Greetings From The Land of Rain Gods

The fourth instalment of Douglas Adams’ ‘Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ series, entitled ‘So Long And Thanks For All The Fish,’ features a truck driver named Rob McKenna. Poor old Rob is described in the very first sentence as ‘a miserable bastard,’ but he’s a miserable bastard with a serious excuse.

At one point in the novel, he’s hectoring Adams’ main character, Arthur Dent, about how miserable everything is. ‘It-rains-all-the-time,’ he insists. Arthur attempts to reasonably point out that it doesn’t, exciting poor Rob’s fury all the more, and eventually disengages himself to go off and try to meet his girlfriend (it’s the one novel in the series where Adams allows Arthur some space to try and be happy. One trusts something lovely was going on in his own life at the time).

But poor Rob is left behind in the cafe, still miserable. It’s already been explained by this point that Rob is perpetually miserable because Rob is a Rain God. All he knows is that, in the course of his own wretched life, he has evolved hundreds of ways to categorise different types of rain, from mild drizzles to dirty great blatters.

All he knows is that any holiday he’s ever been on was an unmitigated disaster, and no one wants to go on holidays with him ever again. All the clouds know is that they love him and want to be near him, to cherish him and to water him.

I can’t help thinking about Rob McKenna now and again, when I’m out and about in my own country, wondering, as I try and tuck my head still further inside the neck of my coat, whether I and my countrymen aren’t in fact an entire nation of Rain Gods, and just don’t know it yet.

It’s one of the most boring truisms in the language: I come from Ireland, and we get, like, a lot of rain. Lately, it seems to me that this rain is more intense, more violent than it used to be, that this seems to be our particular dividend from global warming, but maybe it’s just that I’m getting older, my bones and blood are no longer thick enough to ignore it the way they used to.

I’ve never been organized enough to group rain into specific numbered categories the way Rob McKenna does (I think I’d just go mad), but what I have evolved, I fancy, is an elaborate set of metaphors to describe the many different moods of Irish rain.

There was the rain burst that assaulted me suddenly last week, for example, erupting all at once out of what seemed as clear a sky as we can get in Ireland.

As my huddled form was gathered up inside its full fury, its behaviour struck me as being akin to that of a thug who’s had a few too many on a Saturday night. His rage is all embracing, but also weirdly non-specific.

He wanders up and down the town’s main street, angrily seeking exchanges with something, anything, and ends up repeatedly headbutting a lamp post which gave him an unfriendly look.

This rain storm was like that. I could tell it didn’t like me, but I didn’t feel singled out. It appeared to have an intense yet unfocused dislike of just about everything.

The lugubrious season which passes for summer in these parts throws up a kind of rain which just seems to hang there, just a foot or two above your head, keeping the humidity simmering at about the level of the average Indochinese jungle.

This rain is like a depressed pub bore whom you can’t quite hate because his life seems so miserable. He gently soaks your clothes with the salted milk of his disappointment: the wife hasn’t given him a friendly look for years, the kids haven’t spoken to him since shortly after they were born, he thinks his boss might be having an affair with his poodle etc.

Even as he’s ruining your clothes and your mood, you can’t help feeling for him slightly, for the creak of his fear. Is this all there is until death? Is this all there is until all that winter shit starts up again?

There used to be a concept called the ‘soft Irish day,’ which doesn’t crop up so much any more. This basically meant a day suffused from dawn to dusk with a kind of drizzle so vague and gentle that it hardly seemed like rain at all.

It resembled nothing so much as a kind yet befuddled neighbour, or perhaps a benign elderly relative, telling you the same stories over and over again, gently and blamelessly wetting your carpet as they did so.

It was a little boring perhaps, but not the worst kind of company. It was familiar and therefore comforting. It even had an oddly positive vibe about it, a kind of almost friendliness. You didn’t need to go running to avoid its gaze the way you would with the globally warmed up psychotics of today.

The soft Irish days are mostly gone now, as indeed are the kind yet befuddled neighbours. I sometimes wonder if there is a connection.

And I can’t help wondering if the waves of national misery which engulf us from time to time are due to our unwonted status as a nation of Rain Gods.

This has always been a far less hospitable land than, say, England. Mark the example of the Romans, they conquered Britannia and named the island to the west of it ‘Hibernia’ – which is Latin for ‘land where it p***es out of the Heavens continually’ – and had the good sense to keep well away. Anyone will tell you that the Romans knew a thing or two about countries.

There’s a British company called ‘Center Parcs’ which specialises in bringing interactive, highly fun forest rambling experiences to its customers. They’re actually setting up a new operation in a big forest a few miles out the road from me, and I do hope the venture doesn’t turn out to be a step too far, like poor old Napoleon’s trip to Moscow.

Unlike many of their English counterparts, Ireland’s forests spend most of the year being foggy, boggy and flea bitten, kind of like rain forests without the warmth or nudity. Let’s hope Center Parcs have figured out a way around this, like maybe enclosing the entire forest under glass.

We try to drown our drowning induced misery with drink, an interesting attempt at literally trying to fight fire with petrol, but we’ve been doing it for millennia, and I don’t know what it says about our nation, but we haven’t come up with a better idea yet.


Making Beautiful Music Out Of Adversity

We are barely three months in, and already 2018 shows ominous signs of being like 2016, in that it will be chiefly remembered for its haul of celebrity mortality.

This week brought the very sad news of the death of Stephen Hawking, for decades the single most famous scientist on the planet (even if, strictly speaking, he wasn’t so much a scientist as a theoretician, but media celebrity has never been much interested in such fine distinctions).

The news led in turn to a positively surreal exchange on the main Government radio station in my own country, Ireland. Some science bod from one of the Dublin colleges was on, ostensibly to provide an appreciation of Hawking’s life and achievements.

