Friday 9 March 2012


The first thing you do is send a text.

No, that’s not right. The first thing you do is try to send a text. And try again, and again, and again. Send. Contacts. Send. Contacts. Send. Send. Send.

“I’m OK. You?”



London hosts the Olympics this year. I won’t be there for that. I’ll be here, in Japan. It’s a bit of a disappointment, but the pros far outweigh the cons. My brother will be there though. He’s got a secondment from his job and will be working in the athletes’ village.

It’s disappointing because I remember how happy it made everyone when we won the thing. Which was good broadly, and also because at that point things were a bit tricky for the pair of us. He was working for a management consultancy just off Aldgate, and frankly hating it, and I was writing my thesis. I was meant to be writing my thesis. My girlfriend had flown over to start preparing for her own Masters, and after a year of living on different continents I was perhaps not as focused on my studies as I should have been.

Today was going to be different though. I was feeling good. Yesterday we’d found out that the Olympics were coming to London, and just as significantly they weren’t going to Paris. There’s a certain perverse irony in the fact that English has to borrow a word from German to describe happiness in the misfortune of others. You’d think we would have managed to come up with something of our own long ago.

But today is a good day. The city’s happy, or if not happy exactly, at least less grumpy than normal. I’m working later this afternoon, but I’ll go to the library first. Our house is a bit of a walk from Finsbury Park tube, but it’s quicker than using the bus. Piccadilly Line to Holborn. Maybe change to the Central Line for Chancery Lane. But it’s a nice day, I reckon I’ll walk the last bit. No point going during rush-hour though. Might as well leave it a bit, head off when it’s less crowded. Check the weather forecast first, see if it’ll stay nice.

Delays on the Piccadilly Line. What a surprise. And the Circle Line as well? It’s normally the Northern that has the issues.

Circle Line suspended now. And the Piccadilly. Fires in Liverpool Street and Russell Square. Power surges, apparently. Fuck it. I’m clearly not getting to the library now. Fucking London Underground. Russell Square is where I get off for work. I could get the Victoria Line later to King’s Cross and walk down Woburn Place, but if the Piccadilly Line’s been suspended it’ll be packed, however late I leave it. Should have left earlier.

Entire underground shut down. What? Seriously? Now I’ll have to get the bus to work. I fucking hate buses.

I know that road. And that building. I know people who work round there. I work round there. Those weren’t power surges.

Fuck. He’ll be at work now. I hope. He got to work, didn’t he? He lives near Old Street. He doesn’t use the Circle Line. He’ll be fine. He uses the bus. Fuck.


Seven million people all thinking the same thing.


Seven million people all doing the same thing.





*  *  *

I was supposed to be studying geography. A few months earlier the department had held a special seminar on the Boxing Day Tsunami. All the physics of the tremors and waves got the hard-science geeks going, but I’m a policy wonk. I care about the human factors because frankly if there aren’t any human factors, then it’s not a disaster, it’s just an event. A tree falling in a forest makes no sound if no-one hears it, but if it falls on someone and kills them then it’s a tragedy. And just as there must be people present for a natural event to turn into a disaster, so the human response is what dictates its scale.

It was fires in San Francisco that caused the most damage, whereas a fluke of timing meant the city escaped a worse fate decades later. If there are no people, there’s no problem. On any level.

It’s an entirely anthropocentric view of the world. That’s the only way it can be and it took me a while to realize that. Rivers were what I really liked. That’s why I got into the subject. Too much time spent splashing around and playing a slightly more rigorous version of Pooh Sticks as a kid. At school we went on a field trip to North Wales. Visited a hydroelectric power station. The turbines were phenomenal; the scale, the power. We also visited a nuclear power station, which hasn’t stuck in my mind so much.

I do remember two things about it though. Firstly, for all their image of progress and futurity, they’re essentially just giant atomic kettles. Secondly, the guide said that they’d chosen the site because of Anglesey’s position close to the sea, and old, stable geology. This will be important later.

In principle, I'm fine with nuclear power. Well, not fine exactly, but I think it’s currently the least worst option. Global Warming (Anthropogenically Enhanced Climate Change if you want it in the actual jargon) is real; it will be and is a major, major problem. On a practical level I couldn’t care less about Orangutans and the like, except for their worth as pit-canaries, and right now they’re falling off their perches left, right and centre.

