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.

A fiery and furious people – a history of violence in England, by James Sharpe

Take that! Blam! And that!! Oww!!

I saw this title a good few years ago and I thought, that’s one for me, that’ll be interesting. Are we English violent? Are we more violent than other races? Is it our Anglo-Saxon or Norse heritage? The Duke of Wellington famously said of his own troops that they were the “scum of the earth”, and it is possible that propensity to violence does make for good soldiers. One feels that crossing the street to avoid soldiers need not be completely unnecessary. The purpose of soldiers, after all, is to visit physical violence on others, hopefully, but not always, other soldiers.

James Sharpe traces the social, cultural and legal history of violence from the Middle Ages to the present. It’s mostly readable, although there were a few sections I had to skip, particularly the section about serial killers. Not because I’m particularly squeamish, but because the work in those places was in danger of being about crime and legislation, rather than violence per se. That said, you can’t today discuss violence without discussing crime and punishment, and that, of itself, is an important finding of the book. What passes for violence has changed through the ages. The degree and type of violence that the common people, the law, and indeed the State, will accept or put up with, and where the line is to be drawn, has changed much over time.

Sharpe has chapters on various themes, as well as moving in a logical way from the past to the present. He covers violence in the middle ages, where he draws in the influence of the Norman French feudal aristocracy and the effect of the concept of “Chivalry”. He covers dueling, and domestic violence, rape and sexual violence, and also serial killers. Of families, he notes: “It was only as feudalism succumbed to capitalism, and a traditional, community-based kinship dominated society started to give way to one in which individuals began to come to the fore, that the family as we understand it today, emerged”

He does note that most (although not all) violence is visited by men, and mostly, to be fair, on other men. It is men who are violent. Aggression plays a part. I’m reminded of Sebastian Junger’s excellent book “War”, about the young men fighting in Afghanistan. Here, we read of the importance, particularly for young men, not of war as such, but of combat. Most men understand this instinctively, even if today, that combat is no longer always physical.

Alas, he does not mention the story quoted I think by Churchill, that the Venetian Ambasssador was so intimidated by the physical presence of Henry VIII that whenever he was in that king’s presence, he never stopped worrying that the king would actually lay hands on him and do him violence.

Several more important conclusions are drawn. We should be careful of the danger of reading too much into crime statistics (or any statistics). Reporting of violent crime is not the same as violent crime. An example of this is the suggestion (reasonable certainty, really) that some police forces today – as in the past – do not have the funding to prosecute as many violent criminals as they otherwise ought – which will affect crime figures. Prosecuting people is expensive. Another: our world and the people in it are very much more complicated than it would appear from social media or from the pages of the Daily Mail. The nature of violence is changing; I don’t think it is getting less, although our tolerance of casual violence is lower than it was – just as it should be.

We come into a world now where social violence – trolling, online bullying etc – may need much more tightly regulating: because who needs a judge and jury when you’ve got Facebook?

The frailty of human life

Three recent deaths, all juxtaposed, all very different, form a backdrop to the last few days and move me to put pen to paper. A murder, a suicide, a death from disease.

Knife murder: The murder of Jodie Chesney comes to mind first. A young person is snatched from us as a result of a deliberate act of deadly violence. It is doubly brought to my attention because she was an Explorer Scout: I am a District Commissioner for Scouts. We all wring our hands – what can we do? Some say, with strident tone, “This has to stop!” and of course, they are right. But these are empty words; those who say this have little if any power to prevent the rampant knife crime that racks our nation. I suspect that our government, realistically, lacks the political will to do anything really effective about knife crime. I was in Singapore recently and saw how it is quite safe to leave your wallet lying around. Singaporeans explained to me graphically what the state does to thieves in Singapore. I don’t expect there’s much knife crime in Singapore either. But just and appropriate treatment of knife criminals and indeed knife murderers will be too much for most of us in UK to stomach. Some rightly argue for a solution that is not penal in nature – addressing the root of the problem. But that is a long term solution delivering a safe Britain in the 2030s, and does not solve the problem we face now. Meantime, we look behind ourselves more often and stay more alert in public spaces – good if cynical advice at any time.

