68 Days Later

If you’re not an essential worker, you will have spent the last 8 to 10 weeks locked down in one form or another. Everyone is saying what an odd experience this has been, with time slowing to a crawl in March, then April vanishing in a flash. May is dragging as we get the tantalizing glimpse of freedom ahead. It’s not over until it’s over and the story of the virus may have many cruel twists ahead, but lockdown has been an experience never to be forgotten.

Blue skies. Many days in April were almost cloudless, with no contrails. I acquired a tan…in Yorkshire in April!

Where did all the traffic go? The A631 was quiet as a country lane and I couldn’t hear the M1 and M18 anymore.

The daily walk. I live in a hilltop village not so far from the urban fringe and a challenge has been to find different places to enjoy exercise without bumping into crowds of people with the same idea.

Losing track of time. I stopped wearing my watch on March 16th. I work from home, I don’t watch live TV, I don’t take a daily newspaper. I re-calibrated my life on Sundays when I collected the Sunday Times and made sure I cooked a proper dinner.

Which brings me to cooking, something we all occupied our minds with. It had to be planned well in advance so all the ingredients were in place, as I only shopped every 10 days or so. A real morale booster…

…as was the ‘briefing beer’. I religiously sat down just before 5pm and listened to the government briefings (and the latest grimness) treating myself to a gluten free beer or a cider or one of my daily ration of two cans of Pepsi Max. As time went on I tended to sit down about 5.15 and watch it on catch up so I could hear the latest science but fast-forward through the political waffle.

Chocolate without guilt. Ok, not without calories. I bought multipacks, disposed of the outer wrappings immediately then stashed the 10-day supply in the fridge. It seldom lasted 10 days…

Telly without guilt, although I watched far less than I expected. I managed the whole Lord of the Rings/Hobbit series, the entire Harry Potter cycle but no more telly than normal. My new Playstation went almost unplayed.

Walking down the centre of the road. I took cheerful pleasure in doing this in later March and April before people rediscovered their cars. It was useful for avoiding dog-walkers too.

Gardening. I’m not much of a gardener but in the last pre-lockdown days I stocked up on plants, compost and gravel and re-engineered my front garden. The fact we’ve had about 2 days of rain since lockdown began did not make my job easier, and nor did my aged hose springing a leak with all the shops shut.

Wildlife. I’ve watched birds enjoying my new birdbath. I’ve waged a war of wits against fat pigeons who were raiding the seed feeders meant for garden birds. In the early morning and around sunset I’ve enjoyed birdsong in the woods.

The lockdown locks. As the curls multiply, the style clock ticks back to 1980. Maybe I’ll keep the look.

Freedom! I finally get to stretch my wheels, my legs and my lungs. Hoping this will soon be over, something to look back on and laugh about. Yes we laugh at adversity, and we downplay our fears because we have hope for tomorrow. We will survive, and we will prosper and we will meet our friends again.

Keeping Occupied

This week should have seen the publication of my latest book, ‘Occupation to Liberation’. It would have been launched at the Guernsey Literary Festival, now sadly cancelled, and the launch was one of the 75 events to celebrate 75 years of freedom organised by Visit Guernsey. Although the UK is celebrating VE day this week on May 8th, Guernsey celebrates Liberation Day every year on May 9th as it continues to have special meaning in the islands. The end of the Second World War meant the end of five years of German occupation.

The Channel Islands were the only parts of Britain captured by Axis forces in the war, a novel fact that continues to fascinate. The Occupation was only a tiny part of the vast global struggle, yet has spawned a huge literary output of diaries, reminiscences, histories and fiction plus TV series and movies. I’m not an ‘Occupation expert’ but wanted to write an accessible book for the general reader which showcased the collections of Guernsey Museum.

One of the lines I wrote was that the big enemy was boredom, and another feature of the Occupation was an obsession with food. Sitting in virus lockdown I have begun to empathise with both attitudes. Normal civilian life was heavily constrained by curfews, restrictions on travel and closure of beaches and areas where the Germans had laid mines or built defences. Many businesses collapsed and people found what work they could for what money they could earn. Islanders were cut off from the rest of the world for five years, with only an occasional Red Cross message permitted to friends and relations off the island. News other than Nazi propaganda came from the BBC, which from 1942 could only be heard on hidden radio sets in defiance of regulations. There were no new books, the cinema soon ran out of English language films but there a great boom in amateur dramatics, arts and crafts as a way of keeping busy.

Almost everything was in short supply, so people had to ‘make do and mend’. Children played with home-made toys and wore hand-me-down clothes, often bartered for other essential items. Food ran short, and the variety of what was available challenged the ingenuity of the women who did the cooking.

Even the German soldiers experienced these twin privations of boredom and hunger. No battles were fought, and indeed as the war dragged on and hope of victory dwindled they dubbed themselves ‘The Canada Division’ knowing they would end up in Prisoner of War camps. Once D-Day began the liberation of France they too were cut off from home, knowing their families were enduring Allied bombing and fearing the inexorable advance of the Red Army. Bored soldiers turned in some cases to drink, the most depressed even committed suicide, but others applied their creativity to art. Paintings, photographs and carvings by soldiers now feature in the island’s Occupation museums and decorate some of the surviving bunkers. Soldiers too suffered increasing hardship as food supplies were cut off once the Allies controlled the French shores.

