Why Isn’t There Anybody Out There?

 

So NASA has found its way to a dumbbell shaped object named Ultima Thule, further than the furthest thing ever, except it isn’t.

The name ‘Ultima Thule’ is supposed to mean, in effect, that this ancient congealment of ice is the last thing left in the Universe, except it isn’t.

Closer to home, China has sent something to scratch around on the dark side of the Moon, a place which most humans – apart from Pink Floyd – know frighteningly little about. For all we know there might be aliens, even pixies, scantily clad space hotties lounging next to steamy underground pools, but of course there almost certainly aren’t.

The existence of dark underground oceans on Europa (moon of Jupiter) and Enceladus (moon of Saturn), even on poor old Pluto, is currently considered more likely than not.

With that human genius for infinitely infeasible projection, we’ve looked at the deepest dark of the Earth’s oceans and conjectured all sorts of similar creatures wibbling around under the eternal ice.

It’s part of who we are, I guess. Look at the Satan’s fortune Disney has made out of shamelessly anthropomorphising the animal kingdom, out of pretending that nature is anything other than red in tooth and claw.

The existence of new planets around other stars is being inferred every other day. There are places where it might rain glass, or even diamond, others where it’s 4,000 degrees in the shade.

There’s a star in another Galaxy which might have a giant artificial structure around it, but probably doesn’t.

Even the so called ‘WOW’ signal, the most tantalising but never to be repeated suggestion of artificial alien transmissions in the Cosmos, turns out to most likely have been a comet.

You can’t help wondering, with all our monkey urge to sniff things and wonder if they’ll give us a hug: virtually everything we know in the Universe would vapourize us if we attempted to give it a hug.

So why is there so much of it? What’s it for, all that dark, that chemistry of Hell? Are we lost? Did we just happen into the wrong Universe by accident?

Maybe God is working on it. Maybe, a la poor old Douglas Adams, he apologises for the inconvenience.

Advertisements

The Neck Biting, Side Splitting ‘Vampires Of Killaspleen’

Like so many of us, do you find yourself in dire need of a laugh just after Christmas? Then what could be better than a hilarious new comedy about vampires hiding out in a tiny Irish village?

After, Dracula was invented by an Irishman, so what better homage could there be than to relocate Bram Stoker’s creations to the gothic wilderness of middle Ireland? Throw in a poisonous neighbour, an angry teenager and a mysterious American who seems to be channeling Leslie Nielsen, then what more do you need?

‘The Vampires of Killaspleen is the side splitting new radio comedy from the IMRO award winning team of writer – director Jason Gill and Producer – Editor Alan Meaney. It airs for the very first time at 2pm (GMT) on December 27 on Shannonside FM shannonside.ie.

Paddy Drake is the leader of a coven of vampires trying to keep the lowest of profiles in the unbelievably remote village of Killaspleen, County God knows where.

Unfortunately, as well as trying to keep an all important pact, Paddy is beset by a range of all too familiar problems: the perfidious neighbour, Pius Jameson, the wife who hasn’t got out of bed for fifty years, the aforementioned angry teenager.

When a spate of attempted neck bitings occurs in the village, Paddy is further confused by the arrival of a strange American, Jonathan Carver, bearing important news from Paddy’s supposedly deceased Great Uncle Boris.

‘The Vampires of Killaspleen’ is a romp from start to finish, the ideal antidote to those post-Christmas blues. It is both a satire on rural Ireland and a parody of some of our most memorable vampire moments (don’t ever let Paddy suck your finger).

Writer – director Jason Gill says “we had amazing fun making this: it felt just great listening to really talented actors having an absolute ball with the script and the situation. There were plenty of moments during recording when we had to fight really hard to keep from laughing.”

Our incredibly talented cast of actors includes John McGlynn, Joe Steiner, Anne Hoey, Martin Kelleher, Martina Dolan and Annette Casey Dowling.

Don’t forget: 2pm December 27 on Shannonside FM or shannonside.ie for an ‘ABSOLUTE HOWL.’

Welcome To The Future: The Time Before The Tarn

tarn

The mechanisms and pre-woven dreams through which we distract ourselves are becoming ever more elaborate. There are now – as a friend and I discovered to our horror during a quiz one night – more than thirty Marvel franchise movies, and intimate knowledge of all of them is a must have for entry into certain social circles, not to mention survival in a quiz.

