Tuesday, May 24, 2011

When Irish Eye is smiling...

So, Diarmuid Gavin finally wins a gold medal at the Royal Chelsea garden show.

In the past this mildly irritating but perseverant garden designer has come up with (amongst other things) coloured knobs on sticks, white globular pods to sit in and...er...not much else, and what looked like quite a lot of dead grass. I'm probably missing something. This year he has won a gold for the first time, with a garden called 'Irish Sky Garden' - a plot with pools of water and mainly green planting (ie not a lot of action on the flower front) and a large metal 'eye', turfed on top and with plants around its benches, that can be hoisted by crane to a height of 82 feet - according to the Telegraph - or perhaps 52 feet - also according to the Telegraph (get it together, guys!). Apparently it was inspired by the film Avatar: I looked, but no blue people (3D or otherwise) were to be seen. There is room within this 'eye' for an interviewer and an interviewee, ie Dairmuid being interviewed by Alan Titchmarsh; though, owing to 'Elf and Safety regs, Joe Public will not be able to queue for a ride (quite right: what is this, Alton Towers?)

Amateur Gardening magazine editor Tim Rumball (oh, him) is incensed. The gardens are for everyone (so long as they've paid the £45 entrance fee)! All visitors should be able to ride in the Eye, and also to replicate the idea at home! This is just a gimmick! Well, duh....

After so many years of failing to reach the gold standard, Dairmuid played to his strength - a slight sense of the ridiculous. No, it would never be my favourite (nor that of the judges, for that matter, I suspect). No, I can't see anyone building a miniature version in their own plot, and hoisting it on the rotary washing-line. But did it get people talking? Was it memorable? And did it bring home the bacon? You betcha. With coloured knobs on.

Incidentally, the eye will find its final resting place in Cork. Every chance it will soon become another slightly odd graffitteed piece of public art. Good luck to it.

Monday, May 16, 2011

A beautiful pea-green boat

There are plans afoot to sail a ship upon a methane sea on Titan, one of Saturn's moons.

I could just stop there; rarely have I typed a more glorious sentence than that. I am rarely switched onto astronomy, as it seems to involve far too much standing around in a freezing cold garden squinting through the eyepiece of a telescope at something that may or may not be Mars, and not nearly enough visiting the Hadron Collider hand-in-hand with Brian Cox. But think of it: if this project gets funding (and there's every chance), and if it comes off, in a few years time there could be a craft made by human hands sailing purposefully on an alien ocean. Titan is a place of extreme temperatures (minus 290F), sufficient to ensure that methane exists as a liquid rather than the gas it is on our planet. There is no hope of finding life in such conditions; but perhaps the clues to what sort of conditions existed before life began.

Saturn is perhaps the most romantic of planets. Not the biggest, not the closest, not the most colourful, yet certainly the most recognisable with its rings of ice, debris and dust. These rings spin to keep pace with the planet, and cradle within them over sixty moons, the largest of which is Titan. Titan is unique within the known universe in that it is the only moon known to possess an atmosphere. It has weather. Alien wind and alien rain. And weather produces features that we would recognise - lakes and rivers and valleys and beaches. It's not likely to become a top holiday destination, owing largely to a bit too much nitrogen in the air as well as the freezing cold and the distance. But if we could, if we could sail in that ship: ah... we would see something that looked a little bit like home, even as the ice and dust of the millennia whipped across the skies.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

So long, and thanks for all the fish

Ten years ago to the day Douglas Adams died of a heart attack, aged just 49. So it seems an appropriate moment to talk about the impact this author had upon me, particularly as a mid-teenager who hadn't really found her 'thing' at the age of 14 when the TV version of 'The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy' (or H2G2, as we geeks say) burst onto our screens. I say 'our' screens - I think it was largely ignored by my peer group, not really unexpectedly since left-field sci-fi comedy wasn't the staple diet of most of the pupils at Queen Mary's High School for Girls. Such fare would have detracted from the slavish following of Soft Cell and Adam and the Ants: all that backcombing took dedication and time. So I ploughed a lonely furrow in my little corner of the Midlands; but that was OK, because I felt part of something bigger, a world where at any moment I could order a Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster (the effects of which were like having your brains smashed out by a slice of lemon wrapped around a large gold brick), where I could snicker quietly at those girls who still thought that digital watches were a pretty neat idea, and where it was enormously important to really know where your towel was.

