture wars
I have to apologise for the late running of this service: the author of The Pineapple has been detained by the necessity of writing things for money elsewhere. More on that later. But this instalment begins in Liverpool, where the local council is collaborating with the organisation Fields in Trust to give legal protection to the city’s parks. Basically, even if a future council wants to sell them off for development, they can’t.
Fields in Trust do this work in a lot of places, ensuring that future city-dwellers can rest their eyes and stretch their limbs in their local green spaces. Why bother, one might ask. Well, the experience of the last 40 years suggests that if you don’t protect public land, then sooner or later someone will buy it. Since the 80s, according to the economist Brett Christophers, about 10 per cent of Britain’s entire landmass has moved from public to private ownership. As Christophers describes it:
Here are some examples of things that, bit by bit, are disappearing from national and local maps: free public parks; genuinely affordable housing; entry‑level farm tenancies; state-school playing fields; public space where behaviour is not surveilled and circumscribed; free long-term residential healthcare; and allotments.
Instead, the private sector has used the land it has acquired to provide things that can be made to pay, such as shopping centres, private parks (and car parks), wildlife “experiences”, upmarket – and often gated – housing.
Golfers can choose between thousands of courses, while would-be allotment owners are placed on decades-long waiting lists. If Britain can feel crowded and choked, it’s partly because there’s genuinely less room to wander around than there used to be. So more power to Fields in Trust’s elbow.
But where did Fields in Trust find the cash to do things like set up trusts protecting green spaces? They got it, in no small part, thanks to the late Prince Philip. It was the first charity the Prince involved himself with; he served as its president from 1948 to 2012, leading the way with fundraisers including a celebrity cricket match and “a recording of Frank Sinatra’s ‘If Only She’d Looked My Way’, widely accepted as the first charity record.”
Details like that incline The Pineapple to think well of the national grief at Prince Philip’s passing. People could see that he’d worked somewhat harder and more imaginatively for the public good than a lot of figures with similar reserves of money and time. There was something else, too. As Ed West observes, the Prince owed some of his popularity to his bluff, joke-cracking response to personal tragedy:
In the 1990s there was a great divergence in how we dealt with mental anguish. We were now supposed to open up and show our feelings, even if we didn’t want to. Nothing better illustrated this great emotional divide than the tragic death of Prince Philip’s daughter-in-law Diana, after which the Queen and Duke’s emotional restraint felt dangerously out-of-touch; the tabloids demanded they cry publicly, to join the wailing crowds outside.
Yet many of us felt that this was not emotional liberation but emotional tyranny; some people get through hardship and trauma by a very public display of emotion; others do it by focussing on the practical. It doesn’t mean they’re not hurting, necessarily. From an early age, Prince Philip endured his fair share of grief — he just got through it by making plans and doing something useful.
Ideally, of course, the two sides of the emotional divide could live in peaceful coexistence – as opposed to giving public interviews taking pot-shots at each other.
The past is a foreign country: not everyone over there is either a nice liberal or a nasty right-winger! Or so I felt as I silently remonstrated with the BBC’s news story on the centenary of Sophie Scholl’s birth. Apparently Sophie and her brother Hans took to activism because they were “ultimately unable to reconcile their own liberal leanings with the politics of the Third Reich.” That’s one way of putting it, but hardly the most accurate. The essential fact about the Scholls and their comrades was that they were theology geeks. And if you want to know what motivated Sophie, the clues are scattered all through her letters and diaries. This entry, for instance:
Many people think that after our era the world will come to an end. The many terrible signs could make that belief plausible. But isn’t this belief really only of incidental importance? For each of us, no matter in what age we live, have to be prepared at a moment’s notice to be called to account by God. After all, do I know whether I’ll be alive tomorrow morning? Tonight a bomb could wipe us all out. And then my guilt would not be any less than if I were to perish with the world and all the stars. I cannot understand why today “religious” people are worried about the existence of God just because men attack his works with sword and infamy. As if God didn’t have the power (I feel that everything is in His hands)—the power. We must fear for the existence of mankind only because men turn away from Him who is their life.
