30th November 2016 |

I had a nightmare last night. The world was in ruins, in a rather colourful and impressionistic way, and I was in a famous photographer’s studio where he was trying to turn the ruins into an art object. I had been up and down the west coast of America, on a bike I think, getting lost in hotels and viewing the destruction, and I was trying to get the celebrity’s people to take my accounts seriously but they didn’t want to know, which was hardly surprising because I actually had nothing to offer, and that was the nightmarish part. It was the sense of my own futility that woke me up.

Of course the world around me now is not in ruins. Village life goes on as usual. People are coming to dinner. The battery of my bike has died. The church bell, which rings every half hour, is ringing as I write. The nightmare is still some way away, but I feel it coming.

One summer in the late nineties I was riding a big Triumph Tiger around the States. I was already well enough known that people invited me to drop by and stay for a night or two. One such invitation came from a man in Louisiana. He said if I turned up before he was back from work I should help myself to the whisky. It was the kind of sultry, sweaty night you associate with the south and the room I found myself in was a cavernous space full of steamy shadows. A whisky on the rocks sounded very appealing, the bottle was where he said it would be and I helped myself to ice from the freezer, not noticing that it was also full of seafood. It was the first, and I hope the last time in my life that I drank shrimp-flavoured whisky.

When my host arrived I found him very congenial. We had good conversation, great food. I slept well and in the morning again, before I left, he struck me as an intelligent, thoughtful, well-balanced man. Ten years later I wrote something in favour of Obama’s bid for the presidency and that same man sent me the most vindictive email I have ever received. He called me a disgusting, myopic fool, and tore into me for supporting “that animal.” I was truly shocked and, believe me, that hardly ever happens.

I have always thought it very important to criticise politicians. I used to think that Americans were much too kind to them, worshipful almost, especially to senior politicians like senators and White House dignitaries. I thought it would be impossible for an intelligent American to insult his revered institutions so much as to call a presidential candidate an animal. So I assumed my friend had suffered some terrible trauma in his lifeAlzheimer’s perhaps. I should have known better.

On my way around the world I’ve had friendly, enjoyable relationships with people whose fundamental beliefs were abhorrent to me: An Afrikaner in apartheid Africa, a militant Muslim evangelist in Sudan, a tribal anti-semite in Tunisia, and so on. But I made the lazy assumption that we, in Europe and America, were beyond that sort of thing except when it came to fringe extremists. I couldn’t have been more wrong. My man in Louisiana was only one of millions who kept their unseemly thoughts nicely tucked away behind courtly southern manners when in the presence of “foreigners” like me. The distressing ex-mayor in West Virginia, with her careless reference to Michelle Obama as an “ape on heels”, is like a bookend around that story.

Of course it’s not just about race. It’s about poverty, neglect, misinformation and the deadly precision with which politicians manipulate underprivileged constituencies. In India, a politician could secure the votes of several thousand destitute villagers with one standpipe of drinking water. The principle’s the same. It took Nigel Farage and Donald Trump to wake me up to the existence of these unreconstructed nations within a nation. I suppose I should be grateful to them, for exposing some of the realities that we in our supposedly advanced civilisations have been trying to ignore.

My second big journey in 2001 made it pretty clear to me that all the huge disruptions in the world today are symptoms of three enormous changes that occurred since I first wandered around forty years ago: huge population growth, an information revolution, and creeping climate change. Large parts of the world are unable to sustain their populations, climate change is drying them out, and the internet is telling them where to go to get the kind of life that we are enjoying. It may sound simplistic but I think it’s incontestable.

In a smaller, more local variation of the same pattern, it’s what’s happening in England and America. A self-satisfied urban and coastal elite lost touch with the country where large numbers of under-privileged people have been nurturing their grievances and hiding their prejudices under a mask of political correctness. It was surprisingly easy for two rabble-rousers to rip the mask away, exploit their emotions, tell them a story they wanted to hear and watch them rise up in anger.

The terrible, destructive truth is what we have seen demonstrated again and again in human history. These agents of change, these provocateurs, are interested only in boosting their own egos. They have no solutions, and the upheavals they generate lead to chaos and violence from which it takes ages to recover.

I was only eight years old at the outbreak of World War Two, which has given me a life-long interest in the times that led up to it. I imagine that the sick feeling I have today must be rather similar to the way many felt in 1938. These worrying and mind-numbing events – Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Ukraine – are just premonitory tremors. But its awful to think that our destinies are in the hands of people like bumptious Boris, egregious Farage and the slithy Gove on one side of the Atlantic, and on the other such ghastly creatures as Mitch O’Connell, Rudy Giuliani and the naked Emperor Trump.

Maybe from now on I really will just stick to motorcycles. The poet Alexander Pope once wrote: “When vice prevails and impious men hold sway, the post of honour is a private station.” Yes, but, is it honourable to stay silent?