Archives for posts with tag: Mortality

mwftearth_coverThe Man Who Fell to Earth by Walter Tevis

I’ve said it before in The Clarion: I am not a fan of sci-fi. Last time I was talking about ‘The Death of Grass’, which left me horrified. It was written with the calibre of John Wyndham, but will all the nightmare of the best apocalyptic fiction.

And it is therefore with equal surprise that I discover that it wasn’t a one-off experience. Despite some reticence I really enjoyed Walter Tevis’ novel ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’, famously brought to life as a film of the same name in the 1970’s by visionary director, Nicolas Roeg.

Both books don’t feel like sci-fi at all, much to the credit of the quality of writing itself. In fact, Tevis’ other famous novel was ‘The Hustler’ (also made into a famous film), which is a gritty tale of pool sharks.

My edition was the original film tie-in, with a painting of the iconic image of David Bowie as the mysterious Thomas Newton/alien. A version of this also appeared on Bowie’s own ‘Low’ LP sleeve and while the paperback states the music soundtrack would be ‘available on RCA’, this never happened, although Bowie is said to have scattered musical doodlings for or influenced by his role in the film across albums in the 70’s. Indeed, another image from the film appear as the cover of ‘Station to Station’.

For sure, it is now hard to think of Newton being anyone but Bowie, and this is to the film’s credit. The casting and feel is spot-on and mirrors the book beautiful – complements it where you, like me, have seen the film, but have yet to read the book. And the book is far better as it simply doesn’t have those wayward forays into sexual exploration and nor do we have to endure occasionally shaky-acting.

But putting aside the movie, Tevis’ work is full of compassion, longing and thought on the notion of being a stranger in a strange land. It has more to do with ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ or ‘The Bell Jar’ than it does traditional sci-fi. The writing is taught, dialogue believable and pace just right. At times it reminded me of ‘The Swimmer’ (also a famous book and film), and at others’ a feature-length and more mature ‘Twilight Zone’ or ‘Tales of the Unexpected’.

‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ is also a deeply humane book. It takes the concept of a looking at man through the mirror of an alien point of view. But that alienation is one many of us feel. We feel it when we are teenagers and when we are alone in a crowd in a foreign place or visiting a new city. We feel it with wonder when we see ourselves in a moment of silence looking at art in a gallery or catch ourselves aware of ourselves as a species when at the zoo. But most of all, we feel when the world – full of humans – seems incredibly lonely.

Newton feels the gravity of earth heavy on his disguised frame; but he feels the pointlessness of existence and man’s folly just as heavily: “a heavy lassitude, a world-weariness, a profound fatigue with this busy, busy, destructive world and all its chittering noises.”

The novel ponders quietly the big themes without pushing any particular agenda or world-view. Newton considers, for example “this peculiar set of premises and promises called religion.” But finds solace in some types of music.

Providing counter-balance is Professor Bryce. He’s not quite the narrator and certainly not entirely likeable either. In the movie he’s an aging playboy, but the novel gives his character more tragedy and more drink. Imagine Charles Bukowski as a failed university science professor. He’s not an idiot and indeed, it is through his fascination with Newton’s inventions which drive the narrative to a truly horrible conclusion where, as Tevis puts it, the reveal has the monkeys performing the tests on the humans.

In their parrying Newton and Bryce become friends, comrades and critics. They argue over the philosophical position of science and its funding: “Somebody has to make the poison gas.” And this leads us with the primary concern of the novel: the destruction of mankind by his own kind.

This is a moving and tragic novel of apathy and alienation. It is expertly crafted and still yet a page-turner.

You might think that  – written in 1963 – and famously filmed in the 70’s with a very 70’s ‘feel’ ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ is set in the 1970’s, but in fact it is set in the then future of the mid-late 1980’s. It predicts global nuclear war within 30 years of that. Of course, the Cold War was raging in the 60’s and Tevis rightly predicted it would still be so by the 1980’s. But the fall of the Soviet Union was not something explored then. This does not make Tevis’ forecast flawed as the same deadly arsenal continues to exist today and, as we see in recent months, it no longer requires opposing ideology to create the tension between old and emerging super powers: resource and territory dispute continue to be enough. It is a warning that we can all yet fall to earth.

