We were on a college summer camp on Rottnest Island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, well only 18 kilometres from Fremantle, Western Australia, but one of the girls had to be airlifted off by helicopter as she had heatstroke. Happy days – when we emigrated to Australia in 1964 nobody worried about skin cancer or staying hydrated. Fortunately my parents were aware the sun was hot. Dad was out in Egypt after WW2 before he was demobbed and told of ’idiots’ being stretchered out with third degree burns after sun bathing. Fortunately my parents avoided the beach after being taken to Scarborough Beach by our sponsors on our first day in Australia. Huge waves and hot sand did not appeal and we went to pleasant shady spots by the River Swan.
Unfortunately school outings were gloriously free of sun hats and sun lotion and I recall an early outing when we spent the whole day on the beach and next day my nose peeled and bled! Outings with youth groups on hot days were often followed by me feeling sick the next day; setting off without any money and probably a picnic with a plastic bottle of cordial, I obviously didn’t drink enough. At school we did have plenty of water fountains, I didn’t spend my whole time dehydrated, but my sister recalls that if you were thirsty when you were out you stayed thirsty. I’m sure other people were buying bottles of coke and cool drinks of lurid colour, but we were not.
Our current heatwave has brought endless dire warnings of the dangers of going out – or staying inside homes not designed to cope with hot weather. Modern parents never let their children out without a bottle of water, but they should not panic – if Prince George could sit in the heat of Wimbledon dressed in a jacket and tie there is no need to pamper children.
‘I don’t care where, as long as there is a beach and sunshine…. Make that a decent hotel with a pool and a private beach… any country that will let us in and let us out again… no I don’t care if we have to isolate when we get back, working from home is no big deal.’
Ben scrolled down the computer screen, Tina was right, they were both desperate for a holiday; two weeks away and they would worry later about getting back.
It was bliss; by the pool, on the beach, al fresco dining and the staff were fabulous, glad to have guests and so few guests Ben and Tina were given plenty of attention. They were more relaxed than they had felt in years, their worries left at home. Ben had suggested leaving their phones at home as well, but Tina thought that was going a bit far. They would need the internet to sort out the return journey, but a good compromise was to leave phones and iPads in the hotel safe, along with their passports, as they didn’t trust the staff, plus a few bits of Tina’s jewellery in case a local business person invited them for dinner.
So far the only locals they had met were the staff, but they were enjoying the novelty of spending time together, sauntering through the grove of trees to the beach with its quaint collection of fishing boats and locals mending nets. Or they could look up at the rolling hills that were the backdrop to the gleaming new white hotel. This was a real get away break, no television, no news, no discussions of climate change or Covid. Perhaps tomorrow, their fifth day, they would hike up the hills or venture into the local village, if there was one. They would have to ask that friendly waiter, who had a good smattering of English, what lay outside the high hotel walls and how you actually got out.
The sunset that night was a delight, Ben was almost tempted to request the night manager to open the safe so he could get his phone out and take an Instagram shot, but Tina insisted no digital image could capture the rich reds and dark streaks in the sky.
They woke late the next morning, surprised the sun was not streaming through the window. Out on the balcony the sky looked dull and the sea had lost its sparkle.
‘Perhaps it’s going to rain,’ said Tina ‘does it rain here?’
‘No idea, the air doesn’t feel damp, in fact there is a strange scent in the air, I can’t smell the sea like I usually do.’
‘It’s very quiet this morning Ben.’
Ben felt an unease; it was always quiet here, but now it was silent, unnaturally so. He felt that tingle in his spine that told him he was outside his comfort zone, he had an urge to be reunited with his mobile phone. He chivvied Tina to hurry so they wouldn’t miss breakfast.
Their footsteps echoed on the marble staircase and as they swept round the curve they saw the snooty elderly couple who had not exchanged a single word with them. Now they were poised expectantly at the foot of the stairs.
‘Hey ho, nobody on the desk’ said the husband.
‘And the dining room is empty’ added his wife.
‘It’s late, we slept in’ said Tina, ‘we must have missed breakfast.’
‘No, completely empty, no sign of life, no food, no indication anyone had breakfast.’
‘Ben, there must be something wrong, what shall we do?’
‘Forage in the kitchen’ said the old chap.
‘I don’t think things are that drastic yet,’ said Ben ‘the staff are very attentive, I’ll ask the manager what’s going on.’
