THE ISLE OF MAN TT RACES – FIN DE SIÈCLE?

Helicopters

Helicopter collection during TT Week, Noble’s Hospital, Isle of Man

This week there are three helicopters parked outside our local hospital. The Isle of Man is a small, mostly sleepy island (population 84,000) and there usually aren’t any helicopters at the hospital. The fact that there are three of them can mean only one thing: TT fortnight has come round again.

Motorcycle and wall

Motorcycle and wall – a bad combination

The TT (Tourist Trophy) races are an annual ritual peculiar to the Isle of Man. Billed as the most dangerous road races in the world, the only thing I can think of which compares to them is the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain, except that in our case, the “bulls” travel at speeds up to 200 mph. The TT races are motorcycle races, but unlike conventional races, they are held not on a specially designed racetrack, but on a 37 mile circuit of public roads which are closed to normal traffic for the occasion. The roads contain all the things you normally find on public roads: lamp posts, bus stops, gateposts, houses and the like. There are frequent coming togethers of high speed riders and stationary objects, which usually don’t end well – hence the need for the medical evacuation helicopters. So far this TT we have had two deaths and one critical injury among the race competitors – and I don’t think anyone is counting the crashes by the ordinary visitors. For example, watch this YouTube video:

But be warned – it’s not for the faint hearted.

45,000 visitors come to watch the races, bringing with them 15,000 motorcycles and 8,000 cars. Pop-up tent cities, hamburger stalls and trackside seats spring up everywhere. There is a travelling fairground, fireworks, stunt riding, the Red Arrows aerobatic display team and a general carnival atmosphere. All schools are closed for a week. If you’re not into motorcycles, the effect can be rather overwhelming, so much so that many Isle of Man families take holidays over the TT, leave the island and rent their houses to visitors. For those of us who stay, getting to and from work becomes a bit unpredictable because of the scheduled road closures for the races, and unscheduled closures due to accidents among visitors.

Watching all this, I have a feeling of “fin de siècle”, which translates from French literally as “end of the century” but more metaphorically as “end of an era”. The first TT races were held in 1907, and I’d like you to put yourselves for a few minutes in the mind-set of that era and try to think what people were thinking then. The first oil well had been drilled 48 years previously (in Pennsylvania in 1859), various types of internal combustion engine had been invented to make use of the new fuel, which was much better than the whale oil which preceded it, and the Age of Steam was beginning to give way to the Age of Oil. Oil powered ships were starting to replace steamships, early motor cars were starting to replace horses, and the Wright Brothers had made their first powered flight four years earlier, introducing a totally new form of transport. It was therefore natural for the early manufacturers of motorised bicycles, such as Triumph, Matchless and Norton, to want to showcase their new machines and show the public what they could do. Hence, the TT races were born, in an era in which scientists and engineers were like magicians, conjuring up one new wonder after another, and seducing people with new technologies which seemed to hold unlimited promise.

1280px-Norton_TT_1907_01

A Norton motorised bicycle from the 1907 TT

Fast forward 111 years and where are we now? The complications and side effects of the course we set for ourselves at the beginning of the 20th century are much clearer to us now than they were to our ancestors four generations ago. Oil based transport by land, sea and air has made it much faster, easier and cheaper to move people from one place to another, but at the cost of making all places very similar. You could land by plane in Britain, the United States, Dubai or Australia, and if it wasn’t for the signs, you wouldn’t know which country you were in.

The world population has grown from 1.7 billion in 1907 to 7.6 billion today, thanks mainly to our oil based food supply chain. The side effect of that has been to turn over more and more land to human food production and habitation and to push wildlife to the margins, and in many cases to extinction. We have also gone down a one way street with no return: what happens to the food supply and the human population when the oil supply starts to decline?

We have altered the climate by pumping carbon waste into the atmosphere, a change which for all practical purposes is permanent, because it won’t be reversed within the lifetime of our species.

We have created an economy which depends on perpetual growth. In 1907, technological progress was an optional extra, a fun toy to play with. Oil powered machines, especially those which could fly, were a wonder to be marvelled at but our lives didn’t depend on them. Today, perpetual technological progress and perpetually increasing efficiency are essential, because without them our economy would collapse. We are like a hamster on a wheel, running faster and faster to stay in the same place.

