A journey through a nuanced apocalypse

We’ll remember yesterday’s date for some years, that’s for sure. The day when the time of closed-in living began for middle England. Putting aside all the shameful panic-buying (who ARE those people?) middle England is actually very supportive and helpful when the chips are down. Or when old gaffers fall down. I was walking along the road into town yesterday afternoon when I saw a gathering up ahead. A couple of cars were stopped; two or three ladies were stood in the road. An older gentleman was sat on the grass verge, which at this point, was a steep bank a foot or so above the road.

An old fellow, making his way home along the awkwardly cambered footpath, had slipped and fell into the road. All the ladies had gathered round to help, rather than pass by on the other side; one offered to call an ambulance. But the chap seemed to have suffered little more than bruises and getting mud on his trousers. He seemed a little unsteady, and it was appropriate that I rather than they should to offer to escort him back to his home. Which I did. It reminded me a little later of an incident in John Wesley’s journal. Writing nearly three hundred years ago, he recounts how as an older man he fell over on a street in some town in England. Someone helped him up and brushed him off. Someone from a nearby barber’s shop brought a chair out for him to sit on. Someone else fetched a glasss of water.

By the time I’d seen him safely home, and turned back to the shops to do what I’d set out to do, I missed most of the astonishing announcement from the PM which changed everything. I missed a call from my boss getting behind Boris’s instructions to us all, reiterating that I should work from home henceforth.

This morning for a walk through the fields, before starting work at home. My thoughts might be a little unsteady – a walk out is always good to help with that. We listened uncritically to the PM and his advisers yesterday. They’re doing the best they can; doing a difficult job in difficult, unprecedented times. It would be churlish to find fault with them personally – though I see on social media that there is no shortage of people doing just that. It might be slightly easier, and more legitimate, to question their wisdom once – as the French say – “l’esprit d’escalier” kicks in. We’ll see as events take their place. One thing seems clear – though perhaps not yet to everyone. There’s going to be no swift return to “normal” life as it existed as recently as yesterday afternoon about three o’clock. It’s not quite the end of the world; it’s quite not the apocalypse. Not as we know it.

“You have arrived at a complex junction”

As a youth learning computer studies in the evening at the local technical college, I and others from my school used to have access to a large computer. One of the programmes on it was the text-based adventure game “ADVENT”. This game is the ancestor, really, of all modern graphics-based computer games. When playing this game, the player typed in command – “Take weapon”, “Fight dwarf” “go left” etc., and the computer would in due course respond with a new situation. E.g. “You have arrived at a complex junction”.

This phrase came unbidden to my mind the other day when I was sat during my lunch break in Upper Grosvenor Park, that small triangular slice of grass and plane trees a couple of hundred yards from Victoria Station. I believe in running with my thoughts and hunches. I don’t think there are coincidences, and God above does direct our thoughts as He sees fit.

Both in my personal life and in the life of the world and the nation, this time is one of complexity. We often say that we live in unusual or interesting times. That’s been true throughout my adult life, even allowing for a healthy degree of English understatement. But now, in these times of the Corona Virus, we live in extraordinary times, even – and I don’t like this over-used word – “unprecedented” times. I think this is a badly overused word, misused by journalists chasing a cheap sensation – for there to be “unprecedented” weather or storms is the most common example I’ve seen recently. Really? Was it? Rather like describing something as an “incredible” experience. Yes, I rather think it probably was.

Yet, nothing like this has happened in our lifetime. Last week many of us were literally waiting on the outcome of the Cabinet office “COBRA” meeting. We’ve heard of any number of such meetings for one crisis or another – but since when did ordinary working people wait on the outcome of those meetings? The press briefing on life TV afterwards was sane and sage and measured in it’s tone: but what could happen? What does “delay phase” mean, what does “herd immunity” mean? In the meantime the trains get quieter, and London’s Victoria station at 7 o’clock in the morning looks oddly deserted.

The Chief Commissioner for Scouts in the UK, Tim Kidd, has written to members noting that we must continue to respond to the developing situation in a calm, measured and appropriate way. More typically English sound and sage advice, for I fear that the recent news frenzy about Corona Virus has not been calm, measured or appropriate. The media scramble over tiny scraps of news, like the gangs of monkeys so recently filmed fighting over a banana in some city in S.E Asia. Everything is hyperbole, journalists and reporters hyperventilating, almost, with excitement. And yet, it’s not even really started yet. Where will we go – which exit will we take from the complex junction? Both as individuals, and collectively as a civil society?