Ben strode over to the reception desk as if someone would pop up instantly at his approach, but there was nobody there. He skirted round the desk and rapped loudly on the door of the office, no response. A hefty push sent the door flying open to reveal the empty office and a computer with a dark screen. Ben fiddled with the keyboard and the mouse to no avail, the old chap laughed as he tried the light switch on the wall.
‘Power’s off by the looks of it.’
Ben was staring at the very solid door of the safe. The manager was the only person allowed to open it, but where was the manager? If there was a crisis Ben wanted to get Tina back to the airport and home. Without their passports and phones they were stuck.
‘Right, there must be some explanation. Tina and I will search the grounds you two check the rest of the hotel.’
Leaving the air conditioned building they knew instantly what was wrong, the air had a dry crackle, an acrid scent. The sky over the sea had a thick haze and as they turned to look up at the hills real fear gripped them as they stared at the glowing crest.
‘There must be an evacuation plan’ said Tina.
‘I think love the evacuation plan has already been carried out, but it’s okay, that private beach is a godsend.’
Ben was saved from heroically rescuing the old couple from the hotel building, they were already stumbling out on to the terrace.
‘Are you certain nobody is in the hotel?’
‘Certain, bloody staff have deserted us.’
‘Forgotten,’ said Tina ‘or perhaps about to come and fetch us, they’ll be down on the beach organising the evacuation in all those boats.’
She patted the arm of the elderly lady, proud she was keeping calm in an emergency.
As they trekked through the grove, ash was already floating down. The beach seemed much further away, they could have done without the slow old couple Ben thought to himself.
‘Reminds me of that time we were stuck in…’ the old man tried to wheeze out the words while his wife shook her head to silence him.
On the beach, clear of the grove at last, they instinctively turned to look up at the hills. The flames were marching down with a speed that seemed impossible. Relief that they were well clear of the hotel was short lived as they turned back to look at the beach and the sea. There was not a single boat in sight, with the ever darkening sky it was hard to tell if smudges on the horizon were boats, but the churned up sand and foot prints leading from the trail through the grove to where the water lapped the beach, indicated a hurried departure by a good few people.
‘They’ll come back for us,’ said Tina ‘we’ll be safe by the water, have you two got your phones, ours are in the safe.’
‘No, it’s on charge in our room, not much help if the power’s off… no reception here anyway, we’re on our own… he started to splutter his words as the air thickened.
A loud crack made Tina jump and grab Ben’s arm. No one spoke as they watched the flames take hold of the grove, behind it the hotel gleamed white for a second before being engulfed in flames and smoke.
Among the fervent discussions on how to save the planet, inevitably it has been noticed that there are a lot of people in the world; apart from humans pushing aside other species who have just as much right to exist, we are using up the earth’s resources and increasing global warming.
‘In 1798 Thomas Robert Malthus famously predicted that short-term gains in living standards would inevitably be undermined as human population growth outstripped food production, and thereby drive living standards back toward subsistence.’
But the population has grown to numbers which probably should have caused our mass extinction by now according to Malthus. Science and technology have increased food yields and provided the means to curb reproduction. ‘… the eightfold increase in population since 1798 has also raised the number of geniuses in similar proportion and it is genius above all that propels global human advance.’
Despite over two centuries of Gaia curbing us with natural disasters and mankind drastically reducing numbers with warfare, we are still growing. It has been suggested that Malthus’ predictions could still come true. If a couple have two children they have replaced themselves, TWO is a logical number to work on, so we can all reduce our carbon footprint by only having two children. When I was at school we assumed that is what we would be doing; considering the vast populations of China and India we naively thought a few years of communist government would help India. China has now discontinued its one child programme and is faced with 33.5 million more men than women, because sons were preferred. Now they are worried about their ageing population.
Meanwhile, Japan is currently the 11th most populous nation in the world, but its failure to boost birth rates in recent decades has left it with a significantly older population base and a dangerous shortage of young adults. No more crowded trains in their future? Some European countries have a similar problem. For Gaia it could be good news, she probably does not care much about individual societies working.
History, with its various terrible regimes, means that no democratic government is going to tell people how to plan, or not plan their families and is certainly not going to put into place more sinister designs for reducing their country’s population.
