The Scrum Problem

My apologies from deviating back to a personal favourite- I try too keep rugby out of these posts on the grounds that, in real life, it tends to make things kind of exclusive for people who aren’t into it, but I thought that I might be allowed one small deviation from this guideline. Today, I wish to talk about probably the single most contentious issue in the game today, one that divides, confuses and angers just about everyone involved in it: the scrum.

The scrum has always been a historic feature of the game of rugby- perhaps a historic callback to the old ‘scrums’ of viciously fighting players that formed the origins of the game of football, in the context of rugby it has proved contentious since the very first international ever played. England and Scotland were playing one another and, at the time, both played under different rules, so it was agreed that they would play under English rules for the first half and Scottish ones in the second. The game was around an hour old, tied at 0-0 (yeah it was a bit rubbish in those days), when the Scots won a scrum on the English five metre line. Rather than feed the ball into the scrum, the Scots instead began to push. The unsuspecting English forwards were caught off guard and forced back over their own line, whereupon the Scottish scrum-half grounded the ball. Whilst totally illegal under English rules, and thus generating a barrage of complaints, the Scots had one fair and square, starting off a bitter rivalry against ‘the Auld Enemy’ that continues to this day.

The scrum has developed a lot since those days (everyone now plays under the same rules for one thing), but perhaps the most important development for the modern game came in the 1990’s, specifically within the New Zealand team at the time. The All Blacks were a talented side, but their major disadvantage came up front, for whilst their front row players were skilled, Sean Fitzpatrick and company were not the biggest or heaviest front row around. Whilst not a disadvantage in open play, at scrum time it was feared that they would crumble under their opponent’s superior weight, so they had to find a way round that. In the end, they resorted to a bit of trickery. The structure adopted at scrum time by most sides of the age was to come together gently, get settled, then let the scrum half put the ball in and start to push, twist, and cheat in all the million ways discovered by front rowers over the years. However, what the Kiwis decided to do was hit the engagement hard, smashing their opponents back to get a good body position early. Then, the scrum half would feed the ball in almost immediately, allowing them to start pushing straight away and keep their opponents on the back foot, thus not allowing them time to get themselves settled and start to push back. It worked like a charm, aside from one small drawback. Everyone else started to copy them.

Even with trained wrestlers, there is only so much damage that sixteen men can do to one another when simply trying to push one another back. However, when not much below a tonne of meat slams as hard as it can into another tonne smashing back the other way, the forces involved in the impact is truly huge, and suddenly the human spine doesn’t seem all that strong. Not only that, but the slightest misalignment of the impact, and that amount of force means there is simply no way for it to all settle down nicely. Combine this fact with the immense muscle building and weight gain programs now demanded by the modern, professional game, and the attention to detail of modern coaches to get that extra edge in the impact, and we reach the inescapable and chaotic conclusion that is the modern scrum. In the last world cup in 2011, in matches between top-tier countries 50 scrums out of every 100 collapsed, and there were 31 resets and 41 free-kicks or penalties per 100. The stats were virtually the same during this year’s Six Nations, in which nearly half of all scrums resulted in the ball not coming back and creating one match (Ireland v Scotland) that spent over a quarter of its playing time spent scrummaging, resetting or collapsing.

This is despite the fact that the face of the game has changed very much against the set piece in the modern era. In the early 1970’s, analysis suggests that the average number of set-pieces (scrums and lineouts) in a match was nearly triple its current value (mid-thirties), whilst the number of rucks/mauls has gone up sixfold since then. Even since the game first turned pro in the mid-nineties, the number of set pieces has dropped by a third and the number of successful breakdowns tripled. The amount of time the ball spends in play has also risen hugely, and some are even arguing that the scrum as we know it is under threat. Indeed, in last year’s Six Nations the scrum was only the deciding factor in one game (England v Ireland), and as Paul Wallace astutely pointed out at the time that Ireland getting pushed about for the entire match was their reward for playing by the rules and not sending a front rower off ‘injured’.

Then there are the myriad of various intrigues and techniques that have lead to the scrum becoming the unstable affair it is today. Many argue that modern skintight shirts don’t allow players to grip properly, forcing them to either slip or grab hold of easier and possibly illegal positions that make the scrum decidedly wobbly. Others blame foot positioning, arguing that the modern way of setting up one’s feet, where the hooker demands the majority of space, forces the backs of his props to angle inwards and making the whole business more dangerous and less stable. Some blame poor refereeing for letting scrummagers get away with things that are now becoming dangerous, destabilising habits among front rowers, whilst others may counter this by considering the myriad of confusing signals a referee has to try and keep track off at scrum time- two offside lines, straightness of feed, hooker’s feet up early, incorrect back row binding, illegal front row binding, whether his line judge is signalling him and whether anyone’s just broken their neck. This is clearly a mighty confusing situation, and one I’d love to be able to start suggesting solutions for- but I think I’ll leave that until Saturday…

