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.

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?

From the Gulag to the Killing Fields – notes on Totalitarianism

A few musings on totalitarianism, brought on by a work-related visit to Vietnam. I have juxtaposed this with a recent re-reading of Orwell’s “1984”. I read a lot of books at once, mind, and I am also ploughing my way through a collection called “From the Gulag to the Killing Fields: Personal Accounts of Political Violence and Repression in Communist States”. It has been put together by an academic called Paul Hollander, himself a victim of the political violence of the Hungarian uprising of 1956. It’s certainly not bedtime reading. It makes uncomfortable reading for me, much less for anyone with remotely left-wing sensibilities. We tend to look at Russia and China as the worst offenders in terms of the sheer volume and quantity of communist political oppression and violence, and this book tends to support that view. But reading books these upsetting personal stories, other places take the record for sheer horror and human tragedy (Cambodia and Vietnam). For the ill-treatment of political prisoners, I’d look at Cuba, where there was a peculiar and toxic mixture of Latin machismo and the malevolent foolishness of Marxism.

It never fails to be a pleasant surprise to me that books like this collection are in print in the UK at all. It is not beyond the bounds of darkest fantasy that a time will come for the UK when having a copy of such a book could put someone at risk of being sent to prison.

It’s always good to pick up a few points from Orwell. His character “Bernstein” who ostensibly writes the “book within the book” plot device allowing Orwell to lecture us on totalitarianism, says that the rise of machines has, “by producing wealth which is sometimes impossible not to distribute”, led to an increase in average living standards. Our standard of living has indeed improved from the early 20th century (earlier really) until now, and should continue to improve all this century. This is not politics, nor economics, but technology – the rise of machines. Orwell notes that “an all-round increase in wealth threatens a hierarchical society” and “A hierarchical society is only possible on the basis of poverty and ignorance”. Amen. This truth lies at the very heart of “1984”, and at the heart of opposition to technology for it’s own sake. Opposition to “machines taking over men’s jobs” is at heart a desire for order and hierarchy, a vote for the established order, an endorsement of the status quo. And I believe the status quo is almost invariably worth upsetting. Technology and machines, of themselves, create wealth and hence threaten the status quo in hierarchical societies.

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?

Jet: when Britain ruled the skies

Nostalgic, sentimental, patriotic, a little gushing, perhaps. These programmes are redeemed, for me, by the presence of Lord Tebbit. Tebbit is one of the few politicians who actually worked for a living before going into politics. We’ll learn a lot by him; when he goes, we shall not see his like again.

These programmes look back at the UK’s all too brief period of air supremacy in the ten years or so after the second war. It can be exemplified, distilled, as it were, by that image of a Vulcan bomber flying alongside a Lancaster. Two Avro machines, separated in design by a dozen years at best, but worlds apart. One, a creation of the late Thirties, the other, of the Atomic age.

We might look back on that period in the early 1950’s with a sense of wonder and not a little unbelief. From the end of rationing, until Suez, something golden was happening. A short renaissance of Empire, perhaps. A final gleam of sunshine out from under lowering clouds. A last fling of power; a final throw of the dice. We might well look back and feel justified in saying, hell, what went wrong? The historians might give a blunt one-word answer: Suez. But, it might just be a little bit more complicated than that.

Notwithstanding that potential complexity, it’s fair to say that our embarrassing failure at Suez was a milestone in the fall of the British Empire. After Suez, post-Imperial Stygian gloom. Before Suez, you might have kidded yourself, were you thus inclined, that the British Empire and it’s Commonwealth might have endured.

Directions were taken in those years that might have been otherwise. Were there really “cusp”points in those years? Could it have been different? Given the financial and economic reality – the Marshall Plan – post WWII, it seems unlikely.

But what, they built some magnificent flying machines.

Off the map, by John Harrison

John Harrison’s “Off the map”, is an account of an eccentric Englishman on an Amazonian journey.  I am never in the mood for English eccentrics, particularly when they are – as they do tend to be – not really eccentric at all, but just opinionated un-original anti-American lefties.

In Deorla Murphy’s foreword to Harrison’s “Off the Map” she writes “the Harrisons wanted to remain in touch with…life as it was lived…before technology rendered our survival skills redundant”.
This is the purest nonsense.  Technology has not rendered our survival skills redundant; it has only changed what those survival skills are. These people would reduce us to hunter-gatherers, and they should be stamped on from a great height!

Harrison writes of garampeiros (gold prospectors) “they are a different breed from the Brazilians who opt to stay at home. They are sharper, harder working, more adventurous and less tolerant of hierarchies and bureaucrats” [there is more.] This is a profound and powerful truth. It goes to the heart of what R.A Heinlein writes, that those who emigrate are inherently cleverer and more able than those who remain behind.  This description of the Brazilian Amazon frontier is most instructive.

Harrison can surely write the most excellent English, but he comes across as someone I’d not want to meet.