But could having more than two children go the same way as drink driving and smoking indoors, become socially unacceptable? Hopefully not; it would be a dull world if we were all the same. Two is not a bad number, better than just one? Lots of couples choose or find themselves having one child and singletons might say they enjoyed their status or had a bunch of cousins to play with. In China the one child policy left a generation without siblings, then further down the line a generation without cousins or aunties and uncles. A lone child stifled by adoring parents and grandparents; the first time such a huge social experiment has been carried out.
Having just one child is nothing new; in the 1920’s and 1930’s ordinary people in Britain found themselves able to buy into the suburban dream with mass building of terraced houses and they also had access to contraceptives. Coming from big families, the prospect of less children and less work must have seemed attractive and those houses may have had the delights of an inside bathroom, but they were too small for a big family. Many people did choose to have one child and my aunt said my grandfather used to be introduced with ‘He’s got THREE daughters.’
I don’t write about my family, but here I must confess that my father also had two siblings and they had three of us; we have three and it does work out mathematically or that’s my excuse. Take my siblings and cousins, they all have two, one or none, so the ten of us have more or less replaced ourselves with eleven children. A male cousin had twins at fifty, so there is twenty five years between my first born and his – do they even count as the same generation?
There is nothing simple about families. A couple have two children, then break up, meet new partners and in a rosy romantic glow decide to have more children. If you’re an ageing rock star you repeat this process quite often. But there seem to be enough people having one or none to offset this. Births in England and Wales in 2018 were 1.7 per woman so do we need to worry? Now it’s not how many children can you afford to raise, but what is their carbon footprint?
We all have a carbon footprint just by being born, though being born is not our fault. We hope our children will make a contribution to society, we expect them to be a combination of the best characteristics of both parents, with none of the negative qualities ( in my case our children actually are! ) and we certainly don’t want them to be in prison for serious crimes.
So your daughter is a top surgeon, your son an astronaut, another child a famous musician, how proud you must be. But how much fossil fuel is the astronaut using to get up to the space station, what is the carbon footprint of the musician jet setting round the world to concerts? Your neighbour’s prisoner son is sitting in his little shared cell not going anywhere, a carbon footprint of practically zero, while your top surgeon daughter is living in a massive house full of every electrical device and a gas boiler pumping heat round a vast number of rooms. If you have produced a leading scientist who cycles to work and is busy inventing ways to save the earth, well done.
How do you see the future of the human race?
In Three Ages of Man the stranger comes from a society where births are strictly regulated and prospective parents are genetically tested first, a glimpse into one possible future…
Human beings have always worried; what if we don’t catch a mammoth for dinner? Now it’s called anxiety. Of course I don’t suffer from anxiety… I just imagine all the things that could possibly go wrong so I am prepared.
There are some things people should worry about such as global warming and war; is my stretch of the jungle going to be burnt down, is my island going to be flattened by Hurricane Dorian, will there be anything left of my city after the bombing.
What most of us worry about;
What shall we have for dinner when son brings his new girlfriend round / when boyfriend’s parents come to see our new flat…
Will the car run out of petrol, will the bus be late…
Should I water the garden before we go away, have I packed my hair straighteners.
Should I make an appointment at the doctors / dentists.
Most of us are not completely self centered; we do worry about our loved ones…
Will their holiday flight crash, will they be involved in a motorway pile up on their way to visit us…
Is there something wrong with the budgerigar, he’s off his food.
If you have the misfortune to be in charge of other people, or worse still, other people’s children, you may be justified in worrying. It would be best if you didn’t take precious little ones near any water, roads or firework displays. Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security; think they are safe in the park? No, a stinging nettle might leap out and grab their leg or worse still, a pack of pit bull terriers… and you forgot to put on their suntan lotion…
It may feel like the human race has more to worry about than ever. Big things to worry about like Brexit, Trump, Syria, Hong Kong, The Amazon, bees, the Whole World, failure of antibiotics, nuclear weapons, Armageddon – put in worrying order with number 1. being utter dread and number 10. ‘Don’t Worry, be Happy.’
But our ancestors had just as many worries.
What they did need to worry about.
‘What if mammoths become extinct, what will we eat and wear?’
‘I hope we don’t get another ice age.’
‘Let’s hope it won’t take too long to get back to the promised land.’
‘What if those white men don’t get back on their big canoe and sail away?’
‘What if that volcano erupts?’
What they needn’t have worried about.
‘Thanks a lot Eve, that’s the end of beautiful gardens for humans.’
