The Shape of Things to Come, by H. G. Wells

8. The Second Conference at Basra, 1978

The second Conference at Basra, though many of its prominent figures had already played leading rôles in the earlier gathering in 1965, was very different in scale, scope and spirit from that assembly. It was an older gathering. The average age, says Amen Rihani, was a full ten years higher. Young men were still coming into the Fellowship abundantly, but there had also been accessions — and not always very helpful accessions — of older men who had been radical and revolutionary leaders in the war period. Their frame of experience had shaped them for irresponsible resistance. Their mental disposition was often obstructively critical and insubordinate. Many had had no sort of technical experience. They were disposed to throw an anarchistic flavour over schools and propaganda.

Moreover, the great scheme of the Modern State had now lost something of its first compelling freshness. The “young men of ‘65” had had ten years of responsible administrative work. They had been in contact with urgent detail for most of that period. They had had to modify De Windt’s generalizations in many particulars, and the large splendour of the whole project no longer had the same dominating power over their minds. They had lost something of the professional esprit de corps, the close intimate confidence with each other, with which they had originally embarked upon the great adventure of the Modern State. Many had married women of the older social tradition and formed new systems of gratification and friendship. They had ceased to be enthusiastic young men and they had become men of the world. The consequent loss of a sure touch upon primary issues was particularly evident in the opening sessions.

Moreover, the atmosphere of the 1965 gathering had been purely a Modern State atmosphere. Except for the Russian political representatives, there had been no antagonism at all to its general purposes, and there had been few people in Basra who were not Fellows of the Modern State Society or closely sympathetic with its aims. But now the reviving nationalisms, the resuscitating social and commercial interests of the moribund old world system, were acutely aware of the immense significance of events at Basra, and there had gathered an assemblage of delegations, reporters, adventurers, friends and camp followers of every description, far exceeding the numbers of the actual Fellows. They crowded the Control rest houses that clustered about the aerodrome, they invaded the offices and residences of the Controls, they stimulated the private enterprise hotels and restaurants that had recently sprung up among the date palms and rice fields of the environs, to an unprecedented congestion and liveliness, and multitudes of them had to be accommodated in tents and houseboats. A number of thirty-year-old hulls of passenger liners were fitted for their accommodation. Observers were reminded of the tourist period of the First Age of General Prosperity when they saw these uninvited visitors, chaffering with the old-world Bagdad carpet traders and Arab nomads who had also been attracted by the gathering.

There would probably have been a far greater multitude drawn to Basra if the Transport Control had not realized in time the social and hygienic dangers of too great a gathering, and had refused passages and limited bookings. Casual individuals were eliminated as much as possible, and all over the world groups of stranded pilgrims found themselves unable to get further on the journey.

The most serious of these invaders were the delegations of enquiry sent by the reawakening sovereign governments of the old order. These were half diplomatic, half official-expert, teams, and they came with the declared intention of challenging the activities of the Controls in their several territories. They proposed to legalize and regulate the Controls. They had no formal standing in the Conference; they had invited themselves and given the Conference organizers notice of their coming. “Better now than later,” said the Modern State officials, and accepted notice and provided accommodation. “We have to have things out with them,” Williams Kapek wrote to Isabel Garden (The Kapek Garden Letters. Historical Documents Series: Basra II 9376).

Beside these “old government” agencies there were a number of parties claiming to represent various new business combines and interests that were setting up in frank competition with the Control monopolies. There were a number of lawyers of the older type, men in sharp contrast and antagonism to the younger legists of the new American school. The contrast of the two types, the older all pomp and dodges and the younger all candour and science, is dwelt upon lengthily by Kapek.

