Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Always be Prepared

As a youngster I was a member of the Boy Scout movement and the motto that was drilled into us was “Always be prepared.” Prepared for what? Prepared for whatever life throws at you, was the answer I got. It seemed a pretty reasonable idea to my eight-year-old brain. By training us young boys (and girls, if you were a Brownie) we could learn to pre-empt danger by thinking about the given risks of any situation and either prepare accordingly or choose to avoid the situation entirely.

So how has it happened that we have ended up with a society whose motto seems to be “Never be prepared”?

Watching the wild gyrations of the major stock markets of the last few days I noticed a couple of things. When things looked like they were going to get bad, the TV and internet pundits generally said: “There’s nothing to worry about, this situation can’t possibly happen.” And then when things actually did get bad they tended to say “Oh, well we knew there was always a risk of this happening and it’s time we faced up to the fact that what we feared most but had left unsaid has come to pass.” And then, when the dead cat bounce took the markets higher again the pundits trotted out and said: “Everything is fixed! We told you there was nothing to worry about!”

The average small investor (if there is such a thing anymore, outside of China) must be squirming on his couch clutching his head as spasms of cognitive dissonance rack his body. “But they said it couldn’t happen!”

Yet one person who couldn’t ever be confused with a TV finance pundit this week was Labour MP Damian McBride, who advised his Twitter followers to stock up on canned food and water, withdraw their cash and agree a rallying point with friends in family in case of communications breakdown and civil disorder.

He wasn’t mincing his words.

And McBride isn’t just some lowly backbencher either – he was Gordon Brown’s adviser when he was prime minister, as well as being a senior civil servant at the Treasury. As such he must know more than most people how fragile the global financial system is.

Predictably enough, he was roundly mocked by the press for being alarmist. Twitterers everywhere joined in with the two-minutes’ hate. In a world where sentiment is more important than reality such boat-rocking cannot not be allowed to pass.

The news message right now, as I type these words, is that markets have recovered from their panic attacks (even though this is patently untrue). China has calmed the waters by lowering its interest rates (what they still have interest rates above zero?) and there is soothing talk of more stimulus measures. The long-feared rate hike in the US is also being talked down. Nothing to see here, move along.

If current newspaper editorials and TV finance channels could be stuffed together into a cultural blender and reformed into the medium of music they would emerge as some kind of gently soothing mood music – the kind they play in dentists’ waiting rooms in the hope that it’ll drown out the noise of the drill and cries of pain coming from the next room.

Of course, none of this matters at this point because what this week’s market carnage has shown is that central banks are not omnipotent and they may even be running out of pumping power for all the epic mega-bubbles that have been created in recent years. Even those who haven’t been paying attention must now surely be able to see that unleashing quantitative easing (i.e. printing money) is simply an exercise in transferring the private risk/debt of the rich into public hands. You can unleash the monetary floodgates all you like and watch as all that liquidity flows into the feeding troughs of the world’s financial centres leaving the real – productive – sectors of the economy high and dry while wrecking many of the aspects of modern life that allow us to consider our societies as civilised.  

This is certain to have real consequences in the real world as levels of debt continue to skyrocket, and the ability of the real economy as a whole to repay that debt diminish by the week. You can extend your credit limit to the Moon and back, but if your income is falling and you keep piling on the debt then you must know that some day there will come a knock at the door. So should individuals prepare for the ensuing calamity that this moment of reckoning will bring into being? Or should we just sit there on our hands humming Everything is Awesome and hoping that the moment will never come?

*I just checked the Cub Scout’s website and – sure enough – their motto is still “Be prepared” – even if it now has far fewer members than it did in the 1970s and is embroiled in a sexual politics wrangle.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Caterpillar of Destiny

Seek and ye shall find

It was almost exactly a year ago when I set off on a journey in Scandinavia that led to the creation of my book The Path to Odin’s Lake. A year’s not much time and I’m surprised that I managed to get it written and published in that timeframe. I decided to go down the route of self-publishing for a number of reasons. First and foremost was because the book itself didn’t particularly lend itself to any genre. When people ask me what kind of book it is I jokingly tell them it’s a “peak oil spiritual travelogue”. 

So you see what I mean …

I have had some limited experience with publishing in the past, and once worked as a freelance book editor, so I know the mountain writers have to climb just in order to get noticed. But the business model is changing fast and for good reason.