The Curious Tale of Jack Dunlap

If, gentle reader, you happen to be from the USA, and especially if you happen to live in or in the vicinity of Washington, then you are likely to be more familiar than the rest of us with Arlington National Cemetery. This is a huge graveyard near the centre of Washington DC, and contains a number of war memorials and similar. It also contains the grave of John F Kennedy, whose final resting place it became 4 years after his assassination in 1963 (he had originally been buried in a small plot in the same graveyard, but was later moved to a plot containing a memorial). However, not long before Jack Kennedy was finally lain to rest, another Jack was buried just a little way away- one whose political significance was also huge, but went unknown to almost everyone. His name was Jack Dunlap, and his story is an extraordinary one.

In 1960, Dunlap led an unremarkable life. Married to an unworking wife and with five children, he was a sergeant in the US army with a distinguished record of service in the Korean war and the medals to show for it. However, now he was confined to more mundane work as a clerk-messenger, ferrying important documents around Fort Meade, the National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters in Washington. This made him around $100 a week, which even in 1960 wasn’t much to feed seven hungry mouths.

However, in late 1960 Dunlap encountered a big slice of luck. A distant great-uncle of his died, and bequeathed him a plantation in Louisiana. Suddenly, the dough was rolling in, and Dunlap began living the high life. A new Cadillac, fine suits, smart restaurants, his own cabin cruiser, and his newfound passion for speedboat racing were now within his financial grasp, he told his friends, but he hung onto his job out of a sense that it was important. He didn’t tell most of them about the mistress he had set up in her own apartment, but to her he told a different story. He put on his swagger, and began to brag about how he ‘wasn’t what I say I am’, and all the top-secret stuff his job required him to handle, ending with the old line “If you knew what I actually did, I’d have to kill you”.

Still, the Louisiana story was enough for his NSA bosses, and he received red carpet treatment. Not only was he given days off to go speedboat racing, but after an accident in which he injured his back they sent an ambulance and transferred him to a military hospital. As Jack joked to his friends “They were afraid the sedatives might make me tell a lot of secrets I know”

But to find out the real truth, you’d have to know about a curious fact of his work.  Some of the documents and papers he was entrusted to deliver would turn up late. Very late in fact- nobody noticed, but it might take a day or so for an important paper to get to where it needed to when it passed through Dunlap’s hands. This was because it had taken a little detour- first up Jack’s shirt, then to a man in Washington who would photograph or photocopy them, before being taken back to their intended recipient. The man in Washington was a Soviet agent, and Dunlap was selling his country’s secrets to the USSR.

This was where his newfound wealth had come from- a $50,000 annual salary, around ten times his NSA one, had been offered to Dunlap by the agent in a meeting that autumn ‘to help him bear the expense of his five kids’, in exchange for the information he provided. And provide it he did. Jack Dunlap carried on playing his game of betrayal for nearly four years, on one occasion even bringing an unsuspecting mistress with him to a meeting with his Soviet contact.

However, all good things come to an end, and in Jack Dunlap’s case that end was rather abrupt. In March 1964 his NSA term had come to an end, and he was due to be posted elsewhere- somewhere he might not be able to continue his lucrative trade in information. To try and keep his position (and thus his illicit income), he said that his family were too settled in Washington to move, and asked that, if he could not work for the NSA as a soldier any more, perhaps he could resign and assume work as a civilian.

This would have been a great plan had it not been for one catch- the lie detector. Whilst Army personnel were considered safe, all civilian NSA staff were required to take a session on it before assuming work and, try as he might, Dunlap could not persuade them that his military record excluded him from that. He tried to persuade himself that four years of casual espionage had kept him cool, calm and collected enough to beat the lie detector (which was a fundamentally flawed and eminently cheatable device), but unfortunately it was not to be. Measurements of his muscle movements, breathing, perspiration and heart rate when answering rather sensitive questions altered the NSA opinion of him from a trustworthy, honest, efficient worker to a habitual sneak ‘capable of petty theft’. Whilst not a damning indictment of the high treason he was performing, it was enough to get Dunlap transferred to a desk job and to get his bosses asking around. The plantation in Louisiana was found to be bogus, and they started trying to find out where Dunlap’s wealth came from.

For Dunlap, this was a terrifying time. Without any secrets to ferry and sell, he was abandoned by his Soviet contact. He knew perfectly well that four years of betraying such sensitive information was more than enough to send him to the electric chair, or at least the rest of his life in maximum security without a hope of parole. His mental state began to unravel- he had paranoid fears of shadowy men in dark corridors asking him to ‘just come this way’, or a platoon of soldiers kicking down the door. Finally, it all got too much for him, and on July 22nd, 1964, he drove to an abandoned creek and suffocated himself with his car’s exhaust fumes.

