The Great Deluge by Douglas Brinkley


This is George Bush in Air Force One, flying back from Texas to Washington.  He’s requested that the plane divert over New Orleans, and he has invited the press to come through from their section of the plane to photograph him looking down concernedly at the city whose lower parts have now been flooded for two days, since Hurricane Katrina broke the levees.   If any single image captures the mediocrity of this man, this is surely it.   This was not a leader, but a dull little rich kid whose daddy’s friends had fixed him up with a job, and provided him with helpers to do the difficult parts.  In this case, even the helpers screwed up.

‘You’re doing a great job, Brownie!’ Bush told the Director of FEMA, the federal agency responsible, but of course as we all know the agency’s performance was very far from a great job.   In a curiously telling detail, Douglas Brinkley observes that Brownie was not in fact a nickname that anyone actually used.  The dull little rich kid was trying to suggest a level of engagement that did not in fact exist.

The Great Deluge is an account of what actually lies below him as he gazes down for the cameras: a devastated city, where bloated corpses are floating in the streets, sick and elderly people are dying alone in flooded houses, and thousands are crammed into a sports stadium without adequate food, water or medical attention, waiting for an evacuation which, for no obvious reason, has still not arrived.

There is lawlessness.  Some of the local police have simply abandoned their posts and run.  Women waiting for rescue have been raped.  Looters raid shops not only to steal but in some strange attavistic ritual (of revenge?  of triumph?) to defecate on cash registers and on goods that they can’t carry away.  But the lawlessness has been taken by many of those who should be helping the survivors as a reason for treating them all as criminals.  (Another telling moment: a new general arrives in New Orleans to get a grip on the military efforts, and one of his first acts is to instruct is to instruct National Guardsman not to point their guns at people when they’re talking to them.)

The very boundary between lawful and unlawful has in any case been blurred.  Is it really looting to break into a store for bottles of clean water, when the only other option is drinking polluted flood-water in which human and animal corpses are floating?  (Is it even exactly looting, I wonder, to steal a TV or some other valuable piece of hardware, when you’ve lost your home and have no savings to fall back on?)  In the Morial Convention Centre, some gangsters are taking it upon themselves to provide protection for the vulnerable in the absence of any formal forces of law.  Other are just terrorising the weak.

The fact that nearly all the people trapped in New Orleans are black and poor almost certainly doesn’t help.   Police officers and Guardsmen frequently treat them with undisguised contempt, and suggest that it is their own stupid fault that they stayed in the city after warnings were given that they should move.  But where would you go, if everyone you know lives in the streets around you, you have no money to pay for accomodation elsewhere and the government, though it can afford to pay for wars on the far side of the world, has provided nothing?  Some people who try to leave on foot are stopped at gunpoint by police from neighbouring areas which don’t want to take them in.

It’s outside the scope of this book but we know too that other communities which did initially respond generously were quickly to grow tired of the burden of caring for the incomers, and to begin to stigmatise them as lazy and undeserving of help.  In another book I read recently*, a woman relocated to Austin, Texas, describes her children being bullied and stigmatised at school because they are ‘people from the storm’.

I wasn’t completely enamoured of the way The Great Deluge was written – I could have done without some of the long, folksy biographies of various characters with which the account is punctuated, and the numerous quotations from songs and literature which never seemed quite as apt as the author seemed to think they were – but it provides a detailed and vivid overview nevertheless of what actually happened during that dreadful time, as well as of the things that one would expect to happen in the world’s wealthiest country but in fact did not.   I was left with a powerful sense of how quickly we human beings can shut down compassion when it asks too much of us, simply by relabelling our fellow humans as something other than ourselves.

Any one seriously interested in writing or thinking about the future should be reading this book, and books like it.   The way things are going, there are going many more flooded cities before this century is out, many more people who don’t have access to food or water, a lot more ‘people from the storm’.

*Community Lost: the State, Civil Society, and Displaced Survivors of Hurricane Katrina, by Ronald J Angel, Holly Bell, Julie Beausoleil and Laura Lein.

Role play

Our next door neighbours have a little boy of 3 called Marlowe.

The other day I saw him with his dad in the street and he showed me his plastic toy smartphone.  I held it to my ear and said ‘Hello, is that Marlowe?’

He shook his head.

‘Say it’s Ben calling,’ he corrected me in a stage whisper, ‘and ask me if I want to speak to him.  Then I’ll tell you I’m too busy.’

I held the phone to my ear again.

‘Hello is that you Ben?  Do you want to speak to Marlowe?’

I held out the phone to Marlowe.

‘Marlowe, it’s Ben for you.’

‘Tell him I’m too busy,’ Marlowe said.


