Waiting for Armageddon: an exchange of gloomy views

My old friend Robin Fairlie and I summoned up enough vanity to imagine that our recent exchange of emails about the state of the world might be of wider interest. So here it is.

Dear Brian,

I don’t know if what follows disqualifies me for ever from mixing in distinguished left-of-centre company, but I feel the need, in these politically febrile times, to lay down a marker on my own account.

I am not just bored, not just disappointed, not just angry, but disgusted, sick to the bottom of my stomach, with ALL the politics and politicians of this country – and indeed the rest of the world as well. The double-think and hypocrisy of every significant party and political figure are breath-taking. Let’s take some examples:

  1. Climate change. All (British) parties agree this is serious; all parties seek to decrease carbon emissions; all parties seek to increase production of sustainable energy; all parties are agreed that the world cannot afford to burn all its fossil fuel reserves.  All parties at the same timeseek to increase production of North Sea reserves of carbon products (and any other reserves they can lay their grubby fingers on – such as the Falklands). I see that George Monbiot (for whose doom-laden prophecies I seldom have much time) has written a powerful piece in the Guardian. Norway, it appears, has a plan to become carbon neutral; we too should not only have such a plan, but should, in parallel with moving towards this goal, plan for the shutting down of all our North Sea fields, and an end to further exploration. (Norwegian hypocrites, it appears, will be happy, when themselves carbon neutral,  to export oil for others to burn.) The current game of playing both ends against the middle (i.e. our children and grand-children) is contemptible: more honest just to say “let’s have a good time while we can and to hell with the future” – which is what our present attitudes amount to without admitting it. Meanwhile we – all of us – get excited over whether Tweedledum or Tweedledee should be Prime British hypocrite. It really doesn’t matter: we will go to hell in the same handcart (or rather our great-grandchildren will) either way.
  1. Banks, etc. All parties profess to hate bankers, for their corporate and personal greed, as well as their grotesque incompetence. Yet no party will take (or announce) effective steps to put a stop to the recurring scandals amounting to grand larceny. Banker after banker would submit to ritual humiliation by M. Hodge – but not one of them is a penny (or a million) worse off, deprived of employment, demoted, imprisoned, or otherwise inconvenienced by the process. These Augean stables scream out for a total clearance and fumigation, which none of the current occupants of their boardrooms should be permitted to survive. (And since they are all either criminals or incompetents, or both, we would be none the worse off without them.) Where is Hercules when we need him?
  1. Defence. I have just been listening to another Labour spokesperson claiming to be in favour of multilateral, but not unilateral, disarmament. Bollocks. That tired old mantra may have had some apparent meaning when trotted out by Nye, but is now nothing more than a cop-out – another hypocrisy, worthy to sit alongside the Tory pretence that “our” deterrent is “independent”. If P. Hammond, or his Tweedledee replacement, thinks he is going to sit in any disarmament council chamber, whether clothed or naked, while the present collection of children play with matches in a gas-filled room, then he is badly mistaken. So we go on with all parties pouring billions into the maintenance of weapons that mustn’t be used, just so that our elected hypocritical munchkins can pose as big boys in the playground.
  1. Deforestation. All parties know what this means for the global climate (see above) and for wild-life habitats, and for the eco-system; in Europe we institute pathetic little schemes of tree-planting, while at the same time permitting our banks (yes, them again) to make loans to companies that are blatantly (and sometimes illegally) logging in, and destroying, tropical forests. We bemoan these activities in Brazil, or Indonesia, while not only taking no effective action to stop them, but actually encouraging our financial institutions (including pension funds) to profit from them.

How can any sane person worry about whether the CEO of RBS pays 5p in the £ more income tax or not, or whether our GDP is growing 0.1% faster than Germany’s, while the world is hurtling to Armageddon? Since there is nobody in the political landscape prepared to address any of these problems, why should we vote for, or respect, any of them??? 

Enough for one night: I am off to Scotland to-morrow, where politics appears to be conducted on an even more insane basis than in London, and where nobody seems to appreciate that the fall in the oil price (which does seem likely to put quite a few oil-fields out of production – no thanks to any politician, especially V. Putin) has finally blown a hole in A. Salmond’s and that other fish’s* shaky economic strategy for independence. 