Not only do many publishers and lit agents mess you around and have increasingly difficult stipulations, authors complain that the burden of promoting their labour of love rests squarely on their own shoulders. Isn’t that supposed to be the job of the publisher (remind me again why they take a hefty fee)? I’ve been down this road before with a previous book I wrote. The publisher requested so many changes to the manuscript that I spent almost a year re-writing it - three times. And then, when it was done, they simply dropped it, saying that their catalogue was full up and the person who commissioned it had left the company. All that work for nothing!

Furthermore, somewhere, in the loft, I’ve got around 300 printed rejection letters from agents and publishers  for various weird tales and book projects I’ve written over the last fifteen years. There was, I estimated, an approximately zero percent chance of finding a publisher for The Path to Odin's Lake, so I decided to save myself some time and effort.

I'm not complaining but perhaps you can see why having weighed up the options I decided to take advantage of the new possibilities opened up by self-publishing. Not only do you get complete control over your own book but, due to print-on-demand, you literally press a button and it’s published. Bingo!

Of course, there are downsides. It’s 100% down to you to promote your book, and you find yourself somewhat at the mercy of Amazon, who will change the retail price to a penny if you aren’t careful. Production costs are paid for by the author, and many self-published books run the risk of disappearing into the ether without selling a single copy.

I’m quite proud of my book but it took some considerable up-front payments to birth it. I spent about three months writing and re-writing it and I got an artist friend in Spain to design the cover. A professional copy editor needed paying, and then you have to pay Amazon for author copies. I sent around 20 review copies to people, bloggers and organisations around the world (some of whom asked for them and some who didn’t – all of which seem to have disappeared into a black hole without so much as an acknowledgement). All in all I sunk about £1,000 into the project, plus about 300 hours of writing work and another hundred or so running the social media gauntlet in an attempt to promote it.  

Once the book was ‘out there’ a strange thing began to happen. For a start - it being something of a radical truth book dealing with peak energy, civilizational collapse and the journey of the soul – I wasn’t entirely sure what family and friends would think of it. To be honest, I was quite worried – if they didn’t already think I was loopy they certainly would now. And with good reason, it turns out. Some people rushed out to buy it, then sent me pictures of it having turned up in the mail … and then never spoke to me again. A couple of people 'unfriended' me on social media, and one person told me that I might be better off ‘not thinking so much’. I can just imagine the conversations they may have had with their partners: “You remember that bloke Jason – you know, the editor who quit his job and moved to Cornwall? Well, he’s gone completely bonkers. He ran off into a forest in Sweden and ate a load of magic mushrooms, was last seen talking to caterpillars and birds and swimming naked around a lake ranting about Norse gods.”

My old newspaper, The Copenhagen Post (much diminished) duly obliged with the meme: I took magic mushrooms, confesses former Copenhagen Posteditor. (Note – not so much of a confession as an overt promotion).

A few other local newspapers begrudgingly agreed to mention the book too, including Denmark and Sweden’s The Local, which would only promote it on the condition that I give career advice to its readers (me??? !!!) - and only succeeded in bringing out the haters.

Anyway, once I was over this hump of negativity then another thing started to happen. I began to get messages. These were from people who had read my unusual peak oil spiritual travelogue. Usually they had just turned the last page and felt compelled to contact me. These are a few of the messages I received (with names removed to keep them private):


Jason - I sat and read your book for 5 hours!!! I just couldn't put it down. I want to get one copy sign by you if possible, to give it to a scientist friend of ours … You are costing us a fortune , my husband's bought two of the books you've mentioned in your book!!! By the way, he also read your book and loved it!!! I have nearly finished and I have enjoyed it very much. We want to get some more and give it as Christmas presents.


Voicemail: “Hi Jason, I just finished reading your book and I had to call you. I just wanted to say it was absolutely amazing … seriously the best book I’ve read all year and I’m not just saying that. I honestly couldn’t put it down … was reading it all night. I’m going to make XXX read it too. I just wanted to tell you that. Well done you.”


Hi Jason,

Just finished your book - really enjoyed it. I liked the style and pace of it, and wholeheartedly agree with the conclusions you come to in the end.. Esp liked the short passage on trees. I write a little my self so I get that it's a shit load of work too, so big respect - it must be a real pleasure to see it in print. Hopefully you'll get some good reviews.


