A Time of Chaos

Summer in East AngliaEast Anglia’s summer is at its height. The flat land doesn’t readily retain its temperature, so the evenings are generally cool: the moment the sun tucks in over the horizon, the heat left over from the day rises up from the lawn and the fields full of growing sugar beets. An open window lets in fresh breezes and the sounds of cars traversing a nearby country road. In contrast, when morning approaches, summer’s intensity strikes quickly; the first rays of dawn appear not long after 4:30 AM. Occasionally, my cat Amelia will cry out to me at that time: having spent a night out hunting, she wants to get back into the house before the sun rises. I open a window on the ground floor: immediately I see a black and white blur zip past me and she lands on the carpet with a soft thud. Amelia then looks up at me with her yellow green eyes and drops a dead mouse near my feet. I tell her thank you and get the garden shovel to perform another impromptu burial near the rose bushes.

As I consume a cup of coffee and a bowl of banana flavoured porridge, the sun fully shows itself. The golden light which first tenderly touched the horizon and then crept over the garden turns more intense. The skies are a pure blue. The heat which was warming after a chilly night becomes uncomfortable. Indeed, by the time noon approaches, it feels rather as if the sun is a hammer and the ground is an anvil, being made yet more straight, more flat by the relentless pounding.

When the evening comes again, it’s time to get out the hose and water the hanging baskets full of bright peonies, daisies and lobelia, and ensure the vegetable plants in the greenhouse have all they need. Once watered, the somewhat metallic scent of chlorophyll and compost combined fills the greenhouse: life is fecund and burgeoning.

I have no neighbours living nearby. Life on the farm is just my fiancee, our cats and me: the postman brings letters and packages, but apart from this, our isolation seems to be more or less complete, with one exception. A black metal satellite dish is perched on the corner of my home, pointing towards the clear skies; it pulls down all the news from distant lands. Isolated as we may be, as peaceful as these days spent amidst the clover and dahlias have been, it’s impossible to escape the impression that this is mainly a time of chaos.

The attack in Tunisia was particularly chilling. A little over one year ago, my fiancee and I stayed in precisely the same hotel where the terrorists struck. We walked along the same beach, ate in the same restaurants, ordered coffee on the same terraces. I feel badly for the victims; I also feel tremendous sympathy for the staff who looked after us. They were friendly and hospitable: they were helpful with every request, made sure we were never thirsty or hungry.  We had good meals there served with an excellent Tunisian red wine. We took a day out to linger in the hotel spa: we spent several hours floating in a salt water pool. From that vantage point, we could see the beach and the azure waters of the Mediterranean.

When we got bored of the hotel, we went into the town of Sousse. I was tickled by the prominent sign advertising the offices of the Tunisian Workers Party, complete with hammer and sickle; it showed that Communism, so discredited elsewhere, had found new life in a democracy which had yet to reject it. We walked along Sousse’s narrow streets: every shopkeeper we encountered claimed to have a relative in Sheffield. One trader put a hat and scarf on my head before I could say anything; we gently rebuffed him. Sales techniques aside, we spent a pleasant afternoon drinking coffee and watching the bustling town getting on with life; we had no sense that Sousse was on the verge of chaos. On the contrary, little touches like the pharmacy with glass counters and a green neon sign and the plentiful red billboards urging people to buy mobile phones suggested that it was moving ahead. The prominence of the French language on signs gave the country a truly European feel; it was possible to believe that after a time and more hard work that Tunisia would achieve a European standard of living.

However, there were also scenes that were more troublesome: we happened across a bus station behind the open air market. Calling it a proper bus station is probably giving it too much dignity: it was a series of cracked concrete islands marked with blue and white signs. Ordinary people waited to board ancient buses. The vehicles threw up dust as they arrived and departed, adding a brown haze to the scene. The buses’ diesel engines groaned. My mouth was dry. Yes, the weather-worn fellow who wore stained brown trousers and smoked a strong cigarette at the bus stop could vote: but could he afford to go into the pharmacy and pay for the latest medicines? Could he get on the internet with a new mobile phone? And if he got there, what would he see? Some roadside signs suggested that a new life in Canada was possible, ring the toll free number: who was taking up that offer?

Monastir Tunisia MosqueThere is also the lure of tradition. Whilst in Tunisia, I bought a ceramic tile which had the first verse of the Quran painted onto its surface. As I don’t read Arabic, I made sure to check with Arabic speaking friends later on to ensure it wasn’t actually a brownie recipe. By far and away the most impressive buildings I saw in Tunisia were the mosques: you can have your mobile phone or perfume pulled out of a glass cabinet, but this was where the quotient of majesty lay, apart from what nature had to provide. Having asked what a seemingly beneficent God wanted of them, it appears that some Tunisians accepted the answer provided by malevolent men. For a time at least, the hotel in which we stayed will fall silent, the waiters will have much fewer guests to serve the fine red wine, the hawkers and traders will have fewer people to convince that they have relations in Sheffield and upon whom to try out their Bruce Forsythe impressions (“To see you, nice!”). Work will dry up. People may go hungry; they will become angry and wonder who to blame.

There is chaos elsewhere; the satellite dish continues to draw in news from Greece. On the farm, it is easy to believe that the most important currency is the mixture of sun and rain that nature provides. Without it, we don’t have an economy at all: there is no grain or sugar that eventually gets processed into a pain au chocolat that is eaten by an investment banker at his City of London desk. That said, it’s the numbers that the banker enters into his computer that apparently matter most: no vast lorry loads of bills are shipped backwards and forwards, no Scrooge McDuck style vault sits on top of a hill, rather it’s all data which slips via cables and servers from point to point. The olive trees in Greece still grow in the Mediterranean sunshine, the clear seas lap at its shores, but because the virtual tally of the nation’s wealth in a collection of international databases kept on servers in ferociously air conditioned rooms is beyond empty, ill fares the land.

I am not sure that we all fully understand what is about to happen. The Syriza-led government apparently believes that the force of its reasoning and moral compulsion will win the day: Alexis Tsipras has stated that refusing the deal from the creditors provides an ideal position from which to negotiate with Greece’s creditors. This might have been a sustainable point of view prior to Tsipras being reminded by President Hollande, Prime Minister Renzi and Vice Chancellor Gabriel (among others) that voting “No” would result in ejection from the Euro. Nevertheless, the Greeks are apparently flying in the face of what they are being told; Greek voters interviewed on BBC’s Newsnight still seem to think that “No” is not the end. Perhaps they cannot believe that for the sake of numbers being transferred around from computer to computer by cables made of wire and thin glass that an entire people will be dumped into penury. This, however is the point where the virtual meets the real: unless Greece says “Yes”, it will be ejected from the Euro and pushed into bankruptcy and default. A return to the Drachma will not yield paradise: the currency will be inflation prone in the first instance, and as Greece’s economy is by no means self-sufficient, devaluation will sink living standards even further. Yes, a devalued Drachma could make Greek holidays and products cheaper: this will perhaps allow a recovery in time, but how long “in time” means is anyone’s guess. As this is all being done in a rather haphazard rather than planned manner, this is a recipe for anarchy.

Yet, as Tsipras reminded his people on television the other night: the sun still shines. It radiates its glow onto East Anglia, Tunisia and Greece. Nature carries on, oblivious to the chaos that people create for themselves; simultaneously people are not aware that they are mainly the authors of their own misfortune, attributing their fate to vague or actual deities like market forces and Allah. It’s depressing that we don’t currently realise this, nevertheless it also means that the future is always yet to be written.

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