Friday, June 26, 2015

New Blog - Seat of Mars

Please check out my new fiction story Seat of Mars. The story concerns a sudden breakdown of society and all the bedlam that ensues. A new chapter will be added every Sunday.

Think of this story as a bookend. This is one end, starting in the present day, and at the far end is my story Saga and the Bog People, which has just been published in the After Oil 3 anthology. This story, and subsequent ones, will fill in the interim 500 years between now, and that distant future society I envisaged set in Greenland.

I hope you enjoy this story - feel free to leave feedback and comments. When I have completed enough of the story I will publish it in paperback and ebook format.

To view the blog click here.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Three Little Vines

Death by the seaside. I didn't see the ambulance or, later, the hearse that came to take him away. The first sign something was amiss was the letting agent and the young woman, shaking hands on the street outside. No wake, no period of grace in a cut-throat lettings market. Speaking of throats, that's what got him in the end. Cancer of the oesophagus, said Myrtle. She'd lived in the house next door for sixty years and had seen it all. The old man, who'd had neither a phone nor much a voice (but for a chesty rasping sound) used to call on her for help. Help to call a doctor, or a taxi. There was nobody else - no family, no friends - he could have asked for help. "This used to be such a nice street," said Myrtle. "Everyone knew each other back in the day."

When they found him he was slumped at his desk, whisky tumbler half empty. A five bedroom house with five separate lives. Make that four. On the top floor the fat bald man who walks around in his underwear, who hasn't turned off either the loudly blaring TV set or the incandescent light bulb - even for a moment - in the two years since we've lived opposite. Then there is the shifty young bloke, whose hoodie friends, if that's what they are, come and go at all hours of the day and night. Just for balance, let me mention the clean-cut man with the steady job who leaves each morning wearing a high-vis jacket and sparks up a rollie on his way out the door. There must be one or two others living there too, including the one who likes to blast out rave music on a weekend, but none of them thought to check on the old man until a few days after his room had fallen silent.

I never spoke to him, didn't know his name or his story. Sometimes, whilst sitting at my computer, if I peered out the window and through the unruly rose bush with its nodding flower heads, I could just make out the ghost of his face behind the net curtains. He lived and died on the downstairs floor. Witnesses pieced together his last moves. Had he known that this was the day? What had caused him to tidy his few belongings together that evening? To put on his best clothes and to set off on a steady shuffling walk out of the house, through the day-warm streets past walls dripping in purple valerian, Mexican flea bane and Dalmatians, and down to the seafront where the gulls endlessly wheel and the dinghies sit lop-sided in the mud. How long did he contemplate the ocean, knowing that now, after such a long period of waiting, it was his time to embark. And then, when the sun set, to make the return trip, stopping at the off license to buy the bottle of cheap whisky to ease his passage.

On that evening, as he left, had we not yet pulled the curtains on our own lives? Would he have seen us in our illuminated living room, eating our dinner together, talking, laughing and enjoying our lives? Or had we already pulled the curtains and all he could see was a chink of light escaping from the shut-out world within?


Wasted. I knock on the door, a woman with orange skin answers. She is wearing a gold lamé top, has green lipochemicals smeared around her eyes and wants to know what the hell I want. I am here to clean the apartment, I inform her, and point out that checkout time is 10 even though it is now 11.  She gives a silly little giggle and tells me she isn't going anywhere soon in broad Estuary English. Her baby is sleeping - do I know how hard it is to get a baby to sleep? - and she's paid a lot of money to stay there and the last thing she needs is me telling her to leave. Who do I think I am? I tell her that someone else will shortly be arriving and I have only so long to get everything ready. "Your problem not mine," she says, and shuts the door on me.

Fine, I think. Make the best of this situation. I wander down to the beach and fill several plastic bags with seaweed that has washed up on the shore. These sea plants are marvellous - some have great rubbery bodies with octopus-like suckers, others are luminescent green fronds that look like they could grow on Venus, and I never get tired of the slithering bladdery perfection of kelp. I go back to the car and place my stash of alien sea treasures it in the boot next to the bags of clean laundry that smell of Ocean Breeze detergent. The seaweed is for my pollytunnel, I am turning it into food. I hope it understands and doesn't mind. Cornish people have done the exact same thing for millennia, but I recently discovered that most beaches, and all the seaweed lying on them, are owned by the Queen and that what I am doing is illegal without a license.  Oh well.