Our fast paced and stressful society has resulted in more people than ever before taking antidepressants, opioids and benzodiazepines. In the United States for example, around 13% of the population takes an antidepressant, 5% a benzodiazepine and 5% an opioid – and those are just the legal ones.

Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy our TT Races and all the carnival atmosphere which goes with them, but I think we may be basking in the late afternoon sunshine of our Age of Oil before twilight sets in. While the music keeps playing, keep on dancing.

Slaynt vie, bea veayn, beeal fliugh as baase ayns Mannin

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A Mindfulness Walk from Ballaugh to Bishopscourt in Early Spring

Today we are going to do something a bit different.  I’m tired of commenting on the antics of Theresa May, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin et al, so here is a chapter from my book-in-progress, “Medicinal Plants of the Isle of Man”.  The information in it is extremely local to the Isle of Man, so I would like to apologise in advance to readers in Texas and other foreign parts who have never seen a wild garlic or Wall Pennywort plant, but you might find the general principles interesting.  This book is meant to be a companion volume to “Post Peak Medicine” and to explain to local readers in the Isle of Man how and where where to find local medicinal plants and what to use them for.  The post on WordPress includes a picture of a blackthorn flower, taken by me at Ballaugh, Isle of Man, yesterday, so if you are getting this by email which doesn’t include the photograph, you might want to take a look at the original.  So here goes:

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Blackthorn flower

Blackthorn in flower in early Spring, Ballaugh, Isle of Man

If you are new to herbal medicine and wondering where to start, I’d like to take you on a guided walk from Ballaugh to Bishopscourt in the Isle of Man, along the old railway track, and encourage you to practise mindfulness along the way. No, I’m not talking about some New Age hippy nonsense, I’m simply asking you to pay attention to what you see along the way, and particularly to what plants are growing where, and why, as this will help you to find them later when you need them. If you don’t live in the Isle of Man, you can still practise doing your mindfulness walk somewhere else; just follow the general principles.

First please note that I’ve described the walk as taking place in “early Spring”, and not for example on 25th March (which is when it actually took place). This is because Spring is when the plants think it is, not when you think it ought to be. Owing to some unusually harsh weather recently, Spring is at least a couple of weeks later this year than usual, and if you were to do this walk on 25th March next year you might find it entirely different.

Our walk takes place on a section of the old Manx Northern Railway, which opened in 1879 and which used to run from Ramsey to St Johns. It closed in 1969, the track was taken up and part of the route is now a public footpath.

Because it is a former railway, the track bed is level but the surrounding land isn’t. As a result the walk goes through a series of embankments and cuttings which create a series of micro-climates favouring the growth of different species. As you walk, you should of course admire the breathtaking Manx scenery, but I also want you to pay particular attention to what is within 10 feet of you.

The embankments are raised above the level of the surrounding land, creating an exposed, dry, sunny, windy environment. This favours the growth of plants like grasses, gorse, blackthorn and bramble, which grow vigorously and tend to crowd out other species.

In the cuttings there is more shelter from the wind and sun, favouring the growth of other species. As you walk through a cutting, are the sides gently or steeply sloping? It makes more difference than you might think. Gently sloping sides let more light in and favour the growth of grasses. Steeply sloping sides let in in less light, discouraging the more vigorous species and allowing the rarer and more delicate species to gain a foothold. Take note of the compass bearing or the direction of the sun. The north facing wall of the cutting is cooler and damper and here you will find damp loving plants such as mosses and hart’s tongue fern. The south facing wall is slightly warmer and dryer and you are more likely to find wall pennywort (navelwort) here, which loves vertical surfaces (hence its name) and has in the past been used as a sterile dressing for wounds and burns.

The trees are mostly still bare, but the blackthorn flowers are coming out (the flowers appear before the leaves) and the new shoots of elders are beginning to show. Take note of where the elder bushes are if you are planning to make elderflower wine later this year. In late Spring these bushes produce masses of sweetly scented elderflowers which make a very nice wine, but you only have about a two week window to collect the flowers. If you miss them, then they are gone until next year.

