Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Big bang better than theory

“I’m going to save the world,” said the man with a glassy gleam to his eyes, “through the application of science.”

Or some similar sort of dialogue.

I’m sure you know the sort of thing. It happens in the moment during the ridiculous movie when lengthy exposition about something fundamentally impossible is only going to get in the way. So the writer, who really didn’t want to waste those sitting around hours, dropped in the shorthand version. It’s probably less prevalent these days if only because Wikipedia enables you to at least sound convincingly full of shit, but in those terribly glorious B movies the only scientific qualifications you needed was to be vaguely reclusive, have a creepily calm demeanour and to smoke a pipe.

In reality there is no such thing as science. Not really, it’s a complex collaboration of astrophysics, microbiology, hydro-chemistry and a hundred other sub-specialities. Sure, they all get to combine into one as science, but it’s a bit an uneasy alliance. Kind of like saying “fiction”.

Maybe the confusion is my fault, after all I do find it hideously complicated. Unfortunately, I had a habit of not paying attention at school when a subject was challenging, rather than struggle to gain ground I would just tune out. Science was one of the worst (after geography, maths, IT, design and graphics, French, German, and so on). Raised on the sort of movies described above, I was expecting science to be fantastical, but instead it all seemed somewhat mundane. Biology was little more than trying to remember by rote the correct anatomical correlation of our reproductive system or how photosynthesis worked, physics an extension maths with seemingly even less practical application and chemistry understanding how oil formed. Perhaps we did experiments, but I think we were mainly just taught theory. Things that went bang, smoking formulas bubbling over the top of test-tubes, leaping into the quantum physics divider to visit the fifth dimension? We didn’t actually get to try doing stuff ourselves.

State education, eh?

I’d completely expected science to be akin to magic. In the world in my head, science could be used to build space ships that could reach the universe’s perimeter. It existed in the same theoretical zone as serums that transformed skinny weaklings into buff athletes, radiation poisoned animals attached school boys with positive after-effects, bomb detonations didn’t always kill or lightning strikes that hit a specific combination of chemicals and splashing them over someone would create heroes. Okay, so I took my early years science education from comics, but I was expecting something which would illuminate a brighter, more exciting universe than suburban eighties Birmingham. Was that so bad? Instead I got systems of classification and basic electronics, neither of which were going to help me build a time machine.

I don’t think this was helped by my disruptive class. From the boy who routinely called out “I’ve got gametes up my nose” for no apparent reason to the couple who spent the entirety of every lesson trying for a practical biology demonstration it was somewhat difficult to concentrate. We were virtually riotous, scaring off one supply teacher by pelting her with insults so as the head of department arrived with a cricket bat to quell the noise. On one of the few times I recall actually were allowed to do any real experiments it almost always ended in disaster.

Disaster or fire.

I remember quite distinctly sticking the ends of paper aeroplanes in the Bunsen burner’s flame, blowing it out and imaging the smoke trail belonged to a real plane, a fighter jet maybe, crashing due to a missile strike on its tailfin or an engine malfunction. Incredibly I was thirteen, not six, at this point. When one of the even less tuned in kids did the same, he found suddenly holding burning paper to be disconcerting and so decided to get rid of it as soon as possible.

By dropping it in the waste paper bin.


Instant fire. Well done. Smoke and flames billowing, the no doubt exasperated teacher strode across the room to extinguish the fire.

By standing on it.

Whilst this did have the desired effect of putting the fire out, unfortunately, it didn’t do so before his trousers were burning.

In a panic about getting sufficient GCSEs to get into the local sixth form college I crammed Double Science because it was worth two and somehow ended up with BB despite not having seen a mark higher than a D on any work for years. When I went to university I found myself living with and then friends with an extended batch of scientists, mainly zoologists. I had no comprehension of the work they did. They would try to explain, but it would come across as gibberish. And yet there was a touch of envy on my part. I remember at least one conversation about the value of their studying over mine. History was worthless; an analytical appraisal of things which no longer mattered. Whilst the application of biological investigations had the potential for a profound impact upon society. Depending, of course, on what they found out. To an extent, they were right, but there wasn’t much I could do about it. I couldn’t, at least not without the help of a scientist with dubious mental health and a fortress in an inclement mountain climate, rewire my brain.

