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The Middle of the Road

Collapse, Jared Diamond, 2005

Butrinti archaeolgical site

Jared Diamond is a scientist and academic. He has also been a senior official in the environmental movement. Diamond is a trained biologist who became an ornithologist and finally a geographer. He has been US regional director of the World Wide Fund for Nature.

Collapse is based on science, but not on Diamond’s original research. Like some of Diamond’s other popular books, such as Guns, Germs and Steel, it is a form of intelligent popularisation; what the French sometimes call haute vulgarisation.

Collapse is one of the popular classics of environmentalism. It should perhaps be read in conjunction Tainter’s remorselessly logical The Collapse of Complex Societies.

Diamond is an optimist. He accepts completely that environmental issues are ‘serious and in need of addressing’. He does not however think that human extinction or an apocalyptic collapse of human civilisation is likely. He sees the future, if we do not address the problems we are facing, as one of ‘significantly lower living standards, chronically higher risks, and the undermining of what we now consider some of our key values’. Bad enough.

Collapse is based on case studies. That is both its strength and – as I shall point out in my conclusion to this review – its weakness.

Some of the case studies are of countries or regions that Diamond knows well. He has for instance known the Bitterroot Valley of Montana since childhood. He has spent much time in the forests of New Guinea watching birds and knows Australia well. He has tramped the Norse archaeological sites in Greenland, and has visited Iceland and Easter Island. In all cases he has made himself thoroughly familiar with the literature. Rather than cluttering the text with footnotes, Diamond has provided a detailed list of further reading at the end of the book. It is what the French call a bibliographie raisonnée.

From this brief and partial list it will be clear that not all the societies which Diamond deals with have in fact collapsed to date. Diamond includes a number of well-known classic cases of collapse from the past. I have mentioned Easter Island and Norse Greenland. The latter is a case which obviously fascinates Diamond, and he devotes a great deal of space to it. He also deals with the Anasazi of the American Southwest, the lowland Maya of the Classic period, and two modern examples of societies which have not been allowed to collapse: Ruanda, where a Tutsi-led rebel army prevented a final meltdown, and Haiti, where the United Nations intervened.

Australia, of course, has not collapsed and neither has China, another of Diamond’s cases. They both however face severe challenges. Diamond also deals with two examples of societies, Tokugawa Japan and the Pacific island of Tikopia, which dealt successfully with environmental challenges.

Diamond does not believe that any society collapses solely for environmental reasons. Diamond believes, I think absolutely reasonably, that ‘A society’s responses [to its environmental problems] depend on its political, economic and social institutions and on its cultural values’. Diamond gives a particularly interesting example of the Greenland Norse, whose collective self-identification as European Christians prevented them from ‘becoming Inuit’, their best chance of survival.

The book is rich in detail. Although I read it several years ago, I had forgotten quite a lot. I had forgotten, for example, that Iceland – because of the application by the original Norse settlers of European farming techniques to light volcanic soils – has the most degraded environment in Europe. I had also forgotten in how many cases – the Anasazi, the Maya, Easter, Pitcairn and Henderson islands in the Pacific – cannibalism can play a role in collapse. In both cases the facts don’t fit my prejudices. That is something I think for me to bear in mind when I am dealing with this kind of material.

Diamond’s treatment of his cases is very full. It is much fuller, for example, than the newspaper or magazine features from which most of us get our information. One of the results of this detailed treatment is to help us realise just how environmentally challenged a modern society that is apparently functioning perfectly well can be. In Montana, for example, the traditional, environmentally damaging industries have declined. They have however left a legacy, which can be very expensive. There are twenty thousand abandoned mines, for example, which have left toxic wastes and in many cases have contaminated the water table. In many case there are no surviving owners, which leaves the state and the federal government arguing about who should pay the very heavy costs of clear-up.

Another example of a challenged society which most of us would think is healthy is Australia, where an over-commitment to English cultural models led to serious environmental degradation caused in particular by sheep-raising. Diamond details the decline of the towns, the flight to the cities and the costs of maintaining an uneconomical agricultural sector.

Diamond’s analysis is also capable of correcting misapprehensions about the collapse of some societies. In the case of Ruanda, for example, Diamond challenges the common Western prejudice that the massacres were a direct and simple result of ethnic tension. He shows that the tensions were to a large extent the legacy of interference by Belgium, the colonial power, and manipulation by various groups of politicians. More importantly, he shows that before the massacres over-population had led to an excessive subdivision of farms leading to non-viable land holdings and a breakdown of community in rural areas.

Two of Diamond’s most interesting cases are Tokugawa Japan and the island of Tikopia. In Japan the Shoguns realised the dangers of deforestation, and set up an elaborate range of measures to combat it. These were successful. On Tikopia the islanders realised the environmental threat. They killed all their pigs, and took measures – some of them drastic, by our standards – to prevent the population rising beyond a viable level.

One solution was top-down, the other was bottom-up, which is the point Diamond wants to illustrate. It is also interesting that neither society was advanced, in our sense, or industrial.

Diamond’s approach makes it clear that the causes of collapse or of an environmental threat are specific, and that many threats have to be dealt with locally, in their context. He shows, with a suitably guarded optimism, that it can be done.

Where Diamond’s approach is weaker is in dealing with global threats: climate disruption, the pollution of the oceans, the loss of the rainforests, the wetlands and the coral reefs, the disappearance of topsoil, the pollution of freshwater. The technical solutions are well understood. What is difficult is the need for international cooperation.

I do not think we are very good at that.

Photo by wallygrom on VisualHunt / CC BY-SA

Ash

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is, amongst other things, a post-apocalyptic novel. The holocaust has already happened. It is referred to in a flashback. ‘The clock stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions.’ We never learn exactly what caused the disaster. All government and all communication have ceased. There is no-one left to communicate explanations. There does not even appear to be anyone to figure out what the explanations might be.

From other flashbacks and from the state of the world we learn what happened after the holocaust. The world burned. The trees burned.

The earth is covered with ash. Ash clogs the rivers and hides the sun. The air is laden with ash. It is difficult to breathe and often impossible to see. ‘When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world. His head rose and fell softly with each precious breath. He pushed away the plastic tarpaulin and raised himself in the stinking robes and blankets and looked towards the east for any light but there was none.’

Nothing resembling civilisation survives. There are one or two references to communes. There is no community. ‘The country was stripped and plundered years ago and they found nothing in the houses and the buildings by the roadside.’

There are two protagonists, a man and a boy. They are father and son. They do not have names. They are just ‘the man’ and ‘the boy’. This creates a certain universality.

The man is coughing. He is going to die. ‘… he crawled coughing and he coughed for a long time.’ Sometimes he coughs blood. The man carries on until the end.

The boy’s mother has committed suicide. ‘We’re not survivors,’ she says. ‘We’re the walking dead in a horror movie.’