Global Warming is a problem because we’re young. All the grand history of mankind, all the crowning glory of civilization as we know it, has grown like a mould in a climatic eye-blink. How and where we live now has been established during a very brief window of stable climate. The majority of the world's population lives near the coast, for example (this too will be important later). If climate changes faster than we can adapt then we’re fucked.

Well, not you and me, obviously. We live in the First World. We can afford flood barriers and coastal defences and land reclamation on an appallingly hubristic scale. I’m talking about Poor People. Usually poor people with brown skin. Those poor bastards are going to get it right in the neck at the first sign of trouble. Let’s play along and pretend the future tense is still appropriate for that sentence.

That was the take-home message of the seminar I went to that January. Where the tsunami happened. The countries it hit. Their GDPs as a measure of how they could prepare for and respond to a disaster of that magnitude. The rich world, the First World is far better placed to absorb those kinds of perturbations.

*  *  *

I’d left work early. It was exam week and I was taking a few minutes on my own in the Starbucks at the station. I should have really been heading straight home, but our new son was having trouble sleeping and frankly I just wanted 20 minutes with no-one expecting anything of me. Not the most noble of sentiments, I know, but fatherhood had, has produced this contradictory cocktail of soaring idealism and base pragmatism. You want the world for your child, but will often, with unseemly gratitude, settle for just getting through to bedtime.

The seating overhangs the tracks, so each train going past feels like a little tremor. I still find that a novelty – the floor shaking – but no-one else pays it any notice. Even if it wasn’t just the trains causing it, how would you know?

Home now, and the baby’s screaming and the TV’s on. Early reports, early warnings. This could get worse. The section of red coastline getting inexorably longer every minute. We’ve been here before. We know how this day ends.

The CG map of worrying lines, the harried officials, the slow but accelerating realization of what is really happening, what you’re seeing in those flashing computer graphics. We know enough to get in early.

“It’s a long way from us. Tell Mum not to worry.”


Hush now Little One, Daddy’s watching the apocalypse.

*  *  *

The First World copes better. It does. The warnings are instantaneous, multilingual, constant. NHK justifying every yen I’ll ever pay them. The response rapid, national, international. Help is immediately offered and accepted. Lessons have been learned.

Then it’s over. They change out of the overalls and back into suits and ties. We can all go back to normality. Who’s turn is it to be PM this week? Don’t care, as long as it’s not one of your lot, as long as it’s not you. Things still tricky with the reconstruction? Let’s boycott the debate. Half the county’s got no power because of the worst nuclear catastrophe in a generation, what are we going to do? No.

No? That’s not an answer to that question. No. What? You get paid to represent people who’ve lost everything, who are still living in tin huts, why aren’t you actually representing them? No.

Are you actually capable of doing anything constructive to restore your country and your people after the worst disaster for more than half a century?

You really have nothing else to offer, do you?

*  *  *

I use the terms ‘First World’ and ‘Third World’ advisedly. They’re not nice, but they put the inequities front and center, inequities which ‘Developed’ and ‘Developing’ gloss over. To say nothing of the fact that the latter two terms are complete misnomers. ‘Developing’ suggests it’s an ongoing, inevitable process. Hang in there guys, do things like we tell you and you’ll have flatscreen TVs and type-two diabetes before you know it. This is demonstrably untrue.

As for ‘Developed’, I think the grotesque little shadow dance Japan’s political elites played out in the aftermath of the tsunami put paid to any last vestigial hopes that money and technology are reliable indicators of a society’s ‘development’. We've made it guys! Check out the past tense on us!

This is the goal? This is the peak? Half the country lies obliterated and we must bear grim witness to a troupe of monkeys flinging their own shit at each other over who gets to sit in the fucking tyre.

*  *  *

One day, my son, all this will be yours.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks.

    I like to think I've developed a sufficiently jaded and cynical outlook by this point of my life, but the sheer, craven self-obsession of some of Japan's politicians in the aftermath was truly disgusting.

    If ever there was a time to pull together and display some of that 'harmony' and group understanding this country is meant to be famous for, it was in the aftermath of these disasters. Instead we get Ozawa, the LDP, and other factions all totally bereft of any idea except to oppose everyone who isn't them. I thought I was past getting genuinely angry about politics, but clearly not.