So, science is clearly important and by definition, therefore, so must be scientists.

David Baddiel wrote very elegantly a couple of years ago about how scientists are the last heroes. Or to be slightly more accurate, that they are the last profession to be universally ordained as “great men.” (And for the purposes of this argument, I’m going to keep Baddiel’s definition of men, but we all know it can include women too, right?) James Joyce, he points out, was called a great man, a great writer by Erza Pound and TS Elliot, both of whom would have some claim on the title themselves, and so it became commonly agreed that indeed he must be. Yet if Ulysses were published in 2011 it would be pulled apart and bickered over – mostly via the internet – and any argument for its greatness would fail to reach a consensus. People would start sniping about his Irish background, his drinking, his failings as a teacher in northern Italy and how reliant on his wife he was. All irrelevant to the sentences on the page, but try telling the baying masses that.

But scientists are different. They’re more revered, because we don’t understand what they do. If someone cures cancer they will automatically – and correctly – be acclaimed as great. No debate amongst the masses. Perhaps this has always been the case, but whilst Shakespeare, for example, was ordained in genius fairly early on there seemed to be more reluctance to voice passionate support for medical scientists who advocated leeches for every ailment. Alexander Fleming, in contrasting example, and the discovery of penicillin must have been a revelation; a cure that didn’t have to be removed with a match. Anyway, perhaps today we recognise that scientists, whatever their field, have done, or are capable of doing, something which is so far from the everyman’s ability that it becomes almost inconceivable. In contrast, most people equipped with laptops think they can write a novel. Most people are wrong, but that’s kind of beside the point.

Margaret Atwood (no slouch herself, but rarely acclaimed as great without dispute) recently defined science fiction as being split into two types. Essentially, the fantastical and the exaggerated, or the Jules Verne versus HG Wells death-match. Verne, the man whose fiction was based at the edges of the scientific knowledge at the time and Wells who had Martians invade Woking.

Essentially, I believe – no doubt incorrectly – that you can divide real science into two equally matching sub-sections. (And, okay, numerous other bits as well, give me a break here). Jules Verne twenty-first century science is the science that keeps us progressing at a steady rate; it’s research into new medicines, computer engineering, formulas for hair dye and toilet cleaners and pesticides. Like the Mitchell and Webb Laboratoire Garnier sketch where the powerful and rich Monsieur Garnier gathers a team of crack scientists not to cure cancer but to formulate hair dye. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still inventive stuff which arguably improves people’s lives on a daily basis, but it’s still capitalism science. Science which supports the economy and, like the science I was subjected to at school, more than a little boring. HG Wells twenty-first century science is the hadron collider, it’s the inside of Stephen Hawking’s brain, expeditions to Mars and the international space station; it’s the sort of work where staff arrive thinking, “fuck, yeah, I’m a scientist, baby.”

Perhaps we plebs trundling through our daily, dreary lives can’t properly understand the distinction. And maybe that’s fiction’s fault. A few years ago I was crammed into the cattle shed commuter train at some ungodly hour and failing to concentrate on my book. It wasn’t helped by the young woman yattering excitedly down her phone. “Oh, I don’t mind the commute in, it gives me plenty of time to read,” she plainly lied as she’d spent the entirety of that particular journey yacking down the phone.

“Yeah, yeah. I read. I so read. Yeah, actual books. You know, like, science fiction.” She then named a couple of authors I’d never heard of, but it seemed to be of alien armada guerrilla marine testosterone never-ending serial bullshit sort beloved by their fans and bemoaned by everyone else. “Yeah, and when he gets his badass caught behind enemy lines then he breaks out the hyper-tension gatling gun and a neo-spike pill to keep the Bortch hordes at bay. Science faction, baby. Science faction, this shit is totally being reeled back to us from a better world.”

(Or something like that, anyway.)

The point is the use of the invented word, faction. Even if you accept that for those who love this sort of science fiction can be delightful, meaningless entertainment, it is not, it is never, trying to pass itself off as real life. I think, as a child, that was what confused me. It was written down and so I wanted it to be true. More than anything in the world, I wanted an exciting future full of space ships and epic journeys to beyond and back, of noble heroic captains and their rag-tag crews from the far corners of the galaxy and easily defined alien villains bristling with additional arms and spikey things. The drab greyness of reality where the bad guys are dressed in designer suits and shirts from Pink and either fucking up the economy, contesting your patents or disagreeing with your research funding has a sheen of boredom. It takes empathy to appreciate the underlying human drama.

