Post-apocalyptic Lathe Shifting

Post-apocalyptic Lathe Shifting

Yesterday my neighbour had a large lathe, to turn and mill metal, delivered to his door. Four guys pulled the palette off the lorry and drove off leaving it in his drive. It was enormous and heavy, and he was unable to move it. Luckily, shortly after this, a van with some local youths, on their way back from shearing sheep, passed by. They noticed his dilemma, stopped and helped him lift the crate up to his workshop.

After unpacking the lathe and assembling its stand in the workshop another problem became apparent. The machine weighed 300kg it was going to be difficult to lift it up, through the door, and onto its stand. I was passing, walking the dogs, and started to help. We fashioned a moving shelf with a car jack and a metal plate but, even with crowbars, we couldn’t get the machine up onto the shelf.

Luckily another farmer was passing bringing hay back from a field recently cut. We flagged him down and asked if he would help us with the last leg of the lathe’s journey. This was no minor request. This weighed over quarter of a ton, was difficult to handle and could cause serious injury, or death, if it toppled and fell. But none the less we all set to and after an hour of panting, groaning and swearing the job was done. We gossiped for a while about politics and Brexit, then I completed my walk with the dog, the farmer finished his journey with the hay, and my neighbour settled down to read the lathe’s handbook.

What struck me, as I was walking the dog, was how ready people are to help each other. Happy to help for no reward other than to be helpful. It struck me how often I see this. Or local community hall is run and shared by volunteers who maintain the grounds at their own cost and who give hours of time to organize local events. I recalled spending an afternoon with a man I did not know as we cut and cleared a tree which had fallen and blocked the road, and a prior evening when a different stranger had helped me round up someone’s sheep that had got out through a broken fence and were wandering the lanes. I have an evening booked, later this week, to go to the pub with some people in the town who, like me are Community First Responders, and give up some of their free time to help should anyone be in need.

Life would scarcely be liveable were it not for these multiple acts of kindness from strangers. If I drop my wallet, or leave my phone on the table, as I leave a cafe someone will call to alert me or run after me to make sure I don’t lost my property. Anyone with the misfortune to be in an accident will recall the offers of help from bystanders. Anyone lost knows you can ask a passerby for directions. Every day our interactions with others is usually helpful. When we walk on a busy pavement in the city we do not jump and jostle for space but step aside and ensure we can all move as freely as possible. It’s the way we are made, it’s our nature, we are designed to be helpful.

It is for this reason that I get annoyed with post-apocalyptic films and novels which suggest that when the state is destroyed we will all descend into barbarism. The usual scenario is, that after a disaster, man-made or natural, all the authorities have gone and our heroes have to travel across a land populated by villains intent on rape and murder. These dystopias paint a bleak picture of life without the state. The message is clear, without the state to protect us we world all be at risk from the murderous impulses of our neighbours.

This runs counter to our general experience. We rarely call on the state to defend us and every day we experience pleasant or useful communal interactions with our fellows. Our instincts to be sociable and create society are so innate and quotidian that we fail to notice them. Rather, we only notice when people fail to be nice and are, on rare occasions, rude to us.

There is a misconception that the state creates society. It does not, individuals by their nature create society. The state, by contrast, creates power; rather than fostering cooperation it creates compulsion and obligation. Humans do not by instinct kill each other, if you want to see violent and cruel behaviour you need a ruling class to compel it. The mass killings our species has seen (wars, genocide or pogroms) have always been instigated by a state and a call to the authority of a God, King, Nation or ideology. We have to compel people to go to war and sometimes shoot them if they won’t go – to encourage the others. People spontaneously build communities and society not war and oppression, you need a state for that.

Even the benign aspects of the state carry their risks. If, ‘for or own good’, the state looks after our welfare it takes it out of our hands. It means we do not make the choices and priorities, and we do not make the social bonds and links to promote our welfare. Charity, locality planning and fraternal organizations all become weakened when the state steps in. As the sociologist Frank Furedi noted :-

“Indeed, it can be argued that state intervention in everyday life corrodes community life no less, and arguably even more, than market forces. In many societies, people who come to rely on the state depend far less on each other and on their community. When what matters is access to the state then many citizens can become distracted, and stop cooperating and working with fellow members of their community”

In a practical sense, here is some free advice. If you ever find yourself lost in the desert, or jungle, or crossing barren windswept plains after a nuclear holocaust, and you see other people don’t run away from them. They are your best hope, do what all your instincts tell you to do and run towards them shouting for help; they probably will.

