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“You Don’t Know What You’ve Got it Till it’s Gone”, or “The Mandibles: A Coda”

by Lionel Shriver

23 September 2047

My dearest Tamarind,

I ran into Graydon recently, and he said you’d moved to Kinlochbervie – nearly as far north on the Scottish mainland as one can get! His explanation – that you’d fled there because it was too far and too cold for any but the hardiest and most ambitious migrants – seemed improbably unkind. Despite our many arguments, I did always find you tender hearted, and I’m sure there’s a more positive reason for your far-flung location. I’m hoping that the Royal Mail can get this letter to you within six weeks or so. I realize the Royal has been reduced to bicycles, but at least we have a postal service, which is more than you can say for most countries. So I’m grateful if you ever get to read this letter, in several weeks or several years. Funny, one effect of what the darker media wags have tagged “the Middle Ages Redux” has been to make me ever more grateful – that everything isn’t worse. Hasn’t that been the overarching lesson? That no matter how bad matters seem, they can always get worse.

Don’t worry, as for the two of us, I realize we qualify as ancient history. While I personally never found anyone to replace you, such a beautiful woman must have long ago found someone else. It’s too late. Regrets usually are. But enough time has passed that I’m in danger of a compounding regret: that I never even told you I felt regretful.

I’ve wanted to contact you for literally decades – ever since California, in fact. (I can barely remember the days when that state was a byword for surfing and sunbathing. “Soaking up the rays” in LA remains deadly, as a tragically large number of scavengers from south of the border continue to discover). I imagine you experienced a similar paradigm shift at the time. (You and I were still stiffly and deliberately not speaking, in a fit of sustained fury whose endurance and ferocity I now look back on in disbelief. It was a period I never expected to segue into our rapidly losing track of each other altogether.) So shaken in that watershed year of 2018 – shaken like everyone else in the world; I wasn’t special – I felt only more keenly bereft in the wake of our parting. Never before had I so badly needed someone to talk to, despite having nothing to say. That was part of the shift: realizing that there was nothing to say, then saying it anyway. A few religious types, like the Archbishop of Canterbury, used the occasion to deliver sonorous, self-serving homilies, and you’ll recall that such preening righteousness came across as especially repulsive. Most sincere conversations during the immediate aftermath were fitful spates of choking incoherence. Both of us constantly mouthing half-thoughts that were chronically, even criminally inadequate, Graydon and I were obliged to grant each other official permission to be lame: you know, to say, “It’s horrible,” or “I feel awful.” It would have been comical, how impotent and tiny the adjectives seemed, if anyone could laugh.

It wasn’t just Graydon. Everyone I spoke to exhibited the same sheepishness, the same sense of shame, which ate up all the outrage like yeast feeding on sugar. I was surprised how impossible it became to blame the Americans, and we wanted, we wanted so badly, to blame the Americans. Some people tried, and the indignation always came across as trivializing and irrelevant. Everyone would turn and look at this wanker going on a tirade, like, what are you on about? What difference does all that noise make? What had happened was so much bigger than why that debating the cause-and-effect sequence of accelerating rhetoric still seems a flagrant waste of time – those “Rocket Man” cracks, or the “mentally deranged dotard” comeback that taught us all a new word.

We British didn’t, strictly speaking, contribute a whit to that spat, much less to the military tit-for-tat getting out of control. Yet I wasn’t the only Brit who felt guilty all the same. Disgusted, sickened – on behalf of the whole race, if that doesn’t sound too grand. I don’t know what it was like amongst your crowd – you and I pretty much divided our social set one-for-you and one-for-me when we split – but all my friends and co-workers felt implicated. We might not have done it personally or nationally, but we were the same species, so we were all therefore capable of doing it. We might as well have done it, and all that really mattered was it had been done. I should be used to the reconfiguration by now, but I still recoil from those redrawn maps of the American west coast with chunks missing, as if a monster from the deep had chomped bites out of it. Not that the cinched in shoreline is of any consequence. They say that “the Golden State” won’t be fit for human habitation for two thousand years.