Something reminded me of a dream I had some years ago about a young blind man.   This was a real person who I had actually met in waking life, so I knew that not only was he blind and homeless, but that he had had the most awful childhood, having been rejected by his own family at an early age, and rejected since many times.

In my dream he was begging on the street.   Unknown to him the cash machine in the wall behind him had broken and was spewing £20 notes out onto the pavement.

*   *   *

I once took it into my head to study for an MA in English Literature.   For my final dissertation I wrote about a short story by Philip Dick: ‘I hope I shall arrive soon’.   In the story, a man spends so many years in a state of desperation, longing to arrive at his destination, that when he finally does arrive there, he can’t believe it.   He can’t be persuaded that this isn’t just another fantasy.

*   *   *

I bought a phone the other day which came with a single game in it called Snake Xenzia.   You direct a tiny snake around the screen, picking up pieces of food. If you take it off the top edge of the screen, it reappears on the bottom.  If you take it off the right, it reappears on the left. Each time it eats, the snake grows longer. The thing you have to avoid is the snake bumping into itself, at which point the phone vibrates sickeningly with the impact and the snake dies.

As the game progresses the screen becomes fuller and fuller with the snake’s coils, winding back and forth across the screen and in and out across its edges.  If it is to continue to feed itself, the snake must  negotiate an ever-growing labyrinth constructed of its own body and its own past.

snake xenzia

Enchanted objects

The great gatsbyI saw the recent movie of The Great Gatsby.  Visually I found it  a little lurid, but I was interested by the story and I went on to read the book, which was already sitting there on our shelves.

What had particularly struck me in the film – it is actually surprisingly faithful to the book – was the image of the little green light burning across the bay.  It is the light at the end of the landing stage of the mansion of Gatsby’s lost love Daisy.

There is a brilliant moment, after Gatsby has met up with Daisy again, where the narrator wonders if Gatsby has noticed that the green light will never again have the same meaning:

‘If it wasn’t for the mist we could see your home across the bay,’ said Gatsby. ‘You always have a green light that burns all night at the end of your dock.’

Daisy put her arm through his abruptly, but he seemed absorbed in what he had just said. Possibly it had occurred to him that the colossal significance of that light had now vanished forever. Compared to the great distance that had separated him from Daisy it had seemed very near to her, almost touching her. It had seemed as close as a star to the moon. Now it was again a green light on a dock. His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one.

Rats, wolves, bears

Someone told me recently that rats pair off for life and that male rats are closely involved in the care of their young.   The term ‘love-rat’ turns out to be poorly chosen.  Rats are faithful husbands and conscientious dads.

Another animal I’ve always thought we’ve got wrong is the wolf.   Countless fairytales have encouraged us to think of wolves as dark, sinister, uncontrollably violent.   We use the words wolfish, vulpine.  And when we imagine wolves in human form they are savage and murderous.

But why?  On what evidence?

I’ve sometimes thought of writing a story in which a real wolf-man is created with the body and intelligence of a human, but the instincts and drives of a wild wolf.  To everyone’s disappointment, he turns out to be a mild-mannered, comformist creature, anxious to please, concerned about his social standing and willing to do what he’s told.

Wolves are social, hierarchical creatures, after all.  Their desires and priorities are like our  own.  It’s not a coincidence that they’re the ancestors of our best-loved pet.   With added intelligence and a human body, wolf-man is pretty much an average bloke.

But in my story there’s also a bear-man, and he’s another thing entirely.   Having the instincts of a solitary hunter, he has no need for company of any kind, except for occasional sex, and cares nothing at all for what people think of him.  In my story, bear-man is capable of calculation and learning, and so assumes some sort of veneer of human-ness because he perceives it to be in his interests to do so, but beneath it he remains utterly unreachable and entirely cold.  A truly scary being.

Oddly enough, though, the bear is much more positive figure in human culture than the wolf.  Think of Winnie the Pooh, Paddington, Baloo, Yogi, and try and find even one wolf equivalent.  Bears are seldom the villain in stories, in spite of the fact that killings of humans by bears, unlike killings by wolves, really do quite regularly occur.

Is it their very similarity to us that makes wolves our animal of choice when we want to project our violent impulses onto some other creature?

(We’ve got more than a little in common with rats too: versatile omnivores which have managed to spread themselves across most of the planet.)

Blakeney: a seaside postcard

You couldn’t capture this in photographs.  It’s one of those places that demonstrate how different our perceptual system is from a camera.  Our eyes don’t take discrete pictures.  Our brains assemble, not a picture, but a 3D model, drawing on memories and associations as well as what is literally in front of our eyes.

