When C.P. Snow gave the Rede Lecture in 1959 he gave it the title The Two Cultures. His contention was that there was a breakdown in communication between the humanities and sciences which was badly hindering global development.
As an example he mentioned the number of times he had been in the presence of supposedly highly educated people who were loudly criticising the illiteracy of scientists. Provoked by this on occasion he had asked those making the complaint to describe the second law of thermodynamics. Their responses he described as “cold” and “negative”, yet this is the scientific equivalent, he said, of asking, “Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?”
Snow went on, I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question such as “What do you mean by mass or acceleration?” which is the scientific equivalent of saying “Can you read?” not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt I was speaking the same language.
Frankly Snow was lucky. At least he lived and wrote in a time when education was valued and the possession of knowledge was seen generally as a good thing. This attitude is in full retreat now and ignorance is galloping forward at full speed waving a flag and laughing at us.
The UK series The Apprentice has much to teach us in this regard.
For the joyous few who haven’t seen it the programme is, superficially, a recruitment process. An assembly of soi-disant entrepreneurs, blue sky thinkers, high achievers and assumption-challengers (all young, all pretty, all thin and scrupulously groomed) is set a series of tasks over a period of weeks. Their performance is assessed and, week by attritional week, they are booted off until only one remains. That person gets a “job”.
It’s a contrived entertainment of course, but there is a nucleus of truth in it. It isn’t the intelligent or imaginative that thrive in this environment. It is the amoral, the carnivorous, the self-seeking and the deeply deluded.
As a quick example, in the most recent series the business wannabes had the task of constructing a fast food outlet. Imaginatively enough one team came up with the idea of a “British” pie franchise. It is, I’m sure, a gap in the market. They named each of their pies after a famous Briton including, dismayingly, “Christopher Columbus, discoverer of the potato”.
At this point the planet developed a slight wobble due to a gyroscopic anomaly induced by twelve generations of dead British people suddenly spinning in their graves.
It wasn’t dwelt upon though, and there was no admission that someone had made a pretty basic factual error.
The Apprentice process is presided over by Alan Sugar an angry, wizened autodidact who, in this country, passes for a guru. He doesn’t need people telling him stuff like what’s right and wrong, doesn’t Sir Alan. He left school at 15 and now he has all of the UK’s money so he must know a thing or two. And all you fancy, book-reading, thought-thinking, idea-exchanging nonces had better get out of his way. Blahdy quickly.
Like Tony Montana in Scarface (if he’d been played by Ray Winstone voicing a Yoda puppet) Alan Sugar has everything he could possibly want or need, and loads more stuff on top of that, yet it doesn’t seem to have bought him even a molecule of happiness.
That’s parenthetical though. I might come back to it if I remember.
Meanwhile, back at the pie debacle… Now everyone has blind spots and intellectual lacunae. I have committed hideous errors in print in front of large numbers of people. We are all human beings just trying to get on and whilst we may move towards perfection we are never actually going to get there.
I accept this, but I think it is crucially important to admit to a shortcoming when it becomes apparent and to try and learn from it. Bluster, shouting and trying to turn black into white to make your incorrect assertion correct is futile.
I used to work in a branch of a bookshop chain. Remember shops? They were like the internet except you had to walk to them in the rain and they never had what you wanted.
The first branch I worked in was in Aberdeen and was, at the time, the northernmost outpost of that retail empire. This made us the ideal branch in which to try stuff out. One experiment involved the introduction of a loyalty card scheme. This was in the mid-nineties and was genuinely pretty forward thinking at the time. There were those who argued that customers have no “loyalty” per se and that you couldn’t buy their repeat custom. The counter-argument was that they did and you could. Splendidly enough Head Office decided to give it a go in our branch, and our branch only, and see what happened.
As it goes this is pretty good empirical science.
Anyway the machines were bought. The laminated rectangles with the little magnetic strip doodahs on the back were made, and tons of posters and fliers were printed. We festooned the shop. We leafleted like mad. We stood and we waited. Day one of the scheme was going to be a big deal. A lot of head office people were going to be there.
