Doomsday! Apocalypse!

Great Britain

Did you ever have the feeling that you arrived too late in this world? The Britain into which I was born felt very much like the aftermath of cataclysmic events; post-war, end of empire, a nation with its glory days behind it. Today’s young must be feeling something similar, arriving when the climate is beyond control, wildlife is dying, leaders are extremists and the lack of unity between nations is accelerating decay.

Yesterday I spent the morning in the London hospital with the most COVID-virus patients, having tests for a virus I appear to have contracted in the Dominican Republic. The atmosphere there was calm and almost jovial, with only the usual forest of precautionary signs altered to one subject – virus hygiene. In such times we tend to forget that life continues normally right up to the point when a life-fracturing event occurs. I was sitting in the waiting room reading Giles Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost: Smyrna 1922’ and the parallels became obvious.

The port of Smyrna on the coast of Anatolia (Western Turkey) was unique. Islam’s cosmopolitan city of tolerance had long been home to Christians and Muslims, British, Levantine, American, Armenian, Greek and Turkish families who had amassed power and fortune. The European quarter was rich and elegant, filled with gardens, boulevards, banks and brasseries, grand fin-de-siècle palaces, a university, a stunning opera house. After the end of the Great War, when Greece and Turkey were fighting over the latter’s homeland, this liberal bubble was considered a precious protectorate.

And it could have been. Instead it became the site of one of the greatest catastrophes of the modern age. Thanks to the ineptitude and indecision of a handful of men the city was destroyed and its occupants murdered. The British Prime Minister Lloyd-George blindly supported Greek claims, the Greek leaders were foolishly deluded and in some cases clinically insane, the Turkish rabidly nationalist and ultra-violent, the US High Commissioner’s only concern was, as he put it, ‘America first’, and as usual the Daily Mail reporters lied and distorted the tragedy to satisfy their paymasters, preventing knowledge of the tragedy.

While afternoon tea was still being served in the city’s smart salons and the complacent residents queued for theatre tickets, just a few miles away the Turkish army was approaching, leaving nothing behind them. Even so, an orderly transition might have occurred if simple mistakes had not been made. Even as the threat of violence escalated, many bars and cafés remained open for business. They were still open as bodies were hacked apart in the streets. Only the rich and well-connected could escape.

For decades historians have tried to understand at which point everything went wrong for Smyrna. A shot was fired, a grenade was thrown – uproar, looting, rape and mass slaughter followed. Half a million refugees were trapped on the quay between the Turks, the fire and the sea, and remained there as the city was burned to the ground.

The tragedy has many historical counterparts, of course, from Alexandria to Mostar, Warsaw to our own London, the dead cities of Syria and the settlement at Pyramiden but what most interests me is that moment just before apocalypse, when people blindly continue without heeding the warnings. For this reason I’m fascinated by the end of empire. Jan Morris, in her magisterial ‘Farewell the Trumpets’, the final part of the ‘Pax Britannica’ trilogy, reminds us that ‘the post-imperial generation is passing by, and the mass of the British people know little of their lost Empire, and care still less.’

‘And is there honey still for tea?’ asked Rupert Brooke in 1912. After climate collapse, wars, pandemics and political chicanery, what we most want is a return to the state of normality, yet the most natural state of all is entropy. For some there will still be honey for tea; for the rest the future is rather less certain.

32 comments on “Doomsday! Apocalypse!”

  1. Jo W says:

    Oh, Christopher, a virus picked up on Hispaniola? so you were handed the Black Spot after all. Not a good end to what was to be a convalescent week,was it?
    P.s. Did you sanitise your hands before pushing the send button?

  2. Ken Mann says:

    I do sometimes feel as though I’ve ended up in the wrong timeline. Reading about climate issues in issues of New Scientist and Science Journal when I was a teenager I assumed that we had plenty of time to avert catastrophe (we did) and that several thousand people would be living and working on the moon by the end of the century. Instead I can order pizza to be delivered to where ever I happen to be standing at any time. It would seem there is a marketplace of ideas, when the last thing that ideas need is market forces.

  3. Jan says:

    Think it’s likely that every generation reckons it’s been passed along the s**t end of the stick!

