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)

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.

 

Writing on a Wall (part 2)

I’d like to continue the theme of my last blog, where I discussed established principles for writing text on a wall. These apply not only to museums and galleries, but other public spaces such as information boards.

It goes without saying that the writing should be grammatically correct. Less obvious is that sentences need to be kept short. People are reading wall text standing up, an arm’s length or more away. They may be tired and suffering ‘museum back’, and could easily be distracted by something more enticing in the gallery. Sentences beyond 15 words in length become increasingly challenging to read and some people will give up. By 25 words half the audience has been lost, and almost no-one is still reading at 30.

Punctuation is also the enemy of the curator. The ideal sentence contains no punctuation other than the full stop. A comma gives the reader an opportunity to pause, and indeed to stop reading. Subordinate clauses can make the meaning hard to follow, and people forced to back-track to fully understand may simply not bother. Colons, semicolons, em-dashes and brackets are beyond the pale. Question marks can appear patronising, can’t they? Exclamation marks can look childish – just ask the kids!

Without being simplistic, common words are preferable to long and obscure ones. Archaeologists ‘dig’ rather than ‘excavate’. Instead of them ‘evaluating’ or ‘elucidating’ or ‘extrapolating’, plainer English explanations need to be explored.

The objects are cool – so the text should be cool too.

Within these guidelines, the writing still needs to be fluid and engaging. Museum curators can borrow principles from magazine writers, who are aiming to entertain and inform without lecturing. The use of active verbs is preferred: “The dockers unloaded the ship” rather than “The ship was unloaded by dockers”. Excitement can be injected, where “The soldiers charged onto the beach” rather than “Soldiers were landed on the beach.” Weak nouns are also discouraged: “the soldier was brave”, he did not “display bravery”. This fights against the novelist’s training to avoid adjectives, so the truck “struggled to climb the steep hill” rather than “struggled due to the hill’s steepness”.

The above guidelines make it challenging to still write interesting text. Breaking up long sentences requires some skill and imagination. The text can become choppy. There is also a temptation to use a lot of T-words, namely The, Their, Them, They and That which makes for boring reading, especially when used for successive sentences such as in this paragraph. Curatorial knowledge is essential, good writing skills help, and editing to a ‘House Style’ becomes critical.

When you are next in a museum or gallery, have a look to see how many of these principles have been applied. You’ll never read a museum text board in the same way again.

With thanks to Guernsey Museum for use of images from their exhibition ‘Engage Warp Drive’.

 

Tell me something I don’t know

“Tell me something I don’t already know,” says Gordon Gekko in ‘Wall Street’. I’m rather like that when choosing a novel. I used to like science fiction because it was not us/here/now, and dislike kitchen sink dramas for the same reason. I know what it’s like to struggle in a grim northern town, I don’t want to read about it.

 Sci-fi and fantasy is escapism and we don’t learn many facts from it, unless very hardcore. One of the appeals of Tolkien is that you can research his world, learn Quenya and the lists of kings but ultimately the whole thing is made up. Movies and TV drama have a difficult relationship with facts, given they need to telescope timelines and adapt the story to whatever budget/set/costumes are available. It is dangerous to come away from something even as well made as ‘I Claudius’ thinking you are secure in the information you have absorbed.

 Historical fiction is a great learning tool – or as a writer, it is a teaching tool. For this reason, the facts need to be right and as much of the background must also be populated with truth. If I trust Patrick O’Brian I will learn a great deal about the Royal Navy in the Napoleonic Wars. Thrillers work in a much more us/here/now world which has both advantages and disadvantages. Much prior knowledge of the world can be assumed (readers know what the CIA is and are familiar with the concept of televisions) but there is a parallel danger in that those well-educated readers will also have detailed knowledge of much else. There is still scope for learning, however. I learned a lot about the Sahara as a young man reading Desmond Bagley’s ‘Flyaway’. Getting the facts right helps the suspension of disbelief. We allow the characters to survive deadly scrapes and fall into plots with unlikely regularity in part because everything else around them is so real.

 I strained credulity very little in writing Glint of Light on Broken Glass. Our three young people inhabit a very real island in 1913 and are pulled along by the riptide of history. Yes there is a magic-realist element, but I hope I’m forgiven for it given that everything else is solid and grounded. I also hope that readers will learn something they don’t know – something to take away about Guernsey in days gone by and its critically threatened language.

