Monday, 7 April 2008

Mother Country

On the basis of only two novels, 'Housekeeping' and 'Gilead', there are serious critics who have suggested Marilynne Robinson may be our greatest living female novelist. Both are very powerful books that demand to be read. But she is also an essayist, and in 1989 published 'Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State and Nuclear Pollution', in which she explores the moralities surrounding the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant.

Following the success of 'Housekeeping' at the start of the 1980s, Ms. Robinson took a sabbatical at Canterbury; it was while there that she first became aware of the existence of Sellafield. She was amazed that the world's largest source of radioactive pollution (as well as weapons-grade plutonium) was little known outside Britain, and that the British were by and large so willing to accept it's existence without protest. This essay is driven by the anger of that discovery, and offers an analysis not only of the global politics that tolerate Sellafield (because it solves the immediate problems of nuclear waste disposal for the rest of the world), but more particularly the passivity of the population here, which she regards as (unknowingly) oppressed by our welfare state, a continuation as she sees it of the Poor Law. She castigates our government for their willingness to risk human survival itself for no more than short-term economic gain.

It took a time to adjust to the fact that in the 'us and them' aspect to the presentation of her arguments, I am part of the 'them'. It is not spelt out exactly when she was over here, but I imagine from the image of Britain that she offers that it was around 1983-84; Thatcher's bare-faced incitement of personal greed has not yet replaced her destruction of so much of our established industry. And much has changed in the world (and in Britain) in the nineteen years since this book was published. Her suggestion that US military support of Europe is a one-sided bargain, with the US entirely the loser, is (sadly) ironically redundant; her failure to anticipate the changed realities of a global economy lessen some of her arguments. But that is no reason to ignore this book.

Although much has changed in the last twenty years, there's much that hasn't. Britain remains the world's dustbin for toxic waste of all descriptions, and politicians who in other regards are keen to declare their environmental credentials are united in silence. There has been more research into the link between radioactivity and childhood leukaemia in that period, and increasing sophistry from scientists seeking to deny the link between Sellafield and the leukaemia hotspot that surrounds it - one child in sixty is a victim in the nearest village. The British remain collectively tolerant, if anything more so than twenty years ago. Abroad, there is little or no collective awareness, and no will to interfere.

If you have read either of Ms Robinson's novels, you will surely have responded to the measured grace with which she approaches humanity; here in contrast she exposes harder emotions and invites the reader to share her anger. She does though write with the same precision and care, and regardless of which side of the argument you support, this book deserves to sit alongside her novels on your bookshelf.

** By way of a postscript, perhaps I should summarise the current and no doubt well researched scientific thinking on the causes of childhood leukaemia. It runs like this: The construction of nuclear facilities are the largest construction projects by far in the areas they are sited. As a result, very substantial numbers of construction workers spend time in the vicinity of those projects. Since astonishing increases in leukaemia rates soon follow, it must mean that childhood leukaemia is apparently some form of (little understood) infectious disorder, carried into the area by the construction workers. This self-serving logic conveniently means that exposure to radioactivity, although acknowledged as a major cause of childhood leukaemia, plays no part whatever when it comes to the hotspots around nuclear facilities. I'm tempted to say that you couldn't make it up, but scientists somewhere obviously have.

'Mother Country' is no longer in print. It is still possible to get paperback copies from the US at sensible prices via Amazon UK.


babooshka said...

I have to say for once this is a subject the I.O.M takes very seriously.Anyone with,lumps,bumps,and other oddities perculiar to them, are sent within 2 weeks for a hospital appointment. Why taken so seriously, because our location admidst the Irish Sea, opposite a little place called Selafield.

We have a higher rate per capita of certain forms of cancer, and the situation re selafield is being closly monitored.

I am a very unimportant point,A non gosl indeed.

Stephen said...

'Mother Country' actually has a fair bit to say about Britain's willingness to use the Irish Sea as some sort of vast toilet, flushing away radioactivity as if it were no more than pee.

I get quite depressed if I dwell too long on the utter immorality of it all, the dreadful consequences that will, sooner or later, result, and the apparent powerlessness of those among the public who actually care.

Logophile said...

Stephen, thank you for highlighting this essay, as I rank Housekeeping and Gilead of two of my favourite novels. Sellafield is also an issue I've grown up feeling angry about. I'm from Ireland, so the effects of Britain's pollution of the Irish Sea are a big issue.

Stephen said...

It's disappointing to see how little publicity there has been for the current troubles at Sellafield where there have been further 'incidents' despite a two year cleanup. Bit too 'off message' when the government wants to promote (and fund) a new generation of nuclear facilities I suppose....

monix said...

Thank you for this post, Stephen. I will try to get hold of a copy of 'Mother Country'. I loved 'Gilead' and I'm a seasoned anti-nuclear campaigner so it is obviously a must-read.