The suicide of Keith Flint of The Prodigy is the second death I would reflect upon. The Prodigy, if not actual rock’n’roll, follows the important rock’n’roll principle of scaring your mum and dad. I myself am drawn to The Prodigy precisely for that reason – their music is not nice. To some, it is offensive. I sometimes tire of “nice”. Say what you like about The Prodigy, you could not call them hypocritical. There are other musicians out there playing very listenable traditional blues rock’n’roll. Reputably and by commonly acknowledged anecdote, some of these players are rude and unpleasant men, however harmonious their music may be. Keith Flint and the music of The Prodigy may not have been harmonious to some of us. But for all that, he did have a reputation for being a friendly and helpful guy. And he took his own life, which points up the growing concern we have today for mental health: a vital issue that ought not be neglected.

The third death I would reflect upon, I only found out about by browsing a Christian magazine. The passing away on 6th February of the theologian Canon Michael Green, was a shame and a sad loss. You wouldn’t have heard about that on the BBC, I thought. He was and remains very influential as a thinker: I’ve read a number of his books; they are on my shelf still. I once heard him preach at St Alkmunds Derby, in the late 1990’s. He recounted in that sermon how he had met a guy in a car park at Euston station, and this guy asked him if he could break a fiver for change for parking. Michael Green had given the driver the few quid in change he needed – to which the driver’s response was a horrified refusal. Canon Michael replied – “Take it – that’s the way my Boss works…” which opened the way for a conversation about Christianity. As he himself noted, he was an academic who was also passionate about the Lord Jesus Christ.

I make no apology for mentioning all these three sad deaths in the same post. All were tragic: a murder, a suicide, a death from a dreaded illness. We do well to remember how frail we are, and as my wife’s late Aunt noted, we should live while we are alive.

There’s hope for Merrie England

In posh frocks and best suits, we took train in the rainy morning up to London Bridge. It was that kind of fine rain that gets you wet. The event we were invited to was not a wedding, but it proved to be more like a wedding than anything else. We were going to Southwark Cathedral for the Ordination and Consecration to Bishop of our friend and former rector, the Reverend Doctor Andrew Rumsey.

At the cathedral we took coffee with a lady we know who must use crutches to get about. She bears considerable pain and disability in her life with a very English stoicism and understatement, and she often looks rather tired and drawn. But today she had battled through on her crutches and was looking very well, pushing the boat out to join in this important celebration.

And then we were all seated. There was a short warm-up act, a deacon or dean or some such, who made everyone laugh while explaining how things would go during the service. In a more secular gathering, he would have been the person who had to start his short speech by saying “There are no planned fire drills today”.

Then there was a procession. There were dozens of richly robed prelates and lords spiritual. Bishops, deans, deacons, priests, acolytes and singers. A number of people carrying shiny sticks, or candles, or holding up Bibles. And amongst this procession, all our clergy friends. In all this colour, pomp and pagaentry, a connection to people we knew. A young priest I know touched my shoulder as he walked past. Hey Nick!!

The final person in the procession was the Archbishop of Canterbury, who took the service. Our former vicar was presented to Canterbury by two mentors, one on either side: the Bishops of Salisbury and Southwark. Questions were asked, “Do you believe him to be of Godly life and sound learning?“, using a form of words that must be centuries old.

Canterbury went on to cause a clerk – “the Provincial Registrar” – to read out the whole of the letter of authorisation for the ordination of a Bishop – the letter patent. Here was language linking the everyday of the here and now, to the sweeping arc of history; here were words from the seat of power, from the Queen herself, relating to someone I’ve sat and had a pint and peanuts with. Just remarkable. One might feel part of a nation, tribe or group as it exists across the land today, but less often, perhaps, might we feel that sense of belonging across time, stretching back through the generations. And listening to this letter being read out, we were all part of Merrie England. Someone else deserves the credit for saying this, but there is hope for Merrie England when people like Andrew Rumsey are appointed to posts like this.

The sermon was given by the Reverend Canon Chris Russell, the Archbishop’s Adviser for Evangelism and Witness, and parish priest in Reading. And what a sermon! Of the art and craft of sermons, my old vicar used to say, “always start with personal stories”. Chris Russell did just that and took us from the inessential (in his family’s case, a shower head that lit up) to what we really need. What do we really need? What do we really want? What MUST we have? God’s call on our lives: all of us are called by God personally, and by name. We are called by name because we all matter, each and every one of us. God has questions for us, which must be answered – again, because we all matter to God.

