For a while I didn't know what to call this; maybe I'm still not sure. It's not a diary. It's not a blog. It's not a column. Words, ideas, images worth keeping. Stories that might not have happened, but are true nonetheless. In any case, here's some stuff I like. Perhaps you'll like it, too.
July 29, 2008
Anyone for ice cream?
July 7, 2008
I bet you’re worried about the bees too, aren’t you? What’s going on with the bees? What’s making them vanish? No bees means a lot more than just no honey – and as far as I can tell the bee-ologists are totally stumped. Viruses? Mobile phones? Mites? It’s worrying, it really is. So last week I was relieved to discover that they were, of course! simply following the Tandoka trail back to their home planet, Melissa Majoria.
Oh. I’m sorry. I guess that’s not the answer to the bee crisis. It was just on Doctor Who… and the thing is, we Whovians are a hopeful bunch.
It’s hard to recall, now, but there was a time when it seemed as if the Doctor had gone for good. Sexual intercourse began in 1963, Philip Larkin informed us – but so did Doctor Who, in his first incarnation as William Hartnell. He survived Autons and Zygons and the indignity of wearing a stick of celery on his lapel. He survived, just barely, a disastrous regeneration as Paul McGann in 1996 and it seemed at the time, hard to believe that he’d find his place again in a world where cyberspace, not Cybermen, get top billing. And yet even a Dalek would quiver before the deft inventiveness of Russell T. Davies and his team, who have, triumphantly, restored the Doctor to his rightful place in the national pantheon. He’s travelled from the Second World War to the very end of Time, from Pompeii to a diamond planet, and he’s never looked better. With his splendidly wonky TARDIS and only intermittently useful sonic screwdriver (does anyone know why it’s called a “screwdriver” at all? Has it ever done any, er, screwing? Do let me know) he is British pluck personified. But I’ve come to think he’s rather more than that, too.
Science fiction gets a bad rap. Look at it in the cold light of an ordinary day and, too often, it falls flat. Last week, as Season Four approached its climax the Doctor explained Rose’s reappearance to Donna: “If she can cross from her parallel world to your parallel world then that means the walls of the Universe are breaking down and that puts everything in danger!” In the immortal words of the Tenth Doctor: What??? Nope, you can’t think about it too hard. Think about it too hard and the words tosh or even, stuff and nonsense come to mind.
And yet science fiction has become the repository of the oldest stories human beings tell. There’s nothing new about the Doctor. Nothing original. Nothing fresh. Heresy? Quite the opposite: the highest praise. For, since the time – long before the Time War, or television, or even the written word – when we first began to speak to each other, we spoke of travellers just like Doctor Who. Travellers between this world and another world, which might be the world of the gods or the world of fairy – bearing in mind that “fairy” has nothing to do with twinkly pink wings and everything to do with a root in the Latin ferus: think feral, ferocious, fierce. The other world, the fairy world, is one where humans don’t hold sway, and where they face dangers they will not understand, and in which only their own intelligence and guile will save them. Come to think of it, doesn’t that sound strangely like the human world, after all?
The makers of Doctor Who are a clever bunch. They know, first of all, that real fear isn’t generated by CGI monsters but comes from within. The most terrifying episodes of the new Who haven’t depended on Daleks or Cybermen, but on the simple dynamic of human dread. The Doctor’s creators know, too, that if they tap in, as they have, to the archetypes that lie behind the Doctor his regenerations need never end, even if the series does. For aren’t we all survivors of a Time War? Survivors of our pasts, which haunt us and sometimes seem to make it impossible to connect with others, however much we long for companionship? Our companions leave us, or we leave them, and we are alone again, travelling through time. We feel alien, as if we don’t belong… sometimes it even seems as if we have two hearts. This is a familiar journey, a well-known tale.
