Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Approaching every question with an open mouth

It's the General Election tomorrow. (That's for those of you who live in the United Kingdom. If you don't, never fear; I'll get back to talking about creative things next time.)

I like a lot of things about our democracy. It's got its flaws, but if you know anything of history you'll be aware how enormously privileged are the citizens of a modern country like Britain or the USA. I appreciate the fact that we have a representative democracy, which keeps government from sliding into an abyss of impulsive and mutually inconsistent opinions. It would work better with some modification such as single transferable vote, but at least our first-past-the-post system helps prevent the kind of horse trading where a mad patchwork of single-issue parties get together and in which the balance of power may rest with a tiny minority.

I'm not saying Western democracies don't all need drastic reform, mind you, just that there could be some takeaways from how the UK system operates - or used to operate, when it still worked. But that's a question for another day.

What I dislike, what I loathe: the slippery, button-eyed evasiveness of politicians when faced with direct questions. Try this interview conducted by Andrew Neil for the BBC in which he tries to pin down Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party, on basically any policy her party is advocating. When "it'll be on the website" or "I can't reveal that now" fail her, Ms Bennett resorts to the platitudes that presumably must always earn a rousing cheer from the party faithful. "We want a more egalitarian society," she parrots in place of hard facts. Sure sure, we all do; now tell us how you plan to go about it.

Especially revealing is this line from 12m 45s: "We believe in democracy. Possibly not all of your listeners do." That smug little aside is the steam escaping from a cornered politician's dudgeon at having been put on the spot by a smart interviewer. Where is our respect? they wonder, never realizing that they do nothing to deserve any.

This happens to be a Green Party leader, but it might just as well be one of the others. Why can't we have politicians who will argue honestly? Is it hopeless to think that a politician could respond to a plain question with a plain answer? Behind their eyes there seems to be some vital component missing, the part that makes people like Simon Singh and Kenan Malik and Alom Shaha and Stephen Fry esteem truth, honesty and reason. By contrast, most of our politicians are like a dull child who, having once got faint approval for some feeble party trick, keeps repeating it in the expectation that it will be endlessly entertaining.

When, at 14m 50s in the video, Ms Bennett resorts to the hoary red herring fallacy (= that issue isn't important because this other issue is more important), it's not the contempt of logic or the outmoded rhetoric that annoys me so much as the way she was so desperate to get the point about Saudi Arabia across that she didn't mind how clumsily she crammed it in. That's the rub: most politicians are just so crap; if they were acts on American Idol they'd be packing their bags after the first show. To get themselves elected, they pander to the very kind of sports team supporter mentality that they should all decry as a real existential threat to mankind.

Democracy is something for which people are willing to face torture and even death. It deserves better than the tired circus into which British politicians are willing to drag it with their tribalism and empty slogans. Louis Heron, former deputy editor of The Times, once said, 'When a politician tells you something [...] always ask yourself, "Why is this lying bastard lying to me?".' All I want are politicians to choose between who have respect for the voters' intelligence, who are intellectually honest enough to argue cogently and clearly, and who value inquiry and evidence over doctrine and opinion. Is that really too much to ask?

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Shoulda left it to the robots

You might find this review of Interstellar a bit spoilery. But at least it's over faster than the movie...

So, the Earth is dying because they can't figure out to use hydroponics. And Cowboy Farmer finds mysterious symbols in his ramshackle old house (= Signs, Close Encounters). And he says, "It's not a ghost. It's gravity." Though why shouldn't that mean a ghost? And he looks at a bunch of numbers in binary and he doesn't say, "WTF are these numbers?" he goes, "They're coordinates." And they are the coordinates for a secret base within driving distance of his house. And he gets there and they say, "Oh yes, those are mysterious gravity things sent by these aliens who put this wormhole near Saturn" (2001). And nobody says, "Hang on, you're our best pilot and the gravity fairies told you the coordinates of NASA? So let's think about that for five seconds."