The guy declared that Hawking’s book had ‘changed my life,’ but then didn’t seem to be able to remember its name.

Sure that’s always happening to me. I’m always coming across books like that. It’s like meeting girls at parties. They change my life and then I can’t remember their names.

The science ‘expert’ then went on to give a very partial and incomplete definition of ‘Hawking Radiation,’ declared that a new telescope in the Irish Midlands will be ‘looking at things like Black Holes’ (Impossible: you can’t actually ‘see’ Black Holes, therefore you can’t ‘look at them’) and mentioned Hawking’s famous cameo in Star Trek, where he ‘played chess with Mister Spock.’

He didn’t. He played poker with Mr Data, Einstein and Issac Newton. Maybe such details don’t matter all that much in the grander scheme of cheap media airspace, but I wouldn’t be pinning my hopes on any theories this guy comes up with about the true nature of the Universe.

For those in my country, moments like this are a small but depressing reminder of how lives might end, great and ordinary women and men come and go, but Banana Republic codology remains immortal. Happy St. Patrick’s Day everyone.

But exchanges like this also, perhaps, illustrate the flip side of Hawking’s decision to embrace global celebrity in the way he did.

His book, by the way, was called ‘A Brief History of Time’ (there are others, but it’s the most famous one) and Hawking said he wrote it out of a desire to popularize interest in his field of science, to get people thinking about the Universe and its origins.

It’s also been suggested that he did so in order to help pay for the increasing cost of his care, to maintain both the growing entourage and increasingly sophisticated technology necessary to keep him alive and functional, and that is completely understandable.

It led to him becoming one of the most instantly recognisable people on the planet.

Anyone who hunted through the pages of ‘A Brief History’ hoping for, as one of Hawking’s publishers put it, ‘a key to the mystery of life’ was going to be disappointed. It topped the bestseller charts for years, and there was a long time when it was immensely trendy to pretend you could read it, but since there remain far more questions than answers in Cosmology and Physics, any hope of a Holy Grail was remote.

It’s a long time since I read it (I think I finished it) but I remember finding some of its arguments a bit reductive. I had no grasp whatever of the Physics, but Hawking struck me as a fairly conventional sceptical thinker in the English tradition. If there was the possibility of some remarkable revelation looming somewhere in the background, then he certainly wasn’t saying.

Instead, Hawking’s own remarkable struggle against debilitating illness became the thing which defined him. His was, in that sadly jaded cliche, a triumph of the human spirit, the ability to survive adversity if not defeat it, to make beautiful music out of a horrible fate.

Diagnosed with motor neuron disease in his early 20’s, he passed away 55 years after Doctors told him he had a couple of years at most.

In 1985, a serious bout of pneumonia which almost killed him took away his voice, and led ultimately to the instantly recognisable sound of his synthesised speech, that mechanised voice which somehow conveyed a strange, yet presumably accidental plaintiveness. There was something in the laboured sibilants, the truncated vowels, which spoke somehow, almost magically, of vulnerability.

The voice became an intrinsic part of Hawking the media phenomenon. Wherever he appeared, be it on The Simpsons, Big Bang Theory or the news, there was no mistaking whom that voice belonged to, even if it was not actually his.

It is perhaps unfortunate that his celebrity came to define him. It also ended his marriage. Hawking himself frankly acknowledged that his survival would have been impossible without the devoted care of Jane Wilde, the young woman he married before the full onset of his illness (and who appears, fascinatingly, to have been the spitting image of his mother).

After many years, Jane decided she could no longer cope with life as the consort of a global media phenomenon, and I wonder sometimes if Stephen Hawking ever fully dealt with it either. This is one of the many plaintive aspects of their story.

Leave aside the Cosmology for a moment, and Stephen and Jane appear to have simply been ordinary people, ill equipped for fame, for the endless demands of random others, attempting to make the very best they could out of a shocking fate.

His fame led many media airbags to refer to him casually as ‘the greatest scientist in the world.’ Was he? There are perhaps just a handful of people on the planet qualified to answer such a question.

So many of Hawking’s breakthroughs still belong to the realm of theory: ‘Hawking Radiation,’ for example, is the idea that, absolutely contrary to what Physics had thought for decades, Black Holes do actually radiate some energy back into space.

It was, apparently, a source of disappointment to him that Hawking Radiation had not been physically observed during his lifetime, but then, it would be incredibly difficult to spot. As with some of Einstein’s legacy, decades might pass before later scientists are able to proclaim ‘yes. He was right after all.’

I like the fact that he was a bit of a contrarian, someone who enjoyed going against the grain. Ever since I was a child, scientists had believed that the star Cygnus X-1 orbits the first experimentally observed Black Hole in the Universe. This is partly because it’s a strong source of X rays, and because the companion star seems to have been stretched into an egg like shape, presumably because of the enormous gravitational pull of the Black Hole.

Hawking apparently bet his colleague, Kip Thorne, that Cygnus X-1 would turn out to be something other than a Black Hole (observational data proved him wrong in 1990). He also wagered that the Higgs Boson particle would never be observed. Oh well, even Einstein blew some smoke in his time.

His sense of humour travelled light years in a world stuffed with inexplicable self-importance. He never seems to have taken himself too seriously. I love the fact that he was into Wagner. Indeed, I’m evolving a weird little theory of my own about the relationship between Wagner’s music and mental energy.

It’s unfortunate that something horrible has been going on in academia since the mid-point of his career, that intellectual adulteration of the kind typified by our friend at the start of this piece has become the depressing norm, that liberal arts faculties have been engulfed by a McCarthyite hysteria which has eradicated both debate and the spirit of honest inquiry.