A show like Game of Thrones would have been inconceivable even a decade ago, and yet there it is, delivering ever more taboo busting thrills in the effort to continually immerse its audience inside its impressive, though still mercifully fake reality.

But cast your imagination a few years forward: there will still be a Game of Thrones in some form, but what will it be like? Well, imagine something that goes on all the time, plays constantly across every imaginable platform and contains up to forty fully distinct plot lines.

Imagine something that, as people have less and less in common with each other, begins to take up that ever shrinking social space outside of work and the need to get money for survival. Conversations are no longer about what’s going on in your life, but about what happened last night in the show.

This is the thinking behind my new radio drama, ‘The Time Before The Tarn,’ which airs on Ireland’s Midlands 103 FM at 7pm GMT this December 27th. Those outside the region can tune into the website: midlands103.com.

Mark is a gifted computer programmer with the UROK Corporation. His entire life outside of work is lived through a 24/7 immersive medieval fantasy known as ‘The Tarn.’ But then he meets a new arrival at work, the enigmatic Jane, and finds himself questioning the basis of his seemingly comfortable existence.

The play flits between Mark’s ‘real’ life and live action from The Tarn itself. Side by side with Mark and Jane, we hear the epic lives and deaths of the heroic Skylan, the beautiful Aleen and the evil Lord Drew.

It even opens with a scene that echoes Game of Thrones’ penchant for taboo busting, but I can’t tell you about that here.

I’m immensely indebted as always to my fantastic producer and editor, Alan Meaney, for a radio experience that will grab you by the bones and make you wonder. I’m also blessed with a superbly talented cast of actors, including Ronan Flynn, Martin Kelleher, Martina Dolan, Cathal McCormack, Joe Steiner, Anne Hoey and Joseph Gill.

A haunting score was specially commissioned from talented young composer, Kevin Free.

This is drama unlike anything you’ve ever heard before: Philip K Dick meets The Truman Show and the ever ubiquitous Game of Thrones. I may of course be biased, but I think it’s going to be a cult classic.

There’s a short trailer here:

 

We’re immensely proud of this one. We hope you enjoy it. Don’t forget: Thursday, December 27th, 7pm on midlands103.com.

Short Fiction: Richer Than Satan

He kneels carefully and begins to deploy his tools. He takes a precious few seconds to get his breathing under control, blank from his mind the corpse of Logan a little way to his right.

He must not think of how the blue forest is dissolving his body, eating his cells with its toxic enzymes. His suit must have failed. Acid squirted from the plant must have melted the shield.

They’d got separated. Greed had made Logan ignore protocol and push ahead. Protocol said two had to be together at all times in this hellish place.

An entire ecosystem keyed to kill you. The slightest failure, the slightest tear in the suit and there were minutes, seconds maybe.

And yet it has its own infernal beauty. No direct sunlight can penetrate the depths of the blue forest. The colour of the toxic vegetation and the blue haze which suffuses everything is the product of some kind of bioluminescence, poorly understood.

He clears the riot from his mind and sets to work. The outer cowls of the plant’s sac must be cut slowly, according to a sequence he has practised over and over. His mouth stiffens. Those were simulations. There’s always something unexpected, something you’ve never quite prepared for.

What did Logan …? He must excise the thought. There must be nothing in the Universe except his hands and the plant, the precision of his tools.

The first layers start to give way, spilling a viscous liquid his eyes interpret as purple on to the sodden forest floor. There’s a jet that almost sends him falling backward. The suit. Check the suit.

He extracts a torch and passes it all over, from boots to crotch, all around his arms and chest. An alarm should sound if it’s been compromised but you never know … those loops and beeps upon which we all depend for life have their moments of chaos, of treachery. Everything seems fine. He goes back to work.

‘What’s happening? Have you got it yet?’

Even through the communicator’s metallic tone he can feel her impatience, the speed of her breathing.

‘I’ll get it if you stop interrupting me.’

‘How long?’

‘Don’t know yet.’

‘Is Logan there?’

‘Dead. Like you thought. Hate to think what he’s like now.’

‘Don’t look.’

‘No.’

‘Be safe.’

He doesn’t reply. Does this mean she cares? She’d been at pains to suggest she did … how many nights now?

Back in his cabin on the station. She’d insisted he turn on his privacy screen and then … Side by side after, staring at the never quite perfect artificial dark.