An hour has passed and I head back to the apartment. All the lights are on, the windows are open and the big flat-screen is blaring loudly. The BMW 3 series with the child seat has gone. I knock tentatively on the door. No answer. I put in the key and let myself in. Inside, it is trashed. For a moment I think there has been a violent break-in and that the woman and her child are tied up in a closet. But no.

Drawers are pulled out and thrown around haphazardly, the floor is covered in toys - dozens of cheap plastic toys with the price tags still on them - as well as supermarket carrier bags, half-full and empty bottles of Evian mineral water and used nappies that exude a sickly sweet smell. In the kitchen there is a week of washing up. Burned strips of bacon are stuck inside the oven - clearly the aborted aftermath of an attempt at 'cooking' - and the fridge is full of half-eaten steaks, baby food and more water bottles. Every surface is covered with bits of junk: more toys, gossip magazines, colouring crayons, used batteries. In the bathroom there are piles of discarded beauty products, feminine razors galore, and the stash of clean white fluffy towels I left in one of the closets are tossed around and smeared with baby excrement. The evidence of clothes shopping frenzy is there, with price tags, plastic hangers and Next bags all over the place.

Outside there are ten large bin bags filled with trash. I rip one of them open to see what's inside. It's mostly more empty water bottles, dirty clothes and used nappies. I ponder how can one person generate so much waste. Our family struggles to fill a single bag in a week, but this woman has filled one and a half a day. I sigh and get down to work. It takes me until the evening, but luckily the next guests don't arrive until late. They are coming from Germany, so I know that when they leave in a week's time the apartment will be spotless.

The next day and I am onto the next property. It's an idyllic old cottage overlooking the bay in a small photogenic village of the kind you see in lifestyle magazines. A young couple and their small child have stayed there for two weeks. The previous week they had locked themselves out and I had driven over to let them in again. The man had been genial and appreciative but said his wife was 'freaking out' over the matter. This is bad. Whenever I hear that female guests are freaking out over some small matter it usually means the place will be left in a kind of 'fuck you' mess. I wasn't too far wrong.

I hoover up all the sand, clean all the smears off the extensive glass windows and rummage through the bins for food. I always do this. Sometimes there is very little, but on this occasion the bins are liberally overflowing with fresh food. I find packets of organic baby tomatoes from Spain, mange touts from Zimbabwe, Waitrose carrots, packets of butter and bacon, entire unopened litre bottles of Innocent apple juice, chocolate puddings, the cream tea I had placed for them on their arrival. All in all I estimate there to be about £50 worth of unopened and uneaten food. There is more down near the bottom of a black bag but it's covered in a viscous liquid that looks like whale bile, but I leave it alone.

As I drive home I listen to the news on the radio. The man at the BBC says we are officially entering the sixth great extinction. It is the third thing he mentions, after something about David Cameron proposing something or other about reforming some institution, or something, and another item about corruption in the world of football. I slip in a CD. It's a new one I bought. Gravenhurst. There's a song called Black Holes in the Sand. I listen as I drive along the A394, heading back to Penzance.

in the small hours I realise what I have done 
in the small hours I realise what I have done 
I held the hand that threw the stone that killed the bird that woke the city 

in the small hours I realise what I have done
in the small hours I realise what I have done


Solstice. A still evening. The mist hovers around the shore, clearing every now and again to reveal St Michael's Mount out in the bay. Feeble waves are plopping on the sand a few feet away from the pile of wooden pallets stacked up as an offering for the goddess. The smells of roasting meat and roasting veggie burgers suffuse the still air, and although it is getting late children weave around the groups of adults sitting on the sand. Looking forwards, out to sea, very little in the way of human creation is evident. Turning 180 degrees, back to the land, it is all supermarkets, busy roads and car dealerships. The sodium lights from the rail marshalling yard light up a faint mizzle as we stand around on this patch of unloved strand (known locally as Dogshit Beach) waiting for the sun to dip below the horizon and the journey towards winter to begin.

There are maybe a hundred of us, ranging in age from the just-born right up to the about-to-be-born-again. There are probably more than the statistical average number of greybeards and women with flowers in their hair. One girl had realistic prosthetic pointed ears that I discreetly have to study quite closely to look for the join. A few tourists hold up iPhones to film it all.

Simon, holding bunches of flowers and a can of accelerant, is leaping around like a pyro, and Ned - who at other points on the calendar can be seen dressed as a giant crow or a tree - is walking around with a shiny new axe that looks suspiciously like the ones they sell in Jim's Discount Store for £3. "Who will be the first to bury the hatchet?" he cries out.