1945 was the year of hope. During the winter, the Red Cross ship SS Vega saved the civilians from starvation by delivering food parcels, which allowed the troops to eke out what other supplies remained. For all the puffed-up Nazi nonsense about ‘fighting to the last bullet’ the German garrison did no such thing. The war ended on May 8th to the relief of the civilians and, as far as we can tell, many of the ordinary soldiers. Posturing by the Nazi commander delayed matters, but on May 9th British troops stepped ashore and Guernsey was free once more.

Although the majority of the British population is today locked down in a peculiar curfew, we are not under foreign occupation. We are free to listen to the BBC whenever we like and follow the progress of our own peculiar ‘war’. There is fear on the streets and we have the constant drip of grim news and that daily toll of lives lost, but for all the wartime analogies we are not being bombed or shot at. We do not fear the knock on the door, and if we are stopped in the street by a police officer asking our business we know they only have our best interests at heart. We are fortunate to have plenty to eat – too much in my case – even though standing in line outside the supermarket recalls photographs of the wartime ration queues.

The VE Day bank holiday and Guernsey’s 75th Liberation Day will be curious affairs, with virtual celebrations and ‘street parties’ held in discrete units from garden to garden, but nostalgia will be rife. My generation is fortunate never to have fought a world war. In our current crisis I’m not being called on to charge up a beach under fire or pilot a plane through angry skies, but simply stay at home and watch streamed movies. Rather like in 1945 though, those of us who are hunkered down are relying on professionals to win the fight in the front line and are crossing fingers that our leaders are doing the right things. Perhaps this will be our finest hour?

Occupation to Liberation: Guernsey, Sark and Alderney 1940-1945 will be published by Guernsey Museums & Galleries later this year. All images in this article are taken from the book and are courtesy Guernsey Museums & Galleries.

The Festival that Nearly Was

The Alderney Literary Festival 2020 was due to have taken place on the third weekend of March, but with just one week to go was cancelled due to the looming coronavirus crisis. I was already out there and brushing up for my panels when the news came that disappointed us all.

Rory Clements was one of the writers I was due to introduce, his talk being entitled Hitler’s Secret: Reimagined histories. I was keen to meet him as I’m working on a 1930s thriller in a similar arena to his Tom Wilde series. There are now four novels about the Cambridge Don, an American historian specialising in the Elizabethan spy network. It’s amusing to observe that Clements is getting double value from the research he did for his John Shakespear series set in Elizabethan England, of which a TV series is in development. I had pleasure to see him presented with the CWA Historical Dagger in London in 2018 for Nucleus and last year I was able to read a pre-publication proof of the fourth Tom Wilde thriller Hitler’s Secret which has now been published by Head of Zeus.

The Alderney festival mixes historical fiction with non-fiction, and the Sunday morning slot should have seen Roger Moorhouse talking about Poland’s September Campaign of 1939: the Forgotten campaign of WW2. Moorhouse has published a number of books on modern German history, including the intriguingly titled Killing Hitler about the various plots to kill the Fuhrer. Moorhouse’s most recent publication, First to Fight: The Polish War 1939 was named among books of the year for 2019 by BBC History Magazine and The Daily Telegraph, and shortlisted for the Duke of Wellington Medal for Military History 2020. So much has been written about WW2, but the Polish campaign is most often passed over in the introductory sections of histories keen to get onto the Fall of France, so it was a talk I regret having missed.

I know nothing about the history of the Philippines, so was amused to be invited to introduce Miguel Angel Lopez de Asuncion speaking about The last of the Philippines: myth & reality of the siege of Baler. Cue some very rapid reading-up on the internet! Miguel is a historian who has concentrated for 20 years on the ‘last of the Philippines’, the Spanish heroes of the siege of Baler in 1898. He was historical advisor on the 2016 film 1898; Los Ultimos des Filipinos which is the latest cinematic treatment of the story and now available on Netflix. The siege of Baler was a ‘last stand’ epic akin to the much more famous Alamo; fifty Spanish troops holding out in a church for 337 days whilst surrounded by Filipino rebels. I read just enough to effect my introduction, but not enough to spoil the ending, so I’m still intrigued by what we might have heard.

My fourth event was to have been a panel together with Miguel, Rory Clements, and Antonia Senior. Antonia is a journalist with a trio of standalone historical novels under her belt. The latest is The Tyrant’s Shadow (2017) published by Corvus and set in the aftermath of the English Civil War. We were to have discussed The Past is a Foreign Country; challenging historical perspectives. Historical interpretation is not static, and with changing cultural, social, and political influences, historians constantly revisit the past. A talk that might have been, and still might be one day. It is to be hoped that as the world transitions towards the ‘new normal’ the Alderney Literary Festival will return.

Sixty Days in a Strange World

There will be plenty of retrospective prophets this year. A few scientists will be revealed to have had perceptive papers published in obscure journals just before C-19 hit, but a larger number who predicted other crises will keep quiet. Writers of certain dystopian novels, TV series and movies will be lauded as prescient, although those who scripted meteorite impact or robot takeover stories will have to wait a little longer. ‘I told you so’ pundits of all shades are already pointing to this report or that course of action which if handled differently would have changed everything (maybe).

