Sunday, December 6, 2009

A fable

Many years ago, a pioneering tribe of settlers established their village at the bottom of a mountain, an idyllic place where flowers grew and rainbows shone and communists were shot on sight.

Such was the fabled beauty and harmony of this village that it began to attract settlers from other villages. Hundreds flocked to it from such far-off settlements such as Karlsr├╝he, Kyiv, and some place or other up north whose name begins with N.

There was only one problem with this oasis of content. The footpath down to the river, where the villagers caught their fish, was rough, muddy, and liable to become a landslide at any moment.

Time passed, and the villagers grew prosperous. They had broadband, and iPhones, and copies of the Collected Thoughts Of Chairman Stallman.

Yet still the footpath was rough and muddy. It was even rumoured that the footpath had actually been built one drunken night to a set of instructions for a BMX track, and should never have been used for carting fish back to the village.

Some of the villagers, principally those who had come from Saxony, decided the best course of action was to spend endless hours in the village hall debating whether the muddy path should be called a “footpath” or a “path for feet” or a “designated permissive fish (freshwater) pathway for bipedalous ambulation in a progressive fashion”.

But a few of the wiser settlers decided to do something about it. They spent many hours in seclusion, looking at the ancient textbooks of footpath construction. Sometimes they invited footpath construction experts from other villages, who would tell them about what had worked in their village and what had not.

Every few weeks, one of these wise settlers would emerge, blinking, into the sunlight to tell the other villagers about their latest research. They pinned up updates on the village noticeboard. They even had a footpath debate at the annual village pow-wow (the ‘Althing’, they called it), in which they talked about what they had found, and asked the other villagers - who were, after all, villagers just like them - what they thought.

Some of the other villagers were sceptical. They had grown used to the muddy footpath. If falling over into the shit at regular intervals was the price they paid for living in an idyllic village, well, that was the way it was.

But the wise villagers invited them to join with them, and soon some of the sceptics were avidly studying footpath construction books too - even those from Saxony.

After many years of study, the day came when they had a plan for the new footpath. The new design wasn’t perfect, of course. Some of the handrails were a little ungainly and had rough edges. But it would be a tough, well-built path. All the way down to the river, the designers had included three types of supports - so that if two of them collapsed, still no-one would end up in the shit.

The wise villagers, burdened by the weight of carrying so many learned tomes on footpath construction, went hopefully to the other villagers and meekly sought approval for the new path.

To their amazement, a bunch of rowdy villagers stood up and exclaimed loudly, and repeatedly, that they didn’t want a new footpath and they didn’t see what was wrong with the old one.

One villager, Ulful, said no-one had ever asked him about the footpath. The oldest of the wise villagers - who, truth be told, had a volatile temper - pointed out acidly that Ulful had fallen into the shit twelve times in the last month alone, and that every time, someone had scurried to his aid and asked him about how he thought the footpath could be improved. But Ulful wasn’t convinced and continued to shout.

Another villager, George, had been there since the very first days of the settlement. He said that falling into the shit had never done him any harm. In his opinion, the kids of today would benefit from being smeared in shit now and then. He pointed out that none of these new-fangled footpaths had been tried in this village before, and as far as he was concerned the electricity was a mistake too and he wasn’t convinced about the mains sewage. Furthermore, he remembered when it was all fields round here and (contd. p94)

Elisabetta the Fair was not quite as venerable as George. In fact, she had arrived in the village long after the wise villagers had started telling people about their hope of building a new footpath. Despite that, she had spent many hours since then lovingly combing and tending one particular stretch of shit. She was proud that her shit was the best-tended in the whole village and was upset, nay, hysterical, that someone was going to build a proper footpath over it.

One last villager, Antonio - who nobody recognised but who seemed awfully self-assured - said he had a Magic Hovercraft which floated above the footpath and prevented him from falling in the shit. No-one quite understood how this worked and they didn’t think he was prepared to lend the Magic Hovercraft to anyone else, either. But he ranted on so long and so loudly that no-one else could hear themselves think anyway.

Eventually, the wise villagers grew downhearted, and sadly returned their footpath construction books to the library shelves. The books rest there still, unread and covered in cobwebs.

What the wise villagers hadn’t realised is that thousands of other settlers had come to hear them talk about the new footpath. But they were blocked from view, because Ulful and George and Antonio were continually jumping up and down in front of them, shouting all the while.

None of the thousands could get a word in edgeways, and they were sad about that, because they didn’t really like falling in the shit. They trooped back to their homes dejectedly, realising they were condemned to a life of falling in the shit.

Indeed, today, the villagers are still slipping over and falling into the shit. The hopes of the elders that the village might become a great city have come to naught. New villages were founded with proper footpaths, and they are the ones that have becoming thriving metropolises.

And no-one, to this day, has yet laid their eyes on Antonio’s Magic Hovercraft.

Nick - can we not have the conference in Amsterdam next year please - those drugs Matt gave me are taking a really long time to wear off.