It might have made some difference if the world’s most famous academic had spoken out about some of this, but then, perhaps it wouldn’t, and maybe it would have been asking a bit much of someone who already had plenty to deal with. Also, I suppose, was academia really all that healthy before the fanatics of perpetual victimhood came along?

As the biggest media science celebrity since Carl Sagan, Hawking inspired a lot of people to start thinking about science, and he encouraged many others to see disability as a challenge rather than a life sentence. For this alone, he has rendered a service which is incalculable, and his name deserves to shine with honour.

I’ll also confess to a personal stake, as someone dear to me beyond any words found Hawking an inspirational figure, and indeed recently completed a school project on him.

If she some day gravitates towards a career in science, and goes on to encounter exciting unknowns, then it will have had something fundamental to do with Stephen Hawking, and the same, no doubt, will be true of many who are children today.

May he be at peace!

Life Lessons In The Swimming Pool

I recently gave into progress and started going to the swimming pool and sauna. There’s a profusion of them out our way now, one of the few concrete legacies, apart from homelessness, abandoned houses and galaxy sized corruption, of Ireland’s short lived economic boom.

I wasn’t really paying attention back then, so I’ve no idea when saunas and steam rooms became things that were no longer the exclusive purview of athletes, narcissists and people from Scandinavia. I couldn’t get why it was that the rest of us needed to be interested in them too.

I still don’t get it, really, but there are times when you have to just give in and go along with the rest of the swimsuit clad herd.

And I suppose they’re not entirely unpleasant either. There is something about stepping into water and telling most of gravity to naff off for a while, let the liquid deal with it.

Since I’m a bit of an expert now, I fancy that I prefer saunas to steam rooms. Surviving the steam room is an exercise in proving yourself, in demonstrating your enduring, healthy boy credentials. I am tough enough to wear these trunks. Oh you better believe it!

You park your moist butt on those heated tiles, experience your senses being pummelled by waves of heat which feel oddly like caresses from some seriously drunk prizefighter. By comparison, the sauna is like a country saunter, a mere breeze.

And all of that intricate sweating is supposed to be incredibly good for you too, though I’ve no idea why.

The quick shower in the changing room afterwards is also a must, apparently, though again I’m a little hazy about the reasoning. After all, you’ve already been in contact with huge amounts of water, whether in the pool or in the form of vapour.

Maybe it’s just about revelling for a few hours in that feeling of being spectacularly, unbelievably clean, although there is the less kind possibility that it’s actually about trying to get rid of some of the nasty swimming pool bugs that have adhered themselves to your skin.

The pool is usually pretty deserted, which suits me fine. Most of these Celtic Tiger edifices are deserted, like enigmatic mausoleums left behind by some weird old ancient culture that might have been visited by aliens.

The economic dogma which dictated that every hotel had to have a swimming pool, steam room and sauna didn’t specify how you were supposed to attract enough bodies to make them pay for themselves. It just sort of assumed, in the best traditions of Adam Smith style mysticism, that ‘if you build it, they will come.’

They didn’t, but the facilities are still there anyway, because just like banks and merchant banker robber scumbags, you’ve got to have saunas and swimming pools. My place tries to compensate, I think, by keeping the lighting dim. This presumably saves a few bob, and suits me just fine as well.

I’d have felt a certain reticence about using such facilities when I was younger. It is a curious paradox, at least for people of my age, that we get less shy about our bodies as we get older, when, presumably, displaying them is even less of a good idea than it used to be.

Maybe it’s just that we don’t care any more, or maybe it’s because that ever so caring Lady Experience has shown us that people are so fundamentally weird and nuts anyway that almost nothing you can do, say or display is ever going to stand out that much.

Even so, the changing room is still a weird experience. The very small clientele at the facility I frequent features a fair few rural types, who are apt to stare at you in hostile befuddlement, in much the same way as when you enter a country pub for the first time.

I haven’t quite worked out what to do when a naked man pauses the process of towelling himself down to stare at you in a way which implies he suspects you of stealing his cattle, but I presume I’ll work it out eventually.

As you prepare for entry into the pool and the other inner rites, the changing room takes on an aspect of almost monastic gloom. It feels like a sort of departure lounge for its almost naked penitents. I pass uncertainly over the wet tiled floor, eyes downcast in order to avoid slipping or meeting the eyes of one of the naked farmers.

Like most religious rituals, it is to do with passage from one state to another: entry into the realm of water. They say our bodies feel most at home inside water, but I’ve never quite worked that one out either, perhaps my genes are just too damn evolved.

Still though, it’s a nice, pleasingly pointless way of spending an hour or so, and you do feel – a la the religious thing – so incredibly cleansed afterwards, though of course that doesn’t last long.

How To Grow Your Own Celebrities

They keep looking for new angles to prolong the Reality TV thing. They used to just lock people up in houses or abandon them in jungles, but it seems viewers are finally, miraculously getting tired of that sort of thing, so newer, ever more ingeniously vacuous concepts have to be dreamed up.

People stuck in elevators, people marrying their sisters, people attempting to marry their sisters while stuck in elevators; even, hilariously but successfully, people sitting watching other Reality shows on their televisions.

Like a particularly resilient superbug, Reality TV keeps altering the outer surface of its DNA to avoid extermination. On this side of the Atlantic, Britain’s Channel 4 has always been the leading evangelist for ‘TV about nothing.’ It seems there’s nothing in this vein they’re not willing to at least try.

The most recent batch of such programmes involves ‘celebrities’ with embarrassing tattoos they want removed, or ‘celebrities’ looking to propagate themselves by mating with equally minor ‘celebrities’ or ‘celebrities’ talking about embarrassing rashes or warts they want investigated, or whatever. You get the picture.