With this in mind, I looked back at my own awareness over 60 days of the mounting crisis. I’ve kept a daily diary since I was 14 and for the last decade have accumulated a store of emails, messages and social media posts which amount to a second ‘unofficial’ diary.

In mid-January I took a holiday in Sri Lanka. It was a spur-of-the moment decision and if I’d faffed around and chosen a later date I would never have gone or worse would have been marooned awaiting rescue. My diary of 24 January refers to the “new panic about Coronovirus in Wuhan”. Three days later I was nervous standing for three hours on a packed train squashed between Chinese tourists wearing masks.

In mid-holiday I caught a conventional cold that proved no more than antisocial but would not make me popular on my returning planes. On the way back at the start of February I was wary of fellow passengers at Bandaranike, Doha and Manchester airports, making use of my little travel-size hand sanitizer and avoiding groups.

My habit of snacking constantly on flights had to stop; the way the bat-meets-pig Chinese virus spreads in the opening sequence of the 2011 movie Contagion was strong in my mind. Contagion would become one of the most-downloaded films of 2020.

At the time of the SARS outbreak in 2005 I’d written pandemic plans for a merchant bank, and I revisited this by writing one for the Museum I managed from 2006. I hoped my successors were dusting those plans off and finding them adequate.

As a novelist and a scientist of sorts I was watching developments with detachment. The 1918-19 Spanish Flu reared its head in Glint of Light on Broken Glass and the research came in handy for a museum display I mounted on the end of the Great War, so I was alert to the developing story.

On February 8th I was writing as if C-19 was something I’d ‘escaped’ by getting back to the UK. In England the news was all about the floods; storm Chiara and her accomplices. As late as 26th February the Opposition were still laying into the Prime Minister for not paddling around flooded villages and not convening a COBRA meeting to deal with it. No! I yelled at the telly; convene COBRA to discuss the virus! Eerily the TV series COBRA was showing, in which an embattled Prime Minister deals with social breakdown –­ in that case after a solar flare.

For my own ‘disaster planning’ I decided not to book my next holiday, which would have been June; on Feb 9th I noted “This virus could lead to air travel shutting down, travel companies going bust etc”.

I was due to chair a session at the Guernsey Literary Festival in May and launch my new book Occupation to Liberation. Crimefest in June was also something to look forward to, but I held off booking hotels or trains. I warned friends to be prepared for cancellation of a whole slew of events, but felt rather like a Jonah for doing so.

On February 25th I re-watched Contagion as pandemic was fast becoming a topic of conversation. I invited my folks around, and I must admit that as they are in that 70+ category this was partly to bring them into the zone of pandemic planning. “Stop touching your face, Jerry!” Kate Winslett chides. I posted about the film on Facebook and engaged robustly with people who were downplaying the virus or using selective facts to score cheap points against the government. On Friday 27th I went out for a pub meal and for the first time passed around hand sanitizer.

My diary from the 2nd March begins to note the successive real-time crises we are all familiar with, and that day I pasted a semi-jokey “Keep Calm and Wash Your Hands” notice on Facebook. There was plenty of black humour around. On the 8th March we enjoyed what could prove to be the last big family supper for a long time.

I was fully booked to take part in the Alderney Literary Festival in late March, but changed flights to go out a week earlier to tidy up some of my archaeological commitments. This was the time of indecision in the UK and all transport was still running, but if hadn’t made the change, I would not have got away at all. I flew out to Guernsey on the 11th, then on to Alderney. This was the day WHO at last declared C-19 to be a pandemic.

On Friday 13th the Festival was cancelled with just a week to go, and my heart went out to my friends who had put so much effort into organising it. Italy had just locked down; it was only a matter of time before the UK did the same and the Channel Islands would surely close their ports in the hope of keeping the bugs out. Spending two weeks away from home looked increasingly unwise, so I cut short my trip, returning on the 15th wearing gloves all the way. As I’d travelled on two planes, two trains and passed through three airports, I decided to avoid all physical interaction with my family for five days after returning and turned down a meet-up with three old friends which was disappointing.

Many, if not most, people were still not taking this very seriously and I was still seeing Facebook posts from some setting off on holiday. Every event I had on my calendar was cancelled over the next few days, even Guernsey’s landmark 75th Liberation Day. The excavation in Alderney I planned for May would not be happening and that scheduled for August looked in doubt. Friends became gloomy as all our plans for the spring and summer fell away.

Expecting to be away for two weeks I’d emptied the fridge, so did a ‘big shop’ on my return wearing gloves and bought sufficient to see me through two weeks of self-isolation in case I’d picked up the bug. ‘Panic buying’ was becoming fashionable but shelves were still full. I urged friends and family to close down their social life and plan for longer lockdowns. Even this late it was the ‘self-isolating’ and disruption of my social diary that I thought would be the biggest inconvenience of this crisis. As a writer I work from home anyway, I was never going to be ‘furloughed’ and I no longer have small children to worry about. I bunged in a quick order to Amazon for a Playstation to stave off potential boredom, and filled the Jeep at the garden centre on the 20th to give myself a few weeks of garden projects.

