The missing story that leaves us wandering in the dark

Photo by Sixteen Miles Out on Unsplash

One of Britain’s leading disaster planners recently wrote this:

In disaster planning, you usually see an event of total destruction followed by a fragile, precarious rebuild. But we haven’t got there in terms of explaining the damage done by the pandemic. We’re trying to pretend it hasn’t happened. Until we find a narrative to explore the damage wrought that is not political and not partisan, you won’t get to explore what a build-back might look like.

Lucy Easthope, Wired Magazine, July-August 2023, ‘The opportunity to change the NHS has arrived.’

Lucy Easthope is the person you want around when a disaster has happened, or better still, hasn’t yet happened. Her book When the Dust Settles is in turns moving and thought-provoking, one of my favourite reads of the year. We are collectively lucky to have her wisdom and care. When she speaks on her subject, you are inclined to listen.

Then add the sense of crisis all around us. Every government institution that opens its doors to everyone who needs it (NHS, schools, courts, prisons, social care) seems to be short-staffed, stretched, demoralized, near to being overwhelmed. Years of funding cuts have removed many of the buffers that helped people outside of school, hospital, the doctors, the prisons. Then we were wopped by the pandemic, a national heart attack.

Stories have power to motivate and mobilise whole nations. This is obvious: think not just of Churchill’s speeches in 1940, or the Ukrainian president today, but also of the populists who by saying ‘Take back control’ or ‘Make America Great Again’ put heart into many people who were otherwise disillusioned (for good or ill). I was not around for the post-war Labour government but I am struck that despite national bankruptcy, trauma and loss they dreamed up a new nation, inventing the NHS and the welfare state. For all their faults and failings, they presumably at least partially captured a recovery moment and a recovery narrative.

What would a recovery narrative look like? How about something like this?

  1. We’ve suffered a pandemic – a quarter of a million of us died before our time and the nation stumbled to an eerie halt, locked up at home. This harmed and affected all of us.
  2. We’re still convalescing, nationally and individually. We’re fragile. We need to be gentle with each other and the failings all around.
  3. This is a moment for rebuilding. We can rethink how the government spends its money, what national thriving looks like and how to achieve it; we can be patient with schoolchildren and students who have lost years from their learning; we can bear inconveniences, so long as they are the inconveniences of living on a building site. We can put things in place today, in battered today, that will bear fruit in decades to come.
  4. Today we can make choices that will make higher and wider the lives of our children and grandchildren, even if we don’t see the day ourselves. A damaged generation, we can be an optimism generation.

Populist bingo

After another heavy day on the Select Committee. Ashish Upadhyay on Unsplash.

And so Boris is gone, sulking, in a spray of adjectives and grievances.

In the USA, justice is chasing down President Trump, suspected of hiding documents in his toilet.

The populist First Minister of Scotland has fallen, with the cops sniffing around her house and looking for (among other things) a motorhome and a wheelbarrow. The suspicion (still unproven and hotly denied) is that the Caledonian Cabal made off with party funds to buy a wheelbarrow. This is a misuse of the misuse of funds. If you’re going to misuse funds, I mean, don’t do it at B & Q.

Over in Russia, let us hope, the authority of the president is pouring away like the water from a (former) Ukrainian dam.

Let us play populist bingo. Cross off the words when your favourite populist departs:


Kangaroo court

I did not lie

Not a shred of evidence

I am innocent

I was saying what I believed sincerely to be true

I take my responsibilities seriously

They have wilfully chosen to ignore the truth

I am now being forced out of Parliament by a tiny handful of people

A political hit job

I am bewildered and appalled that I can be forced out


Egregious bias

A phrase book for your convenience

I’m also providing a phrase book since language means a different thing on whatever planet the populists’ heads reside:

‘Tiny handful of people’ = A majority of the House of Commons, of the consituency, and of the whole country.

‘Egregrious bias’ = fact-based

‘Anti democratically’ = democratically

‘I am bewildered and appalled that I can be forced out’ = I am bewildered and appalled that I have to obey the rules

‘They have wilfully chosen to ignore the truth’ = They have wilfully chosen to follow the evidence

‘Not a shred of evidence’ = pants round ankles, hand in the cookie jar

Bananas for free!

Hello you,

Your book is wonderful! I do hope that it is very widely read.

|Prof. Sir Colin Humphreys CBE FRS, Cambridge University

A slightly out-0f-time blog entry with the happy news that my book More than Bananas is now free again on Amazon. So you can read it on your Kindle, or (as I do) on your phone with a Kindle app.

