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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (senex maximus)

Alan Becomes An Old Age Pensioner

Old age pensioner probably isn't the politically correct terminology, but that's what we used to call the crusties when I was young, and I see no reason to change the nomenclature just because I'm now a crusty myself. So yes, I am officially old – I receive a pension and I have both a gold card and a community service card. Each card gives me discounts on this, that or the other thing or service because they define me as legally poor, and therefore in need of all the financial help that I can get. Additionally, the gold card entitles me to free bus trips during off peak hours. However since I live in a place that does not have a bus service, I suspect I will find this gold card feature to be less than useful...

There are bureaucratic wheels to be set in motion before you can collect a pension. It isn't automatic. I always assumed (if I thought about it at all, which I didn't) that there was a dusty clerk buried deep in a dusty government office who had a huge filing cabinet full of information about the birthdays of everyone in the country. As soon as an individual had clocked up sixty-five birthdays, the dusty clerk in his dusty office would sit up and take notice and start sending out dusty cheques. But that's not how it works. The government doesn't monitor you that closely (thank goodness). Instead, the onus is on you to tell them when you have reached the age of eligibility. You have to say, “Please, pretty please with knobs on, can I have some money?”. And if all the i's are properly crossed and all the t's are properly dotted, the money just rolls in.

It starts, as these things invariably do, with a form to fill in.

You can get printed forms from your friendly neighbourhood WINZ (Work And Income New Zealand) office or, if you are feeling sufficiently hi-tech, you can fill the form in on-line. Since there are at least a dozen computers scattered around Casa Robson, I elected to go the hi-tech way. What could possibly go wrong?

The form was long and boring but I strongly suspect that it was quite streamlined, in the sense that the answers I gave determined what I would be asked next, so that I didn't have to wade through the piles of inapplicable irrelevancies that would have faced me had I filled in a paper form instead. Nevertheless I was still presented with about a dozen screens full of questions about the minutiae of my life. Finally I reached the very last screen. It helpfully informed me that once I clicked on the button marked “Next” my application would be submitted and I would no longer be able to edit any of the information I had supplied.

I clicked the button marked “Next” and the next thing I saw was:

Online Services




An error occurred while displaying the page.

Please use the browser back button to go back to the previous page

or select the Home button above to start over.


An un-handled server exception occurred.

Please contact your administrator.

I can't say that I was very surprised when the error occurred. These things happen all the time with computer systems (particularly governmental computer systems) since most of them are designed and implemented cheaply rather than properly. Nevertheless, I was mildly annoyed. Fortunately one of the clever things about this particular form is that as long as you don't click the button marked “Home” you can simply log off and come back to it a few days later and you will find that your information is still there waiting to be submitted. (If you click “Home”, you will indeed have to start again from the beginning – so despite what the instructions say, don't ever click the button marked “Home”. Trust me, you will deeply regret it. Would I lie to you?).

I waited for about three days and then I tried to submit the form again in the hope that they might have fixed the error. No such luck. It still failed on the final step. Clearly nobody at the other end was paying any attention to their system logs. I did not find this at all surprising.

I was now faced with a bit of a quandary. Since I couldn't submit my application for a pension, Catch-22 said that I would never be able to convince the government to give me one. Perhaps it was all part of a deliberate ploy designed to save the government money by refusing to accept pension applications in any form at all. I began to consider the purchase of a tinfoil hat.

Fortunately, in the very small print on a very small web page on the WINZ site there was a link that took me to the bottom of a locked metaphorical filing cabinet that was itself stuck in a disused virtual lavatory with a sign on the door saying 'Beware of the Leopard'. And there I stumbled across an email address which could be used to report problems with the site. So I reported the problem and sat back to see if anything would come of it.

Rather to my surprise, I got a reply about a week later. It said, in part:

Thank you for taking the time to email us.

We sincerely apologise for the fault you are experiencing.

The error message displayed relates to a fault which has now been resolved.

You should be able to log back in to your application and complete your form online.

Full of hope, I went back to the form and submitted it. This time it worked (wonder of wonders) and a page appeared telling me to ring a particular phone number and arrange an appointment for an interview. There were intricate instructions on how to hack my way through the jungle of the voice mail system that the phone number would connect me to. When I was six levels deep in the maze I was instructed to say the word “appointment” to the robot that was questioning me. So I dialled the number, navigated the maze and said “appointment”. The robot vanished, a phone began to ring and an actual human being said, “Hello, how can I help you?”