The hinterland of this coast is undulating rather than truly hilly, a green rolling landscape of fields, hedges, dark woods and pretty Norfolk villages with houses faced with flints and prosperous square-towered churches.   The village of Blakeney descends from this gently undulating terrain to a quay where there are sailing boats and ice creams and people fishing for crabs.  

But this is not the edge of the sea.  The boats and crabs are in a tidal creek and the sea itself is another mile away.   You can’t even see it from the quay, only the ridge of shingle behind which the beach lies.  

Between the village and the sea is a marsh.  To the right of the village, looking out, the marsh has been enclosed in a dyke and drained to make pasture on which cattle graze, to the left it is still undrained, a salty place of grass and shrubs and flowers that is intermediate between land and sea.  Crabs crawl and bees buzz a few feet away from each other; the cries of seabirds mingle with the song of larks.  A couple of dilapidated-looking houseboats lie stranded on the grey-green grass.

Because of the creeks, you have to go a long way round to stand on that shingle ridge.  But from there you can look back across at the little villages dotted along the inner coastline, the edge of the solid land.  There they are with their red roofs and their flint walls and their church towers, with the woods and fields behind them: Salthouse, Cley, Blakeney, Morston.   I’ve seen them in bright sunshine over there while just behind me, waves sucked and rattled at the stones, terns dive bombed for fish and a ghostly mist came rolling in from the North Sea.

You could take pretty photos here, there’s no doubt about that:  a stranded houseboat, oyster catchers on the pebbly strand, a church tower rising above the trees…  But photos only show what’s in front of you and they reproduce perspective with a literalness that the human brain avoids without a moment’s thought.  A shot that took in the whole of that string of villages, would necessarily reduce them, and the low green land behind them, to a narrow and insignificant-looking strip between expanses of sky and marsh.  It would all seem quite flat and dull.

And now I come to think of it, flat and dull was exactly my impression of this place when I first came here many years ago.  With no 3D model, no associations, I was reduced to taking mental snapshots and comparing them unfavourably with pre-conceived notions of what attractive coastal scenery should look like.  This is no Cornish cove.  This is no sandy bay.  But to my mind now it’s as beautiful as anywhere on Earth.   

Fermi’s paradox solved?

The galaxy is vast, the number of planets enormous, so how come we never hear from any alien life forms?

Professor Galacticus proposes the following explanation:

There is a lot of life in the galaxy, and he surmises that all of it will be carbon-based and all of it originate in water.   As a result, in every planet in which life takes root, deposits of carbon and hydrocarbons will build up over millions of years as organisms die, form sediments, and are subjected to various geological forces.

In a relatively small proportion of living planets, Galacticus suggests, the process of biological evolution will have resulted in symbol- and tool-using intelligence.   This in turn brings into being a newer and much faster secondary evolutionary process, corresponding, roughly speaking, to what we call culture.

At a certain level of development, culture stumbles upon the vast reserves of chemical energy that built up millions of years before it came into being.  By exploiting these reserves, culture is able to massively accelerate its own evolution – Galacticus speaks of ‘putting on seven-league boots’ – because the enormous increase in the productivity of each individual allows large numbers of individual to cease to be involved in meeting the basic physical needs of the species and thereby become available for other work.

In such a context, highly complex activities such as space travel become possible: activities which require individuals to devote themselves to doing things with no immediate practical benefit at all.  And when cultures embark on the project of space travel, they naturally begin to contemplate the possibility that other cultures, on other planets, are doing likewise, and begin to develop means of searching for, and communicating with, those putative others.

However all this occurs in a very narrow window for, unknown at first to the individuals who make up these cultures, they have set in train a force that will destroy them.  This force is not nuclear weapons, as some have surmised it might be, nor poisonous pollution, but something seemingly entirely innocuous: a very common substance, and one that is not merely non-toxic but actually essential to life. Carbon dioxide.

By the time the danger becomes evident, cultures are already so massively committed to fossil fuels that change is difficult.  It is not technically impossible – the explosive development of technological knowledge which the ‘seven-league boots’ have made possible means that a switch to some combination of alternative energy sources is entirely feasible in purely engineering terms – but it is psychologically and sociologically very difficult indeed.  Almost every one of the intelligent life forms in the galaxy has gone well past the point of no-return – or will do so – before they have fully taken on board the nature of the threat.

And then the physical world takes over, positive feedback loops of various kinds kick in, and, very rapidly, the culture, what is left of it, is reduced to a precarious existence in which the very idea of attempting to communicate with aliens, just for the sheer fun of it, is simply laughable.

‘Hence,’ says Professor Galacticus, ‘the silence from the sky.’