Will no doubt see you soon. 



Dear Robin,

Many thanks for this collector’s piece.  It should have pride of place in your collected works when you publish them.

I don’t know what to say, for once!  Of course I share your opinion of very many of the bêtes noires which you lead past us, perhaps in my case with fewer (metaphorical) italics, capital letters and underlinings.  And I don’t feel nearly as hostile as you sound to absolutely all British politicians, still less to all politicians throughout the world.  I think because you’re more of an idealist than me, which is saying something, your expectations of our masters (and mistresses?) are maybe higher than mine, and intrinsically impossible to satisfy.  I know you have had lots of exposure to the genus politicum but K [a mutual friend] and I actually spent many decades working for the bastards – and a few near-saints – and the experience may have lowered our expectations of them to somewhere near the realism mark.   I continue to believe that the majority of them have gone into their funny old trade (as another old friend of ours, Alan Watkins, whom God preserve, used to call it) with the intention of making the world, or at least their constituencies, a better place.  I don’t believe many of them went into it for the money, which is in most cases pitifully little and even for Cabinet ministers scandalously inadequate.  I think their common vice is vanity rather than greed.  I think most of them do their best, but their best varies a great deal, from occasionally formidable to embarrassingly poor. 

We ask a lot of our despised politicians – dreadful hours, career insecurity, inadequate salaries and supporting resources, low social esteem, the requirement always to suffer other fools gladly, the qualities required to be a high-grade debater, a diligent committee [wo]man, an effective public speaker and campaigner, a social worker (in the constituency), and – if eventually a minister – a competent administrator of a large organisation over which the politician has at best limited control.  In some cases we require them to be masters of economics, finance, diplomatic skills, environmental issues, education history and theory, and innumerable other arcane subjects for which the rest of us would require at least three or four years of intense training before we would be ready to jump in and practise them; and our politicians receive no training at all for any of the numerous roles we require them to play.  It’s really a miracle that anything works at all, and no surprise that not much does.

So maybe the main difference between us is that your scream of pain and rage radiates surprise and disappointment, whereas very little surprises or disappoints me any more.

Some of the horrors and nightmares that you bemoan (lovely word lovingly gloated over by Jonathan Miller in Beyond The Fringe, remember?) simply reflect the tragic and frustrating fact that whereas many of the terrible threats and black-hearted villains – climate change, bankers and other terrorists – are fully globalised, control of them is not, and collective action by politicians whose primary responsibility is to their own narrow countries or even just to their even narrower political parties and party bosses, is appallingly difficult to organise and make effective, whether on a continental or still more so on a global level.  The national, not the global, interest reigns supreme.  We desperately need a world government with powers to act on most of the issues that you list: but when one thinks about what a world government would look and sound like in practice, how it would be chosen and by whom, and the kind of people who would float to its surface and take control of it, one’s bound to suspect that it would make bad situations even worse (think FIFA and the International Olympic Committee). 

On climate change and global warming, I recognise that on any rational assessment of the mounting scientific evidence and well qualified expert opinion, the threat to our planet is just as terrifying as you say.  But a tiny secret shameful irresponsible part of me can’t help thinking that it can’t turn out that badly: that once the danger is absolutely unmistakeable, and the interests and safety of people in the rich western world can be seen to start getting damaged, someone will spot a rabbit in the hat and pull it out.  Cheap energy from water? Some electronic space wizardry that will control the tides and temperatures?  A technology that will make the vast deserts fertile for the millions of people displaced from their present homes by rising sea levels and storms and bush fires?  Human ingenuity has a funny way of coming up with answers in the nick of time. Perhaps we pagans have been wrong all along and fervent prayer will do the trick (yes, unlikeliest of all). The Micawberish conviction that something will turn up at the very last moment, like Dick Barton or James Bond, is ineradicable.  Pure Pollyanna, I suppose.  I don’t know whether to be sad or glad that you and I are unlikely to live long enough to find out.

