The Impossible Planet

You know that scene at the end of the 1968 Planet of the Apes (the first of the Charlton Heston ones) where he’s riding along the beach and suddenly yells “Damn them all to Hell”? Yeah, that bit – that’s what I thought about when I got to the end of this story. And then I felt really sad for the future of humanity, which isn’t something I ordinarily do when I read Philip Dick short stories. It just felt very poignant.

The plot is quite simple; Earth has been consigned to myth by virtually everyone. Only a three hundred and fifty year old lady who grew up on stories told by her grandfather, who was born there, believes it exists. And she wants to go there. In desperation – and to pocket the inordinate amount of money she is prepared to pay – two space pilots pick a planet of similar description (i.e. third rock from a star) and take her there, telling her it’s Earth.

This made me recall something I often wondered when I was younger; assuming that there is life out there, what do they call our Sun? Do they have another name for our planet? Is it possible that at some point in the future, humanity will have spread throughout the universe and Earth may be forgotten? Big ideas, but that’s what Philip K Dick was all about.

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Not Quite Downton

I’ve never read anything by Kate Morton before, but the library thoughtfully allowed a copy of The House at Riverton to remain on the shelf before anyone else got there, so I borrowed it to have a read. It’s a lovely read, interesting and with characters you can really engage with, and it took me no time at all to whizz through 500 pages.

If it reminded me of anything, the book closely resembled the second season of Downton Abbey, set during the First World War. This is primarily because both are set in a large country house, with noble owners and downstairs staff, and discuss all the changes that came with the onset of war, the slaughter and in due course the armistice. Although in that regard they are telling the same story, it is markedly different in how it is handled – at no time reading Morton did I imagine Hugh Bonneville coming down the stairs at Grantham to consult Carson over the wine list.

Riverton is narrated through the eyes of one of the maids, Grace, as she recalls her past which is in the process of being turned into a costume drama. There’s a lot more to the plot than that, but I found I wasn’t really interested in any of it; I wanted to go back in time with her, back to dusting every last nook and cranny in the library because Her Ladyship was convinced that a relative died of a dust infection three hundred years previously, and where Cook’s apple tartlets were considered a cure for shellshock on the grounds that they worked for everything else.

There are births, deaths and marriages in the novel (the greatest twist is where the inheritance of the title depends entirely on the gender of an unborn child so the household has to wait for three months to find out) as there are in Downton, and it’s all too easy to get wrapped up in the conspiracies, friendships and rivalries between the characters. I honestly think that if you like Downton, you will enjoy this – just don’t expect Lady Mary to turn up suddenly and have a fling with an Indian prince.

The Cask of Amontillado

Another famed story that I’m not keen on. It’s really just a very sadistic murder told from the point of view of the murderer. So why is it so celebrated?

My assumption is simply that it’s the nature of the murder that is what fascinates – Fortunato is buried alive in a wall in a ruined crypt in an ancient (and unnamed) Italian city around the time of carnival. This was well known as a medieval punishment; Countess Erzebet Bathory was walled up in her rooms of Castle Cactice after being found guilty of the murders of numerous local girls. In fact, it was a common belief that the local gods, elves, sprites and fairies required a blood sacrifice to promote the success of a new building and dogs or cats were frequently dumped into the foundations for this reason.

It’s just that if it’s read alongside The Tell Tale Heart and The Fall of the House of Usher, it strikes me that there is a progression in the burial theme here. In the first story, the victim may well be dead when the killer smothers him, but he is certainly deceased by the time he is dismembered and buried under the floorboards. In the second story, Madeline Usher is alive when she is entombed but dies soon after, killing her brother when she reappears. And in the third story, Fortunato is very much alive when he is bricked up in his niche. Being buried alive was something that terrified Poe, and consequently is a theme which appears frequently in his stories. I wonder if this was his way of trying to face down his fears, by being the person doing the burying rather than the person being buried.

It’s not a great story, if I’m honest. There are mistakes that even I spotted (and I’m not much of a drinker these days) which always irritates me. In the context of the other two stories that I have read recently, it did prove of interest though.

The Fall of the House of Usher

I feel slightly treacherous writing this. I love Edgar Allen Poe; and this was one of his most famous stories; but I hate it. I’m not sure if it’s a case of familiarity breeding contempt, but it bores the pants off me and I find the prose tedious in the extreme. So I forced myself to re-read it to see if I could spot what my problem with it was.

The plot, such as it is, is minimal, which may be why it’s been adapted a few times with varying degrees of success – there’s plenty of scope for inventive cinematography or staging. An unnamed man visits his old schoolfriend and his sister, who both live in their ancestral home which is excessively ancient but not yet ruinous. Both the friend (Roderick Usher) and his sister (Madeline) have been unwell and during the course of the tale, Madeline dies. Her corpse is interred in the family vault and Roderick lapses into distraught grief. The climax of the story is the revelation that Madeline was, in fact, buried alive and the House itself falls down during a terrific thunderstorm and takes both the Ushers with it.