 

Advertisements

This is my latest article for the Forest of Dean & Wye Valley Clarion magazine. This is the un-edited edition for the next issue (with different illustrations).

Spring sun beat down through the cloudless blue, its rays warming yellow rapeseed fields and lifting their soft invisible fumes. It seemed impossible that only minutes before I was taking in the magnificent shining architecture of the City of London’s skyline from the North Circular. But I was. This was England at her best. Spring had brought wild garlic and early bluebells into the shady woods and it all seemed so unnaturally calm to be making my way into the fenced area of the Government’s emergency Regional HQ for nuclear war at Kelvedon Hatch, Essex.

The façade of Kelvedon Hatch RGHQ and its surround are unsettling in their beautiful secrecy. Here a nuclear bunker was built especially in the style of a brick farmhouse, complete with a British brick veranda to its frontage. It sits snug amongst the trees and looks like a typical 1950’s brick cottage, not much larger than your average bungalow. But behind the standard white-framed windows lie steel shutters while its false roof hides a reinforced ceiling made from concrete 18” thick. Deeper inside is the 3-ton steel blast doors; a decontamination room; a BBC emergency broadcast studio and enough servicing equipment, supplies and machinery to keep 600 government civil servants, military commanders and scientists alive for up to 3 months after a nuclear attack on Britain.

khatch1
Kelevedon Hatch has been a part of the post-war preparedness for a soviet strike on the UK throughout many governments and their varying approaches to civil defence and early warning. It was a R4 radar station and remained the RGHQ mentioned above right up to the 1990’s when it was sold privately. Today it is a self-service museum open to the public.

Nothing can quite prepare you for the scale of the bunker beneath, much in the same way someone who is new to the extent of post WW2 civil defence is likely to be astonished at the sheer amount of infrastructure that makes up UK Cold War architecture with its bunkers and monitoring posts numbering their hundreds across the entire country. The exterior Guard House/cottage is smaller than I thought, but the bunker much bigger than anticipated. The access corridor beyond the initial entrance and holding room is a mammoth 120yds long/deep on its own, and the whole bunker runs across three floors.

khatch2
The power generators are run by 2 diesel Rolls Royce engines and the fuel storage holds enough for those 3 post-nuclear war months, by which time it should all be over. Shouldn’t it? It has always amazed me that there has been a gaping blind spot for Civil Defence and Emergency Planners. On one hand they advise us how to prepare for a nuclear blast (remove your doors, paint the windows white and sit under the kitchen table) and when it’s ‘safe’ to bury granny in the garden in between raining fallout. They insist we stay at home precisely because they say nowhere in the UK is safe from radioactivity. But then they go on to believe that after 3 months everything will be fine. Civil servants can return to their county council desks to carry on with the day-to-day of getting Britain working again. There won’t be any office and nor will there be much left of Britain as we know it, let alone any infrastructure. Einstein made this point clear when after considering World War 3 referring to the war after that being fought with ‘sticks and stones’.

Perhaps more senior figures in Civil Defence knew better, or was all for show. In room 110 at Kelevedon is the ‘strong store’ (in military jargon). This is where they keep the rifles for any internal judicial issues within the bunker (once sealed it cannot be opened for those 3 months), but also contains the cyanide for those not able to make it or – more likely – to deal with the reality of what they behold when those doors are finally opened after 3 months.

As a museum today I must say that the audio tour is excellent. It’s ideal both for those who know little about civil defence and its context within government and military protocol but also for those who want more detail on the equipment, its use and construction – some of which are particular to this R4 generation of bunker.

TripAdvisor has some poor write-ups where some guests seemed to take offence at the number of signs warning of having to pay to take photographs. But I feel this is misplaced. With so much of our Cold War heritage being destroyed, these museums of doom are being lost for whole generations. There’s a real need for independent museums like this to obtain income for the vast upkeep any way they can. For sure Hack Green in Cheshire is probably more hospitable and well organised but the Kelevedon audio tour and its unique setting more than make up for its basic approach. Other activities now attached to the site (quad biking and an amongst-the-trees rope climb) seem to be doing well so perhaps those ventures help to keep Kelevedon open, unlike Gloucestershire’s own Ullenwood which has been sold privately, had a big house built on the land while the bunker is apparently moth-balled.

