Now the representatives have given themselves power to block implementation of the decision taken by the people at their request. But not to propose an alternative. This is a logic loop, and it's ruining the game for me.
Stop me if I'm missing something. The people voted for the representatives to take decisions for them. But the representatives decided to ask the people to decide for them. And the people voted for a decision that the representatives wouldn't have taken. So the representatives, having asked the people, got stuck with implementing a decision that went against what they would have decided.
Now the representatives have given themselves power to block implementation of the decision taken by the people at their request. But not to propose an alternative. This is a logic loop, and it's ruining the game for me.
Before we start, could I just say that I agree with you about the latest literary masterpiece from So-and-so?
A little over-long, perhaps, and some of the characterisation is a little heavy-handed, but the wit is definitely coruscating and the prose sparkling. Oh, yes, spare, too, the prose is very spare. Economical too, yes, pared back, and - excuse me, I think I’m about to use the word “liminal” to describe the, ah, mise en scene. Missing an accent there - where are you when I need you, spellcheck?
But there’s definitely an oeuvre going on here, squire; this is a work for our time, weaving themes of alienation and angst into a bildungsroman spanning the lives of characters we can recognise all too easily. What does it mean to be a woman? There’s a moral ambiguity to…
Phew! I was beginning to feel I’d never be off camera again. Would you like some more of this fizzy stuff, or shall I see if I can find us a couple of cans of Korev? This time, when the woman goes by, I suggest you just grab the tray. Save me a couple of those round bready things with the cream cheese and that salty black stuff…
...here you go. Cheers. They’ll never film us with these in our hands. Given that the prize is being sponsored by - hey, isn’t that...? It is, isn’t it? Funny how they’re always smaller in real life.
Have I what? Read her book? Don’t be ridiculous.
They’re going to want us to sit down in a moment. Don’t be silly. Come and sit with me. Nobody will mind. Yes, I know it’s assigned seating, but if I just pick up this name card… There. You’re sitting next to me. Let’s sit down. That’ll make it official.
There, you see. She’s thought better of it. Too many cameras around to make a fuss.
I use an e-reader, actually. I still read books, but - actually, the thing that interests me is, I find that different formats suit different things. I like facts in hardback - or paperback, yes, and there’s something special about a library book, whatever it’s about.
But if I’m reading fiction these days, a lot of the time I pick up my e-reader and browse through the online store. I don’t know if we still use the term “killer app”, but what makes it for me is the free sample. You can read the beginning free, and then decide whether you want more.
Yes, a lot of it’s- Yes, a good sample doesn’t always mean a good book- Yes, I know, but-
What do I read?
What do you mean, what do I really read? Did you put in those italics?
Okay, what do I really read?
I read a lot of beginnings, obviously. I’m genre-agnostic - yeah, good term; no, I just made it up - and a lot of the time I trust the algorithm to make suggestions. Although it’s an AI - you know, Artificial Stupidity? - so it’s always just wanting me to read more of the same, rather than making intuitive leaps.
But the best writing these days; no, I mean the writing that makes me want to hit “buy” when I get to the end of the beginning. A lot of that’s genre fiction these days. I don’t know why, but every author you’ve never heard of - they’re either writing fantasy, vampires, you know, or there’s a murder in Chapter One and the quirky small community is thrown into uproar.
Maybe it's just easier writing fantasy? Less need for subtle nuances of character if they're all riding around on dragons and hacking at each other with swords? I don't know, but I don't mind a bit of witchcraft if the writing holds my attention. If it's sincere, I suppose, is part of it.
I came across a catastrophe novel the other day, in which the apocalypse is triggered by a freak weather event. Man walks into a bar on page one, and the TV above the counter - counter? - is talking about the snow. Except that it’s snowing everywhere. Another one: suddenly, nobody could sleep.
No, it isn’t weather all the time. The obliging thing about genre novelists these days, especially the ones who only do ebooks, is that if you find one you do like, they’ve generally written a whole series. Dozens of books sometimes, featuring the same characters. It’s not like, this is the Big Book; it’s more, this is the world I’ve created.
Artificial Stupidity? Yes, I know, Intelligence. Don’t get me started.
But why do we need to build machines to think for us, when we can think for ourselves?
I had my laptop fixed the other day - after a conference call, the word-processing … is it app or program now? … wouldn’t start. None of the files would open. So I took it to a friend who used to do that kind of thing, and after a certain amount of muttering and writing-down of error codes, we got to the “Repair Page”, where we downloaded a fresh copy of the word-processing - thing. Whatever.
Yes, exactly, papered over the old one. Didn’t fix it at all.
And I thought my usual thought. I could have done that. Tapped that many keys. Got to that page eventually, like all those monkeys with typewriters that were eventually going to write Shakespeare, remember? I used to be in awe of people who could fix computers, but that was a century ago. Everything now’s just tapping keys. I couldn’t tune a piano, or even learn to play one with any feeling, but I can tap keys. That’s the kind of problem I can solve.
If only we could solve global warming by tapping keys; we’d be great at it. If only the solutions to real life could be found down a predetermined labyrinth of solutions to problems that somebody, somewhere, Seattle perhaps, Cupertino, has pre-defined as the unexpected.
Is that machines thinking for us, or people who think like machines thinking for us?
Or people who want to believe machine-thinking is how it’s done?
Anyway, the moment was: I could do this! It would take me longer, but there’s no inspiration or creativity required. Just finding the path through the labyrinth.
Like I said, don’t get me started.
But perhaps there’s a game. Global warming: the game. We could solve that.
Now, there’s an idea. Keep us busy, make us feel better about-
What? No, that’s not possible! I’m only here for the-
Did you know about this?
Oh, tell me there’s an acceptance-speech app on this phone.
There’s a family story about a great-uncle who turned down the opportunity to buy the grand house in which he was living, at a nominal price, because the rent was so cheap. He didn’t want the burdens of ownership, and way back then, renting was seen as the sensible thing to do.
Then - well, my grandparents remembered the depression of the thirties, and my father (born in 1921) travelled extensively in Europe and then Asia in his late teens and his early twenties. My mother told her war stories too - code-breaking and truck-driving, among other activities.
The generations that came of age during the mid- to late-twentieth century lived through challenging times. By the time I came along, they’d been through rationing, national service and the Korean War. Far away from anywhere, the Bikini Atoll nuclear tests were just ending, and in the USA, “agribusiness” was poisoning everybody (Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, 1962).
The “leading-edge” baby boomers were about to start being drafted into the Vietnam War, the Berlin Wall was about to go up, and we were well into the early stages of the Cold War.
Back then, the reason to stockpile baked beans was that we were all half-expecting to be annihilated in an exchange of nuclear missiles (the idea was, you sat it out in the bunker you’d dug in the garden, then ate baked beans until the radiation dispersed, ha ha).
The Fulda Gap was the area of West Germany that would take the brunt of the Soviet land invasion, and the big question was, would the Americans launch nuclear missiles once Warsaw Pact tanks had rolled up NATO and taken hostage all those US troops stationed on our side of the Iron Curtain?
Oh, and the other question was: would “Mutually Assured Destruction” (MAD; the perfect acronym) be enough of a deterrent to stop one side or the other launching a first strike? Clearly, it was. We’re here. The survivors, anyway. Asbestos in our cribs. DDT on our vegetables.
I remember watching news reports showing the spread of fallout from the Chernobyl disaster, but that was later. I remember Beatles songs in the playground. Went into the HMV store in Truro the other day, and they’ve gone back to racks of vinyl - although it was all very much cleaner and brighter than such places were back in the day. I wonder if there’s still scope for listening before buying.
Although, come to think of it, I recognised most of the album covers, so that would be pointless. Sometimes, I think I’m living through a remake of my own youth.
Yes, and there was a piece in - I forget where - the other day, about generational unfairness. Old people own all the wealth and young people can’t even buy houses. A binary, simple thing. So simple. Underpinning it was the assumption that aspiration adds up to one thing - home ownership - and maybe it does.
But nothing’s stopped. Change goes on happening. I think of my great-uncle sometimes. The certainties of his life were as certain to him as the certainties of our lives are certain to us. Sorry, clumsy sentence. But he knew that renting was preferable to buying. He was, in our terms, wrong. But he knew.
What do we know?
And when am I going to be compensated for all those years I had to spend without the internet?
So the climate starts to stabilise, because we’ve all changed our behaviour, and the change-deniers declare that there was never a problem. Nobody comments, not even on Facebook. A truck laden with croissants and camembert* takes the ferry from Calais to Dover without difficulty, except that the English coast is now half an hour further away from Europe. Nobody comments. Four horsemen ride across the sky, but we’re all looking down at our smartphones.
Politics continue as normal, with regular updates from senior politicians on the progress of the negotiations. The BBC airs a prime-time investigative report under the title What are we negotiating about now? and gets its first-ever zero rating. A well-known news anchor is rushed to hospital after complaining of head pains. “I just can’t get the urgency into my voice any more,” he says. “I just can’t do it.” Reports are denied that he had been reading the same headline story off the autocue every fifteen minutes for sixteen hours. “We take care of our staff,” reads a spokesperson from a prepared statement.
Nothing continues to happen. In one twenty-four-hour rolling newsroom, a desperate producer resorts to sending journalists out to find real things that have actually happened and report on them. Two days later, that channel’s 2100 bulletin leads on a bus crash in Wallasey. By 2115 that’s been knocked off the top slot by a freak wave at Cley-next-the-Sea. Footage of the Cromer lifeboat dominates the 2130 update, floodlights and sirens, but by 2145, even that’s been knocked out of the schedule by the live report from the scene of the small fire in the chip shop in Whitby.
The producer’s fired, of course, but his story’s picked up. Next morning, “the day the news agenda went walkabout” runs as the “and finally” item every fifteen minutes across the networks. On Facebook, to everybody’s surprise, the story goes viral. The Campaign For Real News is founded, with the fired producer as head of its news channel, and journalists everywhere start plumbing their smartphones for heartwarmingly realistic-looking stories that could pass as real things happening. News goes local. Fires are started in chip shops.
Four journalists die when the coffee shop in which they’re looking for news is raided by a trigger-happy SWAT team. They have been so busy with their smartphones that they failed to notice the hostage situation building up around them. Another journalist is fired for enticing cats up trees and calling the fire brigade. There are calls for a new Code of Conduct for news, but these are ignored by the news channels. Principal photography begins for the documentary about the making of the film about “the day the news agenda went walkabout” - on a sound stage in Berkeley, California.
Meanwhile, in a parallel world similar to the one in which you’re reading this, the first wifi-enabled cat’s eyes are installed on the M25. London’s orbital motorway is already coated in recycled plastic, in which is embedded a “smart comms lattice” carrying road-sign information, traffic-density reports and any emergency warnings via wifi and bluetooth to autonomous cars. Reaction is immediate. An MP calls for a ban on “lewd and immoral” behaviour in the tipped-back front seats of “driverless cars”, as he calls them.
Two late-night TV shows are launched, Naked at the Wheel and Driving Attraction, and there are calls for drones to be banned from the airspace above motorways. The driving-seat passenger of an autonomous car is successfully prosecuted for painting over the windows of his car, but several new models on show at the Paris Motor Show dispense with seats altogether - passengers in these cars will share one “couch”. The driving test is abolished; car owners must pass a basic IT-proficiency test before taking to the road.
A baby is born in a traffic jam on the M11 just south of Cambridge. Road-haulage operators diversify, offering creche facilities and kitchens on their car transporters. “Just sync your car with our vehicle and drive up the ramp,” says the advertisement that runs on car dashboards. It shows a young couple getting up from the couch to hit the red button and do just that. Docking’s automatic, so they don’t even have to dress before picking up their lattes from the machine in the car transporter's kitchen. On the road around them, drones pursue cars, carrying takeaway orders as well as high-definition cameras.
The English government unveils a massive infrastructure project: over five years, every road in England will be coated with wifi-enabled recycled plastic. The Scottish government announces a similar project, but with a four-year time-frame. Wales announces that roads will be replaced entirely with plastic, but only as they wear out. Prices of recycled plastic soar on the Baltic Exchange; trawlers returning from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch report a thinning in the plastic cap - “plasticbergs” are breaking off. There are warnings of a shortage of waste plastic.
Armageddon arrives, heralded by pictures of young women in Summer dresses cooling themselves in Paris fountains. Large parts of the planet’s surface become uninhabitable to warm-blooded mammals. Insects start to mutate. A video clip goes viral, in which a termite kills and eats a crocodile. Students on campuses across Asia riot against climate change while world leaders debate the terms of a declaration that they will commit to reversing climate change. A tall thin figure in a black hooded cloak carrying a scythe is decisively no-platformed when he arrives uninvited to address a graduation ceremony at a small college in the southern United States.
Sea levels have risen now, and there is no ice at the poles. As the water continues to warm, dense fog forms over land and sea. This baffles meteorologists, who know more about the formation of fog than I do. Aircraft are grounded; only the autonomous cars keep buzzing around, although the fog soon gets into their electrics. The world falls silent, and then, in the deep silence, we hear the sound of horses galloping towards us.
*From the Guardian and Observer style guide, an entry on cheese. “Normally lower case, even if named after a place: brie, camembert, cheddar, cheshire, double gloucester, lancashire, parmesan, stilton, wensleydale, et cetera.” Eat that, spellcheck.
Where does the time go? Morning, Thursday, just after sunrise. The blinds still down, because otherwise I wouldn’t be able to see this screen, but the slats are brightly lit from behind, as though the aliens have arrived in one of those movies of the eighties. “They’re here” - or was that something else? I remember: the poltergeist(s) in the housing development.
What rules our lives? Not the people on the screen, nor the colleagues of my friend who works on the local council. Works - represents. We’ve somehow accidentally built an amorphous, invisible, distributed dictatorship of the mind that treats us as - fools? I went to Facebook yesterday, for example, and there was a post telling me to bring home plastic waste from the beach, but not sea life. Well, yeah. If I wasn’t going to do that anyway, would I do it because I’d been told?
I go to work, or the doctor, or just about anywhere, and there’s a poster about “safequarding”, which is like caring for people except that it’s a series of processes to be gone through. Thinking not feeling; there’s no injunction to “feel”. The significant verb on the safeguarding poster is “assess”. Yes, I agree that we need to care for children and vulnerable adults. No, there’s no argument against safeguarding. But do I care enough to do it, just because I’ve seen the poster?
Where are our hearts in all this? Where are our minds? There - first sound of the day. Not a seagull, nor the dawn chorus; it’s a distant car alarm. As so often happens when a car alarm goes off, we’re all rushing out of our houses to prevent the car being stolen. Not.
I have a DBS form - Disclosure and Barring Service - which certifies that I’m not a criminal. Officially. Nobody asked me, but there are databases somewhere. I remember the time I looked up the information that some online shopping entity held about me, and found that its algorithm had me pegged as a Spanish woman in her - my - mid-thirties.
Crimes aren’t committed by people who declare themselves in advance. I can see the point of DBS forms, can't argue against them, but would you trust me, because I’ve got one?
You would? Really? In that case...
Ah, here we go. The day’s first trip to Facebook. A post reading, in white type on a purple square: “I have known for years there are no gurus on this earth - just YOU.”
I have spoken. We’re here.
Right. Let’s get this started. Wednesday morning, time to kick off another blog post. The seagulls were shouting and screaming earlier, but now, everything’s gone quiet. Trees waving just slightly, but no birds at all now. Flat, albeit slightly flurried, calm. I’ve never really thought about the word “overcast” before, but I think this is it. The greyness of the sky has just, I’ll have to work on this, soaked down a bit, no, been left to infuse into the air, that’ll have to do, so that the Roseland is a deeper grey band under a grey sky and over a grey sea.
Nothing you could actually point to, and say “That is the sky.” Matching sea: grey, barely awake. The trees nearest to the house are still green, and they’re moving just slightly, so I suspect this is going to turn out to be a pleasant, fresh morning for my walk – my occasional morning walk; that makes it sound more regular than it is – and just a little bit more blowy and breezy than it looks from this just-got-up room. I shall have to take a notebook with me.
[Later the same day. Same room, but the light in the kitchen next door has been switched on. Noises off to represent: extractor fan, saucepan on gas cooker, eggs boiling. As the curtain rises, William bends over his laptop.]
Overcast and probably high pressure – close, anyway. But there was a bit of movement in the air, so no need for the word “muggy”. Short version: I enjoyed my walk. There was a Scottish couple (accents) who agree with each other, as I passed them, that this weather was preferable to “that cold”. There was a young man with a dog that touched its nose to my hand as they passed me (I can’t quite bring myself to word this so that I have to clarify: dog’s nose, not boy’s), and then there was a man, my age, tanned, dressed for fitness, who went past with his smartphone held up to his face. Looking into it.
I thought about that for a bit, then I sat down on the high kerb at this end of Wellington Terrace, pulled out my notebook, and wrote the post below the picture. Most of it, anyway. Some of it. Okay, the opening sentence. I didn’t balance a laptop on my knee and write with an inane grin on my face, but in every other respect, that was a state-of-the-art, cutting-edge moment. I was “on the go”. I was “in control”. Just a pity I was writing in a small black notebook with a dragonfly printed on the front. Pity I was using a cheap felt-tip I bought from Sainsbury’s in Truro.
I had to wait for the notebook to open up, of course, and then I had to wait while it installed an upgrade and asked me to confirm my identity, so it was probably a good thing I didn’t start with an inane grin on my face – keeping it up would have given me cramp. I had to open a new page, but at least that didn’t take long. [Additional marks will be awarded to candidates whose papers include discussion of why the writer is talking such nonsense.] Getting the felt-tip to work was easy by comparison: I took the lid off and it was already fully charged.
A fine walk. But we’re no nearer writing this week’s blog post. I came back to the house and sat down and, yeah, here we are. [Why does the writer omit any reference to putting eggs on to boil? 10 marks.] I did have an idea for a piece under the title “What happens to pond weed?” but that both overdoes it in the arresting-opening-sentence department [Huh? 5 marks.] and doesn’t get me to the answer I wanted to reach, so we’ll brush that one back under the carpet. My idea was that over-populations correct themselves.
Ponds with a lot of weed in them tend to attract weed-eating insects and animals. Summer weather conducive to wasps typically ends with a hard frost – or at least, we notice the first hard frost, and imagine the wasp:frost symmetry. I was going to go from there to saying something about dominant species that damage the climate by their over-use of fossil fuels, but I couldn’t quite make the logic work. It’s just that I’ve been part of several conversations recently – enough to be, ah, “statistically significant”, at least to me - in which the problems of the world have been blamed on over-population.
