In particular, I remember sitting outside that pub on the North side of that famously wide high street, at a big round table with a group of friends, and inside, on the machine, Bryan Hyland starts to sing “So we gotta say goodbye, for the Summer,” and we all hear it, and we all realise: it’s over. I remember the news pictures of parched ground. I remember Paolo. Simon. K. The round table, although that was later, and that basement. Did we wonder whether future Summers would be like this? I suppose we did. Oh, and I remember the Rolling Stones at Knebworth. “What are we going to do now, Keith? Rip This Joint? Okay.”
Howell’s rain dance only worked once. Yes, and waking up on the lawn outside that house with the waterwheel, after that party. That false clarity [Oh dear. I seem to have spilt coffee over several of my memories of Summer’76.] as though all of consciousness has crystallised at the edges. Cracked fields with canyons in them. Jerry Cornelius. David Bowie. Max Demian. Lighters held up in the darkness at the Deutschelandhalle. Those hand-drawn maps of [Oops. Again. How clumsy of me.] and the walk up from the lake afterwards. Was that the year – never mind.
And I remember a politician by the name of Denis Howell, who was appointed Minister for Drought shortly before the rains came that Autumn. He was Minister of Floods for a short while, and then, in the ‘78/’79 Winter, Minister for Snow. I remember that Winter, too. The house painted in pink and green stripes. Those jeans you wore, if this means I'm thinking of you, and the name of the cat. Refuelling the helicopter, and the ride back under the Golden Gate Bridge.
Did the referendum on joining – actually, staying in – the then-EC happen in Summer 1976? No, 1975. I remember that we had bundles of rectangular paper fliers, about the size of something you’d see stuck in the back window of a car, bearing black-print-on-white slogans about the benefits of continued EC membership. They were great for cutting up and then invisibly mending (Sellotape) with the letters rearranged to say something rude. That referendum was funnier, more decisive, and I suppose I could say that it was over more quickly.
False memory. Except that it wasn’t. It didn’t ask a fresh question and it didn’t end the argument. It was a referendum on changing an existing relationship with the European Community, and it set us up for several more decades of arguing about Europe. You could say that today’s arguments are just business as usual. We’ve been bothering about the neighbours for centuries, sometimes by warlike means and sometimes by disagreeing with ourselves over the results of referendums. Referenda. Whatever. Not expressing a view here, but leaving is the one thing we’ve never tried, to shut down the argument.
But I’m not going to talk about that. We’ve spent two years failing to recover a sense of perspective on Europe; let’s talk about the weather. The direction of the colour scheme last night reminded me of all those doom-sayers burbling on about the Gulf Stream and how it flows up the graphic representation of global ocean currents to the left of the UK, mainly blue-green, bringing with it lines with triangles on them that signify rain today, sun tomorrow, fog on Friday and a blustery weekend with a sunny morning for Monday. British weather. Isobars, you know. The curved ones as well.
We had doom-sayers back in ’76, but not like we’ve had over the past few years. I suppose that the Millennium Bug and the Mayan Calendar and the Dot-Com Boom and the mindset of complete unreality brought on by social media have put us in the mood. Instead of SNAFU, how about SINWAD? Situation Normal: We’re All Doomed. Mind you, our grandparents had MAD – Mutually Assured Destruction – as a serious, straight-faced, generally accepted principle of international superpower diplomacy, so we can’t talk. Remember the SALT? The media doubled up on the T, didn't they? Talks.
Barbarossa. Here, now, this year, the real danger of global warming is not that giant icebergs will float right up to the waterfronts of picturesque Icelandic fishing villages and cause evacuations and photo-opportunities, but that the Gulf Stream has already “switched off” (as those happy pessimists used to put it), so that the weather is starting consistently to come from somewhere else. These days, if you want that comfortable tucked-up-in-bed feeling of impending doom, all you have to do is look for a weather forecast in which the colours move from right to left across the country … like last night’s.
Isn’t it great? Another reason to think that now is a significant moment in human history. I remember those flickery ocean currents bringing warm weather up from roughly Jamaica, bottom left, to somewhere up around the Shetland Islands, top right. Easy on the eyes, dependent on the world not changing. And what does the world do? Regardless of the fact that our mobile-phone company has put us “in control” and bought TV advertising to tell us so? Yes, it changes. No, we’re not in control. Go look out of the window. No, the window is the screen with the world outside it. Not touch-sensitive, sorry.
If that movement of warmth has stopped happening, I guess the best guide to the weather of the future will be one of those interminable black-and-white documentaries about “H*tl*r’s War Machine” getting bogged down at the gates of Moscow. [Sorry, I hate to type the name.] Come September, we’ll get heavy rains that, er, turn the roads to mud, and then, on some soon-to-be-ominous same-every-year date in early December, say, we’ll see the first wisps of snow. Within a week, we’ll be running through a black-and-white landscape in our snowsuits, cutting off the supply route to the 6th Army in Stalingrad.
