There’s a mysterious place hidden in the depth of the Krautland desert, a not very well-known town called Humbug.
The Elders reckon it must have existed for many centuries before the first imperial conquistadors arrived, from Roma as was then the fashion. Humbug made a name for itself by running the mud trade along the shores of the Germanic Sea, or the North Sea as it is nowadays called.
Mud, or dirt as it is also known as, was once very important: when people were still living in mud huts, they needed mud left, right and centre to fix their huts so they could keep out of the draught which could be quite intense at times, especially in winter.
Nobody wanted to call them mud huts though because that would have meant admittting they were living in dirt. So the first clever thing the Krauts did was to call the dirt clay, and instead of trading in mud (or dirt) they could now pretend to themselves (and more importatntly: to others) that they were trading in much finer substances, and mostly successfully too because most of the people wanted to either betray themselves or be betrayed by others.
Over many centuries, nothing much happened. The Humbug mud trade brought only marginal improvements to its citizenry. Only when the little town had grown to almost 2,000 inhabitants (who had mostly been related before marriage), they started trading in fish bones and discarded scales; these items were then considered luxuries because they were rather useless in day-to-day life but could be made into nice looking earrings and necklaces.
The people of Humbug loved adorning themselves and somehow – through cunning regulation entirely in their own favour and never in any one elese’s – they got many more tribes along the shores of the Germanic Sea to buy these trinkets. By simply making it the law of the land that only those who wore fish bone earrings and fish scale necklaces could legally buy their dirt, er sorry: “clay”. While everyone else would be left out of the bargain, to wither and die in the cold and draughty Krautland intemperie.
This must have been a very satisfactory state of affairs for all involved because from then on, nothing much happened in Humbug for many centuries. But all around it, time didn’t stand still. When an English alien came to visit in the late 19th century, he mandated a sewage system to be built as soon as he’d stepped off the boat because the stench was so awful.
Against the will of The Elders, the city had to adapt to modern times or sink in a mess of its own making. At great expense to the public, The Elders, who had become very rich and famous trading in clay, fish bones and scales, and now made up the city’s oligarchy, the in-group who decided how things were done, got running water installed in the mud huts and slums their underlings were living in (The Elders of course lived in stone buildings).
What’s more: The Elders had rather approved of there being no sewage system in Humbug, because this sorry state greatly contributed to the regular out-break of epidemics which in turn allowed for regular slum clearance and population replacement. New brooms swept well and all that.
Now, running water in a world of mud huts and fish bone earrings was an outlandish, almost unheard-of thing. The people of Humbug didn’t quite know what to make of it – water out of a tab? And not only that: it was to be swallowed by a greedy hole in the ground and never to be seen again? But if now there would be no emptying their chamber pots over their neighbours’ heads any longer, or on the unassuming passengers squeezing their way through muddy streets lined with mud huts, wouldn’t the Krauts of Humbug be deprived of their one and only pastime and entertainment?
Television wasn’t even remotely conceivable when the innocent, yet slightly unhygienic habit of “turning one over on someone” was popular among the citizens. Having their chamber pots made redundant by a modern sewage system caused great pity and distress to the natives because they were quite fond of their great bit of fun every once in a little while, at their neighbours’ and visitors’ expense. Humour, after all, was held in high regards in the Kulturnation.
Humbug’s Elders on the other hand took the installation of a sewage system at great expense to the public as sure proof of them, the self-proclaimed “elite” representing the nicer, kinder politics. And their citizens would have to learn to live without wanting to “turn one over on someone”; they’d have to be replaced soon anyhow.
Again, nothing much changed over the course of the next century. Humbug kept trading in clay and useless trinkets while its citizens lived in mud huts, now with running water and without sewage in the streets but consequently also without their great bit of fun.
Not entirely deliberately, the next slum clearing that was due got outsourced to an outfit called the Royal Air Force (who were rather good at this sort of thing, so another slum clearing wouldn’t be necessary for at least another hundred years or so from then on). After all was done and dusted, The Elders repopulated and rebuild Humbug another time. And this time, everybody got to live in brick buildings. No more mud huts, so there. Which had to be taken as another sign of The Elders’ goodwill and utter benevolence towards the replacement population.