The end of the world is nigh”...What, right nigh? We remember this one of the funnier Ronnie Barker sketches with a wry grin perhaps. We use the term metaphorically – but it is literally true of every day – the world we know disappears at sunset and is made new the following morn. As Linkin Park sing, “things aren’t the way they were before“. After this, things won’t be the way they were before. 2019 is more inaccessible than the other side of the universe. We can’t go back there. Companies will go bankrupt. Habits will change. Society will grow and alter under the influence of what is happening around us. People will die – yes, we knew that and it is deplorable, but no-one lives for ever.

It’s already been noted that pollution levels are falling in some places as a consequence of there being fewer aircraft in our skies. We find ourselves wondering what we can do in these times to be more careful of the vulnerable and the aged around us – how can we help when there is enforced self-isolation? Perhaps one way forward from the complex junction at which we find ourselves, is towards a world where we are much more deeply aware, both of the need to look after our planet, and also of the need to look after our nearest neighbours.

The Massacre of Mankind, by Stephen Baxter

Stephen Baxter, one of the most prominent sci-fi writers around today, has written a sequel to H. G Wells’ “The War of the Worlds“. I confess I never read Wells’ original, but like most people of my generation I’m familiar with the story. Jeff Wayne’s concept album has played it’s part in that familiarity of course; “Forever Autumn” remains one of my favourite songs. A couple of years ago my wife and I went to see the stage show live in London – a real experience. It’s a story that touches every human heart.

I’m no real fan of H.G Wells, whilst acknowledging him as the outstanding futurist of his generation and one of the grandfathers, as it were, of the science fiction genre as we understand it today. I did read one of his short stories – written in Edwardian England more than a decade before the Great War and the invention of the tank – in which he describes great metal wheeled “landships”. It’s pleasing to read Baxter gives them more than a passing nod in this sequel.

The story, written in the same laconic narrative style as H.G Wells, recounts a second invastion of Earth by the Martians, in 1920. It’s readable and a page-turner, but I will reveal no more about it other than recommending it highly.

But here is where I enthuse about Stephen Baxter’s work, for alternative history is his real forte. He manages to challenge the idea that what happened in our past was immutable and things could only have been that way. The Martians invaded in 1907: they were foiled in their attempt by deadly pathogens. But as a direct consequence England and the British Empire never joined what his characters refer to as the “Schlieffen War” in 1914. In his history, there was no Great War, there was no Russian Revolution. The Bolsheviks were all defeated and tossed into prison.

The theme of “what might have been?” has entertained thinkers for all of history. What if Alexander the Great had lived? What if he had not recovered from a dreadful war injury he received when he was younger still? What if Henry VII’s oldest son had not died as a youth, leaving the throne open for his brother who became Henry VIII? What if the Nazis had successfully invaded?

Stephen Baxter in a number of his works, covers the the space-age era in this kind of detail. In “Voyage” he argues that humankind might have gone on from the Moon to visit Mars in the 1980’s – we could have; we just didn’t, for whatever reason. In “Titan” he sees an expedition to circum-Saturn space using Apollo-era technology, whilst Earth collapses into war, recrimination and apocalypse. In his short story “Sheena 5“, genetically-modified intelligent squid are sent to the asteroids to explore on behalf of humankind, because sending people is too expensive. They were betrayed: they were supposed to be unable to breed, but they could, and they did. Aggressive, intelligent, and capable of hard thinking, they return to Earth decades later as a space-faring species, to find humankind again mired in war, recrimination and apocalypse.

In “War birds” we see an alternative twentieth century far worse than our own, far worse than the worst nightmares of those who look down their nose at Donald Trump. The title refers to NASA’s space shuttles, which are seen and used almost entirely as fighter/bombers. We see Nixon rehabilitated; Tehran destroyed by an American atom bomb. A nuclear rocket blows up, rather like Challenger did in 1986, smearing radioactive material across the Florida sky. Reagan’s response is to start a nuclear war and destroy the Soviet Union. It gets worse…Stephen Baxter is willing to imagine the unimaginable in a quite relaxed and very English understated way. In his novel “Moonseed” (which does end on a positive note, though not before the Earth has been destroyed with billions dead) someone notes (after Arthur’s Seat becomes an active volcano) that “Edinburgh is Olympus Mons now”.

Reflections on a decade of reading

To early morning prayers on the first Saturday of this new month, this year, this new decade: outside, squirrels and magpies go about their winter business. As the day dawns, the exquisite light cheapens and becomes more banal, less delicate.