Global warming, lack of car-parking spaces, crowded beaches, green ponds and waterways, NHS in crisis, slow internet and populism – all down to the over-supply of people. There are too many of us, and what I was going to say is … oh, I can’t be bothered. Falling birth rates, aggressive climate, yes, you’ve been in those conversations too, haven’t you? Thanos, in that film, deletes half the population to save the other half, right? So it’s down there in the collective subconscious. Yeah, yeah, we’re wrecking our own habitat. But isn’t that just … what we’re instinctively going to do?
Sometimes, insomnia is almost worthwhile. Sunrise was just after five this morning, Thursday, and while I suppose it might have made sense to take the photograph on the same day as I was describing the weather, in the post above, I think we can agree that the last thing this website needs is grey space.
Who knew that when we finally got our communications technology perfected, it would be full of distractions? What made us do that? We had so much to say to each other – or thought we did.
I remember those aspirational ads in which young urban sophisticates dashed between meetings, holding bricks to their ears and looking serious about whatever they were hearing (younger readers: pre-smart mobile phones used to be the size of bricks). The glossy-magazine ads in which a clutch of male and female supermodels in designer clothes gathered around a laptop to be beautifully impressed by whatever they saw on their shared screen.
Oh, and do you remember the one in which a vaguely arty-looking fit and healthy barefoot young person sat in a tree with his laptop to work on his screenplay? And that other one – the vaguely arty-looking fit and healthy barefoot young person sits cross-legged on a log in the middle of a stream with her laptop to work on her screenplay between bouts of meditation?
You don’t? Oh. Maybe my interior life is stranger than I realised.
You must remember the (epistolary?) novels written entirely in exchanges of text messages? And all those (printed) guides to “text-speak”? No? Really? Well, I have one of those to show you! It’s just … here. How strange…
Somebody must have moved it. I’m sure I had it right – never mind.
My point being, of course, that we’ve got everything we dreamed of having, oh, ten, twenty years ago. Back when technology didn’t really work very well, and the bandwidth wasn’t there, and the processing power was barely 100 times what it took to get us to the moon – back then, we could really see what was coming. The paperless office, remember? The intelligent fridge? A lot of talking animatedly into our phones about serious things?
I used to think that the spy novels of Len Deighton were written to make office life seem interesting – sorry, that line floated in from a parallel blog post. There’s a parallel universe in which I write about the spy novels of Len Deighton. It’s probably also full of lost guides to text-speak.
It’s just interesting, that’s all I’m saying. Those of us who are digital immigrants (remember that distinction?) can not only see how the world has changed, but also how far it has deviated from all the predictions. Every generation learns this eventually, I think: the obvious, or at least predictable, outcome isn’t the one that comes. There are too many variables.
Now that we have the technology, we’re having fun with it. More importantly, now that we’ve got it, we can forget about it and move on to the next stirring vision for the future. Which is ... ?
Why am I attracted to women? I am a rational, reasonably well educated, probably quite cultured (if we still use that term), politically aware, economically aware, socially aware, not young (but still middle-aged if you stretch the definition) user of social media in a late-stage Western liberal democracy. I post. I have Friends. I Like and am Liked in turn. I worry about plastic and global warming. I own a Fitbit so therefore I am health-conscious. If you provoke me, I’ll tell you exactly what I think about Brexit.
And yet, as I sit at one of the tables outside Picnic on Church Street, eating lunch and discussing where to go next – this was the Sea Shanty Festival last Saturday; Falmouth is full of music in the Summer – I notice that without any conscious input from me, without conscious permission, my eyes just happen to be following, um, people of a certain appearance as they pass along the street. Not all the time, but - picking them out one at a time and following them, like a very slow-motion tennis match: watch one out of sight; pick up another coming the other way.
No, it wasn’t exactly like that; I just liked the tennis metaphor. Just occasionally, you know, just occasionally noticing and, well, my eyes were doing it, that’s the point. Nothing to do with me – yes, okay, something, but unconscious, like I don’t tell my heart to beat. “As a writer,” to use a phrase popularised in the media, I’m using the example of – well, that – to kick off yet another post about the human condition: we are more than our conscious minds, which contravenes a lot of what we seem to believe about ourselves these days. We may think we’re in charge, but. There are aspects of ourselves, little behavioural thingummies, that give the lie to rationality and planning.
I was with Somebody at that table, capital S, which – who – was enough to fill my attention, and (spoiler alert) we then failed to get into The Grapes (packed), stood outside Mango’s (big open windows; we could see as well as hear the band) and then spent a very happy afternoon following the music and meeting people through the pubs and cafes and, er, Watersports Centre along Church Street, Arwenack Street and into Events Square … and then later, back again to The Moor and to the marquee outside the Seven Stars, and then to the upstairs bar where the Strumpets were singing.
And finally, not to leave the story incomplete, to Asha, the Indian restaurant. There are moments in life, moments typically brought on by sunshine, music, the news that you’ve just walked 11,792 steps, when the answer to every question seems to be: a cold pint of Cobra beer. Every question except one. Why am I attracted to women? Or rather, to refine the question down to what I’m really asking, what’s with this unauthorised person-watcher lurking on the edge of my consciousness, looking out through my eyes, directing a fragment of my attention towards opportunities to, um? I mean, at my age. It just doesn't fit. It’s so incongruous!
He’s presumably part of the team that handles the sub-routine for the fight-or-flight response. And working in the same office in the primitive part of my brain is the sub-William who presses the buttons to make me crave a Cobra when I’m, I don’t know, or an apple when I’m short on Vitamin C, or, er, something full of protein when I need protein (with my conscious mind, I don’t even know enough to construct the example). I wonder if there’s something slightly more than just “She looks nice!” in what that subterranean sub-William sees.
I wonder if combining that woman’s qualities and my qualities would … perhaps I won’t continue this train of thought. But – yeah. DNA. Genetics. Every now and then two pairs of eyes meet, and maybe there’s a level at which two people assess … I believe I said I wouldn’t continue this train of thought.
I wasn’t born yesterday. I know about the birds and the bees. That thing with the stork. Peacocks, peahens and those apes with the red bottoms. I know what happens when two beautiful young people with perfect dentistry Like Each Other Very Much But Can't Admit It Until Nearly The End. I’m a rational, et cetera, and I know the answer to the question at the top of the page. It’s just that, frankly, that answer strikes me as, yes, incongruous. My italics. I mean, I’ve actually read Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. I own an iPhone. I can clear a whole pub full of sea-shanty enthusiasts with the strength of my views on Brexit (actually, I can’t, and I’ve got the bruises to prove it). I’m here, now, writing a blog post in the slatted sunshine through the window, feeling quite good about myself, feeling quite, I suppose, civilised. And yet I’m sharing my head-space with this – ooh, look at her!
And sharing it with a vivid imagination, given that I’m on my own in here with the blinds not yet up. Alone except for the sub-routine that’s telling me it’s time for another coffee. Don’t entirely trust that one, but – hold on. Aaah, yes. Coffee. Just what– Where was I? Yes, I realise that this isn’t just me. Everybody has a version of the same thing going on. We argue about – everything, these days – and yet relationships keep on happening and the human race keeps on making babies. The Victorians wouldn’t have begat the Edwardians without the occasional intrusion of incongruous thoughts, after all. And so on back through history – and up and down Church Street, and throughout nature. At the duck pond the other day, I watched tiny fluffy baby ducks grubbling (yes, spellcheck – grubbling; look up “neologism” – no, don’t; it isn’t) around in the shallow weed for whatever they eat, and I thought: that isn’t learned behaviour. It’s there already.
Those ducklings were carrying pre-installed software to deal with hunger. I have pre-installed software to ensure (a) that I eat an apple occasionally, and (b) that the human race survives. My installation of (b) is not very useful on a day-to-day basis, not to me, quite embarrassing actually, but look around you: that program has been very successful over the centuries. All these people! And it occurs to me to wonder: if the ongoing success of the human race (and animals, and of course plants) is being handled by the unconscious primitive-brain department, what does that say about the conscious mind? Not an easy question to ask, as we negotiate our way through today’s big issues, but … did we check the foundations, before we moved into this building? Did you hear that?
Hold off on your playing of the glass-bead game while I go slowly down this narrow creaky staircase to the basement and reach out my hand – slowly – to the handle of that door standing ajar with the darkness behind it. What do you mean, let’s separate? Have you been watching television again? We’re in this together. This is our metaphorical house. No, I don’t think we were ever consulted on the design. Yes, I know about that dark patch on the blueprint for the basement, but I thought we agreed to ignore it. Hang on while I just – argh!
And then – because there’s also an inbuilt instinct to worry about disaster, from the Apocalypse of Revelations through to the Cold War’s Mutually Assured Destruction and all the way to today's Global Warming – it crosses my mind to ask – what if the whole of human civilisation was just a defensive primitive-brain move against the darkness? What if we grouped together to defend against predators, built that into tribes, built that into nations, went too far and built that into globalisation? What if all that was driven by the unconscious – by instinct? And what if, now, it’s all unravelling because we built something beyond what we intended to build? Are we all – wait for it – doomed?
Brexit, nationalism, populism, localism (no, wait, that’s a good thing) and borders closing. If nature built in a bunch of unconscious primitive-brain fail-safes – fight or flight, band together, et cetera – to handle the existing threats of day-to-day life in the wild, and unchecked they all led to civilisation, then globalisation, what new sub-routines will emerge now that we’re civilised? And globalised?
As you might ask if you thought in these terms: what rough beast is this, its hour come round at last, slouching towards us out of the darkness, refusing to take the rational, sensible, economically literate answer? Whatever will we vote for next?
Invitation to a thought experiment. First, choose between two possible scenarios. One, I was playing with my smartphone the other day, and I happened to open the Notes app. Two, I was hacking my way through impenetrable jungle the other day, when I stumbled through into a clearing and found a temple. Entering the temple, I found a scroll.
Chosen? Good. In front of me is a piece of writing. Tapped in quickly with a pair of thumbs (smartphone scenario), scratched hastily on the parchment by a scribe with a hangover (jungle), the piece of writing reads as follows:
“Let us imagine that you start with/as a lump of clay, and are gifted somehow with the ability to mould yourself into whatever human being you want to be. At some point there’s the fingertip-to-fingertip thing of introducing consciousness, and you are allowed to give yourself all the qualities that the good, bad or morally ambiguous fairy would impart at your naming, christening or equivalent ceremony. The goal is to end your clay’s life with a positive score on morality. Problem is, if you start good, you have to be really good. If you start bad, every good impulse counts for something. Who would you be?”
I do this. I trudge through the pre-dawn neighbourhood (hack my way through the pre-dawn jungle) wrestling with metaphysical speculations about the nature of reality, morality and anything else that occurs to me. And sometimes, I write the results down. On this particular morning, I think it must have crossed my mind that in all the myths and most of the realities, bad-to-good gets more traction than stayed-good-throughout. To be saved, for example, you first have to be unsafe. The prodigal son really has to mess up before he’s welcomed home.
What does that say about the human mind?
Not that I’m superstitious or anything, you understand, but having written at length about my own funeral last week, and having enjoyed myself (even) more than usual lately, I think I should make it clear that I intend to live forever. I don’t have space in my diary for anything else, actually.
Not being superstitious, I haven’t just played through my head the conversations about irony – as in “he wrote that, and then that happened” – that would ensue if, you know, I, um, over the next few days. But I have enjoyed myself rather a lot lately, and I did write that, so … I think if you don’t mind I’ll just describe the morning walk I take most mornings and will be taking every morning until further – until nothing! What am I saying? Will be taking every morning. Perfectly rational. Not superstitious at all. Just describing it because it’s worth describing.
I leave the house, and if it’s today, I think about childhood Summer holidays. The trees are moving, and noisy, and the wind carries flecks of rain. This is the weather for walking down to the beach with spade, bucket and crab-line. This is the weather for not wanting to be the only child on the beach in a complete set of waterproofs. Picnic out of a hamper, wait an hour to swim, and then later, have the sand brushed out from between my toes before I can put my shoes back on. This is that weather. Piling up walls of sand against the tide. The weather for shivering, and then being wrapped in a towel. Soul weather, by one definition.
More recently, this is the weather for walking down Trelawney Road from the top, the big trees moving in the wind, then crossing the road at the bottom and going round (okay, spellcheck – around) past the cinema into The Moor. There’s a bus shelter outside Wetherspoon’s where, if you happen to be me and it’s a day like this, you can sit and watch the trees up the slope above Good Vibes, Espressini, et cetera. Yes, I have a thing about trees. Down from Good Vibes (et cetera) is the paper shop. Up from Espressini (et cetera) is a shop called Matt’s RC Garage, and that’s going to matter in years to come.
RC as in Radio Control, of course, not Roman Catholic nor Rigid Containers. But we’ll get to Matt and his establishment in a few paragraph’s time. Right now, we’re walking down past the bottom end of Jacob’s Ladder, past Tesco on the other side, past Bow, which sells bags, and round into Church Street, which is cobbled (except where it isn’t, but the water-main people have promised to put the cobbles back). If you time it just right, Church Street is packed with outsize delivery trucks squeezing past each other. At Wilko, until recently, the pre-opening cleaners played loud music to themselves over the PA system.
Church Street, and then the slope down to the Church Street Car Park, which is actually Fish Strand Quay, which is where Captain Lapenotiere arrived in the schooner Pickle in November 1805 with news of Trafalgar and the death of Nelson (readers unfamiliar with the history: naval battle; admiral who won it but was killed). They’re refitting the closed pub by the slope – probably not the same “Them” who work behind the scenes to rule the world through the Illuminati. If you walk to the far end of Fish Strand Quay, you come to a slightly lower area of the car park where there are occasionally early-morning exercise classes.
Then it’s up past the sailmaker and the figurehead, past the oyster restaurant and the build-your-own breakfast café – the Wheelhouse and the Rumbling Tum respectively, been to the first (yes!), not the second (I’ll get there) – and out of the stone archway onto Church Street, That was Upton Slip, named after Captain Upton (readers unfamiliar, he was mayor of Falmouth in 1708), and now we’re crossing Church Street again and heading up Well Lane, past the craft shop and Pea Souk, and now here we are on New Street facing the steps. We need to go up and then diagonally across the cleared grass.
This is where the long-term planning comes in. I’ve heard it said that the test of really good writing is that it needs only the bare minimum number of words to get a huge amount of meaning across – plot, character, emotion, scene-setting, et cetera – and if this post qualifies as really good writing, you’ll already know that in the window of Matt’s RC Garage, there’s an all-terrain radio-controlled vehicle, maybe the term would be “muscle car”, or “utility”, or some such, on which each wheel has been replaced by three wheels within a caterpillar track – so that it has a kind of triangular tank track at each corner. On its own scale, this thing would be extremely handy for climbing steps. I need one. Scaled up. Or rather, I need its wheels – tracks.
Walking is a good time for thinking, or indeed forward planning, and the current recurring daydream – they tend to last a few days each – is all about how I’m going to take this walk when I’m as old as, I don’t know, that 25th-Dynasty Egyptian mummy in the Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro. Iset Tayef Nakht was a priest from the Temple of Al Karnack, I find. Busy man, no doubt. I suppose he had people to carry him around. I need – eventually, I’m going to need – a mobility scooter with a souped-up engine and some serious step-climbing wheels – triangular tank tracks, in fact. Iset went off into the next world in a carved box surrounded by representations of all the things an Egyptian man of that time would have accumulated in his shed. I need something that’ll get me to the sunlit uplands of Vernon Place and beyond.
Some time back, Jack London wrote a book with the title The Call of the Wild (1903). Self-explanatory title, I’ve always thought. I don’t exactly feel the call of the wild as I walk past Matt’s RC Garage in the mornings (strictly, I don’t, because I go round by the cinema; let’s call this artistic licence), but as I glance in the window at all the gadgets, remote-controlled cars, aeroplanes, accessories, shiny things, I do feel the call of something. I said goodbye to my last mid-life crisis a while ago, and I’m not quite ready for my second childhood, but … something. Taking a small radio-controlled vehicle for a walk every morning would be an alternative to getting a dog, I suppose, but … no. It’s not that.
The call of the Inner Child, maybe? I don’t know. Do I need to develop an interest that requires more hands-on work than just tapping on the screen of my smartphone? Not sure. Maybe. I'll go in one day. But in the meantime, if this weather continues, I’m definitely buying myself a bucket. And a spade.
Could we hold the American chickens for a moment, please? Hold the chlorine, and I suppose, hold the mayo? I went to the cinema a few days back, to see a ballet, live, piped in from somewhere else. There was an interval, and in the interval, I felt thirsty. Now, this wasn’t the West End, where the drinks we’d booked for the interval would be waiting for us at a table in the bar. This was the Phoenix Cinema, Falmouth, where there is a bar, perfectly good bar, and a food menu as well, good place to eat before or after a superhero film, and actually, they’ll bring your order to you while you’re watching – sorry, I’m getting side-tracked.
There’s a bar, but the bar’s upstairs and I was downstairs, and sometimes, when you know that everybody else has gone upstairs, and when you’re really too thirsty to go up and join the back of the drinks queue that just came out of Screen One – I went to the ticket desk. Here, the choice was between a blue Slushie and something from the fridge. Nothing against Slushies, and do look them up online (gosh!), but – reader, I bought myself a plastic bottle. With fizzy water in it. Yes, I have been thinking about the self-exemptions we give ourselves when we care about the planet. Yes, I am totally and righteously against waste plastic. But … this was me and I was thirsty.
Surely, if I’m genuinely and sincerely against plastic waste, I can buy myself a plastic bottle when I need one? Just like – no, I’ll stick with my own example. Just one teensy-weensy plastic bottle containing a mere 500ml of ice-cold fizzy water filtered through the layers of prehistoric rocks and minerals behind the Phoenix Cinema’s chiller cabinet? Surely? The salutary moment was the look of genuine shock on the face of one of my companions when I returned to my seat with my plastic bottle. The answer to the question(s) in this paragraph turns out to be … no. Just because I consider myself to be one of the good guys, doesn’t mean I can be bad occasionally.