I was astonished. I can't remember the last time I got a human being on the other end of a business phone call.

“I need an appointment to discuss my application for a pension,” I said.

“Have you filled in the application form?” asked the human being.

“Yes,” I said. “I did it on line.”

“Did you print out the form so that you can sign and date it?” asked the human being.

“No,” I said, puzzled. “I didn't realise that I had to. Nothing on the web site told me to do that.”

“There's a button,” said the human being. “You click on it and the form with all your answers filled in gets printed. There's a space at the end for your signature and the date. It's marked with an 'X'. You can't have a pension if you haven't signed the form.”

“There wasn't a button,” I said.

“It's not valid without a signature,” said the human being.

“There wasn't a button,” I insisted. There hadn't been a button.

The human being heaved a deep, long-suffering sigh. “I'll see if I can pull it up on my screen. When did you submit the form? What's your name, address, date of birth and inside leg measurement?”

I supplied the necessary information.

“Do you dress to the right or the left?”

“Hang on,” I said. “I need to look in a mirror.”

“Never mind,” said the human being. “I've found your details. I'll print the whole thing out on your behalf and post it to you. Don't forget to bring it with you when you come for your interview.”

“That's right,” I said. “In all the excitement, I quite forgot that I rang to make an appointment for an interview. Can I have an appointment, please?”

“The first available appointment is with Mr Bond on the 9th of February at 2.00pm.”

“But that's a whole month away,” I said.

“They are all very busy people,” said the human being. Do you want the appointment or not?”

“Yes please,” I said.

“I've put it in his diary,” said the human being. “Goodbye.”

The phone went dead as the human being hung up. One more hurdle out of the way.

A week or so later, a very fat, official looking envelope arrived from WINZ. Inside was my filled in form with a space for my signature. As the human being had said on the phone, 'X' marked the spot. There was also a letter confirming my appointment with Mr Bond. I was instructed to bring my birth certificate, citizenship certificate, passport, a bank statement to confirm the details of the account the pension was to be paid into, and a letter addressed to me with my postal address on it to confirm that my house actually existed. Nobody seemed to have noticed that these requirements overlapped – possession of a passport confirms both my citizenship and my date of birth. So why do I have to provide a birth certificate and citizenship certificate? But bureaucrats are not noted for their logic...

Last month I reviewed an “after the apocalypse” novel from 2014 called Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel and I compared it favourably to George R. Stewart's classic novel Earth Abides, which was published in 1949. That's a long time between thematically related books...

Then it occurred to me that I haven't read Earth Abides for at least twenty-five years. Perhaps I was remembering it through rose coloured eyeballs. Perhaps the comparison I made was not justified. So I decided to read the book again.

I am pleased to report that Earth Abides is even better than I remembered it to be. I was terribly afraid that the suck fairy might have visited it when I wasn't looking – she has visited so many classic novels that I'm half afraid to re-read many of my old favourites. But no, she's kept her distance from Earth Abides and I'm happy to recommend it to you.

The apocalypse in Earth Abides is a pandemic that wipes out almost everybody on the planet. It was one of the first novels to explore this idea in detail; probably its only predecessors are Mary Shelley's The Last Man (1826) and Jack London's The Scarlet Plague (1912). But they are both minor works and I think it is safe to say that Earth Abides has been the inspiration for all the later novels that have used this device. Probably the best of these later novels is Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven (of course) though Stephen King, John Christopher, Richard Matheson, David R. Palmer, Brian Aldiss and even Margaret Atwood have all used the idea.

Thematically, Earth Abides and Station Eleven are indeed very closely related, despite being so widely separated by time. They are both built around very similar thinking about the way society might survive after the apocalypse.

Earth Abides explores several related themes that thread the structure of the story together into a coherent whole. Initially, the novel concentrates on the ecological consequences of the pandemic itself. The protagonist, Isherwood Williams (known as Ish) has been working on a thesis that explores and defines the ecology of the Sierra mountains. When the pandemic strikes he is camping alone in the mountains gathering material for his thesis. It is not until he returns from his trip that he starts to realise just what has happened to the world in his absence. Because of his training, he is uniquely qualified to understand just what it is that he is seeing and what the implications might be. It has always been apparent to Ish that just because people are on the top of the food chain, it does not mean that they necessarily have a privileged place in nature or that they can stand aside from it. They are just as susceptible to natural catastrophes as is any other animal. Ish sees the pandemic in this context, as an unavoidable consequence of humanity's place in the world.