Finally, the Krauts had it made: quality housing – but sadly, no innocent and cheap, though unhygienic entertainment for the masses. But A) you can’t have it all and B) humour never grew in Humbug and C) there now was television where once the chamber pot was. What could go wrong? Well, for one the citizens could become extravagant, even daring, vote The Elders out of office and vote in another party. And two generations after the last slum clearing, that’s what happened: The Elders got snubbed by the electorate and a new Mayor of Humbug was installed. Let’s call him Daisy Duck.
Daisy Duck set about wanting to bring change to Humbug but change The Elders didn’t approve of. So, they barricaded themselves behind their oak desks in the city hall’s ivory tower (this is actually quite true: the 180-feet tower of city hall is made of the finest, purest ivory). And when Daisy tried calling them, they simply would not answer their talking drums. (The Elders of Humbug rejected the telephone on moral grounds because it would increase unemployment among African talking drum makers).
Daisy’s conundrum was obvious: to bring about the change he had promised, he needed The Elders. But he needed them more than they needed Daisy. And as the months of Daisy’s tenure passed, the sly old Elders grew quite fond of Daisy spitting his feathers every time he couldn’t get what he wanted.
But there was nothing Daisy could do: there was no way of firing an uncooperative civil service. And The Elders knew that nothing could be done to bring them to heel (short of taking them out and shooting them). After all, a thing called “work” had never been part of their job description, had it? The Elders were there to be liked, approved of and celebrated by Our Citizens. But there was no need for them to be successful. They were not even there to “work”, whatever that even meant.
Still, The Elders let Daisy have minor victories over them, if only for the sake of keeping up appearances. Daisy could get his way when things didn’t matter. For instance, in decorating the ivory tower of city hall for Christmas. Or choosing a new pavement design for Humbug’s major promenade along the Foul Lake. (This is also quite true: Humbug is built around mud plains. Before the sewage system got installed, the municipal mud plains were used to shore up the city’s sewage. This was done so its inhabitants would never run out of fillings for their chamber pots. Nothing worse than wanting “to turn one over on someone” and finding your chamber pot empty).
Things escalated between Daisy and the civil service in one particularly severe winter, when the Krautland desert was covered in many, many feet of snow, for months that felt like an eternity. There was no getting hither nor tither without risk for life and limb. For in order to “turn one over Daisy”, The Elders had ostentatiously forgotten to order enough thawing salts and grit, split and sand to keep the roads and sidewalks open. The consequences be damned as well as the citizens, for what could anybody do against The Elders? Nothing.
Unbelievably, but true to form, Daisy (who was given in to the more “decorative” side of things) had well and truly forgotten that it was his job to place orders with the Salt Elves of Luneburg and the Grit Fairies of Hanover, so they could work their magic when there was still time. And of course, The Elders didn’t remind Daisy before it was too late because this was their chance to show him up for the incompetent he really was and get rid of Daisy for good. And this is why nearly two phantastillion inhabitants were faced with tons of snow that simply couldn’t be rendered safe to walk on.
Consequently, people broke legs, arms, hips and heads on iced-over streets at such an alarming rate that the public hospitals (which were of course the pride of the world) were running out of gypsum and couldn’t plaster all the fractured bones back into shape. Still, the situation could have been remedied by solving the problem that lay at its root: the lack of salt and grit. But The Elders had no intention of doing so because the greatest human pain and suffering for the greatest number of people was part of their cunning plan; which could also be summarised as the equal sharing of misery. It was then that they started calling themselves The Elders & Betters.
But one day, the Humbug Echo and other trusted media got wind of the story. Maybe they would side with the natives, being treated so appallingly by their Elders & Betters. But for all Daisy’s glamorous clamouring on television, for all her exquisite histrionics and public accusations against the civil service wanting to sabotage his tenure, his adversaries did not budge an inch: the people of Humbug had to break their bones in their thousands because they had to be punished for having voted Daisy into office – and that was the true measure of The Elders & Betters niceness and kindness.
So what did the Humbug Echo do? At this point, it agreed with The Elders & Betters of course – unsurprisingly, because the latter also paid their salaries. Yes, the media said: the citizens must be punished for daring to vote for Daisy.
The Krauts of Humbug got the point and duly abstained from voting Daisy in for another term. Actually, they abstained from voting at all. In the next years, the winters were much less severe. But even when there was lots of snow, the situation never became as bad as it had been in the winter with Daisy; nobody ever broke a leg since then gliding out on iced-over public streets and sidewalks. And the people knew they had to thank The Elders & Betters for that.
© Guardian Council 2018