To get the rest of the virtue-signalling out of the way quickly, I wrestled with my conscience, bought a Sodastream, couldn’t get it to work (this says more about me), bought half a dozen glass bottles of fizzy water, read the Sodastream instructions, asked for help with it, got it to work (well, I didn’t exactly), search-engined my way through a lot of online stuff about the wickedness of bottled-water companies, blah, blah, blah, drank a glass of water poured from a glass bottle, and got on with my life. By which I mean: I got on with a long weekend of dropping out of the news cycle.
No matter what I was doing; that isn’t the point. What matters is: I had a long weekend of not hearing any news at all. Nothing whatsoever. The sun shone. The rain fell. The days went by quickly because we were enjoying ourselves. I missed the whole of a controversial state visit, and a big chunk of a leadership race. The climate changed, but in my bit of it, the weather was just weather. I didn’t hear any news for about, oh, five days. The sun shone, the birds sang, the tide came in and out. The milk arrived in the mornings, the post in the early afternoons, and at intervals, the washing machine rumbled in the background.
I remember exactly where I was when that happy time ended. Where I was, but the point here is how it ended. There I was, in my state of disconnected bliss, and all of a sudden, somebody threw a bucket of cold water into my face. No, wait, that’s the metaphor. What really happened was: all of a sudden, somebody launched into a detailed description of the treatment meted out to chickens by “agribusiness” in the USA. The treatment of chicken farmers as well. Pigs came into it. And I thought: oh no! I’m back on this planet. Having been so totally tuned out, I couldn’t immediately connect with the details; it was more that we were bonding over indignation; that such things are done in the world; that being indignant about them is the other half of the human condition; that nothing is far away any more. There was automatically a side to take, but for once it was the side-taking that struck me first.
If what I was told is true, you may assume that I agree with you. Yes, I get it. But what I want to know is, why are we like this? Why can’t we just be happier in the world? Kinder to life? Answer: (1) because people behave in ways … and (2) we can’t help finding out about them and (3) we react as we do. Those ways might be expedient, and perhaps there are arguments on either side, et cetera. It’s a shame, in a way, that we’re all so committed to getting our own side across. But just altogether – why? What is it about the human race? I’ve lived in rural places where the animals have lived happy lives that ended too quickly for them to know about it. I’ve lived long enough to know that we’re worse to each other, physically, spiritually, mentally, than we are to any other living thing. How is it that we don’t learn to live? To live in nature?
I’ve kept chickens, and I remember a farmer saying to me once, after a not very successful attempt to hatch eggs in an incubator, “The fact is, William, the hens are better at this than we are.” I’m neither vegan nor vegetarian, but if there’s horribleness involved, I’m going to have to look elsewhere for my lunch.
Here we go again. Another leaflet through the door for a funeral plan. Am I supposed to identify with the male half of the couple on the front? His partner does look delighted that he’s got his death covered. “Plan for your future,” says the line at the top. That’s cheerful. By the logic of this leaflet, my future is a deathbed surrounded by relatives happy that they don’t have to pay for my funeral. I wonder if the plan allows for the hire of professional mourners.
Assuming there’s a funeral-pyre option, I want mine built on a barge, Viking-style, and towed out to sea from Prince of Wales Pier, Falmouth. I want crowds. I want trumpets and cymbals and those professional mourners wailing and – I don’t know whether I can stipulate this – gnashing their teeth. Lots of uncontrolled emotion – and let’s hope for a mix-up in the bookings so that there’s also a clown to distract the children. Oh, and wouldn’t it be great if there were several mysterious women dressed entirely in black (blacker black than everybody else), with veils over their faces, who queue up to drop a series of single red roses into the water? At five-minute intervals, perhaps?
And fireworks, of course. Yeah, and a representative from the insurance company underwriting the plan, who doesn’t quite know where to put the tasteful corporate-colours bouquet he’s brought to demonstrate his company’s commitment to customer service at all times. Finally, distracted by the clown pulling an egg from his ear just as he’s got up the nerve to ask the nearest mysterious woman whether she has any plans for later, he panics and hurls it into the water, where it skims like a flat stone until it catches up with the barge. And then sinks like a stone because he’s forgotten to remove the brick of funeral-plan leaflets that he was supposed to hand out to the mourners as they left – not to the professional mourners, said the memo.
Or could it be that the funeral-plan leaflet – that I’ve just put through the shredder – doesn’t offer any of those options? Could it be that the funeral-plan leaflet doesn’t even invite me to choose between lying on my back for a very long time and blowing in the wind? I wonder if the late funeral-plan leaflet – much missed, now that I need to check up on these details – doesn’t really care what I want, so long as my plans for the future include paying the company behind it a regular income. A regular income from money that would otherwise go to my descendants. Who wouldn’t charge an “administration charge” or a “set-up fee” before paying for anything. I think I can manage without financial planning for the hereafter, if what that really means is signing away today’s money to corporate strangers.
Financial planning, I said, not fraud, although they’re easily confused. When did we all get so single-mindedly obsessed with money? For quite a lot of my life, it occurs to me now, there’s been at least one insurance company whispering in my ear, offering me the opportunity to commit to paying a regular monthly amount towards the distant prospect of something that a conventionally minded unimaginative person would imagine that I wanted at that age. My first credit-card offer – oh, the nights out I’d have, the consumer technologies I could buy, so easily, so easily – and all those offers of loans towards the deposit on the motorbike, the car, the flat, the debt burden. All I ever had to do was sign a lengthy contract, full of small print, that committed me to providing an insurance company with a long-term income…
…and I suppose I should apologise for the dismal subject-matter (and length) of this week’s post, but hey, why don’t we all just blame the insurance company? After a lifetime of sending me glossy sheets of paper that I didn’t want, full of opportunities that came to me anyway – or didn’t – without their expensive intervention, their final pitch is this: pay us an income for the rest of your life, and when you’re dead, nobody will be out of pocket.
Well, great. All that Western Civilisation, all those ancient Greeks, Romans, writers, artists, self-help gurus, enlightenments, renaissances, German philosophers with difficult beards and unpronounceable names, the sixties, the eighties, The Economist magazine, all that Harnessing The Power Of Modern Technology, Wired, Terry Pratchett, the Mona Lisa, Kindle, NaNoWriMo, the UK’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (seriously; all those lumped together in one ministry) – all that, and it comes down to this: we want your money.
And here, right on cue, is another credit-card offer. It’s offering me a competitive rate on balance transfers. It comes from the bank where I’ve had an account since I was fourteen, and it includes a leaflet detailing how they’re using my data. Now. If you’re me, you’re probably wondering: how can this bank, of all banks, not be aware that I haven’t had a credit card for upwards of twenty years?
If you’re me, you’re wondering whether it’s possible to have a “balance” to “transfer” if there isn’t even a credit card to transfer it from? I mean, my finances aren’t that healthy, but – no. Full stop. This doesn’t work. If you’re me, you’re wondering about that, and about the embedded inaccuracy of all the data collected about us, and you’re playing around with some neat but overstretched metaphor that involves bears, woods and toilet paper – and you’re missing the real point.
But you get there in the end. In my lifetime, I’ve gone from a credit culture in which the objective of a credit card, or a loan, was to buy a television or a sound system now rather than at the end of the month. I’ve gone from that, to a credit culture in which the objective of a credit card is to manage existing debt.
I thought the financial crisis was ten years ago – more than that. I thought we’d killed that monster. We’ve defeated it, and we’re living in the happy-ever-after, right? The fact that dust is trickling down the heap of rubble doesn’t mean that the monster is about to come bursting out again, does it? I should give up on these metaphors. We’re all in bad shape, financially, and the banks are competing with each other to take our interest payments as income. Remember the financial crisis? All those mortgages treated as securities?
I mean – if my own bank (a) doesn’t know that I don’t have a credit card and thus, you know, don’t make regular payments out of my bank account, duh, to service a credit-card debt, not rocket science to work that out, and (b) doesn’t realise that its shiny new algorithm doesn’t know me half as well as Mr Bedford (nicknamed “Uncle Bedford” in the family; my bank manager in my teens) knew me back in the day – well, I think I can stop worrying about the “surveillance economy” and all the data being collected about me. Because when they finally get around to using it, it’s not about me. It’s levelled out, rounded up, rounded down into a generic version of me that wants what some generic average person in my demographic would want. It’s not actually cost-effective to know me personally.
I don’t know what people in my demographic want. I see them often enough, in the coffee shop, the café, the cinema and the theatre – on the coast path, the beach, the high street – and I suppose I could ask them. I could join them where they gather and ask them – no, wait a second. Maybe I’ve got this wrong. Maybe they’re not gathering at the box office, or taking the dog on some Nordic Walking expedition. Maybe the Wisdom Of Insurance Companies is correct, and actually, I’ll find them queueing at the undertaker’s, waiting to enquire about opportunities to make advance payments towards their funeral.
After all, those credit-card companies and insurance companies wouldn’t have spent that much money over that many years on so many glossy mailshot leaflets if they didn’t know what they were doing, would they? If that was the case, you’d have to ask – where the heck did they get that much money to waste?
Global warming itself is separate from the scare about global warming. My respects to the science, but if the planet is changing its weather, that’s the planet’s business. There’s a balance that the planet maintains, an equilibrium, and if that becomes unsustainable (because some pesky mammal species is burning too much fossil-fuel, for example), the planet shifts everything just enough to reach a new equilibrium.
Yes. Fine. The pesky mammal species can stop what it’s doing, or – not. The planet goes on. We all survive, or some of us do, or none of us do. End of story.
Except that … I’m convinced by the science, yes, sure, and the weather does seem to be worth talking about, uh huh, and yes, I did see that piece shared on Facebook about – yes, yes, I know, very worrying. We’re too late to stop it, and people do keep leaving plastic bottles on beaches, I know, and that’s bad, and yes, I will bring a bag for plastic waste next time I head for Gylly Beach. I agree with you. Bad situation.
Could I just say – not disagreeing with you at all, not even slightly – that I’ve noticed something that doesn’t fit? It just occurred to me, and now I can’t get it out of my head.
It’s this. There’s always something. It was Mutually Assured Destruction and then it was Nuclear Winter. Some time before that, it was the Apocalypse and Armageddon and all manner of nastiness if we didn’t pick the right church of a Sunday. I can remember being worried that international travel would spread plagues around the world. Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring (1962). Communism was seen as a big threat in the USA in the nineteen-fifties, and now I think they’re worried about “socialised medicine” (as in: the UK’s NHS) while we’re bothered about chicken (something about chlorine).
Don’t quote me on the USA; I speak from ignorance. I’m just saying this. The space in our heads currently occupied by global warming has never been vacant. There’s always something. And whatever it is, somehow, we always survive it. We had The War To End All Wars, and then another one, because we were always at war. And we’re still here. My generation lived with the constant threat of nuclear annihilation, blah blah blah, just as my parents’ generation lived with, you know. And we should respect the plight of Generation Whatever We’re Calling Them Now, whose futures have been utterly destroyed by – no, I’m not getting into that.
I find this reassuring, actually. I take it to mean that we’re changing. We may not realise it, but we’re adapting. The situation may look close-to-hopeless (it always looks close-to-hopeless), but all the beach-clean initiatives around the world, the green initiatives, the Un-rap store in Falmouth (and the rest of the bring-your-own-packaging movement) do actually count for something. They’re the tip of an iceberg that may not melt all the way after all. Don’t stop picking up the plastic, but don’t despair either.
If I was planning for the future, for real, I’d plan for a future in which the distances travelled are shorter, the roads are clearer, the batteries last longer – the batteries in the bicycles, I mean – and the background noise is birdsong. A future in which technology has a place, and transport, and trade, and horses, and long lunches, and Summer afternoons, and butterflies, and fresh air. Because if I set reason aside for a moment, I'm pretty sure that's what's coming next.
Footnote. I just made a phonecall. Two minutes at most, to confirm the time for a meeting over coffee. My phone is now displaying the question: "How was the quality of your call?" Under that, five white stars. Under that, the word "submit". To which my immediate response is: I'm not submitting! Who wants to know, anyway?
Nobody’s doing the theological analysis. Nobody wants it. Back in 1636, by some weird accident of alternative history, the populace were (okay, spellcheck – was) given the opportunity to vote on the Divine Right of Kings to Rule. This, you will remember, was the principle that monarchs are monarchs because a Higher Authority wants them to be monarchs. Disagreeing with a king was therefore a no-no. [Recorded instances of people being zapped by thunderbolts for disagreeing with the king’s ideas are hard to find, but that’s not to say it didn’t happen.]
Except that parliament was disagreeing with the monarch. So the referendum was intended to settle the question once and for all: do you want the king to rule, or parliament? But to everybody’s great surprise – before the vote, all of London was hailing the new era of parliamentary democracy – the country turned out to be split down the middle. There was a slight – very slight – majority in favour of keeping the Divine Right of Kings to Rule, but as the scribes and pharisees (what are they doing here?) were quick to point out, a third of the populace didn’t even bother to vote.
If you assume, so the scribes' argument ran, that non-voters are more likely to be in favour of the status quo, you can lump them in with the Parliamentarians and discover that, although the Royalists won the actual vote, the Parliamentarians won the argument. Given the scale of the projected change to the constitution, this argument had some force. But the counter-argument was also compelling: parliament had set the terms of the referendum, and committed itself to respecting the result. The two sides became entrenched; efforts to find compromise only complicated the issue. Thus began the Long Parliament (1640-2019), in which everybody had an opinion, and nobody had the authority to make a decision stick.
Early on, the question arose: the Divine Right of Kings to Rule what exactly? After all, it would be ridiculous to argue that the DRKR meant that the king should rule everything. Surely a “soft” DRKR, in which the king got to decide the menus for royal banquets, would be closer to what the populace had intended when they voted for the DRKR to stay in place? Or – another voice shouted across the debating chamber – maybe they meant that the king should be in charge of foreign policy while we actually run the country? But that idea was immediately shouted down – existing trade relationships were too important to be left to one man and his extended family of royal cousins overseas. They argued according to national interest anyway, whatever the treaties said.
And it couldn’t possibly be the case that the populace had no confidence in parliament. Before the Long Parliament – and by the way, this is one of the ironies that make alternative history such a rewarding subject to study – parliament had been a relatively efficient (for its time) decision-making body. The actual business of clogging up the country with red tape and bureaucracy was left to the various ministries (“Leadership by management; management by measurement!” was a slogan of the time), but in matters of preferment and privilege (see also the discussion of the “expenses scandal” in Chapter 19), parliament knew what it wanted and went out and got it.
Much of the credit for the efficient running of parliament belonged to the two-party system. This was a system of patronage whereby honourable members (and the rest) aligned themselves with either the Whig (they wore wigs, but couldn’t spell) or the Tory (tall stories, ditto) faction, and voted thereafter along party lines. Individual MPs accepted the trade-off between having an opinion of their own – in which case, nobody listened to them – and voting according to their faction’s party line – in which case, at least they had a chance of sitting on the front benches eventually. The front benches had legroom.
As the Long Parliament wore on, party discipline broke down. This was partly due to the advent of social media – smaller, more efficient printing presses on which pamphlets and newspapers and op-ed opinion pieces could be rapidly printed and disseminated – and partly due to the new-fangled 24-hour news cycle, a related development whereby the space available for the presentation of opinions rapidly outgrew the supply of opinions from the usual sources. There was so much white space to be filled in the news-sheets that talkative MPs – those who could generate opinions on anything at short notice – found themselves in demand.
In the terminology of the time, there was a shortage of “talking heads” that would offer “challenging opinions” and “incisive commentary”. Demand for opinions continued to grow. Now, for the first time, an individual MP could express an opinion to the media (thus bypassing parliament, note) and have the illusion of being heard. For the first time, MPs could gain influence – “raise their public profiles” – outside parliament, and crucially, outside the two-party system. The proliferation of opinion (Chapter 19 again) was a significant causative factor in the breakdown of two-party discipline and the early development of the One-Person Party system we know today.
But it took the nationwide split over the DRKR, and the resulting Civil War, to drive change. Without that, this country would still be a United Kingdom. We may look back at the years of debate over the various theological justifications for the DRKR, and the assorted scriptural refutations, and we may acknowledge the force of Dr Johnson’s observation, mid-way through the Long Parliament – “A pox on your hard and soft options, sirrah! A pox on your theologies! The populace have voted – has voted, I grant you, spellcheck – and they just don’t want it!” – and we may despair of ever achieving a settlement.
But we have to acknowledge, even so, that without the DRKR, and the Civil War, and all those Hard and Soft Options, and those inflexibly opinionated MPs, we wouldn’t be where we are today.
Looking back towards Truro from Boscawen Park. Mud flats, birds, cathedral spire in the distance. The line of office buildings on the left and the supermarket car park right ahead of you are what passes for Truro's waterfront. Compare and contrast with the waterfront of any other city. Oh, and did I mention it was raining?
How were we persuaded to forget the old ways? Went to a brunch party on Sunday, to celebrate a friend’s new house, and sat out in the narrow garden in a half-circle of chairs, and talked. There was coffee, and there were croissants, and there was porridge. Excellent porridge. Jam, fruit, bowls of fruit, more coffee, toast, orange juice, prosecco, more prosecco, coffee again, and maybe I will just have one more coffee before I go. There was a red rose, copiously in bloom, and a shed, and somebody identified a raspberry bush. If only we could breakfast (brunch) like this every day.
We talked about music. Jazz. We became discursive on the subject of ceramics. Art, more music, ballet, theatre, children, dogs, local radio. Somebody mentioned [redacted] and his bid to lead the [redacted] Party, but that passed quickly, and I don’t think President [redacted] even came up. Which is the measure of a good conversation these days. It was an enjoyable party, four days after a Europe-wide election, and the part of the conversation that comes back to me now, because I’ve been thinking about it, is the part about hair-washing.
Somebody who was sat – sitting – in that half-circle of chairs doesn’t wash her hair. Somebody else washes her hair only occasionally. When I say “doesn’t wash”, I mean – doesn’t use conventional shampoo. To wash your hair with conventional shampoo means to squeeze chemicals from a plastic bottle onto your head and massage them in. And I’m thinking now: why do we do that? Whether you’re vegan, green, health-conscious, worried about the planet, a hypochondriac or (let’s be inclusive here) embarrassingly carnivorous, pouring chemicals onto your head counts as normal. And I’m thinking – huh?