Dear Jason,

I finished your new book about a week ago and just wanted to write to you to thank you for writing it and making it available. I have been following your blog for a few years now and as blog's go I feel I know you much better than you would obviously know a complete stranger off the internet … Wishing you all the best from a chilly Australia.


Hi Jason … finished reading your book last night … really enjoyed it … excellent read. I think it’s a really amazing achievement and I’m a bit in awe! xx


Obviously, it’s very gratifying and hugely satisfying to get such nice messages from readers. And it’s also quite heart-warming to see that it has several five star reviews on Amazon. Still, it’s an uphill struggle to get the message out about it and as it stands I’m going to be seriously out of pocket unless it is more widely read. So that’s why I’m asking you to buy a copy, if you haven’t already done so, or if you have, consider buying one for a friend whom you think might like it. It’s available as both a paperback and an ebook. Once I have recouped the costs of writing the book I will shut up about it and focus on my next one.

I’m sure you will enjoy at least parts of The Path to Odin’s Lake - either that or you will hate me and never want to speak to me again. But at the very least you’ll get to find out who the Caterpillar of Destiny is.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Living la Dolce Vita

"Venice, August 20th - Here as a joy-hog: a pleasant change after that pension on the Giudecca two years ago. We went to the Lido this morning, and the Doge's palace looked more beautiful from a speed-boat than it ever did from a gondola. The bathing, on a calm day, must be the worst in Europe: water like hot saliva, cigar ends floating into one's mouth, and shoals of jelly-fish."

Robert Byron, 1933, The Road to Oxiana

I first went to Italy at the age of eight and remember it vividly. It was my first trip abroad and everything seemed alien and strange to me. I went with my father, who had been prescribed ‘mountain air’ by his doctor for a catarrh condition, and so we went to stay in a village in the Alps with an industrialist friend of his named Tito. I remember there being lots of snow and a ski lift and I remember almost knocking myself out by walking into a double glazed door (double glazing having not yet taken off in England). But most of all I remember staying with Tito’s family and being given a plate of garlic-fried calf's stomach as a ‘treat’, along with a glass of sheep’s milk to wash it down. How homesick I felt at that moment.

Thirty-six years later and it’s me bringing my daughters to see Italy for the first time. Italy, I should point out, is their quarter-country, as my wife is half-Italian. Visiting her relatives was one of the reasons we felt it necessary to go there. To achieve this we swapped our house in Cornwall with an Italian family living just north of Milan. Gone are the days of jetting off and staying in hotels – this is simply unaffordable to anyone on even a modest income – so a house swap using sites such as is the way to get a free holiday. The town we found ourselves temporarily living in was something of a dormitory for that powerhouse of a city, and other than a nice palace and gardens there was nothing special about it. This suited me fine because I wanted to get a good look at normal everyday life in Italy, which by many metrics (not least of which is energy consumption) is in a state of precipitous decline.

What follows is a snapshot of my impressions.

On our arrival, driving along the motorway corridor between Milan and Bergamo, I immediately noticed a number of abandoned factories. “Aha!” I thought “a clear sign of industrial malaise.” But I shouldn’t have been too quick to jump to conclusions because contrary to my expectations this was really the only sign of decay I saw in two weeks. Because, on the whole, the entire northern portion of Italy seems to be extraordinarily well off. The motorways were packed with shiny new cars, condominiums and office blocks were going up and record numbers of wealthy tourists and businesspeople were filling the restaurants in which tables groaned under dishes of the world’s best foods. Crisis – what crisis?

The first week we stayed close to home, not venturing much further than the exquisite hilltop city of Bergamo. Despite being loaned a newish Suzuki SUV we quickly learned that heading out onto the motorways was asking for trouble. This being August, about half of the population of sixty million were on their holidays, meaning traffic chaos on the roads. And then there were the tolls. You pay to drive on motorways in Italy and the toll booths, where you must stop and hand over cash, cause some truly horrendous traffic jams.

And speaking of driving in Italy … something strange was going on. I’ve been to Italy enough times to develop a certain fondness for the devil-may-care attitude of its drivers. There’s a reason the Ferrari was invented there. But now, all of a sudden, everyone seemed to be driving slowly and carefully. What was going on?

“Fines,” explained a man who ran a hotel. “There are cameras everywhere now and you will get a fine if you go even one kilometre per hour over the limit.” He went on to say that the average Italian now pays the equivalent of an extra 2% of his income in traffic fines every year. On one particular stretch of road, he said, the police had lowered the speed limit the camera was set at, resulting in a five million euro haul in the month of July alone. “They have no money otherwise,” he explained.