‘I suppose this is just about sex to you,’ she’d said in a voice that still seemed to purr. He’d offered a kind of slow grunt. Strange how careful you always have to be, no matter the situation.

‘I just want you to know that it’s not like that for me,’ she’d said, ‘I feel care.’

‘Me too.’

I feel care. When had that become the phrase of choice for expressing sincerely held emotion? An impersonal way to express the personal. There was an efficiency about it, he supposed. I feel care. I feel queasy. I detect anomalies.

Then again, sex – and the pretence of care – were the oldest ways of keeping somebody close, under watch.

He is closer now. Under the thickest liquid layer is a micro-forest of fibrous sinew. Some contain burning acid, others a toxic powder known to terminate breathing in seconds. The Morbius Plant, like most living things, is loath to yield up its treasure.

It is now that he must cut with extreme precision, tiny tube by tiny tube. He needs to do it in the right order, like defusing a bomb, watching the tubes closely for movement, for any light that indicates a sudden surge of liquid.

He is his task now, nothing in his mind except the unfolding and severing of tendons. A forest of tendrils suddenly shoots up from nowhere, covering the rim of the plant like a lizard’s frill.

It almost makes him fall back. He drops his micro-cutter. He has five or so seconds to key the sonic emitter to the prescribed frequency, to freeze those deadly quills in place.

He waits a moment or two, wanting to be certain the plant’s last line of defence is immobilised. He must work quickly now. The last moments of anything are always the tightest. The last two layers resemble a kind of hard plastic. They have to be prised loose at the edges then peeled away with terrible delicacy.

Too quick or too slow and what remains of the plant’s consciousness will trigger the very last defensive reflex – suicide – and instantly the prize he’s travelled thousands of years to steal will be disgorged as a dead black husk.

His tension eases just enough to allow the voice to come back from that room on Old Earth, thousands of light years away.

‘These things shouldn’t exist, but they do. How can something so incredible have happened by chance? Makes you think, maybe. But the Universe has its own perverted sensibility. It hates to make anything easy. So it decides that they only grow on one world in a forest utterly toxic to humanity.

‘We estimate there’s only one every few hundred square miles or so, and how or why they evolve – if that’s what they do – is utterly beyond our ability to fathom.

‘The bottom line is: peel away layer after toxic layer of one of the most vicious growths in the Universe and you have it, nothing less than a crystalline brain, something capable of performing octillions of calculations every single nanosecond, billions of times more powerful than our greatest computers will ever be.

‘Harvest it properly, and you have in your hands the only entity capable of processing the satanic maths of true faster than light travel. You cut space journeys from decades into hours. You change human life forever. You open the Universe. More important than anything: you become richer than Satan himself.’

One layer comes away like skin off a scab. This should be …

‘The plant seems to have evolved to protect the thing. It seems to have no other purpose. Bauble and plant are separate life forms, unconnected apart from the symbiosis. Like a fetus maybe. Are either of them conscious? Who knows? Who cares?’

It almost slides into his arms, like the easiest of births. And what he cannot process is its stupefying beauty. The deep blue is shot through with lattices of moving, multi-coloured light, the physical manifestation of billions upon billions of thoughts, all happening at once. He’s been warned about this, how the thing can hypnotise.

‘Turn on your camera.’ And he’s grateful to her, her shrill impatience.

‘No need. I’m coming back.’

‘Have you got it?’

‘Stand by.’

It’s got to be transferred into the environmental can almost immediately. Contact with what passes for open air will kill it. He has to trust the case will do its work. If they’re off by a tenth of a degree, if the case has been damaged …

The plant remains immobile as he backs away from its kill zone, daring a few seconds for a glance over Logan’s spent shell.

They’d been a team, the three of them, their pact made on Earth then reassembled here, after the decades of frozen sleep. They’d worked themselves down here to Theta Station, the one in the zone of the forest calculated as most likely to harbour a living Morbius Plant.

It was the most secret of pacts. They never even spoke to each other till they reached Theta. Like all its counterparts across this globe, Theta was engaged in the ridiculous study of this place as a possible abode – someday – for human life. They had masqueraded as scientists, passionate about survival of the species.

But Logan had broken the pact, had chosen to go it alone, just as Shannon said he would.

A rain has started to fall. It begins as a slow trickle, gathers into a full squall within seconds.

