Germaine Greer

Germaine Greer

John Campbell

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Daniel Galera and Deborah Levy

"IT looks like we've lost the battle to save the planet," Germaine Greer told us grimly at the Edinburgh Book Festival yesterday. Humanity has set itself at odds with nature - even though we're part of it - and seems not to notice what we're losing as a result.

Greer has, though. In talking of her native Australia she painted a toxic picture of a country where beaches are now made up of beer cans, where degraded Agent Orange - a byproduct of the war in Vietnam - has been used casually as a herbicide for 40 years, where ships are carving five-mile-long tracts of coral out of the Great Barrier Reef. And no one seems to care.

All of which was a preamble to saying that the few of us who do should still fight on. Greer's latest book White Beech is in essence a love story. A romance with the wild wood. Or in her case an area of rainforest, "steaming hot, sticky and full of things that hurt".

Painful or not she fell in love with it, romanced by a dancing bower bird (you haven't lived until you've seen Germaine Greer imitating the gyrations of an Aussie bird). "I thought, I can fix this," she said. "It will take me the rest of my life and it will take me every penny I have and some I don't have, but I can fix this."

And she told her audience they could, too. Because who else was going to do it? The Forestry Commission? The Scottish pine plantations probably don't make any money at all. In terms of ecology and biodiversity they're costing the earth."

An hour earlier biographer John Campbell offered a more benign view of politics and politicians (Greer at one point described the current Australian government as "the worst in the history of the human race", which may have been a slight exaggeration bu left you in no uncertain terms of her opinion).

Campbell's epic biography of Roy Jenkins was in many ways an attempt to reclaim him from the well-fed, well- watered, bumptious patrician politician caricature of him that still persists. Yes, he liked wine, food and women (he had affairs with the wives of two of his best friends while continuing to be married to his wife for more than 50 years).

But, Campbell argued, the only politician who has done more to shape modern Britain is Mrs Thatcher (whom Jenkins had little time for).

Most of that is down to his short but productive period as Home Secretary in the late 1960s when he helped introduce legislation to decriminalise homosexuality and legalise abortion up to 28 weeks. The father of the permissive society, his critics argued. Campbell sees him more as the father of today's multicultural, diverse Britain.

And for someone who was seen as an establishment figure, Campbell argues that he was still far to the left of mainstream politics in the UK today. In 1992 he was desperate that John Major lost the election because he didn't want to die during a Tory government.

Earlier in the day Deborah Levy and Daniel Galera battled the noise of passing traffic to talk about the dangerous allure of research ("because anything is easier than writing, Levy pointed out),the usefulness of the internet as a publishing platform for new writers and in Levy's case her previous history with Edinburgh.

Back in her days as a playwright, her earliest plays were performed in the city. "Poor audience," she laughed.