Most animals have “built-in” population controls, and when they become too numerous, something always happens to reduce the population again. We've seen it time and again and the phenomenon is very well documented. As Ish himself remarks, “When anything gets too numerous it's likely to get hit by some plague”, and so the pandemic that kills off most of humanity does not really take him by surprise at all.

So immediately the novel strikes a blow at mid-twentieth century complacency. It must have been a terrifying book to read when it first appeared, for it was full of very uncomfortable ideas. Back then, we believed that we had never had it so good and the only catastrophe we could imagine was a nuclear war; an apocalypse which would have been our own fault of course. We were (relatively) happy with the thought that we could wipe ourselves out, but we didn't really think that nature could harm us any more. We didn't think of ourselves as just another animal in the world; we were special and we were above all that. We were quite willing to take responsibility for our own political stupidities, but outside of that we were the lords of creation and we were in control of our own destiny. I suspect that the novel must have caused quite a stir when it was first published. The thought that we were indeed just another part of the ecological system of the world was a much more radical notion then than it is now in the twenty-first century, where we are faced with the spectre of irreversible climate change and we have come to know full well that nature hasn't given us a get out jail free card just because we are top dogs.

Once humanity has largely been destroyed, it becomes possible to examine the consequences of that destruction. Soon after Ish has come to grips with what has happened to the world he once knew, he makes a journey across America where he sees just how the world is changing itself now that there are so few people left in it. Initially the changes are small of course, but later in the book this same trip will be attempted by Ish's grandchildren and by then the changes will have become very far reaching indeed as the earth reclaims the roads and the towns and the cities. The contrast between the two trips is quite marked. This ecological point of view is fundamental to the way Ish and (by implication) Stewart both think of the systems of the world.

Normally I'd be very hesitant about suggesting that a character's philosophy matches that of the author. Author's are tricky people and will often introduce characters whose viewpoints are diametrically opposed to their own, just because they can. So you skate on thin ice when you try and deduce what an author thinks by analysing the text. But in George R. Stewart's case I think we are safe in the assumption that the forces of nature and how they shape the world were things that were very close to his heart. He wrote two other novels before Earth Abides. Neither of them had people as viewpoint characters. In Storm the hero is the weather and in Fire a forest fire is the protagonist. Stewart's keen interest in the impact of nature on the world makes it clear that Ish is, at least in part, George R. Stewart himself.

On this first trip across the country, Ish quickly comes to realise that many plants and animals have been under human control for so long that they simply cannot survive alone. Cows that are not regularly milked will soon die, for example. On the other hand, dogs and cats that were fortunate enough not to have been locked in a house when their owners died do have a good chance of survival. Dogs quickly form packs for hunting (though the weaker, gentler animals who cannot adapt to the loss of their owners soon die of course – sometimes they even become prey). It becomes clear to Ish that humans have routinely influenced the lives of almost every plant and animal around them, and he wonders what this might mean for their future. Can they successfully adapt and live on once their support structure has gone? And what does that say about the future of humanity? What were humanity's support structures and how well will the few people who remain cope with the changed world? What does coping actually mean?

When Ish returns from his trip he finds some survivors and together they form a small colony which strives hard to become self-sustaining. Ish knows that the canned food in supermarkets will not last forever and the sooner they learn to look after themselves the better, as far as he is concerned.

And so the second major theme of the book comes into play as the story explores just how hard it is for a small population to keep alive the skills that humanity as a whole have developed over time. Clearly this will have a big impact on the way they will be forced to live. Initially they can scavenge a living in the remains of the old world. But as time passes, the infrastructure will start to fail. Water pipes will crumble and power lines will come down.