And now a look back at some of my reading over the last ten years. I have – at least according to my own records – read 491 books. Of those books, 349 I read for the first time: the rest, were books I have read before, sometimes once, sometimes more often. Tolkien’s “The Silmarillion” and C.S Lewis’ “Mere Christianity” top the re-read list, followed closely by Tolkien’s “The Children of Hurin” and R.A Heinlein’s “The cat who walks through walls” and “Friday”. Did I re-read any non-fiction? Why yes! I read twice these last ten years, Sebastian Junger’s “War” and Jon E. Lewis’s “The Making of the American West“. Also, Anthony Beevor’s account of the Spanish Civil War, and N.A.M Roger’s history of the Royal Navy, “The Safeguard of the Sea“.

I read two books called “On writing” – one – most excellent work – by Stephen King; the other, by George Orwell. I’ve read every one of Alan Furst’s dozen delicately written European spy novels set generally at the outbreak of World War II.

Alex Scarrow’s “Last light” was an apocalypse based around the end of electricity – how thin is the barrier that keeps the rule of law in place? How quickly could a person – or a society – somehow stumble through that barrier, and find themselves trampled to death by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse coming at a fast gallop in the other direction? In Scarrow’s book – about 48 hours. The Prime Minister fumbles a vital question in a press conference on a Monday morning. Wednesday afternoon, a policeman is shot dead at a motorway roadblock – and so the die-back begins. It was reminiscent of Nevil Shute’s propaganda piece “What happened to the Corbetts“, which was a fictional account written in the late 1930’s, of the bombing and destruction of the city of Southampton by an unknown enemy.

I had a re-read of Antony Beever’s masterful account of the Spanish Civil War – a book I enjoy reading, as he deals very lightly with the grey areas, the nuance and complexity of that conflict. I read a paper copy of the collected short stories of Arthur C. Clarke – always a pleasure to re-read the story of the Master, or the story of Grant and McNeil marooned on their freighter between Earth and Venus – with only enough air for one. I read and re-read Bill Bryson’s book “Mother tongue” about our great language. I was particularly impressed with “The man who went into the west“, being a biography of that sublime and yet oddly disquieting English poet, R.S Thomas. A clergyman who hid from his parishioners, a most peculiar and perhaps unlovable man, and yet, what poetry:

 The priest would come
and pull on the hoarse bell nobody
heard, and enter that place
of darkness, sour with the mould
of the years. And the spider would run
from the chalice, and the wine lie
there for a time, cold and unwanted
by all but he, while the candles
guttered as the wind picked
at the roof.

I read a number of China Mieville novels, and was most impressed by “Embassytown“, a story where the human ambassadors to a race of beings who speak with two mouths, have to be telepathic identical twins trained from birth. A very strange story – but fundamentally, all about language and communication. I read a couple of the memoirs of the late Clive James – what a writer, what a great guy. There are and have been few role models in my life, but God knows I’d regard him as one. Inspiring to me because he came from nothing. In “Unreliable memoirs” he writes of small boys throwing stones at an old lady, and compares it with Kristallnacht, noting that “the difference between mischief and murder is no greater than the law allows“.

I went through a Dennis Wheatley phase, once his material became available on Kindle, and relived some of the stories I first read in my early twenties. Evan Connell’s “Son of the morning star” was a biography of General Custer – and hence, of the development of the American west. That is a particular historical interest of mine. F.A Hayek wrote “The Road to serfdom” – a destruction of the errors of socialism – and perhaps the most influential book I’ve read this last ten years. Though oddly, it did not stand up (or has not yet done so) to re-reading.

I went through a Bond period and re-read much of Fleming’s original 007 stories. Great, spare writing. I also read a good few of Iain Banks space-opera novels, and also his de facto autobiography called “Raw Spirit” which I found encouraging. I read some of Keith Laumer’s science fiction stories, and Lord Moran’s excellent “The anatomy of courage” which every single one of us ought read. I read the journal of the Lewis and Clark expedition- that was long and tedious in places, but rivetting and exciting in others. Neal Stephenson’s work was a blessing to me – particularly “Cryptonomicon” and “The System of the World“. Nevil Shute’s “In the wet” I’d also highly recommend. I’ve mentioned elsewhere the radical and strange voting system he proposes in that story.