But you soon realize why nobody tries to have conversations like that, because one guy would say, "Could the arrival of the wormhole have anything to do with Earth's climate getting messed up?" but then another guy would say, "Faith is about reaching your hand up and knowing there will be something there to hold onto." And then they'll all nod and the first guy will be secretly thinking, "I'm locked in here with the crazy people." So they get into the ship and even though the robots seem to be the only intelligent ones, nobody pays any attention to them, probably because whenever you go, "I have a cold, maybe homeopathy and love and peace will cure it," they would say, "Are you absolutely sure you're the species that created us?"

OK, so off into space and more running about like a bunch of teenagers forced to go on a survival weekend (this crew could get a job on Prometheus, no trouble) and when they come back after 23 years in a gravity well, and Lady Scientist says, "Let's go to planet A" and Cowboy Pilot says, "Hang on, planet B is better but your boyfriend is on planet A, right?" she doesn't say, "Ya got me," she starts coming out with asinine twaddle about maybe that's the best criterion for judging stuff, and love is energy, like, innit, and it's the only thing that transcends time. (And also hate, lust, fart jokes, etc, in that case.) And the others don't say, "Oh, stop wriggling. We caught you out and you know it." No, they listen to her whole critically-failed Fast Talk roll as if it was a valid point. And then Dr Man (geddit?) turns out to be yet another famous actor, and he is mad and evil and tries to kill them, saying that nobody would go on risking their necks to save the whole human species, they'd only do it to specifically save their own family - even though history is full of examples of people putting the group first, and that is kind of the whole USP of homo sapiens. Obviously not a regular churchgoer, Man tries to kill everybody and take over the mission for HAL-like reasons, but everyone is saved thanks to the robots (what did I say about them?). This doesn't stop Cowboy Pilot from telling the robots they have to be sacrificed in a black hole. Lady Scientist doesn't come out with one of her love-is-energy speeches there, but she does at least query whether you should tell an intelligent, loyal being to sacrifice itself for your sake. Luckily Cowboy Pilot has an answer: "They have to do anything we tell them." (Hah, you fool, Aristotle, why did you waste all that time on that Ethics book, ya booby?) Anyway, Cowpoke sacrifices himself too, and he falls through the event horizon into Inception, where he gets a view of his daughter's bedroom as she's growing up and he can send her messages by pushing books and making the dust spell out binary messages. This would all be very confusing, but luckily one of the robots is on hand to explain absolutely everything to us (ya see? ya see?) and it turns out not to be God doing all this, but the gravity fairies are are, like, 5-dimensional people from the future. And they have just enough vestigial interest in the fate of the entire species (from which they evolved, let's not forget that) to give Cowboy Pilot limited access to one room on his farm over a 30-year peiod. Contacting humanity and giving us the answer to climate control, terraforming, wheat blight and wormhole tech would have been just too easy. And you can see the discussion (imagine this in 5 dimensions): "Shall we explain what they need to do to survive?" "Explanations are a bit too sciencey. Love is energy, dude." "Oh yeah. Just give this one guy a mystic experience, then. After all, we already know he must succeed or we wouldn't be here." "Point. Also, without the woo there's no movie. And we're shooting for M Night Shyamalan to direct."

No good points? Oh sure. I liked the explanation of why wormholes are spherical, the black hole FX, and the robots.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Nurse Twicely

The character of Nurse Twicely was unveiled to young readers – in fact, literally unwrapped – in A Little Lint and the Holy Spirit, a short novel by Mabel Barltrop, founder of the Panacea Society. The Hallivancy children find what they think is an Egyptian mummy: a figure swaddled in bandages in the lost luggage office at their local station. Their little dog Binky (later renamed Bad Dog by Nurse Twicely) gets hold of the end of the bandages and runs off, unwinding them to reveal a dozing Nurse Twicely.