There’s just one snag with all this, however. Finding myself trapped with one of these programmes the other week, I determined to try and make the best of it, only inciting the rage of my companion by making death noises every three or four seconds, which I thought was pretty reasonable.

The programme opened with taglines about each of the participating ‘celebs,’ presumably intended to jog the sluggish memories of the viewers. These ran something like: ‘Brick Moss is the heavily tattooed hunk who was engaged to Stefanie Scrofula before falling for the satanic charms of Nazi Page 3 girl Adolfa,’ or ‘Vanessa Brainmuncher is a self-confessed man eater who’s feeling a little hungry. Will there be any of Brick left after tonight?’

The other person in the room turned to me after some of this and asked ‘have you ever heard of any of these people?’

I shook my head. ‘Not a one.’

Now, I fully accept that some of this might be to do with the fact that I don’t keep abreast of the ten cent magazines or other Reality shows where these people have presumably made what passes for their names, but doesn’t the term ‘celebrity’ imply that some actual people might be aware of who you are?

‘Celebrity’ has become like ‘genius.’ It’s a word that’s thrown around with far too much promiscuous abandon, usually for economic reasons. After all, if some of these people are genuine ‘celebrities,’ then surely so is the guy who caused a bit of a scene down the pub last week by emerging from the toilets with his trousers severely unfastened.

Bargain basement celebrity was invented partly to sell tabloid newspapers and supermarket women’s magazines, and also to provide a kind of hook for the ever mutating bug colonies that comprise Reality TV programming. These outlets need fake celebrity in the same way gun manufacturers need spineless politicians.

Let’s face it, modern media is now so weak that really important celebrities are pretty much insulated against embarrassing disclosures, unless they’re actually arrested for something. A decent scandal involving someone of genuine note crops up only every year or so. That’s nowhere near enough to sell all those tabloids and magazines.

Likewise, if you’re a genuinely talented and lucky person who has actually achieved fame for some valid reason, then why on Earth would you go on ‘Celebrity shorts being eaten by bugs’ or ‘Celebrity Embarrassing Wart Removal’? You’d want to be at least as insane and masochistic as the people who actually go on these shows.

So Reality TV and supermarket magazines invent fake celebrities because they need them. They need all that willing psychic cannon fodder, that utter lack of anything approaching self-awareness.

And the real reason, by the way, that Reality TV isn’t going away anytime soon isn’t because people like it, but because it is so fantastically cheap to make. You don’t have to pay pesky creative types like writers, directors or actors, or even, God forbid, journalists and researchers. Many of the actual participants are so desperate for any form of fame that they’re probably even paying the TV company.

But it occurs to me: why bother bestowing fake celebrity at all? Why not streamline the process even further by making up your own, entirely fictitious celebrities? After all, the number of people who can confidently point out ‘that’s not a real celebrity’ is getting smaller all the time. Trust me: nobody’s going to know.

It would be process akin to what big, rock playing radio stations used to do in the States in the 1950’s and 60’s. The guy hosting the early evening show might be called ‘Martin Marvellous’ or something, and whenever he quit or died of too much moonshine, they’d simply get another guy and call him ‘Martin Marvellous’ instead.

Think of it, if I populate my new show, ‘Celebrity Cretins watch flies try to score dates while crawling up a wall,’ with characters like ‘Mel Bodkin: she’s a medieval sort of shemale who likes confinement and hideous pantaloons,’ or maybe ‘Gary Absent, he’s the dashing, upper class playboy who once drank the entire contents of an elephant,’ or even ‘Dirk Twiddle, he might have the odd spot of bother doing up his shoelaces but he’s the Reality TV sensation who delights everyone, everywhere with his ability to vomit anywhere, anytime, on demand,’ then who on Earth is going to know that I’m making any of it up?

By the by, I think the main reason Reality TV has never done it for me is that the stakes aren’t high enough. If these people care that much about fake fame, then they should be willing to put their lives on the line. Commit to your goal. Show us you care. Stop pussyfooting around.

I’ve thought for a while that regular death tolls would add greatly to the allure of Reality TV. Looks like the writer of ‘The Hunger Games’ thought exactly the same, the only difference between us being that she made several truckloads of money with the idea.

Why Won’t The Big Bang Actors Eat Their Food?

It’s probably been the biggest selling comedy series in the world over the last five or six years or so, so you’d imagine (and maybe, in this era of voodoo economics, you might actually be wrong) that the Producers of ‘Big Bang Theory’ aren’t short of a bob or ten. So why don’t they ever have food on set that the actors are able to eat?

If you’ve seen the show, then you know what I’m talking about. The central nerds and their long suffering women folk spend an awful lot of time gathered in sitting rooms or similar settings pretending to eat take out food.

It happens quite a lot, presumably because there are only a limited number of social situations you can credibly squeeze socially retarded nerds into. Except that the pretence they make of actually trying to eat the food turns out to be quite jarring.

Time and again, Sheldon, Penny, Leonard et al will be engaged in some argument about this or that, all the time pawing with their plastic forks at the food beneath them in a way which is so repetitive it begins to resemble some form of group autism.

Maybe the directors are worried about the actors trying to eat and say lines at the same time, but they’d be better off just getting them to ignore the food completely, because what they’ve come up with by way of compromise is just brutal: ‘ok, so don’t actually eat it, but you have to, you know, sort of acknowledge it’s there – it is food after all – so just kind of paw it back and forth with your forks. Yeah, that’s it.’

You wouldn’t even see it in a particularly inept amateur drama production. Any play director possessing an IQ greater than a cabbage would long ago have noticed something amiss during rehearsals. It’s that repetitive gesturing, that pointless worrying of the food with a fork, like a cat trying to test out a new lap. He would either dispense with the food altogether, or get them to eat it.