Tick tock not. Or whatever would be today’s equivalent. The war-documentary analogy doesn’t quite stretch that far, but you get my drift (hey, pun!). The winds of Winter will come straight from the Urals (it’s always the Urals, have you noticed?) and the Summer heat will spill up the weather chart from the Sahara (other mountain ranges and deserts are available). Extreme weather conditions will shorten human lifespans, so that if you stare long enough at the statistics and ignore everything happening around you, there’ll be the opportunity to start an argument, or if you’re a government, put out a press release, about how we’re all younger-looking and healthier. Statistically.
Assuming I do discover the secret of eternal life, or at least implausible longevity, at some point between now and the date on which my body clock “should” cease to tell the time, I’m going to find the architecture interesting. Travel to a hot place, and you find a distinctive architecture of coolness. Travel to places where they ski, and you find an architecture of steeply sloping roofs (rooves?), shutters over the windows, clocks with wooden birds in them and saunas where you can get yourself really sweaty and then rush out into the snow and dive into an ice-cold bath. [No, I don’t visit ski resorts much. Why do you ask?]
How do you blend those two together? Interlined curtains? My guess is that (a) you don’t, and (b) the status quo is breaking anyway. The term “architecture” will soon be meaningless. We’ve been comfortably arguing over who recycles and who doesn’t, who litters and who doesn’t, comfortably complaining about the neighbours, and now we’re going to have to face the final countdown: fires across former wetlands, water shortages, more potholes in the roads, the elevation of the Minister for Catastrophe to cabinet rank, the total collapse of civilisation as we know it, and TV advertising from mobile-phone companies to tell us how they’re empowering communities to take responsibility for their own environments by recycling their old phones for negligible sums of barter chips.
Good talk, Nostradamus, thanks. Traditionally built homes, alternately perma-frozen in Winter and roasted at maximum temperature in Summer, will disintegrate. Architects will become scavengers, eking out their scant livings on the edges of crumbling cities, scratching designs for temporary dwellings into the dried roadsides in return for scraps of food. In the few years we have left before global air travel spreads the plague that kills us all, we’ll become nomadic – but over short distances, in the British way, moving seasonally (discreetly, without fuss) from the ground on which we pitch our Summer yurts to the adjacent ground on which we build our Winter igloos. We’ll maintain our hedges to keep out the neighbours, of course, mustn’t let standards slip, although we’ll have to switch from native species to imported tall-grass varieties.
State media will continue to reassure us that nothing has changed, while running property shows about seasonal housing – Kevin and Brenda run a glamping business through the Summer months, then they close for a week in December and re-open as an ice hotel just in time for the festive shopping spree. Derek’s construction company alternates between building straw-bale houses, with plenty of ventilation, and building ice houses. Freezing coloured water as a decorative speciality. Decorative fabrics embedded in blocks of ice*. By then, with or without a follow-up vote, thanks to ice caps melting and sea levels rising, we’ll have moved a long way further from France. As for the Netherlands, yeah. About that whole below-sea-level thing.
Get a load of those dots! Okay, I’m feeling very much better now. Really cheerful. Optimistic, even. But – hey. I nearly forgot. On top of all that, I heard a rumour. Somebody told somebody who told a friend of mine who told me the other day that the army is stockpiling food. Just that – “stockpiling food”. Nothing more than that. They’re not modifying their tank tracks to run on mud, or insulating their engines so that they’ll start even in Ural weather. Nor are they specifically buying Heinz Baked Beans in bulk, or Kendal Mint Cake, or Tunnock’s Tea Cakes, say. Or getting ready for a big party. No details. Just “stockpiling food”.
It’s the perfect rumour. Simple, believable, quite possibly meaningless (perhaps somebody in uniform did a bulk-buy at a cash-and-carry and was seen) – but if you get the tone of voice right when you’re spreading it around, definitely ominous. Could signify anything… Especially with those three dots (which are the emoji version of a Meaningful Look – a rare instance of the emoji coming before the chicken – er, egg – er, I mean, the expression that it signifies. The emoji, I mean. Oh, never mind).
Then last night, with the imaginary wind blowing around the house, the imaginary wolves howling in the imaginary forest outside, the sinister imaginary theme tune failing to drown out anything at all and the floor upstairs creaking in that way it does when there’s nobody up there (Or Isn’t There?), I had a thought. After watching the sinister red-tinged weather forecast and ferrying another sack of canned food down to the fall-out shelter, I thought: if I’m going to write about this, maybe I should write about the shortage at the supermarket. And the more I thought about that…
There was snow in Falmouth for two days at the beginning of this year. Just for two days. But I remember that on the first day there was talk of “panic buying in the supermarket”, and then, on the second day when I went shopping, I found empty shelves because the supply lorries couldn’t get through. [That was the Official Explanation, cue ominous music.] This country is not good at extreme weather – far too much fun getting in a panic – but that was a failure of “Just In Time” stock control on a grand scale.