At some places along the way you will see daffodils and primroses. Look up and you will see a cottage within 100 feet. These are not native wild plants; they were planted by the cottage owners.

At a couple of places along the way you will pass a stream, and at Bishopscourt you can go up into Bishopscourt glen. In these damp places, and in most of the Manx glens at this time of year, wild garlic grows in great profusion, choking out for the time being any slower growing and more delicate plants.

If you are planning to collect plants for use in herbal medicine, it pays to be familiar with your patch and to walk it several times a year, because different things can be seen at different times of year. For example, at this time of year, early Spring, it is obvious that the flowering trees are blackthorns, because they produce flowers at this time of year, before the leaves, whereas hawthorns produce theirs a couple of months later, in late Spring, after the leaves come out. Come back in Summer, however, and the two trees may be difficult to tell apart.

Slaynt vie, bea veayn, beeal fliugh as baase ayns Mannin

Unanswered questions

Putin

Not so fast, Mr Bond…

So the truth is finally out. Russia poisoned the ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter on British soil using the Russian-made nerve agent Novichok. The Russian ambassador to Britain has been given until the end of today to explain his country’s degree of guilt (not whether Russia is guilty or not, just how guilty it is) following which unspecified sanctions will be imposed. The BBC says so, so it must be true:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-43381880

So that’s it then: case closed. Or is it? There are several things about this case which I find deeply troubling. Let’s start by looking at the facts, insofar as they can be established.

According to the BBC, “Colonel Skripal is a retired Russian military intelligence officer who was convicted of passing the identities of Russian intelligence agents working undercover in Europe to the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service, MI6. He was jailed for 13 years by Russia in 2006. In July 2010, he was one of four prisoners released by Moscow in exchange for 10 Russian spies arrested by the FBI as part of a swap. He was later flown to the UK.”  Since then, he has lived in relative obscurity in Salisbury, England until last week when he was found in a critical condition on a bench outside a shopping centre, together with his daughter. They had just been to a nearby pub/restaurant, and traces of the Novichok poison were also found there, suggesting that it may have been administered there.

Some of these facts are disputed – for example, Skripal’s family say that he was not a double agent and that the allegations against him were fabricated. But let’s suppose that all of the above is true. Here are my problems with it:

Firstly, where is Russia’s motive for killing him? They had him in their custody between 2006-2010 and presumably, if they wanted to kill him, they could easily have done it then, and just made him disappear quietly, and few people would have known or cared. But they didn’t. So why wait until now, 8 years later, and attempt to kill him in the full glare of international publicity?

Secondly, why make the attack look exactly like a Russian assassination attempt, using a Russian made nerve agent? There are numerous other substances which could have been used. Cyanide is generically available throughout the world and is very effective: remember how Bosnian Croat war criminal Slobodan Praljak died after taking potassium cyanide in The Hague’s courtroom in November 2017? In fact, you could say that cyanide is more effective than Novichok because Praljak died whereas Skripal didn’t (yet). If the poison was administered in a restaurant, why not use mushrooms? Half of an Amanita phalloides (death cap) mushroom is generally fatal, and it could have been put down to an unfortunate accident in the kitchen.

Thirdly, why bungle it?  Skripal didn’t die.  If Russia’s intention was to kill him, but they didn’t manage it, that makes them look pretty stupid.

Fourthly, if the intention was to demonstrate Russian power on the world stage, why set up the attack to look as though it was Russia, and then deny it? Why not put a Russian bullet through his head then say “Yes, we did it, so what are you going to do about it?” Russia has consistently denied any involvement in the attack and said they will cooperate with the investigation.

I’m not saying that I know who did it, although I have a shortlist of suspects who might benefit from stirring up trouble between Russia and the West. I am however deeply uneasy that public opinion is being manipulated, although I’m not sure by whom and for what purpose. I am also very disappointed that the vast majority of people seem to be accepting the mainstream narrative, that Russia did it, without asking these basic questions.