If we ever do see the breakdown of the state then I will be even more reliant on my friend and neighbours. We would quickly reorganise our local community again and people might take the opportunity not to return to power structures that we had lost, with all the inequality that accompanied it. The world would go on but sone of those who leeched of our backs would now have to fund a way to be helpful and productive.

The state might tell us whether we can buy a lathe or not, or might put taxes on its purchase to fund its own agenda, and it may punish someone if they steal it from us, but it doesn’t do much else. It didn’t design it, make it, or transport it, individuals working cooperatively did that. The state didn’t help us move the lathe in the past and we will still be able to move it, despite its weight, once the state has gone.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

I have, over a period of nearly half a century, read this book three times. Interestingly it has made a very different impression on me on each occasion.

I first read the book in my late teens. This book was one of the important texts of the day and every young man and woman had read it. One would have risked being seen as uncultured if one hadn’t read this book. I knew that it was an acclaimed dystopian vision of the future and an important warning of the dangers of totalitarianism by one of the century’s greatest thinkers. However, I have to be honest and say that much of this was lost upon me. At the time I was in the revolutionary socialist phase of my development and thus found the warnings about the dangers from an over powerful state rather fanciful. Though I did see the risks associated with increasing consumerism I couldn’t really see the risks of increasing technological advancement. As a child of the 60s the Harold Wilson’s “white heat of technology” speech was still ringing in my ears. But essentially the major problem was that I was an adolescent male. The idea that a future could be full of easy sex and free recreational drugs didn’t really scare me. At some level I think I might have thought it a utopia rather than a dystopia.

A few decades passed until I read the book again. Now I was a middle-aged man with a mortgage, children and many responsibilities. I re-read this book and discovered what all the fuss was about. This was a book that really frightened me. As a parent of children, I could see the dangers that he foresaw. The risks of the loss of liberty, the debasement of relationships and art, the dangers in shallow and glib answers to deep and difficult problems were all things I now knew first hand. He was warning us of an exploitative, consumerist society where little matters other than consumption and the fulfilment of appetites. As a ‘baby boomer’ I had witnessed these changes first hand and worried, if the changes continued unabated, what the future my children might inherit.

Recently, again after an internal of some decades, I read the book again (It had been chosen by my book club).If my first reading had led to disbelief, and the second to anxiety, the third reading led to depression. Now with enough years under my belt I was able to see that the book was not just a dystopian novel but Huxley has been shown to be eerily prescient and the book is, with hindsight, rather prophetic. The decoupling of sex from reproduction and relationships now seems almost complete in our days of contraception and tinder. The predicted use of psychotropics to cure us of our angst and unhappiness is now well established. His warning that there would an assault on the idea of the family (as it suits neither capitalism nor communism) seems to be starting in earnest. Many aspects of family life (the education of children, the care of the elderly, for example) and now the responsibility of the state and when the family is discussed it is often seen as a problem – the place where unspeakable evils happen to children or where parents fill their childrens’ heads with antiquated cultural views. Huxley feared that we would not be able to play without the use of gadgets we have to buy and anyone who has watched the changes to play in children and adults can see that this is a growing problem. He feared art would become debased, and films (or rather the “feelies”) would descend to simple tales of excitement, ” .. plays, where there’s nothing but helicopters flying about, and you feel the people kissing’; anyone who has seen Die Hard 5 or The Fast and The Furious 9 know that this has already happened. Some of his wildest predictions have some echoes to recent changes:-

‘Why do the smoke-stacks have those things like balconies round them?’ enquired Lenina. ‘Phosphorus recovery,’ exclaimed Henry telegraphically. ‘On their way up the chimney the gases go through four separate treatments. P2O5 used to go right out of circulation every time they cremated someone. Now they recover over ninety-eight per cent of it. More than a kilo and a half per adult corpse. Which makes the best part of four hundred tons of phosphorus every year from England alone.’ Henry spoke with a happy pride, rejoicing wholeheartedly in the achievement, as though it had been his own. ‘Fine to think we can go on being socially useful even after we’re dead. Making plants grow.‘ Brave New World (p. 31). Random House. Kindle Edition.

