05/01/10

The shortlist for the Costa book award was announced yesterday. For those unfamiliar with it this splendid award starts with a shortlist in each of five categories (novel, first novel, biography, poetry, children’s book). Then, in a judging process not dissimilar to the one used in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, a single winner is announced from each category and these five books go on to duke it out to become the undisputed heavyweight Book Of The Year.

A couple of things appeal to me about the Costa. Firstly, and less significantly, it used to be the Whitbread prize, sponsored for ages by the beer-making giants. The sponsorship changed from a brewer to a coffee seller at about the time I got sober, so there’s an affinity there for me.

Secondly, and more importantly, it seems to me to be a prize that not only acknowledges the absurdity of this sort of competition, it positively celebrates it. I’ve never quite understood at Oscar time or Booker time how you can validly say that one actor or film or book is objectively “better” than another. The Costa prize seems to be saying, “Aah fuck it. Jam ‘em all in there. Kid’s book, poetry book, Haynes manual for a 1978 Austin Allegro, lightly buttered piece of toast. It doesn’t matter. We’ll pick one out of the hat at random and in five minutes time we’ll be on our way out for some massimo three-shot gingerbread lattes and skinny banana muffins.”

It’s the same sort of shackle-free thinking that would perk up the Olympics enormously. I think hermaphrodites, men and women should all race together using whatever performance enhancing drugs they like. LSD. That would be fun. Have Usain Bolt running against primary school kids in an egg and spoon race. Let the swimmers strap on outboard motors if they fancy it. Divers with wings made of cardboard and feathers glued on them. Come on, it’s nearly 2012. Let’s make it an Olympics to remember.

Anyhow, I mention the Costa prize because there appears to be a bit of a hoo-ha, if that’s not overstating the case, about the choice of the biography finalist. It’s Graham Farmelo’s book The Strangest Man, a biography of Paul Dirac.

The kerfuffle has arisen not because of the quality of the writing but rather because most of the people talking about it in the media don’t seem to have the faintest idea who Paul Dirac was which I find galactically dismaying.

I don’t wish to trivialise the matter by making it personal but on the Today Programme on Radio 4 this morning Justin Webb, a man with the ideal haircut for radio and a voice like Alvin the Chipmunk in the final throes of autoerotic asphyxiation (OK, that was a bit personal), actually seemed chirpily proud of not having heard of Dirac as he conducted a hideous nanometre deep interview with the author. This is Paul bloody Dirac! One of the pioneers of modern mathematics and quantum mechanics.

I’m afraid that most of Dirac’s professional achievements are conceptually beyond me in the same way that I find a lot of James Joyce’s writing baffling and I don’t have the context to fully understand the art of Pablo Picasso. But I have heard of him, and them, and am aware of all of their importance in their fields.

There is no way Webb would have been so glib about Joyce or Picasso, but that is the way with the media sadly. Science is for clever clogs and boffins with their numbers and their white coats and their bizarre insistence that you be able to back up any claims you make with some sort of evidence. Sometimes, say the media, science has to be acknowledged, but never mind, in a minute we’ll be back to the important matters of Alan Yentob, David Starkey, Harry Potter, Susan Boyle, and Anthony fucking Gormley’s fourth fucking plinth.

It’s all over the place this ignorant contempt for science. I still cherish the memory of a paid, professional broadcaster on Radio 5 asking a scientist why we weren’t drilling for oil on the Moon. And how many times do you hear people saying stuff like “It’s what our bodies were designed for.” Really? Designed? 151 years since On The Origin Of Species and people still talk like this?

I quite fancy the Dirac biography. He seems to have been a spiky, borderline autistic, kind of chap but I sense some kinship with a man famous for saying:

“Religion is a jumble of false assertions with no basis in reality. The very idea of God is the product of the human imagination.”

and

“In science one tries to tell people, in such a way as to be understood by everyone, something that no-one ever knew before. But in poetry it’s the exact opposite.”

Legend.

Also, and please forgive me for this, in Doctor Who the fifth Doctor briefly had a companion who was a troubled young mathematician called Adric. Anagram fans will see what they did there.

***

Today I mostly watched Tell No One (Ne le dis à personne) which is an intriguing movie. A cultural mash-up of Gallic sang-froid and plot-driven American thriller ethos (from a novel by Harlan Coben) it has, amongst its fine cast, the sainted Kristen Scott Thomas doing one of her French language turns.

The set up is superb: eight years after the murder of his wife a doctor receives an anonymous email with an attachment that appears to be an image of her still alive, and the instruction to tell no one. There’s a nice Hitchcock/Chabrol feel as he, an innocent man, is forced on the run, and various story strands convolve to a resolution that is more satisfying than I had dared hope for.

At over two hours it’s probably a touch too long. I would say that there is the occasional longueur, but I’m not sure that the French have a word for it.

***

And then…

Pity the poor citizens of Gomorrah.