Case in point: The suspension of operations by NASA and the apparent gradual winding down of space exploration operations by everyone (except China, India and Iran) is a shame. There’s a nice bit fairly early on in The West Wing when the Mars exploration probe ‘Galileo’ goes missing as it attempts to touch down on the red surface. Martin Sheen’s President Bartlett is disappointed because he sees space exploration as the natural extension of humanity’s strive for a better tomorrow. He even infuses ‘Galileo’ with more than a nominal nod to an Italian philosopher so as it becomes something greater, something more noble.

Yet it clearly makes complete economic sense, the average trip into space to pootle around and watch the sun come up over the Earth’s rim, costs – no doubt – the same as Belgium, the end of something as aspirational as the voyage to another planet, another solar system, is something to mourn. As Kevin Fong, a director of the somewhat implausibly named Centre for Altitude, Space and Extreme Environment Medicine (who I’ve met in real life and is a thoroughly nice guy, so apologies for his inclusion here) says it taught us to dream. The shuttle, despite apparently flying like an open safe still gave of an air of grace and beauty. It was the ideal vessel to touch the rim of knowledge, but for the time being it’s gone; we are earth-bound once more. Science is being beaten back by economics.

I know little about science, and actually I don’t care. I’m happy with that. I understand that ninety-nine percent of science isn’t as photogenic, not quite as phallic as a rocket launching out the desert and into space (and hopefully not as bad for the environment as something packed with sufficient fuel to give it the equivalent explosive capability of a small nuclear warhead). Whilst childish idiots like me want to be wowed, most science is done by people sitting at computers late into the Saturday night, ploughing through reams of data looking for the pattern, or lack thereof, which will give them an answer to the question: why?

And that’s true heroism. The risk of wasting a life time looking for better when there might be nothing. Real people’s mundane life cycle becomes heroism, greatness. Perhaps we should push our empathy further and find stories to write about this reality so as kids like me are happy to be bored for a couple of hours a week. Bored yet maybe just a smidge of something useful will be retained.

You know, for the future.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Balls. Balls and running.

I am not, it may surprise you to learn, a big sports man. I have had moments where it may have appeared otherwise but these have been a facade. If I’m being really honest, I just don’t get it.

Even if I have pretended otherwise on many occasions.

My Father was a rugby player as a young man. Rugby and no doubt the associated high-jinks of the club filled, as far as I can tell from the affection which he speaks of tearing along the flanks with mud spraying in his wake, a large part of his life for many years. I don’t actually remember him ever playing, but I suspect buggered knees at a relatively young age and increasing job demands as much as the stresses of raising my infuriating infant self ate into his time too much. Still, it was this rather than football or cricket or, I don’t know, water polo, which he attempted to share his enthusiasm.

I was, I say with regret if only because it probably would have bought him happiness, lamentably bad. In many ways it was one of the few sports where I stood a slim chance. Speed, competent hand-eye coordination and graceful agility are not prerequisites. Indeed, fat, stocky kids who can get in the way make ideal forward props provided they are also brave and prepared to throw their face in the way of someone else’s boot. I wasn’t brave. I was the exact opposite, being particularly cowardly about the prospect of physical harm and so coupled with my inability to run, pass, kick or catch I was doomed for a brief rugby career. Even so, I did spend a year or so lurking around the edges of the school team – who clearly must have been pretty dreadful if they were considering letting me take the field – before my eagerness to take part in anything that wasn’t sitting in my room reading comics subsided and I spent Tuesday and Thursday mornings sleeping in later and later rather than jogging, slowly, around a frozen grass pitch.

As I have grown up and become more physically able I enjoy being outside doing activities. I don’t mind kicking a ball aimlessly around, although I could think of better things to do. I quite like swimming in the sea, although have no real interest in doing laps of a pool. I love hiking, canoeing, climbing, cycling – well, okay, maybe not love, but I am starting to enjoy cycling. The point is that I’m not a fat slob who gets out of breath taking a shit. I’m moderately fit; I do sporty type things.