And perhaps that was when I came to realise that the clean face (northern) Italy was presenting might just be concealing some troubling secrets. People we spoke to generally had no illusions – which was quite refreshing to hear after being immersed in the infinite recovery rhetoric of Britain. “Everything is shit here,” said a lady who owned a café. “People have no money, they are unemployed, corruption is everywhere and it gets hotter every year,” she moaned. I looked around at her customers, all of them - like most Italians in general - were smartly-dressed healthy and wealthy looking couples and families enjoying ice cream and coffee. “Really?” I thought. The woman said she wanted to escape the ‘misery’ and dreamed of moving to Glasgow. Glasgow? “Yes,” she said, she had seen it on TV. People were not corrupt there and it was not hot.

She had a point about the heat. We arrived just at the tail end of the worst heat wave in recorded history. With 40C (104F) temperatures being recorded across the country roads were melting and so too it seems were some cars. If the house we had been staying in had not had air conditioning I’m not entirely sure how I would have coped. Cold beer, ice cream and swimming pools certainly helped, but the heat at night was paralysing. We could certainly see why the family we had swapped with were overjoyed to be spending their holiday beneath thick grey British clouds – they even sent us a picture of themselves ‘rain bathing’.

One morning, hiding with my computer in the basement office to escape the heat, I came across an article on Bloomberg Business news that speculated about Milan pulling away from Rome. Milan, it pointed out, was economically muscular, whereas Rome – despite all its wonderful architecture and the Vatican – was a den of corruption, chronic unemployment and disintegrating infrastructure. Bloomberg, of course, approved of Milan’s ‘looking north to Germany’ mentality and the booming nature of its business.

But I wasn’t much taken with the flat parts of Lombardy, of which Milan is the capital. Of course, I wouldn’t expect an Italian holidaymaker to be taken with the area around, say, Birmingham. But Lombardy to me seemed like one giant printed circuit board of mega-factories, motorways, power lines and housing developments. Much of it is green, but it is the green of industrially grown maize planted in neat rows. I didn’t see any forests and – apart from the churches – hardly any buildings seemed to date from before the twentieth century. There were not many wildflowers and the garden of the house we stayed in had no birds whatsoever in it. It is sad and almost spooky to be somewhere with no birds. People, I noticed, had taken to fixing small plastic and polystyrene birds to trees and fences as decoration. Some of these had real feathers glued onto them. This is the price of Bloomberg’s definition of success.

Every evening we watched the national news on the family’s huge flat-screen television. I have a limited understanding of Italian (I can just about get the bits that sound like Spanish) so my wife interpreted for me. There were lots of stories about the extreme weather (baking heat followed by cataclysmic thunderstorms) but the big news was the arrival of the migrants from North Africa and the Middle East. Italy, by all accounts, is struggling to cope not just with the successful ones who have made it, but with the less successful ones who need to be rescued. Worse still, bodies were beginning to wash up on the beaches. One news segment showed a dead person lying on the shoreline surrounded by sunbathing holidaymakers who seemed unbothered by the presence of the corpse. Of course, it would be grossly unfair to pretend that everyone felt as unmoved as those people on the beach (and who knows, TV newsmakers can portray things however they want with the use of clever camera angles and timing), and most people interviewed expressed horror and despair.

[As an aside, a friend of mine got married in Sicily a couple of months ago and the wedding reception was continually interrupted by overhead helicopters coming back from sea with migrants dangling from them. Some children asked “What is going on?” and the adults comforted them by saying it was just some swimmers who had got into difficulty. When this carried on for two full days (Sicilian weddings being long affairs) the children must have concluded that practically everyone swimming needed rescuing.]

Perhaps because of this, and if one pays much attention to the writings on the walls, there was much worry about a resurgence of fascism and the security offered by a strong leader. One aspect of the area in which we were staying that I picked up on was a latent regard bordering on fondness for the legacy of Mussolini. The grand but soulless architecture in places like Brescia and Forli (my wife’s family’s home town, also the birthplace of Mussolini) is described with contempt by foreign guidebooks, but looked upon more favourably by local tour guides. It is interesting to note that the area of Lombardy was considered the hotbed of fascism, and also saw itself as the most forward-looking and industrious part of the nation.

