Heart of Darkness

“You know I hate, detest, and can’t bear a lie, not because I am straighter than the rest of us, but simply because it appals me. There is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies – which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world – what I want to forget.”

Joseph Conrad

Ah, yes. Heart of Darkness. The book that I’ve heard so much about and have finally got around to reading (because it was on my reading list). This edition has a terrible cover, but to be honest so do most classics. Still, this is worse than most, although if you’re reading a Norton Critical Edition you’re probably not going to be put off by the cover.

On to the actual novel. Or novella, actually, because it only takes up 78 pages in this edition. (The rest of the book – 400 pages in total – is critical essays, letters, biographical material, etc., most of it very dull.) The brevity of it makes for a nice change from such monoliths as Middlemarch, and it’s the perfect format for this story, about a voyage up the river Congo in the 1890s.

The other contrast with Middlemarch is that I actually enjoyed Heart of Darkness, which is always a bonus. Conrad evokes the atmosphere of the vast, mysterious jungle, with its “heart of darkness”, wonderfully, in lyrical, accessible prose:

On we went again into the silence, along empty reaches, round the still bends, between the high walls of our winding way, reverberating in hollow claps the ponderous beat of the stern-wheel. Trees, trees, millions of trees, massive, immense, running up high, and at their foot, hugging the bank against the stream, crept the little begrimed steamboat like a sluggish beetle crawling on the floor of a lofty portico. It made you feel very small, very lost, and yet it was not altogether depressing, that feeling.

And the fact that the novella is short means that its questions and musings hit harder – there’s no repetition of messages or analysis of events. It is a beautifully written story about a dangerous madman who wants to be a god; it is an allegorical tale about humanity’s capacity for monstrosity; it is a journey into the European psyche. Heart of Darkness: not just a travelogue.

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Merlin: A Lesson in Vengeance

“May it be long that I believe not at all
That Mordred my kinsman ever
Would betray me, for all my riches,
Nor Guinevere my queen weaken in her affection;
She could not do it.”

Layamon

The above quotation comes from Layamon’s Brut, the first ever Arthurian legend written in English. (Or, at least, a version of English. It’s been translated.) From which happy fact we can see that this series of Merlin is indeed finally following the old legends. A bit. Not really, in fact, because the Arthur of the Brut is emphatically not the just, merciful Arthur of Merlin. But we do have Treacherous Guinevere, although she’s not run off with Mordred. Yet.

Following the events of The Dark Tower (the episode, not the heptology), Morgana has convinced Gwen to kill Arthur. Cue much consternation within Camelot as everyone tries to work out who is behind the various assassination attempts.

To be honest, Gwen is not the most efficient of assassins. Her first attempt involves a massively convoluted plan involving gunpowder, a sabotaged saddle and an ambush of armed men. The ambush alone would probably have worked just as well had Merlin not been there.

Then she tries poison. Ah, good old poison. Hard to go wrong there. But for some reason Morgana provides two potions: one to knock out Arthur (this goes in his wine) and one to kill him (this goes in his ear). Quite why this is necessary is hard to fathom. Possibly the scriptwriter, one Jake Michie, just wanted to provide a sort of fictional precedent for Hamlet. I don’t know. It would have made much more sense, as well as being less risky, just to put poison in his wine in the first place. Or if you really wanted to faff about with ear-poison, why not wait until he was asleep?

Merlin, too, turns out to be suicidally stupid. Being chased through the corridors of the castle, he hears his pursuer shout “There! This way!” and stops in the middle of the corridor to listen. I know I’ve said it before, but if Albion’s fate is to lie in the hands of this man, then God help Albion.

Doctor Who: The Great Detective

“I don’t do this any more. I’m retired.”

Doctor Who

Do you think I’m slightly overdoing Doctor Who at the moment? There just seems to be a lot of it around, that’s all.

Today, it’s the prequel to The Snowmen, this year’s Christmas special. The Great Detective was shown on Children In Need last night. It’s four minutes long, so not a great subject for a review, but I’m having to survive on slim pickings telly-wise at the moment.

The plot can be summarised as follows: the Doctor is depressed. In Victorian London. The End.

Incidentally, is it strange that the last few Christmas specials have been distinctly historical? Last year it was set in the 1940s; the year before that was the Christmas Carol rip-off, which although set in the future was distinctly Dickensian; and two years before that was the one where the Cybermen came to Victorian London.

Old English Friend thinks Dickens is particularly Christmassy, for some reason. Perhaps Steven Moffatt has the same delusion. I mean, have you ever read Bleak House? Nothing Christmassy about that.

Anyway. A depressed Doctor always makes for a good story. I hope. If you want to judge for yourself, have a look at this.

(Sorry for yet another Doctor Who post. The ironic thing is I won’t be nearly so excited when the series actually starts. Because it will be awful.)

Chameleon Circuit

“I’ll sing you to your sleep.”

Doctor Who

OK, this is kind of embarrassing, because it’s amazingly nerdy. (Even more nerdy than knowing all the words to “Lord of the Rings in 99 Seconds”.) Chameleon Circuit is the band that invented Trock, or, in English, Time Lord Rock. (Yes, really.) They sing songs about Doctor Who. I discovered it on one of my procrastination trips around Youtube. (Youtube, as I and the University Gang have decided, is the single most detrimental thing to happen to academia since Wikipedia.) Anyway, the first song I listened to of theirs is a reasonably famous one (well, 300,000 hits on Youtube) called “The Doctor Is Dying“. At first, I thought it was, frankly, awful. Mainly because the person in it can’t sing. Very well.

But it’s one of those songs that worms its way into your brain. It’s been in my head all day, including when I was supposed to be working:

The Time Lords returning
The Earth will be burning,
The last white-point star is a trap for the Master,
The Doctor is dying,
The Doctor is dying, etc.
 