It went pretty well. Slow at first, but momentum built and we were starting to get a good feeling when suddenly one of the booksellers went a bit pale and quiet.
When pressed as to what was wrong she pointed to the nearest of the billion posters in the shop.
“That quote,” she said.
It was the custom of the chain at the time to adorn bags, bookmarks and sundry items of point-of-sale with pertinent literary quotes and this one, the one causing the bookseller to have an attack of the vapours, was on every single poster, leaflet and card.
They took some honey and plenty of money wrapped up in a five pound note – Lewis Carroll, it proclaimed.
“Wasn’t that Edward Lear?” asked the bookseller.
It took some time to dismantle the whole operation and start again, but I don’t remember any blame throwing, just a resigned sense of “oh well that’s a fuck-up, best start again”. And that’s how you do it ladies and gentlemen. You take it on the chin and you move on.
A counterexample. Same bookshop chain though happily not a branch I worked in. In fact this may be an entirely apocryphal story, but it has the bouquet of authenticity.
Customer enters bookshop and walks straight to the till.
“Do you have Mein Kampf?” they enquire.
“I’m not sure,” says the bookseller. “Do you know who wrote it?”
“Well, Hitler,” says the customer becoming a bit embarrassed.
“How do you spell that?” asks the bookseller.
“Hitler. You know, the Second World War? Hitler? H-I-T-L-E-R,” says the now quite surprised customer.
“Listen,” retorts the bookseller querulously. “I can’t be expected to know all the authors.”
And that’s how you don’t do it.
My point is that there isn’t anything wrong with being wrong. We all do it from time to time. We have the ability to change what we think in the face of new evidence. Ignorance is not a bad thing, but wilfully remaining ignorant when the chance to learn something new crops up is.
I like Doctor Who. I have done since about 1970 when it was all opera capes, clumsy assistants and SF stories hiding social realist agendas. I can accept that there’s a large number of people who don’t like it. Fair enough. That’s why there are different things on the telly too.
It’s always struck me as a programme that appeals to the outsider, Doctor Who. There is, I understand, a particularly large gay following which makes sense when you think about it. A charismatic, flamboyantly dressed authority figure who can sort out planetary injustices and yet still has time for the eccentricities of individuals. Why not?
When I grew up during the seventies and my nerdliness was burgeoning there were only really two science fiction shows on the TV with any degree of longevity: Doctor Who and Star Trek.
Now this is proper Star Trek we’re talking about here. The ego, superego and id of Kirk, Spock and McCoy. But even in those prime directive-flouting, alien-shagging days there was a codified formality to Trek that put me off. Kudos indeed to Gene Roddenberry for casting an African-American actress in a primetime programme at a time when that was quite a progressive thing to do. Shame on him though for then giving her the job of, basically, answering the telephone.
Further Trek coups of characterisation: Pretty white girl? You’re a nurse. Russian man? You have no sense of humour. Scotsman? You’re an engineer. And drunk.
I am unfamiliar with the eight thousand Star Trek spin off series but my overall (completely unfair) impression is that they appeal to people who like uniforms and rigidly enforced hierarchies. Are there any main Trek characters who are gay? It would be nice to think there are but I can’t name any.
Doctor Who on the other hand practically revels in its pan-sexuality. This bringing to the front and centre an aspect that has always existed dates from the 2005 revival of the show and can be credited to the then-show-runner Russell T. Davies. A man of outstanding energy and open-mindedness Davies brought both his love of old Doctor Who and a grounding in ace contemporary telly (such as Queer As Folk and The Second Coming) to create in new Doctor Who what many of us had thought would be impossible: a show which appealed to the mythical Saturday teatime family audience, but which at the same time didn’t piss off the hardcore fans of the old stuff.
That was pretty fucking impressive.
Davies moved on after a rampagingly successful four years and handed control of the show over to Steven Moffat. This is where things become complicated and Britain’s current obsession with anti-intellectualism, wilful incomprehension and Thick Pride become depressingly apparent.