And that’s it. Not a lot goes on for an awful lot of words, and I simply find it tedious. Poe’s prose can tend to the purple if he’s not careful – Ligeia is a stinker for this, but I love it regardless – but here he tends to padding, it seems to me. There are a lot of words and not a lot of story. Still, as it’s one of Poe’s most popular tales, I must be in the minority, but I’m okay with that. It’s an important story – I just don’t like it.

The Tell Tale Heart

I’m not sure how to approach this. Originally, I was going to explore how this short tale of a guilty conscience compared to a much longer examination of the same subject – Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment – but I can’t find my copy of Dostoyevsky and anyway, I had a much better idea. I still don’t know how to approach it, but at least I know what I want to talk about. Put bluntly, I want to explain why the narrator is wrong.

We are never told the names of any of the characters in the story, nor their relationships; all we know is the victim is considerably older than the narrator and has a “vulture’s eye”, a large blue eye that has clouded over, presumably from a cataract. The narrator himself declares loudly at the very beginning of the story that he is quite sane and couldn’t possibly be anything else – yet there is nothing in his behaviour to support this. Quite the contrary, in fact.

Sane people, for example, do not necessarily become fixated on an object to the point it renders them homicidal, but this is what happens to the narrator. He becomes obsessed with the old man’s vulture eye, and resolves to rid himself of it once and for all by killing his companion. He takes exceptionally good care of the old man, yet still spends a week spying on him at midnight, convinced that the eye is watching him. It isn’t, but since he’s convinced he’s not mad, there’s no problem is there?

On the last night, he accidentally startles his companion and ends up killing him by crushing him under the heavy bedstead, whereupon he dismembers the body and buries it under the floorboards. Unfortunately, a neighbour has heard a scream and reported it to the police; they come to investigate, but our narrator has done such a good job of hiding the body there is no possibility of him being discovered, is there? Except, of course, the heartbeat coming from under the floorboards…

No, I’m sorry, the narrator is quite mad. Which does render a lot of what he says to be completely untrustworthy. Did he take good care of his companion before his death or not? Did he really hear a heartbeat, was it death watch beetles or an auditory hallucination? We are not told, but left to speculate. I wonder how he’s finding the asylum…

The Showman’s Art

I’ve only just realised – writing the title to this – that two of America’s greatest shock rockers have alter egos with female names; Marilyn Manson chose his by combining a glamorous celebrity with a notorious criminal whereas Alice Cooper was told a story about a New England witch of that name. Both play loud raucous rock music with controversial themes and subjects, wear outlandish outfits and lots of make up – and both put on a stunningly good live show. I’ve had the great privilege over the years to have seen both of them on stage a number of times, and I’ve never left disappointed.

And it’s interesting that both of them have been on tour to the UK in recent months, still putting on stage performances (with Manson in a wheelchair after suffering a broken leg) which are as good as any they’ve seen. You see, I believe that both understand the nature of performance; an audience go to see a show to be entertained, so give them something to watch. Whether this is Cooper’s fake guillotine or Manson on stilts, it’ll be remembered and talked about for a long time, which is the point.

Someone I know who knows these things said that many bands and musicians actually don’t make money from touring; they make it from the merchandise that is sold at the venue (provided you buy it from legitimate traders, obviously). So why do they bother? Well, it allows them to interact with their fan base but in order to attract new fans and keep the existing ones interested, you have to give them something worth seeing, and that is something that both Manson and Cooper understand inherently.

I can’t say what inspired them to do things this way, because I simply don’t know. I can say that it’s worth every penny of the tickets to go and watch, and is always highly entertaining (although if you don’t like the music, don’t bother). Perhaps a few other performers could take a leaf out of their books and entertain, rather than just show up on stage in a t shirt and jeans and warble a bit?

A SHORT BREAK FOR THE HOLIDAYS

Nothing serious, I promise you, but as the Festive Season is just around the corner, I’m going to have a short break from the blog to do stuff with the family but shall be back again in a few days.

However you celebrate it, be it Christmas, Yule, Hanukah, Kwanzaa or under the duvet wishing it was happening to someone else, stay safe and be happy and I wish you every success and happiness in 2018.

See you soon.

Goya’s Gothic Masterpiece

Goya painting titled “Time” or in Spanish Las viejas.

Deep down, I know I really shouldn’t like this painting half as much as I do. It’s really very wicked, blackly funny and very clever; it’s also slightly monstrous, which I think is why I like it. Of course, Time is nowhere near as bleak and gruesome as his famous painting of Cronos Eating his Children, but I think in its own way, it deserves to be centre stage a little more.