I have a substance in my bathroom, in a plastic bottle, that contains chamomile. I don’t know what chamomile looks like, but if you came to a brunch party at my house and told me I have chamomile in my garden, I’d believe you. If you pointed out the chamomile, I could pick a bunch of it, take it up to the bathroom, and next time I feel an urge to dowse myself in chemicals, I could rub it on my head. The thing about not using conventional shampoo is actually about letting “natural oils” do their thing, but still. I could comb out the chamomile flowers easily enough.
Natural oils. You rinse out any impurities every now and then, in running water, but generally, your hair just self-corrects. You don’t have to use anything. At all. Nada. Which makes this whole subject even more perplexing. I can imagine an ancestor of mine being persuaded that using chemicals is easier than boiling up vats of chamomile, letting them cool, et cetera, but to go from nothing to a plastic bottle full of liquid that froths up into a lather – even if the plastic bottle has a nice picture of nature on it – to go from nothing to all that kerfuffle (not to mention the “avoid contact with eyes” aspect) is just weird.
I’m not against shampoo. I’m sure all the chemicals are properly mixed together in shiny steel vats and responsibly pumped into ranks of plastic bottles marching along on conveyor belts. I’m sure that the huge plastic (?) barrels in which the individual chemicals are delivered are rinsed out and taken to the recycling centre. I’m sure that the rivers around the factories are clear. But – the whole business strikes me as odd. I’ve just gone into the kitchen, and yes, I’m washing my dishes with a substance, in a plastic bottle, that apparently contains “real lemons”. How come I’m not scrubbing my dirty dishes with real lemons?
This is how we live, and the more I think about it, the weirder it seems. I’m not saying that I should keep a cow in my kitchen, rather than a plastic bottle of milk in my fridge, and I’m entirely happy that the “farmyard manure” I put on my garden comes in a sealed plastic sack with “farmyard manure” printed on the outside. No horses need apply. But that conversation in the garden about hair being naturally capable of looking after itself just brought it home to me that – yeah. Like I said, the weirder it seems.
Now, who do you think should lead the Conservative Party to calamitous defeat at the next General Election?
There are moments in my life for which I can never be forgiven. I’m not talking about unspeakable crimes (I’m so over those*), nor about the people I’ve hurt. I can look back and regret that I did that, or said that to her, or wasted that much money on – what was I thinking? I’ve been insensitive in the past, and callous, and aggressive, and stubborn, and clumsy, and a lot of other words that add up to: I’ve been pretty much as fallible and human as everybody else on the planet. I’ve felt envy.
There have been moments when I have found it expedient to remind myself of this truth: we are embarked on a spiritual journey that takes us through the bad stuff as well as the good. We can sit at home and meditate and look virtuous and heap blessings on all around us and post bland pictures of sunrises overlaid with trite messages of goodwill on Instagram – and we can get nowhere. We can become uncomfortably aware of our own faults, and work with them, and get a long way. Spiritually, I mean.
The path to wisdom, and perhaps even to enlightenment, runs through being a complete git sometimes. Or if not that, at least through something other than a ten-part online course in How To Be A Good Person with a free downloadable book for signing up to the email newsletter. Siddhartha Gautama was a rich prince, indulged by his father, “entertained by dancing girls” it says here, before he became The Buddha. Saint Augustine famously prayed, “Give me chastity and continence, but not yet.” And look how that worked out. Bet he had some memories.
It’s not that I can’t be forgiven by other people – that would be up to them, anyway. It’s not that I can’t forgive other people, mostly, nor that I can’t forgive myself for (some of) the wrongs I’ve done to other people. By which I mean (he adds hastily) I’m kind of okay with a lot of the things I did because, you know, all that was a long time ago, probably forgotten on both sides, not such a big deal anyway, we both came out of it okay, moved on, blah blah blah. See above re: fallible and human. I don’t know if “forgive” is the word to use here, but I was younger then, and I didn’t know any better, and…
Yeah, and there are one or two things that, you know, can’t be unsaid and can’t be undone, and I’d just like you to know that I, um; which is to say that I’m very, er, and I wish that I, you know, hadn’t, and if I hurt you (I know that I hurt you), I just want you to know that I’m very – what? You don’t remember? What do you mean, you don’t remember? I’ve been agonising over this for years and you don’t even remember – no, nothing! Nothing at all! I was just thinking aloud about – something else! Oh, you have remembered now? Look, I just wanted to say that I’m – hello? Hello?
We lose people by being human. We can indulge our own fallibility, but fail to recognise it in others. We hold other people to higher standards. All that. But what really strikes me is that I’m human enough not only to regret but also to forgive myself for most of the past. I suspect that we all are – and in the instances where we’re really sorry about something, we’re either human enough to say sorry, or to work with it in some other way. A weekly hour of therapy, for example. A buttress of resentment to push the guilt the other way. I don’t know how the perpetrators of unspeakable crimes deal with what they’ve done, if they’re capable of dealing with it, but most of us manage to live with ourselves.
To be alive is to practise self-deception, at least to some degree. We’ve all done bad things. We can’t always make ourselves the heroes of our own back-stories. But for most of us, there isn’t an alternative to carrying on, so we deal. What I think I’m saying is, we manage to live with ourselves by creating and sticking to a story about who we were and what we did. I remember the good deeds, and I smile to myself. That was me! I remember the bad – and I explain them to myself. That was … I’d slept badly; it was raining; the train was late; you were being unreasonable. Mitigating factors. Most of the time, that tactic works. We know we’re fallible, and fallible is another word for forgivable. We can’t help but look back, but the past can be improved in the telling…
…but then sometimes – and here we go, here’s what I’m really writing about – it can’t. Self-forgiveness doesn’t always work. That’s bad enough. But here’s the really hard part. The moments in my life for which I can never be forgiven – by myself – are not the moments where I’ve been bad, nor the moments where I’ve been wrong, selfish, callous, et cetera. They’re the moments that make me cringe. Moments where I’ve knocked a hole in my own back-story by making a complete fool of myself. By demonstrating unequivocally to myself that on top of everything else, I’m a complete dork.
I look back at myself and I think: you were THAT gullible? You said THAT in front of ALL THOSE PEOPLE? How could you have walked out onto that stage, in front of that many people WITHOUT CHECKING YOUR ZIP? I mean, REALLY? And all those other ones as well: how could you have wasted that much money, all those opportunities, so much of your life, blah? Been so stupid, blah? Look at all those roads not travelled, blah. With great age comes a lot of past, and not all of it’s bearable. Correct me if I’m wrong here, but the truly unbearable parts of an averagely lived life are the parts where we were neither the hero nor the villain, but the fool.
I’m going back to bed to hide under the duvet for a while. But before I do – hey, the sun’s coming through the fog; such timing – but before I do, let me say this. I suspect that there are no grand struggles in life. No heroic quests or great tasks – just the humdrum business of being and day-to-day living. Even if you’re a hero on an epic quest, let’s say, you’ve still got to brush your teeth in the morning – or maybe sit a bit further away from me, would you mind? Spend a little bit more time in the bathroom, of a morning? And listen, Odysseus, let’s be frank with each other: have you even heard of Lynx deodorant? For men?
I suspect that the really valuable components of the spiritual journey are the ones that we’d prefer not to acknowledge at all. We can celebrate the good bits of our past, yes, and work with the bad bits. It’s healthy to work out how to forgive ourselves, let go of our mistakes, upload to Instagram, program the camera to catch the sunrise. All that. It matters. We can work towards empathy, and compassion. We can sit cross-legged and aspire to wisdom and whatever is meant by that word ‘enlightenment’. There's a lot to be said for learning the art of self-forgiveness. And for laughing at yourself - okay, myself. Me, if it helps you.
But to achieve a true spiritual breakthrough, I believe it is important that somebody close to this laptop should also acknowledge the day on which – ugh! – he travelled all the way to London – aaaah, no! – on a packed commuter train – owww – in his smartest possible suit, for a job interview, feeling totally cool and at the top of his game, with a Cornflake lodged in his beard.
*Social media, this is intended to be funny. Surveillance economy, please instruct your algorithm that this is not a confession.
PS: I got the job.
I was there. I guess the scraped-off label would have told us about a band playing locally, or expressed a view on some political issue, but the essential truth remains: I was there. [The rest of this caption picked up on the reference to politics, and commented on recent events. But I felt so drab after writing it that I've deleted it.]
Looking back over the past however many years, I’d say that the biggest surprise has been the sky. Not the speed of the change, nor the scale of their tragedy. Nor even the return to our ancestral home. No, the quiet aftermath has surprised me most. I lived for a while of the edge of a city, where the night above us was a yellow, light-polluted, dirt-polluted darkness. Now there’s no dark matter in the night sky at all; just a multiplicity of stars, some of them too far away to reach us with all of their light.
I’m old enough to remember first contact. They came with their conviction and their arrogance and their belief in their need, and their machines and their noise, and they tore away the trees of our forefathers. In time, the whole of our forest was gone. We were given “civilisation” in its place, and taken away to learn their ways. There was grief, of course, but I remember the place where we were given to live, the “shanty town” as some of them called it when it was no longer necessary to deceive us, where the grasses and the weeds were already pushing up through the broken roads and the dusty paths. We could already see what they would never see.
There came a time when they believed that they had learned from their mistakes. By then, some of us had begun to use their machines, because the old ways would not work in their “civilisation”, and I remember that suddenly, once again, they turned against us. This time, we were the enemy for being what they had tried to make us. We weren’t “standing in the way of progress” by trying to protect our forest. Now, in their eyes, in their shanty town, strangers on the edge of their city, forced immigrants, we were one more focus for resentment. Yes, I know most of the pollution came from them, but in their failure to understand, they needed outsiders to blame.
We were told that we must reduce our usage of their machines, and that by doing so we would “contribute to a reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions” as they put it. For a while, they feasted on words and slogans about living with nature, and we were exhorted to change our ways – but this time (although they failed to understand even this) they were exhorting us to change back to what we had always been. They congratulated themselves on their new-found virtues as though they had always been wise. They lectured us on what we already knew. Still, they did not understand, nor see. New trees were growing on the edges of the city, the tarmac was breaking, but still, they could only talk at us, not hear us.
Do you remember those corporations they had? Yes, including the one that took the forest; that’s a good example. Do you remember how they commissioned films and advertisements to show how they were taking action on climate change? Yes – exactly. All those grand declarations set to music. Those advertisements showing scientists in white coats – white coats! – growing trees under glass in laboratories. All that music. Yes – yes, exactly; I remember the day we worked out – yes, exactly, the incredulity; we couldn’t believe it – the day we worked out that they weren’t doing anything other than making their films, their grand declarations.
Even now, they don’t look outside themselves. They’re scavenging in the ruins, while we’ve returned to the forest’s abundance. Some day soon, yes, we will have to go into their broken cities, to rescue them. We’ll break down their remaining roads and buildings, break the rest of their concrete and let the returning forest complete its work. We’ll bring them back here, to be with us, and teach them how to live.
Oh, look at those stars.
We forget the importance of not knowing what happens next, in life as well as art. Went to see Arthur Miller’s All My Sons a while ago, via the Phoenix Cinema in Falmouth, and wow! That was a satisfying, I don’t know, beginning, middle and ending. Still thinking about it now. Many years back, I went to see (do I have to say William Shakespeare’s?) The Merchant of Venice without knowing how it ended, and I remember being surprised at how hooked I was.
Surprised because – well, my introduction to Shakespeare was three years of “doing” King Lear for my Eng. Lit. A level (older readers: Eng. Lit. is the modern contraction of the subject formerly known as English Literature). Should have been three different plays, but there was a mix-up. So we ground through the same text three years in a row (still haven’t seen the play), and by the end I was still no clearer as to why the royal couple called their eldest daughter Goneril.
But I was pretty sure I knew all too well why the name never caught on. Ugh! Because I’m old and grizzled, my ticket to see All My Sons cost me all of four quid (US readers: four British pounds, which isn’t much for a cinema ticket), and one legacy of my education is that I’ve avoided Shakespeare ever since. I can go to see (almost) all the plays without knowing the ending. The Shakespeare plays, I mean, but having started this with Arthur Miller – no, I haven’t seen Death of a Salesman; yes, I am looking out for a performance of Death of a Salesman.
Eng. Lit. Dept., all is forgiven. I have Theatre ahead of me. What was best about last night was watching “real” characters wrestling with a “real” moral issue. None of them was overtly signalled as the good guy or the bad guy; all of them were flawed, fallible, human, whatever word you want to use; the whole play ran like – sorry, but the word just inserts itself – clockwork. Yes, there were two young adults talking about getting married; no, they didn’t do the rom-com thing of having a row ten minutes before the end and then reconciling after a rethink and a frantic chase to stop one of them getting on the train.
The unpredictability of it all. No doubt there were dramas in 1947 and 1605 that ran along predictable lines, but did any of that predictability intrude into real life? Today, we’re all pretty sure that – no, I’m not going to mention it – is a clear-cut good/bad thing, and that the President of – no, I’m not going to mention him either – is an antidote to the old politics/should never have been elected. We’re settled in our assumptions. We seem to accept the certainties handed to us rather than debate the complexities, and I suspect that by doing so, we fail to deepen our understanding. People are human; they’re not social-media constructs.
The importance of not knowing what happens next. Actually, that’s not quite it. The value of several hours of not knowing, wanting to know, assuming, getting it wrong, being taken by surprise – the value of several hours of paying attention. Of getting some mental exercise. Of not having a ready-made answer from the start. If we’d known, back in 2020, that global warming was going to be so subtle, so insidious – if we’d really engaged with it and debated it – we wouldn’t be where we are now. But we took it for the simple, straightforward catastrophe we had conditioned ourselves to expect, and completely missed its real impact until it was too late.
Global warming – the simple catastrophe, the “zombie apocalypse” without zombies. Lots of storms, regularly unpredictable weather, reports from remote places of fertile land turning to desert. If only we remember to plant a tree every time we fly, we can go on as we did before. All that seems so absurd now, so tragic. Global warming was too clever for us. It came on more as a deception, a massive con trick, than as a straightforward, manageable, containable catastrophe. Global warming didn’t come at us via predictable extinctions of species we knew, like markers on a scoreboard; it worked – gradually, invisibly, inexorably – through parts of the natural ecosystem that we didn’t even know existed – that we depended on absolutely.
And then it hit us. As the New Druids are saying now, it was as if global warming was “intelligently designed” to get around us. We are part of Nature, of course, and as the Wiser Heresy teaches, we work with Nature more than we realise. Consciously, back then, we worked to retain the status quo; unconsciously, we subverted our own efforts. We failed to see what was happening, and by that failure, we brought our own population back down to a sustainable level.
It’s a neat theory, and I think I believe it. I remember the Hunger Days, yes, and nobody could have wanted them, even unconsciously. But I also remember governments and summits and declarations against climate change. All those admonitions and platitudes shared on social media. It’s almost funny, how ardently we declared climate change unacceptable, and called on governments to fix it for us. As though it was a problem up in The Cloud – remember that? – that we could have sorted out on our behalf while we went on driving and heating our houses. As if we really believed words and higher powers would save us. No, really. Right to the end, we were simultaneously blaming and putting our faith in governments.
Enough of this. I remember that performance of All My Sons and I remember The Merchant of Venice. But tonight’s performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in the forest clearing where my people now hold their gatherings, will be much more in keeping with the spirit of the times.
Maybe with the European elections looming, we’ll forget all about climate change and go back to panicking about Brexit. Extraordinary, how effective the media is at disseminating short-term headline-related panic.
I was walking back from the Greenbank Hotel yesterday evening, after a drink with a friend, when I passed a Citroen CV6, looking its age, parked where the pavement was so high that I could look down into it, and then a brand-new Toyota Aygo. Both cars in versions of roughly the same colour.
Struck me that car number one in that sequence was a piece of machinery constructed for the purpose of getting from A to B by people whose primary interest was in providing a means whereby customers could get from A to B. Wheels, seats, engine, protection against the weather. The Toyota Aygo, in this company, looked like a shiny red cocoon on wheels. Also practical, but plump, shiny, closed.
And I wondered about the two generations that had made these two things. Did the first really give birth to the second? What lessons were passed down, and what happened to the straightforward, utilitarian-looking, getting-there-from-here design of the CV6? Why did the Aygo have to be so beautiful, so enclosed, so cosy? So very designed?
I should drink at the Greenbank more often (mine’s a Honda Jazz, thanks). I thought about the evolution of cars, from things you could step into and get out of, to things that wrap you up warm in a safe space with soothing music while the road goes by outside. There are cars that are sold on safety, and cars that “perform”. None sold on the basis that they are quite useful if you just need to get from A to somewhere else.
The travel is assumed, these days; we all need to be getting from wherever we are to somewhere else. We’re all “on the go”, even when we’re buying lunch. But why these cuddly little comfortable cars? Why not modular cars, or cars that could be adapted for different purposes? Instead of the metallic-paint options, you get the clip-on bulldozer attachment or the seats that can be removed (easily) to make more luggage space.
Why not one-person cars that could be lawnmowers with the right attachment, or diggers, or cars that could hook themselves into long road-trains as easily as you drive onto a ferry? Maybe even cars that dock with the side of the house as neatly as spaceships dock with space stations (you’ll want the pebbledash paint options, sir). Buy one of those and convert the garage.
Cars today are aspirational. They’re descended from vehicles where the whole point was that somebody else would do the work. Except that the chauffeur’s space has withered away and the steering wheel has regrown itself in the rich-customer compartment in the back.
I had a pleasant rest-of-the-evening, thank you. I walked on, under the archway, past the Star & Garter pub (“Harbour Views Since 1892”) and past that tantalising little print shop, Juniper Bespoke; I paused briefly at the window of Toro, which opens occasionally for the sale of air plants and other magical greenery; then went on past Stone’s Bakery and the antique shops; past the sports shop and the vintage clothes store; turned left onto Prince of Wales Pier and out towards the Pier Café and beyond.
And not for a moment did I think about cars.
What really surprised me about the apocalypse was how ordinary it all seemed at the time. Every new catastrophe – every natural disaster, every destruction, every freak storm – seemed only to shock us for about fifteen minutes. Then it was just kind of accepted into the past. I mean, I remember when the first coastal city – yes, take this for an example. I remember where I was, exactly where I was – the first time I saw a skyscraper, a whole financial district actually, collapse into a storm surge.