And yet, I have very little interest in sport itself. I can drive and like driving fast and along difficult country lanes, but I cannot watch formula one without wondering whether I’ve died and gone to hell. Doing is not the same as participating, but sport is primarily a spectator activity. Far more watch football than ever lay on a chilly Sunday morning, happily berating foreign players for weather gloves and snoods whilst refusing to leave their electric blanket fuelled dens themselves. It’s entertainment, I get that, even if I don’t particularly find it entertaining.

People looked at me like I was mad when I made zero effort to secure Olympics tickets. To be honest, if I was there I would no doubt get swept up in the moment, be taken over by a crowd’s hysteria of anticipation on the verge of being squashed and fear that every loud noise is the thermite being detonated. I may even enjoy myself, but equally it may make me want to tug my eyeballs out and eat them as watching the games in Beijing did. I didn’t want to watch the games, but they were shown in the pub I tended bar for during my Masters. The afternoon shifts were far from busy and the time difference meant it was likely to be men’s third round hurdle-javelin hybrid blaring at high volume. It was either watch or play on fruit machines. Or read the Daily Mail. Anything to avoid talking to the midday drunk with tattoos on his knuckles and scurvy scabs at the corner of his lips.

So, next summer: I’m not sure I really want to risk spending money on an event that will leave me initially frustrated at the inevitable claustrophobia of the queues in and then potentially suicidal at the dreariness of it all. I’ll be okay if I skip this one. But people can’t believe me. I’m missing out, they insist, on a once in a generation experience of terminal public transport collapse. What will I do whilst the games are on? What other thing is there possibly to do? Get on with my normal life and read less news, I guess.

A working knowledge of football is, however, a necessity for a man trying to negotiate with the rest of the world. There’s a default presumption that you will support a team. My choice, for having a false one is usually easier than explaining otherwise, of Birmingham City is mainly based on their lack of success meaning few people know anything about them either so I am less likely to be caught out in any error. But, after several years of pretence it started to become genuine, as though I was an undercover agent gone native, unable to remember what was a lie and what wasn’t. The deeper I went the greater the required knowledge to engage in the banter. I was reduced to actually reading the BBC Sport’s section on an almost daily basis to keep up with the statistics and gossip the clichéd twists and fucking turns that defined any season. And this is, I think, largely my problem with sport. It refuses to let you be passive; you have to give money and become emotionally involved.

To be honest there was a part of me that quite enjoyed the time in my life when evenings out were dedicated to watching football as part of a group. Not, I should clarify, the time during the 2006 world cup when I went to a pub in Islington with my colleagues and someone, not one of us, spent the match’s duration berating with ever more elaborately offensive language England. He was English, but clearly the players weren’t trying hard enough as they huffed and puffed their way to a not terribly convincing, but rarely in doubt victory. If it was he in Germany then the whole thing would be sewn up with a series of solo wonder goals, presumably. But, alas, he was a fat, balding, drunk, abusive moron who couldn’t even manage to sing the relatively easy tunes in anything other than a howl. Twat.

It was easy enough to enjoy the camaraderie of rooting for the same team. Male bonding takes place in few areas, but amongst the beer heavy adoration of a well-struck goal it is fully acceptable to hug a near stranger with tears of joy in his eyes and some sort of politically incorrect xenophobia on his lips. I think, however the need to be constantly aware of a player’s form, their number of assists, the clichés associated with their temperament, build, mercenary or sexual activities simply requires too much homework. I have enough obsessions to tend to without feeling socially obliged to know Peter ‘good touch for a big man clichéd lanky twonk’ Crouch* international scoring record against major or minor teams. Yet without this knowledge the whole dramatic tapestry makes no sense.

(* I had sports commentary clichés by the way for this to work... I feel mildly ashamed.)

Yes, I did just say the whole “dramatic tapestry” because the one thing I do appreciate, indeed am even jealous of, is sport’s artificially created drama. The result is always achingly tense because there’s your whole life as a fan hanging on it. The heroes and villains are perfectly formed and operate in a world of clear cut moments, of death defying, child sacrificing importance. Real ife is more subtle and complex and therefore full of apathy; rolling along is easier than struggling to understand.

