Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Rigidly Defined Areas of Doubt and Uncertainty (A New Year's Thinky Bin Clear-out)

(originally posted on myspace here)

Hooh! Sorry about the absence. You want a piece of me? Okay here we go. Here's Herne Hill at five in the morning. I can't now remember why I went out. Yes I can. I'd slept in late after the last night of the pantomime and wanted some air. The fog was a bonus actually. I wasn't the only silhouette knocking around at that hour but, kid, I was monarch of all I surveyed:


And here's where I did my Christmas shopping the following morning:


And here's how I got there:


You couldn't see further than the length of a plane that day (a unit of measurement I was entertaining because I had to fly to France the next day). I walked blindly but with grace through the gates of Greenwich park, found an incline and made my way up to the observatory where I pottered cap in hand about the space exhibits freshly reminded of how little I really knew about the old place... I know less about space now than I would if I were five. For example there are officially NOT nine planets now: a five-year-old will know this but it's not what I was taught. And while I'm finally big enough to make my presence felt at the interactive exhibits I'm now too big to get my knees under the desk. So I just walk on, past all the education, and have a go on the meteorite instead. That is, I touch it. "This is the oldest object you will ever touch!" says the sign. So it's even older than the Earth. There is of course absolutely no way of being able to tell this by just touching it however, an obvious but still disappointing reality.

Happy New Year by the way. I hope anyone reading this is well and rested and has cleared up a bit rather than just burning a bit of incense like God's going to decide to come down and do the hoovering. All four of us in the house have beards now. A pit was dug in the garden for New Year's Eve, fifteen pits'orth of found firewood stacked beneath the fairy lights, didgeridoos and twelve-string guitars brought out, friends invited and, unlike the last time we tried this, nobody got branded. I'd popped up to my room quite early on, intent on putting this post to bed in time for my New Year's resolution (at least one post every two days, regardless of whether or not I have anything to say: the whole point of this blog was to wring some kind of thinking out of me) and accidentally went to bed. Well I'd had a busy day: By noon I had already stocked up on smoked salmon, run a bath, finished "The Drowned and the Saved" and impulse-bought four videos from Barnado's for 95p (an anachronistic indulgence that included Derek Jarman's back projections from a Pet Sop Boys' tour, and two episodes of this:
- the proto-Booshian, secret-identity-rockstar classic "Jem" whose opening song's manhole-facilitated hijacking by the Misfits kicks every ounce as much ass as I remember). I was woken in time for midnight though by Jamie banging on a steel drum with a cane (someone clearly knew that drum was going to come in handy when they dumped it in the corridor nine months ago) and even though we were going by the kitchen clock which is set four minutes early so that people don't miss their trains which I've never really understood, it was an exemplary social gathering. Glamour and glitter. Fashion and fame.

Hooh! continued: I actually started this post back in Languedoc, where I spent Christmas with the parents, where the birdseed is daily replenished, where the air is clear and the land quite flat, but not so flat you can't pop up a ridge to catch sight of the snow on the Pyrenees (so as my Dad pointed out we had snow for Christmas). And I gave my Dad a book of morally fortifying Magic Lantern slides. Here's one:


Here, rather shockingly, is the next (it was a simpler time):