    Then @ some point when we are heading toward our dotage we decide we’ve had the best deal we could have possibly have had and enjoyed the best of days and probably dealt the next generation a rough deal.

    I think we’re very probably guilty of the last bit and the rest of its just perception isn’t it?

  4. John Griffin says:

    Alas we are arrived at the end of an era, with a mendacious bunch of incompetent ideologues running the country and the major powers in the hands of demagogues and lunatics. All four Horsemen are riding in with Pestilence and Death in the lead, Famine and War close behind. It is almost impossible to get anyone vaguely exercised about the depth of the manure, especially those who voted Leave or read the Telegraph. Collecting canned food and flagons of water seems sensible, and the fact my brother-in-law has legal shotguns a footnote. As my eldest son said some time ago (he worked in ‘security’ for HM, now for an international corporation) we are a few clicks and switch-flicks away from military rule with only government-controlled internet, TV and phone.

  5. Jan says:

    Theres nothing like looking on the Bright side is there John?I

    .

  6. Peter Tromans says:

    You shouldn’t mention entropy in the presence of someone who has spent a large part of their life on the long road toward thermotopia. Strictly, entropy isn’t a state: it’s a property that together with other properties can define a state. A good way of thinking of it is a lack of information. When any (true*) information totally surprises (or shocks), then your entropy was off the scale. The messenger has reduced your entropy probably at significant cost to himself when you shoot the poor fellow. I guess that makes entropy a relevant quantity in an era where so many prefer to live like the wealthy classes of Smyrna, listening only to what makes them comfortable and supports their prejudices.

    *I appreciate that information that isn’t true is disinformation rather than information (and in fact serves to increase your entropy), but somehow the redundant adjective seems necessary.

    I’d better stop. I feel that cold, east wind.

  7. Ian Luck says:

    I first encountered the theory of Entropy, and that of ‘Heat Death Of The Universe’, in the Doctor Who story (Tom Baker’s last story), ‘Logopolis’, which contains some hard science fiction ideas which still frighten off casual viewers to this day. Intrigued by the ideas, I found a little in books – this was 1981, and both ideas were fairly new. I asked a physics teacher, who lent me some science magazines he had, which explained a lot more. And it was grim. And far, far more terrifying than Doctor Who. It bugged me for ages, until I thought:
    ‘There’s sod all you can do about it, so let it drop.’ Which I did. Saying that, my bedroom is an area of high entropy. Probably always will be.

  8. Roger says:

    Gare du Midi

    A nondescript express in from the South,
    Crowds round the ticket barrier, a face
    To welcome which the mayor has not contrived
    Bugles or braid: something about the mouth
    Distracts the stray look with alarm and pity.
    Snow is falling, Clutching a little case,
    He walks out briskly to infect a city
    Whose terrible future may have just arrived.

    -W.H. Auden

  9. admin says:

    And on that cheery note from Roger I’m heading to the bath with gin and a razor blade.

  10. Jan says:

    I tell you what there’s something to be said for this virus its perked everybody up a treat.

  11. Helen Martin says:

    On a slightly different note, did you know that the word myrrh is derived from Smyrna or Zmyrna as it was originally?

  12. Ian Luck says:

    There are two things I’ve thought about this virus epidemic: (1); Was it created in a laboratory in, say, North Korea – they have been suspiciously quiet about the whole thing:
    (2); The randomness of it’s spread – could it be people ordering things from places in China like ‘Wish.com’? Could the virus survive on, or in packing, after getting on, or in there completely accidentally? I know some viruses are tough and can survive for some time – others, like the common cold virus can die from exposure to a cup of tea, or by sunlight, if coughed or sneezed onto a sunlit surface. It’s just a thought.

  13. Ian Mason says:

    @Jan

    Very Victoria Woodesque.

  14. Brooke says:

    @Ian L. Source of virus–we’re blaming 1) bats (utter nonsense); 2) snakes (I’ll buy that; they eat anything and you cannot sanitize them; 3) pangolins (!!!). Epidemic patterns (how it spread)–because homo sapiens (what a name) is omnivorous, dirty and peripatetic.