You’re old enough to remember television, aren’t you? I was in my apartment, on the sofa, we both were, watching the news, and – yes, the city collapsed, suddenly, like an ice shelf, all the glittering skyscrapers, and it was the greatest shock I’ve ever – we just sat – and then in no time at all it was just common knowledge that you didn’t build anything within reach of the sea. We were numb, and then the commentators were all talking about how inevitable it had been, blah, blah, blah, you probably don’t remember journalists, and then, somehow, we were all living in a world where cities weren’t built on the coast.
My apartment? An apartment was a living space in a bigger building, a couple of rooms where you could be private. Bedroom, kitchen – no, the people in the building ate separately, in their own – a sofa was something to sit on, like this log. Anyway.
There was some talk about flood defences, still, even then, and people interviewed who weren’t going to leave their old lives, but the second time it happened, and then the third, it wasn’t news. It was just an inevitable thing. We still talk about the angry sea, right? The storms? There were a lot of people living in the coastal cities back then, and they all packed up their belongings into their cars, one or two at first and then all at once when the panic took hold, and – oh, that was a season. The angry sea. Those waves. Cars jammed on the roads. The survivors – you’re probably too young to remember, but people didn’t used to live in their cars. Cars used to move.
Yes, and look at us now, sitting in this circle around the fire. We’ve scavenged tins for a feast and I’m an old guy talking about the past. No, kid, those are good. They’re beans. They’ve been baked. Very nutritious. That’s – yes, that’s fruit salad; don’t heat it. We’re sitting here, and the sun’s going down, and we’re about to eat – and there’s nobody else between here and those camp fires on the Interstate. Maybe the apocalypse isn’t over, but this is the new normal and it’s good. Oh, those are hot dogs. No, they’re pork. Pig. Mainly. What do you mean, are they edible?
No, you’d have a lock on the door, and the space inside was yours. Several locks. Two people, one, sometimes a family. You’d sleep there, eat there, and – no, we didn’t know the neighbours. Well, it was normal, back then. We didn’t question it.
Look at us now. We’re starting to tell history like we won. We survived. I don’t even know how to explain what happened, what we did, but it wasn’t a fight we won. I just remember that everything changed, too slowly for us to catch up, if that makes sense, and then suddenly it was too late and everything was happening too fast. Change creeps up on you. Then it gets really angry and the rain won’t stop. Here, let me show you. Clamp it on like this, see, so that it cuts in – see that? Then you turn this handle, like this, and see how it cuts round? Careful, the edge is sharp. That’s soup. Looks like – yes, mushroom. Heat it a little and then drink it. I told you; they would have had labels, but they washed off under the water.
No, you can’t come with us tomorrow. Look, we’ve discussed this and I say stick to the decision. Leave it to the old people to go into the city. We know our way around, for one thing, and there are still buildings to collapse, for another. Yes, I like alligator meat too, but I was lucky. It came up under my raft, on the corner of Paradise and Ninth – doesn’t matter where that is. I’d tied up to the top of a streetlight poking out of the water and it had obviously been stalking me. I know hunting’s difficult and gathering’s dull, but these tins won’t last forever. So no, you are not going to hunt for alligator meat on a street corner in the city tomorrow. Why don’t you try for a deer, maybe, or have another go at catching a rabbit? They don’t try to eat you back.
You don’t need us with you, actually, not any more. Those were skills out of books that we were trying to teach you, and if you’re going to hunt for real, you need to work the rest of it out for yourself. Survival skills didn’t really count for much, before, so we’ve taught you all that we know, and more. Yeah, we’re learning too, and yeah, most of these clothes, and the tents, came from a camping store that we liberated. But they won’t last and the future’s yours, really, not ours. We’ve brought you to this devastation, and – what? No, I know it isn’t devastation. More like – well, let’s not go too far, but maybe you could pick me one of those apples? Yes, off that tree over there?
Watch where you put your feet; you never know what’s hiding in the long grass.
We were going to have this picture last week, but by one of those inexplicable glitches that make life with technology so very challenging, it wouldn't upload. I miss the days of opening up the back and replacing the rubber band, or putting a small coin on the stylus to stop it jumping. Of using that kind of ingenuity. But I don't miss waiting a week for my holiday snaps to come back to me from the chemist - pharmacy, sorry. Pity we can't have today's technology, but with the occasional component that requires its bolts tightened.
We are generating greenhouse gases. These are causing global warming. This is bringing about climate change. This will eventually kill us.
What do we do?
More importantly, what do we NOT do?
There’s a pie chart at the EPA website (Environmental Protection Agency; 2017 figures): 29% of greenhouse gases are generated by “transportation”.
We stop driving about. We stop eating food that’s taken a long-distance journey to get to us. Easy enough.
But wait. 28% of greenhouse gases are generated by “electricity”. We should also go to bed at sunset and wake up with the dawn. Turn off the lights and the TV. Easy enough.
Yeah, but another 22% of greenhouse gases are caused by “industry”, and this is where it gets awkward. Industry generates not only greenhouse gases, but also taxes, salaries, pensions, things to buy. We should learn to live without money.
Hmm. And that’s not all. Whatever is meant by “commercial & residential” generates 12% of greenhouse gases, while agriculture generates 9%.
Whatever you’re doing commercially and residentially, stop doing it. Give that cow a charcoal biscuit.
Maybe if we went for carbon neutrality instead? Preserved the status quo, but printed something like “Generate greenhouse gases responsibly” on all our packaging?
I mean, I need my car, obviously, to get around. I need the heating on, thanks to global warming, and I’m pretty sure I’d get bored in the evenings, staring blankly at the corner of the room where the TV used to be.
So if I plant a tree, or perhaps a vegetable seedling [tiny plant, spellcheck], every time I switch on the TV, maybe we’ll all be okay?
Not actually plant a tree, you understand, but pay somebody who promises to plant a tree for me. Tick that box responsibly. Get a job as a compliance officer checking that trees have been planted.
Maybe the climate will stop changing if we all drive only so far to get to work (throwing seeds onto the verges as we go)? Maybe climate change will stop if I pull on another jumper and paint the corner of my room in a more interesting colour (slow-drying paint, several coats)?
And maybe I won’t have to bother, if “transportation” switches to “electricity” rather than fossil fuels, and “electricity” switches to solar power. All we have to do is change, after all.
So not such a big problem. Maybe I'll just write about something else for a while. Tried to get in to see the new Avengers film last night, but it was sold out. Now, that was truly outrageous!
First, there was the wildfire that couldn’t be stopped. Then the earthquake, then the eruption, then the floods. Black clouds formed over the heartlands, and a grey rain fell. The so-called plague of locusts caused the first widespread famines, but then most of the pests died in the harvest failures of the years that followed. Many of us survived. Flight was illegal by then, across the world, and borders closed to all but essential trade (by sea). Both Australia and Russia began to barter solar energy for essential supplies, until there was no surplus left to barter, not anywhere.
After Yellowstone, the surviving US populations fled to the walls North and South. There were clashes, and in the last news reports we saw piles of confiscated guns. But communications failed then, and global media, and the Americas and Europe became remote from each other. We don’t know what happened after that. Satellites began to become visible again, as the night sky cleared of pollution, and there was birdsong in the new silence. Unfamiliar birds nested in the unfamiliar trees. For a time, the sunsets were beautiful.
Then there was nothing beyond the immediate horizon. Nowhere to go, nothing to need, no visitors and no communications - nothing but distance. We closed the roads and worked in the fields and green spaces. Yachts became fishing boats. There were still some books, so we could learn without electricity, and in time we began schools for the sharing of essential skills. Homes became communal, because there was no warmth in living alone, and the strong survived. We re-learned the skills we had lost, and over time, survival became subsistence. We harvested brick and stone from buildings that collapsed, and learned from printed stories how to tame wild horses. Roads broke as the roots of encroaching forests pushed through the tarmac. We built our first windmills.
We made contact with our neighbours: they had more fields than we did, and grain to trade. We had access to the sea, and doctors, and expertise that they lacked - those books we had thought to salvage, and skills we had taught ourselves. At first, we were cautious, but we had learned co-operation by then, and we told each other that there was no place for mistrust in our new world. We became allies with our neighbours, even friends. We taught each other’s children. The plastic, the relentless tide of plastic, we took out of the sea and used to block the wide roads that led to the no-longer-known country to the East. Now, we were agreed, our domain would be what we could reach, spreading no further than a day’s ride, and we would decide our own future.
There came a day on which we began to make weapons in earnest. The party of riders came, from what they called “central government”, to offer us security and benefits and many other words besides, in return for a tithe. They spoke of trade, and a recovery, and an old power that they could harness once again, but sustainably this time. They spoke of recovery and rebuilding and lessons learned, and they carried weapons. We had almost forgotten guns. We took their guns from them, and their bladed weapons, and sent them away with the gifts of our peace - bread wrapped in old paper, and ale in repurposed plastic bottles.
We opened the museums, and the armouries, and some of the old mines, and re-learned how to work metal. The storms continued, and the heat, and the cold - and the new rainy season washed the land - and we began to see creatures that we did not recognise: huge beetles, colourful birds with unfamiliar cries, wild animals that we guessed had escaped from zoos. I remember that night we first heard wolves. We were sitting around the fire in the Central Marquee, and speaking about how we seemed to be reliving human history, but in our own time, and on our own terms. Many of us were reluctant to progress into the Iron Age. The wolves seemed to call to us from a world that we could lose again.
But the people with guns returned, and this time, they called us traitors. So we took their guns away from them once more, and we sent them away once more, and we turned our minds to defence. We began work on a wall, a high, flimsy wall, and behind it, far enough back, we built another wall, stronger, just as high, with watchtowers and walkways and arrow-slits and embrasures for cannons and machine guns. We built our two walls North to South, coast to coast, then set our weapons in place on the second wall, prepared them to fire, and forgot about them.
Then we got really busy. The call went out for plastic - plastic bottles, tubs, crisp packets, milk cartons, shampoo bottles, plastic bags, micro-plastic beads, body boards, surfboards, beads, footballs, souvenir action figures, fishing line, net, dolls, detergent bottles, soap dishes, water pistols, pegs for hanging up wet laundry, bottle caps, plates and cups, picnic cutlery. You know, the kind of plastic you can find on any beach, any time, anywhere. We had plastic - oh, we had an abundance of plastic. It came by the cartload.
So we filled the space between the two walls with plastic, and we held back more plastic, and we wrapped plastic in nets and floated it out to sea to store it because we had so much plastic. And when the people with guns came again, and attacked our outer wall as we had expected, the flimsy outer wall broke, and the plastic flowed out over them, engulfing them and their world in plastic recovered from our beaches, and we poured more plastic into the breach, until they could only approach us by wading chest-high through plastic.
And when we could no longer see them, we returned to the green spaces, and the forests, and the animals; to the world we had restored.
Climate change would stop if we all just disappeared. Global warming would stop too, if we all just agreed to cancel the advances and the technologies of the last hundred years or so. If we all went back to a time before the word “global”, we’d survive. I can remember soaking lettuces in salted water to get the bugs out. Buying fish off the quay, and vegetables in season. Nothing wrapped in plastic. Lucozade in glass bottles. Kilner jars! Bakelite telephones! I can bore for England on the virtues of the past, and maybe it’ll come to that.
My problem with climate change is the problem I’ve had with the last couple of (as it happens, predominantly American, with British involvement) wars: describe victory. Listening to military spokespeople talking about how well it’s all going, I’ve wanted to ask: yes, but what’s the objective? What would you count as victory? To withdraw and leave it to the locals? Seriously? Isn’t there something in your media pack, at the very least, about being waved off at the airport by a grateful population? About the streets being lined with happy local millennials in their party clothes throwing flowers onto the passing, departing tanks?
Wars aren’t fought to bring about bland reassurances that progress is being made. Wars are fought to bring about change. And change by definition can’t be the status quo ante, or any other kind of roughly the same with compromises attached. However carefully the soundbites are packaged. And I suggest that the end has to be clear from the beginning - not left to PR people capable of putting a positive spin on any outcome, however chaotic. Yes, I am talking about the conduct of recent wars, and yes, I am about to segue into climate change. Just watch me.
Climate change pits us against nature, which is a self-correcting system and not easily beaten. Yes, climate change is our fault, but once the climate starts changing, nature moves against us. Implacably. Yes, the weather’s been weird recently, and yes, I know it’s happening already. We have to stop harming nature, yes. But there comes a point, and maybe we’re not that far from it now, when nature starts to self-correct. And my problem is, I suspect nature can describe victory quite accurately. A planet with fewer people on it.
I’m worried that victory for us, if it’s still achievable, wouldn’t be “roughly the same with compromises attached”. I get my takeaway coffee in a reusable cup now, and I take my plastic to the recycling – the dump, I mean. I feel lighter every time I go there. But global warming doesn’t seem to be stopping. Across this landing from where I’m sitting (I’m early for an appointment) is still a poster advertising the “International Rebellion Against The Criminal Inaction On The Climate And Ecological Crisis” of mid-April. That’s still happening, I think, and may be picking up momentum. We’re getting started.
I’d argue against “Criminal” – we don’t want to set up a bunch of people who will resist doing the right thing because that would mean admitting they were “Criminal” before – but apart from that, yes, I guess we are getting started. My problem now – my uneasy feeling – is that “describe victory” has gone way beyond a successful protest that gets people thinking. We need to get together to shut down London, Heathrow Airport, the same in other countries. Entire road networks. Whole industries. The twenty-first century, even. Do the impossible. [Modern dentistry can stay.]
I don’t mean we need a group of people to occupy the runways and roads on our behalf, nor to glue themselves to passenger jets, big trucks and Chelsea tractors. Key phrase in the previous paragraph: get together. I mean we need to agree to do it. Stop what we’re doing and work together to do something else. Cover whole deserts in solar panels. Build mountain ranges of recovered plastic waste – rather than new towns and cities – and seed them with wild flowers as memorial parks to our own stupidity. Plant rainforests, if that’s possible. We need to agree like the French agreed when they got rid of their monarchy, the Americans agreed to go to the moon; I don’t know, we need a Civil Rights Movement in which everyone’s on the same side.
We need to stop using fossil fuels. Grow our own vegetables. Distribute one solar panel to every household and switch off the national grid – except the parts that are powered by renewable energy. Above all, agree to do all of that. Agree. Forget “Criminal”. Work out some kind of truth and reconciliation arrangement for the directors of oil companies and airlines, if we must. Localise the “global” economy so that nobody has to cross continents to do their day job. Make it illegal to suffer jet lag.
No, of course none of this is possible! Don’t be silly! The first practical step to achieving any of it would be stopping all the arguments, the finger-pointing, the sarcasm – and think how impossible that would be. Think about this, too: pretty much the final achievement of all our technological development has been the ability to add comments in real time to social-media posts. We’ve invented a technology for disagreeing and we’re hooked on it.
The human race has had thousands of years to work out how to work together and not argue. Other species get along perfectly well. Come to think of it, other species fit into nature perfectly well. Some of them will even thrive if nature turns up the heat. I can think of at least one species of insect that will have a lovely time. It’s only the human race that is the problem.
And nature has realised that. Nature is moving against us. There’s only one thing to do. Nothing else will bring us together, so I suggest – it’s a million-to-one shot – that it’s time for us to panic.
Somewhat pleased, this week, to receive my first “sponsorship opportunity” for this blog. Via email. From a marketing company I’ve heard of (of which I have heard, sorry, I’m on my best behaviour now). I’m not precisely sure what the idea was, because I didn’t read the email, but I know teenage vloggers get offered sponsorship by make-up companies and fashion brands, so perhaps it was something like that. I wouldn’t do teenage, of course, but if I hooked up a camera (or took the Elastoplast off the built-in one), I’m sure I could attract a “demographic” of grizzled veterans to watch me rabbiting on about how I get ready for the day. Wake up. Coffee. I’m sure I could spin that out.
[I sat next to a seventeen-year-old vlogger at an event recently - yes, I get invited to events - so I know that a “demographic” is the thing to have.] But I turned it down, my first sponsorship opportunity. I said no, and after not reading the email again, I didn’t click the link to find out more (although I might have accidentally on purpose clicked the “accept” button to connect via LinkedIn; I’ll have to have a word with myself about that). I turned it down because I wrote a paragraph a while back (strictly, two paragraphs, down there on the right if you’re reading this on a big screen) saying that I don’t write this for money. I’d have to go back to that paragraph to find out why I do write this, but money isn’t it.
I fantasise about having principles, actually. No offence to the marketing company, but after not reading the email a third time (okay, beyond the first couple of lines), I went into quite a daydream about “selling out” and other such phrases. People sell out, or they adopt higher (conflicting) principles, and/or they wrestle with their consciences, and all that’s kind of interesting in a gritty-urban-drama subtitled kind of way. Deep, meaningful, furrowed-brow stuff; there’s probably a clothing range to match. Heck, whole creation myths rest on temptation: there’s the snake that happened to be passing through Eden at an awkward moment; there’s Pandora and the Box that should have remained closed. Plot-turning elements in creation myths, anyway.
So. I got myself into a conniption about whatever I was being offered - don’t know, and it’s not really the point - and decided in the end that you couldn’t even pay me to wear a different t-shirt while I write this. Of course, every person has a price, and if you paid me enough (my social-media links and email are at the top of this page), I’d wear a tiara and pearls while writing this. And possibly even remove that Elastoplast. We’re all human, and while I realise that my sponsorship opportunity wasn’t tailored exclusively just for me – I bet you say that to all the bloggers – I might just reinstate, yes, excuse me, here it is, in my ‘deleted’ folder. I’m not going to read it, you understand, but just for academic interest, the first few lines…
Temptation is the lure of self-betrayal, I suppose, and inexplicably (but I’m going to try) part of human nature. We make decisions about who we are, and/or who we want to be, and then discover that we’re not like that at all. We try to be an ideal version of ourselves, maybe? What the heck is it? I mean, I’m a rational adult capable of thinking these questions through, over-thinking them even, much younger than my date of birth would suggest, far better looking than any of my mugshots, so I’m sure I can work it out. Admittedly, I have a shambling, wild-haired figure staring back at me through the mirror at the moment, still in his pyjamas, but I’m sure there’s a rational explanation for that, too.
If the answer is that just getting through the day requires a degree of self-deception, well, okay, perhaps I can come at this whole temptation question from a different, possibly more lucrative, angle. I did have an ostensible – I like the word “ostensible” – reason for writing that paragraph of mine. I wanted people to stop telling me – as they did in the early days – that I should pick a single subject and write about nothing else (“William, that’s Blogging 101!”). Oh, and okay, yes, perhaps I was also feeling just ever so slightly pompous and self-inflated that day. “I don’t take money for my own opinions.” I wrote. It is of course easier to write sentences like that when you’re not being offered money. But getting through the day, back then, required a self-belief that I was above money.
Actually, I’d prefer cash, if you don’t mind? Used notes, preferably? Non-sequential? Thank you. Now, what was the product?
Oh. That’s why you came to me. I get it now.
No, don’t open the Box. I’d prefer to leave it closed.
Of course I won’t open it.
Temptation. The lure of self-betrayal. You’re on a diet, but you dream of dough-nuts. We could get really deep and meaningful here, and start blethering on about the journey of the soul – the chocolate you don’t eat makes you stronger – but maybe we could add a dose of realism instead. Pandora was always going to open that box. The politician railing against the inequities of private education is always going to do the best for her child, even if that means, et cetera. We’re human. A large bar of chocolate – dark chocolate, probably Green & Black’s, almost certainly organic, perhaps with ginger or hazelnut, and maybe I could also mention the Velvet Edition range – could be described as a temptation, but I much prefer the term “comfort food”.
Comfort is a necessary part of life. Green & Black’s chocolate can be bought online. Paragraphs can be rewritten. Giving in to temptation, comfort, is part of life. My sponsorship opportunity was almost certainly a blanket email sent out to a vast mailing list, but I’ve enjoyed the mental exercise and now I’m enjoying the daydream – the business-class flight out to Los Angeles, the film people wanting selfies with me, and of course the meeting where we discussed who would play me in the biopic about the setting-up of this blog, as well as the basics of how often I’d mention the product. I didn’t really want all the peanuts in my bowl to be facing East, but it was touching that they did that. If I’d known that we’d be drinking tea, I wouldn’t have asked for an umbrella in my drink.
Temptation – yes! What I really meant when I wrote that I don’t take money is that, um, you’re welcome to share my chocolate bar. If you buy it for me first. I may not be living the dream, but hey, I’m certainly ready to write about it.
What was that Groucho Marx quote about principles? I'd find it, but I have a paragraph to rewrite.
Today, I have no opinions whatsoever. I don’t mean that I’ve cancelled all my social-media accounts, but I have gone through Facebook snoozing everybody for thirty days (no offence), so that instead of having my passions inflamed by some diatribe against [redacted], I’m shown that notice telling me to start by finding some friends.
Modern equivalent of “get a life”, I suppose, although I am old enough to remember when it was still a novelty to have “Facebook friends” without even knowing them. [Younger readers: “friends” used to be people close to you; to “like” them would require a self-generated and typically involuntary emotional response.] I do feel that I like (old-style) some of my Facebook friends in remote corners of the USA and other countries, but I do also realise that “remote corners” is just my way of saying that I’ve no idea where any of them are. The USA is rectangular, isn’t it, with blue and red squares drawn on it? Remote corners, not so much.
There’s a caucus, whatever that is, and the trees are hanging with chads. There’s a South, although nobody seems to mention the North. I did once (more than once) answer a question on Quora, asked by an American person about some detail of British life, but I’ve learned my lesson from that experience. I’m a southerner too, apparently, and therefore I don’t know anything. I did once look up the physical address of a US Facebook friend (who gave it on a personal website) on Google Maps, and the houses are different too. [Older readers: idle curiosity and stalking are different things, thank you very much.]
So yes, I’ve snoozed everybody. [Beep! Story idea.] It’s possible that I’m even having a “digital detox” today, given that I’m writing this with a pen on paper, but that’s just newspeak for what used to be called an average day. Sun’s up (actually, it’s cloudy), sea’s calm (flurries of wind in the trees and on the water), the bluebells are up and so is the cow parsley (genuine news). The scaffolding-and-roadworks season is over, and the car parks are open for visitors. A cruise ship came in earlier, so the trade in beads and trinkets with FALMOUTH written on them will be brisk today. Oh, and I have things to do.
I remember a trip to London once, a long time ago – a very long time; I don’t go to London much – and walking up the ramp past the taxis into the daylight. I remember being struck by the billboard advertising: so much “noise” forcing its way into my attention. I was used to looking at trees back then, and fields with sheep in them. Not that staring at a tree’s worth of leaves and listening to the noise of the wind is necessarily “better”, in whatever sense you’d like to stipulate, than listening to traffic noise and being told to buy Aptamil follow-on milk*, but, well. Mostly I drink goat’s milk these days.
I’m going to have a day featuring daylight and air and work and tidying up and imagining things (I’ve been working on my interior monologue) and probably gardening as well. I might buy an actual physical newspaper, not for the news as it was yesterday but for the tactile association with the past, and I might go take another look at all the typewriters for sale in the antique shops. Even people who never owned typewriters seem to miss typewriters, going by how often they're used online to represent writing. Perhaps I should...
But that would be a step too far. Too noisy. I might grab a sandwich or a baked potato at the newly-open-for-the-season Castle Beach Café, and if my walk back home takes me past Gyllyngvase Beach, I will definitely think about swimming (see below the picture). “Grab” – funny how verbs attach themselves to actions. I will order and pay for and sit down and wait to be brought a sandwich or a baked potato at the Castle Beach Café. “Grab” – I suppose our collective self-image these days is grabbing and rushing and always being excitingly busy and engaged.
As opposed to staring at our screens while sea levels rise around us. The next big idea is going to be the world we can enter fully via our minds, and I suppose we’re nearly there with our games and virtual reality. The next big idea will be the virtual world that we can enter to get away from real reality, I mean. Take ourselves away from all the disaster. If you see an ostrich in a cartoon, it’s sticking its head in the sand to avoid catastrophe. [Actually, spellcheck, it’s and its; I’m pretty sure that’s correct. Sorry to confuse you.] If you see a not-quite-young person in a cartoon, er, there’ll be a smartphone, and, er, no, I’m not suggesting anything. Just, you know, like to mention ostriches every now and then.
That was close. Perhaps I should Harness The Power Of Technology to stay out of trouble with my youngers. [“Respect your elders!” I was told, a long time ago. But I’m running out of those.] There’s probably an app for it. But no. I like this day. I’ll stick with it. Time enough later to open up a screen and retrieve my passionate interest in the big remote issues that fill our collectivised attention. [I’m sure there was a life-or-death struggle over something beginning with B, but we all seem to have dropped that. How easily we're herded into caring, right? How easily we forget when we're not being told what to think.] As I say, I like this day. The sun’s out properly now, and there’s a whole outside world out there. Sun, and wind, and seagulls, and the soon-to-be-enormous gunnera in Queen Mary Gardens. That cruise ship. Life, the neighbourhood, and all the rest of it.
Facebook’s advice is good, after all. I’ll go out and find my friends. I wonder where they are.
*I think I got that one off the TV.
Once upon a time, my superpower was going to be seeing people as they imagine themselves to be. If they felt themselves to be beautiful, I’d see them as beautiful, and if they felt themselves to be – yeah, I’d see them like that and perhaps be able to reach out in a way that would help. But I tried it for a while (even in my own life, I am not a reliable narrator), and decided to go back to the one where I could breathe under water. I like the idea of heading off down to the beach and keeping on heading.
I’d have to lose weight, I suppose, or at least be negatively buoyant in some way, and the whole breathing-under-water thing would have some kind of a ramification for my on-land respiration. Perhaps people who wear scarves all the time are concealing gills. Or perhaps that’s why so many people carry bottles of water all the time. It’s not hydration; it’s breathing. I’d have to invest in a wetsuit, I suppose, or perhaps I would adapt. The man was pointed out to me – this is last time I was at the Gylly Beach Café; try one of the salted caramel chocolate brownies – who swims every day of the year.
In fact, I can’t go near the beach without somebody being pointed out to me who swims every day of the year. Or early in the morning. Or by actually getting into the water rather than by sitting down and thinking about it over a hot chocolate and a – yes, one of those. Aid to the concentration, you understand. Swimming is wonderful exercise, and just for the record, I did go swimming for the first time this year on Saturday 30th March. Then again – I was Not Alone this second time; we had a picnic breakfast on the sand afterwards – on the Sunday.
But I can’t go into the water now, I find, without one of the other swimmers whispering, “There’s the man who…” and phrases come to me across the surf – “salted caramel” … “in the café” … “eats” … “every day of the year” … and perhaps it’s just that my other superpower is to hear what everybody’s thinking and (but) mix it up with my own guilty conscience. No, I don’t own a wetsuit, which is something. Yes, the water is cold, and no, I don’t eat brownies that often. All the other swimmers, at the times I go into the water, seem to be strong-looking women who swim for miles in the time it takes for me to get my feet off the bottom without sinking.
Perhaps I wouldn’t have so much trouble after all if I did switch my superpower to the one where I go walkabout under water. I don’t think I’d go far, or look for anything in particular, but I’m just curious, that’s all. If you follow the same nature documentaries as I do, you’ll know that fishes are colourful little things, synchronised-swimming in shoals and occasionally being grabbed by things that conceal themselves in the ocean floor. I’d have to watch where I put my feet, and perhaps wetsuit shoes would be an investment, but I think there’s potential here for a variation on my usual walk.
Does plastic sink eventually, do you suppose, or would I have to take an enormous butterfly net and wave it above my head? And what about all the discarded fishing nets and lines and all the snagged hooks? Are there stories, sometimes, of nuclear waste and other pollutants being dumped far out at sea? Dangerous business, being a fish. On second thoughts…
Hot chocolate, please, yes, with marshmallows, and another of those…
One of these days, there’s going to be a revolution and the people are going to rise up in its wake. They’ll flow across whatever wall has been set up to hold them back, and in doing so, remind us (again) of the limits of what we call power. But not yet. The lesson of the Occupy movement, if I remember rightly, was that there needs to be a next step. Whatever the demonstration, however good the cause, the question “You’ve made your point; now what do we do?” needs an answer.
For every conceivable public initiative, there is a matching forecast to say that it “could” go wrong. Back in the day before yesterday, the way into the headlines was to come up with research proving that, I don’t know, rats prefer smoking incessantly to using the leading brand of washing powder. Here in the today before tomorrow, the story breaks that everything’s going fine, and that’s the signal for rent-a-forecast to put out a claim that everything “could” still go wrong. We put on our serious faces, and share Facebook posts defending the status quo against change. The winds go on blowing.
That’s just so dull, isn’t it? Here in the South West of England, council taxes have gone up, local services have been rationalised, blah, blah, but people are “adopting” their own streets with a view to keeping them clean. If you want to complain about all the plastic bottles on the beaches, you’ll have to time your visit carefully, or bring your own bottles (don’t), because the beaches are cleared daily - hourly - by local people ferreting out even tiny beads of expanded polystyrene. Yes, yes, plastic’s terrible, but we’re picking it up. Those people buried up to their necks in opprobrium just below the high-tide line? They tried to leave without picking up their fast-food cartons.
Oh, and there’s even a cottage industry ( literally; it’s also a terraced-house industry) that produces “eco-bricks” (viable building bricks) by stuffing plastic bottles with (for example) crisp packets. Tightly. Clean crisp packets. That one’s spread beyond the South West (I don’t know where it started), as has the beach cleaning by local people (ditto). No matter that central government is still spewing out consultation papers on tidying up, nor that successive global summits on climate change continue to declare global warming a bad thing. People have got the message. They’re fixing it.
Let’s hope they never get organised. There’s a template here. Central government fails. Personal responsibility kicks in, and - heck, if we can resist the temptation to mobilise our elected representatives, we might even survive global warming. I mean, it stands to reason that [The bulk of this paragraph, which drones on boringly about the canary-in-a-coalmine role of media, the broadly self-serving but somehow necessary incompetence of central government, the self-replicating and somehow demoralising nature of bureaucracy, the central role of technology in holding our attention but not really helping very much, has been deleted for your convenience. Sic. This author writes well enough, but boy, he gets predictable sometimes.] at the edge of the precipice.
So that’s plastic sorted out. Might as well leave it there, really. I try hard to panic, but the world keeps turning. The thing we miss, all the time, is that now is the least reliable guide to then. Problems, once stated, don’t become fixed. We’re doing with plastic what scientists keep saying we should do with global warming: fixing it. Oh, and there was a report out the other day - I was in the other room, not really listening to the radio - that young people somewhere, might have been Japan, have stopped having sex. Research had been done. Questions had been asked and (honestly?) answered. Maybe the whole thing was part of an old-fashioned attempt to get a headline. No, it didn’t even cross my mind that limiting population growth would be a way of fixing global warming. Don’t be ridiculous.
But I did wonder, very briefly: how much of what we do is consciously directed? We’re rational, educated, civilised (sic), twenty-first-century human beings living in a liberal democracy. We plan ahead, act collectively as well as individually, move forward together on the basis of shared values. No, seriously, we do. Don’t we? I mean, it should be obvious that we got where we are today deliberately, with forethought. We’re intelligent. We’re sane. We’ve had two thousand years, more than that, to get civilisation sorted out. The results of all that planning and organising and working out better ways of living together - they’re all around us. Obviously we’re masters of our own destiny. I mean, for example, look at, er…
Somebody told me once that all pictures should have captions. That was back in the day, or at least one of them. If there's nothing informative for which you need a caption, young William, just add something interesting and vaguely related. Failing that, just add something. Now, half as old as time itself, I look back on my childhood and regret that I never mastered those roller-skates I was given for a birthday once. Or perhaps it was Christmas. Is it time for tea yet?
Quote of the week, for me, is this. “The unprecedented is necessarily unrecognizable. When we encounter something unprecedented, we automatically interpret it through the lenses of familiar categories, thereby rendering invisible precisely that which is unprecedented.” You’ll find it in the early pages of Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (Profile Books, 2019), which I have mentioned before. Good book. Read it immediately.
The central point being made here is that surveillance capitalism is something new, and that it doesn’t help to interpret it in terms of what’s gone before. Zuboff offers the example that the first automobiles were not usefully described as “horseless carriages” - the attempt to apply familiar categories did not help at all in assessing the likely impact and evolution of the new thing. No it would not behave like a carriage in every respect except that the horses wouldn’t be there churning up the mud and, er, depositing mud. We're gonna need bigger roads.
In my day job, I encounter large organisations that have embraced the future by setting up Innovation Departments and appointing Heads of Innovation. They want it to be known that they’re looking ahead, so they’ve made their commitment to innovation visible. Also - because they are large organisations - they have fitted innovation into their structures, allocated budgets to it, and made provision to measure cost/revenue. Innovation is a Department now and serious people are drawing up spreadsheets for it.
Out in the real world, every innovation seems to be app-based, and the equivalent process - the departmentalisation of innovation - seems to be undertaken by “incubators”, which aspire to be today’s equivalent of Bill Gates’ Albuquerque garage. Large organisations, and/or the Innovation Departments of large organisations, are invited to bring their budgets to incubators and meet investable innovators. I think it’s fair to say that if an innovation should ever poke its nose out of its burrow, we’ve got the traps set to catch it.
But Zuboff’s also making the point that innovation is invisible. We don’t have the categories, mental or organisational, to recognise it. Innovation is big business, in the sense that, as one Head of Innovation put it to me, “You always get gurus” when a new thing appears, who write about it and make money from selling books about it. You get gurus, and training courses, and consultancies, and … yeah, big business. On my scale, anyway. But is any of that actually innovation? We go through a process that has become familiar, and call it innovation.
If I’m going to go with the punchline that I’ve set up, I should say something cute here about giving up our efforts to invent a better mousetrap. Give up on mousetraps altogether. But what I really want to say is that mice don’t need us. If I’m seriously going to end this post by drawing an analogy between mice and innovative people, I suppose I have to say that mice just prefer to be left alone to get on with it. Not trapped, not even by an organisation. Let them do what they do, and then apply the "innovation" label if it fits.
Among the novels I’m not writing at the moment is a loosely fictionalised account of the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, but with added social media. This was the one in which Wat Tyler led a march on London to protest about high taxation (to pay off debts incurred during the Hundred Years’ War), government incompetence (put whatever you like between these brackets) and a range of social upheavals first triggered by the Black Death of the 1340s. Half the taxpaying population was dead of plague back then, so the debt-laden government had the bright idea of raising taxes. Yeah!
Wat Tyler uses Facebook and Instagram to build up a following, and then Twitter to gather a crowd for (and during) his march on London. He’s watched throughout by agents of King Richard II’s government, and he’s lucky to beat off an attempt to shut down all his social-media accounts using terrorism legislation. Early skirmishes go viral, and the insurrection spreads through London’s Docklands (which in those days actually were docklands). King Richard II, being 14 in 1381, is adept at vlogging, and breaks off from his series of profiles of celebrities visiting court, to appeal for calm.
That goes down badly with the cabal of sinister-looking hard men in black hats and tights leading the royal government, and the Lord Chancellor, Simon Sudbury, colludes with the Lord High Treasurer, Robert Hales, to force through legislation whereby all online activity carried on government servers has to be vetted by his office. But the various young noblemen (and women) who grew up with Richard, sharing his private tutors, et cetera, have their own ideas about that. The government scrambles to shut down YouTube, but can’t get it done before another clip appears in which Richard appeals to people to, like, chill.
And we take it from there. Encouraged by the king’s attitude, the marchers press on to the Tower of London, where they find Sudbury and Hales both laughing maniacally from high windows, and then they stop for lunch at Smithfield Meat Market – where they’re met at last by Richard, who has been encouraged by his friends to lay on a big spread at Vic Naylor’s in St John Street, which was actually open from 1986 to 2009 but what’s a story like this without at least one anachronism? The two sides immediately hit it off, and it’s agreed that, one, serfdom will be abolished, and two, the Council Tax won’t be introduced in 1993.
King Richard II was nothing if not forward-thinking. English (and in due course, British) history goes off in an entirely new direction. The widespread use of social media in 1381 completely messes up the endgame for the grown-ups around Richard: the militia raised by London mayor William Walworth doesn’t crush the revolt – the rebels use Twitter again, to raise the alarm – and in due course Henry le Despenser’s army fails to stem the tide of revolution at the Battle of North Walsham, which in my version never happened. There’s a clip of a young woman standing in front of a fully caparisoned warhorse, and refusing to budge.
The Summer of Love comes early – 1386, not 1967 – and history accelerates. Restrictions on cross-channel travel are lifted, and a trading alliance is formed between England and France. The Long Parliament, which is on record as having sat from 1640 to 1660, actually gets its act together in 1388. First item on the order paper is a bill to replace the established system whereby old, rich men (and women; this is alt. hist.) with country estates and private armies run everything. That’s approved unanimously, and Richard’s young allies carry their beanbags and smartphones into the debating chamber.