The only disappointment was in locating the stand-by generator building which is located away from the main site but, like to the guardroom/cottage bungalow is built in a manner so local people and more importantly an enemy could not distinguish its use: this time with a modern chapel-like design. What a pity there’s not even a mention of it in the museum or its literature. Luckily it features in English Heritage’s superb publication ‘Cold War: Building for Nuclear Confrontation 1946-1989’ which I thoroughly recommend.

It would be immoral to sign off this piece without mention to the blindingly obvious fact that while the bunkers, the Royal Observer Corps and Civil Defence is all a thing of the past: the nuclear arsenal remains. And is to be renewed if Mark Harper MP and this Tory government get their way. Join CND to help us stop it. While ‘Protect and Survive’ is now merely of archival interest ‘Protest and Survive’ still rings true.

I am not a fan of sci-fi: never have been and probably never will be. Or so I thought.

Like every other boy of the 1970’s I loved love ‘Star Wars’ but it wasn’t until the early 80’s with the BBC’s adaptation of ‘The Day of theTriffids’, and then ‘Threads’ did a certain breed sci-fi come to affect my whole outlook on life. Frankly, at the time I thought we were doomed. Borne of these are the beginnings of a political awakening that took another decade to bear fruit.

Both were imaginings of terrible fictions. ‘Threads’ seemed all too real and hypothesized nuclear Armageddon, whereas the BBC’s updating of the John Wyndham’s novel presented a different side to social destruction –giant, man-killing plant aliens. The genre was known as post-apocalyptic, and is an awkward addendum to sci-fi genre. They were fictions based on supposedly scientific possibilities. Indeed, ‘Threads’ was the first mass understanding of the nuclear winter hypothesis which was a debate still raging at the time – making even surviving a nuclear holocaust so terrible as to warrant questioning the point of living.

But I was slightly too young to remember the silent killer at work in the BBC’s 1970’s post-apocalyptic series ‘Survivors’.

This time it was an invisible means of destruction: disease. Watching the 70’s series on DVD today, I can see now that had I been just a bit older when it aired, it would have marked me as indelibly as ‘Threads’ would later in the 80’s.

Written by TV sci-fi supremo Terry Nation (who also gave us Blake’s 7 and many a Dr. Who storyline) it supposes the very real threat of a deadly epidemic and the social decay and terrible anarchy that arises out of the entire destruction of the state. These are topics I have written about before in The Clarion with my review of ‘The Death of Grass’ (by John Christopher) and to a degree in my explorations of modern utopian writing (all share communes and different social codes among their defining features). Nation, however, was at pains to distance his new series from his sci-fi work stating that “Survivors has its roots in the future, as it were, but it’s not science-fiction. It’s not going into the realms of the impossible; it’s skating very close to the possible,” which I guess is why the series still holds my interest, despite Nation’s other portfolio.

Indeed, the Radio Times write-up for ‘Survivors’ (it was shown on BBC1 over 3 series from 1975) cites a line from the show which sums up perfectly its preoccupation: “Incredible, isn’t it? We are of the generation that landed a man on the moon and the best we can do is talk of making tools from stone.

‘Survivors’ is at its best when it questions our assumptions about how stable our society really is. How civil we might truly be under great duress, and what happens when we peel away the froth of our consumerist lives? It pokes around in moral dilemmas not usually broadcast in BBC dramas at 8pm on a Wednesday night. Today or in the 70’s.

Jenny, Abby & Greg (L to R). The face Jenny is pulling is because they've just found the body of a man hanged for looting a supermarket.

Lucy Fleming is the likeable constant, but where as heroine ofseries one (Carolyn Seymour as Abby Grant) is admirably driven she remains fairly impenetrable and one dimensional. What is to be commended, particularly for the age – as this still happens too infrequently today – is that the producers accepted a female as the lead character in what was on the face of it an adventure series. Granted, ‘Charlie’s Angels’ was also around at the same time, but they were impeccably hair-sprayed icons drawn by men of what women heroes ought to be like (and with a male for their boss, no less). Even ‘Wonderwoman’ was busty and pouted silky lip-gloss. By contrast Abby Grant crops her hair as she sets out on the road into a post-apocalyptic British countryside, her dead husband sprayed across the lounge sofa.