One droplet from this deluge would be enough to deep fry a naked human arm. This Universe. The amount of things in it that want to kill us.

He trudges slowly, ever warily, over metallic bark and grasping spiky creepers, trying not to scream in panic as the ground disappears and his foot is swallowed by a mudhole.

The last moment of everything is always the most clenched. Noise in his ear tells him she’s trying to make contact. He reopens the channel.

‘Where are you? Did you get it?’

‘I’m on my way back.’

‘I want to show you something.’

‘What?’

‘Just switch me on. Do it.’

He activates the small screen inside his helmet. She is standing in Theta’s control room, completely naked, her arms outstretched.

‘Preview of coming attractions,’ she says.

‘Are there – uh – are there people there?’

‘The last two techies went back up to orbit 30 minutes ago. Hurry back.’

She winks and disappears, her body burned on his retinas like a carnal Cheshire cat.

He is careful not to increase his pace. The blue haze of the forest has been pummelled silver by the deluge. He needs to adjust his helmet’s viewer. The suit has its own map and beacon to guide him but he prefers to rely on memory.

A small ridge has been turned to sludge by the storm. He opts to try and trudge through it.

There, he thinks, is the copse of spindly alien trees he remembers. There is no known animal life in the blue forest. The flora is simply too hostile, too predatory.

In the thickening mist he can still spy the white dome. He advances across a stream of violet liquid and waits. He touches his communicator.

‘Here,’ he says, and falls to the ground, still clutching the case.

The husk of his suit remains outside for long minutes before anything happens. If there is no tear, then the enzymes in the ground can’t dissolve him straight away, but it’s only a matter of time.

He is a shell, a dead piece of almost forest waiting for … contact?

It comes with a gentle pulling at his lifeless arm. It is the signal to activate himself, to spring to life like the feral plant and its frill.

He strikes out, knocking the other suit to the ground. The weapon it was carrying falls away. He doesn’t bother retrieving it, simply grabs the case.

He opens his communicator. The voice inside is struggling. His blow must have compromised the suit.

‘Wha … attt?’

‘I checked Logan’s suit before I came back,’ he says, ‘no breaches. The only answer was that the suit had been commanded to shut down from the station. I disabled the frequency on my own suit. You probably should have checked that. Maybe you should have killed my suit before, but then it would have been just you, no fail safe.’

‘I … I’m sorry.’

‘Funny, isn’t it? The three of us would each have been richer than Satan. Funny how even that’s never enough.

‘I … felt … care.’ He waits a time, as if to make sure these are in fact her final words.

Yes, he whispers, in a funny way I think you did.

He turns away from her to the Dome. There is no need to worry about the body, about evidence. The forest will consume everything soon enough. He opens the hatch, climbs inside and begins decontamination.

Flash Fiction: A Slightly Longer Hemingway

The woman pushes with pale face and unreadable eyes a baby carriage made for two. She never meets the gaze of anyone else in the park.

Only one child sits in the carriage. He looks from side to side at the world with an air of vague puzzlement, as if something which should be there is missing.

Short Fiction: The Human Curse

 

He seemed ill at ease over dinner. That, at first, was the most unnerving thing. I had always reckoned him the most confident person I ever met.

Was it his health? He looked glowing, silver mane like a crown of some inexplicable second youth.

He had confessed to a certain melancholy about his approaching seventieth birthday. Was it mortality then that caused the eyes to cast down a little more than normal?

Yet his books had always proclaimed, if not a fearlessness about death, at least a kind of chilly acceptance: we are here. We are not meant to stay. We are always on our way somewhere else: the human curse.

The other odd thing was how he kept consulting timepieces, looking at and fingering his watch, asking his wife to check her phone, getting up and staring at the antique clock in the kitchen.

The meal had been prepared by his third wife, Clothilde, beautiful, enigmatic and of course much younger than he, though she had to be more than just a totem of success. In her presence, he exuded a kind of distracted puzzlement, as if he couldn’t entirely figure out what she was doing in his house.

It was just the three of us on the veranda, the full moon bisecting the Caribbean waves below. What talk there was touched on the subject of coincidence, a frequent theme in all his books.

‘There are connections,’ he would say, ‘linkages of which we can know nothing. They have to do with realities folded underneath the one we think we see every day. Our curse is that we know they are there, but don’t know how to look at them, and those who say they can are righteously denounced as mad.’