And while having a fresh meal on set every night would tax the budget of the average amateur drama production, surely ‘Big Bang’ can afford it? Obviously, there’s a question of repeated takes and so on and they don’t want Penny, Sheldon, Leonard et al turning into blimps.

Maybe the food gets a bit cold after repeated takes, but surely the budget could stretch to a microwave. Or am I missing something?

What they have at the moment seems incredibly inept and silly for such a successful show. Either get them to do different things with the food (play with it, build it into little towers, have food fights) or just dispense with it altogether. Because now it just looks naff, and maybe even a little mean.

We can afford to pay you three million dollars an episode but we can’t afford the reheat the food. Don’t tell me this is actually something to do with Accountants.

What If It’s All A Case Of Demonic Possession?

One of those clickbait news sites recently sported a dire warning from a Priest it said was one of the leading exorcists in the Catholic Church. A certain Father Pat Collins was quoted as saying that demonic activity was undergoing a huge spike across the globe, adding that individual Bishops were neglecting the need to resource exorcism in their districts at their peril.

Naturally, the clickbait site adopted a slightly mocking tone to Father Pat’s concerns. Exorcism and demonic possession belong to one of those areas of Catholicism that, to paraphrase the ever reliable ‘Father Ted,’ ‘is a bit mad.’

Yet belief in it, or at least a certain unease about it – which these days often amounts to the same thing – persists as a kind of undercurrent in the culture.

What must it be like as a job, I wonder? What are the terms of employment, the perks? For most of us, any knowledge of what exorcists actually do comes from William Freidkin’s deeply weird eponymous chiller from 1973.

But what, for example, do they do to relax? What do you do after a hard evening banishing evil spirits from the body of a young person? Do you go to the pub, play a game of snooker, what?

How does Father Pat measure his belief that demonic activity throughout the world is undergoing a surge? Is there some kind of graph, some kind of paranormal Dow Jones Average?

And I’m not saying all this in order to scoff. There is clearly something going on.

Never mind the apparent chaos of high end politics which takes place under the selective glare of the media, that stuff is mostly a sideshow anyway. It’s partly the positive glee with which, for example, World War III is being talked about in some quarters.

It’s almost as if some commentators can’t wait for it to happen, as if the deaths of hundreds of millions of people, the wreckage of cities, the plagues and sickness and starvation, are to be welcomed as a break from the monotony. What is the point of the beauty of our weapons, to steal a line from Leonard Cohen, if you can’t use them now and again?

There is a weird self-loathing at the heart of humanity. There is an array of commentators who delight in telling us that we are the vilest animals imaginable, and an apparently willing audience that will nod and coo in agreement.

Certainly, we are capable of terrible things, but we’re all we’ve got, and we’re the only known species who seem to be aware of how horrible we can be.

Anecdotally, also, there’s the fact that people increasingly seem to set no limits on how nuts they’re willing to get. In the past couple of years alone, I’ve heard of forms of behaviour that literally didn’t seem to exist before. A new generation of previously unknown psychotic disorders appears to have arisen.

Maybe they were always there, and it’s just now that we happen to be talking about them, but still.

A lot of it, doubtless, has to do with our dominant economic system, which is devoted to keeping people as tense and expectant and frustrated as possible, in order to keep them buying things.

It also doesn’t help that a lot of psychiatry seems to be so frankly useless. Different conditions – such as Aspergers, ADHD, Borderline Personality Disorder and even some forms of schizophrenia – are constantly shifted between labels like a form of intellectual musical chairs, or a sort of haute couture of mental illness: you’ll be treated this way because this happens to be ‘in’ this month, next month it might be something else.

And this is without even considering the number of cynical charlatans in the field, many of whom possess apparently legitimate academic degrees.

Is all this contributing to Father Pat’s view of a spike in global demonic activity, or is he talking about something else entirely? Is the whole world now on the verge of some cataclysm – as in the first ‘Ghostbusters’ movie – where the level of paranormal plutonium in the ether is now so vast that something’s gotta give soon?

And it’s not as if things like this haven’t been said in every age. A lot of people thought civilisation as we knew it was ending during the various oil crises of the 1970’s (a lot of other people think it’s a pity it didn’t). Quite a few people were certain the world was on its last legs during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

And the horrors that so many people saw during the First World War quite rationally convinced them that humanity had no future, and that is to say nothing of the even bigger and more horrible conflict which followed it a generation later.

Perhaps it’s got something to do with our fiction, the ways in which we supposedly distract ourselves. The problem may be that we keep mixing in bits of reality to spice up our distraction cocktails.

I’ve lost count of the number of populist science fantasy movies which contain explicit, almost lusty references to 9/11 and its equally unholy aftermaths. I mean, what is it about the word ‘fantasy’ that we don’t seem to get?

I’m currently at work on a novel which features – although this isn’t its central point – a serial killer. And as I’m working, I can’t help thinking: does this just add to it in some way, to the sum total of how nuts other people will be willing to get?

A generation on from when Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Demme made serial killers sexy, fiction has to go to ever more extreme lengths to hold what it imagines might be the globe’s attention.

Look at the plot twists in Game of Thrones, probably the world’s most popular TV programme, and you may be sure that there are already people figuring out how you can get more extreme than Jon Snow and the Night King.

Is art feeding into life in some way, or is it the other way around? Or are the two locked in a mutually destructive relationship that has to end in divorce, for all our sake’s? Either way, there’s something going on.

