Prisoners of Our Own Design

Number Six promised so much: why did he fail to deliver?

Having just watched every episode of The Prisoner for the first time since 1968, I can’t escape asking an obvious question; and it’s not, “Who is Number One?” but, “Why do so many great TV series fall at the final hurdle?”

Patrick McGoohan’s iconic Cold War thriller is the ultimate example of building an audience’s expectations to fever pitch, only to dash them at the end like a missed penalty in a cup final; but it is far from being alone. Westworld is a recent case in point, missing the ball entirely in season three.

To be fair, The Prisoner was a very ambitious project. The premise was brilliant (a secret village dedicated to imprisoning and breaking those from both sides who know too much). It posed intriguing riddles over 17 episodes, drawing us in with the promise of answers. Mixing in the latest developments in surveillance and brain washing was clever but less challenging than simultaneously posing fundamental questions about individualism versus conformity. Making it also work as a surrealist plunge into our deepest psyche was a real stretch; and bringing it all together at the end, in a way that answered the riddles it had posed, was evidently too tall an order even for a near-genius like McGoohan.

Sadly, he over-steered on the surrealism so hard that he missed the goal, notoriously failing to deliver an ending that was satisfying not just in the surrealist realm but also in the real world. We have a word for that: it’s called a copout. Back in 1968, the public were enraged because he broke the implicit contract he had with them, to deliver an ending that justified the emotional and intellectual capital they had invested in trying to solve the riddle.

This doesn’t mean that you have to explain everything. Sometimes it’s better to leave the mystery unsolved. Think of Picnic at Hanging Rock. Generations of fans have gone nuts trying to work out what happened, which is a perfect result for the author. But you see, she did actually know the answer. She had not only a surrealist solution that (in my opinion) is a load of bollocks, but also a complete, real-world solution (you can Google them both). As with any good Whodunnit, the solution existed and informed the whole story, with the clues left there for the reader to find, if they looked hard enough.

McGoohan didn’t do this. He admitted as much to Lew Grade, the then head of the production company, which is one of the reasons they cut the series short.

In the case of Westworld, the issue is more basic: the writers lost sight of what the series was about. They wandered off into a confused futuristic action movie that was all image and no substance. They should have focused on the key issues that Michael Crichton raised in the original book. What makes us human? How is a human different from an AI? How would natural and artificial humans relate if they were equal? And if AI advances beyond us, what would that relationship become? I so hope that Series 4 gets back on track.

Back in The Village, I feel the need to answer the questions that were left unsatisfied back in ’68. I’m doing this just for me, so if you like it that’s great and if you don’t, I don’t really care; but by all means let me know.

Question 1: where is The Village? It’s not in the UK but in either southern Portugal, the coast of Andalusia, or Morocco. This is made clear when The Prisoner flies over it in the episode “Many Happy Returns”; and by the route they take back to London after they escape. They drop off “The Youth” on the A20 in Kent, which is the main route to London from the Channel Ports, which they must have come through after driving back across Spain and France.

Question 2: Who is Number One? I don’t mean in the surrealist realm, where it’s The Prisoner himself, but in the real world. In my version, it’s literally a number: a telephone number. Or more precisely, the operator of a bank of telephones, who passes on directives from the agencies that control the village.

Question 3: Who runs The Village? To understand this, we have to go back to its origins, which are hinted at by the writers’ inspirations. In particular, a luxury estate in Scotland where senior Nazi officers were held during WW2. It was riddled with listening devices, so that key information could be extracted from their unguarded conversations.

The POW camp that became The Village was located in one of three places that were geopolitically ideal for the purpose. At this time both Portugal and Spain were neutral countries, whose fascist regimes were tolerated by the Allies, whilst Morocco was semi-independent but under their arms-length control.

As WW2 ended and the Cold War began, the facility is retained to hold and debrief people from all backgrounds who have important information and are considered a security risk. Only a handful of people in British Intelligence know about it, plus a few in the host country. It is supported by a black budget, disguised as a convalescence facility for those with psychological disorders.

Information gleaned from the residents is found to be valuable not only to British Intelligence but also to both their allies and foes. Horse trading of information and even agents starts to take place. The Village becomes a useful place to send, debrief and assess agents who have been exchanged.

