In the magnificent setting of Glasgow’s Park Circus, astride his steed, looking out across Kelvin Grove towards the tower of Glasgow University, sits Field Marshall Earl Roberts of Kandahar, Pretoria, and Waterford VC, KG, KP, GCB, OM, GCSI, GCIE, born India on the 30th September, 1832, died France on the 14th November 1914, while visiting British troops. Beneath the statue on its east side are listed the Field Marshall’s campaigns – the Indian Mutiny, Umbeyla, Abyssinia, Lushei, Afghanistan, Burmah, South Africa. And there is a quotation from a speech he gave in Glasgow on the 6th May, 1913: “I seem to see the gleam in the near distance of the weapons and accoutrements of this Army of the future, this Citizen Army, the warder of these islands, and the pledge of the peace and of the continued greatness of this Empire.”
That quotation reminds me of a short story by Kipling, The Army of a Dream. It’s one of these rather eccentric, Kiplingesque extended flights of fancy perhaps describing Roberts’ Citizen Army on manoeuvres, on a yomp or, as Kipling calls it, a “heef” – beef on the hoof. It’s good natured and jolly. But it is a dream. And its abrupt end is shocking. It’s a tricky business, foretelling the future. Within a single generation following Earl Roberts’ Glasgow speech, Britain was exhausted and bankrupt, and the British Empire was to all intents and purposes no more.
Churchill had a go at foretelling the future in his collection Thoughts and Adventures published in 1932. Some of what he said was remarkably prescient. In Shall we all commit suicide? (written in 1925) he predicted that a bomb “no bigger than an orange” would contain the force of a kiloton of cordite that could obliterate a town. In Fifty Years Hence he predicted, inter alia, the mobile phone, Skype, and (still unattained) cold fusion. (I think you can tell he had been picking the brains of his scientific advisor Prof Lindemann.) He admired Lord Tennyson’s effort at prophecy in Locksley Hall. The poet laureate, in foreseeing modern aviation, both civil and military:
Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
Pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down with costly bales;
Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rain’d a ghastly dew
From the nation’s airy navies grappling in the central blue;
But Churchill’s glance into the future is essentially dystopian. He bemoans the fact that scientific progress has outstripped our capacity for living in harmony. And in 1940 he famously foretold the possibility of a new Dark Age rendered more sinister and perhaps more protracted by “the lights of perverted science”.
If one were to write a Fifty Years Hence now, what might it contain? Robots? Radio 4’s PM programme recently talked up robots every day for a week. Eddie Mair encouraged the artificial intelligence boffins with humour and a light touch, but I got the sense he wasn’t really engaged. I’m on Prof Stephen Hawking’s side. We should watch these robots in case they take over the world. Have you read Robert Harris’ The Fear Index? Maybe there’s something to be said for being Luddite. I’m with Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman. His hackney carriage drew up outside No 10 and his aide asked him if he was thinking of acquiring one of these new horseless vehicles powered by the internal combustion engine. He said no. Why ever not? He went round to the front of his conveyance and allowed the horses to nuzzle in. “This is why.” Bartok was walking along Fifth Avenue New York when he stopped and sniffed the air. Horses! He crossed the road and found the stable and communed with the beasts. Ah, Bartok Bela!
Isn’t it funny – I can remember when I was a child thinking how wonderful it would be if you could have a device that could record television programmes in the same way that radio programmes could be taped; I supposed such a device would be called a videotape. Then if I missed an episode of Doctor Who I would be able to catch it later. Pie in the sky. Nobody then predicted that you could make your own movie on a device the size of a pack of cards, watch it instantly, and send it instantly to somebody on the other wide of the world. It is amazing, but I confess deep down I’m indifferent. What do you do when you see the world progress along a path you do not wish to take? You write your own Fifty Years Hence. Like, the kingdom of heaven is like…
Like a museum. The world will become a vast museum. Everything will be managed. The check-list manifesto of the museum’s employees will be indistinguishable from the bucket-lists of the visitors, therefore it will be impossible to know whether you are a tourist or you work in the tourist industry. Enga Province will be the Kew Gardens of Papua New Guinea.
Because you inhabit a museum, everything you experience will be at a remove. Music will be in inverted commas. You can relive “The Battle of Agincourt”. Sex will be “sex”. The museum will have an Executive Board in the old United Nations building in New York, itself a museum. The Non-Executive Board will be in Beijing’s Forbidden City. The identity of the museum’s curator will be unknown.
Yet still there will be rumours of an area outwith the museum, a Steppe in Central Asia, wild and anarchic, where men and women are expert on horseback and species still devour one another. You may try to find this region, but you can never be sure that the peasants with grinning faces, beckoning you on, are not museum stooges, their log cabin still within the perimeter, waiting to send you to a Gulag in “Siberia”. The worst thing that can happen to you is not that you will be cast into outer darkness, but that you cease to be a museum employee, or a visitor, and become an exhibit.
I’m travelling with the Bakhtiari, a nomad in Persia. We’ve reached the water’s edge of the Bazuft River. The migrating flocks are about to plunge into the swollen melt water and make the crossing. My people need to follow the herd to survive. I bid them farewell. I’m not making the crossing. Not this year.