Aeroplanes and television: how they change our world

I was thinking the other day about our internal geographies and the changing relationship these have with the world. In particular, i was musing on the effect of modern forms of transport – and to a lesser extent the effect of the modern media. A few centuries ago most people would have spent almost all their lives in one location which they’d have known very well indeed; their knowledge would have faded away gradually as they moved from this ‘centre of the universe’ until they reached the boundaries of the known.

Of course it wouldn’t have been quite that simple. There would be little irregularities – market towns they made a special journey to perhaps or pilgrimage sites – and there would have existed a vague map of other places too: lands mentioned in the Bible for example (i’m thinking of people in Britain as my example), cities from which luxury items came, the lands of myth and legend.

Still, it was a very different situation to today. Nowadays a person may live in one small district of a town, and know the way to and the location of a shopping complex on the edge of town and a few other locations but be otherwise ignorant of much of the place in which they live. They may commute by train every day passing from one small area of ‘known world’ to another, the one in which they work, through a desert of meaningless place names. How many of us have felt panic when our train breaks down en route and we’re turfed out at some station ‘in the middle of nowhere’? Even when the middle of nowhere is often the middle of somewhere, some district of the city we just don’t happen to know?

But trains have only a mild effect compared to aeroplanes. Consider for a moment those people with holiday homes in Spain or Portugal – or even Florida. Each year they migrate hundreds of miles to these places, even if only for a little while. At both ends of the journey they know precisely where they are. Those two small areas, so distant from one another, are next to one another in their internal geography. One goes from one to the other. The space in between, those miles of sea and land which they fly over, has no reality for them. Indeed, modern planes fly so high that for much of the trip travellers don’t even see the places over which they’re moving.

It’s very strange when you stop to think about it. I live maybe fifty or sixty miles from France. There are people just that distance from me living lives in towns i never see and can’t name. I never go there. Why? Well, in part – and quite a big part – because there’s no quick or easy way to get there. Far easier to get a plane to the other side of Europe or even beyond. The other reason i don’t go is because i imagine i’ve already seen these towns – or more accurately that being so close to me they can’t be sufficiently different from what i already know to make the journey worthwhile. Yet as a child even the south of England seemed like a foreign country. The first time i visited London (as a fourteen year old) i was awed and disoriented – far more so than when i later visited Istanbul or even Dhaka in fact.

It’s all about exposure. And that brings me to the other way in which places can come to feel too familiar to be worth bothering about: the constant exposure to images of them in the media. This is probably why i’ve never visited America. Why go to it and when it comes to me practically every time i turn on the telly? Of course that’s only a little sliver of America, but then, thinking about it, i’ve only ever seen a little sliver of my own country. Still, the illusion of familiarity takes root. The Internet only worsens this. You spend hours chatting to people on another continent, on the other side of the ocean. You live in your global village of far-flung contacts separated only by meaningless ‘uninhabited’ hyperspace.

One day i suppose we’ll be living in ‘virtual worlds’ spread across different planets, perhaps different galaxies. Imagine.

Morecambe & Hamlet: the Christmas double act

Morecambe and Hamlet: one unexpectedly disappointed, the other just as unexpectedly thrilled.

I went to see the play Morecambe about the comedian Eric Morecambe on the 23 December as my pre-Christmas treat. Well, that was the idea. Eric Morecambe was my childhood hero. I have half a dozen books about him or Morecambe & Wise as a double act, the DVDs of their TV series – you know the sort of fan. More to the point, i also saw and loved the show which the Right Size did about Morecambe & Wise some years ago, so when i read about the new show – and read its rave reviews – i got very excited indeed. The fact that Ernie was reduced to a puppet in the play did vaguely perturb me, but i shrugged the feeling off. None of the reviewers had suggested this was a problem.

On the night though i realised i should have paid more attention to my misgivings, as within five minutes of the show’s start it was clear that it simply didn’t work. Not for me anyhow. The play was a monologue, but Eric’s comedy was all about conversation: on stage, ‘in the flat’, ‘in bed’. Without the ebb and flow of that conversation between him and Ernie the jokes felt flat and clunky. On top of that the actor, Bob Golding, had a voice that was too high pitched and a tendency to gabble his lines – unlike Eric who knew when and how to leave spaces.

So that was that. I left at the interval and, making the best of the situation, went off to the supermarket to finish my Christmas shopping. Fast forward to Boxing Day and i decide to watch David Tennant in Hamlet, which i’d recorded earlier the same day. I was in two minds about whether to bother and, after the Morecambe debacle, the glowing reviews were more suspect than seducing. In the end it was the lack of an alternative that induced me to press play; there just didn’t seem to be anything else on worth watching.