The camera follows Abby in what could easily have turned outto be classic Twilight Zone territory (“Oh God, please don’t let me be the only one.”) only to reveal to the audience the parallel story of Jenny Richards (Fleming) and then separately again the incredibly annoying Jackanory-esque tramp-comes-good storyline of Tom Price (played in a ridiculously Dickensian turn by Talfryn Thomas). But once modern viewers adjust their grins at the tragic fashion and 70’s BBC acting, the strength of the stories and other characters comes to the fore.

My favourite, for example is that of super-bitch Anne Tranter and Vic who she leaves for dead in a quarry once she realises he cannot supply her with riches now that he’s tragically crippled by an accident. Then there’s the poetic child-killer in series two and capital punishment episode in series one, both of which feel like Amnesty International had a hand in the writing.

Of course, one of the recurring themes is the nature of community and the role of leadership, be it within our ragtag group or across the other surviving communities and bandits the characters stumble across. Alongside this is the pressure that “Our civilisation had the technology to land a man on the moon, but as individuals we don’t even have the skill to makean iron spearhead”. The realisation that scavenging will only last so long comes to the fore and without a sign of a state forming any time soon, there’sa quick return to self-sufficient agriculture, with all its pitfalls and trials. This is not ‘The Good Life’.

Upon completing production of the pilot episode, contracts were drawn up in January 1974 and the show commissioned around the theme: ‘Bubonic plagues sweeps the world, killing all but a handful of people who escape to the country with absolutely nothing and who start civilisation again from scratch.’ But the response to Nation’s series was mixed.

The Times was expecting classic sci-fi in the Dr. Who mould from Nation and was therefore rightly disappointed. The Guardian for its part was just underwhelmed (‘a perfectly passable pastime’). The Daily Mail, however,got it on the nail when it compared its greatest strength to HG Wells’ War ofthe Worlds in which ‘extraordinary events are set in actual, small-scale landscapes’ – which is why the work reminded me of ‘The Death of Grass’ (and toa degree, John Wyndham’s ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’) – all of which seem set in a comfy version of the British countryside which we’ve come to love through thelikes of Betjemen, the Hovis ad or ‘All Creatures Great and Small’. And that is why so much of it is so simple yet effective.

Some of this is owed to the ‘feel’ of the work. While the opening title theme is infectious (ahem) and the titles sequence explains all we need to know about the origin and spread of the disease, it is interesting to note that it wasn’t a clever directorial instruction to omit incidental music, but a BBC strike, which lead to a very tight production schedule and hence no budget or time for music. This probably inadvertently adds much to the silence of dead Britain. It obviously works, because there’s still no incidental music by the end of the final third series.

It is also with some interest then that I discovered that much of the farm the group settles in during series two is not far from Monmouth. In fact, there’s quite a local link. Series one saw shoots in Evesham, the Pitville Circus in Cheltenham, various locations around Ross-on-Wye, Llanarth Court in Monmouth but was mostly shot in Herefordshire’s Hampton Court. By series two Callow Hill Farm near Monmouth came the setting for the fixed commune.

Alan W. Turner’s biography of Nation lays the departure of the shows’ creator to a split with co-writer Jack Ronder. The two had differences over the series’ direction and once Nation had also fallen out with the producer, Nation withdrew from his own project altogether. Besides, by this point Brian Clemens, who Nation had worked with on shows like ‘The Avengers’, filed court proceedings stipulating ‘Survivors’ was his idea in the first place’. The project seemed diseased on every level.

Somehow it survived. A second series was commissioned and Nation penned a novelisation of his version of the story – now a collectors’ item. For TV, Series two (1976) sees the departure of Abby Grant and a change of setting and I think it is all the better for it. It does suffer from the problem in TV series where one remarkable thing has to happen after another for fear of losing audience interest (but that could also be said of ‘The Archers’, albeit on a slightly smaller scale and perhaps less deadly). This sadly misses the point, of course, that ordinary post-apocalyptic life had itself WAS extraordinary to us viewers watching from the lap of technological luxury and leisure.

Series three took the show to its conclusion (1977). It still had the essence of what Turner commented was Nation’s premise, a “western, the struggle against nature and the attempt to establish a morality in a lawless land.” But now it was more about adventure than character and smaller domestic struggles. The search for engineer Greg Preston becomes more than annoying and dampens the effect of the ‘Survivors’ as a whole.