“You naughty children,” she says. “I was having a nap after my journey and I suppose you put me in here like somebody’s lost steamer trunk?” When the children protest, she tells them never to talk back to an adult. Thus the Nurse Twicely books start as they go on, hammering home the suffocating manners of middle-class Edwardian England. But if that’s all the stories amounted to, they would not have been likely to seize the imagination of a generation of children. Mrs Barltrop was canny enough to include a hint of something fantastic as well:
“Why were you wrapped up in bandages?” said Annabel. “If you don’t mind me asking, miss.”
     “It’s not miss, it’s nurse,” said Nurse Twicely. “And they aren’t bandages like those horrid Gyptians who hounded Moses used to use. This is holy lint, and wrapping myself in it has given me as much get-up-and-go as a dozen tonics and fifty spoons of castor oil.”
     With that, she gathered up all the strips of fabric and smartly wrapped them into rolls, just as fast as cook could whip an egg. Binky gave a little growl as she tugged the last piece out of his mouth, but she wagged a short thick finger at him and he went as quiet as a wound-down clock, just like that. Then she packed roll after roll of bandages into her battered black bag. And there had been miles and miles of them, enough to stretch between every tree on the village green and still have enough to string the maypole, but she packed them all away in there like a conjurer doing a trick backwards.
     “Now then,” she said, snapping shut the big brass clasp and taking up her bag. “I can see four growing children, and somebody mentioned castor oil.” 
The first book was published in 1924 and was followed by Nurse Twicely Returns and A Third Spoonful of Nurse Twicely. Her return in the second book (she arrives wrapped in brown paper having been posted from Timbuktu where she had gone to help the missionaries) gives a reason for her name: “Because I will give naughty children a second chance, you see, but only Our Lord can give you three chances, and after that you can whistle all you like about your hot toes but there’ll be no help for it.”

At the end of the second book she climbs into her Prophecy Box and announces that she will only visit again when Shiloh (the Panacea Society’s female saviour) has come for watercress sandwiches on the lawn. This presented problems when the success of the series meant that Mrs Barltrop’s publishers demanded the third book for which she had contracted, so the stories in the new volume were explained away as some adventures from Nurse Twicely’s other two visits to the Hallivancy household that she had forgotten to mention earlier. (It is surprising that Mrs Barltrop was confounded by the need for consistency given that, in the course of the books, the Hallivancy children go from being orphans to having a mother whose eye colour changes twice and a father who is either dead, in India on business, or the local clergyman.)

Some elements are established in these three books that are present in Nurse Twicely’s later incarnations. She wears a white linen hat “shaped like a scone”, she is best friends with twenty-four bishops, she has an even lower opinion of little boys than she does of little girls, she likes cats but not dogs, and she takes her charges on whirlwind adventures around the world. In the books her adventures are rather pedestrian, despite the exotic locations and fanciful (or ignorant) depictions of native characters. Her motivation for these trips seems to be only to take the healing lint to sick children who have sent her postcards. Her relationship with the Hallivancy children remains that of an admonishing martinet enforcing “nice” manners. But all that was to change…

By 1930, in order to retain its charitable status, the Panacea Society was obliged to shed some of its assets. Mrs Barltrop sold the rights in the Nurse Twicely books to the West End impresario Norton Dudley. He apparently never read the books, buying the rights on the advice of his eight-year-old nephew, and promptly decided they were ripe for theatrical adaptation. For this purpose he engaged twin writers Jonas and Ruta Dauksa, Lithuanian Jews whose experimental plays had been strongly influenced by Artaud’s surrealistic Theatre of Cruelty. To Nurse Twicely’s adventures the Dauksas brought an element of uncontrolled fabulosity, much of it probably deriving from their poor command of English. A flavour of this may be detected in the different ways they have Nurse Twicely convey the children on adventures:
  • Setting sail in the boat at the bottom of the garden
  • Taking off in a flying lawnmower piloted by the gardener
  • Being carried along in the “plodding shed”
  • Sitting on deckchairs in the mist
  • Following the Rubric Footpath
  • Taking a “quirkular” route through a cornfield (“Why, it’s a maize.”)
  • Going out along the Dizza Pier, which sinks beneath the waves 
As the Dauksas’ style of humour proved disturbing, to say the least, older children were not infrequently removed from early performances in tears. Their younger brothers and sisters, however, having a less fixed idea of what reality ought to be, seem to have embraced what Jonas Dauksa called “the surrealiness” with enthusiasm. Nonetheless, with an eye to the box office, Norton Dudley decided that adding songs would make the play more accessible, to which end he hired Jonathan “Snapper” McFeely, a choreographer and street musician who had been a well-known figure in Soho pubs until his arrest in 1923 on indecency charges involving a tortoise.