Around about now, coffee begins to be imported from the New World, and on 5th April 1389 the first takeaway Tall Skinny Latte is ordered from a coffee shop in Pudding Lane, London. The place used to be a bakery, but they’d had a small fire, and after the owner had installed his new-fangled sprinkler system, there wasn’t room for the old bread ovens – just for one coffee roaster. Sprinkler systems took up a lot of space back then. The Spanish Armada drops anchor that lunchtime at Canary Wharf (fair weather, lousy navigation), and to their collective surprise the soldiers and sailors on board are invited to the first of a series of street parties that’s going to be held on the western edge of London as it was then (they accept).
The Long Parliament debates a motion to extend the European Free Trade Area to include Castile, Aragon and Granada. But – this being a novel that I’m NOT writing at the moment – nobody dashes off any merry quips, epic poems or complete plays in blank verse about the merits of free trade. There are NO parallels here with the events of today. The English Civil War doesn’t start on time, admittedly, but when it does start it has nothing to do with empire builders versus free traders. It’s all about early surveillance capitalism, and the king’s monopoly on podcasting. Some of those royal fashion shows are a bit, y’know, samey. Yes, and all those men standing in shop doorways with big box cameras on tripods and black cloths over their heads can’t be doing much for trade.
By now, the Long Parliament has given up all pretence of being a debating chamber, and every day, new-fangled apps are being trundled out on carts and carried to Ye Innovation Hubbes of the City, where young people fired up on caffeine and the adventure novels of William Shakespeare are fitting out ships to sail off over the horizon and explore distant lands. They've all got hats and cloaks and telescopes, and they're all fired up with the dream of bringing back tobacco, expensive footballers, mythical beasts, dinosaurs thought to be extinct, self-help gurus spouting the wisdom of remote tribes, jewels prized out of weird little statues with curses attached.
As they work, and as they celebrate their good fortune to come, those young would-be adventurers share but one aim: to build a free-trade area on which the sun never sets.
You'll have to imagine the picture this week. Technical difficulties. Lessons have been learned. Sorry for any inconvenience caused, et cetera. We'll go straight into our second post...
Having only recently arrived from a parallel universe, I find it impossible to understand how you people make such a mess of your politics. You voted on a simple question, and then you turned it into a complicated question. To listen to your media, and the talk around where I live, you’re all in favour of retaining the status quo, and yet when you all voted, the result took you all by surprise. What’s actually happening – after the vote by a narrow margin to overturn the status quo – is underpinned by a deafening silence. Voters for change keep quiet while the loudest voices continue to agree that the status quo is best.
I looked up a politician the other day. This individual had been described as “loathsome” on Facebook. He’s not somebody I would support, and his views are some way distant from anything I could believe, but I have a problem with attacking individuals directly, rather than engaging with their beliefs. Not just because history’s full of examples of how wrong that can go, but also because any set of “loathsome” beliefs can be refuted by argument – assuming that they’re wrong – while name-calling says so much more about the person shouting the names. Call me idealistic, or naïve, but a founding principle of liberal democracy is that we prefer debate to insult.
So. I looked him up. He’s out of step with what “we all believe”, if I can put it that way, and my reason for looking him up was that I couldn’t quite work out what he was doing in the House of Commons, as an elected MP. How could those views have won an election? Still don’t know the answer to that one, but what I do know is: in the general election of 2017, this individual won by a margin of more than 10,000 votes. That “deafening silence” I mentioned earlier – the people who don’t talk about politics outnumber the people who do. And they vote differently.
Because I’m not half as fluent in Latin as I like to pretend, I looked up “ad hominem attack” online, and yes, that is what I’m talking about. An “ad hominem attack” is a “fallacious argumentative strategy” whereby you call me an idiot rather than telling me where I went wrong. Nothing in the word “loathsome” will convince our featured politician that he’s on the wrong side of the argument. More importantly, while you’re busy name-calling, those 10,000 voters will keep silent rather than engage with you, and they won’t switch their votes.
There’s a diagram. Look up “Paul Graham’s Hierarchy of Disagreement” and scroll down through the results until you get to this, for example. You can stop off at the essay on "How to Disagree" at paulgraham.com, but what you want is the pyramid – actually, it’s on the Wikipedia page as well, but that link gives you both pyramid and a bit of background. [And, curiously enough, a YouTube clip entitled "Jim Gaffigan Wants You to Talk to a Trump Supporter – and Listen." Which makes a similar point, in a US context, rather well.] Searching for “How to Disagree” gets you a lot of other results, most of which emphasise politeness, but we’re going with the pyramid.
Lowest form of political argument – disagreement – is name-calling, so the pyramid tells us. Second-lowest is the ad-hominem attack (Paul Graham’s essay explains the fine difference between the two). If you want to be heard – for example, by those 10,000 voters – you have to go further up the pyramid. At the top is refuting the central point of an argument. And what Paul Graham says about that one is: it’s the only form of disagreement that involves no dishonesty whatsoever. That’s his point rather than mine, but – yeah, I get it. Make your point. Justify it. Convince people. Get elected, and sort out this mess.
Back in 2016, we had a People’s Vote on the question “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” On Monday of this week, our politicians failed to agree on: should we stay in a customs union with the EU; should we remain in the EFTA; should we hold another referendum; should we vote on whether to leave without a deal if we can’t agree on a deal? All of those options arising as part of our elected representatives’ attempts to implement the result of the 2016 vote. They represent us, right? Does that mean they’re like us?
Discuss. But before you start – Paul Graham concludes his essay with this. “You don't have to be mean when you have a real point to make. In fact, you don't want to. If you have something real to say, being mean just gets in the way.”
Let’s just argue, shall we, without the insults? We’re all on the same side, after all – or if we’re not, we should talk about that.
If you ever put yourself through a media-training course, you’ll be told that the secret of getting your point across in a broadcast interview is to look and sound like a reasonable, electable person. The words matter too, but we read body language at a more instinctive level than we hear words. If you believe in the truth of what you’re saying, be gentle with the people who haven’t seen it yet. And be seen to be gentle.
Turned on the radio to hear Theresa May talking about parliament “looking for a solution” to the B***** crisis. Struck me that if only parliament would stop looking for a solution, the crisis would solve itself and we could move on to sorting out the aftermath. That’s literally true of the current stalemate, but maybe there’s a lesson here that could be applied more widely.
But I take that back. I've noticed that whenever I mention B*****, my "unique-visitor" numbers go down through the floor. Can't imagine why, but I'm definitely off the subject. Promise.
What if we’re wrong? What if none of it matters? A friend suggested to me the other day that the United Kingdom’s chance of a prosperous future had been “cancelled by Brexit,” in that slightly annoying (to me) more-passively-sinned-against-than-aggressively-sinning tone that goes straight to resentment without passing reaction. I wanted to say: don’t sit there moaning; do something about it! Then there was the enormous march, and with that came news of the enormous petition, and I thought: those people have really messed up the opening paragraph of my post this week.
But I’m okay with that. I’m all for getting out and doing stuff. Whingeing on social media, not so much. [Yes, I know. But this isn’t social media; it’s my website.] Marching beats signing petitions, and signing petitions beats moaning about Brexit privately and/or on social media. And all of the above beat the sheer paranoid inertia of telling me that our children’s children’s futures have been blighted by that referendum. If a generation is twenty-five years, say, and two generations is, er, not far off fifty-ish years, that means the reverberations of the 2016 People’s Vote will still be felt in 2066. Which is a bit like saying … let me see, fifty years back from 2019 … that we’re living lives blighted by the events of 1969. And if you look back at 1969, you see how ridic–
Oh! The internet was invented in 1969 (ARPANET), the modern gay rights movement in the USA got started (after the Stonewall riots) and the first cash machine (ATM) went live. Moon landing, cold war, et cetera. It was an interesting year after all, and there goes my third paragraph. I take back the word “blighted,” but apart from that – yeah, okay. Maybe in 2069 we’ll be three years out from another People’s Vote on the EU, and parliament will be conducting a series of “indicative votes” to find out what it thinks – sorry, to “take control,” I mean. That’s what my radio said these votes were intended to achieve. Stop laughing; this is a serious subject. No, really. Parliament’s “taking control”. I said stop laughing!*
But what if we’re wrong? What if Brexit isn’t the big historic thing? What if it’s the 2019 equivalent of, oh, I don’t know, the 1969 publication of Barbara Castle’s In Place of Strife white paper, which of course has transformed all of our lives and continues to drive political debate today? Or more accurately – doesn’t. What if the writing on those placards you were carrying last Saturday isn’t the writing on the wall? Sorry. That was just too neat to resist. What I mean is – what if Brexit itself doesn’t matter so much, but – in 1969, the Stonewall riots caused far longer-lasting change than any of the politicians did – the marching and the shouting and the banner-waving do matter?
My sources tell me (okay, I’ve just googled the phrase) that the original “writing on the wall” appeared while King Belshazzar of Babylon was hosting a feast. What it said was “Numbered, numbered, weighed and they are divided,” and what it was interpreted to mean was “Your formerly united kingdom is about to collapse, guv.” Which – if you’ll allow for the very loose translation – is peculiarly appropriate. W B Yeats wrote the poem in which the phrase “The centre cannot hold” appears, and Alfred Hitchcock’s screen-writing associate Angus MacPhail came up with the term “the MacGuffin” to describe “the desired object that serves to advance the plot” (thanks, Wikipedia).
What if Brexit’s the MacGuffin that we’re all chasing in a historical narrative that’s all about the chase? Yes, Leave/Remain does matter, up to a point, and yes, I suppose the terms of the withdrawal are important. But this important? Really? I don’t know whether there’s a “silent majority” of “shy Tories” or “shy Leavers” who would take us all by surprise in the event of a second referendum, but I do suspect that tomorrow’s historians will focus more on the noise of this one than the substance. If you filter out the issue itself, you’re left with: a government that doesn’t seem able to govern; an opposition that doesn’t seem able to oppose; a cast of serial forecasters prophesying a doom that never quite arrives; our Brexit-obsessed media; our failing nation state; a climate that’s warming us into extinction anyway…
…and a heck of a lot of noise that seems to be coming from the people. We’re not “populists”, because that term now refers to autocratic right-wing leaders and would-be leaders of EU member states, but the “national conversation” does seem to be running kind of hot. And what I think about that is: we’re all so very networked these days, so wholly connected to the means of self-expression, that a five-year cycle of voting in a bunch of remote representatives to make our decisions for us – or fail to do that, ha ha – just doesn’t do it for me. I like the idea that parliament’s “taking back control,” or taking control, or whatever it’s doing (ha ha ha ha ha ha ha – sorry), but I suspect that what really happening here is a kind of chaotic subsidiarity.
And if you’re not familiar with that term, it’s defined in Article Five of the Treaty on European Union (2007). Or let’s try the internet. “Subsidiarity is a principle of social organization that holds that social and political issues should be dealt with at the most immediate level that is consistent with their resolution.” Go, Wikipedia! And if we run that through the same translation software as we used for the writing on the wall, we get the idea that if government can’t govern, parliament has a go, and if that doesn’t work, we try another People’s Vote, and if we’re still arguing, well, we’ve all got the smartphones we need to muster an English Spring, which is like an Arab Spring (other constituent nations of the United Kingdom are available) but without the firearms.
We end up with politicians who are within range of our dissent. If the current arrangement of remote government (sic) by total strangers in armoured saloon cars with motorcycle outriders doesn't work, and if it doesn't work because they're out of touch with the national conversation as it is now being conducted (via technology, on social media, et cetera), then I suggest that we forget about national government and devolve power down to "administrative units" no bigger than you could realistically fit into a smartphone's contact list. [By the way, look up “How Belgium Survived 20 Months Without a Government” online.] We’re due for a big rethink (post-mortem) on how national government works (or rather, doesn't), and whether we plan this or it just happens, I suggest that short-range government (the term "local government" is already in use) will prove to be both workable on a human scale and compatible with our technology.
Now, I realise I’ve written this post in a digital format in the middle of the Modern Dark Age, but just in case it does survive, here’s a footnote for future historians. You’ll know that we went over to digital storage for all our important records – we called it “the cloud” – without properly thinking through the tendency of digital storage to decay, and I’m sorry that we’ve left nothing behind except a pile of plastic bottles – but in case you’re wondering, “Brexit” was the name we gave to an early attempt by one of the states to secede from Europa (then known as “the EU”), and if you do have that much, Brexit fits into the timeline before Grexit, Frexit and the European Civil War. Yes, all those terms with "-exit" attached refer to episodes of civil unrest.
And if you’re reading this in 2069 and you think I might be your long-lost grandfather – sorry about the mess.
*They've rejected every option! Okay, you can laugh now.
Unless you write about politics, and people pay to read what you write about politics, don’t post about politics. That would be Lesson One in my non-existent Social Media for Creative and Interesting People online training course, which I’m now offering at the cut-down price of still more money than it’s worth. It’s not that half your audience will disagree with you, but that there seems to be a set tone of voice for political dialogue.
We’re all resentful. Somebody’s either in the wrong, or too stupid to see the obvious truth as we see it, or both. And yet they have the power to ignore us. Which is Not Fair! And all that comes across in the tone of voice. [Sorry, grammar-check; I am going to start that sentence with ‘And’.] If you post about politics, it’s very easy to sound mulish and dogmatic, and if you reply to comments on your post about politics, it’s very easy to sound irritable and impatient with your readers’ failure to see the obvious truth as you’ve seen it.
If you’re a writer, say, you might even end up attacking potential buyers of your book. More likely than that, and more damaging – your sarcastic side is on display, for however long, to any potential buyer of your book who googles your name. And that is absolutely not a good look. Social media for writers is a matter of being the person who writes those books. For creative and interesting people – other creative and interesting people, sorry – it’s a matter of being creative and interesting.
I don’t say this is an absolute ban, and if you want me to know what you think about [yes, that], okay, but please try to foam at the mouth in a way that doesn’t ruin my first coffee of the day. Then you can wear the noise-cancelling headphones and I’ll tell you what I think about [yes, that]. And then we’ll part, and spend the next hour feeling less friendly towards each other. We won’t change our views, because politics isn’t a rational weighing-up of The Facts; it’s a conjunction of upbringing, tribal loyalty, peer-group pressure (however light) and observation.
I agree with you that this is happening – observation, check – but we’ll never agree on who to vote for in the hope that they’ll do something about it because you’re you and I’m me. And they’re them as well, come to think about it. My own problem (headphones, anybody?), very briefly, is that politics is ephemeral. Five years from now, we’ll look back at [yes, that], and only be able to see it in the rosy glow of what happened next. By then, we’ll be panic-stricken about the next-but-several big issue. Which is my other problem. We’re too excited. Why? Millions sign petitions. Millions march. Change happens slowly, if at all. Life goes on. Five years from now…
Perhaps that’s a political view, and I shouldn’t bother you with it. I want to bring this post round to saying that if you’re a creative person, writer or otherwise, touch all of your output with your creativity. Don’t subordinate your vision to some focus-grouped manifesto. March, yes, sign the petition, yes. But hold onto what you are. Don’t just share the outrage; feel it your way and express it your way. Write the story, make the film, post the gif, vlog about what you were wearing on the march - do what you do best. I don’t want to know that you think the same way as everybody else riding the same bandwagon; I want the story told as only you can tell it.
Five years from now – must put this in my calendar – I’m going to write a post about how chaos and confusion, even repression, are conducive to great art. It’ll get past the censors, because I’ll tap it out on an old typewriter rather than a connected device, and I’ll make the first copies using carbon paper. By then, I’ll be running a publishing company that has actual printing presses concealed around the neighbourhood, and one whole cell of the resistance will be dedicated to online shopping in our names, using our digital identities, to confuse the surveillance economy as to who we are.
Well, that was fun. Opened up my laptop and decided to write this post straight onto the website. As opposed to Google Docs, Microsoft Word or the back of an envelope. Clicked the icon for Firefox, and got the “Hmm. We’re having trouble finding that site.” message, along with three suggestions: I could come back later; I could check my network connection; I could check that I’m not behind a firewall that doesn’t allow Firefox to access the internet.
Remembered that I’d switched everything off last night. Debated going upstairs to switch it all back on again. Nah. Plugged in my iPhone, found that the personal-hotspot slider was already green; found that the laptop couldn’t find the iPhone. And vice-versa. Restarted laptop – no luck. Restarted iPhone – no luck. Thought about … yeah, maybe that’s it. Fix it now? No. Want to write. Made coffee. Did washing up. Returned to laptop and opened a Word document. Wrote “Well, that was fun,” and remembered that I’d been thinking about honesty.
Wasn’t there a writer, recently, who faked a large part of his/her personal history? A journalist, maybe? I don’t remember the details, and I wouldn’t name the person anyway, but there was a serious illness, or an experience of discrimination, or something else, that turned out to be invented. Maybe it was ethnic origin or past employment or a professional qualification; I don’t know. A writer for a high-minded US monthly magazine, I think, or possibly a weekly, although the internet kind of stomps on the idea of a periodical, doesn’t it? Maybe it doesn’t. I like buying physical magazines, actually, because – sorry. Where was I?
Of course, it’s deeply shocking that a writer, a culturally sanctioned purveyor of truth and wisdom, should fabricate any part of a personal history. And not just writers – all artists. I remember the furore that erupted, shortly after I joined the Bolshoi Ballet as a principal dancer, when one of the younger choreographers dropped into the conversation that he’d worked with Diaghilev. Oh, the laughter. But also the genuine indignation: how dare this youngster claim to be more than he was! I knew Diaghilev myself, and he’d have laughed at such clumsy name-dropping.
I wouldn’t name the person because we live in a world of illusion anyway, and the best defence is not to vilify the fantasists. A writer invents. Even a writer of facts invents the sentences in which they’re delivered. The craft of “making things up”, if you’ll pardon the inverted commas, applies to fact as well as fiction, and such legitimate building blocks as metaphors, similes, imagery, et cetera, draw on more than just the facts. Whatever those might be. I remember my brief stint as a speechwriter for a past US president who shall remain nameless – realising that the job entailed working up a vision of whatever the situation was, a sense of its historical significance, rather than just a straight retelling of the facts.