Draw on the word-hoard of collective story, collective understanding, and what you’ve made will endure. The BBC may have been the agent of the Doctor’s return to popular culture, but he’s never truly been gone. He doesn’t tell us his name because he has had many names, and many faces, over many millennia. Sometimes, lately, he’s taken the name John Smith. How many times have you heard a story which begins, “Once upon a time, there was a boy called Jack…”?
Trust me, the Doctor’s been heard to remark. We do, and know it really means trusting ourselves. You’re the Doctor and so am I. Look at anything carefully and you’ll see it’s bigger on the inside. So it’s up to us, you know, to help the bees. Thanks for that, Doctor. Allons-y!
May 21, 2008
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”
April 30, 2008
My friend Donna found this; we’d been talking about Nicholson Baker’s new book about the Second World War, Human Smoke. This is Holland House Library, London, 1940.
February 29, 2008
A found poem at the National Gallery in London. The above are two sides of an altarpiece by Cranach the Elder, painted in 1506. Here is the caption to the painting; only the line breaks are mine.
St Genevieve of Paris holds a candle
which she miraculously relit
when the Devil blew it out.
St Appollonia, next to her, holds the pincers
with which her teeth
were extracted under torture.
St Christina stands on a millstone.
The stone miraculously refloated
after she had been tied to it
and then thrown into a lake.
On her left is St Ottilia of Alsace,
a Benedictine nun. She displays
a pair of eyes, a reference
to her miraculous cure from blindess.
February 19, 2008
Marjorie Perloff in The TLS on Martin Amis’s book of essays, The Second Plane:
‘The war against cliché has a curious way of morphing into the cliché against war. Consider the following, from a passage praising secularism as the only reasonable alternative for the twenty-first century: “Secularism contains no warrant for action. One can afford to be crude about this. When Islamists crash passenger planes into buildings, or hack off the heads of hostages, they shout, ‘God is great!’ When secularists do that kind of thing, what do they shout?” The question is meant to be rhetorical. But there’s a simple answer: they shout “Heil Hitler!”’
February 5, 2008
Me ‘n’ Peter Carey, somewhere in the West Village… read the interview here. Cheerful photo by Adam Nadel.
February 3, 2008
January 23, 2008
Until the idea of space flight became credible, there were no aliens; instead there were green men who hid in the woods. In the same way, psychotic delusions keep up with scientific change: the people once pursued by phantasms of the dead are now pestered by living celebrities who watch them from inside their TV sets, and those who used to confess themselves possessed now say there is a bomb inside them. The dictionary attests to the power and antiquity of the need to believe we are sharing the planet with beings not animal and not human, with ‘little greys’ from spacecraft, with goblins and domestic deities: beings who suspend the laws of nature wherever they pop up, and suspend moral laws too, for household sprites and pucks often have a fierce, childlike sense of justice, and retaliate without fear if they are slighted; aliens who want sex never ask nicely. One the lonely road by moonlight, the parts of ourselves oppressed by our intelligence come out to play. We meet ancestral selves, neither gods nor demons but short semi-humans with hairy ears and senses differently attuned – the eyesight of an eagle, the nose of a hound. The phenomena are internal, generated by the psychological mechanisms that connect us to each other and to our evolutionary past.
January 8, 2008
“If no one wants to be rich, then we have a significant economic problem, because flourishing economies require that people continually procure and consume one another’s goods and services. Market economies require that we all have an insatiable hunger for stuff, and if everyone were content with the stuff they had, then the economy would grind to a halt. But this is a significant economic problem, it is not a significant personal problem. The chair of the Federal Reserve may wake up every morning with a desire to do what the economy wants, but most of us get up with a desire to do what we want, which is to say that the fundamental needs of a vibrant economy and the fundamental needs of a happy individual are not necessarily the same. So what motivates people to work hard every day to do things that will satisfy the economy’s needs but not their own? Like so many thinkers, [Adam] Smith believed that people want just one thing – happiness – hence economies can blossom and grow only if people are deluded into believing that the production of wealth will make them happy. If and only if people hold this false belief will they do enough producing, procuring, and consuming to sustain their economies.”
from Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness