New Scientist

“The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well, on the surface of a gas covered planet going around a nuclear fireball 90 million miles away and think this to be normal is obviously some indication of how skewed our perspective tends to be.”

Douglas Adams

The other day, I was talking to one of my colleagues at work. It being a very quiet day, I was reading a magazine. (Not slacking. There was literally nothing to do.) My colleague said to me, “What are you reading?”

New Scientist.

“Oh.” Pause. “What are you studying at university?”

“English Literature.”

This was not, I suspect, the answer he expected. But I’m not sure why. Why do people assume that you’d only read about science if it’s directly relevant to your education/career? I personally read about quantum physics because it’s interesting and mysterious and generally really stupid by all the laws of common sense. It’s full of undead cats and particles that appear out of nowhere and time travel. And, let me remind you, it’s all real. Why wouldn’t you want to know about it?

Then there’s books like Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. That has some weird stuff in it. Did you know, there’s a Korean airline that had a terrible safety record. They changed the language in which their pilots communicated to English, and suddenly the problems vanished, because in Korean (actually, I forget which language it was, let’s just call it Korean) the whole language is based around deference to seniority, so first mates weren’t correcting the mistakes of the pilots who were senior to them.

How interesting is that? And that kind of thinking could save people’s lives. Science is not just for scientists. It’s important to know what’s happening out there. How many of you knew that solar flares could wipe out internet and power cables? Or that nobody knows how to maintain plastic planes?

Classroom science is nothing like the new discoveries happening every day. Go on and read something about your world. What you find may surprise you.

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The Revolution Will Be Televised

“They will not force us/They will stop degrading us/They will not control us/We will be victorious.”

Muse

I was watching The Revolution Will Be Televised only because it was en route to Family Guy later in the evening. As with so many things, I didn’t actually set out to watch it.

But I’m quite glad I did.

As a show, it’s hard to describe. It’s sort of like The Real Hustle crossed with Have I Got News For You with a bit of that awful prank show with Aston Kutcher (Punked, maybe?) thrown in. A couple of guys go out – to real places, as far as I could tell: the Olympic Park, a Lib Dem party conference – and satirise. That is, they pretend to be real people in a way that throws light on our hypocrisy as a nation. So, for example, they turned up at Olympic Park wearing shirts with a political slogan, I forget exactly what it was. “You can’t wear that,” says the security guy. So they take off the shirt to reveal another one with another slogan, and then another one…and so on. My favourite was “Athletes don’t eat Macdonald’s.” “That one’s true,” says the guy wearing it.

OK, it was funnier when I was watching it.

The best thing is the bemused looks on people’s faces when they’re approached by the presenters. “Will you sign a petition to make Tony Blair a saint?” The look on their faces…priceless.

This is a good show that says some true things about life in Britain. It’s also very funny.

Chaos in Holby…

“Insanity is doing the same thing, over and over again, but expecting different results.”

Albert Einstein

…again.

Oh dear God, I’m writing another post about Holby City.

Never mind, we’re here now, so On With The Show!

Holby City Hospital was this week under review by the new “business manager” (see, I even remembered the name) George Binns, about whom I wrote last week. I said he would be fun. He was fun. Funny, as well. Cheers everything up a bit. That woman with stomach cancer is dying? Never mind, there’s a Binns scene round the corner.

You could kind of predict what was going to happen on the business side of things. Michael Spence had the brainwave of trying to convince management to give the ward more money by…pretending… he…could…manage? I’m sorry, but that’s just the stupidest idea ever. And, I’m sorry, Michael, but allocating hospital funds is not the same as giving a bank loan.

What else? The Rare Diseases Referral Policy goes on with a patient suffering from early menopause. Unqualified people do stupid things unsupervised. (Stabbing someone with a blood syringe? Really?) Doctors let ill people treat patients. Apparently we are back in Soapland, that alternative reality populated by couples who can’t have normal marriages, people who never sleep and events that have absolutely no relation to real life. Other locations in Soapland include Coronation Street, Emmerdale and Hollyoaks.

There is no way to escape it. So…ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Soapland.

The X Factor Invective

“Be yourself; everybody else is already taken.”

Oscar Wilde

So The X Factor has returned to our screens this summer, much to my delight. Not. To all those of you who think The X Factor is God’s gift to television: go read Ben Elton’s Chart Throb. Please. It will open your eyes.

I’m not saying that all of it is necessarily strictly true, but once you start thinking about it it is completely plausible. And once you start watching so-called “talent” shows with Chart Throb in mind, you start to think cynically about what you’re watching. You don’t take it at face value.