By the time I went to the builder’s merchants on the 22nd, apologising for wearing a scarf like a bandit, most people were keeping a wary distance apart but I could have slapped the woman who literally pushed past me in the door. The atmosphere in the Co-Op was edgy and grabbing the first bunch of tulips I saw seemed positively daring. On Mother’s Day I placed the bunch outside a closed door and made four paces back feeling vaguely ridiculous. It was all increasingly surreal, as if I was acting out a scene in a dystopian film or was slavishly following those decade-old pandemic plans I’d written. Suddenly on the 23rd March we had the bombshell of lockdown, not quite two months since that first marginal note I made in January. In sixty days, the world had changed.

Not The End of the World

I’ve just come back from my first (cancelled) literary festival of the year due to you-know-what and have received notification that the second is also cancelled. I’m not holding out much hope for the third or fourth either. Annoying though it is, mine are minor problems compared with what some people are going through right now and will continue to endure for months. All doom and gloom? No. For a start, people in self-isolation will be reading more books! And then;

The planet gets a break. Oil use is plummeting and pollution has been recorded as clearing in both China and Italy.

Reduced pollution levels will save lives, perhaps as many as the virus will claim.

The sharp reduction in air travel is a massive planet-wide experiment. How will the lack of contrails affect the atmosphere? Will we learn how much they serve to deflect sunlight and how they have masked the true extent of global warming?

Travel habits might change, ultimately good news for local museums, craft shops and other attractions.

Our new fastidious cleaning and social distancing regimes will reduce the incidence of other illnesses such as seasonal flu. Lives will be saved. If better habits become ingrained, more lives will be saved in the future.

Many companies are being forced to ask staff to work from home or work flexibly. Some will find it has positive aspects and it will become a more widespread practice, with all the acknowledged benefits for both employee and employer.

Business travel has seized up and tele-conferencing and virtual meetings have taken over. If nothing else this saves money on travel and hours of management time wasted on trains, planes and waiting for connections. If businesses discover this works as a practical model for normal times too this is a win/win. With less business travel, the planet also wins.

Ideologies are irrelevant when humanity is under threat. The virus hits capitalists and communists, black and white, Arab and Jew alike. Our petty squabbles are thrown into sharp relief.

Local wins out over international and community spirit is rediscovered, as well as brilliantly biting humour in the face of crisis. Those posts harking back to the Blitz are reminding us of how we were once less selfish, less self-absorbed and more concerned about our neighbours and family. Loo-roll hoarders and sanitizer spivs are held in the same regard as the black marketeers of old.

Globalisation has taken a knock. ‘Just in time’ supply chains relying on cheap goods from China have been shown to be fragile. This should encourage companies and countries to be more resilient and think locally again. If consumers see what shortages really look like and get used to paying the real price for what they buy perhaps we will value things more and waste less.

Science has become mainstream again. They’re not just geeks in white coats – smart women and men who have devoted their lives to their disciplines are our defence against extinction.

We have rediscovered the value of international scientific co-operation. Let us not forget it.

Reasonable doubt and mathematical models are being hammered home daily, and it is to be hoped that people start to recognise the scientific method exists. Gut feel and ‘common sense’ are poor guides in a novel situation. Perhaps we will see more appreciation of the subtleties that underly complex issues such as climate change so these do not remain simply a battle between belief and denial.

Even the most diehard Tories are grateful we have an NHS in Britain. Coming out of the crisis we should see a reconfiguring of national priorities. On a purely practical level we will see which world health systems coped best with the emergency. There will be hard, indisputable, evidence as to how effective the NHS is and where it must be improved (rather than blindly chucking money at it based on sentiment and lobbying). “Lessons will be learned” across the world.

The Age of Stupid may come to an end. Can we now eliminate the denial of facts that don’t suit the dogma? The reckoning is here for world leaders who ignore science, maths, economics and the lessons of history. The devastation caused by this crisis may be the final, if costly, proof that Trump is unfit to lead the world’s most powerful nation.

Can we hope that certain Asian countries will stop decimating wildlife for ‘delicacies’ and ‘traditional medicine’ before a pangolin-meets-bat virus kills a billion people?

Perhaps we realise that this planet is not ours to do with what we will. Nature is more powerful than any government.

Finally despite this onslaught against humankind almost all of us will survive, and next time we will be better prepared. We are in this for the species;

“These germs of disease have taken toll of humanity since the beginning of things — taken toll of our prehuman ancestors since life began here. But by virtue of this natural selection of our kind we have developed resisting power; to no germs do we succumb without a struggle, and to many … our living frames are altogether immune… By the toll of a billion deaths man has bought his birthright of the Earth.” (H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds)

Four Stories to Change the World

Back in November I took screenshots of four stories from the internet in the same 24 hours. Record floods in Venice and Yorkshire, record snowfall in the USA, and the harbinger of the Australian bush fires that are still raging. These were drowned out by election excitement, hence the blog did not appear. What strikes me is there are headlines like this almost every day, often down in the 3rd or 4th story on the page. Yes we Brits love to talk about the weather, and there will be a record being broken somewhere on the planet for something most days of the week simply because it is a big place and so many things are being measured, but these stories are accumulating to become the narrative of the age.