Slaynt vie, bea veayn, beeal fliugh as baase ayns Mannin

Ye shall know them by their fruits (Matthew 7:16)

Google eyes

Google eyes

Recently it was my birthday (I’m not going to say what date that was, for reasons which will become clear later) and when I did a Google search, I was surprised to find a “Happy Birthday” greeting from Google, complete with an image of candles.  I didn’t know how Google knew that, but I was busy at the time, I couldn’t be bothered looking into it and I just wrote it off as one of those “weird web” things.

The issue surfaced again more recently in a more sinister form when I tried to delete an online “profile photo” of myself stored in my Google account.  There was nothing particularly sinister about the photo, just a standard head and shoulders shot, but it was out of date and not particularly flattering and I thought “let’s get rid of it then”.  I couldn’t.  I spent an hour trying to delete that photo when it was the Christmas holidays and I had better things to do.  I consider myself a fairly proficient Internet user, but I tried everything I could think of to delete that photo without success.  First I tried following all the obvious links to things like “my account”, “my profile”, “update details”, “images” and so on.  I right clicked and left clicked on the picture and hit the “delete” button many, many times.  I tried to replace it by uploading a neutral landscape photo.  It was very easy to upload a new photo, but impossible to delete the one which was already there: I just found that both photos were then stored in my Google account.  I tried Googling for “how to delete your Google profile photo” and found some instructions, but when I tried to follow them, they didn’t work.

After an hour of this, it looked as though the only way of permanently getting rid of the photo was to permanently delete my Google and Google plus accounts, which is what I did, ignoring the warnings from Google that I might lose personal data, passwords, apps, photos, videos and other things in the process.  I wasn’t too worried about this because I’m old fashioned and store very little data “in the cloud”, preferring to store it on my computer hard drive and backup removable hard drives instead.

Once I had done that I reflected on what had happened.  I don’t believe the programmers at Google are stupid, or that the impossibility of deleting that image resulted from careless programming.  Those people are probably more intelligent than I am and earn more money than I do.  Note the ease with which I could upload, but not remove, images.  I think that Google is trying to create a personal profile for everyone on the Internet (that’s where they extracted my date of birth from), and that having an identification photo attached to that profile is so important to Google that they have deliberately made these photos impossible, or at least very difficult, to delete.  Unlike your physical address, email address and phone number, which change frequently, your appearance changes only very slowly and your photo is therefore a particularly valuable piece of information to have.

I had to re-read that last paragraph a few times to make sure I wasn’t coming down with a bad case of paranoia, but I don’t think I am.  Google has already photographed almost every square inch of the planet with applications like Google Earth, Satellite View and Street View, and for a long time they have been compiling an index to almost every piece of information in the world – the Google search engine.  It would make perfect sense, from a corporate strategy point of view, to start building a database of every person in the world, or at least, everyone who uses the Internet.

I looked up Google’s policy on data collection:

https://privacy.google.com/your-data.html

It all sounds very bland and reassuring. “We collect data to make these services work for you”, “we store and protect what you create using our services”, “you decide what types of data we collect and use”, “you can permanently delete specific activities or even entire topics that you don’t want associated with your account”.  But, as I said at the start of this article, “Ye shall know them by their fruits”.  If, in reality, Google makes it almost impossible to delete data, this makes the reassuring words meaningless.  Or, if you prefer a quote from Adolf Hitler, “If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed”.

What Google is doing – building a database in which any citizen of the planet can be recognised from a facial photograph – is very, very dangerous if it falls into the wrong hands, or even if it remains in Google’s hands.  It is far in excess of anything envisaged by George Orwell or Stalin.  I may have deleted all of my Google accounts, but I’m not naïve enough to imagine that my data and my photo have been deleted: I am sure Google has archived them away in some vast server farm in California.  However, there are at least two benefits to deleting my accounts: as the data ages, it will become less useful, and if Google ever uses it, they will have to admit that they cheated by archiving the data instead of deleting it.

Welcome to the brave new world of 2018.  Happy New Year.