At some point around 1950, the Head of the British intelligence services dies suddenly, without having briefed a successor. The senior surviving officer who knows about The Village realises that only a handful of others share the secret, most of them his subordinates. He passes it off to the new chief as a low-level facility and begins to secure off-the-books expansion of its budget.

With its management unfettered, The Village starts to trade far more widely in information; and to offer “retirement” and interrogation services to foreign agencies. As revenues increase, so do the number of players participating. Many from behind the Iron Curtain are suborned by corruption and they conceal what is really going on from their superiors, just as the British have done. It is a European affair: no hint of American participation ever surfaces in the series.

When any lawful intelligence operative becomes suspicious, they are kidnapped and incarcerated in The Village. By the 1960s (the era of Philby, Burgess and Maclean), nearly half of the senior British intelligence staff are involved; yet they have to be careful within HQ in London because the man at the top and several of their senior colleagues are not party to the game.

At this point, The Prisoner is brought to The Village and interrogated by a succession of managers known as Number Two, drawn from the various national agencies that, knowingly or not, have agents who participate in funding, supplying and running the operation.

Question 4: What happens after The Prisoner escapes? Well, that’s where the mystery continues, into a new series that I do hope will be made, some day.

What of my original question: why do so many great TV series disappoint at the end? Sometimes the producers are simply in too much of a rush, which is mostly down to finance. Sometimes it’s a loss of nerve, like the footballer who misses the last penalty in the cup final. Occasionally, as with Game of Thrones, it’s because new writers lack the talent of the originator. But most often, as with The Prisoner, it’s the result of promising a solution to an intriguing riddle, without actually having one. For those of us who plunge into writing stories without having worked out the ending, that should provide a salutary lesson.

After the Event: first page of a new novel

Photograph by Justice Amoh on Unsplash

INTRODUCTION

All human beings are ultimately alone; but some are more alone than others.

Was that what saved me? The tendency to distance myself from others and figure things out for myself: is that why I was Enlightened so painlessly, when millions perished or suffered torment in futile resistance?

Or was it what Jenny used to call my Mr Spock tendency, that excessive rationality and lack of emotion, which put logic ahead of feeling?

I like to think it was neither. I tell myself that it was because the desire to connect, which is such a driver in all of us, was so desperately strong in me that it made me open to the virus, in a way that I never could be to other people.

The irony of that still makes me smile. The idea that the inner conflict between my desire to connect and my inability to do so might actually have given the virus a boost, fills me with a sort of joyous vindication, like watching England beat a better team in the World Cup. 

It’s as if I jumped clean off the autism spectrum and landed as the best-adjusted person on the planet.

Of course, my joy is qualified by the knowledge that there are only a third as many people on the planet now as there were before I made the jump. Evolution can be cruel; and Enlightenment came at a cost.

They had to go, though. There was no other way. We can see that clearly now.

I realise that I need to revise my opening statement.

All human beings were ultimately alone; but now we’re all connected. 

Yes, that’s better. It’s all so much better now.

This is the story of how it came to be.

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The above text is the draft intro to a Science Fiction novel with the working title, After the Event. I’ve spent several months trying out different styles and approaches and I think this works best: but I’d be grateful for feedback. Some background to the book can be found in my earlier posts in the Sci-Fi category, such as Before the Event; Humanity Version 2; Upgrade Yourself; and Why We Love Zombies.

Global Delight

Bellerby 36cm globe, Gagarin model

Recently I decided to fulfil a lifelong love and get me a globe.

Seeing the Earth from space should have revived our fascination with globes – but maybe all those images captured from satellites have made us blasé. Perhaps the idea of our planet as a fragile orb of life and colour floating in the great darkness is now so familiar that we have lost our sense of wonder. Grotesquely, as some of us voyage outwards into space, others are going backwards, into the belief that the Earth is flat.

Well, not me.

As a geographer, I’ve always loved maps. My walls are covered with them and if I was only allowed three books I’d choose an atlas, a dictionary and (despite being an atheist) a bible.

The ultimate map is a globe. My global epiphany happened years ago on holiday in Venice, when I visited the maritime museum. They have a couple of gigantic Renaissance globes, which are so amazing that I still can’t really figure out how they achieved that perfect fusion of Art, Craft and Science.