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I was marooned on a train during those Yorkshire floods. It is not fake news.

Climate change has gone from being sci fi hokum to fringe science to debatable science to mainstream acceptance. Okay, it is a massively complex subject that very few people truly understand (including me) but scientific consensus diverges chiefly in the detail rather than the trajectory. Non-expert members of the public picking and choosing between the ever-changing models being developed produces arguments as useful as debating the colour of an orange.

Politicians are in a sticky place. Most are not as stupid and ill-informed as the public believes, and belief is a big part of the problem. People will say they do not ‘believe’ in climate change, but what they mean is that the idea does not fit with their world view. Few of us are equipped to understand the maths, critically review the last few hundred relevant academic papers or contribute to cutting-edge conferences. ‘Belief’ kicks in where there is no science, no hard facts, no experimental observation that can be repeated by others. It is the absence of science. Climate change is a fact, we have a good grasp of the many factors that can cause it, and have masses of proof that it has happened through the whole history of the planet; Ice Ages, Snowball Earth, climatic optimums and so forth.

So back to the Politicians. They have to listen to the people who keep them in power (the electorate, the Party, Big Oil or whoever) otherwise they will not be in power very long. My conscientious recycling will not save the planet, and nor will arbitrary government targets. Fighting climate change can only happen at governmental level, but it needs the will of the people to be behind it first. Governments cannot legislate against the public will – think of the failure of US Prohibition in the ‘20s. Once the government implements its new policies and targets we all have to do ‘our bit’. Policy, law, ethics, science, public acceptance and self-interest must all come together. If we look at the way smoking has been reduced in the West we have seen (a) scientific consensus on the harm it does (b) creeping anti-tobacco legislation by governments that listen (c) progressive price increases (d) health education promoting individual benefits (e) social stigma vs smoking (f) big tobacco losing the moral argument (g) alternative technology/income streams (vaping) (h) spin-off benefits to the economy (health expenditure/reducing premature death).

20191113_204111The Australian bush fires could ironically be good news, in that they should be the wake-up call to the world. It’s a big headline-grabbing climatic disaster – and I hate to say it ­– one that affects white people. Mark Lynas’ excellent book Six Degrees which I read in 2007 includes the projection that Australia could become uninhabitable with three degrees of global warming; we’re already on track for two. It is a salient lesson as Australia has the world’s second highest C02 footprint per capita (the UK comes 8th with just less than half the footprint). Their pilloried Prime Minister, if he survives the fire season, will be forced to confront the realities of climate change, even if Australia is not the sole author of its own crisis. Public self-interest in not being driven from their homes in terror will start to outweigh precious economic and personal freedom issues that dog green policies.

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So is anyone taking note other than earnest Swedish teenagers? The answer hopefully is yes. The big hyrocarbon companies are aware their stock values will tumble if human-driven global warming becomes too obvious to ignore. They must diversify or die, much as the tobacco companies started doing. Geopolitical thinkers know that the eternal crises of the Middle East will fade as we cease to be driven by oil; posturing by Iran or the Saudis will be of little global relevance and the West lose all excuse to interfere. This cannot have been lost on Pentagon strategists; the USA has already spent $5 trillion and 7,000 American lives on the Iraq conflict to no long-term benefit. Smart US politicians must also know this, even if not yet ready to speak it out loud.

Education (aka climate change propaganda) is making its mark and there is a growing tolerance for green legislation and acceptance of initiatives such as recycling as a normal part of life. Much of it in truth just involves being nice and taking life gently. Not being green is starting to be socially unacceptable; the big car, the long-haul holiday and the 16oz beef steak are losing their shine. One day they might become as naff as a fat cigar or a mink coat.

Just as thousands of scientists know there is a climate emergency underway, it has become worthwhile for thousands more to work on solutions; new technologies, new products, new opportunities, knowing there will be a market for the right inventions. The public is at last hungry for carbon-neutral solutions – so long as they can afford them. As soon as the costs of renewable energy approach that of hydrocarbons, the sharper businesses will seize the opportunities and use their promotional skills to pull the public with them, reap the profits and extinguish the hydrocarbon dinosaurs. People will act when self-interest kicks in at a much more tangible level than when aroused by a David Attenborough documentary. Politicians will have no reason not to listen. We need the activists, we need the idealists but ironically it could be big business, not neo-hippy protesters, that end up saving the planet.

 

A Walk in the Woods

Never go back, they, say, but today I walked back to summers of 45 or 50 years ago. Our village is on a hilltop, with a steep wooded valley to the north. We called it ‘The Woods’ and half my childhood memories rest down there. Allowed to go with my friends once I’d hit seven, we’d be off for whole days in the summer. Sometimes we’d take jam sandwiches and an old pop bottle full of tap water, and once I got my dog he’d come too. My mix of friends would vary but it was very Famous Five.

I walked ‘backwards’ today, from my new house towards my old. I ignored the ‘Private Property’ sign with only a moment’s hesitation, as we’d done as kids and as the couple of dog walkers I met still clearly do. We would rarely go in the winter, as days are short up here, the main paths sticky with mud and the side-paths slippery with fallen leaves. Even in the summer, we’d come back with grubby hands and knees and Shep’s white paws and underparts were almost as black as the rest of him. We’d pick brambles out of his fur and he’d suffer to be cleaned up with old towels.

