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PAUL KINGSNORTH: the activist

In articles, verbatim on June 8, 2012 at 10:05 am

My partner Chris was working on a theatre project up in Ulverston, Cumbria. I tagged along for the week because I had just gone freelance and I’d never been that far north before. Paul was one of the people that the theatre company spoke to to help develop their project. They had been inspired by his books and work on Dark Mountain. We met him in the pub, he was there with his dog and it was karaoke night. He came to the scratch of the performance too a couple of days later with his children. I wrote this piece for Fork magazine so it’s foodie again but I think Paul is top of my list to interview again. The image came from Paul.

Paul Kingsnorth wrote Real England: The Battle Against the Bland in 2009 examining the changing face of England in the context of growing globalisation. He was also instrumental in setting up The Dark Mountain Project, a global network of writers, thinkers, artists and craftspeople. I caught up with him about food, beer and the new normal.

How have things changed since Real England?

Most obviously, the economy fell apart. In retrospect, a lot of the problems I wrote about were caused by too much money in the wrong hands, like the building of huge shopping malls or pubs being closed down and turned into luxury housing. A lot of that has come to a standstill. Also, as a result of the potential breakup of the UK, there’s much more talk about what Englishness and locality mean. In some ways things are worse, but the model that allows all the destruction is visibly crumbling so new ways of doing things are emerging.

The tone of Dark Mountain is markedly more downbeat than Real England. Which side tends to win out? The optimist or the pessimist?

It depends what I talk about really! When we started out, Dark Mountain felt very controversial but all we were saying was ‘let’s stop debating about whether this is all actually happening or not, let’s be realistic’. Certainly, a lot of the things that felt extreme three years ago really don’t any more. There is an inevitable clash between the personal and the bigger picture, though, and I vary from day to day. You can be optimistic about the small scale, which is especially important if you have children, but then you look up to the horizon and you realise how big it all is. There’s this huge machine out there with nature going in one end and money coming out of the other. It’s impossible to believe it will change voluntarily however many organic eggs we buy. You need a balance though – wallowing in too much doom is bad for the soul.

What’s your opinion on the localism revolution?

There has been a huge revolution in terms of food, but we still live in an incredibly centralised country with no political leverage at local level. Buying and eating local is great, but until there’s power, it’s a cultural rather than a political revolution. I’d be very interested to see how widespread the changes are, how much they cut across the classes and how much of it’s surviving since the economy went bad. All sorts of people still buy chickens for a pound and I don’t think that’ll change until legislation does. It took legislation to stop people producing and buying battery eggs, didn’t it? Saving money and making money aren’t the only forces in society, but the race to the bottom is everywhere.

So do our personal efforts have any effect?

It depends on what you want to change. I recycle, I buy local, I do all of it, and it does make a difference. There’s more cruelty free food on the shelves, and I saw the effects of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Fish Fight in my local market. It can only be a good thing when people opt out of the worse aspects of the system even if personal action can never change the whole system. I guess at the end of the day, at least you know you’re not part of the problem. It’s a glacial change, but glaciers do change things.

So what should the consumer do?

It’s complex. People talk about ‘ethical’ all the time but as a word, it’s really not very useful as it means so many different things. There will always be a dilemma. If I go to my local market, I don’t know where the vegetables come from but I’m supporting local business. If I go to the supermarket, there’s often more organic and even local produce available, but it’s still a supermarket.

Are supermarkets always bad?

A touchstone for me personally is how damaging enormous companies are. The rise of the supermarket is tied in to big societal changes like car ownership and longer working hours so they aren’t about to disappear. The important thing is to prevent any more being built but even that’s difficult as a small town with just one out of town supermarket isn’t seen as facilitating competition. You need at least two of them. We need to work out how local shops can work alongside supermarkets. We need to protect and strengthen what’s being trampled. Who knows how long supermarkets will survive. If oil were to be become more expensive, it would be a very inefficient way to provide food to the masses.

So how would we feed the UK’s 62 million people?

With proper farming and changes in diet, I’ve seen figures that show it’s easily possible for the UK to feed itself. A small scale farm is more efficient in terms of inputs and outputs than large scale monoculture. It’s the economies of scale, treaties, subsidies and the WTO that have favoured big business and persecuted small business. It’ll only change when the system takes a real knock, which may not be far off at this rate. People suddenly understand that the system we have is a managed process rather than a natural evolution.

At least the beer industry seems to be doing OK, doesn’t it?

Oh, I can be in a very good mood about beer. It’s like the craft was lying dormant – just give it a chance and up it comes. 40 years ago when I was born, they were lamenting the death of British ale but now it really has changed. It’s the tax break that Gordon Brown gave small beer producers that led to the explosion, so even though pubs are still closing, it’s a real source of optimism and makes me wonder what else could happen locally with a little state support. However depressing it gets, there’s always good beer!

Real England, the Battle against the Bland is published by Portobello Books.

This interview is an extract from issue 23 of Fork magazine. Fork is a bi-monthly magazine beautifully designed and filled with interviews with interesting people, reviews of the best places to eat and travel to, plus a few recipes for good measure.

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