Meanwhile all we can do as individuals (and as party members and members of other worthy tribes) is do what we can.  We can make a tiny dwarfish contribution to the effort to discredit and boot out an atrocious, cruel, incompetent, dishonest government, lacking in all human feeling, and hope that the only available alternative to it will be microscopically less bad.  We can try feebly to encourage those who begin to grasp that some not especially revolutionary constitutional changes would enable us to work out better ways to live together in fraternity with more control of our own lives.  We can take what slim opportunities present themselves to point the finger at the worst rank injustices and practical failures of our system and demand in our loudest voices – in bold type and italics if necessary, which it is – that those responsible for them should be removed and exposed and pensioned off and replaced by people who will do better. We can join (and probably be forced to chair), as you do, our local conservation societies and encourage our neighbours to do battle with developers and other vandals.  All this is like trying to empty the ocean with a tea-spoon, of course, but at least it gives us the illusion that we’re doing something – and it’s not entirely illusory, either.  People have to go on living their lives, at any rate until the Tsunami sweeps away their livelihood and homes and families.  It’s not a waste of time to try to encourage those who might improve their quality of life a little while they wait for Armageddon.

I’ve kept one observation until last because I suppose it’s the most contentious.  I believe that religion and capitalism are the twin (and related) disasters that will destroy us, or if not us, our children, or if not our children, our grandchildren.  And I can’t see the slightest glimmer of hope for the replacement of either religion or capitalism by a brave new world of rational behaviour, humane values, or the fair and equitable distribution of copious global wealth irrespective of talent, intelligence, energy, unscrupulousness, health, luck, bloody-mindedness, inheritance, or other aids to making money at others’ expense.  Apart from anything else, there probably isn’t time.

Don’t feel under any obligation to tear this apart, shed by shred.  If I had both time and the inclination, I could probably do that almost as effectively as you.  But it’s pretty much the way I see things.  Anyway you’re unlikely to read it until you get back from Scotland and you’ll return with a whole bagful of new alarms and sources of saeva indignatio, or saevae indignationis?, of which you’re the acknowledged master.

Love to all


12 Responses

  1. Personally I’d work up a rather different but equally long list of gloomy factors.

    “I believe that religion and capitalism are the twin (and related) disasters that will destroy us, or if not us, our children, or if not our children, our grandchildren”

    Religion and socialism/communism = a far more lethal combination, as the record shows.

    Impossible and wrong in principle to have a ‘fair’ distribution (sic) of wealth ‘irrespective of talent’. Talent creates wealth for the untalented and undeserving: what’s not fair about that?


  2. Brian says:

    Charles, thanks for that.  Obviously I don’t accept your identification of socialism with communism, an old and shabby Tory verbal trick;  and I don’t see how either can be about to “destroy us” when, unlike capitalism, neither is practised in recognisable form in any country of significance anywhere.  As for an equitable distribution of the globe’s ample wealth, the adoption of the old maxim “From each according to his ability; to each according to his needs” (Marx, 1875) would solve a massive host of the world’s problems, if only there were to be enough generosity of spirit in the world to drive it. What talent (and good luck and unscrupulousness and good health and inheritance) create clearly should be shared equitably, and not necessarily equally, with the needy, and we have barely made a start on that.

  3. “From each according to his ability; to each according to his needs”

    The collectivist looters’ charter. One of the most malevolent things ever written!

  4. Paul Sharp says:

    This is what happens when you let diplomats near the substance of issues. They turn out to be just as polarized as the rest of us. Propositions about we’re all going to heck in a handbasket/the universe is unfolding as it should, religion and capitalism are the curse of humankind/religion and socialism are the curse of humankind, and from each to each is the eleventh commandment/prescription for looting are pretty irreconcilable. The question is how are we to live in a world populated by people with these and other bees in their bonnets?

    I was having lunch with the former mayor of Duluth last week. He is one of those rare birds -a mildly faith-driven progressive politician who is respected and regarded as effective right across the political spectrum in our fair city. He said to me, “I can’t understand it it. By most indicators, things are not too shabby for most people right now, and yet everybody is absolutely steamed. God knows what they’re going to be like if things take a turn for the worse.”