A largeish log had been placed on the sand as a receptacle of absorption. On this midsummer night one is urged to let go of any animosities and frustrations one holds, striking the log with the hatchet and expelling the negativity with a blood-curdling scream - or whimper, as the case may be. People step forwards and strike the log with the axe. One woman, clearly unused to handling the tool, misses and almost cuts off her toes instead. Simon steps forwards with the flowers, calling forth the females. Children, some excited and some bemused, are handed red roses, purple sea mallow and yellow St Johns wort, which they place atop the pile of shipping pallets ready for cremation.

Simon squirts the fuel and touches the bonfire with his flaming torch. Whoomph! The evil spirits of elf n' safety have not been invited tonight. All of a sudden the flames go up and everyone cheers. Fiddles and drums are pulled out and the celebrants begin to dance around the flames as black smoke pours into the sky. Ned comes forward with the hate-filled log and tosses it into the inferno. Another cheer. Cups of cider are refilled, some fire dancing happens and the mizzle comes on a bit stronger but fails to dampen the spirits.

And so another turning point of the year is marked in proper fashion, hatreds and animosities are  cleansed by fire and the days begin to grow shorter. It seems strange to consider that in only six months we will all be on the far side of the sun in our solar system - almost 200 million miles away - celebrating the lengthening of the days and the return to summer, and all that can and will happen in our little earthling lives between now and then.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

His Master's Voice

This is just a short rhetorical interlude about the tone of voice used on the various blogs, podcasts and sites that discuss issues surrounding collapse. Because, it occurred to me, that the tone of voice used represents a conundrum. The majority of the more widely-visited sites use an authoritative 'master's voice' i.e. "X is X because of Y, and don't you dare quibble with me." These are the guys who sell books and make a living by being collapse pundits.

Then we have the other flavour of collapse site which could be characterised as  being more open to discussion. The tool used to jemmy open the various complex topics and challenging subjects is one of enquiry, and there is a tacit acceptance that having a whole bunch of different educated opinions is more useful than having a single authoritative voice booming down from the impenetrable heights of Mount Collapse Blog.

I'm not saying that either is the correct approach. I'm more than grateful to those writers and thinkers out there who efficiently state their case with authority and clarity, and in fact I tend to lean towards them in helping clarify my own thinking. But it takes a kind of self-confidence that I am not in possession of to be able to talk that walk. One must have sound academic credentials, or have lived through a collapse, or be a professor of something in order to able to pull that one off.

And it's a puzzling thing too, because the more you learn, the more you realise how little you know about how the wider systems work and how they interact with one another. There's the irony. I've hobnobbed with a few of the grey-beards and privately they're a lot less sure of things than they sound when their words are printed on a page. Perhaps it's merely the charged atmosphere of the collapsosphere - the "my intellectual model of reality is bigger than your intellectual model of reality" mentality that is at play. I accept that. If one sounds uncertain of one's opinions then your enemies will seize upon this as a weakness.

Of course, there are some things we can all agree on - things where anything but an authoritative voice would be a cop out. Infinite growth cannot continue on a finite planet. Printing money is no substitute for creating economic value. Oil production will peak and fall over time. Pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere will have a greenhouse effect. These are all indisputable facts that are often contorted and twisted in our age of illusions. We can agree on that, I hope.

I hope to be able to strike a middle ground. Not to be too wishy-washy, but I accept that there are many things out there that I don't understand or only have a limited understanding of how they interact with a wider reality. History is full of curve balls and sudden crashes. That's why I value the input and opinions of a variety of different voices, even if they sometimes conflict with one another.

Will human civilisation crash and burn in the next twenty years or will we simply evolve into new species and carry on for a few million years? Will this herd of short-sighted humans plunge en masse off Seneca's cliff or pass slowly into the twilight lowlands of simplified technology and minimal energy availability over the next few centuries? Who knows? Nobody really knows, but the fact that we cannot achieve intellectual closure on these issues doesn't make them any less interesting to consider. I have a friend who is into crop circles. He's been studying them for decades and, during that time, has seen people come and go from the field (no pun intended). These people have come onto the scene guns blazing, claiming to know what the circles are and what caused them - and inevitable they have left with their tails between their legs in a matter of months or years as their theories have been disproved.