  15. Richard says:

    Reading John and Jan’s earlier comments reminded me of a recent realisation that my fellow Gen Xers seem to be really stuffing things up now we’re in charge. We had such plans. Unfortunately, we’ve made Ferris Bueller PM, and staffed the cabinet with a sort of cheaper, even more narcissistic, version of the Breakfast Club/St Elmo’s Fire casts. Plus a strategic adviser who seems to think Weird Science is a template for social engineering.
    Now we’re expecting them to stoically plan their way through a potential national emergency. On behalf of my age group, sorry…

  16. Helen Martin says:

    Alright, I’ve looked up entropy and thermotropic and I am wondering if Peter is something of a heat seeking device but too internally disorganized to reach that position.
    By the way, I am seeking those blackthorn plants and am having a terrible time. One supplier “used to carry” them for people planting privacy hedges but no longer does due to a lack of interest. Our botanical garden has a plant sale in April – perhaps someone will offer some, and the manager of our garden supply store is looking into sources for me. It’s all your fault, you wicked people, you!

  17. Jan says:

    Ian Mason close your eyes and ears this is going to be a good deal less Victoria Woodesque…
    (Thank you though very complimentary. Proper honoured.)

    Give it up Ian L. no point looking for something to make sense of the appearance of a new virus.
    Virus world can come up with its own developments without any deliberate or inadvertent human intervention. People seem to want to in some daft sort of way impose a meaning, a reason or order onto this epidemic. To try and provide it with a logic is just plain daft. It’s like you want to put some sort of anthropomorphic spin on the thing almost. To make sense of it as an attack -why?

    And what will you be pondering on next? For goodness sake don’t pop any of the bubbles in the bubble wrap round any parcels you may be wrapping or unwrapping you can guess where in all probability this wrap was manufactured! This virus could have entered by accident survived the journey or possibly some fiend might have injected the air in the bubbles….

    Honestly. To try and apportion blame for this virus on a another nation state however abhorrent you may find that nation – or how abhorrent it may actually be – what’s the point?

    I am sure readers of this blog may have many and varied opinions about China itself as a nation but I would add the following.. What China has done in the last few weeks is absolutely remarkable. Because it IS such a closed authoritarian system they have held back this virus, and slowed it down considerably by

    1. Being prepared to shut down manufacturing as they are continuing to do.

    2. By being prepared to remove infected and very likely infected people from the general population and place them into hospital situations to effectively isolate them from others in society. Something less authoritarian nations will attempt in the only form possible in an open democracy a voluntary “self isolation”

    3. To enforce lockdown in infected cities

    4.To create vast holding centres and hospitals on such a scale in such a timeframe has been a phenomenal effort.

    I am making no comments about the morality, or the force used or any of the rights and wrongs of what has happened in the province and city of Wuhan. No comment about the fate of the doctor who revealed this outbreak. No other nation on earth at this time could have done what the Chinese have achieved here. If this does prove to be a serious outbreak of the virus internationally when the histories come to be written the commentators will be in awe about the way the Chinese have tackled the issue. Truly remarkable.

    By delaying the onset of the spread of Covid 19 this repressive regime has not only bought the more liberal West extra preparation time it has pushed the onset of the possibly much more serious phase of the outbreak into spring summer when the demands on most northern hemisphere countries’ health services, particularly Britain’s NHS system, are far less. Our liberal sensibilities will have been kept in place by something very very different from our own ideals.

    Nobody knows how precisely this is going to play out the 5,000 UK predicted deaths through Swine flu in 2009 in the end was much less. This could all pass off relatively easily. Or it might not. The real issues will not be in the liberal West but in many nation’s within Africa and less developed nations.

  18. snowy says:

    Blackthorn, [probably my fault…. again!], you probably don’t want the plants, but the fruit, [unless you really do want to wait 3-5 years].

    The UofV says it only grows on the island and not on the mainland; and who am I to disagree? So the best place to get some fruit and hence seeds, would be either from somebody, who knows somebody that lives out that way or from one of the many Artisan Farmers Markets they have over on the West.

    That said, for making infused spirits, plums are just as good and perfectly authentic, [you can even make a ‘crumble’ when you have strained off the gin]. For making ink – ditto, you may need to reduce down the liquid from simmering the fruit to raise the colour concentration before you add the solvent and gum arabic, [also bonus pie].

    [Species: Prunus, all work pretty much the same way].