One of his most famous stories concerns a man who becomes convinced that the young midwife who attends the birth of his first child is someone he has met in another life, a parallel reality perhaps. The girl also thinks she has met the man before, but in a place of which he remembers nothing.

His marriage and eventually his entire life end up being swallowed in the attempt to find the truth behind his obsession.

‘I believe that in moments of great stress, such as the birth of a child,’ he said, ‘the veils become porous. We see things that perhaps we are not meant to see.’

I wasn’t sure what to make of it myself, but I always accounted him the most original thinker I have ever known.

‘Tch,’ he said as I ventured this opinion, ‘that’s only because this is the most depressing age in all of history, and original thought has been eradicated. It’s only old farts like me, who made their names and fortunes before the tyranny of now, who can dare express an unorthodox opinion, which of course is then ridiculed.’

He had lit a cigar, blowing long slow rings at the moon. I looked around and noticed that Clothilde had vanished. ‘She hates me smoking,’ he said, and shrugged.

He stood up suddenly, stabbing out the cigar. ‘She hates being around for this anyway. Come on.’

He led me back through the house. We crossed a passageway and mounted some steps into a room I had never seen before.

It seemed bare apart from a table on which sat an old telephone.

The only other furnishings were a large wall clock and a small chest of drawers inside which he now rummaged, extracting at length an old hardback notebook, which he passed to me.

He fingered his watch, looked hard at the clock. ‘Wait, I’ll turn on a light. Look at the pages. Can you read them?’

‘They seem to be a list of dates and times,’ I said.

‘Yes. From when?’

‘One seems to be four years and eleven months ago. Another … seven years and … I’m not sure … Another is from eleven years ago, another…’

‘Yes, that’s it,’ he breathed. And just then the telephone rang. He let it ring a couple of times, then crossed slowly and lifted the receiver, pressing a button to one side which caused a voice to crackle into the empty room.

‘Hello? Who is there?’ it said. It was the voice of a woman, probably old, though the distortion made it difficult to tell. ‘I am looking for Can you tell me if there is anyone there?’

I looked at him, finding to my horror that his eyes were full of tears. His voice was a rasp. ‘She won’t hear me. No matter how hard I try. She can’t.’

‘Hello? Hello? I wish to speak to

‘The times?’ I asked.

‘The intervals between calls correspond to a precise mathematical pattern,’ he said. ‘No matter where I am in the world. No matter the number on the phone, I still receive them.’

There was only the odd word now, fragments being eaten by static.

‘But …?’

‘It is the voice of my mother,’ he said and closed his eyes.

 

Flash Fiction: Beach

Always on the precipice of sleep – unless he has managed to properly stun his axons with alcohol – his mind will drift by itself back to the same scene, the same question.

He is lying on his back on the beach, a towel or a shirt covering his face. The power of the sun on his face remains a physical thing, the touch of hot hands. He can never remember what he’s wearing, or even if he’s wearing anything.

He can feel the ebb and flow of tide as of the planet inhaling and exhaling, as if everything around him is alive and aware. Vision would ruin this moment.  The act of tearing off the towel would end the spell.

There is something magical about the pictures and shades of living doubt his other senses can create when left to themselves.

For all he knows they are alone. He can’t hear any other people on the beach. Maybe they’re just too far away. Is this how he remembers it? Is this how it was? Or did it ever have an existence outside his mind?

In time he will hear the pad of slow wet feet on sand, feel the explosion of moisture and health as she plonks down on the towel beside him. Her nearness, newly birthed from the sea, seems to colonise him.

He can see without needing to look the coiled wet locks of hair, the eyes flashing blue against the wet redness of her face, her big white teeth catching the sun as she looks down on him.

And he can’t help thinking that he must look a fright. And it will also kill the spell if he tries too hard to see what she is wearing, or if she is wearing anything.

This moment, then, only this moment. Real or not: what’s the difference?

‘You should get in. It’s wonderful.’

He thinks ‘silky’ might be the adjective that best describes her voice, though ‘silky’ implies some form of calculation, some effort to control both herself and him, and he wishes in this and all other moments to remember her as open and guileless.

There’s a little note of fear too, as if her essence trembles on any word he might say; that sense of power sends a vague throb to his groin.

‘Happy here for the moment.’

‘Yeah?’

‘Can’t think of anything else I want.’

‘Are you going to look at me?’