    James Eayres used to talk about “the distemper of our times.”  We do seem to be on the receiving end of vast amounts of heavily amplified information from people ranging from earnest, head scarved BBC reporters to ugly overweight AM radio shock jocks who all share an interest in grabbing our attention by saying how absolutely awful everything is. Perhaps we start to tune out the particular content of their messages while retaining and accumultating the emotional charges which accompany them.

    I bought a used Chevrolet Volt (Vauxhall Ampere?) last month. I’ve decided to become part of the solution and to be an absolute prig about it. Actually, I just like electric traction and always have, but the benedictory nods I get from the usual suspects in the parking lots are starting to get embarrassing.



  5. Good grief! Someone sensible!

    In the (very) great scheme of things the human species + planet are going through the rippling effects of the Renaissance then Enlightenment then industrial revolution: an accelerating explosion of both human beings and human creativity.

    The consequences are both good and bad, however such terms are defined. Better health creates population booms that take many generations to settle down. Machines allow us to plunder the environment at ever-greater speeds. But they also let us do far more with less and raise/spread awareness of the issues as never before. Hence by every indicator that counts, many things are looking up as never before: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/01/opinion/nicholas-kristof-the-most-important-thing-and-its-almost-a-secret.html

    I support ‘capitalism’ as opposed to ‘socialism’ because it takes an optimistic view of the individual and human creativity. Living in communist and former communist countries had that effect on me haha


  6. Barbara Earnest says:

    Gosh, you’ve both covered so many of the major problems of the day so well. The world is more interconnected, yet fractured and endangered than ever.  I’m in agreement with you Brian, and we’ve written about it before, that “It’s really a miracle that anything works at all,” tho I feel it’s more like:  Given that people are mostly motivated by fear and greed, it’s a miracle that things work as well as they do.

    I too bemoan the state of things – and an America obsessed for nearly 2 years with a presidential race and the companion obsession with making jokes about it.  Our news and entertainment cover little else. It’s mind-numbing and idiotic.

    Then too we have a Republican party obsessed with destroying the president, indeed it’s their purpose, as stated by R. Senator Mitch McConnell.  Even Obama’s attempts at signing multi-national treaties, tho maybe too small as you say Mr Fairlie, are undermined.

    Don’t every generation’s elders feel that the future of the world is going to hell in a hand basket?  We are the current curmudgeons, and it’s our JOB to reflect and complain!  But then, doesn’t it feel like it’s really true THIS time?

    (B.E., written in Racine, Wis, on Lake Michigan).


  7. Tim Weakley says:

    I won’t analyse the global situation except to remark that my feelings wobble between those of Brian and those of Robin F. (depending on the weather, when I last read, etc.).  However, I wanted to say I had been getting worried about you, Brian, since you seemed to have gone off the air for some time; in fact I was relieved that Googling your name failed to come up with your obituary!  Also, can anyone tell me, what is the connection between hell and a hand-basket, and would a larger receptacle of the same material do, such as an old-fashioned laundry- or picnic-hamper?  It’s always struck me as an odd (American?) expression!  Oh, and why does your website keep on asking me to prove I’m not a robot?

  8. Brian says:

    Brian writes:  I’m grateful for all these recent comments.  To Paul Sharp I would say only that I envy the good people of Duluth not only for their progressive and contented Mayor, but also for their “not too shabby” conditions, and for their apparent unawareness of the menacing problems and crises that increasingly worry the rest of the world.  Perhaps I should add that only one of the co-authors of this post is a former diplomat, although another one has weighed in with some provocative comments.  To Barbara: it’s strange how in many ways American politics seem to be mirrored by ours in the UK, with Senator Sanders and Mr Corbyn having quite a lot in common and each right-of-centre party (and in the case of the UK, government) behaving incredibly irresponsibly and in an unacceptably partisan way.  To Tim:  yes, reports of my demise have been somewhat exaggerated, and I apologise for long gaps between Ephems posts;  for some time I have not felt that I have anything particularly original to contribute to the various debates now raging, and I have had other preoccupations, but I may have something to say shortly (or at length) about the appallingly dangerous and wholly unnecessary EU referendum that a reckless David Cameron has inflicted on us. 