Who else is there to mention? Kipling, perhaps. I went through a Kipling phase after one of my daughters spent time at Simla, and later, lived for a year or so near New Delhi. “Plain tales from the hills” demonstrates that astute observer of the human condition in his best form. “Kim” I would put on the list of books everyone ought to read. Two interesting things about Kipling’s “Kim”: 1) it is available extensively in translation throughout India – but it is not available in Urdu and hence not available at all in Pakistan – where much of the story is set. I leave the reader to draw his or her own conclusions about that. 2) It is not so much the startng point of the Scout movement – that would be B.P’s “Scouting for Boys” – as the grandfather or underlying source material for Scouting. You want to understand what Scouting is about? Read “Kim”.

We may add the former astronaut Stephen Baxter. Whilst no crackerjack conspiracy theorist, he suggests that NASA exists not to faciliate human space flight but to prevent it – we could have gone to Mars in the 1980’s. I recommend “Flood” and “Ark” and especially “Moonseed” with a character whose immortal line is – after Arthur’s Seat becomes once again an active volcano – “Edinburgh is Olympus Mons now”. Also the learned Doctor Theodore Dalrymple. Never less than a pleasure – such works as “The politics and culture of decline” and “The Wilder shores of Marx”.

Tom Bingham wrote “The rule of law”, a helpful book on a vital concept. It is a book I bought and read after an oddly encouraging visit to Parliament which my wife and I won in a raffle. Up for re-reading in these interesting times, is that one. The leather-faced explorer the late Wilfred Thesiger was one of a series of Arabist explorers of the last 150 years. He was effectively guilty of opening the flood gates and allowing the desecration by oil companies of the Rubal Khali or Empty Quarter of Arabia. But he writes wonderfully of the (now doubtless long-vanished) desert Bedu. Read his autobiography “My life and travels“. Read “Arabian Sands“.

Much that perhaps ought to be included has been omitted. But I just read a book called “Steal like an artist” by Austin Kleon, and he notes that the future, in the present world where we are swamped by easily available data and information, belongs to those who know what to leave out. It was perhaps ever thus…and on that note, I bid you good day.

Nick Hough <nick@houghlife.com>Fri, 3 Jan, 18:46

More Scottish travels

After a work-related evening in The Dutch Mill in Aberdeen, the following morning I set off up Deeside towards Braemar. My first stop was Gordon’s Tea Rooms in Braemar, an excellent little gaff where I had a latte and some rather tasty fruit shortbread. I did like the lamps each hung on a miniature sheave.

From there, over the blasted wilderness of Glen Shee. A typical Scottish ski-station at the top of a pass – deserted other than under winter conditions. On the Aberdeenshire side, deep, thick mist. Oddly enough, a change in the weather meant that the Perthshire side of the pass was much clearer – an odd effect of the mountains. Thence, through to Pitlochry. Amidst rain and tourists, I sought lunch. Pitlochry has not changed for the better; the retail trade is in deep recession, and the main road through the mountains has long since bypassed this town – and it shows. I went to see the Fall colours at Garry Bridge, but it was no weather to be outdoors in town clothes. I pushed on towards the central Highlands, toward the dreary 55mph treadmill of the Pass of Drumochter.

Long before I got there, I happened upon the Atholl Arms Hotel on the north side of Blair Atholl. I like an historic coaching inn every now and then, and I turned into the car park with no further ado. Grey stone, an imposing frontage and large display windows that seemed almost Mackintosh-esque to me. Coats of arms prominent, yet not covering itself in tartan, nor in the cross of St. Andrew. So far so good. In a cosy little reception area to the right of the front door, a blonde lady in blue suggested a single room for £50, or a double for £75. I opted for the single. It was off to one side, clearly an erstwhile room for students or staff. The room looked dreadful: it was ill-lit; there was woodchip on the ceiling; 80’s pine furniture, and a single bed jammed against the wall. I liked it. It also had a perfectly excellent shower, a fluffy white bath towel, and the makings for tea included a little teapot. I was set up! I went out for a run up Glen Tilt.

It’s the touches of old that endeared it to me…the wooden sash windows, the 1970’s light fittings, the domestic patterned glass in the windows was probably older than I am. For £50, it was atmospheric and excellent. But I could not hope for a great breakfast. I went down with low expectations, and I was disappointed. I had as good a full breakfast as anywhere in the UK, served by friendly and engaged staff in an enormous baronial hall fully two floors high – the recipient of light from the aforementioned large display windows. The ceiling was Robin Hood green, the walls, a deep maroon. Crossed swords and pikes were hung on the walls, interspersed with stags heads.