Let’s Hear It For President OPRAH

I couldn’t help feeling a sudden surge of anticipation when the Great God OPRAH let it be known that she was toying with a tilt at the US Presidency. Wow! What to get the woman who’s already had everything several times over. The ultimate vanity toy. It’s not a question of her wanting it. She simply must have it.

And indeed, there were plenty of right on types only too willing to tweet that the prize should be hers by divine right, much as they had tweeted (and indeed continue tweeting) in favour of Hillary some time ago.

I could think of nothing more in keeping with the spirit of the age, not to mention an office which has become yet another fake commodity in a world literally drowning in them (The Tesla space car, anyone?).

Did I hear that ‘The Rock’ also wants to be President? There’s certainly at least one wrestler who wants it. What could be more fitting? His election slogan could involve a promise to piledrive Vladimir Putin the moment he’s elected.

There are plenty of places – and they’re not all in CNN or the Washington Post – where this could play.

People claim that the practice of electing US Presidents based on celebrity status rather than political achievement began with Ronald Reagan back in 1980. Perhaps, but in the way of most traditional media analysis these days, this view overlooks a few inconvenient facts.

One is that Reagan had put in a couple of dogged decades as a politician once his acting career had pretty much ground to a halt. Whatever people thought of him, he had served in office, he had political experience.

Donald Trump, of course, famously came to the office with no political experience, and this was one of the rallying calls for the right on multitude baying for OPRAH. Ok, so she has no experience either, went the argument, but she’s much nicer than that horrible Trump, plus she’s a woman etc.

One wonders what George Orwell would make of it all. A lot of his predictions have actually come true, but in the context of so called democracies rather than totalitarian states.

For instance, the ‘four legs good, two legs bad’ bleating with which the sheep in Animal Farm would drown out opponents is now practised on Twitter and traditional media by many who hilariously regard themselves as more intelligent than sheep.

I wonder if, perhaps slightly beyond my own life span, the good citizens of the States won’t find themselves trying to choose in a run off between two porn stars; the citizenry forced, for the sake of democracy, to trawl laboriously through each candidate’s back catalogue, desperately trying to answer that question which pollsters tell us is the crucial one at election time: ‘which porn star would you rather go for a beer with?’

What the Twitter and traditional media sheep don’t pause to consider is that OPRAH is actually one of the architects of the modern Presidency. The leap towards property tycoons and wrestlers and one day even porn stars is actually quite small when you consider the Presidency of Barack Obama, which OPRAH had quite a hand in launching.

The mouthing of vaguely liberal platitudes, conforming to some ageing matriarch’s notion of cool, being non-white and having a wife who looked and sounded way more like a real person than you did trumped any supposed old fashioned virtues – such as experience, ability or actually believing in something – once OPRAH had set Obama on the path to power.

The Obama Presidency – all eight uneventful (apart from all the assassinations and drone strikes) years of it – was one of the greatest con tricks ever pulled on any democracy.

Barack was someone who literally got to have his cake and eat it, a creature entirely of the financial and military power elites who still had all those lovely liberal types shedding tears when he left office.

Voters can be way ahead of analysts and historians when it comes to reading the trends. The Trump Presidency is in many ways a reaction to the Obama one, a sort of allergic fit against being lied to with slightly repackaged platitudes.

There’s a kind of deft, albeit horrible equation here. OPRAH begat Obama, and Obama begot Trump. President Trump was only made possible by President Obama. How fitting if it was to start and end with OPRAH.

Perhaps, on some level, Obama was actually self-aware enough to realize what he was there for: his curiously disinterested performance in his first re-election debate against Mitt Romney in 2012 remains a mysterious footnote to history.

So why not President OPRAH? Well, it might involve a certain giving up of power on her part, but so what?

Alas, she has apparently let it be known from on high that she’s no longer interested. So the CNN and Twitterati sheep will have to go looking for another champion to mouth more updated platitudes for the 21st Century. Shame. What’s ‘The Rock’ up to, I wonder?


The Strange Disappearance of Paradise Lost

Now I don’t know if the following is good news. There may be some of you who greet it with a shriek of delight, others with horror, while the great middle ground is likely, as always, to scratch its head and go ‘uh, what?’

It seems that a group of people which includes the actor Martin Freeman is trying to bring a version of John Milton’s epic poetry cycle, ‘Paradise Lost,’ to the screen. What approach they intend taking towards the mighty tome is unknown, but inevitable statements about ‘the new Game of Thrones’ are already being made.

If any of this comes to pass, it will at least generate new attention for a work that has all but disappeared from public discourse over the last thirty years. Paradise Lost was, at least until recently, considered one of the definitive classics of English Literature.

It attained one of the hallmarks of literary immortality by bestowing new words on the language, including, apparently, ‘jubilant,’ ‘terrific,’ ‘space’ (in the sense of outer space) and ‘Pandemonium,’ which is the name Satan gives to his newly created Capital of Hell.

Most people in middle age today in the English speaking world were likely forced to study the poem in some shape or form in school. And yet it is hardly ever mentioned today.

As an online article in the Weekly Standard points out, the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death in 2017 saw books, articles and TV programmes springing from every orifice. But that was as nothing compared to 2016 where, in between all the celebrity deaths, Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary featured not just books, articles, performances and Google doodles, but the usual raft of dubious claims from people claiming to have unearthed / written the Bard’s missing magnum opus.

But last year was also the 350th anniversary of the first publication of Paradise Lost, and outside of fairly low key circles of Milton devotees, barely a word was said.

Why? Well, part of it obviously has to do with the fact that Paradise Lost is an unashamedly religious work. Global media is virulently queasy about anything that smacks of God bothering.

Game of Thrones may be full of graphic sex and violence, but its militantly agnostic tone means that everyone can relax with it.