The boy was born after the holocaust. ‘A few nights later she gave birth in their bed by the light of a drycell lamp. Gloves meant for dishwashing.’

The boy has known no other world. ‘…to the boy [the man] was himself an alien. A being from a planet that no longer existed.’

When he boy sees himself reflected in the glass of a window the thinks it is another little boy. ‘A face was looking at him. A boy, about his age, wrapped in an outsize wool coat with the sleeves turned back.’

In the burned world there is nothing living except a few humans. There are fewer humans now than there were. ‘In those first years the roads were peopled with refugees shrouded up in their clothing.’

All the plants have been either burned or choked by ash. There is nothing for the birds and animals to live on. They have disappeared. ‘Do you think there might be crows somewhere?’ The world is dead.

Some of the humans scavenge. They depend on finding canned goods. ‘He sorted through the cans and went back [to the boy] and they sat by the fire and ate the last of their crackers and a tin of sausage.’

The rest have resorted to cannibalism. The cannibals are violent and cruel. ‘Huddled against the back wall were naked people, male and female, all trying to hide, shielding their faces with their hands. On the mattress lay a man with his legs gone to the hip and the stumps of them blackened and burned. The smell was hideous…. Help us, they whispered. Please help.

The cannibals are also frightening. ‘They came shuffling through the ash casting their hooded heads from side to side. Some of them wearing canister masks. One in a biohazard suit. Stained and filthy. Slouching along with clubs in their hands, lengths of pipe…. Quick, he whispered. Quick…. The boy was frozen with fear. We have to run.’

Some of the cannibals have elaborated a social organisation. They are not just gangs. ‘He woke… in time to see the marchers appear four abreast. …all wearing red scarves at their necks. The phalanx following carried spears or lances…. Behind them came wagons drawn by slaves… and after that the women… and lastly a supplementary consort of catamites….’

After the holocaust there was something perhaps worse. The man remembers. ‘Within a year there were fires on the ridges and deranged chanting. The screams of the murdered. By day the dead impaled on spikes along the road.’

The homicidal madness seems to be exhausted. ‘No more balefires on the distant ridges. He thought the blood cults must have all consumed one another.’ All that is left now is an urge to survive that has lost all the humanity that might make sense of the need.

The man and the boy are travelling. The man pushes their few possessions in a grocery cart. ‘They were moving south. There’d be no surviving another winter here.’

The world is not safe. They must assume that any other human beings are either cannibals or thieves. They must always take precautions. ‘This was not a safe place. They could be seen from the road.’

It is not clear what they are moving for. This is not a world where anything seems to be of much value. It is ‘barren, silent, godless.’ There is a simple, binary ethical distinction. ‘They’re going to kill those people, aren’t they? There going to eat them, aren’t they? And we couldnt help them because they’d eat us too. We wouldnt ever eat anybody, would we?  Even if we were starving? Because we’re the good guys.’

It is, I think, though the point is not made explicitly, something close to a vision of hell.

In a New York Review of Books article, the author Michael Chabon described the novel as ‘a lyrical epic of horror’. Leaving aside the slightly dubious claim about a book, particularly a prose work, being simultaneously an epic and a lyric, I think Chabon is wrong.

Horror, as a genre, has something of the Gothic about it. It requires an element of the supernatural. Horror, as a feeling, is a reaction to an experience which violates deeply-held norms so completely that it is psychologically difficult, to the point of impossibility, to accept that what is happening is real. The focus of horror in the world of The Road is the cannibalism. Yet in the world of The Road, the cannibalism is real. The people doing it are – or once were – human.

Chabon also claims that ‘the adventure story in both its modern and epic forms… structures the narrative’. This is also I think not true. Action, in the adventure story, derives from the interaction of the personality of the protagonists – the hero, in particular – and the events to which the hero is exposed. The outcome is the mastery of events through the actions of the hero. There is a logic to it.

In The Road, there is no logic. Events are random. The man and the boy encounter marauders. Sometimes they shoot. Usually they run. Always they hide. The outcome of one chance encounter has no influence on the nature of the next. They manage to escape. They find somewhere temporarily safe. They master nothing. They just keep running.

The man and the boy search the buildings that are not too far from the road. Usually they find nothing. Sometimes they come upon a cache of canned food.’ Crate upon crate of canned goods.’ This is equally random.

The personality of the protagonists has little influence on events. It is not quite clear that the man has a personality any more. His interiority is restricted.

He dreams, more often than he would wish. ‘In his dreams his pale bride came to him out of a green and leafy canopy. Her nipples pipeclayed and her rib bones painted white.’

He is suspicious of such dreams. ‘He said the right dreams for a man in peril were dreams of peril and all else was the call of languor and of death.’

He remembers. ‘He could remember everything of her save her scent. Seated in a theatre with her beside him leaning forward listening to the music.’ He appears to have no other subjective life.

The man is practical. It is not clear whether he was always practical or whether he has become so since the catastrophe. There is simply no point in character analysis of that literary sort in a world that has been burned.

Like Moll Flanders or Robinson Crusoe, the protagonists of the novels of the quintessentially protestant petty-bourgeois Daniel Defoe, the man constantly reviews his stock of goods. ‘He sat in the sand and inventoried the contents of the knapsack. The binoculars. A half pint bottle of gasoline almost full. The bottle of water. A pair of pliers. Two spoons. He set everything out in a row. There were five small tins of food and he chose a tin of sausages and one of corn and he opened these with the little army can opener and set them at the edge of the fore and they sat watching the labels char and curl.’ Moll Flanders and Robinson Crusoe were also survivors.

The man is practical. The shifts he makes to survive are frequent and described in great detail. ‘He checked the valve on the tank that it was turned off and swung the little stove around on the footlocker and sat and went to work dismantling it. He unscrewed the bottom panel and he removed the burner assembly and disconnected the two burners with a small crescent wrench.’ Practicality is often a characteristic of the protagonists of post-apocalyptic stories. The protagonists of Walter Miller’s stories Dumb Waiter and Dark Benediction are practical to a degree.

The novel is narrated consistently from the point of view of the man. The boy creates interiority by silence. ‘So when are you going to talk to me again? I’m talking now. Are you sure?’

The boy has two other personality traits. He is ferociously attached to his father. ‘Take me with you, the boy said. He looked as if he was going to cry. No. I want you to wait here. Please, Papa.’

The boy also gets upset when they are unable to help someone they encounter. ‘There’s nothing we could have done. [The boy] didn’t answer. He’s going to die. We can’t share what we have or we’ll die too. I know.’

In the same way that personality has been reduced to the minimum, emotion is also restricted. The vocabulary of feeling is reduced to one word. ‘The boy was very scared.’ The only other emotion is occasional anger. We can tell when the man has been angry because when has been impatient with the boy he apologises. ‘The boy didn’t answer. [The man] was close to losing his temper with him and then he realised he was shaking head in the dark. Okay, he said. Okay.’