The following day at noon, after trundling through rainswept countryside along single-track roads, I stopped in Kingussie and took coffee in the “Sugar Bowl” cafe. I was luckier with the second-hand bookshops and picked up Geoffrey Household’s “The Sending”, Iain Banks “Raw Spirit” and Christopher Sommerville’s “The January Man: a year of walking in Britain”. I happened to glance at my phone, looking for information about a heritage railway I knew was somewhere near here, and I saw that there was a Diesel Gala Day – today. I put on my coat and hat and left for Aviemore on the instant.

The High Peak Trail – by bike from Edale to Whatstandwell in 2004

A propos of this rather excellent Go-Pro timelapse footage of a cycle ride down the High Peak trail, https://youtu.be/mbttC49o5Hg, here is a slightly slower but just as interesting account of a similar journey taken in 2004 before Go-Pros were invented…

Arriving at Edale Station at 10a.m, I set off uphill, and was soon walking… Nevertheless 10.25a.m saw me at Hollins Cross on the Mam Tor ridge. You could not walk from Edale Station to Hollins Cross in twenty five minutes. Thence riding and walking up to Mam Tor, and carrying my bike down the stairs to the road. Thence down Winnats (peaking at 37mph just before the Speedwell cavern), through Castleton and up into Cave Dale, where I had once again to carry my bike, so rough was the ground. I was up and out of Cave Dale and onto the moor, whence I lunched, at 11.35a.m. Then onwards over bridleways, quite slow going, bringing me down through some quite delightful woodlands to Peak Forest on the A623. I came east a few miles along the main road – unpleasant work, mostly uphill with heavy freight traffic sweeping past me, and very little safe room to walk the bike – and then struck south to the west of Tideswell, along minor roads firstly, and the Limestone Way secondly, bringing me to Millers Dale after a decent interval, again mostly by bridleways.

From Millers Dale, up along “long lane”, another bridleway, strongly upstairs, to the A6 at the western end of the Taddington bypass. Through Taddington and further south again, minor roads leading me to the “Bull in t’ Thorn” on the Ashbourne-Buxton road for a much needed pint at a little after 1.30p.m. Thence a hundred yards or so to Hurdlow. The first section of the ride was over – 20 miles in a little under four hours. Very good riding but quite slow. At least five miles on foot, maybe as much as a mile having carried my bike.

I hared off down the High Peak Trail, whizzing through Parsley Hay about 2.05p.m. This were my target points – Parsley Hay by 2p.m, High Peak junction by 3p.m (I gravely underestimated the time and distance – nearly 18 miles – from Parsley Hay to High Peak junction.) So concerned was I with keeping my speed up, that I missed the junction and continued burning down the Tissington Trail, only realising my mistake at Hartington signal box! I was able to cut a couple of miles across country on a bridleway, getting myself easily back onto the C&HPR.

Thereafter, a very long leg with only one or two brief rests, along the railway track, which due to the pace I was having to sustain, was only slightly enjoyable. With increasing saddle sore and tiredness, wrist pain and thirst, I came to Wirksworth a little after 3pm. I had made 32mph down Hopton Bank, but so slow was my progress (8mph) down the much steeper Middleton Bank, that I abandoned the High peak Trail and went down the much faster main road into Cromford, arriving at Cromford Wharf at about 3.25pm.

I had planned to arrive at High Peak Junction – still a good mile away – at 3p.m. I was running very late and had been thinking about that for well over an hour. It wasn’t that I couldn’t make it home, it was that I wanted to be home in time to get showered up and ready to take Cubs at 6.15p.m. Had I rode all the way home to Derby, I should have arrived, very tired and very stiff, and most likely well after 5p.m. I needed a break with the trains. So I was very pleased when, almost as I turned into the car park at Cromford Wharf, the clickety-clack of an approaching northbound train could be heard across Cromford fields.

I now knew that all I had to do was ride along the towpath through to Whatstandwell station in the time it takes the train to run up to Matlock, rest a while and set off back again. I  figured I had a little under half an hour. I pushed very hard along the tow path, hindered in the first mile by pedestrians, and I had to draw on inner reserves to keep the pace up as I drew near to Whatstandwell. I was constantly expecting to hear the sound of the train running through the woods, signalling that I would have to ride all the way to Derby. But, I need not have worried. I was ensconced on the station at Whatstandwell after a fifteen minute dash, and the train did not arrive for another ten minutes. An excellent day out in the White Peak.