During his time as a spy, Jack Dunlap ‘told’ the Soviet Union almost everything about the United States’ coding machines, revealed exactly what the US knew about Soviet military power, and handled some information concerning Oleg Penkovsky a Soviet double agent working predominately for the British that went straight back to the Soviets and almost certainly helped lead to the eventual capture and execution of one of the most influential intelligence tools the western powers had (Penkovsky was a Soviet colonel who, disillusioned with his country’s politics, had begun to play exactly the same treacherous game as Dunlap). And that’s only the stuff we know about- the KGB have (understandably) never released the information they got from Dunlap, so he could even have contributed to Kennedy’s assassination for all we know (far be it from me to add yet another string to that particular conspiracy theory). Many might consider him a traitor, a villain who gave up both his principles and his country for a couple of hundred thousand bucks- but then again, we might consider Penkovsky, playing the same game, a hero who died in the fight against communism. What we can all be sure of, however, is that Jack Dunlap almost certainly changed the course of history in his own little way- much like the other famous Jack spending his eternal slumber just a stone’s throw away.

The Dark Knight Rises

OK, I’m going to take a bit of a risk on this one- I’m going to dip back into the world of film reviewing. I’ve tried this once before over the course of this blog (about The Hunger Games) and it went about as well as a booze-up in a monastery (although it did get me my first ever comment!). However, never one to shirk from a challenge I thought I might try again, this time with something I’m a little more overall familiar with: Christopher Nolan’s conclusion to his Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises.


Christopher Nolan has never been one to make his plots simple and straightforward (he did do Inception after all), but most of his previous efforts have at least tried to focus on only one or two things at a time. In Dark Knight Rises however, he has gone ambitious, trying to weave no less than 6 different storylines into one film. Not only that, but 4 of those are trying to explore entirely new characters and a fifth pretty much does the whole ‘road to Batman’ origins story that was done in Batman Begins. That places the onus of the film firmly on its characters and their development, and trying to do that properly to so many new faces was always going to push everyone for space, even in a film that’s nearly 3 hours long.

So, did it work? Well… kind of. Some characters seem real and compelling pretty much from the off, in the same way that Joker did in The Dark Knight- Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle (not once referred to as Catwoman in the entire film) is a little bland here and there and we don’t get to see much of the emotion that supposedly drives her, but she is (like everyone else) superbly acted and does the ‘femme fakickass’ thing brilliantly, whilst Joseph Gordon Levitt’s young cop John Blake (who gets a wonderful twist to his character right at the end) is probably the most- and best-developed character of the film, adding some genuine emotional depth. Michael Caine is typically brilliant as Alfred, this time adding his own kick to the ‘origins’ plot line, and Christian Bale finally gets to do what no other Batman film has done before- make Batman/Bruce Wayne the most interesting part of the film.

However, whilst the main good guys’ story arcs are unique among Batman films by being the best parts of the film, some of the other elements don’t work as well. For someone who is meant to be a really key part of the story, Marion Cotillard’s Miranda Tate gets nothing that gives her character real depth- lots of narration and exposition, but we see next to none of her for huge chunks of the film and she just never feels like she matters very much. Tom Hardy as Bane suffers from a similar problem- he was clearly designed in the mould of Ducard (Liam Neeson) in Begins, acting as an overbearing figure of control and power that Batman simply doesn’t have (rather than the pure terror of Joker’s madness), but his actual actions never present him as anything other just a device to try and give the rest of the film a reason to happen, and he never appears to have any genuinely emotional investment or motivation in anything he’s doing. Part of the problem is his mask- whilst clearly a key feature of his character, it makes it impossible to see his mouth and bunches up his cheeks into an immovable pair of blobs beneath his eyes, meaning there is nothing visible for him to express feeling with, effectively turning him into a blunt machine rather than a believable bad guy. There’s also an entire arc concerning Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and his guilt over letting Batman take the blame for Harvey Dent’s death that is barely explored at all, but thankfully it’s so irrelevant to the overall plot that it might as well not be there at all.

It is, in many ways, a crying shame, because there are so many things the film does so, so right. The actual plot is a rollercoaster of an experience, pushing the stakes high and the action (in typical Nolan fashion) through the roof. The cinematography is great, every actor does a brilliant job in their respective roles and a lot of the little details- the pit & its leap to freedom, the ‘death by exile’ sequence and the undiluted awesome that is The Bat- are truly superb. In fact if Nolan had just decided on a core storyline and focus and then stuck with it as a solid structure, then I would probably still not have managed to wipe the inane grin off my face. But by being as ambitious as he has done, he has just squeezed screen time away from where it really needed to be, and turned the whole thing into a structural mess that doesn’t really know where it’s going at times. It’s a tribute to how good the good parts are that the whole experience is still such good fun, but it’s such a shame to see a near-perfect film let down so badly.