For example: the girl on The X Factor on Saturday who was dressed as Pink. She did indeed sing “like a lawnmower”, as the kind people on Yahoo put it. In fact, she sang Pink like a lawnmower. And as the judges, one by one, gave their inevitable responses of “Go away, you’re a terrible singer”, each one saying something along the lines of “You’re too much like Pink; go and “find yourself””, whatever that means, you could see the look of mounting horror and disbelief on her face. And then came the outburst: “You told me to sing a Pink song. You told me.”

My initial reaction was probably similar to most people’s: what a nutter. They said no such thing! But then the cynical, Chart Throb voice in my head said: Really? And how do you know what went on behind the scenes? The truth of the matter is that no-one reacts like that unless a) they’re mental or b) they have good reason. Pink Girl did not seem mental. Therefore, I’m going with b). I think someone, somewhere in the auditions process (not necessarily the judges) did tell her to sing a Pink song, probably knowing full well that it would be terrible. Because what’s more entertaining than failure? They probably weren’t expecting her to kick off like that. But she did, and hey, let’s put it on telly, because what’s more entertaining than a nutter? And now the whole country thinks she’s psychotic, and her life is, if not ruined, certainly going to be miserable for the next few months.

All in the name of entertainment.

I also think something else happened like this last year. It may have been on Britain’s Got Talent. I don’t remember exactly who it was, but I do remember someone, on one of the live shows, saying something along the lines of “Go to hell, it’s all a set up” on being kicked out. Actually, that may have been exaggerated. But it was something along those lines.

Now, the popular response to all this – well, the one I’ve heard most when explaining my views – is “They make dreams come true.” Well, let’s examine that, shall we?

According to Wikipedia, about 100,000 people “audition” for the show each year. Basic maths will tell you that this is impossible if you’re thinking about the stage auditions. Let’s say five minutes per person – two minutes for singing, two minutes for cutting comments from the judges, one minute for going offstage. That’s just twelve people per hour – if everything goes like clockwork, which is highly unlikely in the theatre. Say the judges sit through eight hours a day. (Lucky them.) 12 times 8 is…(let me just work it out on my fingers!)…96! 96 people on a good day, at a stretch. That sounds like a lot. But 96 people a day is only 672 people a week, even if you assume 7 days a week. 100,000 divided by 672 is a little under 149 weeks.

Yep. Auditioning 100,000 people would take almost two years, even if you worked solidly 365 days a year.

So basic common sense, given that there is a new series of The X Factor every year, tells us that the auditions process has got to be bogus. (If you want to find out how it’s really done, go read Chart Throb.)

I reckon the judges audition maybe 200 people at the very most. Out of those 200 people, only sixteen go through to the live shows. Many of the others have had their dreams shattered by cruel and unnecessary comments. Even those sixteen will be manipulated by the show’s producers to make good television. And how many of those sixteen actually become properly famous? The show has been running since 2004, so there have been 112 live finalists. Off the top of my head, the only really famous one I can think of is Leona Lewis. Most of the others have become C-list celebrities – Olly Murs, Stacey Solomon – or have simply disappeared. When was the last time you heard of Same Difference or Eoghan Quigg? Their dreams haven’t come true. They’ve just vanished back into murky obscurity.

So. X Factor lies to an astonishingly vast number of people. It manipulates and humiliates its contestants. And it is not a dream factory.

If you have been converted: go forth and multiply. Tell your friends what a huge con they’ve been drawn into. Maybe then Simon Cowell will go and annoy someone else.

The Tolkien Quiz Book

“Books bend space and time. One reason the owners of those aforesaid little rambling, poky secondhand bookshops always seem slightly unearthly is that many of them really are, having strayed into this world after taking a wrong turning in their own bookshops in worlds where it is considered commendable business practice to wear carpet slippers all the time and open your shop only when you feel like it.”

Terry Pratchett

This is a story about the general amazingness of secondhand bookshops. Well, partly, at least.

Not so long ago – actually, I think it was about last year – a thought wandered across my mind asking if there was a Tolkien quiz book. I’d seen a Lemony Snicket one, a Harry Potter one, two Doctor Who ones, but never a Tolkien one.

Anyway, that thought remained dormant in a corner of my mind until the sunny day in Rochester, Kent, when I visited Baggins Bookshop on the high street there.

Now, Baggins Bookshop is the archetypal secondhand bookshop. It is the secondhand bookshop you read about in quotes like the one above, from Pratchett’s Guards, Guards, but never actually see. It’s the kind of bookshop you can get lost in, literally. There are two floors and about a million rooms and various creaking staircases. It claims to be the biggest secondhand bookshop in England. I can’t comment on the truth of that claim, but it’s certainly plausible. Baggins Bookshop is big. And beyond the first room the books are uncatalogued, so you can’t just go and ask if they have such-and-such a book, because they probably won’t know. You have to go and look for yourself.

