A six-and-a-bit-weekly newsletter from author John Higgs. If you haven’t already subscribed, you can do so here.
May Day 2020
Have the birds always been this loud?
Maybe they seem loud because there is less traffic noise to drown them out. Maybe shifting patterns of food availability are causing them to reassert themselves, as different species compete in new niches – I’m certainly hearing new bird calls in the air. The sudden loudness is probably a combination of both these things. But sometimes, it sounds like they are singing in celebration of the less polluted skies, like they can’t believe their luck.
I know, I’m projecting here.
I’ve not done anything publicly since my last newsletter. I’ve turned down all requests to take part in these online streaming things that are springing up, even for people I would normally do anything for. My excuse is that I’m head down finishing my next book, which is true enough. But this doesn’t feel like the right time for an introvert like me to be broadcasting. It feels like a time to be quiet, and listen. There’s a lot to process, both rationally and emotionally. I even considered skipping this newsletter, but I’ve committed to eight a year and eight a year there will be.
If you’ve read my book The Future Starts Here – written in the unimaginable distant past of 2018 – you’ll hopefully appreciate how weird I’m finding this. There are many attitudes and ideas about a sustainable future in there which seeemed wildly radical at the time but which are suddenly being discussed casually. The argument for a Universal Basic Income has never been stronger, given the coming levels of unemployment, so it is wonderful to hear people as different as the Pope and the SNP calling for one. Even better, Spain will be the first country to actually implement such a scheme (more or less). The Dutch approach to rebuilding is also superb, because a Green New Deal has to be central to the coming reconstruction. Much that was dismissed as radical or utopian is now looking necessary and practical.
If you can forgive spoilers for the end of that book, it argues that there has been a shift to an increased focus on our relationships and local networks, following the realisation that the idea that we are self-contained isolated islands was a delusion of the last century. That, surely, is an idea that is becoming normalised now.
It reminds me of something I talked about in Stranger Than We Can Imagine, my book about the twentieth century. Although the great modernist works appeared after the First World War, all the key ideas behind those works had been developed before it. The war removed the cold dead hands of inertia and tradition, and suddenly all these new ideas and values were free to run wild. I wonder if we will see a similar thing now? Will those previously existing but resisted ideas become mainstream after the pandemic?
Is this likely? After the Great Fire of London in 1666, there were grand schemes to rebuild the city in a smarter, saner, more elegant fashion. Christopher Wren thought London should be rebuilt like this:
These fine-minded plans came to nothing. Londoners couldn’t wait for the planners to design this improved city and immediately rebuilt roads and buildings in the chaotic way they were before, more or less. This is certainly a danger now. When lockdown is lifted, people will rush back to the things they used to do, because of all the pent-up demand. But initial reactions aside, will things then continue as they were before?
Most people, those under 60 and in good health, are putting their lives on hold and facing huge financial uncertainty not because they fear the virus themselves, but because they recognise they have responsibility for their actions and the impact those actions have on others. This is new. This is very different behaviour to how the majority have voted and acted in the past. The population of every country has unexpectedly gone on a lengthy monastic retreat and values and priorities are being examined like never before.
It’s not that everyone will emerge wiser and more compassionate, of course, but in a divided democracy it only takes a small part of the population to change their minds – say, 5% – to tip the country onto a new path. The idea that people are entitled to make multiple foreign flights every year and that not doing so is unthinkable, to give one example, used to be widespread. It will be far less convincing after this.
This is an intense period of death, grief, anxiety and financial woe. We are being drenched with far more than a normal year’s worth of darkness, because we’re getting the pain of years that have yet to come. The people now dying would have lived longer, and the grief being felt for them was not yet due. The coming global recession is frightening but, unless you believe that infinite growth on a finite planet is possible, you will have feared that something similar was coming. Much of the hurt we’re suffering from now was always going to happen. Of course, this is not the case for frontline and NHS workers dying for lack of PPE – a reckoning for that situation must come. Criminal negligence aside, however, much of this hurt is future darkness that has time travelled back to hit us too soon.
Are we also seeing some of the future light also? I know that when this is over I will miss the cleaner air, the lack of traffic noise and the empty skies devoid of planes. I appreciate the reduction in adverts and spam emails. Wildlife has been on a roll and bullshit has been in decline, assuming you’re not actively seeking it out. I have never been sent so many poems, essays and videos and, while I confess I can’t keep up with them all, I am delighted by this surge of creativity. I hope the birds do not go quiet again.
Of course, I miss pubs and gigs and cinemas. I certainly won’t miss all that future loss and grief. But our current clarity about what is of value, what is important and what matters is something I hope doesn’t get drowned out when the crowds return. If we can’t learn from this, then what can we learn from?
Tell you what – I won’t go back to the old world if you won’t.
I’ll start popping up and doing public things in a few weeks. When you see this, you’ll know it means that William Blake Vs The World has been submitted to the publishers. Until then!