*  *  *

‘You may think,’ he adds, ‘that I am making far too many assumptions about the psychology and sociology of unknown life forms, but I don’t think I am.  You see, their basic psychological equipment is always going to be the product of a biological evolutionary process.   We know how creative such a process is, and we know the diversity it has achieved, but it has one deep limitation.  It is reactive rather than teleological.   It is not aimed at anything, but is simply based on the accumulation of a kind of trial and error knowledge, and this makes it very weak at dealing with an unpredented threat.

‘I would, however, be very pleased to be proved wrong.’

Waterloo Sunset

I very much enjoyed this programme about Ray Davies. I was struck by his comment about one of his songs (I think it was ‘Days’) that the words might seem ‘a bit naff’ on their own, but he felt that the music transformed them.   Actually that is true, I think, of quite a bit of his stuff.   People usually praise the words, the little observations and stories, but on their own the observations are not necessarily all that original.  There are a lot of songs, for instance, about the fears and longings of suburban life (‘Mr Pleasant’ or ‘Shangri-la’) which, taken just as stories and observations, are amusing but quite commonplace.  But the music really does transform them into something else.

In fact I’d say his musical inventiveness is, if anything, rather underrated, or at any rate not so often remarked on.  His back catalogue of songs (imagine having written ‘You really got me’, ‘Days’, ‘Sunny Afternoon’, ‘Autumn Almanac’, ‘Lola’ and ‘Waterloo Sunset’!) is quite exceptionally varied in terms of moods, rhythms and musical colours, and is full of lovely details and surprises.  Listen, for instance, to the way that the strange and melancholy song ‘See my friends’ changes its feel and rhythm in the middle of each verse, opening up, and then drawing back again.

For various reasons, although I grew up in the 60s and 70s, I didn’t encounter ‘Waterloo Sunset’ at all until about 5 years after it came out.  But when I did finally come across it I was really blown away, and I still am.   It really is the most amazing marriage of words and music.  There is actually not one single word of description of the sunset itself, yet when I listen to this song, the harmonies rising up over the melody instantly evoke to me an enormous brightly coloured sky, towering up over the little figures of Terry and Julie, and the people swarming out of the underground, and the song’s narrator, watching the whole scene from his window.

(As I’ve observed before, vivid descriptive writing isn’t so much a matter of providing detailed instructions of a scene, as of giving readers/listeners permission to construct the scene for themselves.  This is a perfect example.  We all know what sunsets look like, and don’t need to be told, but we do need something to trigger off the whole set of associations, something to allow us to pretend that a sunset is happening right now.)

The Glastonbury version of the song here is performed with the Crouch End Chorus, which includes my good friend Clive among its tenors.  Lucky man.

(Clive lives in North London, where Davies grew up and still lives, very much in the surroundings in which the programme is filmed.  The programme reminded a bit too of an odd but interesting book by another North Londoner that I wrote about here.)

How empty and worthless is the power of kings

At first glance, it is hardly surprising that oil companies and the like fund efforts to debunk the science on climate change.   It’s in their interests to do so, right?  Just as it was in the interests of tobacco companies to try to debunk the evidence of links between smoking and cancer.

But then you think, hang on, don’t oil executives have children and grandchildren, the same as the rest of us?

This is something more complex than cynical self-interest.  It’s a deep category error.   Climate change is being seen as an essentially political threat, a thing to be outmanoeuvred, fobbed off, discredited, or managed through spin and symbolic placation.   There’s a failure to understand that this isn’t about interest groups, it isn’t about the politics of left versus right.  It’s about air, and water, and ice.

“Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings,” Canute is supposed to have said, when the tide refused to obey his command to stop, and began to wash around his feet.

It’s not nature that’s fragile, it’s us

I think we’ve got it all wrong about  our relationship with nature.   For years we’ve been presented with the idea of nature as something precious and fragile and vulnerable, which is threatened by us crass and oafish humans.  This invites a hard-nosed, macho, ‘realist’ response: ‘Tough!’, ‘Too bad!’, ‘Nature’s going to have to look after itself.’

But nature isn’t fragile.  (What hubris!)  Nature is exploding supernovae.  It’s the eruption of Krakatoa.  It’s Hurricane Katrina.  It’s the tsunami that devastated Japan.  It’s the force that created the dinosaurs, and the asteroid that destroyed them.  It’s the electric storms that can been seen from space flashing continuously across the surface of this violent violent planet.

The question isn’t how to protect nature.  Nature doesn’t give a damn what we do.  The question is whether we want to go on being part of nature, or whether we’re just going to chuck in the towel and let it sweep us away.

(Thoughts prompted by this rather hard-hitting post about impending climate catastrophe.)

(NASA photo of Hurricane Katrina).