  19. Roger says:

    Jan: as an authoritarian system China SAYS they have successfully used drastic methods to hold down the virus.
    That doesn’t mean they have, though.

  20. Jan says:

    No accepted Roger and that’s the downside of oppressive authoritarian set ups. And it’s a helluva downside. I know I had a bit of a rant (!) But after my normal daily maths struggle, then reading tons of tripe on fb and then finding Ian had launched a sortie into conspiracy theory territory….I was CROSS! I didn’t make my point nearly as well as Brooke who said it all much more clearly and concisely.

    As it goes I do genuinely believe the Chinese interventions have had a significant impact. As I said I’m making no moral judgements here. But fair play to the Chinese they have had a right good run at it. If this epidemic ticks up to top speed is not us guys here ranting (me) or making all the withering comments about the UK’s choice of leader, or quoting bits of Auden’s poetry or discussing Blackthorn (as you do Snowy + Helen) who are really going to be in crap. We are not really liable to pay the full price it’s the people in the developing and poorer nationns. The places lacking in health infrastructure who will do that . Places where thousands die anyroad due to poor sanitation. Sorry to Burble on.

  21. John Griffin says:

    Actually I’m well cheerful. Must be my head cold (complete with heavy snots, not a dry cough) sending me giddy, and attempting to teach 6th formers who “don’t read”. Honestly. It’s bad enough that the curriculum and subject specifications are now utter shite, I have to have half the kids in any class who never/almost never read a book. They can have a reference book on the desk but rather than look in the glossary they reach for their phones. Doomed, doomed I say, we’re all doomed!
    (Hysteria calmed by a cup of best Yorkshire Tea).

  22. Jan says:

    Keep calm and carry on. That Yorkshire tea ☕ which tastes like somebody’s dipped a biscuit in it is pretty wonderful stuff. They advertise it on that basis and it’s named as “Biscuit Tea” I think. Thought it was awful to start with but have got a taste for it now. Nectar so it is.

  23. eggsy says:

    Jan, the flip side of China’s tyranny is that they pretended it wasn’t happening for the first month of its existence (from mid Dec or earlier): Chairman Xi’s first pronouncement 20/01 was to declare it contained. A faster tyrannical response, before Lunar New Year, may indeed have contained it.
    The scary thing is indeed what happens in a country incapable of a strong response: even Italy has seen a spike in deaths following very serious measures.
    Anyone heard of progress in Iran?
    Meanwhile in the UK we have moved up to full dither. Good luck, everybody.

  24. Jan says:

    Equally true Eggsy absolutely I wouldn’t be arguing with that……. but realistically would this first month the “golden hour” in many respects have been utilised more effectively elsewhere? We would like to think so and I most fervently hope so.

    Ask yourself though playing through the same timeline in the build up to Xmas, the most social time of our year with international travel at a peak would attention have really fully been on the ball? Would the UK, or Denmark or Canada have instigated a draconian ban on international travel? Or being prepared to lock down a city? Difficult one isn’t it? By the time any senior political or health official was put before a microphone would the 1at reaction have been to say “Well we’ve just about sorted this one out?” I really don’t know.

    Don’t get me wrong here I am no apologist for China’s regime
    Credit where it’s due though the effort they have thrown into this once a few facts were faced was phenomenal.

  25. Jan says:

    Think wot we probably most need remember is most of us are doomed…to catching a cold!

  26. Ian Luck says:

    OK, Jan, they were idle thoughts not any conspiracy theory. I’m fascinated by randomness, and idly wondered how, people in an area thousands of miles from the outbreak epicentre, and none of these folk having visited China, or even interacted with Chinese people from that region, could have contracted Covid 19. Those sort of things fascinate and trouble me. There’s a world map in my mind, and plenty of pins and red thread. It might be as simple as using migrating birds as a vector, and people catch it whilst wiping birdshit off their windscreens.
    I’m off now to watch Terry Nation’s ‘Survivors’.

  27. Jan says:

    I loved that show Ian . Got really vivid memories of it. Did they not remake it once already?

    I was really deeply hacked off by maths and couldn’t do owt about that. I suppose my post was the equivalent of aiming a kick at the cat!