Playing explorers the woods was the closest we would come to living the life of the Swallows and Amazons. Sometimes we would be commandos behind enemy lines, giving us good excuse to hide from whoever came our way; a bully from school, an adult who might worry about what we were up to, or the legendary Warden who I think we saw maybe twice ever. Just like the Swallows we made maps and gave the places names. It was amusing to hear younger kids on the estate copying our names for this place or that when it became their turn to be seven years old and set free. Paedophiles hadn’t been invented back then of course, we just didn’t talk to strangers (and they were Nazi soldiers or Russian agents, anyway).

So on a cold December day with a weak afternoon sun, I came in through a little-used southern gate and got my bearings in an area of old sandstone quarries we seldom reached. Some had been too deep to climb into, and even looked dangerous to our most adventurous spirits. Coming out of the trees I came to the area we used to call The Rabbit, a stretch of bracken on a slope above the woods proper. Somewhere below was our usual objective, the Rock Pool. Its water used to be clear enough to drink just where it gushed from a spring. There had once, I recalled, been a path, but I had to climb gingerly down through the deep and wet leaves. If I found it, the pool had become little more than a set of muddy puddles choked by leaves and brambles. Beyond had been a place we called the Bracken Field, great for building dens, but I couldn’t see that at all. Nature is dynamic, and a lot can happen in 45 years.

Scrambling back up to The Rabbit I saw just one family heading towards the estates. The old path skirting the houses seemed to have gone, so I went down, deeper into the trees. On each trip we’d take a decision whether we had the hours needed to go deeper into the woods here, or stay high and go around the spring-heads to The Rabbit, or simply stay on the Tops so we didn’t have to go down The Big Hill. The sycamores and oaks seemed even taller now than I remembered, old friends meeting again, all finally grown up.

20191229_140859One stream cuts its way between the trees to ‘The Prehistoric Place’, a swampy area perfect for climbing across on fallen trunks and bathed in a magical green light; I wasn’t planning going anywhere near it in winter. So I turned towards ‘The Big Hill’, which no longer seemed as Big as it did when it was the last feature to climb at the end of a hot  day’s adventuring.

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At the top I looked for ‘The Steps’, now only just visible beneath brambles. This had once been a bald hill crest with a mysterious set of concrete steps leading nowhere that made an excellent seat to survey the valley below. I was told it was a searchlight position from the war, but never knew the truth.

 

On the flat ground beyond The Steps some of the kids called The Tops, I struggled to get my bearings amid the silver birches. This used to be the most charmless area of the woods, pitted by half-filled quarries, and we’d pass quickly through if we had time to go deeper. Old paths once cut deep into the sandy soil here, such as we could kick up clouds in the summer to make explosions, but were now all gone. A huge quarry used to dominate this area, part-filled with rusting cars, old tyres and fridges. If you’ve read Stig of the Dump you’ll get the idea. It was also easy to get into, allowing us to hunt for dinosaur fossils in the exposed cliffs (which of course we never found) and even dig our own caveman cave. One burned-out car in particular had no doors, and a yawning sunroof, so we could become a spacecraft or B-17 crew; pilot, navigator, top gunner and sometimes even a radio man or tail gunner. The quarry is long gone, filled to its brim, capped with hardcore and allowed to be reclaimed by nature. Scrubby trees, bracken and brambles prove how quickly they can conceal the work of man.

After an hour, I came out by the in-road, the way we used to enter past a ‘Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted’ sign and an ineffective swing gate, both of which had vanished into memory. Across from the gate was a new estate, expanding the village way beyond that we’d known. Ten times the traffic now coursed the Lane that Mum used to caution me about crossing.

How on earth we survived childhood without plunging down a quarry face, drowning as we bridged a stream or suffering multiple injuries falling from a tree I never knew. Like superheroes we just brushed ourselves down, cleaned our wounds with spit, dabbed nettle stings with dock leaves and whirled our socks around our heads in the hope they would dry before we got home. I read that children don’t do this anymore; perhaps the world has become too busy. I was never a brave child, but this was where my spirit of adventure was born. Reading Tolkien took me back to those woods, its paths leading who knows where and a time when there was “less noise and more green”. The mystery of The Steps was my first clue that the ground hid secrets of the past, awakening perhaps an interest in archaeology. And of course we made up stories as we adventured, sometimes writing them down or adapting them for whatever essay the teachers set us. Those summer days still inspire me. Walking the Woods of my memory is not the same as walking The Woods that now are, but today I did both.

Taxing Thoughts

“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Cæsar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed”  (Luke 2:1, King James Bible)

Kicking off with a seasonal quote, and closely following party promises leading up to the  General Election, here are some thoughts from an ex-civil servant. I might add that I’ve also worked in the arena of legal tax avoidance and worked against tax evasion.

Governments have no money. When a party says ‘We will spend a million pounds’ they mean ‘You will spend a million pounds’.

