Near Westminster cathedral

15/7/19 – a little over a year ago.

In about half of my ways, O Lord, do I acknowledge You…coming through to spend time in Westminster Cathedral in my lunch break, I take a back street behind the head offices of John Lewis – Ashley Place, SW1. This lunchtime two things struck me.

The first is, the large piazza outside Westminster Cathedral has no cafes – not one. It is remarkable and unique for that reason. London itself, outside Covent Garden and one or two other areas, does not seem to have the cafe culture it could have or ought to have – ’tis a shame. Cathedral Piazza may be one of the biggest and most prominent squares in the whole of Western Europe that has no cafes. In any other city in Europe, a square like Cathedral Piazza would be absolutely crammed with tables and waiters from Easter til late September. Every square foot of building round the square would be tenanted by cafes and bars. Even in northern cities like Oslo or Stockholm, a square like this would be full of people eating and drinking.

The second is the homeless: I have taken this back street for years to avoid the ubiquitous Big Issue sellers on Victoria Street. There is a limit to the number of times you can buy the Big Issue. Over the last few years, it has become a place for homeless people. It is out of the way, hidden from traffic, largely free of uniformed policemen, and hidden from the bustle of Victoria Street. Today, two derelicts, lying in the street. Where did they come from? They were always there – they are not, in general, very young people. They are generally white Anglo-saxon men of military age. Other ethnicities tend to be much rarer, and few women – though there are one or two. I bought the Big Issue at intervals from a gap-toothed but cheerful street lady round here, often from the front of Pret outside Victoria station. The whole issue of mental health – particularly for men – is highlighted by the unfortunate people found in these streets. To say nothing of social justice. But even though it seems an inappropriate question, it is a question deserving of an answer: why are these homeless derelicts nearly all white men?

21 lessons for the 21st century, by Yuval Noah Harari

If you can’t afford to waste time, you will never find the truth”. When you think about that, it’s either nonsense, or it’s the deepest profundity. Yuval Noah Harari’s book contains a handful of similar memorable quotes – another is “the problem with evil is that in real life, it is not necessarily ugly. It can look very beautiful”.

Overall I found this work rather negative, much harder to read than his excellent “Sapiens”, reviewed here. Today we rightly go to some length not to notice or to judge the characteristics, background or ethnicity of people. It really ought not matter, and of course it doesn’t. Now, with some writers you have little idea who they are, or what their politics are. The author is invisible; the story, the writing, is all. John le Carre is one such. But Yuval Noah Harari is not. The reality is that when reading him, it is impossible to ignore the fact that he is gay, very secular, and a Jewish left-leaning university professor. He seems to have a very low view of the human race, which may be partly understandable, but it is not a view I share. I have no time for that depressing but popular school of thought that sees humankind as a Bad Thing.

An important point he does make is that this is not a timeless age, these are very changeable times. He notes that a man in 1020 A.D would have been able to predict, with a reasonable degree of confidence, that things in 1060 A.D would be pretty much the same. That would be true through much of human history perhaps, until the 20th century. Then the pace of change really does start to pick up. Exactly why that was, would be the subject of more debate still.

Harari argues that today, in 2020, NO-ONE really knows what 2060 will look like – and this was written before COVID-19. How much less now? I can’t even see what the state of civil society will be in six months from now, much less forty years. In 1920 you might have dared to predict 1960 with some degree of success. But he suggests that to dare to predict 2060 would be pointless. (Actually, there are a number of writers and philosophers who do make just such predictions, though Yuval Noah Harari, as someone working in this area of thought, seems oddly unfamiliar with their work.)

He argues that the central skill that our young people need today, is not (only) the traditional “three R’s” or even STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths), but the ability to deal with change. And that our schools – us in effect, we elders – have failed to deliver this. Resilience – the ability to adapt, to be open to change. To recreate oneself, to re-engineer who and what we are. As someone once said to me, “the jobs of the future are the jobs of the imagination”. How do we recreate ourselves, not once, but again and again and again over the course of a career? How do we earn a crust in a world we can’t even imagine now?

But for all Harari noting that the pace of change may be accelerating, it is worth recalling that developing technology rendered it ever thus. There are not many fletchers, thatchers, archers, or ostlers around today. When trains were invented in the mid-19th century, coachmen, coach drivers, owners of coaching inns and so forth fought long and hard to restrict or prevent the spread of railways. They knew – they knew! Their jobs were going to disappear. But new jobs emerged. New trades became necessary. Harari argues that new jobs will cease to emerge as technology develops and as machine learning and AI improves, but again, I don’t share that view.

Dealing with constant change is just one of a number of important themes and ideas emerging in Yuval Noah Harari’s book covering some of the great philosophical questions of our time. Overall, his analysis of dramatic and unknowable change for the next 40 years, is somewhat despondent and a little overstated. Rather like George Orwell does in “1984“, he underestimates the power of cynicism, inertia and idleness, to say nothing of snobbishness, pride and vested interest. It’s a bit like when classic mid-20th century science-fiction predicted that we’d be on Mars by the end of the century. It never happened – not because we couldn’t, but because we didn’t. We couldn’t be bothered, or because other matters (the Vietnam War for example) were more important.

