Friday, 21 June 2013

Review of BBC Radio Play series of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Working through the radio play series of Douglas Adams' Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy has been a blast. Unsure how to best share the love, I have plumped for a line graph. It looks a bit basic and could do with a few funky robots or spaceships here and there, but still - here goes:
                                1                              3                                                           5

                                              2                                                                                           4

1.  At the start the radio plays and books are close together, and are on a wild, Arthur-Dent-disorientating high, though I think I preferred reading rather than listening to some of the bits about the bad-poetry-obsessed Vogons, the nutty probability drive, the ancient computer Deep Thought and of course, the restaurant at the end of the universe (apparently Douglas was fond of a good restaurant)... but we are straying into the "secondary phase" of the series...

2. In the secondary phase, the plot revolving around the people who have evolved into bird-like creatures is rather odd, and was a low point for the radio play series for me, and which I think was cut when this became the 2nd book in the series. The Golgafrinchan civilisation outcasts (mostly telephone sanitizers and estate agents) towards the end are amusing though, and the extra bits scattered throughout from the Guide itself are, as always, wonderfully daft.

3. Hilariously riffing on xenophobia, British past-times and second chances, as well as amusingly tormenting Marvin the thoroughly depressed android with a flock of sentient mattresses (really), this third radio play series works expecially well. It's long since I read the book version Life, the Universe and Everything but apparently the plot is the same: The peaceful people from the planet of Krikkit who suddenly decided that the rest of the universe "has to go" and Arthur, Ford, Zaphod and Marvin get caught up in the trouble.

4. My memory of reading the fourth book is that it slows down a bit too much when Arthur meets Fenchurch. The radio series perhaps has done a better job here of showing their romance while keeping the gags and odd things happening, and the trip up the sacred mountain is actually touching and funny too - why do we root for this android so much?

5. There's a lot going on here, and it's all great. Ford seems more at home amongst the peril as he uncovers what has been unfolding at the Hitch-Hiker's Guide headquarter, and I particularly like another robot that is introduced - Colin - who Ford reprograms to know happiness and proceeds to be happy about - well, just about everything. The plot here is strong too as Arthur and new character Random (born more or less at random) have to get to grips with something threatening all the parallel earths. A high point for the radio series, as it streamlines the best bits of the book. I remember the fifth and last book being one of the funniest too, apart from some of the bleakness in it.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

A New Poem: Why everything is not connected

Try telling the man
decapitated in the arena
by Maximus Decimus Meridius
in the film Gladiator
that the whole world is connected,
every blade of grass
and small pink flower
and emperor's thumb
is at one with every canyon,
bloody sea creature, swan and snail.
Try explaining as his vision slides around
that one day he'll be in fields
with his family
for serving the now-long-extinct empire
that found him and put him here.
As he perspires,
all nerves and sinews,
try piecing together the story of life for him
as you see it, with its long running time
and beautiful streams
and hallowed and fateful actors.
You'll try to make it sound convincing
like they did when they told you.
It will be all right, there's nothing to worry about, you will say,
and wish him on his way.
All the while his body stands over there,
very much detached.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Douglas Adams & the role of the novel VS science

I am currently reading the biography of Douglas Adams "Wish you were here". The style, sillyness and creative reach of his writing inspires me to write, and encourages me to see that the world is really full of amazing things and that anything is game for writing about. Right now though I want focus on a quote I just discovered in the biography, where Douglas Adams is describing how he was reading more science than novels:

Wish You Were Here by Nick Webb"I think the role of the novel has changed a little bit. In the ninteenth century, the novel was where you went to get your serious reflections and questionings about life. You'd go to Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. Nowadays, of course, you know the scientists actually tell much more about such issues than you would ever get from novelists. So I think that for the real solid red meat of what I read I go to science books, and read some novels for light relief." (From the 1997 Channel 4 documentary Break the Science Barrier with Richard Dawkins)
This is an intriguing quote for a few reasons:
- I don't really read science at all! It takes a great documentary to hook me into a new discovery or observation of the world before I really "get it". This is partly a personality thing (it's fine to be more fiction/art-focused) and partly perhaps a wrong way of relating to the world on my part - I sort of unconsciously assume the best things are going to be the fictional stories out there, the people I can meet, and the amazing art, film and music, rather than the stories of what is really unfolding in nature that are, in a sense, just waiting for us to discover them. But if science is really leading, perhaps that's what I should be reading?
- Secondly, I think that the quote doesn't account for people whose serious questions & reflections are not sparked by science but by other things. I think society has splintered into lots of interest groups in some ways. Celebrity is as important as science in UK culture right now, something that Douglas might has satirized, and yet others use celebrity to champion worthwhile causes. And for many people the serious issues, the stuff of life, centre around the things their mates are going through, but I guess that has always been the case long before "the novel" came along.
File:The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, english.svg- Thirdly, don't many good novels today provoke us to real reflection? (I think there are some.) If not, is it because we are generally less serious thinkers than nineteenth-century people, perhaps desensitized to some stuff that used to horrify, and so too accepting, non-commital to taking a point of view, instead making things trivial and manageable and "entertainment"? While I love entertainment culture, sometimes it is just a lure for us, enabling us to duck out of doing something constructive.
- Fourth, I love that Douglas Adams was a writer who loved both literature and science. Great to have thinkers that stretch in both directions!

What are your thoughts on all this?

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

The man Thomas Cromwell in the novel Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall seems to me a many-headed book, imagining a changing England, as it comes about though the influence of the King's favourite, master manipulator Thomas Cromwall. The court is probably in need of a revolution when he takes centre stage at the right hand of the king. It's a world where earls slimily ingratiate themsleves through spying and favours to get close to power. The intricate web of influence Cromwell weaves is built from his principles of balancing the books, a curiosity and a humanity that runs against many historical retellings of the character. My attempt to put these on paper is shown below.
Illustration © Richard Townrow 2013
The main draw of the novel for me is the strong characterisation of Cromwell, whether true or not. When someone needs to turn the tide of a political spat between Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII we know it is "he"; when Cromwell takes in young sons of other officials we know they are on the way to great things; when he dreams of the spectre of his wife Liz or pushes over former foes we identify with his losses and victories; often, we admire him, and often, we don't like him. He's as likely to ride roughshod over individual's conscience, and bend a man's will to fit his purpose to prop up the new queen and his new vision of England, as he is to show a generous hand with the power he accrues, assisting a French academic, helping abandoned widows, secretly supporting reformers as they spread copies of Tyndale's Bible (this last aspect being an invention of the author, I think). Either way he helps to forge a new England and the book is optimistic about that. It occurs to me that maybe, instead of being cynical about our country, we could ponder the kind of society we want to form - the kind that is diverse and progressive and comes to the aid of the underprivileged, and does not overlook injustice. Let's just not be too ruthless in pursuing our dreams...