Moffat is a highly accomplished writer. He is responsible for The Girl In The Fireplace and Blink, two of the most thrilling and innovative Doctor Who stories ever aired. He is responsible for the updated Benedict Cumberbatch version of Sherlock. He wrote the cheeky, galvanic Jekyll which (incredibly) briefly made a James Nesbitt fan of me. He was co-opted by Steven Spielberg to write the first draft of the forthcoming Tintin movie. He is no hack is Moffat. He can plot and do dialogue. And he loves Doctor Who. Safe pair of hands then.
But almost immediately the whinging started.
One of Moffat’s characters in the programme, River Song, is a time traveller just like the Doctor. The logical result of this (almost always ignored in time travel narratives) is that she and the Doctor keep meeting out of order. Sometimes she knows a lot more than he does, sometimes vice versa. Additionally, the Doctor’s companions Amy and Rory are married. A great deal of the most recent season has been the story of Amy’s developing pregnancy and who her child might turn out to be.
Well that’s too hard to understand, complained the press.
Is it? Is it really? I’m pretty certain an attentive eight year old could follow it.
But the reviews have continued to be hostile and the tone is not one of “Oh this is an interesting narrative, I’d better pay attention and see what happens.” No it’s more “This is complicated. I don’t get it. Why don’t I get it? It must be the writer’s fault.” That would be embarrassing enough coming from an adult on the street. From professional television reviewers it’s excruciating. There is precious little on TV that’s challenging. To complain about the tiny amount that is seems a bit perverse.
It’s a similar story with game shows. On the radio we still have Brain Of Britain and Round Britain Quiz which don’t yet seem to have succumbed to the oncoming storm of militant thickism. And on TV we have University Challenge and Only Connect, though as the controllers seem to be about to shoot BBC4 in the face we may soon have to discount the latter. Apart from these though, where are the brains?
(Also Feargal Sharkey, Mr. Over-Defensive: Nobody really thinks that you’re a cabbage because you hate University Challenge, though a few of us find your rhyming schemes a bit perplexing. Now leave us to enjoy our half hour a week in peace.)
The majority of game shows currently aired seem resolutely proud of their absence of intellectual rigour. They are glorified guessing games at best, hollow box-opening spectacles at worst.
Take as an example Deal Or No Deal which has been broadcast every weekday for the last six years. The format is not difficult to understand. Twenty-two people have sealed boxes each containing an amount of money ranging from 1p to £250,000. One of them is selected to play the game. This involves them opening other peoples’ boxes three at a time and then receiving an offer for their own box. So if the boxes they open all contain small amounts of money it becomes increasingly likely that their box contains a high amount and it becomes worth more. If they open boxes to reveal large amounts of money then it becomes more likely that their box contains a small amount and it becomes worth less. The amount they are periodically offered for their box is dependent on which amounts are still in play. It’s basically probability theory, though there is an element of the offer being fine-tuned according to how rash or fearful the player appears to be. Essentially there is only one thing the player has to do, guess the point at which to bail out and accept the offer for their box. The chances of winning the £250,000 are 1 in 22 to start with. They are zero as soon as it is revealed in someone else’s box. They fluctuate during the rest of the game depending how many boxes are left.
It is luck.
There is no system you can bring to the table that will tilt the odds in your favour.
I say again, it is luck.
However… You would not believe the stuff contestants have said, in public, on TV. They have lucky numbers. They have birthday numbers (though the boxes are numbered from 1-22, so what you do if your birthday is the 31st is a bit of a mystery). They have house numbers that are significant to them. They have guardian angels watching over them. They believe everything happens for a reason. They once heard someone talking about something they’d read about quantum mechanics and it turns out you can rescue a cat out of a box full of poison by having a positive attitude. Or something.
It’s enough to unhinge your jaw permanently.
The “everything happens for a reason” people are the most depressing. Yeah, they say, what goes around six swings comes around on half a dozen roundabouts. What will be will be. Then they skulk off with 10p at the end of the game, victims of nothing other than their own vanity and venality, teeth clenched and clearly bitter about the fact that their guardian angel apparently thinks they’re a bit of a prick.