Arundel

We started out with brunch in an Italian cafe. For her, some very sweet waffles. For me, a sausage bap but the sausages were from a boar. Tasty. Then, a short tour round in the summer sunshine. To my eye Arundel resembles Uckfield with its steep main street and pleasant buildings. It’s nearly all cafes and restaurants, though we did find an actual grocer trading on one side-street. And there were antique shops, which is always a good thing when we’re out together.

Thence to Arundel Castle, which I found eye-opening and not entirely refreshing. Whilst it is in superficial appearance a Norman castle, the majority of it is Victorian. It is, rather like Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland, something of a reconstruction, a Victorian ideal of what a Norman castle should be like. That may be a little unfair, but only a little. Both had been “real” castles back in the day. Both, interestingly enough, were reduced during the Civil War. Bamburgh by artillery, Arundel, by siege and thirst. The Parliamentarian besiegers cut off the water supply – game over, as they say. Surprising to find the Royalists held out for so long – for 18 days.

Arundel is a centre of Roman Catholicism. The large and very French looking cathedral church in the town is not Anglican but the seat of the Roman diocese of Arundel. The owner of the castle is the Duke of Arundel, also known as the Duke of Norfolk. I already knew that Norfolk was a Catholic peer, and also the most senior nobleman in England. What I learned today was that the Duke of Norfolk is also the hereditary Earl Marshal of England. It is he to whom would fall the burden of organising the Queen’s funeral and the coronation of her successor. It is fascinating to me that right at the heart of the ceremonial State, right next to the Crown, to a protestant monarch, you find this high Catholic nobleman.

Going round this home of a Catholic peer, this tremendous castle, made me feel very Protestant. I recall a time some years ago when I was sat one lunchtime praying in Westminster Cathedral, and the priest started talking about the uniqueness of the virgin Mary, and I found I had to get up and walk out – I just could not be doing with listening to such stuff. I didn’t realise how deeply Protestant I was until thrown into that Catholic environment. It’s not sectarian hatred – there’s no orange and green with me. It’s just doctrinal differences. I’m aware that in writing this I may set myself up for “POT/KETTLE/BLACK” responses…

The other clear learning from the visit – though I knew it in my heart – is that had I lived in the English Civil War, I would have taken the Roundhead or Parliamentary side – at least in the war itself. But I am no fan of the coup, overthrow of parliament and military dictatorship that followed the Civil War, nor any respecter of Cromwell’s memory. He has so much to answer for in England and Scotland, to say nothing of the lasting damage he did in Ireland. Some years back in less stable parts of the world than ours, there was a spate of politically motivated toppling of statues. I’d nominate the statue of Cromwell in London: not for toppling of course, but perhaps for egging, or some of that horrible string that squirts from a can – or perhaps a student to put a traffic cone on his head.

History has much to teach us; we miss much by forgetting the fact that we are deeply shaped and moulded as a people over centuries. You want to understand the EU? Study the second world war. Where did the Troubles come from? Learn about Cromwell and even further back into Irish history. It’s worth going back and remembering that the Catholic/Protestant divide in the 17th century was as much about who was in charge, about state power, as it was about religion. The superpowers of the day were underpinned by these ideologies, even as in our youth, they were underpinned by Communism and Capitalism. Then, as now, we ask: who is in charge? A leader, a hereditary King, or an elected Parliament? Who should be in charge? And should they who are in charge account for themselves to the common people? Do we follow the status quo and leave things as they were, or do we embrace change? These were and of course are, vital questions. That most of the answers to these questions seem obvious, and come easily to the mind, does not mean that it will always be so. We should take nothing for granted.

Collapse, by Jared Diamond

“The past”, writes Jared Diamond, “offers us a rich database from which we can learn, in order that we may keep on succeeding”. This is powerful truth and it is one of the reasons why I keep a journal. R.A Heinlein writes of people uninterested in their historical background that “a generation without a past is a generation without a future“. George Orwell tells us, more bluntly, that “he who controls the past, controls the future“. All of this points to the fact that we can and should learn from the past, as individuals and collectively, as a society or a culture. Jared Diamond’s book bring us lessons on how societies and cultures collapsed, or survived, and draws some broad conclusions for our time.

Starting with a perhaps counter-intuitive look at the potential problems faced by modern Montana, he goes on to look at a number of cultures the collapses of which we may all be aware of, and examines in some detail why those societies failed. The Anazazi Indians of the American southwest; the Maya. The island settlements in the Pacific – Easter Island. The Norse settlements in Greenland and on the North American continent.

