Friday Fictioneers – The system

anonymous-kitchen-photo
PHOTO PROMPT © A. Noni Mouse

If I told him once, I told him a thousand times–cups go on the left, plates and pans on the right, cutlery underneath. I cook, clean, and mend. It really shouldn’t have been hard for him to manage the washing-up.

There has to be a system for everything. Left-overs go to the hogs. No need for acid baths or body parts in freezers.

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

138. Scenarios for the world after Covid

One thing is sure—we’re going to need new stories. Stories help us make sense of the world. And our world now is turned upside down in a way we haven’t seen for generations. How do we go forward from our lockdown societies?

covid street

That’s where storytelling comes in. Scenario thinking accepts we can’t predict what’s going to happen. Instead, it looks at the forces that are driving change and constructs several alternative visions of what the future might look like. This allows us to rehearse what we might do in each of these futures. It may also allow us to make better choices now.

So, I built four scenarios of where we might end up. These feature in my book, The Scheherazade Code, about the power of story-telling.

 

Drivers of change

The first step was to identify the drivers of change.

Political ·         A mixture of nationalist competition and globalist cooperation. In some countries, leaders make use of the pandemic to introduce greater measures of control and surveillance

·         An increased awareness of who we depend on and support for a new dispensation. There is growing pressure to improve the wages and conditions for agricultural workers, nurses, care workers, delivery drivers, cleaners, and retail staff. This is strongly resisted by the corporations. In the end, expectations of cheap goods provide an easy lure to accept only token changes in wages. There is a much stronger support for decent social care and welfare systems.

·         Citizens’ acceptance of a more interventionist role for the state may be enhanced, though this is counter-balanced by growing distrust and opposition to restrictions

·         The EU will be further weakened by the beggar-my-neighbour initial response, though this may be mitigated by sharing of the pain on the route to recovery

·         Geo-politically, China emerges stronger and more expansionist from the crisis. This may make the US more bellicose and Russia more adventurous

Economic ·         Short term very sharp economic decline (worse than any previous crisis). Best outcome would be a V-shaped recover with a quick rebound. Equally possible is a U-shaped recover. Since there were no major underlying problems, an L-shaped curve is unlikely

·         The long period of the “new normal” favours sectors of the economy which don’t require mass gatherings (such as home entertainment). Mass communication technologies receive a huge boost, including in education. Much more retail goes online, spurring growth in delivery and logistics systems. Much more working from home in office jobs, though the renewed emphasis on national self-reliance also boosts industrial investment in critical areas

·         In the developed world, any hint of return to austerity is unacceptable. Higher levels of national debt and taxation are accepted

·         A renewed focus on national self-reliance in key areas such as food, energy, and critical technology

·         Countries that locked down on time and engaged in testing and tracing emerge early and have a competitive advantage. The US suffers long-term decline.

Social ·         A sense of social solidarity from the pandemic persists afterwards and demand to properly reward those we depend on leads to a new social contract

·         Conversely, a growing distrust of strangers provides fertile ground for nationalism and racism

·         A sense of guilt at that the way the elderly and the poor were abandoned. But also the young, ejected from the economy in the recession, form a lost generation. Age politics grows, as the young refuse to bear the burden of recovery.

·         A sense of pride at having come through the crisis by collective effort

·         Possession and wealth are no longer the mark of status and there is less celebrity culture and more celebration of ordinary people

·         A renewed respect for expertise and wider dreams among children of becoming a scientist. An increasing understanding that “the science” is a state of enquiring mind, not a definitive yes/no answer that politicians favour.

·         An awareness of the need to take care of the future and prepare for future threats. A willingness to debate more long-term issues.

Technology ·         Rapid growth in communications and distribution technology

·         Enhanced decline of the high street with long-term closure of pubs, restaurants, cinemas and gyms

·         A resurgence of some engineering industries

·         Enhanced public-private investment in epidemic preparedness

Environment ·         Dramatically reduced carbon release during the pandemic, cleaner air and environment, rebound of the natural world.

