Nietzsche's aphorism on human resilience, 'What doesn't kill you, makes you stronger', came to mind as a description of the summer of 2019. However, like most aphorisms expressing a so-called general truth, the reverse is equally true: what doesn't kill you makes you weaker
Scanning the sad state of affairs in the world, particularly in the UK, I was reminded of this up-ended, pithy truth. We're not engaged in a world war (not yet, anyway) but still, being in the grip of weakness and helplessness in the face of global idiocy, is uncomfortable. Summer of 2019: 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…'. Never would I have thought that a 19th-century novel would evoke the chaos of a 21st-century summer, but here we are.
July began with an excellent Wimbledon with a superb final marred only by the travesty of the mesmerising god-of-all-things-tennis, Roger Federer, losing it. On the same day, England won, quite magnificently, the cricket World Cup. Our beleaguered UK felt cohesive, for a fleeting moment, as the bulk of the population cheered together in rare unison watching the same TV channel in an age of multi-channels and digital fragmentation. But it was all downhill from there.
It was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness
For most of July, the sun shone on our blue/green shimmering gem of a country, temperatures climbed as we took off to the coasts, lochs and pavement cafes in joyful anticipation of a bright summer of light. On the Isle of Bute on 25 July, to celebrate my wee sister's 50th birthday, the palm trees sashayed, the water sparkled, and Rothesay felt Riviera-like in the sizzling heat of the hottest day of the year. But alas, even good weather is now contaminated by the uneasiness of impending doom. Uneasiness is putting it mildly, as the summer of 2019 was the season when it finally dawned on me that climate change really is upon us – and sooner than expected.
Heatwaves, thunderstorms and floods are intensifying quicker than researchers predicted. How are we supposed to glory in the warmth and colour of our normally grey and drizzly country when we know the unusual temperatures is a warning that the Earth we are bequeathing to our children is heading for a hot and dry catastrophe in 2080? It's not just the desert-like weather we should be worrying about. As we slurped affogatos in the mid-afternoon sun, I came across a particularly dire prediction that the Arctic permafrost is thawing 70 years sooner than predicted, exposing dormant flesh-eating bacterial infections and viruses for which there will be no cure. What fresh hell is this? Instead of smiling at frivolous declarations of 'climate emergency', I'm grimacing at the euphemism.
This summer too, figures were released showing that Scotland has the highest rate of drug-related deaths in Europe. The worst aspect of this deeply troubling news is powerlessness to do a damned thing about it, and the even more troubling realisation that our politicians seem equally unable to produce a solution to Scotland's – albeit complex – drug problem. Add to this the local sadness of the closing of the 163-year-old St Rollox 'Caley' railworks in Glasgow, of little global significance of course, but contributing to the general anxiety of instability and decline. All of this before we even get to our new PM, Brexit and mass shootings by cheerleaders of the current US president.
It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness
The climate is not the only thing burning us up. The summer of 2019 will go down in history, if we don't mobilise to stop it, as the beginning of the end of the age of wisdom. Our new PM is politically short-sighted, despite his self-comparison to Churchill. I have no idea if we will in fact have a no deal Brexit inflicted upon us, but it's looking highly likely that we will, with even the wisest, most sensible politicians unable to jam the brakes.
Structurally, our country has never been adequate to the task of looking after the poor and disadvantaged, but the idea of a possible recession, austerity on stilts, the break-up of the UK, the resurrection of the Irish troubles, the cutting off from our wisest (if not entirely wise) European neighbours is an end to stability, if not an existential crisis, for the UK. Many nationalists, Scottish and English, may celebrate with chants of 'bring-it-on', but it doesn't feel good. Despite Lord Ashcroft's poll showing positive results for Scottish independence, it doesn't feel good at all.
At lunch in Colintraive, with wise friends a few years older than me, I asked whether they could remember a more worrying season in their lifetime. One said yes, the harsh Winter of Discontent in 1978/9, when widespread strikes in the public sector led to power-cuts, three-day work weeks, garbage mountains and general misery. The difference back then, as I recall, was that it was not expected to last, and it didn't, as it ushered in Thatcher who restored contentment by brutally dismantling the manufacturing industry and emasculating trade unions. I have the same sense of foreboding now as I did then.
A glimmer of optimism and wisdom showed its face, if only for 10 minutes: Nicola Sturgeon's TED talk in Edinburgh. Scotland, along with Iceland and New Zealand, wants to change the political focus from a fixation with growing the economy to enhancing 'well-being'. The first minister invoked the authority of Adam Smith, a Scottish giant of economic and moral thought. So long as it is measurable, the governmental pursuit of well-being can only be a good thing. This is where the work of the economist Amartya Sen and the philosopher Martha Nussbaum on the UN's Human Development Index becomes central. But again, a worry: in a globally intricate world, is it possible to have well-being in one country?
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times
For the individual observer watching this theatre of the absurd in the UK, the only recourse is to take to Twitter with pointless rants or disengage completely to focus with relief on the immediate and personal. For my wee family, this summer was the best of times. My husband and I learned the fabulous news that we are going to be grandparents. Unadulterated joy and light descended on the Reid and Taylor families at the unexpected news of a wee addition to our respective broods. But part of me wondered, what kind of world have we left to the next generations to endure and battle as the excesses of this and previous generations scorch and dismantle those certainties that we took for granted and that we believed would improve the lives of our children and grandchildren? Take back control? You're havin' a laugh. This time, the crisis will have an impact on us all, even Liz Truss.
Still, there is hope. A young generation has risen up in protest against our greed which has plundered the planet, a generation who overwhelmingly want to remain in the EU, who are more progressive and tolerant than we were, who are alarmed and aghast on the other side of the Atlantic at the wilful turning away of their elders from mass shootings by white terrorists. Let's hope our next generation's retribution is swift and focussed. To end with another aphorism which works in reversal: thank God youth is not wasted on the young.