My friend has maintained his position as an 'expert' merely by admitting that he doesn't know what they are. The more he studies them, the more he learns and - perhaps - the less he understands, but he has avoided taking the bait of intellectual closure. Instead he continues to research and learn, always with an open mind and wary of the fact that he is operating on the extreme intellectual margin. Ironically, in these times where reason trumps intuition, this makes him something of an expert.

So how much intellectual grasp do we need? And is this achieved through listening to some top-down authoritative voice, or by taking part in online bear pits where every opinion is equally as valid? What, in fact, are our objectives here?

Anyway, it's just something to ponder as you browse your favourite blogs.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Misrule Britannia

When I moved back to the UK two years ago after living abroad for a while, nobody could accuse me of not knowing what I was getting into. For quite some time pundits in the collapsosphere have been calling out the UK as one of the riskiest countries in which to live, right up there with Japan. Not only do we have a nation that is heavily over-populated with respect to its resource base, but one which hosts one of the world's major world financial viper pits. It's a nation where Arab playboys drive gold-plated Ferraris around the gentrified streets of London while snot-nosed urchins everywhere else go to school without eating breakfast. It's a nation where an unelected old lady in a £300 million hat recently sat on a throne and managed to keep a straight face while announcing her government's plans to slash money for the poor. Basically it's a nation engaged in a war of attrition between those with wealth and those without.

But something in the air has changed since the recent election in which David Cameron's Tories won a majority in the House of Commons. Within days - unshackled for their former collation with the moderating hand of the Liberal Democrats -  there were announcements of plans to walk away from human rights treaties, to impose a 'snoopers charter' of surveillance, to further slash welfare spending, push through the TTIP 'trade' agreement, ramp up fracking, bring back fox hunting with hounds. The Left have been howling in pain ever since.

Although all this was to be expected of the 'nasty party' the one thing that nobody seems to be talking about is how the nation itself will manage to survive as a modern state given the, ahem, challenges it faces. The three main immediate challenges, as I see it, come from the realms of finance, energy and politics. Failings in each one of them alone could prove disastrous, but it seems as if we will get to witness all three calamities occur simultaneously. 

Let's take finance first. 

I've been trying to get to the bottom of what the UK's debt/deficit position is. Mention 'the deficit' and most people emit a strangled howl of indignation. "Don't you know the deficit is a tissue of lies fabricated by the right wing who want to impose Dickensian conditions on the poor?" they ask. Granted, it doesn't seem fair to cut the benefits of society's most needy while simultaneously heaping more money up at the other end of the spectrum, but that wasn't the question. That's simply what failing states do - the more powerful grab what they can at the expense of the less powerful. It's all there in the history books. The next act usually involves pitchforks. 

But this time is different, they argue. Money can now be created by magic, and all we need to do is do whatever it is that those clever folks at the Bank of England (or Bitcoin) do to create more of it using their computers. And, bingo, then we can simply spend it on 'making things great again'. The country can continue to produce 'services' again, everybody will have a decent standard of living once more and we will be back on track to that future of driverless cars, space missions and living to 150.

Money might not seem important if you think it isn't important, but that doesn't alter the fact that throughout modern history there has not been a time when money is not considered important. Especially to creditors, of which the UK has a lot. So, in a kind of back of the envelope way, I decided to try and get a grip on how much debt the government owes. It seems that the total debt is about £1.5 trillion, and the annual deficit is running at about £107 billion - or over £2 billion a week. At that rate the proposed 'austerity' of £12 billion will thus be used up in six weeks. This doesn't matter, according to the economists in the mainstream media, because Britain's economy is doing so well that the annual deficit will be wiped out by rising tax receipts in a couple of years. 
Yet tax receipts from oil and gas have fallen by about 75% since 2008, and will probably drop to zero when North Sea oil and gas stops flowing completely in a couple of years' time (still no mention of this in the media...). And tax receipts are falling as a) more people are in lower-paid jobs and/or falsely counted as employed because they have been forced to declare themselves self-employed b) the larger companies have had their corporation taxes cut and can avoid paying tax entirely if they have savvy accountants.

VAT receipts are flat as most consumers have maxed out their credit cards and run out of spending power. The only way they can rise is if people take on EVEN MORE personal debt - which a lot have actually been doing (currently average personal debt is running at an all-time record of 172% of income, according to a PwC report). But personal debt needs to be repaid one day, and with falling real incomes and plenty of hidden stealth inflation (e.g. food items getting smaller, durable goods getting shoddier, hidden charges becoming more unavoidable etc.) that will become more difficult.

