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Nothing stays the same for ever, as they say in China

by
01 April 2014, at 1:00am

The Mercury Column, in which a guest columnist takes the temperature of the profession – and the world around

A FEW days ago, I was fortunate to be able to stand at a busy crossroads, close to the centre of Shanghai, and watch the world cascade past me – thinking all the time that it was something of a privilege to be able to be there at all.

To be fair, had I dared to attempt the life-threatening challenge of a solus attempt to cross the road I might not have been here to tell the tale and at one stage an Australian father pushing his infant son in a stroller came over to ask if we might pool our resources as using four eyes to check the traffic onslaught might be better than just two!

It’s hard to think that, despite the excitement and buzz generated by the teeming 23 million inhabitants of this enormous city, China’s dynamo progress may be slowing down a little as the costs incurred in their explosive ascendency in world trade make them less competitive, but, if we are to believe the economists, that may be true. Strange but true.

Obsolete

Things move so quickly in our technology-driven Brave New World that no sooner have you decided to formulate a plan, things change and develop, rapidly rendering that plan obsolete.

As I write this, the quiet revolution in Ukraine which emerged as a fragile political blossom of hope in a world that believes that democracy is desirable, has been burned with the icy frost of a Russian invasion of the Crimea to defend the interests of many who eschew democracy and want a return to Russian control.

In my naïvety, I had made the assumption that a democratic solution would be more or less universally welcomed and that the achievement would be lasting. Both assumptions may yet be proved to be questionable. In a famous advertising agency in

New York, there is a large mural painted on the wall of the creative department that, in typically colourful Bronx-speak, states that “Assumptions are the mother of all F-ups”. I suspect that not only can you fill in the gaps but you’ll find it hard to disagree with such erudition.

Thinking back, it doesn’t seem that long since most of the world’s countries were available to the intrepid traveller but now the list of places where access would be prohibited or, at best, foolhardy is growing almost as you watch it and a scan of the Foreign Office website shows more and more countries or regions for which travel insurance would be impossible to obtain.

Outside the list of war-torn regions, there remains the risk of local insurrection in many other places and such a map would be constantly changing.

Two years ago, I recall recommending the cancellation of a conference we’d been planning to hold in South Korea because of rioting in the street of several major cities there.

Pragmatic

That seemed an entirely pragmatic decision based on the safety of potential delegates and, less altruistically, our concern for the commercial success of the project.

What we didn’t anticipate was the dismay on the part of the local veterinary community there who live with these problems on a day-to-day basis and who felt that the scale of the problem had been significantly overstated by the UK press.

To be fair to them, we have seen rioting in the streets of many European cities where protest against the effects of the economic downturn has demonstrated the extent and scale of resultant hardship. Is protest in South Korea more worrying than protest in Paris or Barcelona or is it just rather more exotic-sounding to our sanitised sensibilities?

But how can we look critically at Paris or Barcelona when we think back to the rioting that took place in London not that long ago?

Appalling

While we’re at it, the recent interest in the appalling case of Keith Blakelock, a London Metropolitan Police constable who was killed on 6th October 1985 during rioting on the Broadwater Farm housing estate in Tottenham, north London, serves to remind us that civil unrest on our streets is hardly new.

The rioting broke out after a local black woman died of heart failure during a police search of her home, and took place against a backdrop of unrest in several English cities and a breakdown of relations between the police and black communities.

Long before that we had the start of The Troubles – a violent 30- year conflict that began with a civil rights march in Londonderry on 5th October 1968 and concluded with the Good Friday Agreement on 10th April 1998.

At the heart of the conflict lay the constitutional status of Northern Ireland and two mutually exclusive visions of national identity and national belonging. During the Troubles, the scale of the killings perpetrated by all sides – republican and loyalist paramilitaries and the security forces – eventually exceeded 3,600.

As many as 50,000 people were physically maimed or injured, with countless others psychologically damaged by the conflict, a legacy that continues to shape the post-1998 period. 

For those who lived through that period, many were the dark days when hope seemed not just evasive but impossible and when the problem erupted on the UK mainland, none of us could any longer pretend that this was a distant and somehow remote problem for others to sort out.

Very few of us ever believed that a political solution could ever transcend the violence and, while the status quo still occasionally shudders with subterranean heavings of discontent, it serves to remind us that such a peaceful conclusion remains one of the triumphs of the 20th century, as well as a cautionary lesson in how rapidly things can change.

Talking to a young veterinary surgeon in Shanghai, I asked her how she saw the future for pet ownership and for small animal medicine in her country. She thought for a moment and then answered that she was glad that she couldn’t read the future as nothing stays the same for ever. 

What she was determined to do was to take control of her own future by grasping the opportunities that presented themselves. Waiting doesn’t make you stronger, she told me, waiting just allows other people to get ahead of you.

Perhaps there is a lesson there for us too. So many of us have decided to sit back and wait for our own economic downturn to pass over like a dark cloud before picking up the pieces and starting again but none of us should wait too long before re- investing in our practices and our people if we fear being left behind as the recovery gathers pace.

As my wise new friend reminded me, nothing stays the same forever.