I know this sounds dreadful – and not like me, whom you always teased for being the worthy one, the optimist, and so, of course, the pushover, if not the fool – but I haven’t been that upset about the more ferocious effects of climate change. The swamping of New York and Florida, even flooding closer to home in Cornwall, East Anglia, Cumbria, and Hull, feels like some sort of divine retribution that we all deserve. I’m not that fussed, either, about the drowning of all those archipelagos, or about the reduction of Caribbean islands like Puerto Rico and Antigua to temporary staging platforms for international triathlons and pop-up parties for the superrich. After California and Pyongyang, I don’t care as much about people in general. If we can do that, maybe we shouldn’t be here. Every time I see that iconic shot of the Golden Gate Bridge as a melted mangle, I think: maybe we’ve had our chance, and we blew it. Maybe it would be better if we seeped back to the primordial ooze. (They’re regarded as kooks, but that’s the thinking behind Homo Sapiens Suck. HSS members were regarded as irrational reactionaries at first, but the movement has endured, their numbers having only grown – though their mass suicide in 2036 was creepy, and the hari-kari strategy is politically self-eliminating.) Me, I look at the handful of other animals that are left, and I think: the deer wouldn’t have done this. The dogs wouldn’t. Not even the insects. Giving the planet over to mould, viruses, roaches, and microbes sounds like a step up.

I know, I know. Surely this can’t be the same Alex Carver. Well, no it isn’t. I didn’t used to think people change much, and now I know: I was changed, and everyone else I know was, too. I couldn’t say for better or worse. But I do know we’re different. Hilariously, the big divide used to be whether you were raised with the internet. (The internet! Maybe I should feel melancholy about the wondrous days before the Web was abandoned to thieves and drug lords, when you could sit at your keyboard and order a toaster, but I don’t. That’s one of the changes. I don’t care about toast.) Unlike the dim spectre of World War II that haunted us if anything too little as kids – and in comparison to Pyongyang, Hiroshima was a firecracker, a sparkler, nay, a magnolia-scented gift candle – now we have generations raised in the shadow of hydrogen exchange. They don’t care about toast, either.

Sorry – I did say I felt grateful, the way we are all indeed supposed to feel grateful, if sourly so: on our knees in relief that the Chinese exercised such superhuman “restraint”. They didn’t flatten DC, if not the entire Eastern Seaboard and a range of American allies like us besides, even after all that fallout drifted into Shenyang, Changchung, and Harbin, not to mention the radiation that actually reached Beijing. (That city had already become such a toxic porridge, barely darker at night than during the day, that I don’t know how they knew the difference.) So there still is a United States, after a fashion. There’s even still a North Korea, to everyone’s astonishment, with the same regime. (I’ve never understood why a bloke that fat would have been freakishly out of Pyongyang for a skiing holiday. About all those bombs did to Kim Jong-un was melt his artificial snow.) Nevertheless, the lesson is that you can use these things and get away with it. I can’t remember the last time I heard a politician utter the word “deterrence.” These arsenals no longer have to do with prevention. Ever since California, it seems as if Pakistan really might hit India over Kashmir, and Iran really might nuke the Saudis should they happen to feel like it. It’s a literally braver new world. This whole Never Again movement is for us proles. For governments, it’s open season. We’ve unlocked the toy box.

Which you’ve heard before no fewer than a million times. I warned you that I didn’t have anything fresh to contribute. I can feel the staleness of nearly every line in this letter so far, and that’s one of the changes in me, maybe one you would applaud: I no longer regard myself as capable of original thought. I’m resigned, cheerfully so, that everything that comes into my head is obvious. I’m one of the homo sapiens who suck.

Still, I thought while I was at it I’d bring you up to speed on what I’m doing. It won’t come as a shock that I’m working in the camps; that’s what you would have expected. But you might not anticipate the leaden spirit in which I muck in. Whatever videos you may have seen, they can’t have captured the extent of these hellholes, horizon to horizon, or the grimness of their conditions. I guess I’m admitting that I hate my work. It makes me feel helpless. We’re wildly under-resourced, and you’ll be nonplussed to hear that I don’t say that acrimoniously. I’m much more practical than I used to be. The UK just doesn’t rake in the tax take to support this scale of displaced and destitute people. Given how hard up most of our compatriots have become, at least in our own terms, the private contributions have been impressive, but they’re still drops in a bottomless bucket.

So I go through the motions of helping exchange a miserable bank of about a hundred overflowing porta-loos for the fresh ones we can afford. But the old ones will have filled up weeks before, and were farcical in number to begin with. So all the ditches run with raw sewage – the ditches themselves being something of a luxury, doggedly dug by my colleagues in One World, One People whenever there are no more supplies to distribute (i.e., most of the time). The sheer amount of shit is mostly amazing to me because I don’t know where all these arrivals find the food to poop. When not fighting the usual cosmetic battle over having become as “dynastic” as the US used to be, Seb Corbyn’s government is trying to keep quiet how many migrants are starving, but all you have to do is look around. It’s hardly subtle.