Moneyweek's take on the debt situation

Future projections of the debt/deficit all presuppose a 'healthy' and growing economy. This seems very unlikely IMO given that a financial 'accident' is likely to happen at any moment. And all the while the structural deficit grows larger as the population ages, annuities reach maturity and the bill for the NHS soars. In this context GDP figures don't really mean anything useful: the economy might be improving but it's not the economy that most people ordinarily live in. Plus, any downgrade of the economy by ratings agencies caused by - say - a fracture of the UK, or a severe credit event, will have a knock-on effect on the government's ability to borrow cheaply  and we will simply end up paying the interest on the national credit card, while the capital debts piles up. The interest on this debt alone already costs us £55 billion a year and that's with interest rates at near zero.

All in all, it's difficult not to conclude that the UK is insolvent. But, in any case, perhaps that doesn't matter because this brings me onto the political aspect of the crisis: perhaps there soon won't even be a UK (after all, what do you call a bunch of small countries that are not united?). Since Scotland got royally shafted in their Independence referendum they replied by booting out practically every MP from a Westminster party and instead elected Scottish National Party members to speak up for them. The upshot of this is that David Cameron wants to press ahead with swingeing austerity measures (which, looking at the dire financial figures will actually have to be FAR worse than most people imagine) - but the Scots say they won't accept it north of the border. It's difficult to imagine all of us in England and Wales living in Third World conditions while the Scots keep handing out brown envelopes of cash to their citizens, and people accepting that as fair.

So, sooner or later, Scotland may well get independence, which means that others might want to follow suit. All of a sudden everyone seems to be talking about breaking up. UKIP and most Tories want us to break away from the EU, Scotland, as previously mentioned, will probably go for a messy divorce (and take a large chunk of GDP with them as they leave), London may want to declare itself a 'city state', northern England might want to join Scotland in getting away from the southerners - even Cornwall is starting to get a bit itchy. 

Given that the UK's finances are one big Ponzi scheme (what does the country actually produce these days that has a physical presence?) any political rupture could bring down the house of cards. Parliament, in any case, is almost paralysed as the Tories actually only won by a slim majority and will have trouble passing any contentious legislation. Who knows, perhaps even faraway Greece could provide enough turmoil to shatter the status quo should its amputation from the EU cause death judders. There's a simmering tension and people are already angry enough ... what happens when they get even angrier?

Finally, we have the energy conundrum. I've been saying now for at least two years that my guess is that we will see some kind of restriction on the sale of oil and/or petrol in the UK in 2016. I still have 18 months left to see if my prediction will come true, but at the rate things are going it seems like it has a good chance of doing so. As previously noted, North Sea oil is facing a precipitous decline. That decline is accelerating in step with the lower oil price, as new projects are not begun and old ones are mothballed due to high costs. Hundreds of oil workers have been laid off in Aberdeen (and the Scots think they can avoid austerity by using their oil money ...).

Not to worry, old chap, says the media. Don't you know that we'll be getting LNG from America soon, and fracked gas from beneath our very own land?

That's the standard response, whenever energy shortages are mentioned, which is rarely. Of course, it's quite ludicrous that either of these schemes will ever happen in the real world. To unlock the British shale gas they would need to turn huge areas of the country into industrial wastelands - huge areas that currently have millions of people (many of them wealthy) living on them. This, in a country where planning and conservation laws are so tight it's a major achievement just to put up a sign lest it spoil the character of the area. And let's not forget that millions of people are implacably opposed to fracking - to the point where they would be willing to lay down their lives to halt the drillers. Heck, this must be the only country in the world to employ magical defence against frackers (it's working, so far). 

Let's add ISIS into the mix. At the rate things are going in the Middle East, if things carry on as they are in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, there could be a major conflagration. It's not hard to imagine oil installations set on fire and the price of crude heading up to $200. This, ironically, is one way the fracking industry and the North Sea could avoid immediate bankruptcy. Not that anyone would be able to afford to fill up their cars any more ...

So where, exactly, will the UK get its energy from in the future? There are a lot of cars and trucks here. There are millions of shops and offices and ports and sports grounds and malls that all need lavish amounts of energy to keep functioning. It gets cold here in winter and old people are already dying from exposure inside their own homes - what will happen to them all as the inevitable energy crisis begins to bite?

So, as nice as it would be to get a bag of popcorn and watch this spectacle unfold from afar, I find myself up there on the stage. Still, not to worry, as we say ...