McFeely composed a number of songs including “Jar-daft and Wobbly Wise”, “Poor Mr Butterhead”, “Black Magic and Fairycakes”, “Cardboardilly Boxadally”, “Socks for Tea”, “The Trouble with Tuesdays”, “Penguin Pie”, and “Riffraff and Sundry”. It should be no surprise to the reader to learn that McFeely had acquired a drug habit while in prison and fuelled his creative sessions with a cocktail of brandy, gin, betel leaf juice, and various narcotics.

The stage play enjoyed only moderate success and, as the generation that grew up with her turned to face the exigencies of the day, Nurse Twicely might have been forgotten. But in 1940 Norton Dudley, in an excess of patriotic zeal brought on by a health scare, donated the film rights to the Ministry of Information. “It shows the pride and ingenuity of the Semitic peoples in the face of adversity,” he declared, having forgotten the books ever existed or that Nurse Twicely, even in the Dauksas’ version, rarely allowed a scene to pass by without a dose of Biblical sanctimony.

That was swept away for the 1943 movie starring Arthur Askey. The script as rewritten by Marriott Edgar dispensed with Nurse Twicely’s smothering piety and made the whole story funnier and faster-paced, though at the expense of losing some of the fanciful charm the Dauksas had brought to it. Naturally Askey could not be repressed from improvising his trademark style of broad comedy patter with lines like, “Have you got the lint?” “Steady on, it’s just a touch of gout,” and the catchphrase, “That’ll do nicely, Twicely.” Some of the dialogue was deemed too risqué for wartime audiences, and ministry officials imposed a sound of crashing waves over the soundtrack as the Dizza Pier submerged:
NURSE: My old friend Dizzy? We called her Dizzy Peer on account of her bins. Like bottles, they were. Only you wouldn’t get a ha’pence if you took those back.
BISHOP: I didn’t say Dizzy. I said this is the Dizza Pier. It goes down, you see.
NURSE: So did Dizzy for two bob and a jam sandwich. 
The Rubric Footpath, which in the books was signposted with tendentious homilies and in the Dauksa play with koan-like riddles, here becomes the Rubberbrick Footpath, which Askey is able to bounce along with the help of some early wire work.

The episode in which Dolly Hallavancy is taken to the dentist illustrates the evolution of the concept. In Mrs Barltrop’s novel, Dolly is told to pull herself together, that the power of prayer is much more effective than any anaesthetic, and that Jesus endured much worse than toothache without complaint. In the play, the dentist has run out of laughing gas so he gives Dolly sneezing gas instead. It was left to Marriott Edgar to turn this into a full-blown comedy set-piece. In place of laughing gas, Dolly is offered a range of substitutes: “Sneezing gas, burping gas, hiccup gas. This one… oh, that just gives you gas.” Opting for blurting gas, Dolly then finds she cannot keep a secret or tell a lie, causing mayhem in the Hallavancy household until Nurse Twicely counteracts the outbreak of honesty with a gobstopper. Yet it’s possible that Mr Edgar may have drawn inspiration for this scene from the novel, where the character is known as the Gossiping Dentist and reveals all sorts of indiscretions. In the play this has become the Gossipy Dentures, an amusing puppet character who lives in a glass of water and generates chaos with his acerbic Loki-like pronouncements. (In the movie, the Gossipy Dentures appear only briefly and are voiced by Will Hay.)

Other characters that appear in various incarnations in either book, play, movie, or all three include the Garden Metro-gnome, Bad Dog and Wise Cat, and Dr Hugh, the twenty-fourth bishop who helps rescue the other twenty-three after they have fallen through the Prophecy Box into another world (an obvious lift from E Nesbit’s short story, “The Aunt and Amabel”).

After the war, with the books out of print and cinemas eager to replace British pictures with imported Hollywood features, the character of Nurse Twicely lapsed into obscurity. It’s possible that a young Spike Milligan may have come across the play while entertaining the troops in his artillery unit as part of the First Army in North Africa. Could Mabel Barltrop’s hectoring creation have influenced the anarchic comedy of the Goons? The truth, as ever, is unknowable.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

The Buried Giant: some treasure here, but more spadework required

There’s a tendency among many writers of literary fiction to opt for emotional coolness and ironic detachment, as though fearing that any hint of excitement in their storytelling would undermine the serious intent of the work. I don’t know where this notion came from. You can’t see Maugham or Greene or Forster having any truck with it. But the question is not where it started but whether that is the kind of literary writer that Kazuo Ishiguro is.