The joy of free books is that people can sample my stuff and then if they wish, part with coinage for the next titles in the series. It was free on Kindle a while ago, and became a worldwide theology bestseller, which helped me feel good if nothing else. So I’m so glad it’s back, with the great joy of anyone being able to help themselves to it for nothing.

Audio fans can listen to my reading of the book as a set of podcasts.

Please enjoy and tell your friends.

And this should not be

This post doesn’t need a commentary really. I have an interest in youth justice and this landed in my in-box. 1 On April 26 2023, just a few weeks ago, the Chief Inspector of Prisons wrote this about His Majesty’s Youth Offender Institution at Cookham Wood:

An inspection of a HMYOI Cookham Wood in April 2023 found that a quarter of the boys were being held in solitary confinement for extended periods, including two for more than 100 days, as a means of managing conflict between children. Records showed that it was not unusual for these boys to not come out of their cells for days on end, with no meaningful human interaction, education or other intervention. At the time of the inspection, 90% of children were subjected to ‘keep aparts’ meaning they were not allowed to mix with some of their peers, and staff were managing 583 individual conflicts in a population of 77 children.

Children told inspectors they felt unsafe, and were increasingly resorting to carrying weapons, many of which were made from metal which boys had scavenged from equipment in their cells, including kettles, in a bid to protect themselves. More than 200 weapons had been recovered in the six months preceding the inspection, despite inadequate searching procedures.

Cookham Wood was in a poor overall condition, with dirty living units and broken equipment. Prison staff were exhausted, with significant shortfalls on wings, and, while many clearly cared about the children, they felt unsupported by senior managers and had given up hope that improvement was possible. Four-hundred-and-fifty staff were employed at Cookham Wood, including 44 directly employed managers, of whom 24 were senior leaders. The fact that such rich resources were delivering this unacceptable service for just 77 children indicated that much of it was currently wasted, underused or in need of reorganisation to improve outcomes at the site.

The findings of this inspection represented the culmination of a steady decline in standards documented in inspections since 2016 that cannot be allowed to continue.

I’m glad we have a Chief Inspector of Prisons, that their work is public, that (on government directions) they require immediate action from the government, and that we ordinary people can write about this stuff without people turning up in vans accusing me of ‘insubordination’ or ‘spreading instability’ as might happen in many countries. I’m glad there are caring people at Cookham Wood and others who will campaign and fight. I’m glad we don’t incarcerate that many children (fewer than 1000 in the whole country). But the good news stops somewhere there.

A vote is like a prayer

Maybe we won’t bother with voting. Image by Mystic Art Design from Pixabay

OK, so what is the difference between a nation and an organized crime network?

Sometimes, not much. I understand the civil conflict in Sudan (and the one in Libya too) is between two people who would like to be president. They are not fighting to set the nation free from tyranny; they’re just unhappy with someone else being the tyrant. The winner will join the world of gold-plated bathroom fittings on a personalized jumbo, and can conveniently use the army, the courts, the prisons and the police to make sure the racket continues.

(There is, or was, a wonderful democracy movement in Sudan that toppled the old tyrant but the would-be replacement tyrants unfortunately have lots of guns.)

Our own history in the UK shades this way sometimes. When our soldiers went around Ireland or India collecting taxes in a famine and hanging those who declined to fill out a tax return, which did we look like more? A nation or a criminal gang?

Augustine addressed this problem in the City of God (book 3-ish?), applying it pointedly to Rome, which was rather proud of being a nation and an empire. I believe his solution was that a nation is only a nation when it has a principle of justice for all the nation’s stakeholders. Everyone gets a say. In his context, that included God, since Rome was officially Christian by then.

Including God makes slightly more sense of our recent coronation, which seemed to me a thing wobbling indeterminedly between a national bowing to God and an old man sitting on an old chair holding a ball and a stick. But even including God doesn’t seem to be quite enough on its own. The Iranian republic is big on God but his role seems to be a big stick – as used by the clerics to hit people with. Unless you include the people who don’t do God in the decision-making, I’m afraid I’m not sure you can only trust those who do.

Eventually, I think, we have to get to democracy, that rambunctuous process that tries to act on those those weighty words, ‘We, the people‘. The people are the employers. The rulers have to reapply for their jobs every few years. The tyrant says to the people, ‘You work for me.’ The democrat says, at least in principle, ‘I work for you.’ So slow. So messy. So prone to spasms of populism. So ugly and unseemly and cruel and abusive and vulgar at times. But not a criminal gang most of the time, because everyone over whom the nation rules has a say in who rules it. We, the people.