Off to the Show

13th February 2019 |

I’m off to London tomorrow, to spend three days at the motorcycle show at ExCel. I’ve never been to one before, surprisingly, so I can’t tell you much about it, but I’m the guest of Nathan Millward who rode a postman’s bike from Australia to England a while back and is one of my favourite people in spite of himself.

I’m pretty much guaranteed to have a good time. I only have to talk for half an hour each day, and that’s answering questions, so I reckon I’ll hold out all right. I’ve got books to sell and this time, just as an experiment, some big posters that people seem to like putting up on their walls. This is one of them.

As Brexit looms over me like a dreadful curse, every visit to England seems more and more like the end of a golden era. Everyone’s fed up with it, but I can’t help thinking about it.
A few days ago I was asked to do a TEDx talk at Warwick and I chickened out – sort of – partly because it sounded like a lot of work, but mainly because I’ve never been any good at doing scripted speeches and I’m getting too old to fail.

Still, I couldn’t help wondering what I might have said. The theme was “Architects of Tomorrow”, and since I am not an architect (although I love designing and building my own stuff) I assume the larger meaning of those who might be designing a future world. Well, I wonder if it’s not a bit ridiculous asking an 87-year-old to  divine the needs of a future generation. True, Buckminster Fuller was still at it when he was my age, although the resemblance ends there.

My first reaction to the title was that it was rather hubristic. If there is one thing we should have learned by now it is that you can’t create an environment for the next lot to occupy and expect them to appreciate it. Look at the record. Look at what happened to those brilliant, colourful tower blocks we put up in the fifties. Look at Chandighar, Le Corbusier’s famous celebration of concrete in India, which the inhabitants have done their absolute best to disguise  as a tent city by covering it with fabrics, posters, and graffiti.

I am not saying that these endeavours were without merit. They certainly served a purpose, for a while at least, but they do show how impossible it is to anticipate what large numbers of people in the future will find amenable or inspiring.

However, assuming that the theme of these talks is meant more generally than in terms of bricks and mortar, the thought that we could today imagine and create a better future for the next generation seems quite foolish. We have only to observe, right now, in Europe and America, the extraordinary mess we are making for our own younger generation. The sad truth seems to be that the calibre of the people we have elected to prepare for the future is simply inadequate.

In our own case, in Britain, the imbalance between north and south (to put it at it’s crudest) has been obvious throughout my lifetime, and yet our politicians have never seriously tackled this dangerous instability until finally one of them, in an act of consummate folly, put a match to the powder keg. Much the same blind arrogance characterises affairs in the USA, and there are echoes of it everywhere, prompted by the very difficulties that require us to pull together rather than fly apart.

If we are to put our energy and creative talents into anything, it must be into improving ourselves. We need to be led and instructed by better people, better politicians, and of course by that I don’t mean people with better qualifications or more expensive educations. I mean people with a grasp of the diversity and complexity of the world we live in, who recognise the impossibility of separating ourselves off from its problems and the fact that we are all in it together.

The combination of population growth, drastic inequalities and the information revolution is already having lethal consequences, and in combination with climate change will quite possibly lead to our extinction unless somehow we fashion better people to show us how to resolve these tensions.

The British have always been great travellers and on all my big rides I’d say I encountered more Brits than people of other European nationalities. How can that be compatible with the sense of a creeping xenophobia we see in Britain today? I don’t think we’re generally afraid of foreigners, or find them distasteful. From what I’ve heard it might have more to do with large numbers of unskilled workers behaving badly because they are trafficked and exploited by criminal gangs. In which case policing the gangs might be better than closing our borders, but that is a quite uneducated opinion. What I want to see is a body of elected politicians and government officials with the will, the determination and the humility to sort these things out. Those are not the people I hear pontificating about Brexit.

All my emphasis in the second half of my life has been on the virtue of exploratory travel, as a means to finding some perspective on life and an appreciation of the beauty of the planet we inhabit.
It drastically tempers the desire to acquire stuff or to impose oneself on others. It greatly diminishes fear and anxiety, and powerfully reinforces the belief that people, for the most part, share common values and desires, and that it is generally safe and usually a pleasure to be amongst them.

If such an idea were not utterly absurd, I would wish everyone could travel as I did and discover in themselves their own natural compatibility with humanity. I have yet to meet travellers who do not report on the warmth and generosity they are offered by people everywhere, and always inversely proportional to their wealth.

Perhaps we should send our budding teachers and politicians out into the world with the modern equivalent of a begging bowl before we entrust them with our future and the future of our children.
They wouldn’t be so concerned with acquiring wealth, shoring up their self-importance and intriguing in the pursuit of power.
The architects of tomorrow need to do most of their work on themselves, to head off the catastrophes looming over us and ensure that there actually will be a tomorrow.