Slaynt vie, bea veayn, beeal fliugh as baase ayns Mannin

World War 4

Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, which started World War 1

It’s that time of year again when people dust off their crystal balls and peer into them to try to predict what the future holds.  For this season’s predictions, I am going to concentrate on my near term forecast for the UK, and what World War 4 may look like.

As I’m sure you know, the UK voted in a referendum in June 2016 to leave the European Union (“Brexit”), and this has caused political and economic instability ever since.  The British Prime Minister Theresa May scored an own goal in June this year by calling an early general election, hoping to get a vote of confidence in the way she was managing the Brexit process.  What she actually got was a vote of no confidence and a decreased parliamentary majority.  The UK Government is currently surviving by means of an alliance with a little known fringe party, the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland.  Before the election this party was so little known that newspapers ran articles with headlines like, I kid you not, “Who are the Democratic Unionist Party?”:

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/dup-who-are-democratic-unionist-northern-ireland-election-latest-mps-hung-parliament-balance-power-a7780651.html

Anyway, this lot have been propping up a weak UK government ever since, so that it can continue to push its policies through Parliament.  My forecast for 2018 is that this arrangement will break down, there will be another general election, and that the Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn will be voted in.  The political instability will then continue pretty much unchanged.  So much for that.

Now for the question of World War 4.  No, that’s not a typo, because I am counting the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) as the First World War.  During this period, multiple European countries fought against each other in multiple coalitions, there was some peripheral engagement in North Africa and North America, and it was just as much a World War as the two subsequent ones.  However, so as not to cause any more confusion, from now on I will refer to the Napoleonic Wars as World War 0.5 and the two 20th century World Wars as World Wars 1 and 2.

Wars are fought with whatever weapons are at hand.  So, World War 0.5 was fought mainly with men, swords and horses.  The French are said to have fielded 47,000 horses in the Battle of Waterloo alone.

World War 1 was fought mainly in trenches with men, guns and explosives

World War 2 was fought mainly with heavy oil powered machinery (tanks, aircraft, battleships), men and explosives (unmanned rockets and bombs dropped from aircraft).  It culminated with the detonation of two primitive nuclear bombs.

What will World War 4 be fought with?  Let’s look at what is in short supply, what is in plentiful supply, and what the most vulnerable points of the combatants might be.

We don’t have the horses to fight a World War 0.5 style campaign.  They could be bred up again, and indeed they probably will be bred up, but this will take many generations and a remodelling of society to rebuild the necessary infrastructure such as blacksmiths’ forges, stables, farriers and so on.

With peak conventional oil now starting to come into view in the rear view mirror, we probably don’t have the oil resources to fight a World War 2 style campaign reliant on heavy machinery.  We probably also don’t have the infrastructure to build (and destroy) hundreds of tanks, ships and aircraft every week, because that would need (among other things) plentiful supplies of coal and iron ore and the foundries and factories to process it.  Coal is still plentiful in the United States and China but the coal industry in the UK has almost shut down compared to its peak around 1900.  Most of the heavy industry which was formerly in the West has relocated to China in the name of “globalization”.

We have plenty of people (world population currently 7.6 billion) and they are cheap and easy to produce, so I would guess that in World War 4, we will see more of a return to large numbers of people fighting on foot using hand weapons, as in World War 0.5 and 1, and as in medieval and Roman times before then.

Nuclear weapons are good for deterrence but largely pointless as weapons of war.  If the purpose of war is to take and hold territory, nuclear weapons don’t help to do this – they just render the territory useless and uninhabitable by either side.  So my feeling is that although occasional nuclear weapons may be used in World War 4, for example to disrupt communications (see below), they probably won’t play a major role.

Information technology, fake news and propaganda is likely to play a larger part in World War 4 than in previous wars, because so much of our society is built around information technology infrastructure.  People are already starting to worry about vulnerability of undersea communication cables to Russian attacks:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-42362500

and the same goes for the vulnerability of satellites to be shot down, and the vulnerability of ground based IT equipment to a nuclear weapon airburst, or electromagnetic pulse (EMP).  We have had endless fake news about the supposed Russian invasion of Ukraine and the supposed Russian meddling in the US presidential election, with almost nobody in the mainstream media putting the other side of the story or asking the difficult questions.  Propaganda and fake news have always been used as weapons of war.  Both Western and Eastern societies are vulnerable to misuse of communications in this way, the West because of the tendency of media corporations to merge so that most media outlets are controlled by very few people:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-42353545

and of course broadcast media in China and Russia have always been tightly controlled by the State.