But one premise does keep me thinking: what if you were ruined tomorrow? What if – as Harari wonders – everything changes and your livelihood completely disappears? What are the steps to reinventing yourself? How do we deal with ultimate change? We’re all going to die eventually, so ultimate change really ought not, at least for Christians, be too hard to deal with. But the post-Christian mind, or the un-Christian mind, has less training to deal with that, perhaps. How do you deal with constant change in life? Not once but again and again and again?

Thirty days of lockdown

Have I traded the muse of the poet, the heart of a prophet, the freedom of a writer, for the mess of pottage we call a regular income? Maybe not: everyday things like a regular income have a higher value than we imagine, at any time, and particularly in these times. Others have been and are being blessed, in many ways, because I keep on keeping on.

Thirty years ago a band called The Lilac Time released a song called “Return to yesterday”. It is a delightful song, but the words have told a story ever since and are apposite for today, more than ever before. As I’ve written elsewhere, there’s no going back to yesterday – though we none of us, not one of us, have quite realized it yet. They sang We’ll face this new England like we always have / In a fury of denial / We’ll go out dancing on the tiles

There follows some personal reflections from the first month of living in this new England.

16/3: “The road ahead gleams in the rain like a silver ribbon. It holds endless possibilities”… I’m sure this date will live for a long time – the day when the closed-in living began. I dislike the expression “lockdown”. Today an old man fell over and I helped him home. I missed the PM’s broadcast when he told us all to stay indoors.

18/3: Each day, writing for ten minutes on one single subject. Today – weariness. The variety of weariness is not thin: it falls from the sky in many forms. I have known it in many ways, some good, some bad. Waves of sleepiness. An alert, diamond-like wakefulness. The unwillingness to talk; the irascibility. The pleasant weariness of a job well done.

20/3: “Revolution, slow time coming” – Buck 65 – Blood of a Young Wolf. Today it feels like defeat being snatched from the jaws of victory. We need to find a way, in this time of sameness, when many of us are living AND working at home, to mark the beginning of the weekend – which otherwise seems to be just the same as the week.

22/3: Listened to a heart-warming Youtube address from our friend Bishop Andrew Rumsey, in which we’re encouraged to “plant seeds and stay grounded”. In the garden, fantastic, delicate patterns of filigree, in the skeletons of last year’s leaves. Friendly robins come close – and when I find a piece of flint, I am drawn to reflect on wealth. What is wealth?

25/3: Today is my wife’s birthday. We had tea together in the morning and she opened her presents. Dinner out will have to wait, perhaps. A good day at the office, although I found it literally, not metaphorically, somewhat tiresome. At 4pm, tired and I’m not going to go for a run. It seems inappropriate. In my object writing I reflect on visiting my grandma by omnibus, in the mid 1970’s.

27/3: Another sunny morn: the light remains beautiful at sunrise, grazing the stalks in a nearby field, highlighting the folds of the land. I am daunted and awed by the compassion and the creativity of others. I feel borne down by endless lecturing on social media – STAY INDOORS they say, and then I block them or hide them. I will be run over yet by the grinding wheels of collectivism. Though I do mostly stay indoors.

28/3: But what do I know of isolation? I fear for those in tower blocks with north-facing windows in a sea of grey tarmac; for those in damp and dingy bedsits. For those crammed in one or two rooms with squalling kids and sullen or angry partners. We have become, perhaps (as a Dutchman I know once said) “a nation of wuss”. We ought not become a people who are perfectly capable of controlling negative thoughts – but don’t…

29/3: Today I built a desk and shelves in the garden shed. It looked just like the image my wife printed – make it like this picture, she suggested. I am no joiner but it looks well enough. Building it did wear me out though – a long physical day in the cold actually made me dizzy. But that was low blood sugar. We dealt with that with some hummus and a very strong Gin and Tonic.

30/3: Today I broke a tooth, upper left molar, Oddly enough I am not the only person who has done so amongst my social media circle. There is no discomfort. Yet. Just as well.

31/3: I do love the early mornings. Never thought I’d be a lark rather than an owl. Heartened to read of pushback against the way the police have interpreted Boris’s Coronavirus Act 2020. I long for the day when it is repealed completely, but I confess I do not find that likely. What really depresses me is that there are people who fully approve of these new restrictions on our civil liberties.

1/4: Though I took a good day “at the office” I am depressed. I read an article in “Wired” about the future, and this has cast me down. I ought not have read it. Lord, fit me to serve You faithfully and set my face like flint to the task ahead.

2/4: I ran 10km in 58 minutes. I read about metaphor – a collision between ideas that don’t belong together. In metaphor, conflict is essential. Later, I read a senior lawyer who reminded us that it is the job of the police to uphold the law, not ministerial preference. The Prime Minister’s word is not law. This seems important to me, though perhaps not to others.