·         The valuing of nature and the belief that collective effort lead, especially among the young, to a willingness to take on the challenge of confronting the climate crisis

Health ·         Covid 19 is not eliminated, though societies learn to coexist with it by developing better systems of health surveillance. Poorer countries remain breeding grounds for the virus.

·         Treatments will become available, lessening the threat of the virus

·         Though there are positive signs that a vaccine could be developed (say by mid-2021) lasting immunity is not characteristic of other coronaviruses

·         Lasting mental health challenges and physical health complications

 

Key uncertainties

Analysing these drivers allows identification of the key axes of uncertainty about the direction the future might take.

These are:

Globalism             versus              Nationalism

Social change        versus              Business-As-Usual

Combining these leads to four possible futures:

 

Four futures

Post Covid Futures

Spur is a world in which the pandemic has prompted a sense of interdependence and cooperation, rebalancing values. The coronavirus response showed that rapid action is possible to decisively face challenges. There’s a renewed focus on the welfare of people and of the planet. Preparation for future pandemics us underway, as are efforts to tackle the climate crisis. Introduction of a universal basic income grant in many developed societies means nobody goes hungry, while international aid is helping to build a more equal world. This is a kinder, greener world.

Fortresses is a divided world. Walls that went up during the pandemic stay up. While there is a greater emphasis on social welfare within national boundaries, fear and distrust remain. There’s little international cooperation beyond that necessary for trade. There are only token attempts at tackling the environment crisis. This is an “I’m alright, Jack” world.

Return to Normality is, as the name suggests, a world in a hurry to return to things as they were. The welfare of capital takes precedence in efforts to get the economy restarted. The free market benefits the rich, leaving the poor behind. This is the world most like the one we left in 2019. It’s as if the pandemic never happened.

Beggar Thy Neighbour is a world based on fear. In an upsurge of new populism, autocratic rulers in many parts of the world have used the pandemic as cover for introducing tighter social control. Dissent is seen as “unpatriotic” and heavily policed. This is a devil take the hindmost world in which most of the benefits accrue to elite.

Of course, the real world may turn out to be a patchwork of all of these tendencies.

Which future will you opt to live in?

 

Friday Fictioneers – Captaining

delayed-green-naama-yehuda
PHOTO PROMPT © Na’ama Yehudah

“Go! Go! Go!” he captained us.

The cry was imperative, and we were trained. Legs strode, hearts pumped. Rifles in hand, we dashed. He was dashing too, in his starched uniform with the yellow braid. So captainly.

“Go! Go! Go!” Again.

“Yes, Sir.” I snapped off a salute. “But go where exactly?”

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

Friday Fictioneers – Dragons

eggcelent-from-todd-foltz
PHOTO PROMPT © Todd Foltz

I set my ear against the curve of the giant shell. This is a ritual every time we come to the palace. The police guards stiffen to attention because it’s odd. Harve looks panicked because it’s his friend who’s being odd. But it’s a thing I have to do.

“You know they’re not real eggs, right?” Harve always asks. “Those are decorative barriers against truck bombs.”

Nobody knows except me. Inside these eggs, dragons are sleeping. And when the country’s in peril, they’ll scream forth into an angry sky. Inside the shell, I hear a tapping.

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here.

Friday Fictioneers – Second Story Man

the-view
PHOTO PROMPT © Rochelle Wisoff-Fields

Mary woke to find a man crawling in through her bedroom window. She lay absolutely still as he wriggled through and plopped onto her bed.

“Oh, bugger,” the stranger said.

“Just what I needed,” Mary said, wrapping him in a bear hug. “Do exactly what ask, and I won’t call the cops.”

Bernard, who had come to plunder, was ravished. He remained ravished for the next four months until Mary tired of him.

 

Lest you think this is a male fantasy, it’s based on a real event. Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

137. Risk and Fear. Coronavirus Narratives

coronavirus

In the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson locked the country down on 23 March 2020. The government communication slogan was ‘Stay at Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives’. The aim of the messaging was to scare people into complying. It worked. It may have worked too well. We need to find a new way to decide on what we do and don’t do as lockdowns relax. The narrative of fear isn’t working anymore.