A relatively recent example of propaganda being used as a weapon of war can be seen in the Rwandan civil war (1990-93).  Crude propaganda was repeatedly broadcast over the state-controlled radio referring to the Tutsi population as “cockroaches”.  This ultimately led to the genocide of around 1 million Tutsis by their Hutu countrymen.  This civil war was fought by people on foot using hand weapons, because both of these were in plentiful supply: see above.

And what might be the trigger which sets off World War 4?  Well, it could be anything at any time.  World War 1 was set off by the assassination of a little known Austrian aristocrat, Archduke Ferdinand, in the little known Bosnian town of Sarajevo.  World War 4 could be started by one of the many thousands of Saudi Arabian princelets competing for power.  It could be started by one of Donald Trump’s tweets.  Who knows, it could even be started by accident.

Have a great Christmas.

Slaynt vie, bea veayn, beeal fliugh as baase ayns Mannin

A failure of imagination

hurrican-katrina

Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  Spot the physician office.

I left Canada for the Isle of Man over a year ago, but my Canadian medical licence has not yet expired, and as a result I am still on the mailing list of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO).  I was therefore interested to receive from that venerable body a notice of a consultation on a new draft College policy on “Physician Services During Disasters and Public Health Emergencies”.

http://policyconsult.cpso.on.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/Disasters-and-Public-Health-Emergencies-Draft-PolicyWP.pdf

Having written an entire book, Post Peak Medicine, on how physicians might provide services during the greatest disaster of all, the “Long Emergency” following peak oil, I was somewhat interested to see what this policy might contain, and read it carefully.  It is thankfully quite brief – only four pages – and the main thing which struck me about it was its lack of imagination.  Specifically, the only disasters and public health emergencies which it could foresee were brief ones, following which life would return to normal (or what we believe to be normal, which in historical terms is actually highly abnormal).  There was no discussion of what might happen in the event of a disaster of such magnitude and duration that the normal institutions of society, such as the CPSO or the economy, cease to function, and/or a permanent lifestyle change is forced upon us.  Specifically, the expectation of the policy, and the College, is that “physicians must provide physician services during disasters and public health emergencies” (page 3).

Yeah, right.  That is fine for relatively minor disasters such as a localised severe weather event lasting no more than 24 hours, but the author of this policy obviously doesn’t read the same books or visit the same websites that I do.  Take a look at this:

https://shtfschool.com/blog/page/2/

“…fire trucks were driven by stoned teenagers in weird uniforms…” (during the civil war in the former Yugoslavia).  Had the firefighters reported for duty to provide firefighting services?  No, they were protecting their families.  Or there’s this:

http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(14)61627-5/fulltext?rss%3Dyes

An article in The Lancet describes the physician shortage in Iraq due to doctors leaving the country because of fears of violence.  Or this:

https://ici.umn.edu/products/impact/201/over5.html

When Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005 (see picture above), 37% of a sample of Disaster Support Professionals (DSPs) interviewed said they evacuated the area either alone or with family members.

The reality is that in a severe and prolonged disaster, doctors and other emergency service personnel are likely to look after themselves and their families first, regardless of whatever policies and guidelines are in place, and I can’t blame them for doing so.  Family must come first.

This failure of imagination is endemic today in public discourse in the media, politics and economics.  When oil becomes too expensive or unavailable to burn in car engines, people can’t imagine that we may have to stop driving cars: surely we will just switch to electric cars?  When aquifers and glaciers stop supplying water to farmland, people can’t imagine that millions of people may starve to death: surely we will just get food and water from somewhere else?  When central banks print billions of dollars per month out of thin air, people can’t imagine that it could lead to paper and digital money becoming worthless: stock markets always go up over the long term, right?  People like me who think otherwise aren’t welcomed into the public discourse, which is one reason why Post Peak Medicine keeps a low profile (for the time being).  And it’s the reason why I don’t think I’ll be contributing to the CPSO consultation.

