Chaos theory

Chaos theory


norman lebrecht

April 19, 2010

The London Book Fair, which opened this morning, looked more like the Gobi Desert at noon than a hub of industry. Many of the foreign stands were vacant, the publishers and sales staff having failed to reach London through the curtain of Icelandic stardust. ‘Half of our meetings are off,’ one publishers told me. ‘All we’re doing is swapping gossip with competitors.’

‘Do you publish any Norwegian books in Nigeria?’ said one lone foreign exhibitor to another across an echoing aisle. One in five semninars was called off.

The fair was supposed to be the biggest ever, seven percent up on last year and with a huge resurgence of European involvement. It will be remembered as a natural disaster. Only the French were present in significant numbers.

Across the cultural industries, the pattern repeats itself. Concerts are being altered, soloists substituted, lectures cancelled, exhibitions postponed. Tales of four-day journeys from Oslo to Brussels are standard conversation. One acquaintance signed on as crew in order to cross the Channel on a freighter. The BBC is looking for an alternative way of getting me to the Czech Republic next week: it may involve a hot-air balloon and a horse and cart.

There are personal tragedies involved among the many inconveniences – of lovers kept apart, memorial events abandoned. The nagging question is not so much whether any one of us is going to reach our intended destinations next week as what will happen afterwards? Will we all go back to square one and carry on flying just as before, or have we learned a lesson about planet abuse and will we review our habits? The longer the ash hangs there, the likelier it is that things will never be the same again. This could be a game-changing moment. 

There has been pressure on the arts ever since 9/11 to curb travel budgets and rely less on flown-in stars. The headaches of the past few days will reinforce the urge to cast local. I’m hearing all sorts of alternative plans being floated. Most of them are eminently wise.  


  • AVI says:

    Forgive me for jumping in with both feet, but there’s one or more sweeping generalisations here…
    “Learned a lesson about planet abuse”? In what way, exactly? CO2 hardly comes into it; that volcano is pumping out more of the stuff per day than the UK puts out in a year, or some similarly perspective-giving statistic. I don’t think the volcano, an entirely natural event, has taught anyone anything.
    To all intents and purposes, it does seem more like a minor inconvenience being mis-handled and cocked up the unwieldy hand of the State-that-knows-best.
    I still can’t quite believe that it’s not only taken the PM days and days to get round to pretending to do something, but he then goes and talks about sending aircraft carriers to help people cross the channel, as if there were no other way to get them back. That’s ludicrously expensive gesture politics at a time we can ill-afford it, rather than sensible joined-up thinking. The Eurostar has been running services as normal throughout, with only booked tickets / reservations allowed. If Government had to get involved, the first sensible steps would be to make best use of extant resources; call in Eurostar chiefs and ferry bosses, and ask that they run extra services. Get Eurostar to allow standing passengers and / or run it as a more frequent shuttle service, ensure all cars going onto the Shuttle have full occupancy by placing foot passengers with single drivers… disseminate better information about alternative routes across Europe (night buses, coaches…) to get folk back to the ports, make more use of ferry journeys across to other ports sailing out of Harwich. . . None of this is rocket science, it just needs to be done. (it doesn’t help having some of the French on strike, mind) And that’s before we start to ask if airspace should have been shut down so dramatically, given the successful test flights. At this stage, shouldn’t we be allowing cargo ‘planes to bring the fresh food that’s languishing abroad, medical supplies, and more – perhaps on a voluntary crew basis if we must.
    Anyhow, this isn’t the forum for all of that (sorry). But the point is – it’s not as bad as it is painted. It’ll go away, be put down to experience, and we will all fly again just as we did.
    I also suspect that if we relied on local, home-grown artists, that you, Norman, would be among the first to bemoan the lack of international talent for our audiences, the lack of inspiration for our youngsters, the lack of communication between and among cultures…’ but I’d be interested to hear more about the new plans being hatched to which you refer.

  • Huw Belling says:

    Be that as it may, I would argue that the London scene is thoroughly international, right down to the rank and file. I am missing all kinds of players. Mega-stars are just the tip of the volcano.

  • kb says:

    Glad to see this discussion continuing, it’s a fascinating subject. But honestly, AVI, you really need to get your facts straight.
    According to the actual facts researched for this article, your guesstimate at a “perspective-giving statistic” is misguided at best:
    Also, a military helicopter flew Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic into Cracow for Kaczynski’s funeral. It was a practical solution to a problem that appears to have worked for everyone involved. What’s the problem with sending an aircraft carrier? Those people stranded on the other side of the water paid for that aircraft carrier, after all.
    As for keeping things local, entire social and economic theories have been built on that notion, and Mr Lebrecht deserves credit for recognizing that these have been given new currency by the Eyjafjalla phenomenon, and, as overwhelming powers of nature often do, prompted deep reflection (for some of us at least). Do you really think this can, or indeed should be, dismissed in one short paragraph?

  • AVI says:

    @ KB,
    Thanks for your reply.
    Having read the Guardian link to which you refer, I accept that my CO2 related assertion was wide of the mark – but actually I think the figures given still illustrate the point. I could just have easily written that the volcano “emits more CO2 per day than Austria”; which suggests it probably emits more per day than all of the flights that are grounded. I don’t find that particular cause for concern, nor believe that it will cause us to “learn a lesson about planet abuse”.
    The figure may need adjusting, but I think that the point stands.
    The problem with sending an aircraft carrier is like I say – over expensive gesture politics. It’s just not necessary, and it hellishly costly. Sure, we’ve all paid for the thing, but there’s no need for us to all pay the fuel bill and associated costs if there are more efficient and cost-effective ways to get people back to the UK. Yes, if there’s imminent danger or a war on, perhaps we should be using any and all resources at our disposal to move people to safety – but there isn’t, it’s largely a matter of convenience.
    Gordon Brown also talked about getting two more Navy ships involved to get people across the Channel, yet they haven’t actually had any order to move (phew!). It would be particularly pointless given that the ferry operators all seem to say that they have capacity, that they’re not totally full up… if they are running boats anyway, why pay to run military ships alongside? Waste of fuel & money (and if you want to continue on a climate change theme, running the ferries full is probably more efficient than adding more boats unnecessarily).
    As for greater localism, I did note that I’d be interested in hearing more about the plans to which Mr. Lebrecht tantalisingly alluded, and I didn’t intend to dismiss the idea; rather to suggest that I think Mr. L would be among the first to scrutinise any plans for enforced localism or choosing artists based on (or with greater weight given to) where they live.

  • kb says:

    Thanks for your reply – but I must re-iterate that Mr Lebrecht’s point about a reduction in CO2 emissions is valid, and your own point does not stand but rather flies in the face of the facts.
    The facts reported in this article are that the eruption did indeed lead to a fall in carbon emissions, and scientists are calling for further research (ie for us to learn more about what the incident taught us):
    Also, I wonder if you feel inclined to wield your point about inappropriate use of expensive military transport again, this time as a stick to bash the German government?