And Santa gave me "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins, which I'm tucking into now and finding as problematic as expected (see Jun 19: "Heaven's full of Machines" passim, won't you). It really is a very long-winded and patronizing piece of writing. And I can't agree that the question "Does God exist?" is scientifically important (see Sep 21: "Qui Makey Ipsum Makeyman?" or whatever it was called, passeeeem). I don't believe in God, mine is a vast and Godless Universe and that's fine, but (or maybe "therefore") I can't conceive how his existence might change what scientists should investigate, how they should investigate it, or how any of us should behave towards each other? Also… as nasty, wretched and wrong as atheism's enemies are I can't agree with Dawkins that religion is my "enemy" either, any more than I can agree that sculpture is my "enemy", or football. Religion is a form of assembly. It's a subject for art, it's a medium. Where does the imagination fit into all this? Somewhere surely, and at the risk of sounding quisling, the question "GIVEN that God clearly doesn't exist, WHY do people believe in him?" is probably a lot more interesting than Dawkins' answer "Because they haven't grown out of it" suggests, although I can agree that people should be given every opportunity to quit (which is what this book purports to give, so good on it I suppose). The numerous examples he cites of institutional oppression meted out to the opponents of hokum are unbelievably depressing – and I'm only a hundred pages in - but what do they prove? Clive James once wrote that a ban on televised beauty contests would do nothing to stop thick ladies wanting to turn up on the telly in their bikinis. He was spot on, and I rather feel the same way about religion and tribal violence... Anyway the real problem I have with the book is its tone, and it's not a superficial problem. As I mentioned earlier I'd just been lent "The Drowned and the Saved" by Primo Levi and – I wasn't actually lent it by Primo Levi, sorry... – and baffling as religious belief is, Levi's writing rings out with insight into a subject no less baffling as the direct result it seems to me of the tone he feels obliged to adopt. At no point do you feel he's writing to give anyone an erection. His tone is angry but not insulting, impartial but not agnostic, respectful but unwavering, and it's this tone that's missing from Dawkins. That's all I'm asking for really, insight. Sound like a scientist. Surprise me. As I said though I'm only a hundred pages in.

And I should probably declare a couple of interests as well, in the spirit of looking back:


I once fell in love with a woman who told me she spoke to God. And I don't believe in God but I didn't believe she was lying and I didn't believe she was wrong. No, I quite happily entertained two completely incompatible cosmic attitudes, and that decision seemed at the time the closest I've ever come to Being In Love: She had her cosmos, I had mine, an attitude that would probably strike Dawkins as detestable intellectual cowardice, but Love is an act of faith as I've written before (I can't agree with the idea that falling in love and monogamy are Darwinian chemical imperatives... if they were everyone would live happily ever after and the Earth would shine like the sun). Love is unprovable. That's why weddings normally happen in churches, and are normally frightening. And why this woman's religion made it so much easier for me to go "Right, I love her", although my atheism made it so impossible for her (let's say... let's just say that was the reason). It's also why I began to find going to weddings so hard.

Then there was that sketch I wrote for Laurence and Gus in a lunch break a couple of weeks back (I've never written a sketch so quickly... I'm sure that's a good sign) the sketch about Abraham and Isaac that opened with "And on the seventh day God rested. And on the eighth day, God rested. And on the ninth day, God rested, and so he basically rested, and then drowned everyone and invented the rainbow. And then rested," a sketch that was pretty clearly not going to be recorded, although it went down very well at the read-through. Actually I should check up on that. I couldn't make the last recording as I was doing the pantomime (It was based on Pride and Prejudice, I was the baddie, the second time in two months I've been asked to wear green tights). I should also state that it's only the commission to write for Laurence and Gus that got me turning this stuff out in the first place, but if it hasn't been recorded then hooray, I can proudly count myself among the Censored Satirists. I mean it was a funny sketch. I mean she did love me. It's just… you know, religion.

Michael's wedding was lovely though. That's what I said I'd write about in this post, didn't I. The reception was a month ago now and took place in a huge brick hall in Wapping that had once been responsible, so I was told, for powering every hydraulic theatre curtain in the West end. Its floor was covered with leaves and bare trees had been installed in a downstairs chamber where flamenco dancers served mulled wine. What can I say about it? It was a month ago. It was not frightening. I was sat with friends. We danced. It was hilarious.


And I'll leave you, in the spirit of looking forward, with a New Year's message from the celebrated, short-sleeved turkeyperson Arthur C. Clarke. I found this pinned to a board in the Carnegie Library. Enjoy the sunshine, wherever you are...

"Our galaxy is now in the brief springtime of its life – a springtime made glorious by such brilliant blue-white stars as Vega and Sirius. Not until all these have flamed through their incandescent youth, in a few fleeting billions of years, will the real history of the universe begin. It will be a history illuminated by the reds and infra-reds of dully glowing stars, visible only to whatever strange beings have adapted to their light. Before them will lie not the billions of years in which we measure eras of our geology, but years to be counted literally in trillions...


"They will have time enough, in those endless aeons, to attempt all things, and to gather all knowledge. They will not be like gods, because no gods imagined by our minds have ever possessed the powers they will command. But for all that, they may envy us, basking in the bright afterglow of Creation; for we knew the Universe when it was young."


Yes. Happy New Year

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