Apart from fear and anger the world of ash and night is numb. It is traumatised. It is not post-traumatic, despite the need for hyper-vigilance. The trauma has not ended. It seems unlikely that it will ever end.

Like personality and emotion, language is restricted. What appear to be sentences – they have initial capitals and are provided with a full stop, a period, at the end – are often not sentences at all. They lack main verbs. ‘The segments of road down there among the dead trees. Looking for anything of colour. Any movement. Any trace of standing smoke.’

Sometimes there are participial phrases. They have, as the term implies, a participle. They lack the auxiliary verb that is needed – though the phrase can be understood without it – to make it grammatically complete. ‘Everything paling away into the murk. The soft ash blowing in loose swirls over the blacktop.’

There are nominal clauses. ‘He studied what he could see.’ They look deceptively like a relative.

There are compound sentences. The connections between the clauses are made by conjunctions. ‘He lowered the glasses and pulled down the cotton mask from his face and wiped his nose on the back of his wrist and then glassed the country again.’

Where there are relative clauses they are not used to express relationships between concepts. They make precise statements about location and place. ‘The shore was lined with birch trees that stood bare pale against the dark of the evergreens beyond.’

This is technically ‘parataxis’. It is language without syntax. Relationships of hierarchy and subordination have gone. Statements are simply juxtaposed.

Parataxis is more typical of speech than writing. Writing, in The Road, consists of old newspapers and a few rain-sodden books.

Parataxis has a primitive quality. That is appropriate. This is a primitive world. The only appropriate feelings here are the primitive feelings. Most behaviours are primitive too. They concern survival.

Abstract, Latinate words – the language of formal writing – have also largely disappeared. Where Latinate terms occur they are words such as ‘glaucoma’ that describe tangible things and have entered colloquial speech.

‘At evening a dull sulphur light from the flames. The standing water in the roadside ditches black with the runoff. The mountains shrouded away. They crossed a river by a concrete bridge where skeins of ash and slurry moved slowly in the current. Charred bits of wood.’

The Latinate terms here are ‘sulphur’, ‘mountains’ and ‘concrete’. The words that convey the meaning are ‘dull’, ‘black’, ‘shroud’, ‘skein’, ‘ash’, ‘slurry’ and ‘charred’. They are Anglo-Saxon words. They are suggestive, deathly, and menacing.

There is one question that inescapably arises. Why carry on?

The man’s over-riding motivation is his attachment to boy. ‘My job is to take care of you. I was appointed to do that by God. I will kill anyone who touches you.’ The attachment is passionate and spiritual. ‘He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.’

At other times the references to God are more ambivalent. ‘Will I see you at the last? Have you a neck by which to throttle you? Have you a heart? Damn you eternally have you a soul? O God, he whispered. Oh God.’

The wife of the man who finds the boy at the end seems to believe in God. [She]… would talk to him sometimes about God.’ For the boy this is difficult. ‘He tried to talk to God but the best thing was to talk to his father….’

It does not appear to be religion that motivates the man to carry on. It is something perhaps more primitive; it is survival. ‘This is what the good guys do. They keep trying. They don’t give up.’

It is not clear that there is a purpose to survival. At one point the boy asks his father, ‘What are our long term goals?’ He startles the man with the sophistication of his language. He startles him also, perhaps, with the content of the question.

There is no answer. They carry on until they can go no further and do no more.

The Road is an allegory. It is not, I think, an adventure story as such or a horror story in the usual sense. It certainly is a post-apocalyptic story, but at the same time it is more than that. It is in fact a rather complex allegory.

There is an endless journey. There are random dangers. There is a need for constant vigilance. There are occasional windfalls. Without the windfalls they would not survive.

This is an allegory of life. This is how, for something like 120,000 years, homo sapiens sapiens survived.

The man cares. The boy learns to care from him.

This is an allegory of humanity. One of the things that human beings do that makes us different from the other primates is that we care.

The man finds food. He takes care of the boy. When necessary, he kills.

The man protects and provides. This is an allegory of love.

The man and the boy carry on. They carry on in a ruined world when there is nothing to live for any more. This is an allegory of trauma and survival.

I am sure of the literary value of this novel. It is consistent, vivid, plausible and fully imagined.

I am less sure of the philosophical value. I am bothered by the nihilism. I understand that human beings are cruel, and capable of regression. McCarthy’s imagined world, however, is so self-contained – so complete – that I do not know how to map his dark vision onto the world I am more familiar with.

I need to create a context. I can only do that by reading some more of McCarthy’s books.

Photo credit: afevrier via VisualHunt /  CC BY-NC-SA

The Diminishing Returns of Civilisation

The Collapse of Complex Societies

Joseph Tainter, 1988

Originally published in 1988, Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies remains, nearly thirty years later, one of the definitive works on the collapse of civilisation. It’s often cited in conjunction with Jared Diamond’s more succinctly-titled Collapse.

Tainter avoids the term ‘civilisation’ as a non-scientific value judgement, and prefers the term ‘complex society’. This is an example of two of the qualities that give Tainter’s work its special merit: his care for language, and his logic.

In a classic application of the scholarly method, Tainter reviews and criticises the compendious literature on the subject. He then proposes a new and, he argues, better hypothesis. He also shows, as he is required to do, that his chosen subject is ‘non-trivial.’

As Tainter points out, the interest in collapse is stimulated partly by the fall of Rome, but also by contemporary events. If civilisation has collapsed once, it can collapse again. ‘To some historians of the early twentieth century the twilight of Rome seemed almost a page of contemporary history.’

As a scholar and a scientist, Tainter defines collapse. He insists that it is a political process, and that it is ‘…a general process that is not restricted to any type of society or level of complexity’. Tainter’s general definition of collapse works well in the context of this study: ‘A society has collapsed when it displays a rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity.’ It is about process as well as outcome.

Tainter pursues a general explanation. One of his objections to the theories current at the time that he wrote is that they are ad hoc. He also feels that they are simply inadequate as theories. ‘… [they] have suffered in common from a number of conceptual and logical failings’.

Tainter provides an overview of instances of collapse. The general reader will be aware of the Minoan civilisation, the Mycenaeans, the Western Roman Empire, Mesopotamia and the Lowland Classic Maya. It is historians who are more likely to have heard of the Harappan civilisation or the Hittites. Other examples – such as the Chacoans of the Southwest desert, the Hopewell culture of the Northeast and the Midwest, the Huari and Tiahunanco empires of pre-Inca Peru – would tend to be known rather to anthropologists and archaeologists. One of the incidental benefits of this book for some readers, I think, would be in providing pointers to unfamiliar aspects of ancient history and prehistory that they might wish to explore.

Tainter accepts that the picture in popular fiction and films of life after the collapse of industrial civilisation contains elements that are known historically from collapses in the past. He instances the breakdown of authority and law, squatting, a loss of population and a regression to local self-sufficiency. The possibility would be, as Tainter points out, catastrophic.