In many places, God – whatever he, she or it may be taken to be – has become the ultimate taboo. Everyone’s much more relaxed about listening to secular zealots like Richard Dawkins, with his frantic urge to prove that anyone who has ever believed in God in the entirety of human history is a violent murderous cretin.

Religion makes people far more nervous than porn, and hence the sense that there’s something dodgy about Paradise Lost, with its lack of moral equivocation and its attempt to re-energise the myth at the heart of Christian iconography.

The Weekly Standard suggests that readers are missing out on something here, because another part of what makes Paradise Lost so difficult for modern audiences is its sense that there are no easy answers. The giant poem is concerned particularly with how, to quote Milton himself ‘in moral evil much good may be mixed, and that with singular craft.’

Milton’s Satan is arguably the first really compelling anti-hero in English Literature. He gets the best lines. Readers can empathise with his plight, the anger that follows his sense of ultimate loss. Here, Milton’s creation may have turned out to be a little too real.

As my old English Professor was fond of remarking, ‘some of Milton got into Satan.’ Ever one to go the extra mile, good old Percy Shelley proclaimed that Milton’s Satan was actually morally superior to his God.

This certainly wasn’t Milton’s intention. He seems particularly worried about what happens when man starts looking for sources of moral authority inside himself, rather than accepting the established divine order.

Satan is, according to the Weekly Standard, the ultimate individualist, parroting phrases about individual liberty while seeking to gain mastery over others.

But it is one of the paradoxes of ‘Paradise Lost’ that its rebels seem more compelling than those who respect God’s authority. Maybe that’s just because today, on the rare occasions when we read it, we are doing so with modern eyes. How do we really feel, in our heart of hearts, about Satan’s dictum that it is ‘better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven’?

Goodnight, Marty!

There are some actors who possess a gift that is almost miraculous. This is something beyond the awesome technical skill of a Daniel Day Lewis. It involves technique, yes, but is also mysteriously bound up with who they are as people.

It is a quality I once heard loosely named – by another actor backstage in a play – as ‘maximum communication,’ though I’m not sure the label does it justice.

A clumsy definition runs something like this: somewhere beyond the lines or even the subtext of character as explored with a director, some actors accomplish the miracle of transmuting some essence of themselves through the hundreds of trillions of flexing electrons that first record their performance, then beam them into your homes.

Somehow, some indefinable quality of humanity survives all the digital cutting and pasting, transmits itself into mysterious photons which piggy back on those carrier waves taking fake image all over the globe, then reassembles itself, its unexpected message intact, right in front of your armchair.

It is something mysterious and almost mystical, analogous in its way to those tales from the wilder fringes of science fiction about computer viruses who somehow attain their own forms of consciousness.

John Mahoney, the much loved actor who passed away this week, possessed it. So, interestingly, did Marilyn Monroe. It is something that is almost beyond and independent of acting. Somehow, whether through need, vulnerability or sheer genius, the actor is communicating something far beyond a script or a director’s vision.

They make of themselves solid, hauntingly real seeming holograms centuries before such things are likely to be invented. They somehow manage to bring you within touching distance of a character you have never met, nor ever will.

For hundreds of millions, Mahoney will always be Martin on ‘Frasier,’ the unlikely father to the world’s prissiest psychiatrist (or possibly second prissiest, losing the crown only to his brother, Niles). But he was a richly accomplished stage actor, and indeed theatre seemed to be his first love.

He confessed at one point that he wasn’t entirely heartbroken when Frasier came to an end, because he missed the theatre. To those who never wish to repeat that awful, stomach churning fear that memory of your first line will disappear the instant the curtain rises, it’s a reminder that some of us are indeed set apart. It’s also a reminder that (oh mortal sin in our consumer age!) some people aren’t just in it for the money.

But if you want to appreciate something more of the man’s gifts, you could do worse than check out a 1987 movie called ‘Suspect.’ It’s basically a Cher vehicle in which a young Liam Neeson plays a deaf mute war vet accused of murder.

Mahoney is one of the supporting characters, playing a prickly, mostly unsympathetic judge whose role proves crucial near the end of the plot. He looks vastly different to the Marty Crane that was your frequent house guest. The trademark shock of white hair isn’t there. He even has a moustache, something which is greeted with horror when he attempts it in ‘Frasier.’

Unlike Marty, Mahoney’s character in ‘Suspect’ isn’t warm or, to quote the political vernacular, someone you’d go for a beer with. He’s in many ways a fussy little man, obsessed with procedure, apparently lacking in any form of empathy.

Yet Mahoney somehow makes him magnetic. You’re constantly watching his face for clues as to what he’s going to do. He manages to parcel his sparse dialogue to communicate something that can’t possibly have been imagined by the writer or director. What actors like Mahoney bring to the table is simply a wonderful bonus.

Tributes this week have very inaccurately described Mahoney’s character in Frasier as ‘misanthropic.’ This is almost exactly false. Grumpiness isn’t the same as misanthropy. To be human is to be grumpy on occasion. It is those who constantly project an unvarying outward sunniness that you have to be most careful of.

In fact, the show depended on the Martin Crane character for much of its humanity. It was a vital part of that sublime ensemble which made it so successful. Frasier and Niles would have been too ridiculous, too self-obsessed and ultimately perhaps too repellent without Marty to ground them back to some sense of shared human values (this is also why a lot of later ‘hit’ comedies tend towards the unbearable, but that’s another story).

Even after all these years, it’s impossible not to melt during the Christmas episode of ‘Frasier’ when the title character has screwed up yet again. He has refused to buy his son the toy which is the big craze that year, reasoning that his special little creature will be much happier with presents that challenge him intellectually.