That calm, Zen-like acceptance of unalterable circumstances only really works as a philosophy if you are prepared to accept apparent adversity the same way you accept apparent good fortune.
The whole farrago is presided over by the brittle, short, over-sensitive, bullying seventies DJ Noel Edmonds. This, in his mind, is clearly his show. He is the life-giver. The contestants go in one end, move through the show in some ghastly process of peristalsis before emerging, sucked dry of entertainment value at the other end. But Edmonds abides!
He is an appalling presenter. When flustered he hides behind an array of three or so “funny” voices. When feeling threatened by a contestant’s personality, wit or simple conversation he resorts to volatile hostility.
In a recent show a contestant chose in his opening round (where you have to choose five boxes) box 4, then 8, then 12, then 16.
“You’d better have box 10 now,” said Edmonds (though I thought he was supposed to remain impartial). “To keep the pattern going.”
When the player pointed out that the next box would have to be 20 to keep the pattern going Edmonds visibly bristled and remained tetchy and wounded-looking for the remainder of the show.
In keeping with all other programmes involving members of the public Deal Or No Deal encourages its participants to have a story, to consider their lives not as a haphazard parade of mundane incidents but rather as the modern urban equivalent of the saga of Thorfinn Skullsplitter. So one after another these wheezing human sea cows finger their magic photographs and sob about the tragedy of their tragic grandma who tragically died at the age of 104 tragically and peacefully in her own bed surrounded by her friends and family. And they cry, and the audience cries and Noel fingers his money clip and the majority of the world dreams of having as much as a dollar a day to get by on.
There has clearly been some sort of counter-Copernican revolution at some point.
What an amazing shift the Copernican Revolution originally was, the intellectual inversion of the geocentric model to the heliocentric one. What a coup of decentralisation. Initially a scientific landmark it had social and philosophical repercussions too. How refreshing suddenly to realise that we weren’t at the middle of anything after all. Alive we most definitely are, and important probably too, just not, you know, the MOST important things in the universe.
That’s all been reversed now. In a backwards cultural leap of astonishing magnitude we are back to being encouraged to think of ourselves as that around which all things revolve.
Want some anecdotal evidence? Watch some adverts.
I watch adverts a lot, almost always against my will. Sometimes it’s my fault admittedly. I watch a great deal of TV which I have recorded on my Sky+ box. Customarily I forget quite quickly that what I am watching is recorded and I sit blithely through ad breaks that I could be fast-forwarding through. Irritatingly often I will get 90% through an ad break, realise I could have skipped it, press fast-forward and end up whizzing well past the end of the break and into the programme I’m watching. So I rewind, end up further back than I was and end up watching some of the ad break twice.
I am an idiot.
Sometimes though the ads are unavoidable, often even though you have paid for the experience and might reasonably expect to be left alone by commercial sponsors. Yes cinemas I’m looking at you. How much do I have to pay for a ticket to see a film that doesn’t have half an hour of commercial suck-hole before the main feature?
And if I start on the unskippable ads I keep finding on Blu-rays I have paid full price for we’ll be here all day.
Some time ago, before the financial implosion of the entire western world (yeah, go on Cameron, leave the rich alone, tax the poor, that’s where the real money is) adverts were a bit fuzzy and cuddly.
Typically some low-end equity card-holders would act all amazed and entranced in front of a green screen whilst the CGI guys would add some coloured balloons or paints or crayons, or have everything all wrapped up in paper. There’d be plinky, whimsical music like from off of Juno and a calm voice would intone “What if everything was different, and nothing was the same?” or some such before a brief shot of a phone or a car or a bank or a sweetie.
Not any more though. It’s all dead sinister now. The text of a lot of ads is the bang-on austerity message of “we’re all in this together”, but the subtext is clearly “not you though mate, you’re special”. So we have ad after ad featuring groups of people each and every one of whom clearly thinks that they are the main one.
Look at the current Lucozade advert. Kids on skateboards! With musical instruments! They’re a band! But as they career (in an unintentional allegory) downhill look how individual and special they’re all being.
