John Bird: A fiery summer foretells a grim picture of our future

"A different, less oppressive capitalism might well have saved us from the possible coming fires, floods and freaks of weather"

Because I’m sitting in a wet Devon field camping, and the trees and grass are abundant, I feel I might have wandered into a Constable painting. One thing you get with John Constable is fecund nature, green and alluring, sparkling in rain or in light sun. The earlier oppressive sun seems to have abated, taking fire with it; or so I hope.

Certainly, we didn’t look like Constable a few weeks ago when Britain sizzled. We looked baked. The weather was reflected in rising knife crime rates and the hot fights around Brexit and racism. A sense of meltdown was in the air.

Artistically, Constable seems in opposition to JMW Turner. And it feels like we have passed through a Turner summer with his heavy reds, and – at times – fire, from industry and modernity. Now we’re in Constable weather and a time of mellow fruitfulness. Hopefully, the debates and disagreements will not be quite so hot, and reasonableness will be sought rather than blood-spilling.

Is it possible to be both a Turner lover as well as a Constable lover? Or is it a divide between the tranquil and the troubled? The verbose and natural. The loud age of  machinery and urbanism, and the country lane, the farm and the canal. In a way, the earlier industrialisation of the agrarian world is represented by Constable, and the empire of commerce and Victorian splendour represented by Turner; although Turner (being a clever merchant-painter) stuck in all manner of subjects, including nature and the tranquil.


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But step outside the art history arguments and what you have is two different directions for Britain represented 200 years ago by two painters. Constable, a corn merchant’s son from Suffolk, captured the natural world. Meanwhile, Turner, a Covent Garden boy, presented a vision of bold, hot, weather-changing industrialisation. One a good middle-class boy, the other, the son of a barber and wig maker.

This seems to me a summer of Turner and Constable. Recent articles about the vanishing polar icecaps and thawing permafrost gives me the willies as a future world of fire and brimstone beckons. And I can’t stop thinking of how two painters represented two different directions for the country. I love Constable because he seems to see so much about our human nature and about nature itself. Increasingly, I find Turner bombastic and lacking anything other than a good business hand, like the current crop of billionaires. They know what sells and I can’t help but feel jaundiced as I look at Turner the merchant. But 200 years ago, we started moving away from Constable and towards Turner and his merchant capitalist belief in a future of factories and globalism. And possibly, at the end of it, a destroyed world laid to waste by industry and urbanism.

Recently, I have been researching the decades before the French Revolution for a new book. From 1774-1776, Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot was the comptroller-general of finance in France, who wanted to bring about all manner of radical reforms. He saw that vested interests were avoiding taxes and dipping into the public purse big time – that the poor were getting it in the neck. Turgot tried to bring in economic reform but was sacked by Louis XVI, who originally took him on. Too many interests around Louis didn’t want any reform because it would hit their pockets.

So, 23 years, two months and two days after Turgot was sacked, the French Revolution began and blew away the old regime. Turgot’s last word to the King was about foolish King Charles I, who – in the previous century – had his head removed in England. Sure enough, Louis shared the same fate with Queen Marie Antoinette because these short-sighted rulers couldn’t get their act together and pushed and pushed on, ignorant of their own end.

Similarly, you can’t expect the big players of today to do anything other than push us (inevitably) towards mass destruction. And this summer of unprecedented levels of fires and heat – from Japan to Sweden – may well be a harbinger of future troubles. Weather is going to become a bigger and bigger issue in our lives as extremes run together. As I sit in my wet Devon field it seems no different from similar fields of my childhood.

The weather was reflected in rising knife crime rates and the hot fights around Brexit and racism. A sense of meltdown was in the air.

When Constable and Turner were vying for the affections of the painted picture, the world’s population had only recently reached one billion. Now we are over 7.6 billion and a lot of destruction of nature and climate changing activity has happened since. Turgot, poor chap, never implemented any of his reforms and subsequently the French Revolution unleashed many of the changes that led – for good and ill – to the modern nature-murdering and people-murdering world.

Turgot may have vanished out of popular history, although Margaret Thatcher tried some of his recipes in the 20th century; but not to head off a revolution. Rather, she seemed intent on creating a better world for business (but that’s another argument). Turgot got so lost in popular consciousness that when I lived  in Rue Turgot in Paris in the Sixties no-one could tell me who he was. It took some digging to find out how Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot tried to take the steam out of things and prevent the modern world from happening in the way it did. A different, less oppressive capitalism might well have saved us from the possible coming fires, floods and freaks of weather.

But hey, that’s the future! Let’s just concentrate on our current angers as we seem to do with great insistence.