In contrast, I dislike the way that flat projection maps make my home island of New Guinea appear small against the oversized representation of Greenland. Size matters. Africans find it equally galling to see their continent misrepresented as smaller than Europe.

Then there’s proximity. Humanity’s future may well be determined in the Arctic; and yet the distortions and omissions of most atlases have led to a dangerous ignorance about the Arctic region and the closeness of the countries around it.

So, I woke up one day and decided to tick another one off the bucket list. The problem was that antique globes are unaffordable and most modern ones are too small or poor in quality. An internet search revealed just one company that could deliver what I wanted. Bellerby & Co were set up to fill exactly the gap in the market that had kept me from sating my lifelong desire.

Bellerby’s hand-crafted masterpieces come with prices ranging from the minor-gulp-inducing to the eye-watering. From a geographer’s perspective, they are the real deal, with a level of detail that takes good eyesight to fully appreciate. My 36cm diameter globe (obviously I chose their Gagarin model) is customised with images painted next to places that are special to me, including a bird of paradise in New Guinea, Magellan’s nemesis off Mactan Island and a camel caravan on the Silk Route in Uzbekistan.

If you want to see something superb, take a look at:

https://bellerbyandco.com

Of course, no ambition is ever totally fulfilled. What I’d really like is one of their 75cm diameter globes, standing in the courtyard of that castle I’ve always been meaning to buy…

I wonder, if everyone was given their own personal globe on their seventh birthday, could we ignite the Overview Effect that so strikes astronauts when they first see the Earth from space? Ironically, maybe then we’d wake up to the reality that there is only one, which is easily damaged, hard to repair and can’t be replaced.

The Eyes Have It

Photo by Vitolda Klein on Unsplash

It is wonderful and amazing to have my sight restored. I still can’t believe how clear and bright everything seems, even to the point that I have to wear cool-dude shades whenever the sun peeks out.

I haven’t posted anything for three months because I was going blind. Cataracts: who knew? Evidently not the opticians who initially failed to recognise what was happening and then later gave me crap advice on how bad it was and what I might do about it. Should have gone to… an ophthalmologist.

Happily I’ve always been fortunate enough to live near top university teaching hospitals and their resident specialists. In the past that has saved both of my children’s lives; and now it’s also saved my sight.

The degradation of my eyesight was so gradual that I was like the frog in the bowl who doesn’t notice he’s being slowly boiled. I adapted: I got more powerful glasses and then different pairs for every occasion; I kept polishing them because they never seemed to be clean; I stopped driving at night; I squinted at the screen and put extra lights on when I wanted to read a book, which I did less and less. Finally one evening I couldn’t keep the text on my PC in focus any longer and the strain on my eyes was unbearable, so I staggered through to the living room and realised that I couldn’t focus on the TV screen either. That was when I knew something had to be done.

In these Covid times, the waiting list with the National Health Service is about a year and a half. I don’t have medical insurance but needs must. I got a private appointment in three days and the first cataract operation in a week. It was so successful that we did the other eye a fortnight later.

The way it’s done now is astonishing. After removing the cataract, they put a new lens into your eye, like a permanent internal contact lens. The surgeon was brilliant and the anaesthologist sang opera as he dosed me up. Marvellous.

So I can see clearly now, the fog has gone. My long distance vision is near perfect, like it was decades ago. I can drive at night. I have new vary-focal glasses for reading and screen work, which weigh a tenth of what my old ones did. The improvement is startling: originally I thought I’d lost maybe 15% of my vision but in retrospect I realise it must have been more like 30%.

I always regarded sight as the most important of the senses. Now I realise that it is truly priceless.

So, normal service has been restored. I am back at my desk; and if I want to remind myself of how lucky I am, all I have to do is look out the window with my new eyes.

The Enemy of the Good

Photo by Gayatri Malhotra, Unsplash

I just got burned on social media for criticising the poem by Amanda Gorman at President Biden’s inauguration. Silly me: she was about to be carried to superstardom on a tsunami of adulation and it was not the time to be picky. But stupidly I said, “Very good – but needs to also learn the power of brevity”.

In return I was called, in summary, a mean-spirited misogynist with the attention span of a goldfish, who was pissing on their parade. When I made the further mistake of replying, I got a glimpse of the almost impossible task that Joe Biden faces in his quest to bridge the great divide.