The knowledge that would help them to keep the infrastructure limping along may be available in books (Ish has a whole university library to call on) but that does not mean that the information the books contain can successfully be applied. Literacy soon atrophies under the pressure of survival. With tuition from their parents, the second generation might still have some small ability to seek knowledge from books but soon the more immediate day to day concerns of simply staying alive will make learning to read seem like an unnecessary skill. As the older generation dies, the knowledge that the books contain will no longer be accessible. As the infrastructure crumbles around them, it won't be long before the community, out of necessity, reverts to the hunter-gatherer style of living. Natural selection will soon cull those whose skills are not oriented towards survival. Abstract thinking is not a survival trait. Round and round the circle goes, and it is a very vicious one. There is a terribly long way to fall from grace.

The novel also wonders what social taboos will survive an extinction event. These are, of course, completely arbitrary “rules” that make no particular sense at all except in specific social contexts that have now all vanished. Stewart suggests that racism will be one of the first casualties of this brave new world. When a population is so drastically reduced that there are very few (if any) partners available, people cannot afford to be prejudiced about the mates they choose. Ish himself takes a life partner who is black.

This idea too must have seemed an appallingly radical notion to the mid-twentieth century American audience that first read this book. Miscegenation was not looked upon kindly then (though attitudes have mellowed a little over time, fortunately). Stewart was definitely a radical thinker and Earth Abides is full of edgy thoughts, which is why the book has survived so well of course. We still don't have satisfactory answers to the questions that it asks.

The people that Ish gathers around himself are a disparate group who initially have little in common with each other. One area where they cannot agree is the problem of religion. Several of them belong to Christian sects that have significant doctrinal differences, and at least one of them is a radical atheist. In the interests of harmony, Ish is inclined to let them hold their religious meetings in isolation and he discourages proselyting. However as time passes and the group start to have children Ish is interested to observe the emergence of a consensus among the children based partly on old thinking from their parents and partly on what the children observe of the world in which they live.

When Ish first returned from his camping trip in the Sierra mountains, one of his most cherished tools was an old geological hammer. The head was slightly rusted and there was a split in the handle, but nevertheless Ish could never bring himself to discard it. It feels comfortable in his hand. And it is very useful for breaking into locked buildings in search of loot...

Over time, the tribe develop the habit of meeting in a special place when the year is over. There, in an elaborate ceremony, the number of the year is carved into a tally rock, and they debate what name they should give to the year so as to hold it better in their memories (pure numbers are sterile and not memorable). Ish always does the carving and he always uses his old hammer to pound the chisel. As memories of the way the world used to be begin to fade, and as more and more children who had never experienced it are born, Ish is bemused to realise that the children are starting to regard him as a special person. Perhaps because of his connection to the old world, he is seen as something approaching a god, wise and full of ancient knowledge. His rusty old hammer has become a symbol of his godhood – after all, it is the recorder of years and that must make it very special indeed. The children are reluctant even to touch the hammer, for to them it has magical powers. It is a sacred thing.

And so the question of religion solves itself as the older generation starts to die off and the new generation explains the immediate mysteries of their lives with reference to a lost time of power from which they have fallen and to which they have a connection through the symbolic aspects of things like Ish's special hammer...

Another social institution fails to survive the test of pragmatism. And as an aside, it's not a bad definition of the evolution of religious thought, either!

The most obvious casualty of the apocalypse is always, of course, the failure to preserve law and order. Many lesser apocalyptic novels present us with the cliché of small, isolated communities armed to the teeth and threatening death to anyone who comes near in order to protect themselves. Law and order vanishes into anarchy and strong leaders emerge to keep the people safe. It is a standard trope of the genre, but it has always seemed to me to be an unrealistic survival strategy. Indeed, I think it is anti-survival since it encourages isolation, and while it may protect the immediate group in the short term, it is far too fragile a social structure to have any long term benefits.

Earth Abides takes a different (though no less pragmatic) approach to the problem of maintaining order. In the group that Ish gathers around himself, decisions are arrived at by consensus. Old laws and customs are used as guidelines, though they are by no means always strictly adhered to – how can they be when there is no longer an organisation to enforce them? This sounds all well and good (it's the will of the people after all). But in order for it to work, there does need to be some agreement on the morality that underlies the decisions that are taken and soon you must come face to face with the age old question of whether or not the ends justify the means. The most soul-searching example of this is when a man called Charlie joins Ish's group. Initially they welcome him. They are so small a group that any new pair of hands is always a welcome addition. But soon Charlie starts to divide the group. It becomes clear that not only is he hedonistically intent on indulging himself with the women of the tribe, he also has a venereal disease that threatens the existence of the group as a whole. Should he be executed for the sake of the greater good, even though he has committed no crime (yet) save that of self-indulgence? These are not comfortable thoughts, and the solution they finally adopt sits uneasily on Ish's conscience.

