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.