The root problem is that we have reached a stage where very few people will listen to any point of view that does not exactly mirror their own. The thread I posted to was populated by Biden and Harris lovers, of whom I’m one. If they react that way to a dissenting voice from an ally, what chance is there of them finding any kind of agreement with their opponents?

I seem to be in a tiny minority of people who are actually interested in different views. I watch Fox and CNN; I read the Independent and the Daily Mail, the Guardian and the Sun; I listen to Hartley-Brewer and Laurence Fox (who I loathe) and to James O’Brien and Owen Jones, (who I quite like); and all of them at least occasionally make good points, even if I may hate to admit it.

Perhaps it’s because I spent my career in inter-governmental organisations, working with people of just about every nationality, race, creed, age and gender. At college I was taught to seek, analyse and critique different sources before reaching my own conclusions. I believe that the freedoms of one citizen end where those of the next begin; and I’m happy to live and let live up to that point.

Why is this so rare?

During Trump’s last days, I saw a very decent CNN anchor say disgustedly of a racist Trump supporter, “I have nothing in common with that man!’ I wanted to shout at the screen, ‘Yes you do! You are both human beings, you are both men of similar age, you are both Americans, you are both politically active and you both care about your country.’

A visiting alien would have struggled to understand why they couldn’t even imagine finding common ground. I also find it easier to forgive the Trumpite. He was ignorant, born to prejudice and misled. The CNN guy had none of those excuses but he was black, with centuries of oppression weighing on him.

Joe Biden said all the right things: the need to listen to opposing views and focus on what unites us instead of on what divides us; the importance of treating each other with respect and courtesy; the valuing of facts over lies; and the determination never to cease finding ways to improve democracy, always in pursuit of a more perfect union.

I received a weird brickbat about that last point, namely, “You have confirmed that you are mean-spirited by admitting that you prefer to focus on improving something good rather than celebrating it. That’s perfectionism. In my experience perfectionism is mean-spirited.” 

Maybe she had a perfectionist boss who always found her work unsatisfactory. But you know who else is a perfectionist? Joe Biden. Famous for it. I thought about pointing this out but clearly it wouldn’t have gone down well.

In any case, perfectionism isn’t mean-spirited. It’s exactly what it says on the can: a determination to pursue perfection and not be satisfied merely with the good. That’s why the two are enemies. It’s also why Biden exhorted everyone to keep driving forwards, towards that more perfect union.

And Amanda Gorman? By rights she will shine for decades to come.

But I still think the poem was too long.

Why We Love Zombies

Photo by Jean-Philippe Delberghe on Unsplash

It’s been building for years. A zombie apocalypse was getting ever more popular in movies, games and books, long before Trump and the pandemic. It’s not just zombies, of course: we’ve been lapping up every kind of dystopian future, from The Hunger Games to Children of Men and The Handmaid’s Tale. Why do they appeal to us more than any utopian vision? The answer lies with the zombies.

However good some other apocalyptic renditions may be, zombies are killing it. It’s not just luck and Milla Jovovich that have enabled the Resident Evil movies to gross over US$1.2 billion. The Zombies’ global success reflects our real world social divides, in which we have increasingly come to regard other tribes of humanity as mindless sub-humans.

We want to blow them away, by the thousands and millions. The Walking Dead expresses this perfectly, in the callousness of the survivors towards those they slaughter. After all, they’re already dead, aren’t they? It’s not like they’re human.

No, they’re Trump supporters. Or the Liberal Elite, or Commies, or Zionists, or Muslim Fundamentalists, or LGBTQVWXYZ…  It’s endless. We’ve segmented humanity so far that every other group can be categorised and dismissed as sub-human objects of hate. The idea that every person is equal has been totally subverted. We now fear the others even more than our primitive ancestors did.

Violent video games that objectify the enemy can tell us what’s really going on here. They provide the superficial catharsis and ultimate sense of futility that I first recognised while watching Aliens. That wonderful rollercoaster of a movie revealed a dreadful truth: no matter how many you kill, they just keep coming.

That captures another aspect of our present malaise: the feeling of impotence. The world is going to shit all around us and there’s nothing we can do. So what the hell, let’s at least take as many of them with us as we can. It all turns to rage: the 28 Days Later rage that boils inside us. That rage is turning us all into killer zombies in real life, even as we fight against them in our fantasy lives.

