Nil By Mouth

Brussels Airlines is the successor to SABENA, one of the many airlines that went bust in the last thirty years. The Belgian airline went belly up two months after nine-eleven, and the remains became the ‘other’ BA. Brussels Airlines codeshares international flights as a flag carrier. The company has picked up on the low cost model, and emphasizes NO FREE MEAL/DRINK. It is in fact printed on your boarding card. Aer Lingus does the same, leaving passengers literally with their tongue in the air.

A (good) few years ago, it was popular to develop airline acronyms into humorous phrases. The defunct British airline BOAC stood for ‘Better On A Camel’, Air China was known as ‘Always Cancel’, and SABENA, in an explosion of creativity, meant ‘Such A Bloody Experience Never Again.’

Air travel is certainly the form of transport that has become most democratic in the last twenty-five years. With access came equality, and any passenger can rest assured he or she will be treated at least as badly as anyone else.

The trade-off is that you can go anywhere. From the Haj to the Himalayas, the world is literally your oyster. Global mobility, which extends from individual travellers to whole blocks, has completely upturned the world. From mass migration to international trade, it makes the Berlin airlift look like a toy balloon. This flux, accelerated beyond our understanding by the digital world, has kicked the planet into touch. If low cost airlines had been around during the Black Death, the entire world would have succumbed.

Complex systems respond poorly to Cartesian solutions. Issues are too diffuse, too broad, and too connected. In the middle of the plague, we’re burning incense. Once in a while we burn a corpse. Usually, like Greece, it’s a straw man. Fires easily, solves nothing.

Current indicators for quality of life revolve around statistics such as employment, GDP, healthcare, and education. These are a moveable feast, with almost no qualitative content. Per capita GDP is only useful when compared with cost of living, and in many places that means cost of credit.

The fable of Aesop that I learnt as a child, of the ant scraping and saving for winter, while the cricket sang away the summer, seems to be a metaphor for the Europe of Germany and Greece. Once upon a time, when crickets bought on credit, the prospect for the winter was good―as long as they could service the debt. Held of course by ants.

European English, the official parlance of the city of Brussels, can often be delightfully ambiguous.

 Employment stats are no less baffling. Job quality must be one of the keys to personal satisfaction, whether you drive trains or drain sewers. No young person in Europe or North America even considers the possibility of a lifetime job. Or jobs. I’m certain all the sons and daughters of the developed world would answer yes to the question:

‘Are you likely to become unemployed for more than three months at least once in your lifetime?’

And reply no to:

‘Do you think you will consistently work in jobs that bring you satisfaction?’

A century ago a more relevant set of indicators might have been war, disease, and starvation. Those indicators were relevant not just for the transition from 1900 to 1901, but for the whole millenium from Anno Domini plus one through to 2000.

Any European parent or grandparent would in all likelihood personally know someone who was killed in war, and someone who had died in an epidemic; and know of or see people who were at the starvation limit. Including children. Particularly children. And if you hop on a cheap flight to Sub-Saharan Africa, and many other areas of the world, you can see all three of those indicators right now.

Can you name a war in Europe from last century? Of course. In the U.S.? No. Go back a hundred. In Europe? U.S.? Yes. The beginning of the XIXth century was the time of Napoleon. Then the Civil War in America. And the Franco-Prussian War. Go back some more. American Revolutionary War, several European wars, including the Spanish Succession War, which gave Gibraltar to the British. The 1600s? European mayhem, with England, France, Spain, the Low Countries, Portugal, all embroiled. Endless war. And after every war, nations, like wayward lovers, solemnly swore that they would not stray again. Peace was the fragile period between two wars.

What I bring home this morning from Brussels is the feeling that the economic gears of Europe are grinding to a halt. You can feel it in the chilly European air. This is not the stupendous bust after boomtime, the sort of big bang that occurred in the U.S. at the end of the goldilocks period of the nineties―it’s the sawdust in the gears, the pepper and saffron that slowly clogged the bilge pumps and sank the Portuguese ships laden with spices from the Indies.

“Good luck,” said the Greek woman to me yesterday evening as we parted company.
She smiled wistfully. “I hope what happened to us doesn’t happen to you.”

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