Adam Mars-Jones seems to think so. In his LRB review of The Buried Giant, he particularly takes Ishiguro to task for throwing away what ought to be a Fairbanks-style set-piece in a burning tower by allowing “nothing as vulgar as direct narration to give it the vitality of something that might be happening in front of our eyes”.

I’m not so sure about that particular scene. It could be that Ishiguro is reaching, not for the drama of the events, but the drama of the telling of the events. In the way he deploys the scene, we’re left in the dark for a while as to the fate that has befallen a major character. It’s how Conrad, say, might have chosen to tell it. The point is, though those events are not told in a way that plays up the excitement of the action itself, they nonetheless have dramatic effect. It works – just not as Mars-Jones or I might have preferred.

But there are other bits of the story that do not work at all, and make me think that Ishiguro either scorns, or is not craftsman enough to manage, the control of the reader’s expectations that is needed for a novelist to hold and enthral.

An example – and from here on beware of spoilers: Wistan and Sir Gawain are both supposedly charged with killing a dragon whose breath is causing people’s memories to slip away. Finally, approaching the dragon’s lair, Sir Gawain reveals that he has actually been protecting it for all these years. The two warriors walk up to the lair, chatting away, and we have plenty of time to see how this has to play out. Wistan and Gawain must fight, and because the book has a good way to go yet and there’d be no story if the dragon isn’t killed, we can see that Wistan will beat Gawain, and then he’ll slay the dragon. Almost sheepishly, Ishiguro then goes through those exact motions, apparently sensing that something he has done has defanged what ought to be a thrilling peripety, but not knowing how to fix it.

Unlike the burning tower, this isn’t a case of a scene that Ishiguro has made to work differently. As he tells it, the scene simply does not work. No story can grip if it fails to make the reader wonder what’s going to happen next. Here’s how he could have fixed it. Wistan and Gawain walk up to the lair. Wistan is still injured from the fight in the tower, Gawain is an old man. We wonder if even together they’ll be able to overcome the dragon. Then, just as they’re about to descend into the crater where the dragon waits, Gawain steps in front of Wistan and admits that he is sworn to protect it. Now that would be a moment of pure anagnorisis to make Aristotle cheer – and the reader would be left reeling. What? Sir Gawain’s on the dragon’s side? He’s about to fight Wistan? What is going to happen now?

See? Told like that we wouldn’t have time to predict the consequences. We’d be in the moment, struggling to draw breath. It would be – gosh – exciting. And it would work.

There are other places where Ishiguro struggles with the storyteller’s craft like it’s a broken deckchair. Fleeing from enemy soldiers through an underground labyrinth, Gawain and his companions come to a portcullis, which they lower – barring their own escape route – simply so that they can discuss (ie tell us about) the hell-hound that is said to dwell in the tunnels. In a movie the hound would at least turn out to be on the same side of the portcullis, though the shock would be soured by knowing the characters had done something dumb just for the sake of getting the plot into its next mooring. As it is, the hound turns up on the other side and we have to go through a lot of tedious mechanics about how they will raise the portcullis while ensuring that the hound doesn’t attack the two old people who are tasked with doing that. Everything plays out exactly as Ishiguro has just had his characters describe it, and then to top it all off we have to go through yet more nuts-n-bolts prose about getting the portcullis up having cut the rope earlier.

This verges on “he crossed the room, putting one foot in front of the other, until he reached the other side,” and it’s surely the job of the editor to point out to the poor dumb author that he has befuddled himself with foolish details and really ought to take a stab at getting the story firing on all cylinders rather than wandering around the side alleys of his narrative in an obsessive-compulsive daze.