How can we not love zombies? They are us: and the apocalypse is of our own making. Pass me another ammo clip, I’m almost out…

Unless we can find a cure. Something to inoculate the whole world, starting with ourselves. Some natural or God-given remedy that has been with us all along. And then of course we will have to persuade everyone to take it.

After the Event, my novel-in-progress, sees the anti-vaxxers fight desperately to avoid being infected with something that will cure their hate. Their excuse is that it’s an alien virus but that’s not their real reason, just as we all know the cure to what ails us and yet we still fight against it. We would rather kill or die than be cured. You can lead a human to the cup of life but you can’t make them drink.

Trump That

What would happen if some gun-toting Trump supporters encountered an alien? I think we know the answer: they would shoot it.

Later they might ask some questions, like, “That sure is one ugly mother, I wonder what it wanted?” But they’d shoot it first, to be on the safe side and because that’s how they see things.

Why is that? Why is half of humanity so afraid of anything different or “other”? On the flip side, why would the other half so eagerly try to connect with the alien? Why would its otherness provoke fascination more than fear?

Both approaches are risky but the differences go deeper than the rational mind. If you listen to Trump supporters, there is a superficial logic (“they stole the election, we’d won and then all these mystery votes appeared”): but their deep convictions can’t be shaken with facts or rational argument.

Trump’s appeal is based on understanding something that is anathema to rationalists. Most people want to be told that what they feel and believe is right. People want validation of what they really think, deep down. That’s why religion triumphs despite its absurdities. That’s why the religious right support Trump. He shouts out what they believe: and he tells them it’s OK to believe it.

The typical Trump voter, or their equivalent elsewhere, is sick and tired of being told that most of what they feel is wrong. Sick of being labelled racist, sexist, narrow minded, ignorant, prejudiced, obese, irresponsible, stupid.

Trump tells them that they are great. He tells them that they are right to think and feel what they do. He validates them, he empowers them, he makes them feel good about themselves. Make America Great Again really means Make Yourself Feel Great Again. That’s why he doesn’t have to deliver: he already has.

The educated elites just don’t get it. Centrist parties are failing everywhere as a result. They despise half the electorate and it shows.

So how do we make people embrace the alien instead of shooting it? For the purposes of my new novel, the challenge is to figure out what would happen to someone with a closed and fearful mindset, if infected with an alien virus that stimulates rational thought and empathy. Would the conversion be painful or pain-free? Would it drive them mad, or give them a glorious epiphany?

Previously I’d assumed that some would kill at the first signs of infection, rather than face the need to change. Yet why so negative? Religion succeeds by holding out the prospect of redemption, even whilst acknowledging human failings. We need to give people back both the right to forgive themselves and a belief in their ability to improve.

There is something aspirational at the heart of Trump’s message, however cynical he was in creating it. The lesson is that we must learn to love humanity for what it is, warts and all: and if we want to progress, we must hold up a mirror that shows us how great we can be, if only we have faith in ourselves.

To Improve, First Lose

Nazi and British flags together on a hotel in Jerusalem, 1933

Most people believe that British society has changed greatly since the 1930s, what with the Second World War, the creation of the welfare state, the triumph of capitalism, the onset of mass immigration and the transformative impact of new technologies.

They are wrong. Our society has changed very little in the past century. If you read the text below and then note its source, I think you’ll see what I mean.

“The not inconsiderable upper class consists of rich families as well as the old and new aristocracy, whose assets together make up the main part of the nation’s wealth. Next, with its own elaborate internal hierarchy, comes the extensive middle class, whose members enjoy sizeable incomes and considerable prosperity; in general, they have a more comfortable lifestyle but lower level of education than in Germany.

There is also a lower class, fairly substantial in size, of workers on poor to average pay and the long-term unemployed, who have a surprisingly low material and intellectual standard of living. They inhabit the slums with their poor sanitary conditions, filth and at times morbid forms of social existence (e.g. child poverty), in a state of poor health and in some cases long-term malnutrition. Some of these negative developments must be put down not to undeserved poverty but wholly or in part to insufficient competence in domestic matters, specifically among women, as well as to a lack of mutual encouragement.

The most striking features displayed by the more disagreeable section of this class include a lack of personal ambition, indifference to the demands of community and nation, and interests that stop with sport and frivolity, the sensations of city life.”

