The hundredth centenary of the Great War has been marked by the BBC with a huge quantity of retrospective coverage. We have already had hours and hours of broadcasting. Some people think it will all be over by Christmas, but it looks like the schedules have become gridlocked and it may be four years before we can return again to normal viewing.
The idea of creating a Jewish homeland in Palestine would have made perfect sense in the nineteenth century. Nationalism was all the rage. Everyone wanted to be in a nation. The British and the French were there already. The Germans and Italians were working on it. Nationalism was opposed to hereditary monarchs and their empires and so was in a way a force for progress and revolution. Why shouldn’t the Jews get in on the act and seek to create their own homeland? Zionism was really just a logical extension of what was the general spirit of the age. As to the people who were already there in Palestine, well the rights of natives weren’t really on anyone’s mind at the time.
I have just finished watching all five seasons of Breaking Bad. If you haven’t heard about it yet I am not sure where you hang out, but it is the story of Walter White, an unsuccessful and morally ambiguous chemist and his remarkably self centred response to a diagnosis of cancer. This involves using his technical knowledge to come up with a superior quality grade of illegal drug that becomes very popular in New Mexico.
The political views of an author don’t matter very much. You pick up a book to be entertained, and the plain fact is that the ability to write something worth reading is pretty evenly distributed across the political spectrum. Nonetheless we like to think that authors we admire hold roughly the same views that we do. Sadly for the many fans of J.R.R.Tolkien his views are not ones that many people currently hold. But before we get into that lets have a look at the character of Tolkien as it emerges from these letters.
The Dilbert Future is Scott Adams predictions of what the future holds, made at the dawn of the Internet era. It is a dystopian prediction. Advances in technology simply give rise to new opportunities for stupidity. Voice operated computers allow evil coworkers to delete your files over your shoulder. New software to run air traffic control runs on the same system as the payroll. Don’t fly on payday! The security scanner at the front door is so efficient it detects not only what computer Dilbert has in his bag, but that the hard disc is in need of defragmenting and holds him back for an hour while it sorts it out.
I woke up this morning to the news that Tony Benn had died. I am in my mid-Fifties now and I suspect I will never again have the feeling of witnessing history I had one day in 1981 when I listened to the result of the deputy leadership election between Benn and Denis Healey. My memory is that I heard it live outside on portable radio while working on a building site. I think my memory must be playing tricks because I can’t imagine that in those days the Labour Party conference would have been broadcast live even on radio. But whatever, I certainly heard it and like a lot of other people didn’t immediately realise that his impressive share of the vote – he got over 49% – still meant that he hadn’t won. The mathematically obvious fact that to win a two horse race requires over 50% didn’t register until after the second figure was read out.
In its day the Club of Rome was a very influential book. I was around in its day and bought a copy. The woman I was later to marry bought a copy too, so for many years we had two copies. It seemed particularly inappropriate given that one of its messages was that we are using resources too prolifically. It is hard to imagine how big an impact it had nowadays. After Silent Spring I would say it was the book that did most to create the environmental movement.
Johnny Hallyday needs no introduction to the French speaking world, but despite a career that is now over fifty years old you can still not assume that anglophones have even heard of him. Those that have tend to be a bit bemused. Back in the early sixties Johnny Hallyday made the momentous decision to sing songs in the style of Elvis Presley but in French. It was a sensation, and he has never looked back. He rapidly became a huge star in France and has remained one ever since. Only a few years ago a concert in Paris had half a million people trying to get tickets. In the days when these things mattered, his records sold in the millions. In pure numerical terms his sales make him one of the major figures of the rock world. When you consider that his success is limited geographically to France, Belgium and parts of Switzerland and Canada it is even more remarkable.
It is normal when talking about Philip.K.Dick to start by mentioning he wrote Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep on which the film Bladerunner was based. So lets not do that. Ubik is much less well known and I doubt very much will ever get made into a film. It clearly falls into the science fiction category being set in the nineties, which at the time it was written were thirty years in the future.
So with the passage of time Ubik has now become an historical artefact. It gives us an idea about what people in the sixties thought was going to happen in the future. As such it now merits the attention of historians.
We are all obsessed by the Second World War. So when I was invited by my daughter to watch an opera by Kurt Weil written in 1946 I was on the lookout for Nazis. Weil was a communist Jew who had fled to America to escape Hitler who would have taken a dim view of his political avant garde musical work to date.