95% of Government spending is already fixed, so any new administration has very little wriggle room. Public sector salaries take an enormous slice of the cake, property demands to be looked after and much expenditure is ‘formula led’ based on the number of people sick, homeless, unemployed etc. Quibble the percentage if you may, but this expenditure cannot be drastically changed in the short term.

Taxation changes behaviour, so increasing taxes does not necessarily increase revenue. This sounds counter-intuitive but has been proved repeatedly. The higher taxes are, the more people will cheat and the more worthwhile it is to look for legal ways to avoid paying. They might work less, retire earlier, give up work entirely, shift their spending pattern or move to Monaco. It may be cathartic to hit the rich, but don’t rely on it bringing in more money.

Reducing taxes can have the reverse effect. However, the government cannot determine how or where people will spend their tax savings so it can simply be a giveaway without that money necessarily reaching the parts of the economy where it is needed. Tax changes up or down need surgical targeting not a blunt hammer.

Tax evasion is illegal but tax avoidance is not. It is a principle of law that nobody is obliged to pay any more tax than they are legally required to, and only a fool would do so willingly. The more complex a taxation regime is, the easier it is for people to find loopholes. Big corporations and high earners are very good at finding loopholes.

A “1% increase” is not as trivial as it sounds. A 1% increase on a 20% tax rate is 5% by my maths. Most people and most businesses spend or commit most of the income they have, so even a small increase could bite heavily into the amount left after normal expenses, the difference between profit and loss. A lot of businesses are very marginal, so adverse tax changes mean they may close or simply pass the cost on to consumers. 

Green Taxes cut one way but not both. If the objective is to raise money, the government must acquiesce in the undesirable behaviour (i.e. air transport levy). If the objective is to change behaviour (i.e. smoking), the government must expect declining revenues as people adjust their lifestyle.

No Taxation Without Representation swings back to become ‘No representation without taxation’. Progressive taxation is a fine idea, in that the poor pay relatively little and the rich pay proportionally much more. The problem is that this pushes a lot of power into the hands of the rich, or at least the wealthier 50% of the population who pay the majority of the tax. Governments have to treat the affluent carefully; one person on a million-pound salary pays enough tax to fund a dozen nurses.

Minorities have limited synergy. One weakness of the left is the desire to support a range of disadvantaged or self-defined oppressed groups which have little else in common. Whilst each cause in isolation may be deserving, they are competing for scarce resource. Do we support pensioners or the young low-paid, the single mothers or the asylum seekers, council tenants or firemen? If you are not in the smorgasbord of deserving causes you might ask ‘what’s in it for me?’ and vote for someone else.

Socialists have a very expensive constituency not only in those sections of the population who pay relatively little tax but have high demands on services, but also the public sector workers themselves. Once elected, they have a big pay-off to face before making any actual improvements in services. Ironically they must rely on a healthy capitalist economy to provide the taxes to fuel their programmes.

Conservatives will always have a hard sell at election time. Prudence is boring, pragmatism looks hard-faced, traditionalism looks old-fashioned and there is always drag against progressive ideas. As they play to the comfortable middle class and aspirant working class, their policies look selfish and their candidates can smell of money and privilege. Opposing conservative policy becomes child’s play and supporting it feels smug, whilst dumbed-down conservatism simply comes across as dumb. Hence we have the ‘shy Tory’ phenomena in Britain which has fooled pollsters and leaves energetic campaigners on the left flummoxed.

Whoever wins, there is not enough money and there never will be enough money. If we spent the entire GDP on health, people would still get sick and die. This is a big problem for my colleagues working in museums, libraries, art galleries and across the heritage sector. We don’t stop children dying or houses burning down or defend against the enemy at the gates so we know we will only get a fraction of 1% of expenditure, and have to fight for every tenth of a decimal point.

The Elephant in the Shed

There’s an elephant in the room, but there is also one out in the garden and another in the shed. In fact I’m thinking of buying the field next door to accommodate more elephants. Very few people will notice them, because these are elephants we really don’t want to see, and want to tame even less.

The elephant is human population growth.

This spring I went to Cambodia, which suffered the most horrific conflict during the 1980s which killed up to a third of the population of six to seven million. A few decades later the figure has bounced up to 15 million. Tour guides proudly told us of the burgeoning industrialisation of an economy once almost entirely based on agriculture. Expecting to see the infamous jungle of ‘Nam movies, I mainly saw fields, fruit groves and rice paddies. Family size is falling with industrialisation, but the transition was stark. Farmers are cutting back the forest to create more land and I saw new roads leading to cleared wasteland and raised platforms designated for ‘new cities’ in flood-prone areas.

Moving on to Vietnam, the jungle was mainly absent too. Paddies and farms stretched along the banks of the Mekong. At over 90 million, ‘Nam has 2.5 times the population it had at the start of what they call ‘The American War’ despite the widespread slaughter and economic destruction. Whilst Cambodia still has a more traditional feel, Vietnam is on the path to looking like everywhere else: skyscrapers, billboards, traffic junctions, shopping malls and take-aways. At each major junction in Saigon (as most locals still call it), a phalanx of motorbikes eight wide and ten deep awaits the changing of the lights. They set off in a roar, weaving between each other in a great shoal. My thought was; ‘Whatever happens when all these people get cars?’