‘I can see you just fine.’

‘I want you to do my back in a minute.’

‘Sure.’

And just for an instant stretches one those afternoons that memory makes into eternity. Flesh upon flesh, touch upon touch, the intensity on her face remembered until the moment memory dies, but then she says:

‘Can we talk about last night now?’

Memory says he groans. His axons on the cusp of sleep can’t stop themselves from straining to frame how she responds, from hunting down tunnels of hurt, and the dream as always dissolves.

The smell and sound of surf give way to noise. The image of her noise, body exhaling water, the halting gentleness of her voice, gone for yet another night. He might have to get up again, pace and smoke a cigarette.

This moment, only this moment. You can live seventy years without leaving the same moment. Why didn’t he reply? Why didn’t he say the thing she wanted? Why can he never forget?

REVENANT

“I don’t like the way he’s looking at me.”

“Who’s looking at you?”

“That guy, over there … by the dispensing machine.”

“I can’t see anyone.”

“He was there a second ago.”

He fights down a sigh. She’s doing it again. Every so often she just goes … He has evolved a vague, private belief that it’s something to do with biology, with the mysterious interplay of temperatures and pressures, the obscure pull of the moon on her turbulent waters. Her capacity for paranoia in these times frightens him.

And now she’s screwing up yet another night out. Maybe it’s that she just doesn’t like the place, resents his easy familiarity with the rest of the clientele. Jesus. It’s not like they go out that much.

“You want to go. Is that it?”

“I’m not saying that.”

“But if that guy shows … It’s just gonna get tense. Who needs that? We’re supposed to be relaxing.”

“Sorry I’m such an inconvenience.”

“I don’t mean … shit.”

“There was a look in his eye, something … hungry. I got a really bad feeling.”

“You’re a good looking girl. Guys are always going to look you over. Girls too, for that matter. It’s just … life.”

“This wasn’t like that. It was creepy … like he wanted to reach into me and … take.”

“Jesus.”

He does his best to keep the explosion quiet. The place is noisy but he’s not sure if she’s heard. He has decided. They will leave. There’s a place a few blocks away, a sort of bistro.

Maybe what she needs is more focused attention. They’ll be face to face over a small table. There’ll be food. Maybe he can talk down her mood, whatever this is. Maybe he’ll get to have a few drinks.

She puts up only token resistance to his suggestion, feeding his suspicion that she just wanted out of the place all along. Damn her moods, her caprices. Why couldn’t she just have said it before they came here?

So he stands, robed in shadow, as the taxi carries them away. He briefly wonders if he should follow. Feeling him again, the woman clutches her chest inside the car, huddles a little closer to her irritated mate.

What a treat she would have been. What a thrilling essence: nobility of sentiment uneasily married to truly feral passion. There were of course those who claimed to prefer more elevated natures, who delighted in feasting upon the unworldly, on the purely spiritual, but beings such as hers cried out to his eternal hunger.

Follow? The mate might lose patience and forsake her. Perhaps he would drown his resentment in alcohol, blunting his ability to protect.

No. Better to be cautious, to hide inside the denser parts of the human stream. Pity though. He leaves the corner and strikes back towards the centre of the city by night.

The Prophets Of Now

My first brush with ‘serious’ literature occurred when I was about 11, and read George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ in a day (man, I must have been bored). I gloried in the righteous rage of the animals’ revolt. I was as excited as they were during the first heady days of Revolution, exulting in Snowball’s relentless organising of committees for this and production groups for that.

And of course, like every young reader of Orwell’s tale, I loved the horse ‘Boxer,’ as much for his stupidity as his endless nobility of spirit. I think it’s the only time in my life when I’ve ever actually wanted a horse.

When things started to go sour, when Napoleon gradually extended his stagnating stranglehold over everything and eventually forced Snowball to flee, I hadn’t read enough Russian history not to keep holding out for a happy ending.

I turned page after page hoping that Snowball would return with some liberating army, oust the hated Napoleon and return everything to the golden time of before. There’s a line in a Divine Comedy song which I think touches on the same feeling, that maybe the next time you watch ‘The Great Escape,’ Steve McQueen might actually make it.

For months afterwards, my 11 year old imagination started toying around with a sort of sequel to Animal Farm. It would be a kind of extended TV series in which Napoleon had been overthrown and replaced by a turbulent democracy.