‘If we don’t sacrifice our daughter the gods will wreak vengeance on all of us.’
‘Don’t sail too far or you will fall off the edge of the earth.’
‘This great plague is going to wipe the human race out.’
‘If man ever reaches the Moon goodness knows what that will lead to.’
What needn’t you have worried about?
Have you ever said ‘I told you this would happen!’
As new migrants in Australia, the first time the thermometer hit one hundred degrees we were very excited, a Century meant it was very hot; instead of sheltering behind venetian blinds in the relative coolness of indoors, in the days before most homes had air conditioning, I walked around marvelling at the sensation of the dry heat. If the thermometer hit one hundred degrees Celsius you would be dead. After a week of the temperature reaching over one hundred degrees Fahrenheit every day, the novelty wore off.
Since then the world has moved to Celsius, leaving only the USA and a few other countries using Fahrenheit. But one hundred sounds more dramatic than the slightly higher forty Celsius. When I worked at Heathrow, an English girl told me the first time she arrived in Kuwait she felt as if she had been blasted by a giant hairdryer. A Kuwaiti passenger told me no one had to work if the temperature rose above fifty degrees, but officially it never got hotter than fifty. A Singapore passenger told me the heat was not a problem as every building was air conditioned. I asked ‘What if you want to go for a walk?’ He looked puzzled. Why would you want to go for a walk?
Those who have lived in hotter climes might wonder at the fuss we are making about our heat wave in Britain. Temperatures over thirty, so early in the summer, have weather forecasters excited. We have had heat waves before and after our wet winter the reservoirs were full, so we shouldn’t run dry yet. Despite the usual comments such as ‘it won’t last’ and ‘we’ll pay for this later’ the heat wave shows no sign of ceasing, though some places have had rain. Our relatives, visiting back from Las Vegas, saw rain only once and looked forward to getting back to their air conditioned house.
We are not prepared for hot weather, we don’t have air conditioning, shutters and awnings or a tradition of siestas. In the garden, early morning or evening watering has become part of the domestic routine for those who cherish their flowers. The holiday atmosphere is fun; breakfast and dinner in the garden and days by the sea. Our beach hut feels worth the rates we pay the council for the tiny patch of concrete it stands on; it provides shade, changing room and a kettle. Daily swims have become the norm; as far as I’m concerned there is no point in having hot weather unless you can paddle or swim in a pool, river or sea.
Hot weather is no fun for those who have to work out in it and especially fire fighters. The heat has brought destruction to the moors with peat fires. It is equally oppressive for those who can’t get out. A lady told me it’s the first time in ninety four years she hasn’t worn a vest!
But the biggest cloud, or absence of cloud hanging over our holiday mood is What if it never rains again, is this another big warning about global warming?
It was the Summer of Eighteen, the summer we thought would never begin, then never end. Flowers bloomed in a blaze of late glory then withered under the relentless sun; first there was the hosepipe ban, then the pipe ban. The ferryman was out of business, people could walk across the river at low tide. Until they emptied the municipal pool, to send tankers to market gardeners, it had been a duck and swan rescue centre. Everyone became a fisherman till the last gasping fish was scooped off the river bed.
The heath fires never went out, they joined up. After the power cuts people gathered at the edge of the heath to bake the last of the vegetables in the embers, though there was no shortage of venison. When the wild fires started on the cliff top the promenade was put out of bounds. At high tide we made our way down the narrow river channel round to the cove where we trod on burning sand and pebbles.
The leaves dropped from the trees, but autumn never came.
As I surveyed the cracked river bed I noticed him, Ben the Boiler, Evan the Inventor, we’d called him at school. Nobody had wanted his inventions so he went to work for Plumbprompt Services. Now, nobody wanted heating and there was no water to fill the boilers. Benjamin Evans was rolling logs under a stranded boatwreck. He wiped sweat from his brow, more from habit than any chance of relief.
‘How’s the sailing going Ben?’
‘Laura? Green Laura Green from school?’
I picked my way across the baked ruts; a river bed does not look how one imagines.
‘Did you get your degree in environmental science Laura?’
‘Got a first,’ I retorted ‘work for the National River Authorities now.’
He laughed. ‘Made redundant then.’
‘Planning to sail across the world?’
‘Only to the Isle of Wight.’
‘Conditions are no better there, Tennyson’s rolling green downs are the colour of toast and Freshwater Bay has none.’