Look at the menstruating chocolate lady. She only wants a bit of chocolate, but one of her BFF, sexy-city flatmates has taken the last bit. They’ve even left the wrapper in the fridge, the cow. Chocolate lady doesn’t mind though because she’s got a special place for hiding chocolate that the rest of them don’t know about. The fuckers.
The rebarbative Malteser girls? The highly killable Pepsi Max guys? They look like they are in groups. It looks all friendly. But they are all pursuing their individual agendas.
The least successful, most telling version of this advertising genre was one for a pain relief formula. I can’t remember which one, and I’m not going to dignify it by looking it up.
In the advert literally dozens of the recently pain-relieved were shown unconvincingly jamming a version of “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now” originally by McFadden & Whitehead. They were all up on stage. All of them! Well a handful occupied an inexplicable recording booth pushing meaningless faders up and down meaninglessly. But basically everyone was doing a special thing. A funny drum solo. A wiggly dance thing. A hey-look-at-me-got–my arms-in-the-air bid for attention.
And who was enjoying the spectacle?
No one. There was no one where you would conventionally put an audience.
And that’s the problem. When everyone is special, no one is.
The reality is that you just aren’t that important. You matter, you’re just not crucial to the running of the universe. Chances are that, unless something has gone horribly wrong, you come from a family some of whom survive. You don’t get on with them all the time but basically you love them. You’ve got friends. Some of them can be a bit twatty from time to time but fundamentally they’re a good bunch. That’s groovy. That’s the normal way of things.
We aren’t all lead guitarists in a band. Some of us are bass players. Some of us serve the hotdogs or sell the T-shirts. Heaven help us, some of us are just sitting in the audience enjoying the spectacle. And in fact, why would you want to be the big important one receiving all the attention?
Why would you want to be a celebrity? It’ll break your heart if you watch the lauded and the screamed-at closely enough. They have all the stuff and they have all the attention but they have no joy. They can’t even see the irony attendant in selling a story to a celeb magazine about how impossible it is to have privacy.
Where, if your only talents are doing poor cover versions of limp songs and crying about your grandma whilst a Snow Patrol song plays in the background, are you going to get a sense of self-worth from?
You want the meaning of life?
I point you in the direction of Monty Python:
“Well it’s nothing very special. Try and be nice to people. Avoid eating fat. Read a good book every now and then. Get some walking in. And try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.”
I have recently been watching the BBC adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy from 1979 and it has cheered me up enormously. It is a very long time since I read the book, probably when this series was first on the TV in fact at which point I would have been fourteen. And I have never seen the TV adaptation before, though I’ve long been aware of its high reputation.
It is a wonderful and compelling endeavour, the type of which you could never expect to see made for TV today. And it is extraordinarily absorbing for what, when you boil it down, is pretty much 300 minutes of middle-aged white men sitting in rooms, sitting in cars and walking through parks.
The strength is that the characters are fascinating (the four mole suspects are introduced and effortlessly characterised in a wordless two minute sequence at the beginning of the first episode), and the plot is labyrinthine, with frequent, almost episode-long flashbacks.
Brilliantly, the makers of the programme (as was conventional at the time) make no allowances for the viewer. It is assumed that you’re going to watch the whole thing in order, and that you will be capable of remembering who all the characters are and that you can follow dialogue consisting of quite long sentences peppered with authentic-sounding intelligence jargon.
It is magnificent.
The cast is amazing too, but Alec Guinness is the undoubted star as the phlegmatic, implacable moral centre of the story, George Smiley. And saucy old Beryl Reid gets a massive amount out of her brief cameo as Connie Sachs. The whole thing is just a big, faultless, luxurious treat. I have Smiley’s People to look forward to too.
There is a new version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy hoving into view. This would en-dreaden me if it was a TV adaptation as I can imagine various diversity checklists being ticked off and tedious things like plot and dialogue being jettisoned in favour of sexified car chases and whatnot.
Happily though this is a movie version directed by Tomas Alfredson whose previous film was the Swedish vampire story Let The Right One In, and the auspices are good.
Gary Oldman as Alec Guinness and Kathy Burke as Beryl Reid? Go on then. I’m in.