I think I’d even worked out the main character. His name was going to be Robin and he was, for some reason, a deer. His fledgling administration would face numerous challenges to its authority. Napoleon would still be holding on to some enclave of the farm somewhere, for example, but in the end he’d figure it all out and the animals would move forward together in a progressive manner, or something.

But it was only on reading supposedly ‘real’ Russian history that I realized ‘Robin’ had already existed. His name was Kerensky and the real life Napoleon, Joseph Stalin, hadn’t been long about seeing him off.

You’d think such disappointments should have finished me off with ‘serious’ literature, but they didn’t. At some later point, I got around to reading Orwell’s ‘1984,’ but with mercifully nothing like the same expectation of a happy ending.

Orwell’s legacy as a true prophet of what would happen to the world in the later 20th Century is somewhat patchy. The true guide to the way our age is now was just about then realizing that Disneyland – which was situated very near where he lived – was the first in a series of elaborate but entirely fake creations which would eventually begin to overwrite reality itself.

Philip K Dick did not perhaps directly predict Google, Facebook and the Internet, but he described their metaphysical schematics to perfection, and long before Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, he put forward a future in which literally everything was fake.

Dick realized that the guiding spirit of the age to come would be buccaneering, screw you capitalism. Other would be prophets, such as Orwell and Aldous Huxley – and before them HG Wells – had assumed that humanity would be undone by some sort of socialist notion of good, that we would be destroyed by the overweening power of one philosophical idea, or simply by a desire to make everyone ‘feel ok.’

Dick was more plugged into the true mainframe of the future, and the world we live in now becomes a little more like the one he described every day.

But where Orwell remains unrivalled is in his analysis of what politics does to language, of how you influence people not by winning arguments, but by changing the emotional meanings of words.

A rigorous prose stylist himself (something poor old Dick could never be accused of), Orwell was acutely sensitive to the ways in which the powerful attempted to justify unprecedented atrocities simply by neutralising the emotional context of the words used to describe them.

So, for example, Stalin used terms like ‘resettlement’ or ‘new nations’ to disguise things like ethnic cleansing and mass murder. Even Hitler’s ‘Final Solution’ was an early linguistic attempt to provide clothes for the unspeakable.

Orwell’s fantastic essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ deserves to be read by anyone even slightly serious about the use of words, and indeed anyone who cares about freedom.

It is even more relevant now when – as warring tribes of humans shriek relentlessly at each other – language itself becomes a kind of fog of war, and terms like ‘fake news,’ ‘sexist,’ ‘racist’ and even ‘rapist’ derive their meaning solely from whichever tribe happens to be using them at any given time.

He’s particularly scathing too, on the sloppy use of language, pointing out that what starts as a kind of pop-eyed laziness can end up having sinister consequences. Academic figures are a particular target, and given the tide of politically correct McCarthyism currently sweeping across University campuses in the US and elsewhere, it is worthwhile to remember that, historically, a lot of the most toxic stupidity to benight humanity has actually first been bred inside Universities.

Specifically, Orwell derides the tendency to use phrases like ‘not unhappy’ instead of ‘happy.’ In 99 cases out of a hundred, the only reason for using the ‘not un’ combination is intellectual adulteration, an attempt to distract the reader from the fact that your thoughts are less than the sum of the words used to express them.

He even offers a sentence designed to cure writers of the ‘not un’ combination. It goes something like: ‘a not unsmall dog was seen chasing a not unwhite rabbit across a not ungreen field.’ Even now, it’s a terrible pity that more people haven’t read this sentence.

Elsewhere in the essay, Orwell points out how much easier it becomes for academics and politicians to use phrases like ‘in my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption’ than to simply say ‘I think.’

There’s a lot more going on here than just sloppiness. There is a refusal to be honest, both with yourself and others, and the consequences of that dishonesty reach a lot further than we might think.

Dehumanising language, the process of making your words less personal and direct, assists greatly with the dehumanisation of people.

It is ridiculously easy to dehumanise somebody in the ear of the listener by manipulating the type of language you use to describe that person.

Orwell understood this perfectly, and his rigorous honesty – exasperating to some – meant he called things as he saw them.

What a terrible pity it is that our age seems to lack an Orwell, or that if it doesn’t, he or she is all too often drowned under the ever more shrill ravings of idiots and hucksters.

Pity about the sequel too, mind, but you can’t have everything I guess.

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.