    As for the expression “to hell in a handcart” or “handbasket”, I recommend the copious material on the subject that a Google search will supply.  Personally I favour the guillotine theory.  But the bulk of informed opinion seems to think it’s of American origin, and for some reason no US state that I know of has so far experimented with the guillotine as a means of despatching its erring citizens (I wonder why?).  Finally, this website, along with many others, asks you to confirm that you’re not a robot by simply clicking in a box to put a tick in it (or check it) to prevent comments on blog posts being infested by crawling robots automatically filling them with spam.  I hope you’ll agree that a tick in a box is better than being required to copy out a string of letters and numerals so deformed that it’s often impossible to decipher them — the letter ‘I’ often indistinguishable from figure 1, for example, and 0 (zero) from o (as in ozone).  If it’s any consolation, I’m required to put a tick in the ‘not a robot’ box like everyone else.

  9. formula57 says:

    Reflecting that “It’s really a miracle that anything works at all, and no surprise that not much does”, one can only think that there is much merit in “let’s have a good time while we can and to hell with the future”.

  10. Paul Sharp says:

    Thanks for the clarification re the diplomats, Brian. here are two of my own. First, the good citizens of Duluth are quite capable of being as steamed as the rest of them without too much pushing. Second, by referring to bees in bonnets, I was not for a minute suggesting that some or all of these bees are not important problems. I was suggesting that the manner in which we discuss them and seek to resolve them is often as problematic as the problems themselves. Syria seems to me to be emblematic in this regard. If they had it all over to do again, and with the benefit of foreknowledge, would everyone have gone down the road they actually took? Syria before the Arab awakening and that American ambassador cavorting at demonstrations looks pretty good today.



  11. robin fairlie says:

    Yes, well, it’s grand to have it confirmed by such an eminent citizen as Professor  Sharp that some (perhaps all) of the bees in my bonnet are “important problems”. May a mere Scot characterise this admission as the most monumental (English?) understatement of the year? The decade? Personally I would describe the first of my four “bees” (climate change) not as important, but as existential. Not, perhaps, for the human race, but certainly for the network of global relationships which we laughingly refer to as civilisation. In a world where self-interested oil magnates (who can rely on being safely dead long before Wall Street and the London Stock Exchange are under water); in a world where politicians preach alternative energy while simultaneously subsidising the exploration for, and production of, yet more fossil fuel; in a world where an ex-Mayor of Duluth can cosily believe that “things are not too shabby for most people right now” (Syria? Egypt? Iraq? Oh yes, Duluth); in a world where a few of us prefer not to be reviled by our great-great-grand-children for our own passivity – is it then surprising that we occasionally speak in a “highly amplified” way, in the hope that someone, somewhere may not only hear, but actually listen?  Brian at least admits the existence of the existential problem, while comforting himself with Mr Micawber’s belief that something will (may) turn up. (Micawber did have the help of a sympathetic author, who ensured that something did; we have no such resource, since nobody any longer believes in God.)  Professor Sharp and the ex-Mayor of Duluth, sound more like Professor Pangloss, who ended up cultivating his own garden.

  12. Paul Sharp says:

    Fair points brutally made, Robin. I particularly liked the use of “Professor” in a manner suggesting more of Professor Jimmy Edwards than of Prof Pangloss. I remain deeply skeptical about our species’ capacity to respond on the same scale as the problems of climate change are presented. Grand scale responses have a habit of bringing their own terrors and disasters along with them. We will muddle, and not necessarily muddle through.  I also remain convinced that the impulse to do something, the forceful advocacy of the same from multiple points of the compass, and the assumption underlying them all that doing the particular something being advocated will be some sort of solution, is problematic to the point of being a conceit. I see many of the threats to my grandchildren emanating from the bearers of this conceit.

    I regret presenting Duluth, it’s people and its mayor in such a way as to conform with ill-informed, and possibly prejudiced, views about what life in a provincial Mid-West must be like but, as they say in these parts, you could do a lot worse than cultivate your own garden.