The fear message may have worked too well. As the country began to unlock in May, opinion surveys found that around 40% of people were scared to leave their homes. A month later, the figures had not changed much, with 41% of adults  say they did not leave their home on five or more of the previous seven days

This fear narrative became problematic in later stages. In June, when some school classes and some businesses were allowed to reopen in the UK, the government tried to reassure the public that this was now safe, so long as social distancing was maintained.

There was also intense pressure from business to reduce the social distancing guideline from two metres to one. The reasons are obvious. Most restaurants and pubs cannot operate profitably at the greater distance, but might be able to reopen with the shorter distancing. The government continued to say it was following the science. But there is no science that says two metres is safe while one is unsafe. The only guidance the scientific advisers could offer was about relative risk. Two metres is safer than one (about twice as safe), but if the rate of infection is low enough, one metre may be an acceptable risk. The right social distancing is a political, not a scientific, decision

 

A narrative of risk

Another approach was possible, but not taken. This was to focus on giving people advice about risk. People don’t readily grasp data about risk. It’s alien to our normal way of thinking. But it’s not complicated. We take calculated risks all the time. For example, we drive cars even though we know there’s a risk of dying in a car crash. That risk in the UK is, in fact around one in 20,000 per year

Here are some rough calculations of risk for coronavirus in early June 2020, compared with other risks. Reducing social distancing to 1 metre doubles the risk of infection, while wearing a facemask reduces the risk at this distance by 14.3%. At the infection level present in the middle of 2020, the risk of infection was one in 1,666, and the average risk of dying one person in 1.66 million.

Coronavirus risk

If you find an error in these calculations, please add your comment.

136. Smashing statues

What are the rights and wrongs of tearing down a statue of a public benefactor, rolling it through the streets and pushing it into the harbour?

On 7 June, anti-racist protestors in Bristol toppled the bronze statue of William Colston, who after his death in 1721 bequeathed his wealth to the city. His legacy can still be seen in street names (such as Colston Avenue where the statue was located), memorials and buildings. That wealth came from the transportation and sale of an estimated 80,000 Africans as slaves. When the statue fell, a protestor knelt with his knee on its neck—a reference to the police killing in the US of African American George Floyd, which has sparked worldwide outrage.

Colston statue

Prime Minister Boris Johnson described what happened in Bristol as “a criminal act”—he meant the dismantling of the statue, not the slave trade. He said “in this country we settle our differences democratically and if people wanted the removal of the statue there are democratic routes which can be followed.”

The protestors say that Bristol citizens did follow these democratic routes but nothing happened. The statue has been a source of controversy in the city for years. In 2018, the town council agreed to add a plaque to the plinth contextualising Colston’s legacy. Nothing happened, because there was no agreement on the wording.

Culture is always contested

There is nothing new in cultural objects being contested. Society changes, and with that comes a reappraisal of who should be regarded as hero and who as villain.

You might argue that we can’t judge the past by the standards of today. But like the Confederate statue toppled by anti-racist protestors in Durham, North Carolina three years before, Colston’s icon wasn’t all it seemed.  The North Carolina sculpture wasn’t erected by those who fought alongside Robert E Lee but by a later generation in the early twentieth century. Colston’s image was put up 170 years after his death by a businessman in 1895.

In a commentary, Matthew Sweet of the BBC wrote

“The statue of Edward Colston is not a pure object upon which later generations have imposed an anachronistic argument. The statue is an argument. About the relationship between the individual and the state, about employers and workers, about civic responsibility and Britain’s place in the world. Its construction was a political gesture. So is pushing it into the River Avon.”

It’s important to say the statue was not destroyed. It has already been retrieved from its watery resting place and could be exhibited in a museum with the appropriate cultural context. You could, indeed, argue that its disposal was also artistic. Certainly, there’s a dramatic irony in tipping Colston into the water in the same manner that many of his slave ship captains did with their surplus cargo.