Those moments of anguish are impossible to create in any other medium. That’s why novels about sport are almost always rubbish because they are too contrived, too scripted. Even good ones are really about something else. David Peace’s Damned United isn’t about football, it’s about the destroying obsession of ambition and shyness drowned out by overconfidence. Joseph O’Neil’s Netherland isn’t about cricket, it’s about loneliness and despair and last chances post 9/11. Don DeLillo’s EndZone isn’t about American football, it’s... Actually, it’s a clunky analogy of warfare being everywhere so let’s just ignore that one.

There’s no real competition. Sport allows the dullness, the sort of tedium novel readers would burn, of a nil-nil draw, or a long fought out five day test match broken every half hour by rain, or Steve Davis playing snooker game to help prepare for the thrillingly where literally anything could happen. You really can’t actually make it up. For example, I’m reliably told that when Birmingham City won their first trophy for forty-odd years back in the spring against far superior Arsenal side it took the Londoner’s goalkeeper and defender to stop playing and watch the ball bounce in the air between them and roll away as they then, passively let the Birmingham striker score. If you tried to write something like that random sequence of events no-one would believe your ham-fisted prose. And yet, because actual football has the twenty-two independent spoilt, overpaid characters roaming freely each with their own calculated agendas trying to fuck it up for everyone else, people believe in the impossible.

In fact they crave for it. No-one cares if Andy Murray wins a long sequence of Masters titles and advances on the world number one spot. No, they want a jaw stretching scream of triumph and then the broken, sobbing mess of man clutching the base-line two matches later as he fails to win Wimbledon. Sport really, implausibly, matters to people, far more people than ever give a toss about fiction. And it matters, ridiculously, because they love drama; they want to have the thrill of the briefest high and then crushing despair for the majority. It’s kind of like crack-cocaine.

Wish I could write like that.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Fix up, look sharp.

‘Are you going to a wedding?’ my colleague asked the other Tuesday morning.

‘Um, no.’

‘I’ve never seen you looking so smart.’ Then she burst into hysterical laughter, slapping her knee with unrestrained glee.

I have, it appears, something of a reputation for scruffiness. One that, to be honest, is well founded. My shirts are frequently rumpled. My face often cast by a few days of shadow. My hair ruffled to varying degrees depending upon how many seconds I have in front of the mirror that morning. I may well own some shoe polish, but I’ve long lost it. Outside of the work place, the theme continues with my shirts open a couple of buttons too many, scuffed trouser rims, holes here and there and a general sense of being dishevelled.

I wasn’t always like this. Once upon a time I cared and whilst, it could be argued, I frequently failed at I least tried. But what began as a money saving exercise during my Masters became more of a way of life. I developed a determination that appearance required time and time was something precious. If my degree wasn’t going to gift me a book deal and I had to go back to work, then I wasn’t going to waste additional minutes ironing when I could be writing.

Deep down I always knew it would be like this. That is to say it would be hard. Objectively I understood that most things worthwhile doing are difficult. At no point did I genuinely believe that a career of letters, writing and general self-indulgence in being lost inside my head beckoned and all I had to do was spend a year talking pretentiously about words to enable it. That would be silly. But then I do like to dream.

Daydreams, unfortunately, have been somewhat omnipresent in my life. I am far too willing for my imagination to slip away from wherever I am supposed to be and to wonder about somewhere else; another time, another place, another person I might have been. Which is ridiculous. My lot in life is pretty good, and yet I’ve always been like this.

I remember quite clearly attending first year junior school, when I would have been seven or eight years old. One wall of the class room was entirely taken up by a window, from lino floor to stained ceiling, from blackboard to dented lockers. The teacher was of the old style where rote and repetition was the basis of learning. And so on she droned; on and on about, well, who knows. Whatever seven year olds were supposed to learn in 1986. I don’t remember, but I do recall looking out the window towards the playground and the sloping grass bank that ran alongside the school and thinking about all the things that the slope could be. Covered in snow and sledged along. Skidded down in wet grass. A point of momentum for the terrorists who were coming to seize control of the school and hold the area at gunpoint until a valiant resistance, spearheaded by myself, could wrest control of some of their weapons and lead a fight-back.


For some reason, that later scenario was a daydream I often indulged in. I cast myself as the seven year old hero who gets the girl and beats the baddies.