Slaynt vie, bea veayn, beeal fliugh as baase ayns Mannin

Storage

Dymon Storage Ottawa

Inside Dymon Storage, Ottawa, Ontario

It’s 4 am and I’m alone at a Dymon Storage facility in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.  Storage facilities like this have been springing up like mushrooms throughout the Western world for the last few decades.  Dymon has eight locations in Ottawa alone, and that’s just one firm’s locations in one city.  There must be hundreds of thousands of them throughout Europe and North America.

Indigenous people generally have few possessions, but consider the ones they have to be very valuable because they are mostly hand made and a great deal of time, skill and love goes into making them.  We, on the other hand, have so many mass produced possessions that we don’t know what to do with them, so we put them into storage facilities like this one.

I’m on the third floor of the building and there are maybe a couple of hundred storage units on this floor.  Same again on the floor below me.  There’s a grid of corridors with hundreds of storage pods leading off them, protected by hundreds of identical metal shutters.  The whole thing is bathed in soft, uniform white light, it’s very quiet, and the atmosphere reminds me of the back room of an undertaker’s parlour, the part the public never sees, where the bodies lie on identical metal shelves.  Maybe this where our civilisation goes to die?

I’m not usually up and about at 4am, but I’m here trying to sort out our stuff, the stuff we put into storage in Canada before moving to the Isle of Man.  We dithered for months trying to decide whether to give it away, dump it or ship it to the Isle of Man, and in the end we decided to do all three: give some of it away, dump some of it and ship the rest.  So I’m here sorting it out.

Back home it’s 9am, but here it’s 4am, I’m still running on Isle of Man time, hence the unearthly hour.  I’m the only human being in the building.  In earlier times, there would probably have been a custodian or nightwatchman, but now with the march of progress, s/he has been replaced by a central computer which controls all the building’s functions.  Being the only person in the building at 4am plays strange tricks with the computer’s algorithms.  It is programmed to assume that if nobody presses any buttons anywhere in the building for half an hour, the building is empty and it should switch off the lights to save energy.  So every half an hour, all the lights go off and I have to walk to the elevator in the dark and press an elevator button to signal to the computer that I’m still here and it should switch the lights back on again (there are no human-controlled light switches).  A real custodian wouldn’t have made that mistake: he would know that human beings don’t just disappear.

So I’m sitting in my storage pod surrounded by the debris of nine wasted years in Ontario: photograph albums, a wedding dress, Christmas tree ornaments made at school by the kids, the obligatory six years of tax papers, you know the sort of thing.  Then my mind starts to play strange tricks on me.  Do the things in this storage facility know they have been abandoned by their owners?  Are they, in some way, sentient?  Do they have souls?  Stupid questions I know, but that’s what you do when you’re three thousand miles from home, lonely and jet lagged to hell and in one of the world’s most unlikely buildings with only a dysfunctional computer for company.  You think stupid thoughts.

I know a tax return doesn’t have a soul – that would be absurd – but how about something more personal like a wedding dress?  And what happens if, over the years, the two people who got married drift apart, maybe separate, maybe find other people to be with?  Does the wedding dress lose its soul and become just an ordinary piece of fabric again – does it stop being special?

My contract with the storage company says that if I stop paying the rental on the unit, after 30 days the company has the right to clear out the unit and dispose of the stuff.  I expect that happens quite a lot.  You can’t bear to part with your stuff, but you have nowhere else to put it, so you put it into storage intending to come back for it.  But that time never comes, and you get busy with other things, lose interest in it, run out of money, get sick, maybe even die, and then the junk removal people come and take it away.  If things have souls, that must be the biggest possible disappointment – being abandoned by your owner.

I wonder what is behind those hundreds of other steel shutters which line the corridors of the building.  Drugs, guns, cash, stolen goods, dead bodies, God knows what all could be in there.  But mostly I expect it’s just stuff like mine, of sentimental value to the owner but little use or interest to anyone else.

Slaynt vie, bea veayn, beeal fliugh as baase ayns Mannin