The final thing I have to say about the film is simply: go and see it. Seriously, however bad you think this review portrays it as, if you haven’t seen the film yet and you at all liked the other two (or any other major action blockbuster with half a brain), then get down to your nearest cinema and give it a watch. I can’t guarantee that you’ll have your greatest ever filmgoing experience there, but I can guarantee that it’ll be a really entertaining way to spend a few hours, and you certainly won’t regret having seen it.

The Great Madiba*

I have previously mentioned on this blog that I have a bit of a thing for Nelson Mandela. I try not too bring this up too much, but when you happen to think that someone was the greatest human who has ever lived then it can be a touch tricky. I also promised myself that I would not do another 1 man adulation-fest for a while either, but today happens to be his ninety fourth (yes, 94th) birthday, so I felt that one might be appropriate.

Nelson Mandela was born in 1918 as the son of a Xhosa tribeschief, and was originally named Rolihlahla, or ‘troublemaker’ (the name Nelson was given to him when he attended school). South Africa at the time was still not far out of the Boer war, which has been a difficult one for historians to take sides in- the British, lead by Lord Kitchener of the ‘Your Country Needs You’ WWI posters, took the opportunity to invent the concentration camp whilst the Dutch/German descended Boers who both preached and practiced brutal racial segregation. It wasn’t until 1931 that South Africa was awarded any degree of independence from Britain, and not until 1961 that it became officially independent.

However, a far more significant political event occurred in 1948, with the coming to power of the National Party of South Africa, which was dominated by white Afrikaners. They were the first government to come up with apartheid, a legal and political system that enforced the separation of white & black South Africans in order to maintain the (minority group) whites’ political power. Its basic tenet was the dividing of all people into one of four groups. In descending order of rank, they were White, Coloured, Indian (a large racial group in South Africa- in fact a young Mahatma Gandhi spent a lot of time in the country before Mandela was born and pioneered his methods of peaceful protest there) and Black. All had to carry identification cards and all bar whites were effectively forbidden to vote. The grand plan was to try and send all ‘natives’ bar a few workers to one of ten ‘homelands’ to leave the rest of the country for white South Africans. There were a huge number of laws, many of which bore a striking resemblance to those used by Hitler to segregate Jews, to enforce separation (such as the banning of mixed marriages), and even a system to be up- (or even down-) graded in rank.

Mandela was 30 when apartheid was introduced, and began to take an active role in politics. He joined the black-dominated African National Congress (ANC) and began to oppose the apartheid system. He originally stuck to Gandhi’s methods of nonviolent protest and was arrested several times, but he became frustrated as protests against the government were brutally opposed and he began to turn to more aggressive measures. In the early sixties he co-founded and lead the ANC’s militant (some would say terrorist) wing, coordinating attacks on symbols of the Apartheid regime. This mainly took the form of sabotage attacks against government offices & such (he tried to avoid targeting or hurting people), and Mandela later admitted that his party did violate human rights on a number of occasions. Mandela was even forbidden to enter the United States without permission until 2008, because as an ANC member he had been classified a terrorist.

Eventually the law caught up with him, and Mandela was arrested in 1962. Initially jailed for 5 years for inciting workers to strike, he was later found guilty of multiple counts of sabotage and sentenced to life imprisonment (only narrowly escaping the death penalty, and once turning up to court in full Xhosa ceremonial dress). He was transported to the imfamously tough Robben Island prison and spent the next 18 years, between the ages of 45 and 58, working in a lime quarry. As a black, and a notorious political prisoner, Mandela was granted few, if any, privileges, and his cell was roughly the same size as a toilet cubicle. However, whilst inside, his fame grew- his image of a man fighting the oppressive system spread around the world and gained the apartheid system notoriety and hatred. In fact, the South African intelligence services even tried to get him to escape so they could shoot him and remove him from his iconic status. There were numerous pleas and campaigns to release him, and by the 1980s things had come to a head- South African teams were ostracised in virtually every sport (including rugby, a huge part of the Afrikaner lifestyle), and the South African resort of Sun City had become a total pariah for almost every western rock act to visit, all amidst a furious barrage of protests.

After Robben Island, Mandela spent a further 9 years in mainland prisons during which time he refined his political philosophy. He had also learned to speak Afrikaans and held many talks with key government figures who were overblown by both his physical presence (he had been a keen boxer in his youth) and his powerful, engaging and charming force of personality. In 1989, things took a whole new turn with the coming to power of FW de Klerk, who I rate as the South African equivalent of Mikhael Gorbachev. Recognising that the tides of power were against his apartheid system, he began to grant the opposition concessions, unbanning the ANC and, in 1990, releasing Mandela after nearly three decades in prison (Mandela holds the world record for the longest imprisonment of a future president). Then followed four long, strained years of negotiations of how to best redress the system, broken by a famous visit to the Barcelona Olympics and a joint awarding, in 1993, of the Nobel Peace prize to both Mandela and de Klerk, before the ANC got what it had spent all its years campaigning for- the right for black citizens to vote.