4/4: Weary with my own sense of individualism, my own ostensible lack of interest in what the community thinks. Make a better team player, O Lord! Teach me how to care. And yet, like “Blurry Face” from the American band 21 Pilots? I DO care what you think.

5/4: My birthday and Palm Sunday. Liberty – “it’s my birthday, and I wants it”. Now is not the time to release your inner Gollum, Nick. But what a lovely day; some gifts of railway books and a case for one of my guitars – though this lovely gift will only come into its own later. Technology provides a chance for my wife and I to meet and chat in a virtual space with all three of our kids.

7/4: Milder weather. I feel a tangible sense of guilt that I am less disciplined in the afternoon than in the morning. I’ve done my best work by 10a.m. In the late afternoon, my heart and brain are mush.

8/4: Sat for the first time this year in a little bower we have created at the end of the garden. A neighbours’ daughters are playing. One can hear the inherent bossiness of little girls, and perhaps of the first-born, as the older bosses the younger around. The sound of children playing is one of the greatest sounds. What is your favourite sound?

9/4: I ran 10km in one hour before 0700 and collected a birthday beer from outside the house of a friend. Thanks Paul!

10/4: I come into the kitchen and hear some politician on the radio droning away about how many items of PPE have been made – 325 million items of this or that – and for a weird and unpleasant moment I actually become Winston Smith. This feeling I have to shake off: Dylan writes “if my thought-dreams could be seen, they’d stick my head in a guillotine” and it were true of me on occasion.

12/4: Easter Day: So many others have more positive attitudes than mine. What with the endless bad news, with the police overstepping their powers, with social distancing and the twitching of social media curtains, my heart remains heavy for Merrie England. On the plus side, my daughter recommended Margaret Attwood’s “Oryx and Crake” which I started reading immediately.

13/4: It is now a month since I was at the offices in London SW1! The weather breaks to grey, flat skies and gusting wind. Today I ran 10240m in 56 minutes which is fighting fit.

16/4: We’re all finding ourselves, from time to time, in difficult places. I remember again – or at least try to – those who are less fortunate. I finish work and find I cannot face looking at computer screens anymore. ’twas ever thus perhaps. I want something physical, tangible. I shall practice guitar.

18/4: I’ve finished Anthony Lambert’s “50 great train journeys” and Andrew Martin’s “Night Trains”, and I’m reading Tristram Hunt on the English Civil War. Along with “1984” it is possible that this last may lead me in directions that are not entirely constructive – but I can do no other.

It is fully spring now. Flowers are coming out; seedlings are sprouting. We may hope that such growth is not only horticultural but cultural as well, in the months and years to come.

One who looks forward

“One who looks forward must see this: that things will not remain as they were”

So says J.R.R Tolkien’s character Hurin to his wife Morwen, on the eve of a great battle in the elder days of Middle Earth. On my morning walk today, before starting work-at-home, I could see that things would not remain as they were. The very first thing I saw was that an elderly neighbour, taken to hospital after a fall yesterday, was now back at home. The next thing I noticed was that London’s orbital freeway, the M25 – within six hundred yards of us here – was as noisy and therefore as busy, as on any other day.

But then I heard woodpeckers – their distinctive noise the machine-pistols fired by the advance guard of spring. And I knew that things were going to change. There’s a hint of colour in the air; the depressing grey of winter is slowly fading to green. The birds are singing. Spring is coming.

What will become of us? This is a legitimate question, not defeatist or negative in any way if asked appropriately. Often, dystopian stories portray apocalyptic events as happening suddenly – almost overnight. In a hundred brief minutes in the cinema Hollywood shows us earthquakes, super-storms, wars and plagues, fiery meteor strikes. We see what happens first to the collective, and then, a focus perhaps, on one hero or heroine and their family.

But changes are now afoot that are not so sudden, nor so dramatic – yet, nonetheless profound, deep-rooted and potentially long-lasting. Changes that have the power to affect us all individually as well as collectively. Changes wrought not so much by the disease COVID-19, as by the consequences it brings in it’s train. Our leaders are starting to calculate the human and economic cost of those consequences, and they are, I think, proving to be very difficult sums. There is perhaps a thin, unyielding mathematics to be performed. As yet, most of us have not so much as sat down in front of the maths teacher.

Big events are being postponed – football matches, concerts, gatherings, parties. But there’s an implicit assumption that things will return to normal, that in due course things will be as they were before. I am not so sure. As one who does looks forward, I foresee that things will not remain as they were, nor will they return in the short term to how they were before. To 2019, there is no returning.

Of course we must take care to be positive, upbeat and appropriately encouraging – but at the same time, we must prepare for living differently. Living kinder, living slower, living more locally. A lot of people face financial difficulties in the months ahead as the economy shrinks. There’s potential hardship and ruin for many, except we find a way of sharing what we have, better than we do now. God knows I’m no expert on this…but I think there’s opportunities ahead for us all to demonstrate that we do see that things have changed, and we can do things better and differently.

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.

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

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.