Wed, Oct 01, 2008 - Page 9 News List

Things may be bad, but we’ve seen far worse

If we measure today’s woes with those of former eras, we can muster a little courage to endure the credit crunch

By Max Hastings  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

Mankind almost always gets threat assessment wrong. Politicians and sages worry themselves into a decline about a given issue — the red peril, the yellow peril, nuclear holocaust, al-Qaeda — only to find themselves facing troubles of a different nature.

The most obvious consequence of the Western financial crisis is that it makes US President George W. Bush’s “war on terror” seem footling. Of course terrorism is serious. But it does not threaten systemic disaster for Western societies.

By contrast, what generates such fear about the financial catastrophe is that nobody professes to know how bad matters can get. The US and British governments are scrabbling for palliatives rather than proposing anything that masquerades as a solution. Two months ago, economists were talking gloomily about next year being a bad year. Now, however, it seems plain that, even in a benign scenario, it will take much longer for the US and Britain to come out the other side of this nightmare.

Thoughtful people are justly frightened about their jobs, homes and savings. Complacency persists only among those too stupid to realize how serious the mess is, or too young to imagine a society in which instant gratification is no longer available.

My daughter once observed in a domestic context: “Daddy, life is what you are used to.”

This seemed to me an unconsciously profound remark. In war or peace, people find it hard to come to terms with the notion of their own environment — physical, social or economic — becoming something quite different from what it is.

Winston Churchill, during World War II, explained this phenomenon to the head of the British army, General Sir Alan Brooke. He called it the “three-inch pipe” theory of human response. Human beings, he said, can only absorb so much drama — up to the capacity of say, a three-inch pipe. Thereafter, everything that happens around them rushes past, along an emotional overflow.

Many people, including Brooke himself, experienced this in Britain in 1940. So many sensations crowded upon each other that many failed to achieve the impact that they deserved — happily for national morale.

A little knowledge of history makes it easier to achieve a perspective upon misfortunes that befall us. Bedside reading of Samuel Pepys’ diary provides a wonderful corrective to anyone silly enough to suppose our own times extravagantly dangerous.

Pepys lived and worked as a government servant during a period in which almost everybody was frightened for their heads, health and fortune. While he shared in rejoicing at the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, throughout the years that followed King Charles II’s polity never seemed less than precarious. Pepys’ own career prospered at the Navy Office, but he lacked the slightest sense of security.

In 1665, the great plague struck London. The following year, Pepys witnessed the great fire. The nation’s finances tottered. The diarist wrote on Sept. 8, 1666: “Up, and ... by water to White-hall. I stopped with Sir G Carteret, to desire him to go with us and enquire after money. But the first he cannot do, and the other as little, or says: ‘Where can we get any, or what shall we do for it ?’ He, it seems, is imployed [sic] in the correspondence between the City and the King every day, in settling of things.”

It seemed to them all in those days that matters could scarcely get worse, but they did. The following June, the Dutch fleet sailed up the River Medway in southern England and burned Chatham dockyard.

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