He then moves on from consideration of those collapsed ancient societies, to consider some modern cultures which may or may not be facing collapse: Why are some in great shape, why are some in crisis? Papua New Guinea. Modern Australia. Haiti and the Dominican Republic – two widely differing cultures on the same island. If there is any conclusion to be drawn here, it is that there is no sound-bite solution, no quick or straightforward answer, but instead, case-by-case complexity and nuance.

The Anazazi in Chaco Canyon grew crops in multiple locations and then distributed it, ostensibly (but probably not) equally. In describing this he artlessly demolishes command economics or the economics of state-sponsored redistribution of wealth. The risk of redistribution is that “it required a complex political and social system to integrate activities between different sites”, and “lots of people ended up starving to death when that complex system collapsed”. This is an inherent problem with command economics: when a planned economy goes wrong, thousands or even millions of people end up starving to death – as in Bengal in 1770 in the days of the East India Company, as under Stalin in the Ukraine in the 1930’s, and as in Ethiopia in the 1980’s. When a market economy goes wrong, there may be widespread malnutrition, but there won’t be mass starvation. It’d be interesting to see how many people actually starved during the Great Depression – but you may be sure it won’t be many.

Moving onto some success stories, he spends some time discussing an area he does know something about, the Highlands of Papua New Guinea. Here we have a culture that has embraced innovation, a culture that has found it necessary to abandon conservatism or resistance to change. Conservatism though, he argues, comes from being on the edge, facing a survival situation. We dare not change things, if changing things pushes us over the edge to destruction. And yet, the adaptable highland tribal people of PNG have done just that – embraced change, done things differently, and not only survived but have prospered. In contrast he notes that the Norse settlements in Greenland ultimately failed (though climate change was also a causal factor) because of conservatism – what worked in Norway, should work in Greenland: but it didn’t. The differences were subtle and complex, and were difficult to understand or comprehend given the knowledge and technology of the time.

Is “progress” sustainable at all? He notes that Inuit hunter-gatherers lasted 500 years in Greenland. But aboriginal hunter-gatherers in Australia lasted 40,000 years. What’s the difference? Is “progress” itself a bad thing? Me personally, I don’t think it is. I don’t think a culture that doesn’t change or grow is healthy at all. That’s as true for hunter-gatherers as it was for the more advanced Roman state which remained at broadly the same technical level for a thousand years. Underlying all of this discussion is the importance of engaged, enthusiastic and committed citizens, insightful and courageous leaders, and a willingness to look at the bigger picture and think about the long term.

Diamond draws some thought-provoking conclusions, some of which are truism, to a degree; others, less obvious and more challenging to me. He suggests that we need to challenge our deeply held core beliefs – some of them are compatible with the survival of society; some of them, have to be given up in order to survive. As true for individuals as for cultures.

More challenging though, “in all politically complex human societies in which people encounter other individuals with whom they have no ties of family or clan relationship, government regulation has arisen precisely because it was found to be necessary for the enforcement of moral principles”. This is about what he calls the “tragedy of the commons” – people in general do not behave in a way that prospers the common good, but in a way that prospers them as individuals. But there is always a “commons”; we need the common good. Therefore – though it break my heart to write it – I have to acknowledge that it IS the job of the State to make men moral.

In the end, Diamond is hopeful. He argues that (in our market economy) it is the PUBLIC – the customers – and not the State, and not businesses or corporations, who have the ultimate power to change the behaviour of businesses and ensure we move forward in a sustainable way.

Lexicon, by Max Barry

I saw this title on a shelf in a second-hand bookshop in Aberdeen, and I was drawn to it on the instant. “Words are weapons” went the blurb. Never a truer word even if written by Marketing. “Sticks and stones can break my bones…words can kill“, it went on. Words can create; they can build people up and raise hope. Words can destroy; they can ruin people and remove all hope. This is true metaphorically; it is a fundamental fact and a powerful truth in the spiritual and emotional world. In this book “Lexicon” it is also literally and actually true.

I testify to the power of words. A teacher once said of me, “That Hough’s an oaf. A clever oaf, but an oaf nevertheless”. That was said between teachers in the staff room; some years later, when I was an adult, another teacher told me the story. It were fair to say I wish he hadn’t bothered. Those words, spoken about me nearly forty years ago, could define me to this day – almost like a curse. They could be my epitaph.