Speaking of German history, I wrote for the Times about the life and legacy of Martin Luther, who seems a darker, more brutal, more deeply troubled figure the more you learn about him. Certainly there are many Protestant leaders who make more plausible role models. Yet Luther was the first of them, and few have possessed his charisma or polemical skill.
For last month’s issue of First Things, meanwhile, the magazine asked me to write about learning poetry by heart. An excerpt:
A poem, when memorized, can accompany you through life, gradually revealing its meanings and subtleties. At times of disappointment, I have sometimes turned to James McAuley’s “Nocturnal,” written in late-1950s Australia after his political faction had suffered a defeat. It begins:
I walked abroad at night
Out of the world’s heat where our hopes were dying.
Only by saying these words aloud, more than once, and perhaps over some time, do you get their full impact. You feel, for instance, how in that second line all the strong stresses are crowded into the first half—“Out of the world’s heat”—and the rest of the line dies away into silence. It expresses both halves of a single emotion: feeling disappointed, but at the same time moving away from the disappointment and leaving it behind. Reciting “Nocturnal” doesn’t produce an epiphany, but it makes sense of a feeling.
The mystery of the millennials is this: why, given all their woes – lower pay, worse jobs, housing nightmares, delayed marriage, a mental health crisis, being ignored by politicians – have they not risen up in revolt? Is it our fault? Is it the greatest trick the baby boomers ever played on us? Is all this talk of generational conflict reductive and divisive? In The Critic, I reviewed two recent books – Anne Helen Petersen’s Can’t Even and Helen Andrews’ Boomers – and suggested some answers.
That piece ends with a gripe about the internet – a theme which has been done to death, of course, but which is still worth pursuing. Take this thoughtful meditation from Michael Brendan Dougherty, an elegy for the world before streaming:
The Oscars made sense because people needed entertainment, so they went to the movies and had to select from what was available right then and there. Mass culture was something Americans experienced collectively, and they could render collective judgments about it. This broadcast culture made the Top 40 on radio matter. And even the Grammys and Emmys seemed as though they could tell you something about the mood of the time.
This culture began to break down when I was about to inherit it. The household in which I was a teenager subscribed to Entertainment Weekly in order to keep up with the CDs, movies, and even novels that were worth talking about. Sometime in the late 1990s, I added Blender magazine to our list. The release of the iPod in October 2001 may’ve been the swan song of this culture. The iPod initially promised that you could take your entire CD collection with you. The premise was that you still collected, maintained, and curated your own personal collection of music [...]
Read on for Dougherty’s balanced but melancholy account of what happened next.
That’s enough cultural declinism for now. Good news exists too, if you know where to look: at Riverford, for instance, the veg delivery company who are now 74 per cent worker-owned. Or at the many community businesses and co-ops which have sprung up in the last decade, showing that a more democratic business model can also make financial sense. I wrote about these linked phenomena for UnHerd, ending in a blaze (or possibly haze) of optimism.
The American Conservative is going from strength to strength: it continues to publish some of the most interesting political, cultural and religious commentary on the market, and the Matthews, Schmitz and Walther, have recently joined as columnists. I would say all this even if I wasn’t in the March/April issue, writing on how Britain has shown the trans debate isn’t a foregone conclusion.
“The ‘selfish theory of human nature’ has a long history, but not, on the whole, an impressive or even a respectable one... It comes into its own, however, in periods of Enlightenment, such as the fifth century BC in Greece or the eighteenth century AD in Western Europe; and the reason is obvious enough. Once the belief in gods has evaporated, it becomes at once a most pressing question how to account for the prominent part played in human history by the supposed representatives of gods: priests and kings. And the explanation which comes most naturally to an Enlightened mind is that priests and kings had been, initially at least, simply impostors: ordinary people to whom some opportunity had been given...to profit at the expense of others.”
Photo: The Scholl Memorial at the University of Munich (Amrei-Marie/Creative Commons)