Tuesday, 29 March 2011

A world much in need of an agony aunt

Dear Auntie

I was driving past my favourite chip shop the other evening when I spotted the two brothers who run it having the most tremendous fight.

Naturally I did what anyone would have done in the circumstances. I pulled up, charged in and killed the elder brother who, in my opinion, had been throwing his weight around for far too long and seemed to be about to gain the upper hand.

Naturally I expected the younger brother to welcome my intervention and show a bit of gratitude, ideally in the form of free chips for life. But in fact he now seems distinctly sullen and resentful, claiming that he quite liked his brother, really, and certainly preferred him to me.

He also seems suspicious of my motives, and has emptied the deep fat fryer because he imagines for some reason that I was “just trying to get my hands on his oil”.

To make matters even worse, it now turns out that they were arguing because the younger brother has turned into a bit of a religious fanatic and wants to run things on a strict scriptural basis. He has now cancelled the shop’s orders for potatoes and everything else apart from five loaves and fishes, which he seems to think will last indefinitely. He just keeps looking at me in shining-eyed sort of way and asserting that “God will provide”.

Finally, he has thrown out all the shop’s materials for cleaning and pest control, making a bit of a nonsense of my attempts to smarten it up by instituting a “no fly” zone.

In short, the whole situation seems to be a complete mess and I am now wishing that I had just driven by instead of getting involved. What should I do?

Dear Keith

I am sorry to say that I receive letters like this all the time, usually from politicians and military chiefs after they have got themselves embroiled in troublesome conflicts in places like Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Sooner or later it usually becomes clear that the one thing the people concerned have in common is their dislike of foreign intervention. Even though British politicians piled in, like you, simply to be helpful, they find that people are ungrateful and suspicious that the real motive is to get hold of their assets on the cheap.

It also often turns out that the people we hoped to assist are even less malleable than the evil dictators they ejected. Say what you like about Saddam Hussein, for example, but at least he kept a lid on militant Islam.

It’s going to be a frightful mess whatever any of you decide to do. Walk away and the odds are that everything will descend into total chaos, the price of oil will shoot through the roof, the world economy will collapse, and you will run distinctly short of chips. Stay on, and we will rack up huge bills at a time when we keep being told there is no money, servicemen will continue to die and there will be not one shred of gratitude in return.

Personally, I’d shout something like “Look at that, a cat playing the piano!” and run away as fast as you can while the surviving brother is distracted. Sadly this trick will be harder to pull off when it comes to extricating thousands of troops from Afghanistan.

But then it’s like the choice between accepting nuclear power, shivering in a cave or drowning as a result of the icecaps melting. There is no good solution. In simple terms, we’re all up the proverbial gum tree whatever we do.

But next time it is probably going to be best, on the whole, to remember the law of unintended consequences, put your foot down and keep on going.

Love, Auntie.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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