Tainter, as a scientist and a scholar, defines complex society. He points out that complexity, historically, is an anomaly. Most societies have been small, simple and kinship based. Complex societies are unequal and heterogeneous. Many of the characteristics of complex societies are in fact features of states: these would include such things as a concern with territorial integrity, and with maintaining legitimacy. Tainter discusses, and rejects, the idea of a ‘Great Divide’ between states and non-state societies. Societies which are not fully fledged states can be quite complex.

Tainter discusses the evolution of complex societies. There have been a number of theories. Tainter gives six examples of ‘primary’ states, those which have evolved independently: Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, Indus River Valley, Mexico and Peru. Bruce Trigger, in Understanding Early Civilisation, also cites Benin. In this discussion Tainter emphasises that states are problem-solving organisations. It is a reminder that it is difficult to understand the later history of states without identifying the problem they were originally intended to solve.

Tainter describes and analyses the literature of collapse in detail. This is the heart of his criticism of earlier theories. He is very thorough. He identifies eleven separate theories. These include resource depletion, catastrophe, invaders, mysticism and economics. Of these Tainter has most time for economics. These explanations are, in his eyes, logically preferable as they describe specific mechanisms or formulate a causal chain. Economic theories of collapse are thus open to criticism and can be tested and revised.

Catastrophe is one of the most popular explanations of collapse. Tainter sees it as among the weakest. Catastrophe theories invoke earthquakes in the Caribbean, volcanic eruptions in the Aegean and malaria or plague in Rome. The logical difficulty is that complex societies quite often experience catastrophe, and routinely – according to Tainter – do so without collapsing. As Tainter says: ‘It is doubtful if any large society has ever succumbed to a single-event catastrophe’.

Invaders are another very popular explanation. The Harappan civilisation, apparently, was destroyed by Aryans with chariots. Mesopotamia was overwhelmed by Gutians, Amorites and Elamites. The Hittites were brought down by the Sea Peoples. The Minoans were over-run by the Mycenaeans, and the Mycenaeans in turn were destroyed by the Dorian branch of the Greeks.

Tainter’s criticism is that a recurrent event, collapse, is here being explained by a random variable. The overthrow of a dominant state by a weaker people is not an explanation. If it does occur, it is a phenomenon which needs in itself to be explained. Tainter also points out that there is remarkably little archaeological evidence.

Tainter has great fun with the mystical explanations. There have been records of mystical explanations of collapse ever since there were civilisations to collapse and other civilisations to record them. They include ‘decadence’, Christianity, the disappearance of great men and the abandonment of ancient manners. Tainter dismisses them for their reliance on analogies with biological growth, their use of value judgements and their reliance on intangibles. In Tainter’s opinion, Oswald Spengler, the author of The Decline of the West, which had a powerful impact in Europe in the 20s and 30s, was ‘supremely mystical’.

Tainter’s new theory is at the heart of the book. To develop a general explanation Tainter draws on a concept from economics, that of ‘marginal productivity’ or ‘marginal return on investment’. Marginal cost, or marginal investment, means an increase expenditure or investment beyond the current level. Economists and cost accountants are very well aware that as expenditure and investment are increased, the marginal productivity – the output that results from extra investment – will decline. Eventually it will decline to nothing.

Tainter sees human societies as requiring investment and expenditure for their maintenance. Society has costs. Complex societies, he argues – and this I think is entirely reasonable – have greater costs per capita. Tainter’s thesis is that the benefits of investment in complexity characteristically, not occasionally, reach a point where they begin to decline. It is an elegant, not to say a sophisticated, point of view.

Tainter cites a number of instances. He asserts that farming, when it began, was a response to population growth. Many pre-historians would disagree with that. The origins of farming are quite difficult to explain. They would however almost to a man agree with his assertion that the marginal return on subsistence agriculture declines with every additional unit of labour that is added.

Tainter also uses the example of fuel. He points out that a ‘rationally-acting human population’ first uses the reserves that are easiest, and cheapest, to exploit. When it is necessary to use less easily-obtained resources, productivity automatically declines.

More sophisticated examples are the declining productivity of R & D and education. The decreasing effectiveness of R & D is very well documented. Tainter’s arguments for the declining productivity of increasing participation in education, and extending the years of education, are quite startling.

Tainter believes that additional costs will increasingly be seen as bringing no benefit to the population. Complexity will increasingly be perceived as a burden. Sections of society will resist, or attempt to break away.

Technological innovation, in Tainter’s eyes, is unusual in human history. The best way of maintaining growth and complexity is to find a new what he calls an ‘energy subsidy’ such as fossil fuels or nuclear energy, or – more traditionally – territorial expansion.

Having set up his theory, Tainter is now obliged to show that it is helpful in understanding collapse in particular cases. To do so, he analyses in detail three historical instances of collapse; the Western Roman Empire, the Classic Maya of the Southern Lowlands, and the Chacoan society of the American Southwest. The Chacoans are the people sometimes known as the Anasazi. According to Wikipedia, contemporary Pueblans do not like the latter term, and do not want it to be used.

The main costs of the Western Roman Empire were the army and the civil service. Under the Republic, the empire was self-financing. Conquests paid for themselves, in plunder, and more than paid for themselves. It was possible to reduce the tax liabilities of the citizenry quite dramatically.

Augustus, the first Emperor, terminated the policy of expansion. Trajan attempted foreign wars. Most Emperors followed Augustus policy. Without the loot of successful foreign wars, the imperial exchequer was hard pressed to meet the expenses of the state. Nero, in 64 A.D., debased the coinage. It was a stratagem that future emperors frequently resorted to. Plague, wars with Germanic tribes and inflation weakened the Empire. In the third century the Empire nearly broke up.

Diocletian (284-305) created an authoritarian regime designed to ensure the survival of the state. Government was large and the military was increased in size. There was coercion, conscription and regulation. The costs fell on a depleted population. Agricultural land was abandoned, further reducing the tax base and the revenue. In 476, the last Emperor was deposed by a Germanic king.

As Tainter says, ‘… the [Classic] Maya [of the Southern Lowlands] are … a people whose greatest mystery is their abrupt departure from the stage of world history….’ The Southern Lowlands society collapsed between 790 and 890 A.D. While the Mayans had a script, which is increasingly well understood, much remains to be deciphered. The evidence of archaeology is therefore very important in understanding Mayan collapse.

As Maya civilisation evolved, there was a shift to more intensive agriculture, accompanied by deforestation. Fortifications were erected. The monumental public buildings, for which the ruins of the Maya cities are justly celebrated, were put up. There was social differentiation. Mayan civilisation was costly in human labour. The Mayan cities competed amongst themselves for increasingly scarce resources.