Destruction of cultural heritage

Cultural artefacts have been destroyed throughout history.  We immediately think of Islamic State’s destruction of priceless Assyrian carvings in Iraq and of the Taliban blowing-up the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan.  But Muslim extremists are late to the party. One has only to think of the biblical injunction against worshipping graven images, and its resurfacing in bouts of destructive iconoclasm in the eighth century Byzantine Empire and again in fifteenth century Protestant Europe. The gaping shells of abbeys and monasteries in the English countryside bear eloquent testament to the vandalism of kings.

In more recent times, the Nazis burned books, and the British state banned the publication of books deemed unsuitable, such as Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Culture is always a site a contestation.

 

Should we destroy our graven images?

If we blow up the heroes of past ages, what will remain?  A quick look around the sculptures in Parliament Square is salutary. The statue of Winston Churchill was daubed “racist” during the recent protests. And that is almost certainly true. But he did stiffen Britain’s sinews in the Second World War.

Then there is Lord Palmerston, one of Britain’s great Foreign Secretaries and Prime Ministers in the first half of the nineteenth century.

opium war

He opposed universal suffrage, launched the Opium Wars to open Chinese ports to the opium trade, evicted 2,000 of his Irish tenants during the potato famine, and sympathised with the secessionist South in the American Civil War. But he was also a social reformer, an abolitionist and championed liberal constitutionalism in Europe.

The South African, Jan Smuts occupies a spot on the northwest of the square.  A commander of the Boer forces against the British, he twice became Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa. He was an advocate of racial segregation. But he was also an advocate of international peace and helped in the dismantling of the British Empire and its reinvention as the British Commonwealth.

On the other side of the square stands Nelson Mandela, founding father of modern South Africa. He was once regarded as a terrorist, not only by the apartheid government of his own country but also by British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.

And so I might go on. Each leader, every king, every nobleman speaks of a legacy of theft, violence and exploitation. If we erase them all from history, we will have no history.

Something extraordinary is happening when hundreds of thousands of people around the world march, some might say recklessly, despite the threat of the covid-19 pandemic. Racial justice may turn out to be one of the many ways in which the pandemic, perversely, opens the door to rethinking ourselves and our way of living.  This can’t be reduced to a charge of criminal damage to property. Removing all the statues of worthies may not be practical or desirable, but re-contextualising their meaning is on the agenda. Perhaps we need to pair every king, general, and landowner with a statue to their victims.

Friday Fictioneers – Charcoal Charlie

ronda-pov
PHOTO PROMPT © Ronda del Boccio

“You’re Charcoal Charlie,” he said.

The name’s Fred, but I guessed they gave everyone a name in the ballooning club. Perhaps the moniker was a slur, on account of my skin colour.

“Get under the envelope and flap the edges open,” he said.

“Sure thing, massa.” I hoped he’d understand the irony.

Holding the edges of the balloon and flapping like a rooster, I felt ridiculous, but the bag began to inflate.

Then, a wall of flame jetted past me.

“WTF? You almost burned me to a crisp,” I yelled.

“Why do you think the job’s called Charcoal Charlie?”

 

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

Friday Fictioneers – the world in a grain of sand

remains-of-ted-strutz
PHOTO PROMPT © Ted Strutz

They probably think I’m a bit strange. But then they probably see only a messy picnic blanket here. That would explain why they’re trying to pull me away. If the picnic’s over, it’s time to go. But I wasn’t here to eat the chicken drumsticks and the potato salad. This mess is exactly what I’ve been waiting for.

The geometry of crumbs on the checkerboard pattern describes one particular folding of space-time. Perhaps today, this will be the universe that contains you, and I can dive in and find you again.

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

135. Farnham Flash Fiction Competition 2020

Farnham_Flash_2020Like many other events this year, the Farnham Flash Fiction Competition is going online. The awards ceremony will take place on Zoom on 23 July with a panel of local authors:

Melanie Whipman

Andy Robb

Neil MacDonald

Joanna Barnard

Helen Matthews

Sally Ann Melia

You still have 10 days to get your entry in.

Entry details: http://www.farnhamfringefestival.org/farnham_flash.html