“May You Live in Interesting Times”

Updated: Aug 27

By Lynda Goetz

I have to confess that for me and my family, following a fairly busy series of lock-downs, this summer and certainly this last month have been relatively uninteresting, not to say dull. I have little to talk about in the way of current personal adventures or activities – although I have read some good books (including the novel, The Beekeeper of Aleppo, which I can thoroughly recommend as a moving portrayal of the trauma of displacement and enforced migration). We have quite deliberately made the decision not to tangle with the complex and ever-changing regulations on testing and quarantining required for a holiday outside the UK. The rather dismal weather here, combined with ongoing Covid regulations, makes spur of the moment plans in Britain somewhat less than ideal. Nevertheless, given the dramatic events on the world stage, we should perhaps be grateful that we are spared the interesting times on offer.


The debacle in Afghanistan is unsurprisingly attracting most commentary and is the single event most likely to have repercussions for all of us. Events in Haiti may be unlikely to affect those of us in Europe, but for those living there the drama has been major and impactful. The earthquake measuring 7.2 on the Richter scale which occurred on 14th August and was rapidly followed by a severe tropical storm has made life for those in the Tiburon peninsula area of the country extremely difficult. The political vacuum left by the assassination of President Moise at the beginning of July has made getting aid to the area even less efficient than it might otherwise have been.


In Hong Kong, drama has been replaced by a sense of defeat and hopelessness as China has, since its clampdown last year on the pro-democracy movement, manoeuvred to ensure that all opposition to the rule of the Communist party is removed.


In Myanmar the initial peaceful opposition to the military coup by the Tatmadaw has been stamped out and those who are serious in their wish to challenge the new regime have been forced to join the various ethnic opposition armies hiding out in the hills and rural areas. Whether these small guerrilla groups will be able to provide an effective counter to the current authoritarian military government remains to be seen.


In Indonesia the government of Jokowi (full name Joko Widodo) appears to be increasingly authoritarian and less focused on rooting out corruption than on pushing through its own attempts at economic growth. Perhaps for the Indonesians this is about as interesting as they would like it to be. Certainly, they appear to have little drive for rising up against the evident corruption as long as their own individual situations are not really threatened and may even perhaps improve. The recent incorporation of the respected anti-corruption KPK (Komosi Pemberantasan Korupsi) into the general civil service has gone largely unchallenged. (see Economist article 21.08.21)


Meanwhile, the Hungarian opposition parties may be making moves to form a coalition to defeat the right-wing Viktor Orbán at the next election, as he piles on the pressure to ensure that any forthcoming migrant crisis does not impinge on the country which he governs. Nevertheless he appears to have a great deal of support from his people on this matter. President Erdogan of Turkey too is making it quite clear that no amount of bribery of the sort that was available during the Syrian migrant crisis will make his country accept unwanted Afghan refugees. Greece announced a few days ago that it had completed work on a 40km massive steel fence on its border with Turkey. Greece was on the front-line of the 2015 migrant crisis and does not want to face the possibility again of being the ‘gateway to Europe’.


Greece and Turkey, like other countries bordering the Mediterranean, as well as places as far apart as Siberia and California have faced record high temperatures and serious wildfires in recent weeks. Conditions attributed to global warming have been the cause. The fires have killed people as well as destroyed homes and huge swathes of forest. Global warming is also blamed for the major floods experienced around the world this year, the most recent in Tennessee in the US.


Although the effects of the measures taken to combat Covid-19 have had massive repercussions around the world, the pandemic itself can honestly be said not to have had the same impact on mankind as the bubonic plague of the 7-year Black Death which killed 75-200 million people in the mid-1300s. Nevertheless, the impact of the measures taken to prevent the spread of the coronavirus have taken their own toll. For many of those affected by the lack of focus on other health problems or the isolation imposed, the historic nature of the events lived through during the past 18 months have caused many to consider some fundamental questions.


The Covid pandemic and the problems associated with Climate Change are, unlike some of the other events described here, of universal application and interest. However, we Brits should perhaps not underestimate the effect of those ‘interesting times’ currently being experienced in other parts of the world on those of us sitting in quiet parts of our island home.. Increasingly, globalisation is having an effect on all of us. Events which may, in the past, have largely impacted only those in the countries in question or those immediately surrounding them, or possibly those mercenaries or merchants who had chosen to operate in places far from their own home territories, are increasingly causing ever larger ripples in the world pond.


Wildfires have happened around the world for centuries. They are a natural part of the way some environments work. However, they are, according to information available, getting worse. A graph on the AlJazeera website produced by the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, shows, without the shadow of a doubt, the massive global increase both in the severity and incidence of such events over the last fifty years, as well as how comparatively few and insignificant such fires were in the preceding 60 years.

Likewise, migrations are not a new phenomenon in the history of the human race. They follow on from both man-made and natural disasters. As our populations increase and space is a reducing commodity it becomes far less easy to assimilate large migrations – particularly where the cultural differences are also large. It also becomes more of an issue where somehow those economic and political refugees become the responsibility of governments (and hence of taxpaying populations) rather than being left to their own resources and to ‘sink or swim‘ when they reach their desired destination.


The quote which I have used as the title for this piece is supposedly derived from a Chinese curse, although there is apparently no known phrase which closely relates to the expression in Chinese. According to research done by Quote Investigator it would seem that the earliest use of the phrase in this country was by the mercurial British industrialist and politician, Joseph Chamberlain*, in 1898 and that its connection to China was made in the 1930s by his son, Austen, also a politician. It has been quite widely used since then throughout the 20th century by politicians and writers. The 21st century seems set to be equally ‘interesting’, but has it perhaps ever been thus? The question for the future, as the world becomes ever more complex and interconnected, would seem to be, ‘Is there any way of avoiding interesting times?’


*So mercurial politically that he moved from being a radical Liberal in 1866 to being an imperialist Unionist in the Conservative government of 1895-1900.

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