Should we make paper illegal?

Nothing happened for over thirty years. The manufacturers knew but no one else did. The manufacturers secretly conducted experiments with rats and monkeys and undertook statistical analysis and that sort of thing so they knew what was wrong but they allowed things to take their course. The new technology was too useful. It was a fact of life – like electricity or bricks. For more than thirty years everyone made use of it and no one had any inkling that anything at all was amiss.

And when the health issues surrounding paper came to the fore it was those same manufacturers who did the most to defend it, which seemed very fair-minded at the time. Paper was still necessary they said, some old people were fond of it, and all the time they were financing the research which consigned paper to the bonfire.

What a shower. Throw enough money at a problem and eventually something will stick. Statistical anayalsis, comparative studies of relevant journals – the new research demonstrated incontestably that paper was bad for you, very bad. Not on a par with tobacco but bad enough. The health lobby took over as they knew it would. Your chances of dying of cancer of the liver, of heart attack, of stroke, of Alzheimer’s were all significantly increased by exposure to paper, the more exposed you were the worse it was, and there were the secondary effects on loved ones or colleagues at work if you were in contact with paper over any length of time.

The legal road was already clear; legislation to forbid smoking, to enforce the wearing of seatbelts and crash helmets and various other problematic behaviours had been enacted eons earlier. Why make an exception of paper? The paperless office was a reality in any case and e-books had completely overtaken old-fashioned books, so, when the new paper-detection technology came on stream in 2030, the drive to legislation became unstoppable. Needless suffering and deaths could be so easily avoided that it would be criminal to allow paper to remain in use, not when the new machines could detect a sheet of A4 at four hundred metres beneath four feet of concrete, as was proved in the case of that poor girl murdered in Stoke Newington. And fortunately the major libraries and archives had been digitised, scanned and made properly searchable years previously. There was nothing to lose. The law for the abolition of paper of 2030 passed almost unnoticed.

The first Harriet knew of the crisis came with a knock on the door. She opened it on a smartly-dressed young American with a slim black business case whom she took to be a Mormon until he explained that he was from Borneo, the software giant and e-book pioneer and that it was in connection with this that he would like to speak to Martin.

Dear Martin, they had met at university almost seventy years ago. She’d been working in the student bar during the summer holidays and Martin had made a beeline, coup de foudre and all that. They were married before summer was out and the baby came an exact eight months later, Harriet was too dyslexic to make it to university anyway. Martin, retired headmaster, doyen of the local history society, still in demand as a speaker, was now in his nineties as was she, almost. So many happy years, Martin said.

The young American wanted to see Martin, he told her, because Borneo’s digital records showed that Martin was one of the first people in the world to buy an Icicle, Borneo’s first e-book tablet, now a cult object. Martin had always been a sucker for new technology and the latest cultural offerings, and with his headmaster’s salary they had been able to afford lots of both. She remembered how he became interested in Philip Glass and the minimalists. It had been Einstein on the Beach morning, noon and night for weeks. Likewise, Martin had read his Icicle voraciously from day one.

Was Martin still reading, asked the young American and did he use the large-type format? Yes he was and no he didn’t, said Martin. That was amazing, said the young American and asked could he examine Martin’s eyes? The young American put his case on the carpet and removed a short metallic object with a light at the end. Martin sat upright and the young man peered into the windows of Martin’s soul then typed a brief note onto his e-pad. A miracle, said the young American, they would be in touch.

In retrospect Harriet understood that there was no direct connection between the young American’s visit and what happened the following day although there was, indubitably as it turned out, an indirect connection and clearly Borneo were worried and had arranged the visit for that reason, but it was hard for her not to blame the young American all the same. The following morning at breakfast, which they always ate in the morning room overlooking their large comfortable garden, Martin complained of pain behind the eyes. At 11.00, when they stopped for morning coffee, his eyes were weeping slightly and the pain was worse and a trace of white pus oozed from beneath the lids. She rang the doctor and arranged an appointment. The first slot was 4.30 pm.