Clearly, we can guess that The Army Knows Something. If it starts raining in September, and doesn’t stop, get your panic-buying in early. Equip yourself with snow shoes and heavily insulated clothing. Hire an architect to re-jig your house so that it has cool, airy interiors and heavy-duty insulation on the outside. Take igloo-building lessons and learn to carve ice sculptures. Don’t be surprised when the snow comes and you see tanks trundling through town with your online grocery order dangling from the gun barrel.
*No! Not deceased relatives. Although taxidermy would have to change.
You might think that a mission statement along the lines of “Going from A to B” would be more appropriate, or perhaps “Giving you a ride home in return for a small-ish amount of money,” but no. Even that schematic doesn’t exactly add up to “If you want to go to Penryn, get on this one.” These buses are engaged in a vast, static purpose – partnering with universities, connecting communities – and I guess that’s what they want us to think of them. The fact that the wheels on the bus go round and round is incidental. Whether the mummies on the bus go chat-a-chat-chat or just dream of Ancient Egypt – I can’t believe I thought that would be funny. Sorry.
Survey tunes. Mummies and daddies on the bus, I'm sorry to have interrupted your conversation. On the table in front of me is a white paper bag. It contains small items recently collected from a nearby store. On the back of the paper bag is a request. “Please complete our survey to help us make sure we’re giving you the best service.”
Not “Complete our survey to help us work out whether we’re doing well or badly” or even “to work out how we’re doing, or how we could improve,” but “help us make sure…” we’re the best. Complete our survey to help us confirm to ourselves that we’re doing really well. Okay. I have more to say about that, but before I go any further, I want you to know that I really care about you, as a reader of this blog. Please help me by grading this post from one to ten, where ten is “William, I think you’re wonderful”, and one is “I’m sorry, William, I’m just not capable of following what you’re on about.”
Thank you. I value your opinion. If you would like to add any further comment, please use the box provided (max. 28 characters). And no, it’s not necessary to tell me in person. You’d be welcome, and I suppose we’d both laugh, but we’d be laughing because that’s not what such invitations invite. We all know, don’t we, that if I turned up at that store’s counter and started helping them to make sure, etc., in my own special way, our relationship would be soured. “Here, let me wrap that for you,” would not go down well, and nor would “Can you really not see that there’s a queue?”
We, Robot. It's as if we’re trained (influenced, nudged, pressured) to think in States of Being these days. Not doing, Being. A bus driver might ferry people around town, just as an individual retailer might sell me stuff. But collectively, at the level of the organisations that aspire to direct our lives, we're being put into a still picture and not a moving, doing, changing narrative. A town’s bus company is Working In Partnership; its directors have meetings with academics (administrators, sorry) and come away thinking they’ve done something useful. But has their discussion moved a single commuter from A to B?
Your bus is delayed, I'm afraid, but comfort yourself with the thought that your communities are connected. Oh, you've given us a 0 in the survey. Is our best service not reaching you? Perhaps you should get to the bus stop earlier. Of course we put The Customer first. What do you mean, you're the customer? How arrogant. There are hundreds of customers. We can't spend our valuable time just focusing on you.
What seems to have happened, somewhere deep down at soul level, is that we’ve abandoned attempts to achieve The Singularity by building computers that can think like we do, and started instead to train ourselves to think like computers do. But wait a minute. Think about that paper bag from the store. There’s a great hierarchy of people and managers behind it, who have to Sign Off The Paper Bag before it goes into production, but only two who matter. Only two whose disappearance would matter to the production of the paper bag.
Exactly. The (I guess) freelance graphic designer who made it what it is, and the writer who wrote the first draft of those words on the back – the draft that said “tell us how we’re doing.” Those two, designer and writer, along with all the rest of their kind, are (more or less contentedly) accepting money to provide first drafts of all the world's paper bags, slogans and schematics on the sides of buses, and if you think about it, instructions on how to interact with reality.
Not harness - unleash. Their drafts are wrenched back from creativity to stasis by middle management, and they accept that because they're getting paid to do this stuff and they can be creative out of hours. But just imagine what would happen if they realised their power.
If there were no first drafts, their would be no second drafts. No second drafts, nothing to sign off, no meetings, no brain-achingly dull statements of the obvious to include in our marketing literature. So my suggestion, for getting us out of this State of Being and back into moving forward, is not to Harness The Power Of Technology, which is almost as inert as a bureaucracy until it's given something to do, but to Unleash The Designers And Writers, whose creativity is unpredictable, who don't go bang and fizzle out if you drop them in water (no, wait) and who generate ideas without first having to be programmed with self-limiting parameters.
I also think money isn't the solution to everything and managers should be subordinate to the people we manage, but we're not talking about the NHS. Just think. Yes, the words on the bus would be “Paying designers generously” and the schematic would show a writer accepting a card payment, but there’s a fighting chance they’d be self-confident enough, secure enough in their own skills and general all-round value, to ask a straight question: how are we doing?*
*See above re: SINWAD.