As for the “health care”, it reminds me of those cartoons in which kids make a surgery out of a cardboard box and hang a sign out, “The dokter is in”. Seriously, there’s one clinic for what has to be 200,000 migrants in our camp alone, and the NHS – hanging on in name only – can barely keep it in cotton wool. They merely gesture toward controlling typhus and cholera. They’re helpless in the face of the Chloroquine-resistant malaria that’s swept the UK since the invasion of tropical mosquitoes; alas, it’s not only wine making that warmer temperatures facilitate. I was appalled to hear a beleaguered medic mutter yesterday that, whether or not we like to admit it, contagion is the “European friend”, because it keeps the incoming population down. In private, even the do-gooders have become animals.

I sometimes have conversations with you in my head, while I’m announcing in a defeated drone to the queue snaking across the better part of Dorset that the food is finished (a fruitless formality; none of these people speak English). I worry whether our heated discussions in the old days were an early indication that we’d have ended up on opposite sides of this crisis (although does a state of affairs qualify as a “crisis” when it carries on for years?). But I refuse to believe we’d seriously differ. Faced with the suffering of real people, some of whom, incredibly, still manage to communicate a wan, fatalistic sense of humour despite the language barriers, you’d be overwhelmed, too – and not by hostility, but by compassion. We’re dealing with tens of millions of people in the UK alone (like me, you’ve heard higher estimates, which are clearly exaggerated) who can’t survive where they were born, whether from wars or desertification (I’m not sure if you call what’s happened in the Middle East “desertification” when the region was desert to begin with). Desperate straights are not their fault, and in that big, arbitrary lottery of where we happen to emerge from which womb, we could as well be in their shoes – or in their bloody, calloused bare feet, more like it. I’m often humbled by their generosity with one another, when they have so little to call their own; I’ve seen many a mother halve her last sandy nutritional biscuit to split with another mother’s child. Before the mizzle of migration turned to monsoon, Europe laid claim to an easy virtue, which came down to little more than speech making. Now we have to put our money, our time, our food, our land, and our cultural generosity where our mouths were.

I’m sorry. That’s what always drove you crazy, wasn’t it, what you called my “grandstanding”, my proclivity for “pontificating”. I guess I haven’t changed as much as I think. I realize it sounds puffed up, but I’m still convinced that the Great Southern Exodus is the biggest test that the Western world has ever confronted, and I’m determined to help us pass it. Obviously I’m familiar with the debate. If anything, we’ve over-rehearsed the irony that to honour our values, we may have to sacrifice the very civilizations that gave rise to them. But the alternative is even worse: betraying our values merely to save our shirts – and to rescue our capacity to buy toasters. What of worth would be left to safeguard, were Europe reduced to a clutter of monuments, the Arc de Triomphe, the leaning tower of Pizza now nearly lateral, the crumble of our Parliament long ago abandoned to mice, all curated by hearts as stony as our ramparts?

So I refuse to believe, whatever your views when you were twenty-two, that at fifty-three you will have joined one of the private militias, or even joined the droves of our compatriots from Middle England who quietly fund those cretins. What’s stalking our country is a virulent, homicidal racism, a word that we foolishly wore out decades ago, wasting it on inadvertent “micro-aggressions” or on good-hearted people using some slightly dated term that’s been replaced by a trendier one. I feel positively nostalgic for mere marches, slogans, “hate speech”. We should be so lucky to worry only about hateful speech.

For don’t be fooled by their beguilingly historic rallying cry to fight the “Second Battle of Britain”. The reconstituted English Defence League is as bigoted as ever, but better armed, and many a local police force turns a blind eye to their antics. So we’ve been obliged to spare too large a portion of our volunteers to watch the gates and patrol the perimeter of Weymouth Refuge, lest we suffer a repeat of that infamous cricket-bat rampage through the camp in Essex last year. Meanwhile, that self-nominated Naval Guard is prowling the whole coast, and they’re sinking those boats, Trin – looking on with blithe indifference as the passengers flail, or poling the thrashing bodies away from their gunwales, until the water finally stops churning and the sea settles with the chilling calm of surrender and surcease. These “patriots” have turned the so-called “protection” of our shores into a sport. I’ve heard that some of them keep track, as if notching their belts, of how many asylum seekers they’ve helped go under. The English Channel, the North and Irish Seas – our waters are becoming mass graves, which some ogre from that lunatic UK Preservation Party quipped last month is “at least replenishing our fish stocks”. The remark was widely reported, and I find it flat-out impossible that you’d have any sympathy with such a grotesque idea of a joke.

They say it’s a “war”, but it isn’t. These people have never done anything to us other than ask for our assistance. They only expect food and water, shelter, and health care, all of which are human rights. Whatever you may think of what’s happened to our country, murdering tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of innocent supplicants in cold blood is unBritish. Whatever else, we’re a just people. So fine, back in the day you might have made a few comments about Romanian immigrants suppressing low-skilled wages. (Romanians, ha! Now that the whole of Eastern Europe has fortressed against misery with fully militarized borders, I haven’t seen a single Romanian, Pole, or Bulgarian in the UK for years. They’ve retreated to their precious enclaves of “ethnic self-determination”.) But you’d be on the side of the angels this time, Trin. I’m certain of it, or I’d never have fallen in love with you in the first place.