“This Conference is essentially a conference on Scientific and Mercantile Communications and Associated Questions, similar to that held at Basra in 1965”; so ran a printed notice circulated to all the visitors who could claim any representative status. “Its discussions are open only to the Fellows of the faculties of the Modern State Society. They are not public discussions and their reports are for the use of Fellows only. But it would be disingenuous to deny that the decisions arrived at may affect the general welfare of mankind profoundly, and since you come to present criticisms, claims and proposals presumably in that interest, the committee of organization of the Conference will do all it can to facilitate meetings between your group and the faculty or faculties affected. Unfortunately the accommodation for meetings in Basra will be greatly strained by the needs of the actual Conference, and the committee can do little to arrange conferences between the immense variety of accredited bodies that have made an appearance, much less to arrange for their pleasures and comforts during the period of this assembly. The committee regrets that it does not consider the proposal of the committee of Bagdad citizens, claiming to represent the government of Irak, to police this unexpected World Fair with 300 Arab policemen, a camel corps of seventy-nine men and six machine-guns, as a practicable one. It has removed this body painlessly to comfortable quarters in the Island of Ormuz, and the Police of the Air and Sea Ways in its recognizable uniform will be alone responsible for order in the ancient province of Bassorah.”

Explicit details of information bureaus, hospital organization, supply and available accommodation followed.

It is difficult to see how else the Central Control could have dealt with this unexpectedly abundant eruption of the old system, but the various delegations and commissions professed to be extremely indignant at their reception. They were of such various and unequal value, that they found it impossible to fall into any combined scheme of action. Since their theory was that the Controls and the Modern State organization were nothing more than a sort of world cooperative society, none of them could behave as diplomatic missions to a sovereign power. And consequently they could not regard each other as diplomatic missions. Their powers and authorizations were extremely ill-defined. The bland refusal of the Conference authorities to concede them meeting-places and anything but a very limited use of telephonic, cable and radio communications embarrassed them extremely.

“I met Sir Horatio Porteous, the British Imperial representative, in the street,” writes Williams Kapek. “He was very eager to get my advice upon a point of etiquette. It seems that we have seized the province of Bassorah from the government of Irak and made prisoners of an alleged local police — those fifty lousy camels and the rest of it I told you about in my last — and that Irak is a mandatory protectorate under Great Britain. He wished to put in a protest somewhere. ‘But WHERE?’ said he.

“I adopted a sympathetic tone. ‘You see,’ said Sir Horatio, ‘this Central Control of yours isn’t any damned thing at all! If it was a provisional government or something . . . ’

“I suggested a call on the Air and Sea Police.

“‘But they are acting under orders. Who gives the orders? It’s all so damned irregular! . . . ’”

There was a flutter of calls between the delegations, some “serious talks” and much drafting of more or less futile minutes, reports and protests. The weather was exceptionally hot and dry and such space and apparatus as was available for exercise and recreation was monopolized by the more energetic Fellows who were taking part in the Conference proper. It was difficult to keep cool, difficult to keep calm; still more difficult to keep well and hopeful. Some few of the intrusive delegates and commissioners took to drinking hard, but the supply of alcohol was severely limited and the police had turned practically all the professional ministers of pleasure out of the province. On the other hand, the Transport Control, in a mood of friendly indulgence, started a special service of pleasure steamers to Bubiyan, outside the jurisdiction of its police, and there a floating little mushroom town of cafés, restaurants, houses of pleasure, music halls and shows of every sort speedily sprung up to minister to the unofficial overflow of the Conference.

“Bubiyan is draining us quite pleasantly,” wrote Williams Kapek, “and they say there is quite a boom in entertainment for man and beast in Babylon and Bagdad. The old British institution of the long week-end flourishes and Babylon gets more and more Babylonian.”

But there were still plenty of outsiders left in Basra to keep the faculties busy.

Meanwhile the Conference was going on behind closed doors. It was clearly recognized that this curious mélange of agents, delegates and officials from without its organization was only the first intimation of the confused antagonisms that were gathering against the new order. The policy of expansion and quiet disregard had lasted long enough. The pretence of being a Conference upon communications and associated matters had to be dropped. The time had come for the Modern State to define itself and clear up its relations to the past out of which it had arisen, and to all this world of tradition which was now rapping at its doors.

“Before we disperse,” said Arden Essenden, who presided at the first plenary session, “we must admit some at least of these delegations, hear them and give them answers to take home with them. But first we have to know our mind much more clearly. What are we now and what do we intend to do? The days before us begin a new chapter in human history. It is for us to choose the heading and plan that chapter now.”

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30