On the surface, Time is a portrait of a society lady who is incredibly elderly. She is accompanied by her maid, and there is a dark figure in the back, whom we will explore later. The lady is exceptionally well dressed, draped in white silks and lace and presumably her best diamonds. Behind her fan, you can tell that the maid is sniggering despite her skull like features. Yes, the lady who may once have been beautiful has decided that she will be beautiful again, by wearing finery that is outdated and probably unfashionable. The maid may have gone along with it as an opportunity to laugh at her betters – and it’s a salutary lesson for those of us who may occasionally risk harking back to our younger days and getting the punk/goth/rockabilly outfits out. What suited us when we were 17 may not necessary suit us when we’re 50.

Now, the character at the back – most art historians state that this is a personification of Time, which is very hard to disagree with (because of the title of the work) but because there is a very clear message about the effects of the passage of time. Alongside this analysis is also that this could be a personification of Death – he awaits us all and it is only the passage of time that separates us.

If your only taste of Goya has been his Black Paintings (which aren’t for everyone, even though I think they’re rather wonderful) this is a great example of his wicked sense of humour.

A Lesson in Being a Gentleman

Oh all right, I admit it. I only watched Kingsman: The Secret Service because part of it was set in Savile Row. Oh, and Mark Strong was in it, and I rather like him. Despite all the silliness, gadgetry and violence, there was some pretty good stuff in the film – especially on what it took to be a gentleman. Given that at least one of the candidates to replace Lancelot was a woman, I think it’s fairly safe to assume that these are general principles rather than specifically male ones.

I shall also try very hard not to sound too much like Colin Firth when I do this.

Firstly, a gentleman is not about birth but about breeding. This is one of the lessons that Eggsy has most trouble getting his head around, coming from a council estate and living on the dole. Being a gentleman is about being comfortable in one’s own skin, about being confident that one can adapt to and behave in any situation. As the Kingsman motto has it – manners maketh the man. It used to be clothes in my day, but to be honest, they’re just a sideshow. Good manners cost nothing but make a world of difference, and they are the mark of a gentleman – and they are something that can be learned.

Moreover, being a gentleman is about knowing when to work as a team and when to go it alone. It is about loyalty when needed and ruthlessness when required. Startlingly, it was often the female candidates who proved more adept that this than the men were, so it was no surprise when one became a Kingsman. She was brilliant, a real role model for young women.

Finally – and probably most importantly – being a gentleman is about taking responsibility for your actions. It’s about holding your hands up and admitting when you’re wrong and learning from your mistakes. Physical strength is all very well, but mental strength and tenancity are better; but all pale in comparison to integrity.

Kingsman: The Secret Service could teach everyone a great deal about being a gentleman – and hopefully young people will learn a lot from it as well. Not just how to disarm a gun wielding lunatic from a hundred paces.

Why Did The Earth Stand Still?

I caught a rerun of the original (and still the best) version of The Day the Earth Stood Still, a 1950s black and white science fiction classic where the special effects are basic and things don’t have to be blown up to make a very good film. I suppose the thing that bugs me most about this version is the overt Christianity – there are many references suggesting that Klaatu is a Christ-figure, which jars with me – and that there is no explanation for the title. Why did the Earth stand still? In surprise at the arrival of beings from another world – or is it a description of the result of Klaatu’s “experiment”?

About half way through the film, Klaatu agrees with Professor Barnhardt that he would get the world’s attention in such a way that nobody could either fail to take notice or get hurt. He does this by shutting down all electrics and mechanics – interestingly, early cars and motorcycles don’t move, even though they are much more mechanical than they are today – except for planes in flight and power to hospitals. This EMP lasts for precisely half an hour, during which Klaatu explains to Helen, a fellow tenant at the boarding house he is staying in, who he is and why he is on Earth. Although he can interfere with man’s impact on the Earth, he can’t affect it’s movement in the universe. So the Earth, strictly speaking, still moves.

I’ve not see the remake, starring Keanu Reeves as Klaatu, but I expect it is glitzier and with better special effects. I’m told it’s not as good as the original, and that significant changes were made to the screenplay, giving it a more topical appeal. Hopefully they will also have lost the religious elements as well. I’m not sure a society as advanced as Klaatu’s would still believe in myths and legends.

Many science fiction fans have spent ages trying to decipher the key phrase “Klaatu barada nikto”, which Helen has to say to Gort when Klaatu is shot by the National Guard. The best suggestion is that it is a deactivation code, preventing Gort from going on a killing spree. Yet so far as I can tell, nobody has considered the meaning behind the title. Why is it called “The Day the Earth Stood Still” when it clearly didn’t? Perhaps we’ll never know.