I was something of a strange child.

But I digress (sort of). Let’s return to me sitting and gazing out the window, completely lost in the scene unfolding inside my head. Ow! A sharp slap across the back of the skull snaps me back into the tedium of school life and the dream is not broken, but paused, ready to be restarted the next moment reality gets a bit too much.

I was bored and I wanted something more exciting to happen. Something so exciting that life would never be the same again.

It was a problem that persisted long after I should have grown out of it.

When I was a teenager I spent hours meandering around the local streets (usually delivering newspapers to be entirely fair to myself) submerged in dreams of what if and glory. I wanted to be in a rock and roll band. I wanted to write stories. I wanted to act. I wanted to be a politician. I wanted to burn out and be finished by my mid-twenties. I wanted to be the centre of everyone’s attention and for them to love me for it and to miss me when I was gone. Daydreams were solace to hide in. The problem was, aside from some pretentious short stories and scripts for comics I was too talentless to draw, I didn’t really do anything about it. Certainly, I expended far greater effort in the imaging than in the actual doing.

Inertia was never really going to make me popular with the girls.

This attitude persisted into adulthood. Maybe it was inevitable given the long periods of time life made available when I could be thinking about what might else have been. Long lonely drives across the country, almost moving the car subconsciously, my mind not really there but wistfully imagining whilst a more rewarding life. Or the hours spent hiking when the weather closes in and you pull inside your waterproofs and conversation evaporates as you mechanically concentrate on one foot in the front of the other. But there’s still space in your head for unrealised aspirations, to wonder of different futures and maybes and perhaps and what would have happened if I’d done it first or differently, said no, or stepped left.

Eventually, I did do something about it. Despite the long hours of my day job, I began to write more diligently. I put in time every night and most weekends, submerged myself and dragged the things in my head out onto the page. I even got some results. I told myself to go for it properly, to stop thinking and start doing. I told myself time and again that it wouldn’t easy, that it would require effort and disappointment and grief and frustration and maybe even a little blood. But I couldn’t stop myself.

During my year of self-indulgence, I would writing in the mornings and then go for long afternoon walks, ostensibly to compose “lyrical masterpieces” in my head, but almost inevitably my mind would empty and either the latest domestic issue – needing to service the car, or paint the bedroom properly, or what to have for dinner – would trickle in and once that was clear, well then there would just be the void. The imaginative chasm which would slowly flood with first a completed manuscript and then an excited call from the agent I’d sent it to and then, finally, an actual, real printed novel bearing my name at the masthead.

My dreams would come true.

That is, if they weren’t just dreams.

I sit now at my new desk in my new flat. Somewhere amongst my files is a growing stack of rejection slips. I thought that I’d done the hard bit. I’ve completed a manuscript, but now the dreamy bit doesn’t seem to be happening. The truth is that I’m not trying hard enough. I haven’t sent out any pitches for months allegedly because I didn’t know where I’d be living.

Here, I’ll tell you a secret. The real reason is that I’m scared that when I’ve sent it to everyone the dream will still be just that; nothing.

At the moment there is still possibility, although of most intangible unrealistic variety.
But there’s a new home and another new, better life. I have more chance than many if I have the determination. On the way home from work this evening I glanced over a fellow commuter’s shoulder at the magazine they were holding. The cover said ‘What chance does Amanda Knox have for the life she dreamed of?’ Maybe the question should be about Meredith Kercher’s dreams, but the comparison shames me. It’s time to get my act together. It’s time to reboot. I’ve been spending too much time on the fun stuff, the making shit up, the actual writing and avoiding not the difficult, scary part where I try to force other people to read my work.

It’s time to smarten myself up. So, I’ve been ironing hot creases into my shirts, I’ve been shaving most days, I’ve started to take care in my appearance not because I am giving up and returning to the office career trajectory, but simply because it is time to take myself seriously. It is time to do, rather than looking for excuses to keep on dreaming.

The razor bites into the hair on my chin; the new blade wrenches the follicle from the root. Underneath the flesh is raw and the splashed water and alcohol on my face stings. Nice and sharp.

Like lemon and gin in the open wound.

Like jealous nails gouging for the eyes.

Like used syringes in the ice cream.

It’s time to wake up.