Madeleine Bunting was for many years a columnist for the Guardian, which she joined in 1990. She is the author of many non-fiction books, including The Plot: A Biography of My Father's English Acre, which won the Portico Prize, and Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey, which was shortlisted for the Wainwright Golden Beer Book Prize and the Saltire Non-Fiction Book of the Year. She has also written a novel, Island Song. Her latest book is Labours of Love: the Crisis of Care.
Over five years, Madeleine Bunting travelled the country, speaking to charity workers, doctors, social workers, in-home carers, nurses, palliative care teams and parents, to explore the value of care, the hidden glue that binds us together. Blending these revelatory testimonies with a history and language of care, and with Bunting's own experiences of caring for the young and old in her family, Labours of Love is a hugely important portrait. What follows here is our conversation with Madeleine - edited for length and clarity. To know more about the work of Madeleine or buy her book, Labours of Love, please visit www.madeleinebunting.com.
Agnes Uhereczky: Can I ask you what was the driving force behind the idea for you to write this book and how you set about researching it, which I know you have done for several years?
Madeleine Bunting: It's funny how that's a question that of course since the book was published a month ago I have been asked several times and I use various answers, but I am getting a clearer sense actually, so I am gonna give you an even more honest answer if you like. And, it is a funny thing about how, as you are writing a book, you are not entirely sure often what you are doing or why. The process by which it becomes clear is, strangely enough, after publication as you get some perspective on it. So, this is how I would frame what it was that was driving me which was very instinctive and quite unarticulated.
I think we are in a very precarious stage in human history when we need to face enormous challenges. One of those is around our relationship with technology. I think there is something at stake about what it is to be human, that is really in play. I don't think we can ever be complacent about it. I mean, I have great faith in the adherence of and capacities of humanity to carry through, but I think we are in danger of losing certain understandings of what it is to be human. But as computer technology and AI becomes bigger and bigger in our lives, as it is doing in a way that we are often quite blind to, it is already determining many aspects of our interactions and our lives.
I think there is a danger that we lose various aspects of human character and behaviour.
It is a bit worrying to talk about Geroge Orwell and Nineteen Eighty-Four, and to me, that was something that I landed on very early. The point in 1984 which is, of course, kind of brilliantly presented and endlessly used as a way to think about the future. But the bit that always struck me because I am so interested in words being a writer - is Orwell's use of this idea of "newspeak". And, in the story, for those of you who perhaps don't remember all the details, newspeak is this new language that the authoritarian regime is making. What that requires is a constant process of removing certain words and creating and inventing new words. What they are trying to do is strip out various understandings of what it is to be human. And, when you no longer have the words to describe those human capabilities or human experiences, you no longer actually can even imagine them. So it is about the relationship between language and experience and how we need words to describe things. The danger is when we lose those words we can no longer imagine them. I start - and to bring it right back to care - my book with this examination of words.
I think the word care is being emptied of meaning.
It has been used in so many adverts and it has so much become part of the consumer culture - for example, airlines will take care of us, or Stain Tide will take care of our clothes - that we are losing something of this incredibly profound experience in care. We are losing an understanding of that, that care becomes something very banal. "Take care" we say, for example, instead of "goodbye". So it becomes meaningless. So part of what I am trying to do is wrench our focus back to saying that care is not just about this sort of tedious chore or sense of duty, or is a burden, but it can be a profoundly transformational relationship. And to remind us of the possibilities of that, because so often care is seen as a problem, care is seen as "oh my God, the care crisis, the burden of our ageing populations'' phenomenon.
To illustrate it in another way, in which this word is getting corrupted, let me give you one more example. There was a fascinating question from a very distinguished broadcaster who said to me: "Well, care is just a service, you know, you just have to provide certain aspects like health care, I just want them to stick the needle in the right place". I challenged her immediately about this, and I said: "You just said, I just expect that kind of competence and skill, and you had turned care into a consumer experience". And, it had completely been commodified in her. When I challenged her about this, she got very defensive, and she said: "No-no, let's cut all of that". So, that's why I think care is sort of under siege, if you like, from several different directions. Our consumer culture in which people say I just want what I want when I want it, now. And that kind of convenience and immediacy, that's how one writes and talks about the desire to speed. Like, I want to buy something off the internet and have it on my front door desk a few hours later. Care is never going to ever be part of that obsession with convenience and speed. So it's about a very very different set of priorities which our culture is not good at encouraging or even talking about such as patience, for example. That I think is the driving force behind the book, it is to remind people about actually what is deeply buried in them. And, I think care is an innate human quality and we need to care. We end up caring for many things, you know, it could be a relationship, it could be pets or gardens, but you know that deep drive to nurture and nourish the wellbeing of another living creature is hard-wired into us and it can be obscured and we can forget that deep sort of wellbeing that is generated by offering care.
Agnes Uhereczky: Looking ahead, if you could think maybe one or two things that need to change or one or two actions, either governments or businesses or individuals can take, that you find are the most pressing ones, what would those be? What is your take on the next step that needs to be taken?
Madeleine Bunting: Okay, if I go to total fantasyland, right, I would say that there needs to be a really big signal from the top that this reorientation towards a care ethic is needed, from the top of our society right down to the bottom. I would want a government to put forward a Manifesto in which they proclaim right at the heart of what our society is about. COVID has made that so clear. It would have many dimensions to it, one of which would be a better pay deal, a new deal for people working in care. So that they are getting paid properly, they have proper terms and conditions around sick pay and holidays. We know we can't afford in COVID times for people not to have the possibility of sick pay.
So, it is time for a new deal for care workers.
But I would want a government to have the vision to be able to link up different areas, as it is not just about low pay, it is not just about nursing education and how nurses work, it is right across the board. So, I would want all school leaders to spend two to three months in some voluntary activity which is about care. They could choose what kind of care, whether it's gardening or cleaning graffiti or work in a care home but to have it mentored so they understand that this isn't just some tedious boring old thing but this is about how you grow as a person and how you come into maturity as part of how you reach adulthood that offering care is part of being an adult and it is a very satisfying and very often very challenging part of that experience of growing up.
Part of this may seem like fantasyland but actually, some unexpected voices are beginning to emerge who are saying care is going to be a significant form of employment because it is not going to be affected by automation to anything like the same extent that many other jobs will. So investing in the human relationship will become the major priority of many western countries. We have been preoccupied, in the last centuries, with wealth creation and that will continue to be important but alongside that will be an investment in the human relationship because the level of mental health and loneliness are shocking and they are rising so we gonna have to become more aware of the importance of how to sustain and nurture human wellbeing. It was the Chief Economist of the Bank of England who said that in our future employment care will have a disproportionately significant role to play. We need to completely revise our understanding of care not as the lowest paid job, the lowest status job but actually, as a rewarding enormously valuable work it is. And in many ways, COVID is pushing that forward for us. We are clapping in our doorsteps for the nurses and key workers who are keeping us all going so I think that we had a kind of taking a stock moment when we "wowed" and said that the reason I can survive right now is that lots of people are continue to go out to work and risks themselves such as the nurses in the hospitals.