We now presume consent for organ donation, our dead bodies are not a gift to others but presumed property of the state – just as the motto of the Brave New World proclaims – “Everybody belongs to everyone else“.

If there is a problem with the novel it is that it tries to cover too much ground and there are many, many themes. There are trenchant discussions on the role of suffering in life, the place of religion in society and whether truth and happiness can ever be compatible. It does rather lead the penultimate chapter to be less part of the novel and more a philosophical essay. However, these are minor flaws in what is an excellent novel. If you have not read it you really should. If you have already read it then it may be worthwhile reading it again if, like me, you were a callow youth first time around.

The End of the World Running Club. (Adrian J. Walker)

While I was cleaning our holiday let, in 51NXDkgb5VLpreparation for the next set of visitors, I noticed an addition to the bookcase. This book, “The End Of The World Running Club” by Adrian J . Walker, had been put on the shelf on it’s side (It was this that drew my attention to it). I had a quick look at the cover and the blurb on the backpage and decided I would give it a try. It was not the type of book to which I am normally drawn though I had enjoyed the post-apocalyptic tale of “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy and thus knew it was possible to tackle important themes in this potentially depressing genre.

The book starts at the end of the world with a bang, literally a bang, as an asteroid shower hits the UK ending life as we know it. Interestingly the opening scenes take place in Edinburgh and the Lothians which was a pleasant surprise and the geography, or what is left of it, was well and accurately described. The main protagonist, Edward Hill, and his family survive the initial strike but soon become separated and find themselves at different ends of the British Isles. This sets up the premise for the book; Edward must race, against time, from one end of Britain to the other for the sake of his family.

Unfortunately, Edward is an overweight, un-fit, sluggard who has had a lifelong aversion to healthy activities and in no fit state to undertake a run like this. But heteams up with a few others and they start their odyssey. During the run they meet number of people, both good and bad, and issues of trust and survival are discussed. The characters are well drawn, believable and, our heroes, are likeable. There is a great deal of the self-deprecating humour that is characteristic of the UK and Australia as Edward considers his failings and shortcomings as a man and, especially, as a husband and father. Some of these passages are ‘laugh out loud’ funny (as my wife trying to sleep will testify). Unfortunately,  I think this aspect of the humour was behind many of the poor reviews on Goodreads where reviewers found Edward unlikeable as he spends a great deal of the time considering his failings rather than ever blowing his own trumpet. I suppose that is possible that this particularly ‘blokeish’ humour may be off-putting to some, though I found it enjoyable.

It is when Edward, and the other characters, consider their difficulties and how they will face up to them that the meat of the story develops. They have to face adversity, learn responsibility, trust and endurance. These lessons are drawn by very human scenarios in extreme circumstances. The humanity of the characters makes these situations credible and make us empathise with the players and care what happens to them. These are frail people not heroes and it is easy to imagine yourself in their shoes. As a consequence this book rips along at a fast pace and even though it is lengthy (466 pages) I found that I read it in a few eager sittings. As the story neared its end and the conclusion drew into view I really didn’t want it to happen and could happily have read on.

This is an excellent holiday novel, one to pack for beside the pool. It is also an excellent choice as bedtime reading. Either way don’t expect it to last too long.

 

The Circle by Dave Eggars

The Circle by Dave Eggars

Like many people recently I had been concerned about my growing dependency on social media. It reminded me of may days when I was hooked on cigarettes and a heavy regular smoker. The first thing I did every morning, before anything else, was to smoke my first cigarette and cough. Now the first thing I do, before coffee or anything else, is to check my phone for email or messages.  In the past I used to notice myself checking my pockets to make sure I hadn’t misplaced my packet of cigarettes, now I do the same patting my pockets dance to make sure I haven’t accidentally strayed away from my mobile phone. Before I used to worry about running out of cigarettes and always made sure that I had enough until the next time I’d be at the shops. Now I have the anxiety of battery life and the need to make sure that the phone has enough battery power to take it to the next charger.