(Translated from the German general staff’s August 1940 report on the military geography of England, as republished in 2007 by the Bodleian Library, Oxford, under the title, “German Invasion Plans for the British Isles 1940”.)

When I first read that text, I was amazed at how accurately it describes modern Britain and at how little our society has changed in the 80 years since it was drafted.

Above all, it is profoundly disappointing. As John Lennon said in one of his more hard-hitting songs, “You think you’re so clever and classless and free, but you’re still just fucking peasants as far as I can see.”

As we drift towards Brexit on our national ship of fools, I do wonder what it would take to really improve our society. Despite the advances of 1945-50, all we seem to have accomplished since is a gradual degradation. Profound and sustained improvement is evidently beyond our collective will and ability.

Could it be that we would have benefitted more as a nation if we had gone the way of France in 1940 and been forced to confront our shortcomings, rather than wallowing ever since in the myth of having “won the war”?

Upgrade Yourself

Davros, inventor of the Daleks. Not all upgrades are a good idea.

If you could upgrade your brain, what would you change?

In my forthcoming novel, an alien virus infects humanity, with an effect rather like uploading a new software version to our brains. Memory and personality are retained – we are still ourselves – but some of our capabilities are upgraded. The virus is benign: but what should it improve, to optimise us?

I would not rush for higher IQ, which is a two-edged sword. Even when not socially dysfunctional, people with MENSA level IQs walk a tightrope between being thought arrogant and wearily helping others catch up. Besides, there was a good reason for humans to evolve with varied attributes. Any upgrade must preserve variety, or lose a key advantage of the human tribe.

There are of course many types (and definitions) of intelligence. Which would you boost in yourself? Empathy and social intelligence? Sporting intelligence and the rewards it brings? Artistic intelligence and the resulting creativity?

Or would it be intelligence at all? Perhaps you’d prefer to improve some other aspect of your mental capability, like memory (but would you actually want total recall?) Would you do a Solomon and choose wisdom? Even my clever aliens would find it tough to deliver that. How about greater sensory perception? In his book Life 3.0, Max Tegmark suggests that AI-enhanced brains could vastly broaden our experiences by processing data from sensors covering e.g. more of the electro-magnetic spectrum.

In fact the electronic upgrading of our brains has already begun. Elon Musk has made characteristically bold pronouncements, on using electronic implants not only to help repair brain damage but also for communicating wirelessly without speech. This raises the prospect of human interactions becoming universal, with inbuilt language translation programs.

Any development of telepathy raises profound questions about how far we want to go. I am too individualistic to willingly merge into a hive mind. But a cloud mind, perhaps… provided we can choose what to upload. My best thoughts I want to share with the world; my worst I want to delete unseen.

Yet my alien upgrades target something different. By enhancing our ability for objective self-criticism, they improve our competence and give us a higher level of self-awareness. We need this to combat the Dunning-Kruger effect, whereby people with low ability in a task think they’re doing great.

In contrast, competent people are stern critics of their own work. That’s such a key quality for a writer that I’m probably programmed to pick it out. Even more than criticism from others, it enables writers to improve: and it underpins good and bad performance in everything from driving a car to being president.

So my choice for an upgrade is self-awareness. It’s an ability that cuts across all others, preserving the variety of the human tribe in all other respects and boosting performance in most of them.

That an alien virus might do this for us is wishful thinking: but AI may get there before we do. The ultimate choice we face may be about upgrading ourselves into a hybrid form, before autonomous AI outstrips us.

If we go hybrid, how do we avoid a split between those who want to upgrade and those who don’t? In my novel, that leads to civil war. Obviously it’s analogous to what is happening right now, in the growing war between those who revel in their ignorance and those who recognise their faults and wish to improve. In the book, The New Enlightenment wins. In reality, it hangs in the balance.

What are our Chances?

Hard to calculate the probabilities, when you don’t know what dice are being rolled

Lies, Damn Lies and the Statistics of Denial

Truth is the first casualty in war: and the war against Covid-19 is no different. From the start it has been characterised by lies, misinformation and the suppression of truth; and although this has varied in degree from one place to another, the contagion of deceit has left few places uninfected.

