Interesting times

In a vast, dirty plain full of mangled wreckage stands a girl. She is looking for her horse. She was out riding when the tsunami came rushing up the wide valley. They got separated. Now she doesn’t even know where to start looking as everything is gone: roads, trees, farms, landmarks, even the railway … nothing she can remember to help her orient her search. She’s in the middle of what used to be home and she’s completely lost.

We have all gone global in recent years. Everyone knows at least one person somewhere on the other side of the planet, whether a family member, friend or colleague. The massive movement of migrant workers, the multi-national companies with their offices and factories in distant lands, the political institutions and their attendant NGOs that are active in a dozen power capitals worldwide, an increasingly mobile academic community aligning its certification, researchers and fieldworkers jetting from one project to the next, international ecologists, human rights activists and labour advocates agitating on several fronts simultaneously, the major military, police and security services inching closer to lockstep on any number of issues, the churches and faiths responding to the bleating of their sheep in ever wider diasporas, the worlds of fashion, art, design, music, drama and cinema, trains and boats and planes, the satellites that silently ride the chattering stratosphere … all these aspects of a new international society have been growing so rapidly since the 1950s that when those towers went down in 2001, there was hardly a soul on earth who didn’t know someone in New York.

One people, one world

Ten years later, with the balance of world power moving inexorably eastward, the same is true of Shanghai, Jakarta, Hong-Kong, Seoul and Tokyo. We are becoming one in ways that are anything other than pie-in-the-sky or idealistic. We really are the world. And where we don’t have a personal connection, we almost certainly have a commercial, infrastructural, logistical or nutritional one. As we watch footage of floods in Pakistan or Italy, fires in Brazil or Portugal, a hurricane in Louisiana, tidal waves in Indonesia, a volcano erupting in Iceland, a mining accident in Zimbabwe or China, Chile or Chad, a war in the Libyan desert, or this latest and most horrifying poly-catastrophe of earthquake, tsunami, fire and possible meltdown in Japan, there is not one of us who cannot say: “That’s where my fuel comes from. That’s where my coffee comes from. They made my pasta. They grew my aubergines. My favourite music grew up there. The magnets in my loud speakers come from there. That big fellow dug up the diamond on my girlfriend’s finger. The silicon in almost everything I use comes from there, the copper comes from there and the aluminium from there. Those people grew my rice. Those guys built my car, my fridge and my dishwasher. That lot designed my phone. The ones over there built it; they also made my TV and my laptop. That ship is carrying my stuff. People who do things for me were in that plane. Three of the people in that train were working on projects that would affect my life. Another was phoning someone who knows a good friend of mine. A fifth was carrying a photo of someone I once stood next to in an airport queue and shared a joke with. None of them knew each other. They are all dead now.”

So a disaster in Japan is no longer an event far, far away. To some of those reading these lines, it is even an event at home or almost on their doorstep. To others, although it may be distant, yet it has an immediate and measurable effect on their economy, the prices they pay for components or the stability of their supply chain. Simultaneously, the internet has linked us to all of these souls, their hopes and fears have become ours too. We hold our breath as they are pulled from the mud, from under the rubble, from out of the wreckage, rescued from the water, the carnage or the flames. Their glazed look of trauma is mirrored by our sense of shock at the enormity of human suffering. Their tears as they reunite with a lost loved one are our tears too. Their faith sustains us. Our hope sustains them. We all stand and shake our heads numbly as the vast forces of nature are turned against her children.

Survival of the fastest

Japan’s foreign minister, Takeaki Matsumoto, remarked yesterday that beyond shock, sorrow and sympathy, his most profound emotions in the midst of the disaster were a sense of awe and humility. “We thought we were prepared for this,” he said, “but it has far surpassed all our expectations.” History need not be a process from which we only learn how to repeat the same mistakes, but bigger. We have the tools and resources, the expertise and the mentality to make real adjustments to the ways we live and thus massively improve our chances of survival. Not building nuclear plants on fault-lines looks like a no-brainer. But to hear the Chinese government say that although they are “ready to learn” from Japanese experience, it is not going to “alter their policy” or their “resolve to expand” their own nuclear industry, is to listen to the sound of a nation in denial. China, with its history of slipshod construction, dodgy infrastructure, regulatory laxness and subterranean events is pre-ordained to suffer a disaster, sooner rather than later, that combines nuclear, seismic, social and organizational aspects into the ultimate nightmare.

Are we powerless to persuade them otherwise? Unfortunately, we are. For while we might have legal and commercial levers that can be pulled, Chinese obtuseness remains second to none. This is a nation that will never go in any direction that is suggested or advised, let alone required by anyone else. They will have to find their own way there, and we will just have to pray that the Chinese premier’s recent reference to political reform as being “necessary to sustain economic progress” is part of a genuine shift of their own tectonic plates, rather than merely a nod at the UN. In the meantime, it might be a good idea for those in coastal quake regions anywhere in the world to keep a life jacket and a face-mask handy nearby, whether at home or at work, at school or at play. 20 minutes is not very long, but it’s an eternity if you are running for your life.

An oriental curse

As I was growing up in the 1950s we could still play in the road. There were few cars and I knew all their owners. My universe was bounded by the gravel drive to our house, the edge of the parkland before me, the village shop that sold toffee and mint humbugs, the flint-built parish church at the end of an asphalt path that traversed a little coppice of birch and hazel. Those were the bourns, the limits. I was allowed to take my pedal car as far as the bridge that crossed the stream feeding the little lake that arced around the pub garden, separating it from the cricket green and the one road in or out. The old men sitting outside would nod and smile at me as I passed. Sometimes I would dare to go beyond the small, brick foot-bridge and ride to the police phone-box at the corner. Even though I wasn’t meant to go that far, it still felt safe. My world was enormous. I was very small.

But the former had not done growing, nor the latter done shrinking, not by a long chalk. For the thirteenth fairy had leant over my crib at birth and muttered this ancient oriental curse: “May you live in interesting times!” And although I could not then imagine a thirty-foot wave bursting across my village green and taking away everything that was familiar to me, I might just as well have, because it’s nearly all gone now. I’m not a grouch and no, I don’t think modern life is rubbish. But a social tsunami passed through there and swept away everything familiar: closing time at five, the real weekend, a job for life, Sunday roast, the Church of England, the traditional family, last orders at ten, the British Empire, valve radio, the Home Service, the Warsaw Pact, black and white films, only two TV channels and only in the evening, Bakelite phones that weighed a ton, village schools, policemen who actually knew you, doctors who did home visits, local clinics, district nurses, mono singles and “portable” record players, cameras and film, grandparents in tweed and slippers, pipes and tobacco … books and newspapers will be the next to go.

The church is still there, but empty most of the time. The same is true of the pub.  The shop went years ago, as did the post office. All the former estate workers’ cottages are home now to stockbrokers and hedge-fund specialists, none of whom play cricket. The green has grown a shiny fringe of Volvos and Audis. And at the weekend, all these total strangers (who are hardly ever there to enjoy their little home-county idyll anyway) pile into Range Rovers and head off to Cornwall, where they have another home they never really live in. So I’m glad I don’t live there anymore either. I think of the girl and the horse and cry for all things beautiful, far away and lost. Après moi, le déluge.

Edwin Drood

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