Talking of obsessive-compulsive, I feel compelled to dwell on some quibbles. Ishiguro has a curiously imprecise control of authorial viewpoint that may possibly be deliberate, but in light of some of the fumbled set-pieces I’m inclined to think it’s just a failure of craft. For instance, lapsing into a personal narrative voice as he is inclined to do every hundred pages or so, he says, “Many were roundhouses not so far removed from the kind in which some of you, or perhaps your parents, were brought up.” Ah, so I am supposed to be a reader familiar with this world; these are events that occurred just a generation or two back. But not so fast – just a few lines further on he describes “a tall fence of tethered timber poles, their points sharpened like giant pencils” and we’re back in a modern mindset. Why not, “and a duckpond the shape of an iPad,” while you’re at it, Kazuo?

Maybe that skittering viewpoint is deliberate, but how about the sinews from a hacked-off arm being described as “entrails”? A “hollowed-out trunk” – when he means just a hollow trunk. “Comprised of” occurs a couple of times; didn’t this book have an editor? And there are several instances of constructions like, “with my wife and I hanging together on the rope” – these from characters who grammar is otherwise solid enough.

And then this: the narrator tells us, “This door – it would have been a ‘proper’ door on wooden hinges – ” What? That voice, that “it would have been”, is how I might relate an anecdote. Pyrrhus being hit by the roof tile, for instance; something I know about but have no first-hand knowledge of, so I have to intuit details like, “it would have been a flowerpot-shaped cylindrical tile.” But everything else in The Buried Giant is related as if the narrator is there to see breath steaming on a cold morning, clothing flapping in a high wind. So why that one lapse into a removed viewpoint? If it’s technique rather than carelessness, it’s a technique that fails to have any useful effect.

Tom Holland in The Guardian gives Ishiguro the benefit of the doubt. "The gaps and seams," he says, "[...] are designed to show." But I say, goddamn it, an author should do the bloody work. Nabokov wanted Laura burned, and it was in not greatly more ramshackle a state than The Buried Giant. 

And yet – the book has something. A world in which memory is unreliable, a fantasy told without the pomp-rock bombast that’s typical of the genre, events recombining in oddly shifted permutations as in a dream, a quasi-allegorical exploration of love and loss – those are all interesting ideas. And Ishiguro has moments of great inventiveness that are well-served by his flatly unadorned style, as he talks of the ogres that emerge out of the mist or describes an attack by pixies on a boat caught in reeds. It often reads (and this probably is deliberate) like a translation of a classic saga, in that its brilliantly arresting images are recounted in the voice of an academic whose striving for accuracy sacrifices any of the original’s lyrical power. Fine, that's what Ishiguro set out to do and that, at least, he achieved. But me, I like to luxuriate in the poetry of beautiful language, and I kept thinking that if my accountant rewrote Malory or Beowulf she might end up with something a lot like this.

Look, here's the thing. All this carping is because I can see the outline of something great here. I just wish Ishiguro had chipped away the stone until he found it. Written by somebody like Alan Garner, The Buried Giant would be fabulous. As it is, throughout the book we continually run smack into quagmires of clumsy prose and expository specifics , with the result that it all reads like the extensive notes an author prepares before he or she gets stuck into writing the novel itself. It really is half brilliant and half incompetent – both "fascinating and moving" and yet "aimless and atomized", as Laura Miller described it in Salon - and that alone makes it almost unique among modern novels. Well, I say that, but I have yet to read the rest of Mr Ishiguro’s oeuvre.

If I haven't put you off reading the book (and I hope I haven't) then you might be interested in hearing Kazuo Ishiguro talk about it on this Guardian podcast.


Thursday, 19 March 2015

Writers, have the courage of your convictions

It strikes me that the problem with a lot of television drama shows is that they seem to be created with the expectation that audiences will only keep half an eye on them while doing other things. Often the scripts are almost tongue-in-cheek, crowbarring in arbitrary plot developments and dei ex machina like sellotape slapped on to a badly wrapped present. It's as though the writers don't expect anybody to believe in their story, so they carry it all off with a big pantomime wink.

It's what I hate about a lot of British TV shows these days. They don't have the confidence to act like they even deserve your full attention. They treat drama like it's light entertainment, with sniggering nods (sorry, intertextual references) to quiz shows and guest-starring comedians or newsreaders instead of actors. And so, naturally, the audience doesn't ever fully engage. They watch it all with the cynical smile that insincerity invites, like a bully smirking at a victim who is resorting to pratfalls and forced jokes to try and ingratiate their way out of a beating.