Collapse was swift. Complexity disappeared. Temples were neither built nor maintained. Stelae were no longer erected. Luxury items disappeared. Writing stopped. There was a major loss of population. As Tainter says, the nature of the final ‘push’ is not clear. That is important. What is clear is that the costs of complexity fell entirely on the agricultural population, and could no longer be sustained. There may in fact have been a short-term gain for the peasants – the surviving peasants, at least – when the cities fell.

‘Chacoan society of the San Juan Basin of north-western New Mexico…’ had no writing. It ‘…is known only from its archaeological remains.’ The region is arid, and surrounded by mountains. Chaco Canyon is its main feature. The canyon is ‘… an island of topographic relief and environmental variety….’ Its main advantage is tributary drainage. However the soil is poor, and the growing seasons are short. There is little permanent water. Drought is common.

It is a marginal environment. Around 900 A.D. complex regional system developed, designed to even out fluctuations in agricultural productivity. There is no parallel in this area of America in prehistoric times.

The distinctive attribute of Chacoan society is the ‘Great Houses’. They were large, and connected by roads. They had several hundred rooms, on multiple storeys, with elaborate masonry. The rooms were large and high-ceilinged with timber roofs. The Great Houses have a large number of storage rooms relative to their size. Their residents were people of higher status, while the bulk of the population lived in small pueblos.

The population grew to several thousand. Marginal land was cultivated. Building stopped in 1132 A.D. ‘By mid-to-late twelfth, or early thirteenth, century the Chacoan system had essentially collapsed…. After 1300 A.D. the region was essentially abandoned by agricultural peoples.’ The system had become costly and there were decreasing returns. The outlying Great Houses withdrew from the network. A severe, prolonged drought from 1134 to 1181 may have been the ‘final blow’.

All these three cases show that the costs of complexity increased. In the Maya Lowlands and Chaco Canyon there was a late surge of building. In the Western Roman Empire, it was the expansion of the army and the increase in size of the bureaucracy that imposed the costs. The population of all three societies, at the end, was declining or stagnant. In the case of the Mayans and the Chacoans, the abandonment of territory suggests environmental degradation.

Tainter says that collapse can be economical and rational. Simpler forms of organisation can be cheaper and more productive. He also points out that there is likely to be a considerable loss of population. The historical evidence is that those who survive are likely to be directly engaged in agricultural production. That has implications for a modern recurrence.

Tainter accepts that there is no ‘formal, quantitative test’ for his theory. Even in the relatively well-documented case of the Western Roman Empire, there is insufficient data. The theory does, however, appear to have explanatory value. Apart from anything else, it enables one historical case of collapse to be compared with another. I am not aware how widely it has been accepted in anthropology, archaeology and ancient history.

What gives me pause is that in cases like the Southern Lowland Maya and the Chacoans we do not know what was the ‘final push’ or the ‘final blow’. Without that, any evaluation of the theory must remain provisional.

This is one of the definitive treatments of a very important historical process, which many think is critically important to contemporary society. It impresses, above all its other merits, by its remorseless logic.

Photo credit: These * Are * My * Photons via VisualHunt / CC BY-NC

Cycle of Destruction

A Canticle for Leibowitz

Walter J Miller, Jr

A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960) is one of the most important English-language books of the second half of the twentieth century. It is science fiction. It is as good as anything that was written in the ‘mainstream’ at that time.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is about the nuclear Holocaust. It is alternative history. Miller imagines that nuclear war broke out in the 1960s, shortly after his novel was written, and that civilisation was destroyed. A Canticle for Leibowitz is amongst other things a post-apocalyptic novel.

Miller’s history is based on the intellectual history of Europe after the fall of Rome. Miller’s concept of history is cyclical. A very similar intellectual sequence is repeated in the former United States, after the nuclear Holocaust. It is also a pessimistic history, even perhaps fatalistic. After two thousand years the Holocaust happens again.

The novel is in three parts, divided from each other by several hundred years. A Dark Age occurs six hundred years after the Holocaust. Six hundred years later, there is a scientific renaissance, and dynastic states are emerging from the chaos. After another six hundred years, an industrial state emerges. It is sophisticated enough to develop nuclear weapons, and launch another nuclear war.

The action of the novel centres on the Albertian Order of Leibowitz. The Albertian order, to my mind, is a wonderful invention of Miller’s. It is a celibate order, modelled rather closely on the Benedictines. Its abbey is in the South-western desert, on the road to ‘Old El Paso’. The members of the order are Bookleggers or Memorisers. They are tasked with preserving the fragments of the scientific knowledge of the ancient ‘Euro-American’ civilisation. They dutifully conserve and copy; they understand very little of the scientific legacy.

Almost all the action takes place in and around the Abbey of the order. Abbots change and the abbey evolves, but the location of the action in the abbey is consistent. It is one of the devices that unites the three parts of the novel.

Much of the record of the ancient culture has been destroyed. The Simplification was a wave of bloody and destructive lynchings and book-burnings that followed the Holocaust – the ‘Flame Deluge’, as Miller dubs it in a passage of biblical pastiche. One of the martyrs of the Simplification is the eponymous founder of the Order, Leibowitz himself.

Leibowitz was a weapons engineer who lost his wife in the Holocaust. He joined the Cistercians, an offshoot of the Benedictines, and became a priest. After some years he was permitted to found his order and preserve the ‘Memorabilia’, as the fragmentary manuscripts are known. ‘Memorabilia’, I think, is another wonderful invention of Miller’s. Albertus Magnus, the patron saint of the order, was a thirteenth-century philosopher and theologian who was very much involved in the revival of science.

The action of the first part of the novel turns on the case for the canonisation of Leibowitz. It is finally successful, and Leibowitz becomes a saint. In the Dark Ages of the opening chapters of A Canticle for Leibowitz, it is the miraculous that matters. At the beginning of the novel the simple novice, Francis, encounters an enigmatic, cynical pilgrim in the desert. The pilgrim, in an illiterate age, knows not only Latin but Hebrew. The pilgrim sets off a chain of events which result in Brother Francis discovering relics of the Blessed Leibowitz. The reader, though not Francis, soon realises that the pilgrim is in fact Leibowitz – six hundred years after his death. This concealing of information from the characters while it is revealed to the reader is an example of the irony that pervades the novel.

Leibowitz is a mysterious, subversive and thoroughly delightful figure. He is the most complex of the characters, to call them that, in the novel. He survives, by some no doubt miraculous means which Miller never explains, his very public martyrdom and death. He is the pilgrim in the first part of the novel and the ‘hermit’ in the second. In the third and final part, he becomes the old beggar. He is, of course, a Catholic priest, a Catholic martyr and finally a Catholic saint. Notwithstanding his emphatically endorsed Catholicism, he is also a Jew.