We’re all fantasists. It’s in our nature. And our fantasies reveal our vulnerabilities. A choreographer, even a wholly imaginary choreographer, reveals something vulnerable in himself if he claims to have worked with one of the big names of his industry (Sergei Diaghilev, 1872-1929, founded the Ballets Russes in Paris). Something similar applies to writers. It’s in their nature, and it’s in the nature of the job (no, the egg came first), to emphasise the significance of whatever they’re writing. Part of that is to project themselves as writers, of course. I’m okay with the idea that being the exactly-right writer for the story is part of the storytelling. For example - this blog post finally uncovers the startling truth behind whatever it is that I’m on about, and only a writer with my long experience of, I don’t know, blogging about stuff could do the subject justice. That’s the template for a pretty standard claim.
What is the truth, anyway? What are the facts? You may remember the scene in that play I co-wrote with William Shakespeare, in which the characters discuss the difficulty of knowing what the facts are, let alone sticking to them. That writer who falsified a past – yeah, I get that. Just bulking up the story – or even just being human. Some people want to be taller, shorter, thinner, fatter, more attractive, et cetera; some people already believe that they are taller, thinner, good-looking in that outfit, et cetera. Doesn’t matter that you can’t reason with them – it would be a cruelty to be honest with a person who turns up at a big event, for example, in an outfit that makes, um, that bit look big. We all know it and we can all see it, but there are times when the duty to truth comes second to compassion. Honesty is a dish best served tactfully, at home, in advance. With writers – yeah, right, we’ll believe you for now. And maybe get a bit more out of the story by doing so.
And who’s to say that the writer at the top of this blog post wasn’t covering up some personal vulnerability? We rail against fake news, which is one thing, but taking down fantasists can slip over into a kind of mass trolling of the vulnerable. I’ve found it now; I’m being offered the story about the writer as a “sponsored post” on Facebook; a newspaper has paid money to spread it further. Let’s really knock this guy down! Okay, our writer friend (still not naming him) shouldn’t have made that claim, but who are we to cast the first stone? He’s a novelist – an official fantasist – anyway. Phrases such as “no better than she* ought to be” and “ideas above his station” may have dropped out of common usage, but those resentments are still there in our minds. We’re not letting anybody climb out of this hole.
Whatever this hole is. If the absolute cold-light-of-day factual truth is what makes us behave like this, I think I understand why we need fiction, fantasy, self-deception, affirmations, compliments, in whatever order the situation demands. I am uniquely qualified to write this post, and if you’re wondering why, well, I’m an adventurer, an explorer, and once, on a holiday to the Amazon rainforest, I stumbled on a lost tribe of Warrior Women who – it was so disappointing – used me for domestic chores. I gained such insights into the nature of fantasy, and the need for fantasy in situations that could be more exotic and, um, on that trip. I have all the experience and insight I need for this post, and if you want to start researching the evidence for lost tribes of Warrior Women, or Googling lists of principal dancers at the Bolshoi – well, that’s another story, isn’t it?
But be kind when you tell it, why don’t you?
*If you look up “no better than he ought to be” online, it defaults back to “she”. I really wish that surprised me more than it does.
Struck me the other day that all my instincts are designed/evolved (delete according to belief system) to help me get along in situations where even my head might go offline. Not only that; they’re a survival mechanism. Babies have the “startle reflex” whereby they grab for the nearest parent when they’re startled; adults have “fight or flight”, whereby they’re charged up with adrenalin when they’re rear-ended by a fugitive bad guy driving a stolen car through the downtown streets of the City of Angels. An oncoming deadline triggers the “drink coffee” reflex.
Instincts are great, if you can stick to situations where they apply. A startled baby needs a mother who is practised in the art of swinging from tree to tree to get away; a driver hit from behind by a passing high-speed chase needs an encyclopaedic knowledge of the back streets and the ability to drive on two wheels down narrow alleys and through street markets to overtake the bad guy and get his insurance details. Name, anyway. Other instincts are specific to, for example, keeping population levels up, but we needn’t go into those.
The thing about instincts is that most of the time, we don’t know they’re there. And the other thing about instincts is that they’re completely inappropriate. Babies might grab for a tree-climbing mother; they actually get picked up by a parent of the grounded variety. That driver has to tone down the urge to fight (or run away) for long enough to sustain an intelligent conversation with the driver from the breakdown service. “Don’t get mad, get even” works better as “Don’t get instinctive, get civilised.”
Boringly enough. Instinctive behaviour would be fun, don’t you think, if we could find a way of doing all that without upsetting the neighbours? Or each other? More than fun – all of that cavorting about is how we’re designed to behave. We are those animals. The basic design/evolution principle behind human beings is: we fight, or we climb the trees with our babies. We do a variety of other things that we associate with fun. Adventure playgrounds, for example. And yet we’ve built a civilisation in which very few of our instincts work in our favour, and some of them are downright inconvenient.
We needn’t go into those either, and I’m not saying we’re wrong to be civilised first – but instinctive never? Not even second or third? To what extent do we deny essential traits of ourselves and each other, and what does that do to us? I don’t know the answer to that, but I wonder sometimes.
Has there been any research done on the apology rate? By that, I mean the rate at which tech giants, other large corporates, governments and other public-service institutions, et cetera, decline to be interviewed but instead put out a statement saying that (1) Lessons Have Been Learned, and/or (2) We Have Already Invested Billions In Achieving Excellence In This Area Where We've Just Messed Up. Again. Because I think the apology rate is going up.
In my imaginary novelisation of the collapse of Western Civilisation (sic), the fall starts with a series of minor glitches in routine systems that have disproportionately big impacts. Mostly, these are human-nature errors that are taken up and spread all too widely by technology, but there are a few instances of sloppy programming, and one or two where the accident investigators work out that some critical person didn't take ownership of whatever he or she was supposed to be getting just right. Instead did what the car industry used to call a Friday-afternoon job (strictly, the phrase I'm remembering is "Friday-afternoon car").
So a bank's systems start to reject long-standing routine payments, for example. Not all of them, but enough to cause bankruptcies and other awkwardnesses down the line. Welfare payments also stop randomly, and there are deaths from starvation and imprisonments for hunger-motivated thefts - but these don't get as much publicity as the hedge-fund manager embarrassed at the country club because her membership wasn't auto-renewed. Hospital admissions are snarled up, patient records go missing (and if you haven't got records, you can't be treated), and whole fleets of cars are recalled because their wheels fall off when they go above 40mph. That hedge-fund manager kicks up a stink. Then the country club goes bust and important people realise that this is serious.
I'm deliberately not using any real-life examples, although I can't stop thinking of them, because Lessons Have Been Learned and we can rely on those companies (governments) not to do anything like that again. Can't we? And by the way, I'm not making the old-guy point that technology makes us careless and prone not to bother too much about details. We've always been careless, et cetera. It is worth asking: what does technology assume? Because the answer tells us something about ourselves. The boom in audio books tells us that we don't read as much as we did, for example; the success of grammar-checking software suggests that we can't write accurately any more.
I'm not a "grammar nazi" (telling phrase) because I'm okay with the idea that language evolves, and I'm wrong to think that I'm in a dying business - writing this in words rather than speaking it straight to video - because the USA and beyond is full of young people writing fantasy novels and putting them out via Kindle, Kobo, et cetera. Look up Angel Medina ("Aspiring Author") on Facebook, for example. Read him. The "But" that corresponds to the "It is worth asking" line in the paragraph before this one goes like this: "But that's all it does." Technology makes assumptions that tell us about ourselves - but that's all. And even that's just an example of how technology just extends human nature. Towards inertia, or perhaps even laziness, but the point stands. On the plus side, technology extends us towards publishing our fantasy novels.
I'm writing about big human organisations. Those vast corporate entities where, for example, the front-line duty of care to customers is outsourced either to computer systems or to minimum-wage workers (and no offence to them, but they're not exactly incentivised to "take ownership" of their employer's reputation). Western capitalism is a hotel where nobody cares about the state of the rooms nor the timely delivery of room service; where tips are grabbed by the management; where management lives in the penthouse suite and buys in services from outside. What do you mean, you can never leave? You can ride through the rooms on a horse with no name, for all I care, and those people over there are convinced they can burn it all down. No, that's early-morning mist on the water. Put down that guitar - now!
Capitalism, civilisation, back on track. In Chapter Two of my imaginary novelisation, the CEO of a tech giant seethes at the head of a boardroom table. The meeting is about the tiny little errors that have been creeping into the code - that have been exposed in the source code, et cetera - that have been causing minor frustrations for customers - including customers with big social-media followings. Something has to be done. Finally, after listening to the tech people for too long, the CEO bangs the table. The word has to go out that the problem has been fixed. Lessons have been learned. The CEO is doubling the company's social-media and advertising budgets, and he wants to get even bigger celebrities promoting the brand.
The word goes out. Vloggers, bloggers, celebrities are all brought in to bolster the brand and tell the world that everything's fine ... and all the errors and the viruses go on trickling through the system, spreading through the networks, cue sinister music. But Lessons Have Been Learned and the future is bright. By now, the astute reader is beginning to suspect that I have a thing about the way big organisations never quite seem to get it right. And the astute reader is onto something. Big organisations - especially the ones that send me text messages addessed to "Hey William" - never quite seem to get their act together. Chapters Three and Four depict a world in which Everything's Fine, with Business As Usual, and if rising sea levels are beginning to flood low-lying suburbs - yeah, that's really serious, and our PR people are right on it.
I mean, global corporates like ours are teaming up with governments to harness the power of technology in declaring a worldwide campaign against global warming; you can download the declaration to your smart device. We've agreed unanimously - at 11.59 last night, actually, isn't that cool? - that global warming is a bad thing and Action Must Be Taken. Of course our CEO's available for interview, but why don't you save yourself some time by using these pre-approved remarks in your article? What's that? Oh, we'll go along with everything that we all decide to do. Pro-actively, of course. Governments must act, and we'll go right along with what they do. And hey, we're the good guys, right? The CEO demanded an assurance from the tech people that everything was fine with the software. You'll read about it in the media release. Really demanded. They caved in right away.
In Chapter Five, the maverick programmer gets fired from her job (for arguing yet again that they should fix the source code rather than adding more patches), and while wandering in Company Park afterwards, meets the feisty young anthropologist who will be her sidekick through the rest of the book. He's been trying to introduce insects into the park (with its imported trees and underground heating for the exotic plants), and talks excitedly about how it's not too late. By Chapter Six going on Seven, Lessons Have Been Learned to the extent that the electricity grid has failed, the suburbs are under water, and the tech giant has Invested In Excellence to the extent of distributing massive generators around the downtown area (except where it's under water, of course), so that customers can charge their smart devices and keep up with the tech giant's progress in Demanding That Global Warming Must Be Stopped.
By now, the feisty anthopologist and the maverick programmer are living in a beach hut somewhere, and he's convinced her that using nanotechnology to make smart replica insects is not the answer. They've built their beach hut out of washed-up plastic, and now they're working on a boat. One day, using a rod and line, casting from the beach, the anthropologist hauls in something that the programmer has never seen before. Why, it's not made of plastic at all! It's almost ... alive. As the sun comes up over the distant horizon, and that weird music starts up again in the background - they've never been able to track it to its source - he teaches her that there were once fish in the sea, in the time before plastic, and that they could be eaten.
But she flatly refuses to believe that, so - reluctantly - he throws the fish back into the sea and teaches her about vegetables. "I thought apples grew in baskets, in farmers' markets," she says at one point. But no. They light a fire and huddle together under the blanket, watching - the continuity's completely off here - the sun go back down again. Chapter Eight happens, and then Chapter Nine, and by the time sea levels stop rising, they're living in a beach hut on the edge of Las Vegas, which blew all its fuses years ago and is now a deserted tropical paradise, overgrown with trees and creepers and thick green undergrowth. There are lakes, and mangrove swamps, and populations of animals that were either near-extinct or thought to be actually extinct. She's relaxed the vegetarianism to the point where she will eat coelacanth. They're becoming a nuisance.
The novelisation's quite slow in this middle section, but so's the film - critics were divided on the director's decision to tell most of the story in flashback. "There's no tension," said one. "We find out far too early - and it's too obvious anyway - that the world is going to be saved by people working together, in small groups, rather than by governments and big corporates, with their self-interested agendas." And many of them found the ending contrived. I mean - really! The programmer and the anthropologist are sitting on the shore of their reduced America, and they see a boat come towards them over the horizon. It anchors in the bay, and a group come ashore in a launch. They're from somewhere else, and their technology is also something else. Their leader approaches, and says something.
You'll remember the scene. The programmer looks at the leader for a moment, and then offers him a strip of freshly cooked coelacanth. The leader says something, and the programmer shrugs. "De nada," she says. Come on, you do remember the scene. The leader goes back to his people, waiting by the launch, and tells them, in his own language but also in subtitles, "This land is called Denada, and I claim it in the name of the Emperor."
There are two surveillance economies. There's the one in which the various algorithms know me better than I do, because my various online activities and disclosures (and all that location-tracking my phone does) are somehow a window into my soul, and there's the one in which utility companies can send me "Hey, William!" letters offering me (recent example) a video doorbell in exchange for a series of monthly payments added to my utility bill. Regardless of whether or not I have a video doorbell already, or even need one.
I don't have a video doorbell actually, but any description of my front door would have to include the words "glass" and "can see it easily from". My video doorbell would transmit a picture to my phone, so if I didn't want to look out and see who had arrived, or if I was in my kitchen (with my phone) and didn't want to turn round and see who had arrived, it would be very useful. I like the way you think, algorithm. No, really, I'm not laughing at you at all.
And here's another one. "William, live your best life with Fitbit Versa." I had a Fitbit once. Unlike the Fitbit Versa, though, it didn't offer "phone-free music". It just went several ways about measuring my health. Useful, it was, until I stopped wearing it.
I like the person they think I am - this shadow William Essex, this doppelganger, so busy dropping clues online that he wants ... this eclectic range of consumer products and services. Who is he, this guy? In some ways, he's so real to me that I want to call him up and tell him that I'm getting all his mail. In others, he seems to be the kind of everyman that you'd create if your customer profiling only went ... so deep.
Do the people tracking the shadow William Essex really want to gain an intimate knowledge of his wants, needs and desires, or can they sell enough video doorbells without really bothering to get to know him at all? I mean, I'm as impressed as anybody by the overall sinisterness of algorithms and all that - big data and analysis and ooh-scary electronic surveillance - but a video doorbell? Really?
PS. Wifi-enabled (solar-powered?) smart cat's eyes embedded in the roads to communicate with smart self-driving cars. That's the indea I'd have if I was an innovator. The smart self-driving car rolls along, and the cat's eye tells it about the speed limit, the stop sign coming up, the congestion ahead and the school. If we got really sophisticated, we could coat our roads with recycled plastic - people are doing this already - and put a pressure-sensitive grid into the plastic - I don't think anybody's thought of this yet - so that the smart car would have another way of knowing about the stationary big heavy truck dead ahead.
Bumblebee knocking against the window. Clear blue sky. Flat sea. Occasional knocking of a hammer on wood: the roofbeams of that house down below, behind the trees. It's cold in this room, at about knee level as I sit here, and I should probably act on at least one of my array of next things to do. Light the fire? Close the windows upstairs? Unload the washing machine?
I woke up this morning and decided I would have a day of being efficient. So I put on the washing machine, which is what I do when I'm being efficient, then I cleared some junk mail from my inbox and paid a bill. I wrote some emails, and then I wrote a list. I made coffee. I looked up where I'm supposed to be on Thursday. A man with eight children and two grandchildren, all of them boys, came and bought my old television (this doesn't happen every time I have an efficient day, ha ha). I read something that I wrote yesterday, and started writing. Then the washing machine stopped.
And so did I. I've heard of seasonal affective disorder, which is where you - I - get grumpier in winter, but I never realised that I'm on the same cycle as my own washing machine. That does make a kind of sense, though. I put it on, which makes me feel that I'm being efficient, and then it rumbles along in the background while I work (we'll call it "work", if you don't mind). Then the machine stops and by then I'm so used to having it there in the background that I also switch off. The house is still. But for the faint sound of this laptop, and the occasional thump of that hammer, it's silent.
I remember, many years ago, there came into our lives a heavy blue plastic box, roughly hand-sized. If one of us pressed the button, it produced a deep, resonant, thumping heartbeat. Edgar Allan Poe would have loved it. I remember, from around that time, many conversations about the challenge of getting babies to sleep - they like noise, movement, deep, resonant, thumping heartbeats. Maybe it isn't just babies. Maybe I should try writing with the Hoover roaring in the background (that worked, all those years ago), or maybe I should just get all my laundry done?
What happens here
This site is updated weekly, usually on a Friday although I might change that (again). I write it because (1) I like writing it and (2) I like having a deadline. More often than not, it works out as a commentary on the week just passed*.
There are no ads, no pop-ups and no tricky business with cookies. I don't take money for my own opinions. [Except when they come out in book form.] I write this for myself, without a set agenda, on any subject that catches my attention. If you're interested enough, it's not hard to work out my interests. Not impossible, anyway.
*Although I seem to have gone away from that recently. Normal service may or may not be resumed.
No data is kept on this website overnight. Blog posts are usually shared to my Facebook page. We can discuss them there if you feel so inclined.
Where are we now? We're hurtling round the sun, held to the ground by a weak force that we don’t begin to understand, arguing about trade deals between the land masses on a planet mostly covered by water.
The dolphins must think us ridiculous. No wonder they only come to the shallow water to play with us, not to signal their most complex philosophies. More.
Riddle. It takes two to make me, but when I'm made, I'm only a memory. What am I? Scroll down to find out.
Is that a catastrophe I see before me? Could be. There was a clear sky earlier, but now clouds are encroaching from the North. We could be in for a storm. More.
You found me!
Welcome. Thank you for coming. But am I the right
William Essex? Click here
to meet some more.
Read My Shorts?
Here is yet another page of old blog posts and other writings. Sorry, but I need my metaphorical sock drawer for metaphorical socks. The link to the page is right at the end of the paragraph here.
Roads without end
Here is a passage from a review of the book The Road to Somewhere by David Goodhart. I haven't read the book (yet), but the collected reviews would make a worthwhile set of political arguments in their own right. More.
State of the Union
Several commentators today saying that they've lost confidence in the US. Making their point by talking up the glories of the past. After two weeks of this administration, they're not going back.
Were they wrong, and they've seen the light? Or has the US changed? I guess the latter is the intended meaning. But we should at least acknowledge the possibility... More.