Of course ‘Survivors’ received the inevitable modern BBC remake. And like many updates it revels in sensation, where remarkable things have to so exciting and bombastic as to be inane. Zombie-apocalypse movie and video games are now ten a penny and with them, the danger of something as benign as a disease just doesn’t cut it anymore.

In many ways, however, the real world is more frightening. Remember BSE, driving past foot-and-mouths bonfires, bird-flu? And the impending influenza epidemic we’re due?

Yes, ‘Survivors’ is old-fashioned. But it is a unique piece of British TV history, trapped in time in this vast DVD box set.

SOURCES: ‘Survivors’ the complete series on DVD; ‘The ManWho Invented the Daleks: the strange worlds of Terry Nation’ by A. W. Turner(Aurum Press, 2011); http://survivors-mad-dog.org.uk/

Last night’s pub philosophy meeting (of the Tintern Philosophy Circle) was a talk on ‘A brief history of thought on the subject of Time’ by Prof. Bob Clarke of the National Physics Laboratory.

For the first time, I left a philosophy meet with the same opinion I had when I arrived.

And that is: time is merely a tool we have created to comprehend space.

Moreover, accuracy in measurement is no reason to believe time exists in itself – it is merely an articulation of something else; it does not mean that it is a thing of its own. What IS, are events. We measure the motion of events with something we have called time.

Events occur in space. The space exists and events occur in the space. As I offered in the meeting  – when someone mentioned sub-conscious time and the necessity of a viewer to create time –  that Tintern existed before any of us did, was there with the dinosaurs and pre-organic life. We might measure the time from those events and we can do this by digging into the ground with archaeology, but the events exists nonetheless, it didn’t need us to observe time for it to happen.

Similarly, the space Tintern takes up – albeit currently on Earth – will experience events forever, event after Tintern and the Earth is gone. (Here I allude to the premise and my opinion that space is still space, not vacuum, at sub-atomic level there is still something, even if in our language and science we measure that something as something akin to nothing).

Space is measured in  three dimensions (H x W x L) – these together can form a fourth dimension; you can do this on a scrap of paper by drawing a line for height, then a connected line for width and finally its length. Join all these together and you end up with a 4th dimension – the cube. IMO space is a bite out of an area where events take place. We didn’t have, um, time to go too much into space and time, focusing on the history of thought on time, but certainly when quantum mechanics came into being, I was starting to wish Ockham was in the room, to shout ‘time’ as a landlord does, not as a quantum mechanical physicist might.

Indeed, Bob offered us a bit of Kant which worked for me and that was that our rational understanding of the world is very limited, and often we stretch it beyond our capabilities (and reality perhaps?) and then Schrodinger’s equation in quantum mechanics appeared. The spirit of Ockham sighed with me and we took a long slurp of our Abbots Ale. But lo, along came the Wheeler-DeWitt equation to save us…

This supposition declares that the state of the universe does NOT evolve with time – time is absent (=0 instead of Schrodinger’s t at the end of his equation in quantum mechanics) from the equation; the universe never changes, as Parmenides stated a very, um, long time ago.

Great; this seems to add intellectual weight to my hunch that time is not fundamental to the universe and that, rather it is an emergent characteristic of it – something we have created to articulate a series of events. As much as there is no present (because it has gone before we’re able to place a flag on it) – it is just an articulation of the zeitgeist at best, something for our simple minds to cope with (and that works, which is fine, if untrue) – time itself is a fabrication.

As usual the questions segment started slowly. Because I agreed with what I think Bob felt was true about time not really being anything other that a handy tool for measurement, I decided to offer a question which backed up my opinion.

‘So, Bob – and I think we’re of one mind here on the topic of time as a useful means of measuring things – if we put aside that for one minute, that is, we accept that, what OTHER use is it?’

Bob’s answer wandered around measurements and sat navs for a while and trailed off to a place that seemed to acknowledge there was none. I thought this re-stated the case that it is nothing more than a means of measuring events.