Leibowitz is, in fact, the Wandering Jew of Medieval legend. He waits for a Messiah. The Messiah never comes. In the world of A Canticle for Leibowitz, there is no hope of salvation. Christ the Redeemer is not present in the novel. Miller, who for several years after World War Two was a Catholic, had lapsed.

In the second part of the novel there is a revival of interest in science. Pfardentrott, a rather mad scientist from the newly emerging state of Texarkana, has heard of the documents. He wants them sent to Texarkana so that his collegium can examine them. Finally he accepts that he has to go to the abbey.

Pfardentrott is shocked. He is shocked because some of the monks have managed to build a primitive dynamo which powers an arc light. He is also shocked because the texts he finds in the abbey are of great value, and no-one other than the monks knew of their existence.

Pfardentrott and the abbot try to be civil. Finally they clash. Pfardentrott believes that religion is superstition. The abbot believes that scientific curiosity is Original Sin. He believes it led to the Flame Deluge, and that the revival of science will lead to another holocaust.

The monks dismantle the dynamo. They take down the arc light and put the crucifix back. Pfardentrott leaves. It is a hollow victory. At the beginning of the third and last part of A Canticle for Leibowitz, the Holocaust is already impending.

The Order has acquired a spaceship. It has been busily recruiting spacers as monks. Its role is to take the memorabilia on microfilm and ensure the continuity of the Apostolic Succession of the Catholic Church on the colony planets among the stars. The idea of a medieval order of monks with a spaceship is rather wonderful.

Someone starts the nuclear war. The monks give shelter of refugees, many of them sick and injured. An organisation called Green Star relief sets up a Mercy Camp down the road. It offers legalised euthanasia to the incurable. The abbot rows with the doctor who is testing the refugees for radiation. The doctor argues that pain is the only form of evil he can deal with. The abbot responds that in the eyes of the church euthanasia is evil.

This is an argument between the values of humanism and the need for obedience to God’s will. The orthodox interpretation of Original Sin is that it is rebellion against God. It could hardly be more serious.

It is not clear who wins. The doctor leaves. The abbot is nearly arrested for picketing the Mercy Camp. He tries to persuade a very sick woman to refuse euthanasia for her child. He fails.

The small party of monks leave for the stars. The abbot is convinced that human beings will display exactly the same self-destructive tendencies on a new planet. This may be survival, in some sense. It is not salvation.

One of the most mysterious and puzzling stories in A Canticle for Leibowitz is the story of Mrs Grales. Mrs Grales is a tomato seller. She suffers from genetic damage as a result of the Flame Deluge. She has a second head growing from her shoulder. She calls the head Rachel, and wants it baptised.

At the end of the novel there is another nuclear strike. The abbot is dying. Mrs Grales has died, but her second head lives on. The abbot tries to baptise her. Rachel refuses. She is preternaturally innocent. She was not born in sin.

The abbot takes Rachel’s innocence as hope for salvation. It is more ambiguous than that. Rachel is innocent, but she is also a mutant. It is not quite clear that she is human. Is Miller suggesting that humanity can only be saved if it evolves into something else?

A Canticle for Leibowitz is saturated with Catholic images. The theology may be heretical. Miller uses it to make his novel deeply coherent intellectually. A Canticle for Leibowitz prophesies nuclear war. It is prophetic in another sense. It is a fundamentally serious tract for the times.

As a young airman Miller participated in a raid on the Abbey of Monte Cassino, the original house of the Benedictine order. As a young husband, the detonation of a nuclear device over Hiroshima spared Miller being posted to the Pacific theatre to risk his life again. Miller’s reflections on these experiences clearly contribute to the writing of A Canticle for Leibowitz.

A Canticle for Leibowitz won a Hugo. The year before, Miller had won his first Hugo for his short novel, The Darfsteller. In The Darfsteller Miller announces his decision to quit science fiction, and his intention of writing ‘one last great’ before he does so. He also predicts that he will not know what to do with the rest of his life.

The ‘one last great’ was A Canticle for Leibowitz. Miller was thirty-seven when it was published. He lived for more than another thirty years. He wrote and published very little. After the death of his wife he committed suicide.

He never did figure out what to do with the rest of his life.

Photo credit: RA.AZ via Visualhunt.com / CC BY

All you need to format your ebook

 Six books and three programmes

If you want to format your own file as an eBook, you need just four books. You also need three pieces of software.

Those are the two main ways of formatting an eBook.

You can format the file yourself as an Epub or Mobi file – the two most common Ebook formats – and upload the file to Kindle Direct Publishing or Smashwords. That gives you control of the formatting and, most importantly, of the appearance of your book.

Alternatively, you can clean up your Word manuscript – or your Libre Office file, or whatever wordprocessing software you use – and let Kindle Direct Publishing or Smashwords and let them convert the file to an eBook.

This saves time and effort. You don’t have to learn new software. And it doesn’t cost anything extra.

If you want to use this method, and upload your wordprocessing file to Kindle Direct Publishing or Smashwords, relax. Each company makes a manual available.

This isn’t really the place for a thorough discussion of the respective merits of the different approaches. What it is important to realise is that people tend to be partisan. You rarely find a fair account of both alternatives in the same book or post.

People who advocate formatting the file yourself are very deprecatory about uploading the wordprocessing file. They say the publishers often make a horrible mess. They tend not to give examples.

People who recommend uploading to Kindle Direct Publishing or Smashwords don’t usually mention the possibility of doing it yourself. It’s as if the other way doesn’t exist.

The best-sellers sometimes dismiss the writers who format their own books as hobbyists. I think they are artisans. It’s a question of personality.

I would not recommend online conversion services. You don’t know what software they are using and you don’t know what the results are like.

Some word processing packages enable you to output an Epub or Mobi file. Don’t. Guido Henkel is emphatic on this point: ‘…word processors‌—‌ and that includes “Scrivener”‌—‌are not very good at what eBooks do, and are therefore the wrong tools for the job when the time comes to create an eBook from your finished manuscript.’

Scrivener is designed for drafting long documents. I don’t think it’s even very good at word processing. I certainly wouldn’t use it to output an Epub or a Mobi file.

I would not recommend paying anyone else to turn your word-processing your file into an eBook for you. Even if you are very rich and very busy, I suggest that you find out what would be involved in the other methods first.

The books

  1. EBOOKS 101: A BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO E-BOOK FORMATTING, Teo Kos, 2015

This books is exactly what it says. It takes you through the rather limited amount of HTML and CSS you need to format an eBook and shows you how to do it. You can use EBOOKS 901 as an introduction, but it is designed as a manual. I have it open when I do more formatting, and I toggle back and forth.

Ana Jevtic Kos, Teo’s wife, is an artist and designer. Together they run First Ink Studios, an eBook design and formatting service. Teo Kos is also a writer. He knows the business from both sides.

Mr Kos writes science fiction as Viktor Kowalski. Apparently this means ‘John Smith’ in Polish.