I have a pretty good idea what they got up to in Sodom, but Gomorrah? What did they do to deserve the bombardment of fire and brimstone from the heavens? “Goodness gracious,” they must have thought, for such is the universally appropriate reaction to great balls of fire. “Goodness gracious, what have we done to deserve this?”

And then their minds must have turned guiltily to whatever was their civilisation’s equivalent of Horne and Corden’s Lesbian Vampire Killers, and they must have thought, “Oh yeah. That. Fair enough then.”

Unfortunately for us our civilisation’s equivalent of Lesbian Vampire Killers is the actual Lesbian Vampire Killers, and to let it go unremarked is to be complicit in the social damage it does.

There’s a pre-video era tradition of poor British films made from TV sitcoms, and is there a single one that can be viewed comfortably today? I don’t think so, but I’d be happy to be put right. There’s something excruciating about seeing Holiday On The Buses or that Are You Being Served film where they all go on holiday together. It’s as though the process of being put up on the big screen exposes the TV actors’ apparent cocksure ebullience for what it is: a painful insecurity, thinly masked. On come the bright lights and the ghastly shrivelling process begins.

And we never learn. Morecambe and Wise couldn’t do it. Pete and Dud couldn’t do it. Tony Hancock couldn’t do it. Spike Milligan couldn’t do it. And yet, with only the Monty Python team as any sort of counterexample, still they come, the TV star movies that are so embarrassing you want to turn yourself inside out whilst you’re watching them.

Cannon and Ball in The Boys In Blue. Kenny Everett in Bloodbath At The House Of Death. Morons From Outer Space. Sex Lives Of The Potato Men. Three And Out. And now James Corden and Mathew Horne in Lesbian Vampire Killers.

There is nothing in the plot that isn’t in the title, and nothing in my bag of constructive criticism that will be any use here. I’ve never seen Gavin & Stacey or Horne and Corden’s stand-up and on this showing that’s not so much a missed opportunity as a dodged bullet.

Clumsy music and blatantly plagiarised Edgar Wright moves signal when the movie is trying to be funny, which is a good job because there is very little other evidence. Such a shame to see Paul McGann wasting his and my time with this.

File under: Common decency, affront to.

6 comments on “05/01/10

  1. I look forward to the day when the special olympics is populated by people with robot limbs and the like. A shot putt going for miles? 100m sprints that HAVE to be watched in slow mo? Rollerball? yes please!

    I’ll admit I didn’t know who Dirac was either. But I didn’t know who that Asian guy who invented the USB, or half of it or something, was either. Still went “oh cool!” when I saw him in an Intel advert and they used small words to explain it to me though.

  2. I’d like to comment on Dirac’s religion/God quote, if I may. There’a big difference between belief in god and belief in a religion. Religions become institutions of political power when they become more interested in self-preservation than in the well-being of their people. I think most religions *are* political institutions masquerading as spiritual leadership.(Dirac alluded to this in the speech from which your quote is taken, I think.) Most believers in the God(s) (with a capital G) of a religion believe in some kind of cosmic/magician God; fingerpointing, all-powerful, you live, you die, must be obeyed, occasionally merciful. However, god need not be looked at in that way only. What if god is all-loving? And if you believe in free will, as I do, then maybe god is becoming as we are becoming. A constantly changing force of love in the Universe. My heart tells me there is something more, something greater than me alone, something to which I am longing to reconnect – like a homesickness for a place I barely remember.

    Having said that, I don’t think that believing in science and believing in god are mutually exclusive. I think it is entirely possible that science will one day explain the *how* of everything. But maybe not the *why*. Neuroscientists can now create a mystical experience by stimulating a certain part of the brain. That’s remarkable! Yet isn’t maybe more remarkable that humans have been able to create their own mystical experiences without a poke to the brain? Is our consciousness really just a random evolutionary fluke? I don’t think so. I also believe we are still evolving as a species, and it’s possible that science and spirituality will work together to move us along a path toward a place of love and compassion. Thought is energy, and energy is never lost, just transformed.

  3. Well that’s hilarious, insightful, thought-provoking. Can we mount a campaign to have you published in the Courier? It would make it worth the outrageously high number of pennies they charge for it these days.

  4. Brilliant article – I’ll happily join any campaign to get you syndicated.

    Realise its still a drop in a rather vast ocean but as an argument in defence of TV comedy -> film can I ask your honour to consider Shaun of the Dead vs Spaced

    • Aha! Mark, you are quite right to point out the succesful transition that Edgar Wright and the Spaced gang made to the big screen. I thought about putting them in the credit column but then I reconsidered.

      Spaced was sui generis, and not part of this country’s television tradition at all I think. Edgar Wright seems always to have been working cinematically, even on the small screen. I’m excited about his current projects, but even more so about the fact that he, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost all still intend to regroup for the third in their Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy following Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz.

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