They never got there. By 12.00 Martin’s eyes were oozing white pus by the cupful and he had to continually dab at them, first with tissues and when that proved inadequate, with a sponge. At 12.15 she got the car out to drive him to A & E – she was still able to drive although their daughter had advised her to stop before she ran into someone – and when she came back from the garage a few minutes later, Martin was on the floor in agony. A great pool of white pus had gathered round him and it was all over his cardigan. A few seconds later and a horrible sucking sound harangued her ears, like someone had emptied the bath, Martin bellowed, both his eyes began to swell. In seconds they were the size of tennis balls, a few seconds after they popped out of his head to hang by their nerve endings or whatever they were, staring at weird angles. And a few seconds after that, there was an even worse noise like suckling pigs being roasted alive and the eyes exploded in the manner of seed pods of Himalayan balsam. Little flecks of green goo and white stuff were splattered all round the room. They formed a pattern on the white wall which Martin would have hated if he could have seen it. Martin insisted on clean white modern surfaces when it came to interior decoration.

Harriet scooped up the remains of the eyes and they went to A & E but it was too late. Far worse was to follow, if that was even imaginable. A week or two later, people’s eyes started popping out all over the place, old people at first then younger ones. As with most man-made catastrophes, it was as much the cover-up as the catastrophe itself which did for the perpetrators. The people from Borneo had known about the potential damage from the screens of the Icicles for years. Hundreds of poor monkeys had lost their eyes in Icicle-reading experiments in the Borneo laboratories and, since the monkeys had been averse to reading, the Borneo scientists had had to create their own monkey-themed content, which showed persistence and a high level of concern – as well as a sad lack of artistic ability. Poor monkeys indeed.

The truth when it finally came out was too dreadful – that anyone who had read an e-book for more than a maximum of about two hours a week at any time since the invention of the e-book so long ago was going to go blind. Conservative estimates suggested that more than three quarters the world’s human population would go blind eventually.

John was very supportive, and with Martin depressed and sightless, in his chair all day with Harrison Birtwhistle on the headphones, Harriet needed all the support she could get. Dear John, their oldest friend, younger than Martin, he had taken over as secretary of the Historical Society when Martin finally decided to pass the baton. John was the quiet conservative type to Martin’s dashing opposite. John had never gone overboard on the new technology luckily for him. He had only been persuaded to give up his collection of printed volumes after much effort by his family and it had been quite heartbreaking to watch as the books were lugged out into the lorry for incineration – by men in masks in case they inhaled the paper dust. It had been like a father losing his children.

Who could have known that John of all people would be the one to save the world? This wonderful thing happened a week after Martin’s funeral, one afternoon when Harriet forced herself up into the loft – which was quite risky because, without her stick, she could easily have fallen – to look for Martin’s will. All she knew was that it was on a memory stick which might possibly be in the wooden chest at the back of the loft which had once belonged to Martin’s mother.

And there it was, not the memory stick but a rectangular object wrapped in an old fur coat. John had stuffed the chest with all kind of quaint un-modern junk, which he didn’t like but didn’t feel it was proper to throw away, including his mother’s coat which had got itself wrapped round the rectangular object. Harriet removed the object intending to look beneath and unwrapped it en passant and discovered– a book.

A book! Not that she could read it with her dyslexia. She hadn’t seen one for ages. It was quite emotional. She was far too old to care about the health issues and she picked it up and carried it down to John, whom she had left listening to Ella Fitzgerald in the living room because no one read anything any more, because she was certain it would cheer him up. But when she reached him, John complained about pain behind his eyes and didn’t want to look at the book. The pain was really bad, John said and she was overwhelmed by an utterly horrible feeling of deja vue and put the book down on the table.

By teatime, the pain was worse and white pus was oozing from John’s eyelids but there was no point in calling the doctor or going to the hospital since it was common knowledge, quite apart from Harriet’s personal experience, that doctors could do nothing and pain killers were useless. It was then that John picked up the book.