Mussolini, of course, was eventually caught and killed trying to flee over Lake Como to Switzerland. We went to Como one day (actually we were only half an hour away) just to see what all the fuss was about. People will excitedly tell you that George Clooney lives there, but I can’t report that I saw him. There are several towns and villages clustered along the Italian side of the lake, and the hills are liberally endowed with the villas of the über wealthy. Places around the lake will be familiar to Star Wars fans as the home of Princess Amidala – and one can’t deny the starry romance of the setting. But encapsulating beauty within easy reach of a major industrial city can only mean one thing: high prices. We were just about able to afford a plate of chips and a glass of Coke before leaving. This is a place where people dressed in tennis whites drive sports cars and sit in chic cafés checking their stock portfolios on their iPhones. Many of the small beaches along the shore were the private enclaves of the grand villas but I found one that was open to the public. It was a relief here to be able to wade into the water - even if it the experience was akin to swimming in Robert Byron's hot saliva - and swim out for some distance taking care not to end up in the path of one of the many speedboats – the preferred way of getting around the lake for its monied residents.

One day we went to Venice. It was a hell of a long day (five hours of driving each way, much of it stewing in traffic jams of melting cars) but we wanted our kids to see this fabled city before it sinks beneath the waves. Of course, Venice is fabulous and there’s no way to adequately convey this short of actually going there. I had expected a horde of tourists, and I wasn’t disappointed. This year’s ‘must have’ it seems is the selfie stick. For those who don’t know what one is, it’s a retractable metal stick that you fix your smart phone onto, enabling you to make sure there isn’t a photo of a single architectural gem without your grinning face obscuring most of it. It is a sight to behold watching hundreds of people walking around and holding these things - literally filming themselves as they walked. I wondered how many drownings might have occurred as distracted selfie stick holders blundered into the canals. Future sub-aquatic archaeologists may find skeletal hands preserved in the sediment, still gripping their vanity sticks.

It’s hard to be in a place like Venice and not marvel at how much the nature of travel has changed since Robert Byron described it in the opening quote of this post. Back then it was a pursuit of the rich or the adventurous, whereas now it just seems to be a pursuit for the ostentatiously wealthy. The alleys leading off from the square around the Piazza di San Marco are stuffed with luxury brand outlets. Most tourists seemed to hail from China or the Middle East, and were dressed to impress with Gucci and Louis Vuitton accessories. This is quite a change from the last time I was in Venice –15 years ago to the day – when the stereotypical loud American (Hawaiian shirt, big camera around neck, crumpled map) was the most obvious visitor, and the thrifty see-the-world backpacker, sitting on church steps eating a piece of stale bread coming in a close second. Neither type of tourist megafauna were much in evidence this time around, perhaps a reflection of how much things have changed in the world since.

Other long distance trips we took included Ravenna – whose beautiful Byzantine mosaic artworks and easy way of life goes some way to restoring ones faith in humanity. Driving on the outskirts of the city when we arrived we found ourselves in the middle of one of the most ferocious storms I’ve ever witnessed. Like being under a power shower, I could barely see the road ahead for more than a few yards. Lighting literally crashed around us and I was quite fearful that we’d go up in a puff of smoke (despite rationalising that a car acts as a Faraday cage). “Is this normal?” I asked my wife’s uncle. “No, not normal,” he replied.

Italy does things by extremes. It has the world's most beautiful architecture sitting right alongside the ugliest aspects of modernity. There's the extreme wealth of the north, where the gated stuccoed villas keep out the riff-raff and the motorways are stuffed with BMWs and Range Rovers, and then there's the poverty of the south where mangy dogs snuffle around giant piles of burning trash and those refugees continue to wash up on the rocky shores, day in day out. 

Now I’m back here home it’s difficult to reconcile the prosperous Italy we saw with the knowledge that, like Greece and many others, the country is facing bankruptcy. You can mask financial and economic stress for only so long before something gives. And when it does come it is hard not to conclude that it will likely be the office and factory workers of northern Italy who find themselves in more of a precarious situation than those in the non-industrial south. But Italy has a long history of trouble and strife, and an economic collapse – which in any case will be global in scale – will be simply the latest chapter. But difficult questions remain for Italy, such as from where will it get its future energy supplies, and how does it deal with the increasing numbers of refugees arriving from destabilised and war-torn areas across the Med? And with these questions in mind perhaps all that remains is to ponder how long Italy can carry on living la dolce vita.