25 August 2002
By Gwynne Dyer
First I thought that I’d write an article called ‘Death Watch at Marbella’, about the last days of the Saudi king at his palace in Spain, and the exciting things that might happen in the Middle East after his death. But then my elder daughter’s boyfriend, who’s looking after our house in London, called to say my younger daughter’s rabbit had been found dead in the garden, surrounded by five rather puzzled but pleased-looking cats. (The rabbit actually bit through a cable and electrocuted herself, but the cats would certainly have killed her if they thought they could get away with it.)
Kate is only ten, so it took a while to break the news that her rabbit was dead and get her through the worst of it. By that time I had lost my enthusiasm for the Saudi article — truth is, the king may last for months yet, though probably not a year — so I started to write a piece on Burma instead.
It’s over three months since the military regime that has ruled the country for the past forty years was forced by international pressure to free Aung Sang Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela’s only real rival as a living hero of non-violence and democracy. Surely there must be some signs of movement there by now. But then I was interrupted by a man at the door who had come to tell me that replacing the roof tiles on our house in France is going to cost us an arm, a leg, and several vital organs.
The house is very small, it’s in a deeply unfashionable part of France, and we only use it two weeks a year, but it’s been in the family since my wife’s grandmother’s time, so we can’t just walk away from it. We can’t argue much about the cost of the roof either, because the roofer is the son-in-law of our next-door neighbour, and this is a very small village.
By the time all that was dealt with, the whole idea of writing about Burma had lost its charm. There will be big things happening there one of these days — the non-violent democratic revolution that was put down with machine-gun fire in 1988 is not dead, it is only biding its time – but at the moment there is no hook at all. Nothing newsworthy is happening in Burma
I could go on, but I won’t. The point is obvious: it’s late August, almost all of the world’s trouble-makers are on holiday, and there isn’t enough news to go round. Journalists still have to write articles, because papers need something to hold the ads apart, but frankly there is hardly anything that couldn’t wait for next month.
What can we usefully say about this phenomenon? First of all, we must apologise to the southern hemisphere, where it isn’t summer and nobody’s on holiday. (I’m personally very conscious of this, because one of my sons married an Argentine, my wife is South African, and another son lives in Australia.) But only a fifth of the world’s population lives south of the equator, and it’s a relatively civilised fifth. In terms of global news, it’s the summer doldrums.
Next week, of course, the wicked northerners will come back from their holidays, reinvigorated and ready for fresh trouble. As soon as the kids go back to school and the grown-ups go back to work, the wheels will start to turn again, and in a couple of weeks there will be enough crises and confrontations and emergency summits to fill a column a day, with plenty left over. You probably recognise the pattern, but you may not have noticed that it’s telling you something.
When all the presidents and prime ministers and tinpot dictators of the northern hemisphere go off on holiday, the world manages to run itself without them — and it runs so well that it fails to generate the usual headlines. The caretakers who have been left in charge take no new initiatives on their own, so everything suddenly goes very quiet.
You could call it the “Putin’s at his dacha, all’s well with the world” phenomenon. Americans like George W. Bush even more when he’s in Crawford, Texas than when he’s back in Washington, DC. The Chinese people perceptibly relax when the Communist Party’s senior leadership goes off to its weird collective summer camp on the Shantung coast. If they never came back, would anybody mind?
Cheap shots, I admit. Countries do have to be run, decisions have to be taken, changes sometimes have to be made. Somebody has to take the responsibility for doing all that, and even in the most democratic systems the people who volunteer for the job are often the last ones you’d want to give it to — but you have to give it to somebody.
I’m not recommending anarchy as a substitute (though I would if I could figure out how to make it work). I’m just pointing out that the reason the world seems less crazy and dangerous than usual is that our leaders are on holiday.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 8. (“The house…village”; and “Next…something”)