 Writers can also make things up with such authority that they are taken as real. John Le Carre famously invented a whole vocabulary for MI6, ‘moles’ and so forth, in such a convincing way that we have come to believe it. When lecturing, I’m aware that I only need to know 5% more than my audience about the given subject to be the expert in the room. I applied this thinking to the Jeffrey Flint books, all of which touched on obscure areas of archaeology or history. However as a writer my audience is potentially the whole world, not 70 people on a rainy Tuesday evening. One reader will be an expert in Soviet rifles, third century Roman armour or actually live in that obscure Greek town where your story is set. So the writer must strain an extra muscle to shrink our own spheres of ignorance to the point we can gloss over the bits it is not necessary to know.

 With luck, the reader will come away from the novel thinking “I never knew that…”

Glint of Light on Broken Glass is now published in paperback and e-book

 

 

 

 

Against a Dark Background

Space Operas we grew up reading such as Star Wars or Star Trek take interstellar travel for granted. They don’t even worry about the science – just push a button and engage the warp drive. Much science fiction literature takes the same route. In  Ian M Banks’ Culture series for example, the Culture are so far in advance of humanity that they smile at our lack of understanding of their technology. As Arthur C Clark said, advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

The hardcore end of SF, for example And Weir’s The Martian, takes a close-to-real look at space travel. In reality, putting humans into space is difficult, dangerous and hideously expensive. A human in Star Trek: First Contact on beaming aboard the Enterprise asks ‘how much does all this cost?’ Jean-Luc Picard merely explains that the economy of the future doesn’t think in those terms.

IMG_1182.JPGSuspending disbelief requires us to assume that there are technologies we have not yet  discovered that will take us from the crude rockets of today to the ion drives and warp drives of Space Opera, with artificial gravity to boot. Its only a blink of an eye historically from the sailing ship to the steam ship to the nuclear submarine; we went from unmanned Sputnik 1 to moon landing in 12 years. So our modern view of scientific progress expects that we will continue to progress. At some point a Stephen Hawking of the future will go ‘ah, so that’s it!’ and we will have a Theory of Everything; once we fully understand the principles that operate the universe, we should be able to invent those magical technologies.

But suppose they do not exist? Suppose the Theory of Everything proves there can be no warp drives, transporter beams or artificial gravity. The only way we can reach the stars will be aboard ‘Space Arks’ taking decades or even generations to reach their destination. But what if the experiments on human biology resulting from lengthy missions  aboard the ISS show the body cannot cope with more than a year or two in zero gravity? Or that humans could not survive long missions in deep space with solar radiation frazzling our DNA. If so, there will not even be ‘space arks’. Mars may be as far as astronauts get – and those heroes may have to accept that it will be a one way trip.

In 1950, Enrico Fermi posed the question that has become known as the Fermi Paradox.  If intelligent life is not an event unique to Earth, there should be countless other civilisations amongst the 100 billion planets estimated to exist in our galaxy. If this is true, we can’t be the first to invent space travel, and the others may have a couple of million year’s start on us. So where is everyone? Earth is such an obvious place for the alien Space Arks or even robot probes to head for. Yet they are not here, and there is no verifiable evidence they ever have been.

Maybe the Fermi Paradox demonstrates that interstellar travel is impossible.

One of Ian M Banks’ non-Culture novels is Against a Dark Background. The storyline takes second place to the key idea, in which a planet is situated so far towards the edge of the galaxy that there are very few stars in its sky. The limits imposed by the laws of  physics mean that its inhabitants can never leave. Everything that can be invented has been invented, then in some cases forgotten. Every political system has been tried, every religious experiment exhausted, and wars are fought over the same terrain for the same list of causes. Resources are basically what can be recycled.  Progress has been replaced by stagnation.

So is that humanity’s future? In a hundred years time, in a thousand years, in ten thousand years? If we can’t stretch out beyond our solar system, and nobody else can reach us, perhaps we’re stuck on this rock forever.

Image: Chris Foss, concept art for Guardians of the Galaxy (author’s collection)

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