Extract from ‘Farm 703 – the human project’.

This is the novel I’m working on at present. It’s a bit wacky.

‘Ngembe Graal was sitting at his desk in his office in the midst of a rare lull. He had a thousand and one emails to answer but they could wait. Nothing was pressing. For some reason the phone was silent and he had no meetings arranged. It was unusual.

He pensively swung his chair around to look out the window, allowing his mind to churn. The view from the 38th floor was magnificent, looking over Long Island and Manhattan, Turtle Bay, East River and across to Gantry Plaza State Park. It was a view that people would die for but he hardly ever noticed it. Life was a whirlwind. Even the extraordinary became ordinary when it became a familiar daily occurrence. He idly looked out the window, his mind only partially engaged. It was a beautiful day – a blue sky devoid of clouds. Out there the streets were full of bustle, people driving, rushing, or working, going about their business. People would be strolling through the park, sitting on benches, children playing. It seemed a world that was disconnected from the hurly burly of his own existence. He had to remind himself that this is what he was doing it for – so those people could go about their business and enjoy their lives.

He knew that the government had plans for a shutdown. The covid-19 virus would soon make New York into a ghost town just like Milan, Rome, London and Paris.

It was nice to have a moment to reflect. It felt like he was in the eye of a storm. It wouldn’t last.

He interlaced his fingers and swivelled his seat round. Behind him were the wooden shelves with their rows of books. His eyes played over them. In his early life those books had played an important role. He had thumbed through them looking up information. That seemed a lifetime ago. He never looked at them now. There was no need. The internet was there at his finger-tips – all the world’s knowledge and wisdom – and its fears and conspiracy theories too, its lies and misleading fake news. But he loved those books. They were more than an affectation, a piece of nostalgia or a statement of one’s personality. They might be nothing more than a mere decoration now but he could not imagine a world without books. They signified civilised life to him.

Civilised life? He wondered what he meant by that? Was the world really a civilised place? He glanced out of the window. It certainly seemed to be – at least here, for this brief moment. Everything was calm, sophisticated and ordered. People were free to believe what they wanted, go where they wanted and be who they wanted. They all rubbed along with each other without too much conflict. Yet, he knew that was just a veneer under which was a seething mess of emotions, beliefs and feelings. How quickly that veneer could crumble. He had seen it happen so many times in so many places.

All it took was a political or religious belief, a charismatic leader, a shortage of essentials and all that sophistication and orderliness gave way to violence, massacres and chaos.

The world was full of it. Sometimes it felt that this orderliness was a mirage, that he was living an unreal existence on an island in the midst of chaos. All around him the world was up in arms, religious fundamentalists attempting to disrupt and create fear, political groups using terror to destabilise, famines, droughts, disease, the Middle East at war, the super-powers slugging it out.

If only they would put aside their differences and come together. What a world we could build. The real problems were being masked and lost in the midst of these petty squabbles. Yes, that’s what they were, petty squabbles about power and control. The real issues were things like the environmental crisis – global warming and the destruction of the natural world – overpopulation, corruption and gross inequality. Those were the issues that they should be coming together to solve – not having to deal with power struggles, wars and territorial disputes contrived by politicians and religious leaders. It exasperated him. Most of the world’s problems were being deliberately created by people for their own ends. Such a shame.

His job was to try to sort it out, to find solutions, to smooth things out so that the world could become civilised, so that every part of the world could be as prosperous and orderly as this little corner of Manhattan was at this moment. What an impossible task.

He wondered whether this damn corona virus would unleash that chaos where the appearance of civilisation broke down. He hoped not.’

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