Unsurprisingly Mandela (by now aged 75) won a landslide in the elections of 1994 and quickly took apart the apartheid regime. However, many white South Africans lived in fear of what was to come- the prospect of ‘the terrorist’ Mandela now having free reign to persecute them as much as he liked was quite terrifying one, and one that had been repeated multiple times in other local African nations (perhaps the best example is Zimbabwe, where Robert Mugabe went from the first black leader of a new nation to an aggressive dictator who oppressed his people and used the race card as justification). Added to that, Mandela faced the huge political challenges of a country racked by crime, unemployment and numerous issues ranging from healthcare to education.

However, Mandela recognised that the white population were the best educated and controlled most of the government, police force and business of his country, so had to be placated. He even went so far as to interrupt a meeting of the national sports council to persuade them to revoke a decision to drop the name and symbol of the Springboks (South Africa’s national rugby side, and a huge symbol of the apartheid regime) to try and keep them happy. His perseverance paid off- the white population responded to his lack of prejudice by turning a boom in international trade caused by apartheid’s end into a quite sizeable economic recovery. Even Springboks became unifying force for his country, being sent off to coaching clinics in black townships and being inspired to such an extent by Mandela and his request for South Africans of all creeds to get behind the team that they overcame both their underdogs tag and the mighty New Zealand (and more specifically their 19 stone winger who ran 100m in under 11 seconds, Jonah Lomu) to win their home World Cup in 1995, igniting celebrations across the country and presenting South Africa as the Rainbow Nation Mandela had always wanted it to be. Despite his age, declining health he would only ever sleep for a few hours every night (claiming he rested long enough in prison). donated a quarter of his salary to charity on the grounds that he felt it was too much, and had to juggle his active political life around a damaged family life (his second wife having divorced from him & his children having some disagreements with his politics).

It would have been easy for Mandela to exact revenge upon his former white oppressors, stripping them of their jobs, wealth and privilege in favour for a new, black-orientated system- after all, blacks were the majority racial group in the country. But this is what makes Mandela so special- he didn’t take the easy option. He was not, and has never been, a black supremacist, nor one given to knee-jerk reactions- he believed in equality for all, including the whites who had previously not extended such a fair hand to him. He showed the world how to ‘offer the other cheek’ (in Gandhi’s words), and how to stand up for something you believe in. But most importantly, he showed us all that the world works best when we all give up thoughts of vengeance, and petty selfishness, and we instead come together as a brotherhood of humanity. Mandela’s legacy to the world will none be of his brilliant political mind, nor the education, healthcare or economic systems he put in place to revive his country, or even the extraordinary dedication, perseverance and strength of will he showed throughout his long years behind bars. Nelson Mandela taught the world how to be a human being.

*Madiba was Mandela’s Xhosa name, and he is referred to affectionately as such by many South Africans

Why do we call a writer a bard, anyway?

In Britain at the moment, there are an awful lot of pessimists. Nothing unusual about this, as it’s hardly atypical human nature and my country has never been noted for its sunny, uplifting outlook on life as a rule anyway. Their pessimism is typically of the sort adopted by people who consider themselves too intelligent (read arrogant) to believe in optimism and nice things anyway, and nowadays tends to focus around Britain’s place in the world. “We have nothing world-class” they tend to say, or “The Olympics are going to be totally rubbish” if they wish to be topical.

However, whilst I could dedicate an entire post to the ramblings of these people, I would probably have to violate my ‘no Views’ clause by the end of it, so will instead focus on one apparent inconsistency in their argument. You see, the kind of people who say this sort of thing also tend to be the kind of people who really, really like the work of William Shakespeare.

There is no denying that the immortal Bard (as he is inexplicably known) is a true giant of literature. He is the only writer of any form to be compulsory reading on the national curriculum and is known of by just about everyone in the world, or at least the English-speaking part. He introduced between 150 and 1500 new words to the English language (depending on who you believe and how stringent you are in your criteria) as well as countless phrases ranging from ‘bug-eyed monster’ (Othello) to ‘a sorry sight’ (Macbeth), wrote nearly 40 plays, innumerable sonnets and poems, and revolutionised theatre of his time. As such he is idolised above all other literary figures, Zeus in the pantheon of the Gods of the written word, even in our modern age. All of which is doubly surprising when you consider how much of what he wrote was… well… crap.

I mean think about it- Romeo and Juliet is about a romance that ends with both lovers committing suicide over someone they’ve only known for three days, whilst Twelfth Night is nothing more than a romcom (in fact the film ‘She’s the Man’ turned it into a modern one), and not a great one at that. Julius Caesar is considered even by fans to be the most boring way to spend a few hours in known human history, the character of Othello is the dopiest human in history and A Midsummer Night’s Dream is about some fairies falling in love with a guy who turns into a donkey. That was considered, by Elizabethans, the very height of comedic expression.

