An Interview with Roger Mainwaring DSO, JP, MP, PhD, DFAstrolS
The happiest day of my life? That would have been the day of the Solar Storm. You look shocked. Well, I suppose you would. But you asked me to be honest. 2020. The Solar Storm... the people at NASA had been keeping an eye on the sun for years, counting sunspots, logging the solar maxima and minima, measuring prominences; then one Sunday it was all over the media that we were in for a big one. I’m sure you remember; who could ever forget? Timing was uncertain, so all NASA and the other observatories could do was show us how large the coronal mass ejections had become and ensure we were at least psychologically prepared. In practice, you can’t ever be ready for a thing like that. There was a lot of philosophising, much doom-mongering, and not a few suicides. Yes I know. Very sad. But when people are frightened, this is what can happen. I was in my garden when Valerie came out, in a state of considerable agitation, waving the Sunday Times. I remember looking up at the sky and thinking, ‘Oh well, there goes the automatic watering system!’ A ridiculous thought in the grand scheme of things.
And then it happened. Independence Day. I remember New York was planning its biggest firework display ever... what a joke! Compared to what hit us on 4/7, the famous 1859 Carrington Event was a sparkler. This was absolutely massive. Even the worst-case scenarios hadn’t forecast the impact, and all we had was a twelve-hour warning from the space weather monitor at Stanford. Half a day to decide where to be, what - if anything - to do, who to be with, how to plan. Plan? How do you plan for undefined catastrophe? What did you do? ... OK. You’re asking the questions. Well as it happens Valerie and I still had a stash of emergency stuff tucked away in the attic from the Y2K panic. Ah, you’re a bit young to remember the ‘millennium bug’! Nothing happened of course. All the computers just chuntered on. Anyway - you met my wife this morning? She’s a careful soul. Likes to keep stocked up, ‘just in case’. Bulk-buys when things we use are on offer. So up in the box room under the cobwebs we had candles, a camping stove, baked beans, tinned fish, soup, batteries, a First Aid box, dried fruit, jars of Valerie’s preserves ... what else? Sugar, milk powder, tea and coffee ... Ryvita ... ammunition ... matches ... Oh! And the clever girl had even squirrelled several bottles of single malt.
So when it happened we were just sitting looking at each other in the breakfast room, waiting for the digital clock to stop. It was lunchtime here, and summer, so across the most of the Western world it was daytime. There was no sudden plunging of major cities into stygian darkness, no crashing at blackened traffic-lights, no real panic; that was all happening in the far East and places like Sydney ... Los Angeles ... No, on the day people were pretty sensible, didn’t go in to work, disconnected appliances, avoided lifts and escalators, and came home from holidays if they could before all the flights were grounded. Of course there was a run on the shops; people always panic-buy. We kept out of all that. Pity as it turned out. We forgot about one crucial thing: water. When the flare came, and burnt out every electricity grid on every continent the pumping stations stopped. Only gravity-fed water would get to the taps and eventually even that would dry up. So bottled water would have been a good idea ... had there been any left! I never thought I’d see the day when Brits were happier to be at home praying for rain than cooking themselves on a Pacific beach.
You’re really wondering why this was my happiest day, aren’t you! Shall I just say that sometimes it’s nice to be right. I’d seen it coming. People just laughed. I’m not going round saying ‘I told you so’ but the fact that you are doing a serious interview with a man who was once ridiculed for being ‘unscientific’ is mightily gratifying! I’ll show you my original calculations if you like. Later on. Over a whisky. And the other reason it was my happiest day - though as you can imagine the initial euphoria didn’t last - was the silence.
There was one almighty bang in the direction of the local electricity sub-station and then nothing moved. The clocks all stopped, apart from the battery alarm and our wrist-watches. The hum was gone from the fridge and freezer (we’d cleared those pretty well - hate wasting good food!) Not a prayer of any news from the TV or radio as nothing was transmitting any more; we learned later that every single satellite up there had been fried. No traffic moving anywhere. No phone. Just us, sitting there in the noonday sun - dazzling, even through our green curtains; looking at each other and wondering like the rest of the world was wondering how in heaven’s name we were going to live from day to day. Even the birds were silent. Even the animals. There was no wind, and no sound, and the sheer overwhelming peace of it all was sublime. We were now in a world where there were no aircraft, no factories, no mobiles. There was no information. Everything was absolutely still. And I loved it.
Anyway, after the darkest night we’d ever known (the stars! ... For the first time ever, we could see all the stars!) and one or two wobbly moments with candles we woke to an urgent banging on the front door and there was Dick from down the road with his bike and a message to come to an emergency meeting in the Church Hall.
So we walked down. The entire village had turned out, standing room only. Valerie and I were squashed against one of the useless radiators. Everyone was talking at once - though here and there you saw an ashen face, you know ... those appalled eyes of someone in deep shock? One woman had to be carried out. Tom Barton the land-owner plus the vicar and our local GP eventually got the room to simmer down so we could talk through the critical issues - principally water and food. ‘Unless we share, we die,’ were Tom’s words. Blunt, as ever.
In hindsight, rural communities like ours actually managed pretty well; we’re a resourceful bunch. Everyone rigged up some sort of rainwater butt, and we set up committees to distribute filtered river water and the produce from farms and gardens. We went back to wheelbarrows, and horse-power, and our aching 21st century legs. Meat was largely off the menu - short-term, we needed every animal we had for milk, eggs, wool or transport of course, and security around the farms, hen-coops and small-holdings had to be very, very tight. Pets? Don’t ask. Huge bone of contention... to coin a phrase ... you can probably imagine how many went ‘missing’. They caused more fights and more grief than almost anything else - even the wildlife. Eventually one bright lady in the WI pointed out that combing pet fur produced wonderful fibre for spinning and this saved a lot of our little friends from the stew-pot. But I’m jumping ahead.
You know what happened next. We had a war on our hands. Three days after the Storm we heard vehicles. The big boys still had fuel; Tesco and Waitrose had sent their juggernauts to pick up all the veg and dairy from contracted farms to fill the shelves in the cities. We were living in a rural bubble. We had no idea how desperate things were for everyone else, and frankly most of us didn’t care. Would you? Did you? Slam a human being into survival mode and what does he do? Well I tell you: it was Gunfight at the OK Corral. The drivers had been warned that there would be trouble and they were armed. But so were we. Before they could turn off the main road we had their tyres out. I could still handle a shotgun. We got the blighters’ petrol tanks too. That was a good day!
Not many since then though. The last nine years have been worse than we ever imagined. Hats off to the engineers and the miners; without them we could never have rebuilt any of our systems. We’d have been back in the stone age. That sudden peace and quiet was pretty permanent for the millions of poor beggars who starved or died in the riots. Still - there’s less population pressure now. The world has a chance to recover, get its forests back, breathe ... we’d done a pretty good wrecking job, hadn’t we? No choice now. Renewables or nothing. When we’re done, young man, and you’ve phoned your copy through - you can use our line - I’ll give you a tour of our solar farm. Solar’s a good investment now, ironically! Interested?