Friday, 15 May 2009

Apocalypse now and then

NUCLEAR war across the northern hemisphere has left most of the world uninhabitable and most of its people dead. In Australia, life goes on – but the deadly radioactive clouds are coming, blown on unpredictable but unstoppable winds.
No, of course that’s not true. If it was, I wouldn’t be here to write it and you wouldn’t be here to read it.
But when Nevil Shute used that scenario as the basis for his novel On The Beach it must have seemed horribly plausible.
Published in 1957, the book was set in the not-distant future of 1963. When in 1962 the Cuban missile crisis brought the world close to nuclear war, those who had read Shute’s work must have thought he was frighteningly prescient.
In 1956 another book had described a different end to the world as we know it.
A new virus has attacked rice crops in Asia, causing massive famine. Now a mutation has appeared which infects wheat and barley.
If it isn’t stopped – and there seems no way to stop it – the Western world will quickly starve too. Already Britain and Europe are descending into violent anarchy…
This is the story of John Christopher’s horrific vision The Death of Grass. It’s often bracketed with the catastrophe novels of John Wyndham, which appeared about the same time.
Wyndham’s books are a cracking good read, and his description of society breaking down is generally good. But it takes a stretch of imagination to believe in triffids – deadly walking plants – or the Kraken, deadly alien beings from outer space.
The disaster at the heart of The Death of Grass, though, is all too believable.
Scientific predictions suggest now that such an event is highly possible. Which is why it makes perfect sense that Penguin has just re-issued Christopher’s book as a Modern Classic.
One of the biggest arguments against genetically modified crops is that if most of the world’s grain is of just one strain, it would only take one strain of virus to kill the whole lot off.
In the farms of the world right now there is more grain being grown to feed more people than ever before. And fewer strains than ever before.
An article in this month’s issue of the respected journal Scientific American is headed: “Could food shortages bring down civilisation?”
The answer given by the writer, leading US environmentalist Lester R Brown, is a clear “Yes”.
His argument boils down to these key points:
  • Water shortages, soil loss and global warming are placing increasing limits on food production.
  • Food scarcity and rising food prices are pushing poor countries into chaos.
  • “Failed states” export disease, terrorism, drugs, weapons and refugees – and a series of government collapses could threaten the world order.
Plausible? Horribly. And only one of an overwhelming, even baffling, cocktail of deadly threats scientists tell us we face.
One warning suggests sea levels could rise enough this century to flood most major cities, including London (and, incidentally, most of Suffolk). Imagine the chaos that would bring, not just in the flooded areas, but in the shrinking portion of habitable land. That’s one thing Wyndham may have got right in The Kraken Wakes.
We are, as Frazer in Dad’s Army had it, all doomed. Or are we?
The sheer range of predicted catastrophes may be the broadest since the Book of Revelation – but humanity seems always to have lived with a strong sense of its own imminent downfall.
When I was growing up it was the Bomb. In the 1950s if it wasn’t the death of grass or triffids it was little green men or The Blob.
In the 1930s, as historian Richard Overy details in his new book The Morbid Age, people were increasingly worried about a coming war they feared would bring civilisation to an end.
As we know now, they weren’t entirely wrong.
As 1939 approached, the Jews of Europe lived in a state of gradually increasing trepidation. But they went on with their daily lives until the day the horror became total, escape impossible.
Even when it might have been possible to escape, most didn’t.
It seems there’s a gap which the human mind cannot bridge. A gap between rumour, fear and belief that allows the unthinkable to remain literally that.
You might imagine the worst, but you can’t really believe it until it is no longer escapable.
Such was the feeling of impending doom pre-war. And such, perhaps, is the mood of impending environmental catastrophe today.
At one level, we believe at least some of the predictions of horror. At another, we get on with our daily lives as if nothing could possibly go wrong.
Perhaps all the doom-mongering is simply natural human paranoia – these days given credibility by science, where once it was religion.
On the other hand, just because you’re paranoid…

Friday, 8 May 2009

Harmony in black, white & colour

RIDING through east London on a train the other day I had one of those wish-I-had-a-camera-handy moments. If I’d been quick enough, the picture would have been worth at least 1,000 words.
Instead of writing this column I could just have printed the picture and let it speak for itself.
On a public tennis court four schoolgirls were playing a game of doubles. On one side of the net, in shorts and T-shirts, were a blonde girl and one who might have been Chinese. On the other was a girl with long braided hair and brightly-coloured Caribbean-style clothes. Her partner was all in black from head to foot, only her eyes showing in the now familiar Muslim manner.
I did wonder for a moment how the Muslim girl could move effectively in such restrictive attire.
I did marvel that her parents should send her to school so concealed yet allow her to play openly with girls whose different cultures were on display in bare limbs.
But the obvious enjoyment all four were having in the game made it a most striking image of what is – or could be – good in our society. It was a happy and a hopeful scene.
There can be few issues more emotionally charged in this country – and likely to get more so – than that of immigration.
Most of that emotion is heated, irrational and based on ignorance. If only we could all mix as those tennis-playing girls were, with pleasure and at least a chance of understanding.
We’re a mongrel race, we British. It’s our strength. If you doubt that, just consider our language.
English has always been happy to accept new words and make them its own. As a country, that’s generally been our tendency – and our strength – too.
This little land is a melting-pot of people, cultures, ideas and lifestyles and all the better for that.
And I mean a melting-pot. Multi-culturalism, so-called, is fine as long as we are all happy to enjoy, learn from and share each others’ cultures.
Cutting ourselves off in enclaves of this culture or that, without sharing or learning from each other, is where danger lies.
If we allow our cities to become segmented into sectors defined by national or religious groups – a black area, a Muslim area, a Polish area – we risk alienation, distrust, misunderstanding, fear.
The old adage about having nothing to fear but fear itself seems applicable. But it doesn’t take account of where fear comes from – ignorance.
If only we could all get together on the same tennis court. Or even just in each others’ supermarkets and at each others’ dining-tables.

Bordering on the un-British

IF I have a complaint against someone, I can’t threaten their reputation by telling you about it here. Not, at least, until the matter has gone through all the relevant court procedures.
The law of libel places a restriction on freedom of speech that can be frustrating at times. But it exists for a good reason.
The protection it offers against the damaging effects of rumour is a powerful restraint on journalists. But not, apparently, on official organisations such as the UK Border Agency.
The agency, which came into being in its present form only last year, is responsible for controlling immigration.
In its own words: “The Agency was formed in April 2008 to improve the United Kingdom’s security through stronger border protection while welcoming legitimate travellers and trade.”
Note the use of that emotive buzzword “security”. And just how welcoming is “welcoming”?
In its first nine months the agency issued civil penalties against 21 Suffolk businesses. You may have read about some of them in these pages.
The agency is very keen on telling the local media about its successes in uncovering evidence of illegal workers in mainly Chinese and Indian or Bangladeshi restaurants.
Of those 21, however, two were cancelled and another five resulted in reduced fines once the businesses concerned had a chance to appeal.
I am grateful to Paul Simon of Hadleigh for gaining these figures under the Freedom of Information Act and alerting me to them.
As Paul says: “It is very unfair that the UK Border Agency appears to be so trigger-happy in issuing immediate information about its raids even before a business has a chance to invoke the appeals procedure.
“Given this country’s sense of fair play, it borders on the un-British to name and shame companies in this way – even though one in every three cases was either totally exonerated or was able to produce sufficient evidence for fines to be reduced.
“In these tough economic times it seems especially unfair that the reputation of some Suffolk businesses may be damaged by a government body in advance of the full facts being uncovered.”
Just so. I couldn’t do it – quite rightly – so why should they?