Some of our number, however, were – as Bob pointed out with his remark about ‘time’ being the most commonly-written noun in the English language (with ‘year’ and ‘day’ being 3rd and 5th) – still struggling with the claim that seemed to be arising that time did not exist. Marie (I think it was) said that she saw it every morning when she looked in the mirror.

I responded that what you see is the events that make up the rush to death, not time. Time is what we measure it in (years), the events occur irrespective of the measure. Bob cited Newton and that time and space is immense and eternal and that it was God that created it (or did he say that was/is God? He lost me there as neither God nor time are concepts which exist to me). I agree that events will occur eternally and that space is endless (Buzz Lightyear’s ‘To infinity and beyond!’ comes to mind)  and that, again, it is our need to cope with that mind-bending reality which, as Kant suggest, is actually so beyond us, we create a language (in words, mathematical theory, cosmology and physics) to comprehend it. And we do so in error.

Furthermore, Bob suggested that, ironically, the more physicists knew about time, the more fuzzy and elusive it became. Which it naturally would do, if it doesn’t actually exist.  For example, his reading of the 2008 competition for the world’s leading theoretical physicists on ‘The Nature of Time’ saw a plurality of interesting possibilities, rather than a synergy of evidence and consolidation of post-Einsteinian theory.

Indeed, the most impressive opinion that Bob had all night, I thought, was when he said ‘Science (physics) needs philosophy.’ It might just give us cause to ponder the nature of the question, rather than seek purely the answer.

Ps. The next Tintern Philosophy Circle (pub philosophy) is on 19th July (always the 3rd Tuesday, except in August, when there’s a garden party) and is on ‘The meaning of ought (and on what authority do we say it and what do we mean?)’ with Prof. Ray Billington at 7.30pm. See you there.

Although John Christopher is popularly known as the man who brought us ‘The Tripods’, this seminal 1956 work in the cannon of apocalyptic fiction needs to be disassociated with the authors sci-fi credentials, deserving a much wider audience. Just as the William Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies’ offered a grotesque analysis of the potential of cruelty of humanity, so ‘The Death of Grass’ offer us a taste of how civilisation can quickly crumble. And with it, all that makes up society.

The premise of the book is one now familiar with anyone who considered the possibilities of swine flu, BSE, foot and mouth, aids or avian bird flu. In fact, in 1999, a form of stem rust appeared in African crops which quickly became an epidemic spreading from Africa to Asia and the Middle East and destroying a large amount of cereal crop with it.

Anyway, take bird or swine flu – here is a direct correlation to Christopher’s terrible prognosis just as ‘Threads’ posed the interconnectedness of things – Christopher sees a rampant disease among grasses as the first domino which sets the path to the destruction of modern civilisation.

Things start as a distant rumble, in China. But soon the BBC news reports that the rioting for food (rice and wheat or barley make up the genus that is in the family of grasses) begins to spread Westwards through India and then into Eastern Europe. The Western world begins charitably – sending supplies, but soon the mass begin to question this policy as scientists fail to find a way to stop the virus from spreading.

John Custance – our protagonist – and his family make an early break for his farmer-brothers Lake District valley farm, where he too has been watching the virus intently and switched to planting only root vegetables. They escape just as London is sealed off by the Army. However, things turn quickly nasty at roadblocks or the roads to villages, now arming themselves defensively against the masses rioting in the cities. I guess this does sound far-fetched but Christopher reads like John Wyndham: characteristically British and reserved – both in content and style. And it is that British reservation which increases the terrible frankness of murder, rape, looting – the juxtaposition of the English countryside with its dead grass but profoundly ordinary provincial setting that makes it such haunting reading.

Although I found the opening annoying (there’s a poorly written segment where he said / she said / he said / someone said comes over as rather amateurish – it’s as if Christopher struggles with openings), once the pace quickens, so does the fluidity of the writing and I’m certain most readers will become compelled by the protagonists struggle for survival in a speedily crumbling world. Penguin reissued the novel under its Modern Classics banner – so it’s claims on our time as readers comes with good recommendation.

The Death of Grass’ does the social decay and lawlessness of an holocaust at least as well as the leading examples of apocalyptic film – ‘Threads’ or ‘The War Game’. As such it is chilling warning of how fragile our world might actually be.

A zillion trees;
some of them dead
and some of them touching one another
looking at the dead.

by Karlos the Unhappy Jackyl