I reviewed Nature is a Human Right recently, and as Nick Hayes is one of the contributors, I was reminded that I never got around to reviewing The Book of Trespass. Nick’s book doesn’t really need my review, being a bestseller already, but there are a couple of reasons to write up my thoughts. One is that it’s a book that I really enjoyed and that breaks new ground. And the second is that there are chapters in it that really resonate with current affairs.
I’ve heard the phrase ‘the country is full’ a couple of times in recent days as people defend the Conservative government’s outrageous plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda. The book talks specifically about that phrase, and how fear of migrants is used to distract from land inequalities. “Nationalism suits the landowning classes” he writes, “because it gives people a sense of ownership without their actually owning anything at all.”
The Book of Trespass is a book about land, who owns it and who is excluded from it, and how it came to be so. As many have commented throughout history, the idea that anyone can own land is somewhat bizarre. Nobody made the land. Of course we need safeguards for occupation and improvement, but fencing bits of it off as private, in perpetuity, remains one of humanity’s more perverse ideas.
In England, this story is one of disposession and displacement, as traditional access rights to the land were dismantled by the aristocracy. The violence of the enclosures has never been reversed, meaning that we are excluded from 92% of the country and 97% of rivers, hundreds of years later.
As far as Hayes is concerned, it’s the enclosure of this land that is the crime, not innocently walking across it. And so each chapter includes a trespass – camping trips, canoe excursions, a stroll with friends through private property, a pause to sketch a landscape. While this remains offensive to landowners in England, it’s entirely normal in dozens of European countries, including across the border in Scotland. The right to privacy remains, so nobody goes camping in people’s back gardens. And littering is still illegal. Still, the right to roam is contested in England, because wealthy landowners don’t want it.
Hayes picks his trespasses, choosing locations and landowners that represent the points he wants to make. A wander across MP Richard Drax‘s estate provides a backdrop to explore the legacy of slavery. Paul Dacre, until recently the editor of the Daily Mail, has large estates too. Hayes trespasses on those and tells us how the media barons use their newspapers to frame land reform as Marxist, closing down debate and ensuring that the elitist status quo goes unchallenged.
Given the vast inequalities in land ownership and access, and the deep historic injustice behind them, you’d think that land reform might be higher on the political agenda. Or on the agenda at all. But it barely registers. Like electoral reform, or getting rid of hereditary peers, land reform seems to be one of those things that Britain is incapable of grasping, despite it being very obvious when you see it.
Books like this one help more people to see it, to get past the sentimental views of monarchy and aristocracy. “Let the daylight in on the magic,” says Hayes, “and you have nothing but basic rentier capitalism.”
The Book of Trespass roams widely in more ways than one. It combines nature writing with history and politics, hopping the fences between topics and following its nose. Since Hayes is an artist and illustrator, it’s interspersed with his striking prints as well. It’s a book full of surprises, often amusing, and bristling with indignation at injustice. There’s no question that in previous centuries, Nick Hayes would have been hung for writing it.