My uncle, Don Barnie, volunteered in the First World War and joined the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Deployed to Gallipoli, he had with him a cheap pocket diary for 1916 in which he made sporadic notes: ‘10 yds from the Turks trench. Bomb dodging.’ He got out of that fiasco alive and was re-assigned to Mesopotamia, sailing through the Suez Canal and the Red Sea to Basra where he bought a small leather wallet, embossed ‘Basrah 1916’ in gold. Also stamped directly into the leather, and just visible, is a number, ‘13280’, his identity number, and beneath it ‘8.th. R.W.Fus.’.
On the 17th of February he was promoted to sergeant, and his unit set out as part of the relief force sent to raise the siege of Kut-al-Amara. Don wasn’t a big writer and the diary entries are few and far between: ‘Sheikh Saad’. ‘HOSTILE. ARABS.’ ‘Pouring with rain (mud)’. And then on Wednesday, the 5th of April, ‘We charge Big Battle. Wounded Bullet [word illegible] bandage’. And that was the end of combat for Don. He was transported on a hospital ship to India: ‘Arrive at Bombay, Fine Place. Colaba Hospital.’
The Basra wallet saved Don’s life. Kept in the left-hand pocket of his combat jacket it diverted a Turkish bullet an inch away from his heart. I have the wallet, torn at the lower left corner where the bullet passed through.
Don didn’t leave much when he died, but among his effects which I eventually inherited there is an anonymous poem, ‘Farewell’, on a sheet of A4 card. At first glance it appears to be handwritten in an elegant script on a crudely painted sandy yellow background, but in fact it is printed. Don certainly would not have written the poem. He must have bought it—in India, perhaps—because it expressed what he felt about his experience. The poem ends:
Farewell, O Basrah Rash
Farewell, O Barren desert
Farewell, ye treacherous clime
Farewell, ye land of pestilence
Farewell, to Shatt-al-Arab
Euphrates, Tigress too
and I hope O Mesopotamia
that I’ve seen the last of you
A little over a hundred years and British troops were back, supporting America in one of its neo-colonial wars. The names on the map had changed—Mesopotamia was now Iraq, Basrah had dropped its ‘h’. No doubt the army of occupation assigned to hold the Basra Governorate in 2003 had better conditions than Don’s Royal Welch Fusiliers in 1916, but as the occupation faltered and the Brits found themselves bogged down in a guerilla war they were losing, many soldiers must have echoed the sentiments in ‘Farewell’.
England has never got over its two World Wars. The First was the last time it fought as a major imperial power. It claimed to do so again in 1939-45 and has lived off legendary interpretations of Dunkirk, ‘standing alone’, and D-Day, ever since, winning the war single handedly, with a little help from the Americans. The truth of course is that Soviet Russia won the war on the Eastern Front at great cost to itself, while the second front in Normandy could never have been launched without overwhelming American manpower and matériel.
Britain’s days as a world power ended there. The trouble is, too many are unable to accept that we inhabit an island with a moderately strong economy off the coast of continental Europe, and that our history has followed the trajectory of other European empires—the Dutch, the Spanish, the Portuguese—from a period of great wealth and dominance based on colonial conquest, to sharp decline once those colonies were lost.
The fiasco of Brexit owes much to people clinging to this myth of British greatness. Only free ourselves from the shackles of the European Union and we’ll put the ‘Great’ back in Britain. We will trade with the world, ‘punch above our weight’, ‘stand shoulder to shoulder’ with our American ‘cousins’, with whom we have a ‘special relationship’.
All of this is delusion. During the referendum campaign a TV news vox pop interviewed an old man who said trade after Brexit would be no problem because everyone in the world ‘loves us’. Don’s son, my cousin Geoff, saw this too. He was a merchant seaman from 1944-48 and had sailed around the world. ‘No they don’t,’ he said, ‘they bloody hate us.’
The puffed up sense of the UK’s importance in the world was encouraged by Boris Johnson who fancied himself as a Churchill, destined to lead the people of ‘Great’ Britain into a new dawn. But Johnson is a glove-puppet Churchill and Britain a glove-puppet ‘great power’. The RAF is still good to bomb the citizens of countries we invade, but the Army lost two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the Royal Navy is a shadow of what it was. The recent threat to send our latest aircraft carrier to the South China Sea to ‘show the flag’ and deter the Chinese was a joke.
So here we are, cut loose from Europe, our main trading partner, scurrying in search of favourable trade agreements, placing our hopes on a deal with the USA, unmindful of the fact that America holds all the cards—expect cheap chlorinated chicken in the supermarkets soon.
You can wave St George flags and chant ‘Ingerlund! Ingerlund!’ as much as you like, but the rest of the world sees ‘Great’ Britain for what it is.
The world’s leaders are waking from their slumber to acknowledge that the climate is veering out of control and that if steps are not taken now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions we will very soon reach a tipping point.
But what if this is impossible? What if the human brain has not evolved to cope with a crisis of such complexity and on such a scale?
It is already clear that nothing can be the same again. Refugees and economic migrants from Africa and the Middle East are changing society in Europe, as refugees and migrants from South and Central America are changing the USA. It is only a beginning. As conditions deteriorate, the now prosperous West will experience an overwhelming surge of displaced people. Patrol boats and walls will be to no avail. Society will have to adapt and change, and culture will change with it. What we think of as the great inheritance of European art, literature, music, thought, will be largely irrelevant because it cannot address the new world in which we will have to live.
The idea of reducing carbon emissions to zero has behind it the assumption that, if successful, we will be able to continue our lives as before—with adjustments. Perhaps we will all have to drive electric cars, for example, but cars there will nonetheless still be. This cannot be, however, because we are in the process of crossing one of the great Rubicons in the 3.8-billion-year history of life on Earth, deep in a self-created mass extinction which may approach the one at the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary 65 million years ago. The Earth is so overpopulated with humans (7.5 billion to date) that even if all nations reached zero carbon emission by 2030 or 2040 our demands on the Earth’s resources would still cause ecological collapse.
The world’s governments should therefore be planning for the worst case scenario, deciding which low-lying coastal areas to abandon, which to try to save with substantial sea defences. The coasts of Bangladesh, Florida, Louisiana would have to be systematically evacuated. Much nearer home, Aberystwyth could probably be saved with strengthened and heightened sea walls, but the village of Borth to the north, much of which is at or below current sea level, would have to be let go and large tracts of reclaimed pasture land in the Dyfi estuary allowed to revert to salt marsh. Perhaps tropical forests could be regenerated in some way, though probably not. And what to do about desertification, the steady advance of the Sahara into the Sahel? Nothing perhaps because it may be unstoppable. Freshwater supplies will be a huge problem and money should be poured into research in desalination technology to make it less costly and more energy efficient.
Chaos is what is most likely to happen, however, with savage wars between states for land and resources, and to prevent themselves from being overrun. There will be attempts at global co-operation but they are likely to fall apart as the Earth’s ecosystems collapse. We are entering Judge Dredd territory not a world where the lion lies down with the lamb.