So then, why is he so idolised? The answer is, in fact, remarkably simple: Shakespeare did stuff that was new. During the 16th century theatre hadn’t really evolved from its Greek origins, and as such every play was basically the same. Every tragedy had the exact same formulaic plot line of tragic flaw-catharsis-death, which, whilst a good structure used to great effect by Arthur Miller and the guy who wrote the plot for the first God of War game, does tend to lose interest after 2000 years of ceaseless repetition. Comedies & satyrs had a bit more variety, but were essentially a mixture of stereotypes and pantomime that might have been entertaining had they not been mostly based on tired old stories, philosophy and mythology and been so unfunny that they required a chorus (who were basically a staged audience meant to show how the audience how to react). In any case there was hardly any call for these comedies anyway- they were considered the poorer cousins to the more noble and proper tragedy, amusing sideshows to distract attention from the monotony of the main dish. And then, of course, there were the irreversibly fixed tropes and rules that had to be obeyed- characters were invariably all noble and kingly (in fact it wasn’t until the 1920’s that the idea of a classical tragedy of the common man was entertained at all) and spoke with rigid rhythm, making the whole experience more poetic than imitative of real life. The iambic pentameter was king, the new was non-existent, and there was no concept whatsoever that any of this could change.

Now contrast this with, say, Macbeth. This is (obviously) a tragedy, about a lord who, rather than failing to recognise a tragic flaw in his personality until right at the very end and then holding out for a protracted death scene in which to explain all of it (as in a Greek tragedy), starts off a good and noble man who is sent mental by a trio of witches. Before Shakespeare’s time a playwright could be lynched before he made such insulting suggestions about the noble classes (and it is worth noting that Macbeth wasn’t written until he was firmly established as a playwright), but Shakespeare was one of the first of a more common-born group of playwrights, raised an actor rather than aristocrat. The main characters may be lords & kings it is true (even Shakespeare couldn’t shake off the old tropes entirely, and it would take a long time for that to change), but the driving forces of the plot are all women, three of whom are old hags who speak in an irregular chanting and make up heathen prophecies. Then there is an entire monologue dedicated to an old drunk bloke, speaking just as irregularly, mumbling on about how booze kills a boner, and even the main characters get in on the act, with Macbeth and his lady scrambling structureless phrases as they fairly shit themselves in fear of discovery. Hell, he even managed to slip in an almost comic moment of parody as Macbeth compares his own life to that of a play (which, of course, it is. He pulls a similar trick in As You Like It)

This is just one example- there are countless more. Romeo and Juliet was one of the first examples of romance used as the central driving force of a tragedy, The Tempest was the Elizabethan version of fantasy literature and Henry V deserves a mention for coming up with some of the best inspirational quotes of all time. Unsurprisingly, whilst Shakespeare was able to spark a revolution at home, other countries were rocked by his radicalism- the French especially were sharply divided into two camps, one supporting this theatrical revolution (such as Voltaire) and the other vehemently opposing it. It didn’t do any good- the wheels had been set in motion, and for the next 500 years theatre and literature continued (and continues) to evolve at a previously unprecedented rate. Nowadays, the work of Shakespeare seems to us as much of a relic as the old Greek tragedies must have appeared to him, but as theatre has moved on so too has our expectations of it (such as, for instance, jokes that are actually funny and speech we can understand without a scholar on hand). Shakespeare may not have told the best stories or written the best plays to our ears, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t the best playwright.

The Hidden Benefits

Corporations are having a rather rough time of it at the minute in the PR department. This is only to be expected given the current economic climate, and given the fact that almost exactly the same feelings of annoyance and distrust were expressed during the other two major economic downturns of the last 100 years. Big business has always been the all-pervasive face of ‘the man’, and when said man has let us down (either during a downturn or at any point in history when somebody is holding a guitar), they tend to be (often justifiably) the main victims of hatred. In essence, they are ‘the bad guys’.

However, no matter how cynical you are, there are a couple of glaring inconsistencies in this concept- things that can either (depending on your perspective) make the bad guys seem nice, make nice things seem secretly evil, or just make you go “WTF?”. Here we can find the proverbial shades of grey.

Let us consider, for instance, tourism. Nobody who lives anywhere even remotely pretty or interesting likes tourists, and some of the local nicknames for them, especially in coastal areas for some reason, are simultaneously interesting, hilarious and bizarre. They are an annoying bunch of people, seeming always to be asking dumb questions and trailing around places like flocks of lost sheep, and with roughly the same mental agility- although since the rest of us all act exactly the same when we are on holiday, then it’s probably better to tolerate them a little. Then there is the damage they can do to a local area, ranging from footpath erosion and littering to the case o the planet Bethselamin, “which is now so worried about the cumulative erosion of 10 billion visiting tourists a year that any net imbalance between the amount you eat and the amount you excrete whilst on the planet is surgically removed from your body weight when you leave- so every time you go to the lavatory there it is vitally important to get a receipt” (Douglas Adams again). The tourism industry is often accused of stifling local economies in places like Yorkshire or the Lake District, where entire towns can consist of nothing but second homes (sending the local housing market haywire), tea shops and B&B’s, with seemingly no way out of a spiral of dependence upon it.