Actually, it’s probably not a good idea to go in looking for a specific book. It’s much better (and more fun) just to let one find you, as it were. Which brings me back to The Tolkien Quiz Book. It leaped out at me when I was least expecting it. And I realised that I’d been looking for it without even knowing it. So, of course, I bought it. And I’ve just finished it.

It’s good. It covers most of Tolkien’s Middle-earth oeuvre, including The Silmarillion. It has easy questions, for the newbies among you, and harder questions for the real fans. However, I have to say, I do disagree with the author’s (Andrew Murray – probably not the tennis player) classification of Gollum as a hobbit. Gollum was not a hobbit. He was like a hobbit. There’s a difference.

Apart from that bit of pedantry – a good book. For procrastinators and Tolkien geeks the world over.

Titus Alone

“There is nowhere else…You will only tread a circle, Titus Groan. There’s not a road, not a track, but it will lead you home. For everything comes to Gormenghast.”

Mervyn Peake

Hurrah! I have finally managed to finish the literary monolith that is The Gormenghast Trilogy, ending with the third and final book of Titus Groan’s adventures, Titus Alone. (Actually, there is a fourth book, Titus Awakes, but it was never finished by Peake, but by his widow, and thus does not truly count.)

Titus Alone strays very definitely from the original vaguely fantastical feel of the series into science fiction territory. There are floating camera spy things, death rays and a sinister police force. For Titus Alone is set in a land far from Gormenghast, a land that has (shock horror) never even heard of that immemorial castle from which Titus has fled. Stuck in this bureaucratic, totalitarian country, Titus begins to doubt the very existence of his ancestral home, and meets people who inexplicably become his friends.

Inexplicably because Titus, it turns out, is not a very nice person at all. He is ungrateful, arrogant and stubborn. As a result, I just didn’t care what happened to him. The large and delightful cast of interesting characters that peopled Titus Groan and Gormenghast has been replaced by a single character who is irritating and ungrateful and just not very interesting at all. The minor characters (a rich eccentric dedicated to the animals in his zoo; a cold, calculating scientist’s daughter; a failed novelist who carries around the five hundred unsold copies of his magnum opus) and the settings (a diabolical factory; a city under a river) are the real joys of this novel, described as usual in rich, musical prose. In fact, Titus Alone is considerably easier to read than the first two novels: there are shorter chapters, some only half a page in length, and there are fewer archaisms and shorter sentences.

But the ending. The ending, I thought, was extremely weak and irritating. There were so many other things Peake could have done with his set up…but he didn’t. It was disappointing.

Titus Alone is a very different novel to its predecessors. It’s short; the premise and the settings are interesting; but compared to the sprawling, bustling mass of Titus Groan and Gormenghast, it’s nothing. As the Countess says: “It all comes back to Gormenghast.”

Gormenghast

“He was meaner, more irritable, more impatient for the ultimate power that could only be his through the elimination of all rivals; and if he had ever had any scruples, any love at all for even a monkey, a book, or a sword-hilt, all this, and even this, had been cauterized and drowned away.”

Mervyn Peake

Gormenghast is the second part in Mervyn Peake’s eponymous trilogy. Titus the seventy-seventh, Earl of Groan, is seven. The novel follows his growing up in the vast, sprawling, ritual-bound castle, his struggle for freedom and the threat of rebellion in the castle. The nefarious Steerpike continues his Machiavellian manoeuvering; Fuschia’s isolation grows; the ridiculous Irma Prunesquallor, sister of the Doctor (of Gormenghast, that is; not the time traveller) looks for a husband. And there is a Thing in the woods, a Thing of freedom and independence, that flouts the will of Gormenghast and instils fear in its inhabitants…

As usual, Peake’s handling of the various story-threads and of the characters’ inner lives is masterful. The world of Gormenghast is fascinating: there are entire tracts of the castle that no one has trodden for generations, and fabulous demons dancing on the lakes and a natural world that is vast and threatening and extreme. Peake’s writing, his description, is wonderfully musical and at times humourous (the Twins are “so limp of brain that for them to conceive an idea is to risk a haemorrage) and the castle and its environs are richly drawn. There is drama aplenty: murder most foul, fire and water, suicides, man-hunts and madness and a wickedly attractive villain.

But for all this, I found Gormenghast very hard to get through. The font size probably doesn’t help: in my Vintage edition it is miniscule and it takes an age to read one double-page spread. But I also think the prose is just too dense to read easily. It uses archaisms and obscure words and complex sentence structures (the endless grammatical mistakes don’t help either). It is certainly not a light read.

So: definitely read Gormenghast if you’re looking for something fantastical that’s a little different. But be prepared for the long haul. And have a dictionary ready.