Yet in the States, where network TV is subjected to the ongoing indignity of countless commercial breaks and messages running in the lower third, the actual craft of drama continues to be treated with proper reverence by the people making the show. You can watch a network drama like Elementary, Monk, Life, Eureka, ER... and it's clear that, despite the medium's contemptuous presentation of their work, everyone involved is willing to do their jobs as though you are giving the show your full attention. Even if three-quarters of the audience are actually tweeting, reading, talking on the phone while the show is on, the creators earn respect like an entertainer at a club who soldiers on professionally through constant heckling. They are doing the work. No faking, no ironic distance. It's obvious that they genuinely care.

If you're a writer or an artist or a musician, whether working in television or novels or comics, integrity is the single most important thing you have. It can be hard to hold onto that integrity if you don't feel like anybody is paying attention, but lash yourself to the mast and see it through - because unaffected love for the work you are doing is the only way to engender love in an audience.

Friday, 6 March 2015

God and Mr Fry

Thank God for Stephen Fry. Actually, let’s leave God out of it. It’s Stephen Fry himself I want to thank. When I despair at the human race, often it’s the example of his wisdom, humour and intelligence that gives me hope. If I were Galactus, he’d be the main reason I decided not to eat your planet. In this interview with Gay Byrne on RTÉ One, Mr Fry is on brilliant and blistering form. He adduces his reasons for believing that, if God exists, He is ‘monstrous… evil… capricious, mean-minded, and stupid’.

Let’s start with ‘if God exists’. On one level, all gods are real. I’m arm in arm with Alan Moore when he says he believes in fairies. Odin and Thor have always felt more real to me than the Biblical deities, though. Probably that kind of preference has nothing to do with the universe and everything to do with how our childhood selves related to our parents – although even that implies religion is a free choice, which can hardly be true when so many are indoctrinated into their family’s beliefs from the time they can speak.

In any case, that category of belief is not what we’re considering here. I’m not talking about a God as real as Humbert Humbert or Lizzie Bennet or Mr Toad. It’s that other reality we’re discussing now, the one that can stub your toe or launch a rocket to the Moon. Most people are uncouth in their beliefs. Their minds aren’t comfortable with the abstract. Not content with God being as real as love, truth, beauty, they want Him to be real in the way that wellington boots and wisdom teeth are real. So that’s the God we’ll talk about.

How did it all come into being? We can evoke the idea of a mind hanging in the nothingness – but minds are complex things, much more complex than suns and planets. Some metaquantum aberration, a blip inside which a quindecillion tonnes of superstring unfolded, is easier to grasp as the primum mobile and considerably more likely. But hang on there. Occam’s Razor is a guide, not a rule. I can’t be certain that atheism is more reasonable than deism, and so I simply say that I’m an agnostic.

We agreed to let God into this Gedankenexperiment. Okay, so where and why did He come into the picture? Supposedly He was needed originally to answer the question of why we are here at all. Declaring that everything exists because of God is no explanation, mind you. It just sweeps the question under the carpet of what is not known. However, this 28 billion parsec-sized parcel of spacetime – and indeed spacetime itself – may only be part of a much larger or even infinite reality, possibly with one or more cosmic intelligences in the strata from which our local reality arose. For all that I doubt it, I can’t prove our universe wasn’t created by an intelligent designer. For the sake of argument, we’re saying it was. What then can we deduce about the creator from His creation?

The God that spoke to Moses and Muhammad appears to have shared the moral code, social priorities, and knowledge of the physical world that Moses and Muhammad themselves had. But that’s not the God we’re trying to intuit from the universe around us. It’s more than far-fetched to imagine that our God would take a personal interest in one small group of people at one time in history, and then couch whatever user’s manual points He deemed important in the form of legalistic rules communicated via the local power hierarchy. Anything He has to say, He could tell all mankind unequivocally by writing it on the Moon in a metalanguage. ‘Angels spoke to me,’ is no reason to take anybody’s word for anything, whether it happened yesterday or two thousand years ago. If that’s the kind of God you’re willing to conceive of, there’s no good reason not to choose the God of the Aztecs or of the Mesopotamians. One billion people can be wrong – or right; their numbers and their conviction make no difference.