I have since met the Lord Jesus Christ, and He has spoken a better word over me. “You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you” – John 15:3. Jesus is, as the writer to the Hebrews notes, the minister of sprinkled blood that “speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Hebrews 12:24). We know of spells, curses and blessings, and of strange unbreakable injunctions – the “geas”. In Dennis Wheatley’s stories we read that eleven words of eleven syllables, spoken with due preparation, will bring forth a dread demon. In C. S Lewis’s “The Magician’s Nephew” we read of the Deplorable Word, a word uttered by the witch Jadis on the planet Charn. A word so terrible, that merely speaking it, destroys all life. In Frank Herbert’s “Dune” we read of sound being used as a terrible weapon – the “weirding way”.

And the list of spells, words of power, curses and dark magic goes on through all literature. There are manifold examples of words used in power, dreadful negative power, destructive power. Max Barry has written such a tale here. The story is of pursuit of a “bareword”, a word so potentially destructive, that every time in history one has appeared, it has wrought catastrophic, end-of-days levels of destruction and chaos. In his story, a shadowy department in Washington DC is peopled by agents who are able to persuade people to their will by words alone. Sometimes through everyday persuasion, other times, though what are in effect, spells: the use of strange and sonorous words of power in lost and unknown languages, to compel people to obey.

The idea that words have power is fascinating and compelling. The pen IS mightier than the sword. The tongue, as St James writes, can set the whole course of our life on fire. The idea that words can create and destroy goes back to creation. The world itself, even light itself, was spoken into being by God. God said Fiat Lux let there be light. And this point is crucial: …and there was light.

Today, more than ever, we need to use words to bring light, to do good, to build up and encourage others. Today words are used to great destructive effect; social media acts as an echo chamber for empty words, and as a magnifier of whipped up hatred and divisiveness. It is vital that our words – for as we have seen, words can be uniquely powerful – are for good and not for ill. They should build up and not tear down. They should encourage and not discourage. If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. It’s actually worse than that: we can actually cause immense damage through careless words, negative words, thoughtless words. We should write and speak in love. Let our words be powerful, let them be few, and let them be for good.

The Pigeon Tunnels, by John le Carre

I was at the same time inspired and daunted by “The Pigeon Tunnels”. It’s a kind of autobiographical work, consisting of a series of short essays, just a few thousand words each. The essays detail some of the people he has met, and the places he has been, as a world-famous writer, researching novels in trouble spots; hob-nobbing with the great and the good; burying old ghosts. Inspired – because a thousand-word essay, almost anyone can write. Daunted, because le Carre’s craft, and his connections and background, both seem miles from my own.

For someone like me who comes from dust, out of a comprehensive school/polytechnic background, he makes little of his own patrician roots. For this I am thankful. But it is clear that many of his heroes are in fact he, or possibly, more likely, his father. That said, le Carre does note (of the writer’s trade) that at some point, you have to get out and meet people – stories come from people, and the people are out in the world.

In an account (“In deep cover”) of burying an old Cold Warrior, some old spy, he speaks well of the Cold War infiltration of subversive groups. But he writes that he is ostensibly repelled by such infiltration today, arguing that it is not justified. I think this is disingenous. But then, later, in “Son of the author’s father”, le Carre writes about “the writer as conman“. He describes the similarity between himself (a successful writer) and his father (a successful conman) relating the two arts – that of conman and writer.

The writer and the conman:

  • Spin stories out of the air, from nothing
  • Sketch characters that do not exist
  • Paint golden opportunity where none exist
  • Blind you with bogus detail
  • Clarify knotty points
  • Withhold great secrets
  • Whisper those same secrets in your ear

This chapter on his father Ronnie is as moving and as revelatory a chapter as ever I have read, and was most enlightening. How far from my own experience. I have been a very different kind of father, and my own father, though perhaps not much more flawed than I, a very different kind of man again.

I always used to say of his writing, you could read a dozen early John Le Carre novels, and you would learn little or nothing about the writer’s own personal politics. You need read only a dozen or so pages of a Tom Clancy “Patrick Ryan” novel to know his. But that’s not true of his later, post-Cold War material – stuff like “Our kind of Traitor”, where his politics – and his anger – almost boils off the page.

Writing about documenting and reporting on the horror of the Eastern Congo, he says that “cameras don’t work for me. When I write a note, my memory stores the thought. When I take a picture, the camera steals my job”. This is important. The writer paints pictures with words: the camera exists; it cannot be un-invented. But just as pen and paper render memory less necessary, even as GPS erodes our innate sense of direction, and even as wristwatches mean we no longer need a sense of time or duration, so the rise of the universal camera is making the written story rarer and harder to create.