The tourist sites were heaving. Used to the ‘busy’ days in Guernsey when we were lucky to get 3 or 400 people turning up at the Castle I was in a whole different world. Hordes poured into the semi-abandoned jungle-clad ruin of Ta Prohm. Some 15,000 per day go into the Angkor Wat complex,  mostly Chinese, Koreans and a few Australians. Most will have flown.

Racking up my air miles, knowing I’m doing more damage to the climate than those motorcyclists, I looked out of my airliner window in the small hours, down into the darkness of the ‘stans from a few miles up. Or it should have been darkness, based on how blank all the atlases of that region look. Instead there were city lights, glittering as orange jewels, scattered in all directions. The world felt scarily full at that moment.

I came back to the interminable Brexit debate, and we know ‘Leave’ was in large part fuelled by fears over immigration. Those fears were bumped up by the exodus from Syria and Libya and other war-torn regions. We might imagine these wars are about one religious sect fighting another because they wear the wrong colour hat on Fridays, but like most wars resources are the root cause. Land is in short supply, fertile land is even scarcer and fresh water is at a premium across great swathes of the world. Bloody squabbles erupt over oil, diamonds, copper and so forth. Fuel is running out and shortages are likely to spark even more conflicts. ‘Rare earth’ metals on which much modern technology such as my smartphone relies are becoming rarer.

Millions are now living on mountains, volcano slopes, in swamps, in deserts, below sea-level, on tiny islands, in arctic regions and where jungle used to be. These areas could not naturally sustain more than a handful of human bands, yet we are building cities. Who is surprised when these areas are devastated by wildfires/ cyclones/ floods/ famine/ drought? Humans are not supposed to live there.

Nobody knows what the ‘carrying capacity’ of the Earth is but at 7.7 billion people and rising we may find out the hard way. It certainly cannot sustain 7.7 billion Americans, and who is to deny all those people the standard of consumption the Americans enjoy?

Environmentalists for the most part don’t want to talk about population. It smacks of poor-shaming and lets the resource-guzzling West off the hook. The UN doesn’t want to talk about it either; why should the West have it so good and not everyone else? Government control of population smacks of authoritarianism; it offends liberals, libertarians and ultra-conservatives alike, whilst the left would rather blame capitalism for the world’s problems. Birth control of any form also offends numerous religious groups.

Last year the world hosted an extra 82 million people, that’s an additional 160,000 more per day. It’s more than died in the whole Second World War and it would take a pandemic on the scale of the Spanish Flu or Black Death to significantly knock it back. Most growth is in the poorer regions of the world already groaning under the weight of numbers and environmental degradation. Their cities are choking with pollution.

foffIt is not surprising millions want to move to Europe or America, and it is unsurprising that Europeans and people who have already made it to America don’t want their already overcrowded lands crowding even more. I saw a t-shirt on sale in South Dakota reading ‘Fuck off, We’re Full’. You can buy them on Amazon, car stickers too. Trump and his ilk use unpleasant language, but they articulate the fears of their electorate.

 

Migration is part of the human story, it has happened since the dawn of time. It has brought marriage and trade, the exchange of ideas and culture and it has brought prosperity to many. It has also brought war, exploitation, slavery, discrimination, disease, resource-raiding and extermination. Opposing migration is commonly decried as racist, a denial of human rights and a policy of the far right. Left-leaning Greens don’t have an anti-immigration/population control stance, yet population growth undermines efforts to consume less and preserve wild places. The net 270,000 people coming into the UK in 2018 is equivalent to a new city with the footprint of Newcastle, and even if they are poor when they arrive we can’t ban them from one day owning Range Rovers, flying to Florida or eating beef.

Across Europe we have seen the rise of ‘populist’ candidates with simplistic messages and ‘far right’ anti-immigration parties in a mood that smacks of the 1930s. A major problem is that Liberals and centre/right democrats have vacated the debate as too hot to handle. It is easier to attack the Alt-Right on the basis of their rhetoric than on the uncomfortable problems provoking it, so pragmatic discussion is almost non-existent.

No-Blade-Of-Grass-poster-468x330We are in very scary, apocalyptic movie territory; No Blade of Grass and Interstellar both play on the results of global crop failures. The crazy world of Mad Max fights over water and oil. As a teenager I was chilled by the overpopulated world of Soylent Green and J G Ballard’s Billenium.

History has shown us that people under environmental stress do not sit still and die. The Migration Period saw peoples from the east moving west in successive waves; Huns, Goths, Vandals, Franks and Saxons. Even the names of these groups still carry echoes of the violence that followed. Illegal immigrants by definition are breaking laws, and criminal gangs are exploiting desperate people from the south prepared to risk their lives for a new home in the north.

The displacement of five million people from Syria is a new factor destabilising the European order, fuelling Brexit, which and in turn threatens the break-up of the United Kingdom. What if 50 million desperate people were on the move? If the climate change Cassandras are even close to being right, a billion could be displaced by rising seas and expanding deserts. No country is going to want them, but who is going to stop them? Unless rational people start to address the difficult issues, irrational people will be left to take the initiative.

We’re going to need a bigger shed.

 

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