Imagine that going round your head, endlessly, over and over again. So, of course, I had to go back and listen to it once more. And then twice more. And then thrice…well, you get the idea. It turns out that it grows on you. In the name of procrastination, I had a look at a couple of their other songs as well, and there are some quite good ones. I particularly like “Type 40”, which is about the TARDIS and has a cool video as well.

Some of the songs are terrible. Don’t, for example, listen to “Big Bang 2” which is a (barely) musical retelling of the episode of the same name, with a terrible chorus and some seriously inane lyrics. (“Oh my God, he’s wearing a fez” FOUR TIMES! We understood the first time, thank you very much.)

Despite the fact that Chameleon Circuit have the musical abilities of the average boy band, there is a genuine love of Doctor Who that makes the songs worth listening to, for the average Whovian. Plus, and this is the good bit, they’re all out there on the internet FOR FREE!!! So there’s nothing to lose. Apart from, possibly, your mind.

Doctor Who: The Whispering Forest, ep.1

“Everything I had to know/I learned it on my radio.”

Queen

Well. Some more Doctor Who. There was nothing else on, OK? Anyway, this was on Radio 4, so it doesn’t really count…

The Whispering Forest is a fifth-Doctor audio adventure. The Doctor lands on the planet Chobel, having apparently set the TARDIS to look for cases of Richter’s syndrome (no, I don’t know why either). The wooded planet is filled with mysterious “Shades”, beings who seem to speak but only occasional words can be made out. And there are the Takers, who pick off the weak and the ill from the small human settlement on the planet. Who are the Shades and the Takers? Why are the settlers so obsessed with soap? And where do the taken go? These are the questions that the Doctor and his three companions (Nyssa, Tegan and Turlough, as far as I could make out) must answer, in true Doctor Who fashion.

This is probably solely because of the fact that it’s an audio drama, but I got the impression that it was really dark in the world of the story. Which was probably the wrong impression. Audio is an odd medium; people aren’t really used to it any more, and it always takes a while (for me, anyway) to get used to it. Hence the preternatural darkness on Chobel, which has no basis in the script.

I’m rambling. Sorry. Back to the review.

I really enjoyed The Whispering Forest, actually, despite the fact that you have to listen to it rather than watch it. (Also, what do you do when you’re listening to a radio drama? You don’t really feel as if you can just sit there and not do anything, but you can’t do anything much because otherwise you lose the thread of the story.) It was deliciously mysterious and other-worldly in the way that Doctor Who can be (although not recently, because Steven Moffatt hates Whovians, apparently). It was well acted, too – it felt like it wasn’t just being read out, but that it was actually happening somewhere, on a hidden television screen possibly. And it was relaxing not to have to look at anything, just to listen. And there is the lesson for today – radio. Worth it every now and then.

Derren Brown: Fear and Faith

“Welcome to the real world.”

The Matrix

Derren Brown is back, and with a vengeance. At first, Fear and Faith looks like a documentary about a “wonder drug” that removes fear – interesting, but hardly Brown’s usual fare.

But nothing is ever that simple in Derren Brown-land. The wonder drug, Rumyodin, is actually a placebo, or, in less scientific terms, fake. The question is, can a sugar pill help someone get over a debilitating phobia?

So we’re introduced to a group of people who have chosen wholly inappropriate professions given their respective phobias. We have a journalism student who can’t talk to strangers and an actress who can’t sing in public. They do know you’re meant to choose your career based on your strengths, right?

Anyway, the group duly take their daily doses, and soon amazing things begin to happen. A person with a fear of heights crosses a tall aqueduct. The journalism student defuses an argument in a pub. Et cetera.

But the best bit, as always with Brown’s shows, is when the victims participants are told it’s all a lie, and that Rumyodin is actually an anagram of “your mind”. (Hahahaha!) And that the fake drug has been given to other groups for different purposes – giving up smoking, boosting intelligence, curing allergies – where it had equally remarkable results.

Of course, there’s nothing really new in all this. The placebo effect has been known in scientific circles for years, and popular science books like Bad Science and 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense have introduced the concept to the masses, or, at least, to a significant proportion of the masses. But Brown’s show is still worth watching because even if you knew about the placebo effect before it’s still quite amazing exactly what it can do and in how short a time. And, as they say, seeing is believing.

Fear and Faith is so much better than Apocalypse, Brown’s last outing. I’m not going to go over everything that was wrong with Apocalypse, because that would take too long, but my review of it is here if you want to read it and compare. Basically, all the stuff that I hated in Apocalypse has been rectified in Fear and Faith. Happy reading.

Middlemarch

“If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”

George Eliot

Middlemarch, George Eliot’s famous “Study of Provincial Life”, is a finely detailed, richly textured novel about, well, provincial life in the 1830s. Written in the 1860s, its events are surprisingly accurately dated; a large range of characters is depicted with sympathy and psychological faithfulness; and it is full of quotable quotes like the one above.

It is also the most sensationally dull novel I have ever had the misfortune to read. I only finished it because I have an essay to write on it tomorrow. It is hopelessly long, so you never feel like you’re getting anywhere near the end, and every single little thing that happens, including a lot of stuff that has already happened, is traced out and analysed obsessively. I had real difficulty in continuing reading, because every time I started I got a headache. That is how much of a trial it is to read.

As for the characters – well, there were a couple of moments when I engaged with them, but this happened for the equivalent of 4 pages in a 500-page novel. For the most part, I just could not bring myself to care about Dorothea’s marriage or Lydgate’s practice or the Vincys’ worries. Of the ten people I know who’ve read it (and these are all English students) only one has a good word to say about it. You can draw your own conclusions from that.