When I was a smoker I used to joke that the only place I didn’t smoke (though not for want of trying) was in the bath – with wet hands the cigarettes get soggy and fall apart ! Now with a waterproof phone (IP68) I don’t have this excuse and had noticed occasional times reading an article while having a soak. I realised I needed to break this habit and took what I thought were the appropriate steps. I stopped using Facebook and other social media systems; stopped carrying my phone with me when I went out to work; and read my articles and book on paper rather than as digital editions (Note that paperbacks and reading in the bath  don’t always mix happily as my very thick and curly edition of ‘Brave New World’ will testify).

However, I have been less successful than I thought I would be and the path has been harder than anticipated. Though I didn’t miss Facebook at all I discovered that some of my voluntary work depended on it : the village hall needed it Facebook page to publicise its activities and coordinate bookings,  likewise the Community First Responders used social media for the educational activities and rotas. I also discovered that the main function of my mobile phone was not as a phone (There is rarely any reception outside where I stay) but as a camera. When out and discovering an animal unwell a photograph can sometimes help a neighbour or vet give good advice. So my phone started to creep back into my working trousers. The last hurdle was cost, the various messaging systems are much cheaper than the telephone for keeping in touch with my dispersed family and, as a voracious reader, eBooks are considerably cheaper than their 3D counterparts. Although I have managed to cut down my usage and  recover many hours worth of wasted time I  have realised just how embedded is the new technology in our modern lives. Therefore when I came across this novel about the influence on social media and information technology on our lives my interest was piqued. I bought the kindle version and started to read it as an eBook conscious of the possible irony.

I suppose this book is best described as piece of The_Circle_(Dave_Eggers_novel_-_cover_art)dystopian science fiction. Often science fiction concerns future worlds and it through such novels we can consider what the future may hold for us. This novel does, indeed, consider a dangerous and unpleasant future but it is not about a time many years from now, rather it is seen as the result of choices we need to be making right now.

The story reads as a thriller following the history of Mae who secures a post in the world’s leading technology company. There are nods to all the major players in the current digital environment but the company, The Circle, is clearly based on Google even down to the level of the logo.. As Mae progresses in the company she becomes increasingly aware of the new developments in data acquisition and usage. The immediate benefits of these programmes and systems lures Mae and the public into using them and she, and they, ignore the increasing concerns about the influences these have on personal privacy and the body politic. These dangers are laid out very clearly in the book, perhaps a bit heavy handedly, and the book is a pacey race to see if the baddies can be headed off at the pass. I won’t spoil it and reveal which ending the novel takes.

This is an easy read, the characters verge a little on the stereotypical but they are real enough to keep your interest and attention. The dangers of the loss of privacy, and the growing control of opinion, which can result from a monopoly  provider of digital services are described in such a manner as to be readily believable, many are recognisable as already having occurred. Like all dystopian novels the dangers are presented but there are no clues as to how to prevent them. However, as a holiday read, something to take to the poolside, this is warmly recommended, especially as the paperback version.

 

 

The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047. Lionel Shriver

The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047. Lionel Shriver

It is difficult to categorise this novel as it crosses many genres. It a post-apocalyptic, dystopian future, science fiction story wrapped up in a family saga and present day morality tale, it contains a fair bit of humour, and  there is a fair bit of economic theory and history thrown in for leavening. Surprisingly it is all the better because of this, it is engrossing. The story follows a number of members of the Mandibles clan as they cope with the changes that follow the economic collapse in America.

The discussion about the problems with fiat money, inflation, central banking and the nature of money itself is well written and manages to explain many things, by using the form of a novel, that many economics textbooks fail to clarify. The impact of these problems is made real by the realistic descriptions of life post-collapse. Time will tell if Shriver is going to prove to be prescient, or rather, in which areas her predictions were accurate.

The characters are well drawn, some likeable, others despicable, but all believable. Shriver’s ability to reveal the darker side of our nature is well known. In this story, as the characters try to survive, many facets of human nature are turned over for assessment. We will sometimes see features we recognise in ourselves and sometimes this will not flatter, but shame, us. It is always better to be self aware and to know our faults and, if it has to be done, it is better to do it to the accompaniment of some dark comic humour.

Leaving the last word to Shriver herself :-

Plots set in the future are about what people fear in the present. They’re not about the future at all. The future is just the ultimate monster in the closet, the great unknown.