Just before the pandemic broke, I began writing a novel about an alien virus taking over the world. It’s been educational to see that for many of our leaders, the instinctive response would be denial. Some go on to be systematically untruthful; some are selective with the truth for the best of intentions; and some cannot ever bring themselves to admit there is a problem. Each society puts a cultural stamp on its falsehoods: we can tell a lot from the different ways in which we dissemble.

The clearest trait is that totalitarian regimes announce death rates that are unbelievably low. The more authoritarian the regime, the lower the figures. They try to use that as evidence of the need for control, whilst open societies bemoan the vulnerabilities that go with freedom. This is a mistake: anyone who thinks that Russia doesn’t have a runaway epidemic, or that Iran has got things in hand, needs a cold reality bath.

The Chinese government, battered by accusations of cover-up, have recently amended their figures for the early stages of the epidemic in Wuhan. That 50% increase restores a shred of credibility; but the great unknown is the extent to which the severity of the subsequent lockdown and surveillance was effective. We can’t trust their figures, so we don’t know how well it worked.

In the UK, with no systematic testing, government and media cling to the only certainty they can find, which is the number of deaths in hospital. Although forced to admit that this is only part of the picture, they continue to downplay deaths elsewhere, stating them as 10% of the hospital totals despite evidence that 40-50% is a more likely range. This bumbling around the data reflects a British establishment who generally gave up maths so early in their school careers that they never developed a grasp of statistics.

The most open and well educated societies have either combined strong, early measures with excellent campaigns of public information, thus preventing the disease from getting a hold (e.g. New Zealand), or have challenged the whole scientific basis of lockdowns (e.g. Sweden).

To understand the strengths and weaknesses of these approaches, we first need to acknowledge that everyone is confused about what’s really going on. The epidemiologists are almost as lost as the rest of us. Why do death rates vary so wildly? How many people have been infected? Do they then gain immunity? After six months of pandemic, our ignorance still exceeds our understanding.

One mystery of Covid-19 is why its impact varies between ethnic communities. In the USA, 30% of identified cases are Afro-Americans, who form only 14% of the population. In the UK, three quarters of the healthcare workers who have died are from BAME backgrounds. The reason is unlikely to be genetic but a consequence of lifestyle, poverty, associated conditions like obesity – and the fact that they also provide roughly half of our frontline heroes.

Early on, the Chinese thought only 17% of those infected showed no symptoms. Yet when whole communities have been tested, like the crew of the USS Roosevelt, the real figure appears to be almost 60%. Iceland has tested 15% of its entire population and reckons the figure at near 50%. Incidentally, cooping people up in a confined space like an aircraft carrier demonstrates that in similar circumstances, most of us would get infected.

Testing in most developed countries is between 2% and 0.5% of the population and suggests that the total number of infections may be 50 to 70 times the number of identified cases. On this basis, over a hundred million people already have the virus, maybe a third of the population in some countries. Together, these statistics call into question several aspects of the lockdowns.

Big events cause big disasters: Italy and Spain owe most of their pain to a single football match in February. Big egos are worse: super-idiots like Trump and Bolsanaro facilitate contagion more than super-spreaders.

What policy guidance can we draw from all this? Firstly, in countries that have failed to contain the virus it’s likely that most of us are going to get infected whatever we do, so the main purpose of any policy is to manage the flow rate of cases through the health service.

Secondly, viral load is a major factor in determining whether someone lives or dies, so PPE for all frontline workers really is vital.

Thirdly, Sweden was probably right with its approach of focusing on social distancing rather than lockdown, at least once the disease was already present. 

Unless Covid-19 mutates into a more deadly form, it is probably going to kill about one of us in every thousand, mostly the old and sick. Balancing this against the human and economic cost of lockdown is a tough call. 

In any event we need to become more pragmatic in our policies. Crowding together in a confined space is bad; sunbathing in a park is not.

We also need to recognise that most of us have been very lucky. A flu-like pandemic was top of the risk register for decades: Covid-19 is probably the least deadly disease that could have forced us to make such huge changes.

This will not be the last pandemic. Will we learn the right lessons, before the next one? It would certainly help if we could clarify the truth of what is actually happening. Yet irrespective of the statistics, one lesson is clear. Our chances depend on how we load the dice. Minimising surplus capacity in emergency services is a false economy; but money spent on boosting our disaster preparedness is the wisest investment any politician will ever make.