However, what if I was to tell you that tourism is possibly the single most powerful force acting towards the preservation of biodiversity and the combating of climate change? You might think me mad, but consider this- why is there still Amazonian rainforest left? Why are there vast tracks of national path all over southern Africa? We might (and in fact should) be able to think of dozens of very good reasons for preserving these habitats, not least the benefits to making sure that all of our great planet’s inhabitants are allowed to survive without being crushed under the proverbial bulldozer that is civilisation, and the value to the environment of the carbon sink of the rainforests. But, unfortunately, when viewed from a purely clinical standpoint these arguments do not stand up. Consider the rainforest- depending on your perspective this is either a natural resource that is useful for all sorts of namby-pamby reasons like ensuring the planet doesn’t suffocate, or a source of a potentially huge amount of money. Timber is valuable stuff, especially given the types (such as mahogany) and sizes of trees one gets in the Amazon delta. Factor in that gain with the fact that many of the countries who own such rainforest are desperately poor and badly need the cash, and suddenly the plight of the Lesser Purple-Crested Cockroach seems less important.

And here tourists come to the rescue, for they are the sole financial justification for the preservation  of the rainforests. The idea of keeping all this natural biodiversity for people to have is all well and good, but this idea backed up by the prospect of people paying large sums of money to come and see it becomes doubly attractive, interesting governments in potential long-term financial gain rather than the quick buck that is to be gained from just using up their various natural resources from a purely industrial point of view.

Tourism is not the only industry that props up an entire section of life that we all know and love. Let me throw some names at you: Yahoo, Facebook, Google, Twitter. What do all of those (and many other besides) have in common? Firstly, that all are based on the internet, and secondly that the services offered by all three are entirely free. Contrast that against similarity three, that all are multi-billion dollar companies. How does this work? Answer, similarity 4: all gain their income from the advertising industry.

Advertising and marketing is another sect of modern business that we all hate, as adverts are always annoying by their presence, and can be downright offensively horrible in some cases. Aggressive marketing is basically the reason we can’t have nice things generally, and there is something particularly soulless about an industry whose sole purpose is to sell you things based on what they say, rather than what’s good about whatever they’re selling. They are perhaps the personification of the evils of big business, and yet without it, huge tracts of the internet, the home of the rebellion against modern consumer culture, would simply not be able to exist. Without advertising, the information Facebook has on its hundreds of millions of users would be financially useless, let alone the users themselves, and thus it would not be able to exist as a company or, probably, an entity at all, let alone one that has just completed one of the highest-value stock market flotations in commercial history. Google would exist perhaps merely as a neat idea, something a geek might have thought of in college and never been able to turn into a huge business that deals with a gigantic stake in web traffic as well as running its own social network, email service and even the web browser I am typing this on.

This doesn’t make advertisers and tourism companies suddenly all angels in the light of the world, and they are probably just as deserving of all the cynicism they get (equally deserving, probably, are Facebook and Google, but this would ruin my argument). But it’s worth thinking that, no matter how pushy or annoying they start to get, it may be a small price to pay for the benefits their very existence lends to us.

The Great Mr Adams

As one or two of you may be aware, my very first post on this blog extolled the virtues of one man- a certain Dr M von Vogelhausen of Amazon, internet, and his truly legendary reviews. He’s still a legend, check  his stuff out. However, since then I haven’t done a one-man profile again, but today that is about to change, as I review a man once described as ‘a possible fragment of the humour singularity’. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Mr Douglas Adams.

Now, I am quite aware that Adams, being a bestselling novelist and general public figure, is quite more well known than Dr M is, and probably doesn’t need me to add to the chorus of voices who have extolled his virtues over the years. But bring him up I nonetheless do, for three reasons- firstly, there are STILL some new people I meet who have never heard of him, despite the fact that his earliest work is now 34 years old, secondly because I would like to reintroduce those who have been put off by his odd writing style and inability to tell a straight-faced joke and labelled him ‘unfunny’ to his world, and thirdly because I had something of a Hitchiker’s refreshment course yesterday evening. It was awesome.

So, Douglas Adams: born in Cambridge in 1952, his story really comes to be of interest in 1971, whilst hitch-hiking around Europe. Lying drunk in a field in Innsbruck, Austria, with his copy of ‘The Hitchiker’s Guide to Europe’ beside him and staring up at the Milky Way above him, he thought that somebody really ought to make a Hitchiker’s guide to the Galaxy as well, showing the sparks of offbeat, eccentric genius that would typify his later work. After graduating from Cambridge University he headed to London to try and break into radio & TV as a writer, following his English degree and a passion for creative writing. Despite working with Monty Python’s Graham Chapman for a while and even appearing in a couple of sketches, he struggled to fit in with writing for his chosen media, and work was slow for much of the seventies. Then, in 1978, he began working on a six-part radio series called ‘The Ends of the Earth’, the idea being that each episode would end with the world being destroyed in a different way. Working on the first episode, Adams realised he had a problem. To make his story work, he needed there to be an alien of some sort on Earth, and more importantly a reason for him to be there. Eventually, his piece of 7 year-old inspiration came back to him, and his character became a roving researcher for a wholly remarkable book: The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The character became Ford Prefect (so named because, having not done his research properly, he thought that the name would be nicely inconspicuous) and, along with the tea-obsessed, dressing gown-wearing and very English main character Arthur Dent, would become a central feature of both that episode and, as Adams quickly changed tack to follow this new story instead of writing 5 new ones, the rest of the series of The Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy.

That radio series was broadcast in 1978, and catapulted Adams to fame. It was something of a love/hate thing- some thought Adams quirky, offbeat sense of humour was weird and unfunny, whilst others declared him a comic genius for the invention of, say, the Babel fish:

The Babel Fish is small, yellow, leech like, and possibly the oddest thing in the universe. It feeds on brainwave energy, absorbing unconscious frequencies and then excreting a complex matrix formed from the concious frequencies picked up from the speech centres of the brain- the practical upshot of which is that if you stick one in your ear you can instantly understand everything said to you in any form of language. The speech you here decodes the brainwave matrix.

Now, it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mind-bogglingly useful could evolve purely by chance that many races have chosen to use it as final clinching proof of the nonexistence of God*. The argument goes something like this:

“I refuse to prove that I exist” says God, “for proof denies faith and without faith I am nothing”

“BUT” says man “the Babel Fish is a dead giveaway isn’t it? It proves you exist and so therefore you don’t, QED”

“Oh dear” says God “I hadn’t thought of that”, and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.

“Oh that was easy” says man, and for an encore he goes on to prove that black is white and get’s killed on the next zebra crossing.

Meanwhile the poor Babel fish, having effectively removed all barriers of communication between species, has caused more and bloodier wars than any race in the history of the galaxy.

*It is worth mentioning that Adams was a staunch atheist

So… yeah, that’s Douglas Adams humour- my unfortunate friends have to put up with me spouting that kind of stuff a lot. That’s hardly an isolated example either, for Adams has proposed, explained or made mention of the concepts of spaceships powered by improbability (and, indirectly, tea), restaurant mathematics and bad news, exactly how to throw oneself at the ground and miss, custom-made luxury planet building, a restaurant at the end of the universe that works by being impossible in at least 6 ways, the Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster (the effect of which is like having your brain smashed out by a slice of lemon wrapped round a large gold brick) the unimaginable usefulness of a towel, the Somebody Else’s Problem field, Vogon Poetry (and that of Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings, a corruption of the name of someone Adams went to university with) and the Ultimate Answer to Life, The Universe, And Everything (42, in case you’re interested- they just keep having problems finding the Ultimate Question). To name but a few. You get the general picture.

After the success of the first radio series, the BBC commissioned a second. Between and after this, Adams turned his attention to novel writing, and began a tradition of substantially rewriting the storyline with each new incarnation of it to, among other things, ‘annoy the fans’. The first part of what would later become his famous ‘trilogy in five parts’ was published in 1979, and was later followed by The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Life the Universe and Everything, So Long and Thanks for All the Fish and Mostly Harmless (all of which are references to parts of the first book). He also produced a 1981 TV adaptation, and a few other projects including the novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, the little joke dictionary The Meaning of Liff, and a radio series and book entitled Last Chance to See, about endangered species.

But… what is it that makes him so special? Why the cult following? Why national towel day? Why do I know that Babel Fish quote above by heart? Well… I really don’t know. I can’t quantify the quirkiness, the jokes, the flashes of abstract genius that none bar perhaps Terry Pratchett have ever emulated, the way that every successive adaptation is sufficiently different that every fan’s experience is a little difference. I was indoctrinated through the radio series, think the TV adaptation is rubbish and that the books can’t quite capture the humour as well- but other people I know insist that the literary form is the greatest piece of writing in the universe. As for the film, I think it’s… different and not quite as amazing, but for some of my friends it’s their only dip in the ocean of Adams, and they loved every minute. Others thought it was terrible. It’s a funny old thing.

Adams died in 2002, long before his time. As Richard Dawkins said, in his passing “science has lost a friend, literature has lost a luminary, the mountain gorilla and the black rhino have lost a gallant defender”. But his stories will never die, so long as there are people willing to enjoy and remember them. They are not stories for everyone, but they’re something everyone should try, just in case they’re perfect for you. And remember, on May 25th: everyone should know where his towel is.