As the novel draws to a close and Ish himself descends into old age and senility, there are hints of the last great theme with which the novel concerns itself. The immediate crisis is over now in the sense that the group is flourishing (albeit at a level that Ish would have regarded as extremely primitive before the pandemic). Survival seems assured and the tribe has arrived at a point when it can now seriously consider expanding out into the wilderness. The Earth is still there, ready and waiting to be repopulated.

Earth Abides – what happens next is up to you.

The WINZ office where Mr Bond lived and worked was a little bit of a surprise to me. I walked through the entrance and found myself in an anteroom with no indication of what to do next. There were no signs and no reception desk. The only available door was locked. I was starting to wonder if I really was in the right place when the locked door opened and an enormous security guard stuck his head out.

“Yes?” he asked. “What do you want?”

I explained why I was there and he opened the door wide. Behind him was a huge open plan office full of desks with nobody sitting at them and a counter with several hatches. All the hatches except one had their grilles closed. A gigantic queue of people stood at the only open slot, chatting among themselves as they waited to be served. Bored toddlers ran shrieking around the room. Several people were carrying takeaway coffees. Obviously they were old hands who knew just how long everything was going to take.

“Over there,” grunted the security guard.

“?” I asked.

He waved vaguely towards the other side of the room. “See that sign that says Senior Citizens?” he asked.

“I can see something,” I said, “but I have no idea what it says. It's too far away for me to read it.”

“There's a waiting room there,” said the guard. “Go and sit in it and Mr Bond will be with you soon.”

I walked towards the senior citizen area. Along the way I passed several more security guards standing alert with their hands poised, ready for instant action should it prove to be necessary. I felt both reassured and slightly perturbed. Over the last year or so there have been several violent attacks on staff in WINZ offices as angry beneficiaries took out their frustrations with their fists and sometimes with weapons. I was pleased to see that WINZ were obviously reacting positively to the potential threat. But today there were no angry vibes. Everyone seemed calm and good humoured.

Eventually I reached the senior citizen waiting room. It was the first time I'd been referred to as a senior citizen and it made me feel rather odd. I sat down and stroked my silver beard. A man came into the room and looked at me. “Mr Robson?” he asked.


We shook hands. “My name is Bond,” he said. “James Bond. Come with me.”

Doo diddley oo doo doo doo do. Doo diddley oo doo doo doo do. Doo doo doo doo dum.

I hummed the familiar theme music under my breath as we walked over to one of the empty desks. (Bang! Bang!) Mr Bond logged himself in to the computer that was sitting on it and clicked on a few things. All my details appeared on the screen. I was mildly disappointed that no blood trickled down it. Maybe he wasn't the real James Bond after all...

“Now, let's see what's what,” he said. “Have you got your documents with you?”

I gave him my passport and the various certificates and letters. He fed them into a photocopier that scanned them and sent him a pdf file of the results. He displayed them briefly on his screen and then attached them to my file.

“Are you employed at the moment?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “It's wonderful to have all that leisure time.”

“Are you intending to get a job?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “Well maybe in a few months time, just as a hobby.”

He snorted with laughter. “Having a job as a hobby,” he said. “That sounds like a good idea. I wish I could afford to do that.”

He checked the signature on my application form and he scanned that as well. “It all seems quite straightforward and routine,” he said. “You will be eligible for the pension from your next birthday. Unfortunately that's half way through a pay period, so your first pension payment will only be a part payment, proportional to the length of time you've been eligible. But from that point on, you'll get a full payment every two weeks.”

“Sounds good,” I said. “Do I need to do anything else?”

“No, that's it,” he said. “I've verified and confirmed all your details. It's all automatic now. Just sit back and wait for it to happen.”

We shook hands again and I got up to leave. There was an exit door on the other side of the Senior Citizens waiting room. Another enormous security guard opened it for me.

“Thank you,” I said.

“My pleasure sir,” he said. “Enjoy the rest of your day.” I went out into the sunshine and he closed the door firmly behind me.

Then suddenly, just like that, I turned into an old age pensioner.

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