H2G2 had it all, as far as I was concerned: ridiculous characters you could believe in, daft approaches to real philosophical problems (why was the answer to the question of life the universe and everything '42'? Because we've never really understood the question), laughably shoddy special effects (in hindsight, yes it was far better on the radio) and a cracking theme toon. But most of all, it had words, funny words, crafted sentences that were laugh-out-loud funny and repaid the reader a hundred times over.

And yes, I probably did read them a hundred times. Once the books came out I devoured them, over and over, until I seriously considered applying to Mastermind as an outlet for all this specialist knowledge. Favourite lines? Oh..."It must be Thursday. I never could get the hang of Thursdays". "'It's unpleasantly like being drunk.' 'What's so unpleasant about being drunk?' 'Ask a glass of water'". "The first ten million years, they were the worst. The second ten million years, they were the worst, too. The third ten million I didn't enjoy at all. After that I went into a bit of a decline". The phrase "He just phoned up to wash his head at us" could leave me helpless with laughter. You probably had to be there.

And then there were the improbable situations. The whale, called into existence and hurtling fast through the atmosphere. The beast that was bred to enjoy being eaten, and could tell you so. The invention of the Babel fish, which provided simultaneous translation of any language when inserted into your ear.

The invention of cricket as Earth's response to a bloody intergalactic battle. The Bugblatter Beast of Traal, a creature so stupid that it thought that if you couldn't see it, it couldn't see you. An early adopter of new tech, Douglas mentally invented both the internet and the iPad in order for his concept of the Book to work. Ah, the Book itself: with the calming voice of Peter Jones, it had the words 'Don't Panic written in large friendly letters on its cover. I wanted to live in a galaxy like that.

I realise I have just outed myself as a total geek, but the point is this: at a time when every teenager needs a hero that has nothing to do with the choices of their parents, I chose Douglas. I pretend that music was a big influence, that I was segueing from The Specials towards The Smiths; but it was words, not so much music, that was my thing. The idea that this clever, witty, prescient man was writing and unwriting sentences, often hitting writer's block and avoiding his desk for days, appealed to me hugely. Waiting for another of his books put one in a special club. They dripped out, slowly, until eventually there were 5 books in the increasingly inaccurately named H2G2 trilogy, plus two in the Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency series (I recommend these to you, particularly if you are like me a Neil Gaimon fan; he owes a huge debt, and knows it). I love the thought, postulated by Adams, that the first Dirk Gently book was written to accommodate the sentence 'High on a rocky promontory sat an electric monk on a bored horse', which popped into his brain and then needed somewhere to live. Adams never claimed to find writing easy; he wrestled with it all his life, partly because he never wanted to produce words that weren't all individually chosen as the right ones for the purpose. I salute that.

H2G2 gave me a sense of belonging at a time when I needed it most, those awkward mid-teens (it gives you a true idea of my geekiness that I haven't looked up any of the quotes - they remain burned onto my brain). It made me yearn for a universe of smug doors, depressed robots and drinks dispensers that analysed my taste-buds then always produced a hot liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea. Where Chesterfield sofas materialised, and important people spent three years in the bath. But most of all, where I too could put words together in such a way that made people laugh, think twice, and yearn to inhabit another world - one of my own making. I am still wishing.

It saddens me that I never wrote to Douglas to thank him for the impact he had on my life, and for the continued pleasure his words give to me.

I guess I have now.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Eight minutes

In eight minutes I could
Catch up with the headlines
Boil two eggs – consecutively
Take a shower
Grind beans, boil water, make coffee.

In eight minutes I could
Fall in love
Say my vows
Conceive a child
Sign my will.

Eight minutes would prove insufficient
To conduct an argument
Prove a point
Take things to their logical conclusion:
These things take time…

If I could go back in time
Eight minutes
What would I choose to do?
Walk to the postbox – and back
Clean the bathroom
Straighten or curl my hair?

Eight minutes ago
I had not yet decided
What I would do
With this eight minutes: yet
Eight minutes ago
The light that illumines me now
Left the sun
To take its long journey…
And now continues
Scattered and reflected
Bounced and bewildered
Into the deep darkness of outer nothing.

I exist in its past
My present
Is its future.

Eight minutes on
I have written this poem.
That’s all.