For we have no choice. Fresh water in the Middle East is minimal to non-existent. I know we all hailed the treaty as a miracle, but still – the global moratorium on the burning of fossil fuels has left the whole region with no oil revenue (meaning, no revenue) and massive unemployment. (Honestly, can you really blame that poor Kuwaiti for blowing up Versailles? At least terrorism is a fulltime job.) As for Africa: without the outlet of Europe, whose peoples have been contracting anyway, it was well on its way to a population of two billion or more. Yet between drought, the depletion of resources from natural increase, armed gangs scrapping over what little is left, and atrocious governance, the continent has become broadly unliveable.

And I’m well tired of hearing, “So why do they all have such large families?” The needy knocking on our door have already been born. They didn’t choose to be here. Their parents didn’t ask them how many siblings they wanted. So we have to put a sock in the chiding and deal. It is vital to whatever humanity remains to us – ah, for the days that “humanity” was a synonym for decency – that we make room and share.

Still. All right. That said. I confess that I’m sad. I’ll go that far. I do miss the days of taking a train from London to Edinburgh, and staring out the window at the wide golden and green patchwork of rape and potatoes, rather than at dismal shanty towns of corrugated tin from abandoned farm buildings. I miss passing villages that still had pubs – with traditional compound handles like “The Rose and Crown”, “The Coach and Horses”, “The Hare and Hounds” – where the banter would be quick, boisterous, and backhandedly affectionate, rather than bitter, resentful, and completely sick. I’m saying that I miss England – perhaps England as an ideal, which, like all ideals, reality has never lived up to at the best of times – but also the actual England that I fancy I remember well. It was a place where we had plenty of neighbours from elsewhere, but which still engendered a feeling that you were in a particular part of the world, with a distinctive sensibility – one that included, in my childhood anyway, an aversion to self-pity, a capacity to keep your gob shut, a regard for what is and isn’t your business, a bone-dry drollery, and last but not least a profound sense of fair play. Although I don’t ridiculously idolize cream teas and warm beer, pensioners on bowling greens at twilight, box sets of “Eastenders” or repeats of “The Archers”, soggy concerts at Glastonbury, or fractious family visits to Stonehenge (now another illegal – excuse me, of course I mean unsanctioned – migrant camp; the shelter of those big rocks was presumably irresistible), I still believe it’s possible to be sorrowful, a bit, about the decay of the country I grew up in.

But I can only confide that sense of mourning privately to you, because you know how politics are these days, and one is so readily misunderstood. Any expression of patriotism, any backward-looking wistfulness, gets interpreted as supporting the militias, which I detest and resist with every fibre of my being. Besides, if the scientists are right about the Make My Day Asteroid, supposedly bigger than the moon, which continues to head point-blank in our direction, that hurtling chunk of inanimate spite will be the ultimate leveller, won’t it? Those dug-in holdouts in the West will have nothing but a burnt coal to “defend”. All we’ll have left is disembodied memories floating off into space of whether or not, up against it at the pointy end, we turned out to be total arseholes.

Yet far more intense than my pining for a nation that may or may not have ever existed, and what moved me to write to you at such length, is my nostalgia for us. I miss you. And I don’t think it’s just that I miss being young. I miss kicking back in our flat in Shoreditch and watching “W1A”, when I’d explain to you how that not-even-really-a-satire portrayed exactly what it was like working for Tony Hall (you were lukewarm on the license fee, but honestly, don’t you also miss the BBC?). I miss treating ourselves to a slice of Madeira cake from M&S with a drizzle of custard (it’s silly, but ever since looting bankrupted the chain, that’s what I’ve missed most: their Madeira cake). I miss getting so exquisitely comfortable fitting my head into the hollow of your shapely shoulder that I fall asleep without brushing my teeth. So I think back on those oh-so-grave differences of opinion we got so worked up over, and in a bleak sort of way, I almost find them funny. European Union? There is no European Union. It’s every country for itself now (not to start, but you’ve got to admit the Darwinian state of affairs on the Continent is hardly an improvement). Looking back, our rift seems positively quaint. See, in the unlikely event that you don’t feel the same responsibility to move over and break bread with our blameless new arrivals from the same greater human family, I could understand our splitting up over the fate of 800 million migrants who need our help. But not over fucking Brexit.

Still yours devotedly,


Lionel Shriver: this piece was jointly commissioned with New Writing North. A podcast of the story ran in the Financial Times.