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NO WEEKLY BRIEF NEWSLETTER FOR THE WEEKEND OF OCT. 16-17

This haunting vision of climate change could concentrate minds at Cop26

·3 min read

I’ve been reading Jonathan C Slaght’s wonderful book Owls of the Eastern Ice, his account of four seasons trying to locate and protect the largest living species of owl in the remote Russian forests of Primorye, bordering North Korea. The Blakiston’s fish owl is a creature that seems entirely made of mythology. The threats to its continued existence include radioactive rivers and deforestation as well as the by-products of climate change: increasing floods, wildfires, typhoons.

Slaght’s extraordinary adventures on its behalf are like scenes from the end of the world. Rather than rely on the prime minister’s prep school arguments for a revolution in how the planet is managed at the forthcoming Cop26 gathering in Glasgow, organisers might be better advised to leave a copy of Slaght’s book at every world leader’s bedside. If they picked it up in the jet-lagged early hours they might find their dreams haunted, as mine have been, by huge, endangered owls swooping low through their subconscious, reminding them what survival might mean.

Tracks of her tears

Frida Kahlo
What am I bid? Frida Kahlo’s self-portrait. Photograph: HONS/AP

Every age, perhaps, most values the art that best describes it. If the medieval world treasured all eyes uplifted to a gold-leaf hereafter and the age of empire shelled out for heroic history painting, our own times, the age of uncertain mental health, prize the authentic depiction of private anguish above all else. Edvard’s Munch’s Scream set the bar. This autumn, one of the most tormented of Frida Kahlo’s self-portraits comes to auction. By some lights, her painting, in which the image of Kahlo’s serially unfaithful former husband, Diego Rivera, is imprinted on the artist’s forehead, while tears roll down her cheeks, might be almost unbearable to look at. The auctioneer’s estimate is a record-breaking $30m: nothing sells quite like pain.

Philip prints

Prince Philip
Prince Philip: any idea why my printer won’t work? Photograph: Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters

The Duke of Edinburgh was not a man of the people in many obvious senses, but last week’s BBC family tribute revealed one habit with which all of Britain’s home-working citizens could surely empathise: he would spend mornings in his study shouting at his desktop printer, in the vain hope of persuading it, just once, to do his royal bidding. No doubt each unexplained beep and pause, every concertina-ed paper jam and illegible smear of the world’s most expensive commodity, printer ink, represented a failure of governance. The duke might have had use for some advice a friend once gave me: never throw a knackered printer away, keep it in a cupboard with a hammer, so that when, right on deadline, the current model coughs up another comedic error code, satisfying punishment can at least be exacted on one of its immediate forebears.

What goes around

The M25
The M25: stasis, not transit. Photograph: Steve Parsons/PA

Ever since its publication nearly 20 years ago, Iain Sinclair’s masterpiece London Orbital, his wayward walking pilgrimage around the hinterland of the M25, has read like prophesy of the way we live now. It was Sinclair’s contention that to understand the true life of the metropolis, you should examine not the centre but the margins – the places where stories all ended up, like litter blown against the capital’s perimeter fence. The spectacle of environmental protesters supergluing their hands to the asphalt in the cause of loft insulation was made for Sinclair.

The only mystery about the protesters might have been why they chose this motorway, the slowest in Europe (average speed 24mph), to stage their glue-in. In any motorist’s mind’s eye, the M25, the world’s biggest car-park, already means stasis rather than transit. The jams caused by the protesters were just today’s reason to sit still in traffic.

• Tim Adams is an Observer columnist

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