If you can explain to me why a respectable Croatian professional calls himself ‘John Smith’ in Polish when he writes science fiction, I will award a small prize. A copy of my first novel as an eBook, perhaps?

It’s £1.99 on Kindle. You can go directly to the product page on Amazon by clicking here.

2. ZEN OF EBOOK FORMATTINGGuido Henkel, 2015

Mr Henkel is vastly experienced. He formats his own books and has vast hordes of customers for his fomatting service. His great strength as an author is that he doesn’t just know eBooks and the web. He also knows print.

Mr Henkel makes the differences between print and eBooks very clear. He is also very good at explaining why we format eBooks the way we do. He explains concepts like reflowable in simple terms.

I would recommend this very highly as an introduction. Mr Henkel does not write solely for beginners and his advice is sometimes quite sophisticated. It was from Mr Henkel’s book for example that I learned how to insert a clickable link. I love inserting clickable links.

Mr Kos’s book and Mr Henkel’s complement each other very well.

ZEN OF EBOOK FORMATTING costs £3.77 on Kindle. The direct link to the Amazon product page is here.

Mr Henkel’s email, which I am sure he will not mind me publishing for the millions, is ghenkel@guidohenkel.com. To visit his website, click here.

3. HOW TO MAKE AN E-BOOK COVER for non-designers, Kate Harper, 2012

The manuals of self-publishing, the how to books and the guides all agree on one thing: you can’t design and create the covers for your own eBook.

Oh yes, you can. And Ms Harper is going to explain how.

If you’re doing down-market genre fiction and selling large quantities, a professionally designed cover will make a measurable difference. If you haven’t yet got any money coming in from sales, you need to look a cheaper options.

Creating your own cover can be one of those options. And it’s fun.

Ms Harper covers finding and editing images, as well as laying out type, colour, integrating the different elements, formatting and uploading.

My only disagreement is over software. Ms Harper recommends either Word, which is limited, or Adobe Photoshop, which is expensive.

She suggests using a free thirty-day download of Photoshop, or accessing it in a public library. My hair curls.

I recommend Gimp. See below.

HOW TO MAKE AN EBOOK COVER is £2.10 on Kindle. The Amazon product page is here.

4. HOW TO GIMP: The Gnu Image Manipulation Program for Complete Beginners, Katherine Landreth, 2013

Kat Landreth’s HOW TO GIMP is the essential complement to Kate Harper’s book. HOW TO GIMP is a compehensive, step by step guide to Gimp, the powerful software package of choice if you want to create covers.

You can use Gimp (more details below, under software) to create cover images for print layout programmes like Scribus. You can also use it to create eBook covers for upload to Kindle Direct Publishing or Smashwords.

You can contact Ms Landreth via the publishers, Three Dots Press, who are at 3126 Cary Street, Richmond, VA 23221.

£7.78 on Amazon here.

Software

All the software I am recommending here is open source. It has been developed collectively, and it is free.

A. SIGIL

Sigil is a text editor like Notepad. It is designed specifically for eBooks. It allows you to toggle from a ‘code view’ to a ‘book view’, which is very useful. It will generate an automatic table of contents. It won’t let you save your work unless it is a well-formed HTML file. It’s very much the software of choice.

B. CALIBRE 64 BIT

Calibre can be used to organise a library of eBooks, and as a reader. Its main use in self-publishing is to convert a file from one format to another.

The industry standard for eBooks was originally a protocol called Epub. Some people still need files in this format, and this is what Sigil outputs.

Kindle uses a protocol called Mobi. Amazon can’t use the industry standard.

Calibre converts your Sigil file from Epub to Mobi while you wait.  Use the Save to Disc command to save the converted file in a folder.

The conversion is easy. Mobi is in fact based on Epub. One wonders why Amazon…. No. We know why Amazon.

You will see separate icons for each format. You can then upload the Mobi file to Kindle.

If you think the name Mobi is weird, it is. Amazon bought the software from a French firm called Mobipocket, who sold – guess what? – pocket mobile phones.

C. GIMP

Make your images, including cover images, and create eBook covers. Gimp is the open source equivalent of Photoshop.

It has powerful resources, most of which you probably won’t need. It can do pretty much everything you want.

NB: I have seen very positive remarks on line from people who make their own covers using a design programme called Canva. I haven’t used it myself.

The Manuals

If you upload your wordprocessing file to Kindle Direct Publishing or Smashwords you will need to clean it up or it won’t format properly.

You have to strip out the page numbers and the running heads, and any tabs or carriage returns you have used to create paragraph and page breaks, and extra spaces at the end of paragraphs. Use the formatting commands on the menu bar.

By the time you have written your first novel you will probably be able to find your way around your wordprocessing package fairly easily. If you can’t, consider asking a fourteen-year-old nephew. Fourteen-year-old nephews understand about these things.

Both Kindle Direct Publishing and Smashwords have thoughtfully provided manuals. You only need one.

5. BUILDING YOUR BOOK FOR KINDLE, Kindle Direct Publishing

It’s free and it’s here.

6. THE SMASHWORDS STYLE GUIDEMark Coker, 2012.

Smashwords now convert to a range of formats. They prefer you to upload  a properly prepared wordprocessing file, rather than an Epub.

Mr Coker’s author page on Smashwords is here. His Facebook URL is this.

You can of course get the STYLE GUIDE from Smashwords. For completeness – since I have given the Amazon product page link for every other book in this post – you can also get it here.

Example

You can see details of the latest book I did with this software and using these books here. It’s not bad.

Photo credit: pyramidtextsonline via Visual hunt / CC BY

The public letter writer

I have been intrigued by the idea of the public letter writer for about forty years. In my twenties I was lucky enough to spend a fortnight in Ghana. That was wonderful in a number of ways. My enduring memories include the slave fort at Cape Coast, and a funeral at Elmina where the dancers were wearing costumes based on eighteenth-century grenadiers, floppy tasseled caps and all.

I can’t remember where it was I saw the letter writers. It wasn’t a big or impressive market. Some of the traders -mostly women – were just sitting on the bare ground with their meagre stock spread in front of them waiting for customers to come.

At the edge of market there were a couple of folding tables. Behind each was a folding chair. You cannot have an office without at least a table and a chair.

Each of the tables was protected by a tall umbrella from the sun. The umbrellas were secured in the ground. They must have had a spike at the end of the handle.

In the centre of each of the tables was an old Underwood or a Remington. I was still using my father’s old Remington at the time. I loved it.

Around the typewriters was the rest of the stock in trade. A packet of envelopes, a sheaf of paper, a pile of printed official forms.

The proprietors of the businesses were standing a little to one side. Business must have been a little slack.

They weren’t laughing or joking. These were serious men. I have the impression that one was wearing a traditional Ghanaian shirt with trumpet sleeves, and perhaps a skullcap, and that at least one of them was looking scholarly in glasses.