    (If all else fails LEMSIP)

  28. Jan says:

    Oh and before I get it in the neck I don’t possess a cat.

  29. Ian Luck says:

    Jan, I think they did, and like most remakes where people try to improve on the original (see ‘The Prisoner remake. On second thoughts, don’t), it was awful. Never got maths, myself, other than addition and subtraction, the numbers just dance around in my head, with no relationship to anything. And yet, I’ve gone through life without ever being conned or cheated out of anything. Reading about it strongly makes me think that I have ‘Discalculia’, but, at 56, I’m in no hurry to find out. It has not been a problem at all, so far.
    Does anyone actually possess a cat? Our great hairy buffoon probably ‘belongs’ to several people, at least one of whom is an elderly lady, as he sometimes saunters in smelling of ‘Damask Rose’ perfume. I was amused recently that the front garden of the house opposite, that our cat used as his W.C., was tarmac’ed over to park cars on. (Possibly because they kept finding cat turds in their flowerbeds) He still scampers across the road, looks at the tarmac, and comes back, hunched, and with his tail down, and a glum look on his face, as he realises he’s got to dig through the nettles. Again.

  30. Jan says:

    My landlord and landlady owned 9 cats when I first moved here. It’s 13 or 14 at last count! Not as drastic as it sounds as this place is a farm!

    One of the ways I mark the early months of the year and gauge late winter into summer is by the size of the young rabbits being held in firmly clenched cat jaws as the cats pass by. Seriously if I couldn’t see anything else I could measure from late January early February through to about late June by deceased rabbit size.

  31. Helen Martin says:

    We are talking seriously about the virus, although there seems to be a big deal about the effect of it on our national economy and the Bank of Canada has lowered the prime lending rate by 1/2%, as the Americans did. Still, we have been warned in a very sideways manner that if things get really bad we can expect complete quarantines to be imposed. Part of it seems to be as a result of POTUS claiming the virus is Obama’s fault. Politicians are not shaking hands nor are we in church.
    (Thank you for the advice, Snowy, and I have a hemi-demi-semi daughter in Victoria who could do something for me, perhaps. If that doesn’t work out I’ll let all the ordinary plums bear and try that. I didn’t think to try Victoria because there is a problem with bringing things from or taking them to Vancouver Island. You are a gentleman and a scholar.)

  32. Wayne Mook says:

    North Korea wouldn’t have attacked there main ally, plus a lot of their food comes from China, if the 1st outbreak had been in the US or South Korea then maybe NK would be a goer. The problem with this kind of attack it won’t stay in one country so it’s self defeating as even the most closed country trades.

    People forget most countries are linked, trade routes – crews from multiple countries, in the old days there were more ships with bigger crew so good incubation places and more people to spread them once they hit shore, now we have airports and travel hubs, planes will travel all round the world; a recent plane from Dubai had been to Hong Kong a few days before and was mentioned in an outbreak it wasn’t the cause but it highlights the interconnectedness of the world. Air flight gets more people together but over a lesser time frame than the past so the spread is about the same.

    As to the end of the world it will be slow, even with global warming it will be decades, in the old days the fear of the bomb and being wiped out in minutes was always there. The cold war was conspiracy en masse and we didn’t need to make a theory to see it. I remember the 70’s and power cuts, cold miserable days, Manchester almost dying in the 80’s and John Hurt scaring the sugar out of us. Mass bombing campaign, airport shooting (like Rome) civil war in Iran & Iraq and then both going to war, mass murdering regimes across the globe. There was a supposed coup in the offing if Michael Foot got in power here, Airy Neave was supposed to be at the heart of it and his assassination was to cover it up. Even if it wasn’t he was due to become the NI secretary and was going to escalate the armed response to republican terrorist which sounded like a blood bath in the making. To be honest Trump scares me a lot less than Reagan and Boris is no where near the destructive force as Thatcher and Corbyn no where near as left wing as Foot. To be honest I think things are better than the 70’s and 80’s, things have slipped back but not to the level of those decades, even the hatred and bigotry are less to be honest. Black and White Minstrel Show anyone?

    Plus we don’t have orange and brown carpets, no I prefer now even if we have Brexit.

    Sorry if non of that made sense at least I didn’t mention bankers, damn.

    Wayne.

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