As with Morecambe i realised my error of judgement within minutes: the production was marvellous! David Tennant, who i’d previously dismissed as a gurning ferret, was simply a revelation in the title part; and both Patrick Stewart (Claudius) and the actor who played Laertes were great. In fact, the whole cast was good or better. The actors played their roles in modern dress, which initially i wasn’t sure about; but which very quickly made total sense – and the language! My God, i’d never realised just how beautiful that play is.

I suppose the moral of the story is the old one about being wary of assumptions. The people behind Morecambe probably assumed Ernie was more or less superfluous and i assumed that David Tennant couldn’t act. Wrong, wrong.

Alpha Centauri, here i come!

What is it about space travel that is so alluring? Even a ‘short’ journey in space takes a long, long time. It’s cold up there, dangerous up there and, what’s worse, for long stretches there’s nothing up there. Alpha Centauri is the star system nearest to our own and even that is over four light years away – or to put it another way 25.6 trillion miles; and yet, when you get there, most of the universe is going to look much the same as it does from Earth, because as vast as the distance from here to there sounds, in relation to the size of the Universe it’s trivial.

And yet…

Ever since i can remember i have longed to make that voyage. Alpha Centauri is my love, my other. It is all that is unattainable – the 99.999999% of the Universe which not only will i never visit, but to which a visit would be impossible.

For me but not for my descendants? Because it is conceivable that one day we – as in human beings – could make such a journey; whereas for most of the Universe no such possibility exists. We would have to become something other than human – and would therefore no longer be ‘us’ – to endure the centuries, millennia even, that even the fastest spacecraft would require for the trip to other galaxies.

Even measured in light years the distances to these can run into the billions; and at such a distance, there is no way of knowing if the galaxies are still there. After all if the picture we’re seeing is billions of years old, who knows what’s happened since? And their size! In what way is it meaningful to visit a galaxy? We live in a galaxy, but if we were to climb into a spaceship at birth and visit a planet – or even a star a day – we wouldn’t see them all before we died. 100 to 400 billion: that is how many stars our galaxy contains.

By contrast, a visit to another star system sounds positively manageable. And what an experience! Imagine seeing the Sun as a yellow pinprick in the darkness. For just as Alpha Centauri is visible from Earth, so the Sun would be visible from a planet orbiting either of the two stars* in that system. Just as astronauts, when they saw the Earth from the Moon, gained for the first time a sense of the Earth as an object separate from themselves; so from Alpha Centauri we would gain something like the same perspective on our Solar System.

Might Alpha Centauri contain an alternative Earth? Unlikely, given its twin suns, but it doesn’t stop people dreaming, especially those of us who have never felt fully at home on this Earth. The important thing is that it remains unknown and thus is the perfect playground for dreams and nightmares, much as was true of Mars or Venus before spacecraft revealed the more prosaic truth: that Mars is an empty red desert and Venus** an inferno. We may still wonder sometimes about the possibility of life on Mars, but for the most part our Martian fantasies are now not about what we might find there but what we might create there: terraforming. There’s another parallel too: just as Mars and (occasionally) Venus have been conceived as mirrors or twins to the Earth, so Alpha Centauri performs this function for the Solar System as a whole.

I think, having considered it, that all these factors play their part for me: the longing to attain the unattainable; the need to reduce the universe to something more intelligible; the desire to see the reality i live within from without; and an adult version of my childhood dreams of a passage to other worlds.

* Actually, there are three but the third, Proxima, is much smaller and dimmer.
** An atlas we had when i was a child included an ‘artist’s depiction of what Venus might look like’. It showed a lush, vaguely prehistoric looking jungle.

Space is a dangerous place

Just an aside, but after writing the last post, something else occurred to me about Sci-Fi. This time it’s more about films than books. I was re-running scenes from films and TV shows in my mind – Star Trek, Star Wars, that sort of thing – when it suddenly struck me that not once had i ever seen anyone die from contact with (Outer) Space. I’ve seen countless spaceships blown up. I’ve seen people die from plagues, seen them zapped by lasers and even watched them fall victim to mind control, but Space itself has seemed to pose no danger at all to the people of the future.  The heroes (and villains) of Sci-Fi movies zoom through Space as though it were just a giant black backdrop. Yet stop to think for a moment how cold, how vast, how airless, how exposed to radiation Space is – what a barrier it poses to all our dreams of exploring the universe. We couldn’t survive direct contact with it even for a moment.