Public letter writers exist to write what their clients would have written if they could have written it themselves. I thought it was wonderful.

I hadn’t really settled down to anything when I left college. The fantasy of being a writer was still too strong. I was in and out of short-lived, unsatisfactory jobs.

If I had thought there was a market for public letter writers in England, I would have wanted to be one.

I have heard of public letter writers in other African countries, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo. The narrator of Naguib Mahfouz’ Children of the Alley is a letter writer. He is the first person in the Alley to have made a living from writing. Nobody understands him.

Public letter writers must have been fairly widespread in the Third World at one time. When there is a modern government which does its business on paper, a population which is largely illiterate and unemployed school leavers public letter writers are going to exist.

I would imagine they were an urban phenomenon. There can’t have been enough business in the villages for full-time specialists in letter writing.

Nowadays the public letter writers are being made redundant by computers. I feel sad.

Many years later I had the opportunity to work as a community mental health advocate. My sister says I was paid to make trouble, and did it.

I used to do correspondence for vulnerable people, and fill in forms for people who were paralysed by their anxiety about the bureaucracy. I was instructed. I was supposed to do what the clients wanted, and not what I thought was good for them. I often used to see the resemblance between what I was doing and what a public letter writer did.

The young woman whose story eventually prompted me to write In the Night the Men Come approached me about a housing matter. On one occasion I made an appointment for her to approve a draft of a letter before I sent it.

We met in a community centre on an estate that I had occasional use of. It was much more convenient for her.

We sat round the corner of the big meeting table. I watched her read the letter with full attention.

When she put it down she said, ‘That is what I would have written if I could have done it myself.’

I felt completely validated.

She knows about In the Night the Men Come. All she said was ‘Wow’. She hasn’t kept in touch. I wasn’t able to offer her a copy.

I don’t think it’s what she would have written at all. I have been very careful to make sure she can’t be identified. I have changed almost everything. Anything else would have been presumptuous.

I still do public writing. My flatmate is the chair of the local community association. When she needs a flyer or a press release she cajoles me. She is very proud of her literary lodger.

I wonder about the novels.

I don’t think I write the stories that readers would have written themselves. But maybe I can write stories that my readers need to have told?

Photo credit: via Visual Hunt / CC BY

Writing in retirement

A self-published writer enjoying his retirement in idyllic surroundings

Writing in retirement is such a cliche. Even my flatmate teases me about writing my memoirs, and my flatmate likes me. I walk the dog and feed the cat.

I reached 65, normal retirement age for men of my generation, just under three years ago. A few months before the small local charity I was working for lost the contract that funded my post.

I hadn’t assumed that I would retire. I thought I would continue working, at least part-time, till I was seventy. I applied for a few jobs in my field and got a couple of interviews. I came second.

Coming second in a job interview is a bit like coming fourth in the Olympics. You don’t get anything.

After about eighteen months I realised I liked not being tired and stressed the whole time. I think that is the point at which I accepted that I had retired.

I started In the Night the Men Come a few months before I left the job. At that stage I wasn’t writing in retirement, and I wasn’t expecting to retire.

I had been doing a lot of personal writing, off and on, for a long time. I had got to the point where I  wanted either to finish it, or stop.

I was trying to write about childhood sexual abuse. I was worried about narcissism, and there was quite a difficult technical problem. There appeared to be two timescales, one for the events and the other for the memories. It was difficult to reconcile them.

I had done an edit. I was trying to force myself to read it over, so I could make a decision.

I couldn’t do it. At that point I knew I had abandoned the project.

I asked myself if I would ever write again. The answer was, ‘Yes, probably.’

I asked myself if I would ever write fiction again. I was in the office at work. The answer was, ‘If I had a story’.

I realised at that moment that I did have a story. A client of mine had been gang-raped in prison in her country of origin by the security forces. They were trying to get her to denounce a close family member as a spy.

The young woman was still traumatised. She had had a very difficult time before she got ‘indefinite leave to remain’ in the United Kingdom. She was still struggling in some ways.

I had done what I could. I would have liked to do more. I was angry.

Within twenty-four hours I had a complete outline. The next morning I went to my local Ryman’s and bought an imitation Moleskin notebook.

I thought that was really weird. There I was. I was sixty-four years of age. I was on my local high street buying a writer’s notebook.

I struggled with the book. I stopped writing for a while before I left the job. I was just too tired.

I took time off and did something else between drafts. The ‘something else’ was usually a draft of an essay. I haven’t yet completed them.

I did a lot of revision. I did each version in a different colour. By the end the manuscript looked wonderful. It was also completely illegible.

I did ‘substantive editing’. I kicked whole chapters out and wrote new ones.

That made me nervous. I have never liked writing to order. It gave me a lot of confidence to find that I could imagine something new when I needed to.

In the Night the Men Come took about two years, off and on. The City that Walked Away took six months, and Survivor took four weeks.

I didn’t do a lot of revision on either The City that Walked Away or Survivor, and I didn’t do any substantive editing. I had found a technique and a style. The first draft was pretty good and the writing was easy.

Writing in retirement clearly allowed me to be more productive. I wouldn’t have written nearly so much if I had been working, even part-time.

I had a security I hadn’t had before. My old age pension is almost like a citizen’s income. Day to day I don’t need to worry.

I also in an almost ideal environment. I had to move about the same time I lost the job, which was a little nerve racking. In my new home I have room for a desk, I have four bookcases and I have a balcony. It’s perfect.

Clearly if I hadn’t realised I had a story I wouldn’t be writing, or at least I wouldn’t be writing fiction. I would probably be volunteering.

There are other processes involved. They are longer-term.

In 1993 I self-published an offset-litho paperback novel. It was a disaster. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I did it anyway. I was manic.

That was bruising. I solemnly abjured fiction. I had in fact already become very sceptical about fiction. I wrote the novel anyway.

I decided that if I wanted good mental health, I needed to do the same things that everyone else did. I didn’t need to be special and different. That was essential to mental health recovery.

I also dismissed my conviction that I was a writer as a narcissistic adolescent fantasy. That was going too far.

I didn’t read fiction again until 2003. I was really angry with Tony Blair. I wanted find out more about the Arab world.

I stumbled across Naguib Mahfouz. Mahfouz restored my faith. I collected his novels avidly. I am not usually a collector.

I realised it wasn’t fiction I had a problem with. It was contemporary Euro-American fiction, and more generally ‘bourgeois realism’.

When I moved and retired, I had the leisure to develop my new-found interest. I discovered contemporary Chinese fiction. I am not just writing in retirement. I am reading in retirement as well.

Writing in retirement gives me the leisure to write and frees me from distraction. Retirement is a necessary condition for productivity.

It isn’t a sufficient condition. I had to regain my faith in fiction, and I needed good mental health. And I needed a story.

Photo credit: State Library and Archives of Florida via Visualhunt.com / No known copyright restrictions