Frasier is duly crushed when Frederick goes to bed on Christmas Eve, announcing that he can’t wait to open his new ‘Outlaw Laser Robo-Geek’ next morning. Martin suggests, by way of distraction, that he and Frasier open their presents to each other, and there is Martin’s present to Frasier, his very own ‘Outlaw Laser Robo-Geek.’

Years later, Frasier remains an example of outstanding comedy writing, backed up with superb ensemble playing. The first five or six seasons of the show are simply unsurpassed. After that, of course, Niles got together with Daphne, and Mahoney seemed to accept the general view that things went south.

The truth is simply that it had to go the way of all good things. Imagine if a visibly ageing Niles was still banging his unrequited head today. Comedy would have mutated into some Beckettesque nightmare.

Yet the show continues to bring joy and relief to millions today. I know plenty of people who still watch whole seasons on a loop, merely to escape the joys of daily living.

That is probably the main reason people will continue to feel affection – and a strong sense of identification – towards John Mahoney for many, many years. He was a house guest who always made you feel good, who never outstayed his welcome.

And he has left that mysterious essence of himself behind.


The History Channel And the Global Flight From Fact

If there is one single killer metaphor for the way traditional global media is escaping from fact at light speed, then it might be found in the curious case of the History Channel.

Time was when the History Channel could be viewed a little like Wikipedia today, as a slightly crusty but nonetheless fairly reliable repository of verifiable fact. It was basically a haven for the increasing numbers of people who wanted to flee the daily horrors of this world, but who weren’t all that keen on science fiction or fantasy.

What better place for them to turn than the past, with its murderous yet safely dead Kings and Queens, its long and slightly disturbing meditations on the construction of Hitler’s giant car, its mildly interesting expositions on vaguely interesting personages from the US Civil War?

Ok, its detractors would say, but there’s really an awful lot of stuff about Hitler. True, but a certain preoccupation with Hitler is a regrettable trait of the history buff. I’m not sure what it is, a very mild case of fetishism perhaps, and as Russell Brand pointed out, the Nazis did have a lot of gear that looked f*****g amazing.

There’s still a great deal of Hitler stuff on the History Channel, but its tenor has shifted somewhat. Where once programmes might have dwelt lovingly on the aforementioned car, or on how many times he and Eva Braun might have got it on, now they seem devoted to ‘proving’ that Hitler never died in the Berlin Bunker at all, and instead lived on to a ripe and prosperous old age in Argentina.

My attention was first alerted to the History Channel’s full on lurch into the realm of ‘alternative fact’ by an excited phone call from a friend shortly after Christmas.

‘We’ve just been watching how aliens really built the pyramids, and how they visited all kinds of places in South America. They showed landing fields and everything.’

‘Really? Oh well, it’s a bit of fun, I suppose.’

‘No, no. It’s a fact. It’s been proven.’

‘Er, really? How?’

‘It’s on the History Channel.’

I launched into some pointless monologue on the subject of Erich von Daniken. He was a Swiss chap who penned a series of bestsellers in the 1970’s and 80’s, basically purporting to ‘prove’ that ancient civilisations in South America had been visited, and essentially spawned by, the occupants of alien spacecraft.

I had actually read one of his books, being a bit of a sucker for the alien thing myself, and remember being impressed by the lack of anything resembling actual evidence.

On one page, von Daniken showed a photograph of some metal figurines from some museum in Peru, and wrote ‘I think these are alien artefacts and I’ll tell you why.’ I furiously turned page after page without ever encountering a reason why. Maybe he meant to get around to it in his next book.

Indeed, von Daniken is back on the bookshelves, possibly as a result of the extra ‘juice’ he’s received from the History Channel, and yes, he’s as maddeningly non-specific as ever. It’s nice work if you can get it, I suppose.

I protested that von Daniken was dismissed as a harmless crank ages ago. It didn’t matter. Whether they acknowledge him or not, the History Channel has decided to take up, or at least repackage, his cause.

So it seems we aren’t just living in the era of alternative facts, but of repackaged and recycled alternative facts as well. I guess you’ve got to take care of the environment.

The tiny drip of suspicion that the History Channel might be adopting an entirely new approach in its relationship to fact actually began a few years earlier, when I watched the TV show ‘Vikings.’

We’re told that the History Channel have an important hand in making the show, ensuring that it’s all historically accurate and stuff, whatever the hell any of that actually means anymore.

Now, virtually every episode of Vikings contains some piece of ‘history’ that smells a little strange, but one in particular stuck out.

In one of the early seasons, a former monk who turned his back on the Church to embrace the pagan views of his Viking captors is crucified by his former fellow Christian believers as a punishment. To anyone with even the scantiest knowledge of early Christian history, this wasn’t just inaccurate, it was completely f*****g nuts.

The idea that medieval Christians would have rewarded an apostate (apostasy in those days being considered far, far worse even than paedophilia today) by according him the same fate which had befallen Jesus Christ is utterly ludicrous.

They would have been much more likely to smother him in poo or make him watch as various bits of himself were sliced off and fed to dogs. If there was some History Professor hanging out near the script writing room, then he must have been out of his gourd on crystal meth.

The Italian writer Umberto Eco once commented on the irony that, while belief in institutional religion appeared to be crumbling, the willingness of people to believe any other load of old tosh imaginable was going through the roof.

It is entirely conceivable that, in years to come, a significant majority of people will believe that, either Hitler finished up in Argentina or, if they don’t watch the History Channel, that he and all his buddies perished in a fire in a cinema, a la the Tarantino movie ‘Inglorious Basterds.’

Will it matter when there are no longer any things we can agree on as ‘facts,’ as ‘things that actually happened’? Undoubtedly, but there doesn’t seem to be any way we can avoid it.