Later on, the college of Bishops laid hands on their new colleague Andrew at the actual moment of his ordination. There were dozens of them; not all could get near him. The further away Bishops laid hands on nearer Bishops who in turn laid hands on Andrew. To see this very physical act, this laying on of hands, right at the pinnacle of the Anglican establishment, was a remarkable sight. History, tradition and the teaching of Scripture brought right into the present. The laying on of hands is a common enough practice in house churches and in Charismatic churchmanship, but perhaps less common in the grass-roots Church of England.

There was a giving of appropriate and symbolic gifts. A Bible, a ring; a cross, a crozier – all the “stuff” a Bishop might traditionally use to exercise their office. A word on the crozier. My wife organised that. It was again, a moment of connection. We’d driven across all England, all the way to a former mining village near Durham to collect this fine piece of work, which was now in the hands of the Archbishop of Canterbury. A craftsman by the name of Tom Keers made the Cleek (that is, the curved part made of horn at the top) and another, named Roger Marwood, made the shaft of oak- from Acstede – “the Place of the Oaks.” Both will be proud to see their work in such hands.

And then it was over: the rector was become a Bishop. The gathered prelates and lords of the church started to process down the aisle with their newest colleague among them. As they did so, there was a spontaneous round of applause and cheering for Andrew Rumsey, which he acknowledged with a smile. It was another human moment in a big, portentous, important occasion when powerful forces for good were at work.

As the procession of lords spiritual, prelates, clerks, singers, acolytes and men carrying shiny sticks made its way out, I saw the Archbishop of Canterbury stop, greet and touch fists with a ten year old boy, who like me, had an aisle seat. Canterbury didn’t need to do that. In doing so, in stopping to greet that lad, he made his day. And mine too.

Extraordinary complexity

We live in times of extraordinary complexity. Perhaps it was ever thus: were there ever truly simple and straightforward times? Yet, our willingness and our ability to discern complexity is under attack as never before. It is under attack from social media; it is under attack from the rise in sentimentality we’ve seen over this last twenty years or so, and it is under attack because of the fashion for hyperbole and over-statement.

The deplorable rise of “spin” – the use of language to conceal, obscure or divert people from the facts – has much to answer for.  The use of carefully chosen, politically charged, and nuanced phrasing, has, paradoxically, eroded our capability to discern nuance.

We look back at events like the Great War, and perhaps see simple causes, straightforward effects, obvious and clear protagonists and antagonists.  We view such events through the simple lens of modern thinking.  Cliches such as “senseless slaughter” come to our lips; we take off our hats, and rightly, spend a moment in silence to remember the fallen. 

But it was never that simple: that war was no simple struggle between good and evil, nor even a titanic battle between two great empires, the British and the Austro-Hungarian.  Britain, even the British Empire, was part of an alliance, and not even the senior partner at that.   

And then, consider what else was happening at the same time as the Great War.  The struggle for female emancipation and women’s suffrage.  The Easter Rising and the struggle for independence in Ireland.  The Russian revolution.  The technical innovation happening as a result of the war; the changing relationship between the New World and the Old.  

All of it points to a time of complexity to which we don’t do justice by over-simplifying what happened. It is not less true today.  I’m minded to reflect on our shortening attention span.  My boss wants 3-5 bullet points, size 21 font, one slide in Microsoft PowerPoint – just the salient facts to present to the Board.  In the second war,  Churchill reputedly turned to his underlings and asked them to provide for him a “report on the current state of the Royal Navy – on one side of a sheet of paper”.  As writers we do have a duty to keep things simple, to use short words, sentences and paragraphs, and to cut out unnecessary waffle. There is a case for simplicity – but we have made the case for simplicity our idol. 

How are we going to comment meaningfully and profitably on the hideous complexity through which we are now living? Three bullet points won’t cover Brexit nor explain the reasons for and against it.  One side of a sheet of paper may not cover the reasons for our changing culture.  A few photographs will not explain the balance of power between the West, China and Russia.  The job of the commentator is made doubly difficult by the fact that everyday folk have lost interest in complexity.  Today we have Twitter and Instagram – but think of the walls of text in a Victorian newspaper.  Today we want to see things reduced to three bullet points, the sound bite, the black and white. We want to see the spectacle of wrong and right, of bread and circuses.  Who needs a judge and jury when you’ve got Facebook?