The House at Pooh Corner.

He opened it, wiped white pus from his eyes and tried to read.

And that was when it happened. Harriet thought the pus was oozing in even greater quantities but then she realised that John was crying. His tears made the white stuff stream down his cheeks so that it only seemed that there was more of it, when in actual fact it was being diluted. Minutes passed while John read and cried and sobbed then read some more and Harriet watched speechless, and all the while his tears were washing the pus away, except, as the whole world now knows, it wasn’t the tears that did the trick – it was the reading.

The rest is history. Once it got out that old-fashioned bound books were the cure for Icicle-tablet radiation, a new age of literacy was born. Paper was reintroduced quicker than you can say Cai Lun. Everyone was at it, for preventative reasons if for no other. The British Library and the Library of Congress made available pdfs of all the titles in their collections, as did other major libraries around the world, ancient printing presses were hauled from dusty wharehouses, paper mills were unmothballed, binderies sprang into existence. Within a month from news of John’s miraculous recovery, more than twenty million books had poured off the presses in Britain and the USA alone. Meanwhile e-books met their fate in ever greater numbers – those that had survived thus far. They were bulldozered into heaps, crushed, buried, abandoned.

Scientists meanwhile investigated the reasons behind the survival of  Martin’s copy of Winnie the Pooh. They discovered that it had survived because minute fibres from Martin’s mother’s beaver-fur coat had served to confuse the sensors on the paper detectors which Martin had hired when he and Harriet decided to cleanse the house of paper.

Over the months and years following John’s cure, several other similar finds came to light including an extensive collection of pornography owned by the late Maharajah of Gwalior which had been housed in a beaver-fur lined room in a wing of the palace and which had remained locked since the Maharajah’s death in 2019. Harriet didn’t live long enough to hear about this although she would no doubt have been amused. She died shortly after her marriage to John which took place in an old people’s home the year after he got better. John is still alive at the time of writing. It’s hard to tell if he misses Harriet; he’s ploughing through the complete works of Isaac Azimov and appears to be enjoying them enormously.


When Was the Best Moment Ever?

The best moment ever was surprisingly recent given the vast number of moments that have occurred since the dawn of time.*

On a sunny afternoon in 16th May 1992, a young man went for a cycle ride in the South-Shropshire hills. That morning, his girlfriend had agreed to marry him and the evening before he had been offered a job as a tree surgeon’s assistant – and the day before that his sister had come home from hospital, cured of a dangerous illness. Now he had the afternoon to himself and all the time in the world because his parents and sister had gone into Shrewsbury to celebrate and Lucy, the girlfriend, was at hers, telling her own parents the good news of the engagement.

God was in his heaven, fingering his long white beard, and all was right with the world.

Andrew – that was the young man’s name –  took his bike from the garden shed, packed a bottle of beer and a sandwich and set off. Forty minutes later, at 2.16 pm to be precise, tired after a steep hill, he propped his bike and sat down on the wide grass verge. He could see far into Wales, the hills blue in the distance with white puffy clouds drifting over.

Ten seconds later, he lay down and stretched out his arms. He thought of all he had and how lucky he was and indeed it’s a rare thing to have no worries whatsoever and nothing but hope for the future. Although the beer was yet to drink and the sandwich was yet to be eaten, that particular moment was so perfect, so unalloyed by any defect whatsoever of health or fortune, that it exceeded all others experienced by other human beings in similar joyful situations over the millennia – and that’s why that moment was the best moment ever.

*Number of moments since the Big Bang, assuming six moments per minute and 13,787,000,000 years since bang.  
* 60 minutes per hour
* 24 hours per day
* 365.25 days per year
* 13,787,000,000 years since bang
= 43,508,000,000,000,000 moments,
or 43 thousand million million
or 43 quadrillion
or – lots.
Calculation courtesy of my mathematical friend, Roger Terry: