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.

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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.