So put that aside. Suppose you had never heard any theories of God, and were just starting to look around and figure out what He might be like. For a start, if you were God, you wouldn’t build a thing like the universe in the way you would a wristwatch. You’d specify laws, the way a game designer does. You’d say the electron is a class with these attributes. Then you’d start it going: ‘Let there be plasma’ – not light, that took another 400,000 years – and you’d see what kind of a universe emerged from your rules. Maybe you’d hope for life, maybe you’d observe it as a happy accident. Or maybe life wasn’t what interested you in the first place.

Wait. Didn’t God already know everything that was to come? As an omnipotent being, He could run the entire simulation in his mind. But we don’t know that our God is omnipotent, only that He is (or was) capable of initiating the beginning of the universe and possibly setting or tweaking the laws that govern it. And a perfect simulation is indistinguishable from reality in any case. So here it is, finally, 13.8 billion years later: the thin film of water and air around a ball of rock that interests us.

Now, it’s a mistake to see all this from the top down. (That is if we insist on putting ourselves arbitrarily at ‘the top’.) We cannot make the universe in our image, we have to see it as it is – not a place of dietary and marriage rules, of ethics and prohibitions and cruel medieval punishments, but a place of simple physical processes, working away on a level more primitive than ants. The God we’re reading from the things He made seems more concerned with weevils than with evil, and quite right too. Evil is a human construct, and a clumsy one at that. How could an entity that doesn’t live in our social world even have an opinion on human morality – any more than we conceive of morality among the sparrows?

So if we start with the God of the Big Bang rather than the God of the Good Book, I can’t agree with Stephen Fry that He is monstrous and mean-minded. Ebola and earthquakes are just the way the universe is. I don’t think we could honestly expect a real creator of worlds to trouble Himself about whether one species burrows into the eyes of another species. In fact, if you take our human partiality out of the equation, it’s kind of cool. You can imagine Him thinking, ‘I set this in motion, but the emergent effects are awesome.’

Of course, Mr Fry is not answering Mr Byrne’s question from a deist perspective. He is addressing the question of what we should make of the world if the God of the Old Testament is in charge of it. This is a God we are told is concerned about human life – as well as being very bothered about what we eat, what we wear, and who we have sex with. Quite obviously such a God, if He were any more credible than a Dungeons and Dragons monster, would indeed be unworthy of respect. Fortunately mankind has had teachers like Jesus and Buddha to ameliorate primitive religious doctrine with a kinder message. But honestly, if you were properly brought up, you don’t need them to tell you anything. Our opinion about whether the universe has a creator or not has nothing to do with morality, just as the laws the police enforce have nothing to do with why I don’t commit robbery and murder.

So, like Fry, I’d reject that strict and jealous God’s offer of paradise because it would not be any paradise I’d want to live in. His bribe of an afterlife, if it were anything but an infantile dream, is deserving of mere contempt. The power to create and destroy gives no man or deity the right to enforce an ethical code. That you can only find in your own heart.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Showrunner of your story, captain of your soul

"Think anybody these days would disregard George RR Martin or JK Rowling on the subject of typeface or cover design? That’s even if they could. Jonny Geller wrote for The Bookseller recently about how Susanna Clarke’s deal for the miniseries of Jonathan Strange and Mister Norrell gives her more control than the original film deal twelve years ago. That’s not a concession, not a sop to the author’s preening ego. It’s a win-win. An author like Ms Clarke, as demiurge of their story universe, sits at the heart of its sun. From there, everything is illuminated. By comparison, anybody else can only know half as much – and most of that will be wrong."

This week I began a regular column in The Bookseller. My first piece (excerpt above) is about the role of the writer as creative champion of a project - whether book, comic, videogame, TV show or movie. (Or radio play, I guess - gimme a break, you know how hard it is being a Renaissance Man these days?) Pop over and take a look. Leave a comment. Debate is good, and remember there are no right answers.