Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Not in My Name

The recent death of the actress Elizabeth Taylor has reminded me that when I was younger I saw some novels on the shelves of my local library apparently written by her. This astonished me. "I didn't know she wrote fiction!" I said to myself. She didn't, of course. It was a different Elizabeth Taylor.

Even back then I felt that something about this situation was unfair. The actress had usurped the other Elizabeth Taylor's name, consigning the writer to oblivion. As it happens, that's not quite true: Elizabeth Taylor still has her dedicated readers (Roald Dahl was one enthusiast). However, if someone speaks the two words "Elizabeth" and "Taylor" in succession, it's a safe bet that most people will assume the speaker is referring to the actress, not to the author.

Coincidentally, the actress's husband played the same trick on another historical figure. When I first read in an encyclopedia that the first European to see Lake Tanganyika was Richard Burton I was truly amazed. Apparently he was looking for the source of the Nile at the time. The idea that a drunken Welsh thespian might even be able to find his way up the River Taff in Cardiff was remarkable enough. But to journey up the Nile? I scarcely believed it!

Naturally, it was a different Richard Burton... The explorer is still justly famous. Nonetheless, if someone speaks the two words "Richard" and "Burton" in succession, it's a safe bet that most people will assume the speaker is referring to the actor, not the explorer. Again, this seems grossly unfair.

Recently, someone told me that they greatly enjoyed the novels of Rosemary Sutcliff. My first reaction was to exclaim, "What? They allow her to write books in prison? And make money from them? Outrageous!" I was confusing her name with the names of two serial killers. I know who she is now, but I still think she sounds like a psychopathic murderer. Might as well be called Myra Ripper or Jack the Shipman...

I have long been obsessed with the horrible thought that someone with the same name as me might come along and do something far more remarkable and/or notorious than anything I have ever done, thus appropriating my name for themselves. I have worked hard to make a name for myself as a writer. To be displaced overnight by a different Rhys Hughes would be a dreadful fate; consignment to oblivion in such a manner strikes me as a cruel joke! Let's coin a name for this fear, shall we? How about usurp-phobia?

If such an usurper does appear, please let him be a man of honour and talent, not a drunken actor or (even worse) a vile criminal. I know there is already a Rhys Hughes who plays bass for The Shirehorses; and another Rhys Hughes is president of Interflora; but recently I discovered this news story and it depressed me. I don't want perverts and criminals to take possession of my name. I had it first!

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Wonders of the Smugverse

Recently I watched a BBC documentary entitled Wonders of the Universe. I hardly ever watch television. I made a special effort on this occasion because the programme was subtitled 'Destiny' and a title like that is almost fated to catch my attention. Turned out that the documentary was hosted by the physicist Brian Cox.

The programme irritated me slightly. No, actually it irritated me a lot. For one thing, Brian Cox looks like a guy I used to know, a former publisher by the name of Darren Floyd. Here's a photo of Mr Floyd. I bet you thought it was a photo of Brian Cox, didn't you? See what I mean... Anyway, Darren Floyd was one of the most incompetent publishers I've ever dealt with (and I've dealt with more than a few). One of his many faults was utter and consistent failure to pay his writers; if they insisted on receiving at least some money he would cite "low sales" of their books as the reason for non-payment, making up figures from the top of his head. I want to say that Darren Floyd was (and is) an individual with no talent whatsoever, but that would be stretching the truth. He is, in fact, very good at being a rubber-faced chump.

And Brian Cox is his spitting image (spit as thick and sticky as the sap of the rubber tree)... And although Brian Cox has brains (unlike Darren Floyd) he has the same pneumatic smugness about him. Having said that, there's a lot of smugness at large (and at small) in the world, so I had no intention of going out of my way to pick on Brian Cox... But then I saw
this entry on the Scary Duck blog ("Not Scary, Not a Duck") and some floodgates deep inside me opened... Yes, Professor Brian Cox does know who would win a fight between a baboon and a badger. Because he's a genius. And here's a short list I drew up of other things Brian Cox is (or can do):

* Brian Cox is an aardvark in gibbon's clothing.
* Brian Cox can sword-swallow chainsaws.
* Brian Cox is the pussy's jimjams.
* Brian Cox is the pot calling the hookah smoky.
* Brian Cox likes a lot of chocolate on his club.
* Brian Cox digs the funk and plants mandrakes.
* Brian Cox lives in a prehistoric trombone.

How can anyone deny the truth of those statements? Eh?

Because the problem with Wonders of the Universe isn't merely that it's a bit boring. It also attempts to be a bit manipulative. Yes, our universe might well end in a bleak heat death. Any chance of mentioning the existence of other universes too, Brian Cox? I know the multiverse is only a hypothesis, but so are black dwarves... Trying to bleak us out according to the rules of some hidden agenda, are we? Get us shopping to relieve the bleakness, is that it? Prop up the consumer economy, is that what you're up to, Professor Youthful-Face-but-Slightly-Greying-Fringe? I love science. Science is my god. But please, if you're a scientist, be a little less smug. The 'truths' of science do change over time: often they get completely overhauled. Talking as if everything in science is as utterly crystal clear as symbolic logic is asking for trouble, in my view. The 'truths' of science are ideas, often amazing ideas but still just ideas.

In the programmed subtitled 'Destiny', Brian Cox acted as if entropy only ever increases. How did we get here then, pal? And when the universe is just a soup of photons and everything's at maximum entropy... then the only way left is for some localised decreases of entropy, surely? And then maybe time's arrow will reverse... Brian Cox is a cosmologist but either hasn't read Boltzmann or (I suspect this is more likely) is withholding information for some hidden purpose: either because he has been told to be a patronising half-truth giver (maybe that was written into his contract?) or else for political reasons (bleak out the proles). Like I said before, he likes a lot of chocolate on his club.

Contrast him with another cosmologist, with the wonderful
Carl Sagan. Now he never acted like he had a political agenda or was attempting to prop up the diseased consumer-economy model of corrupt Western Society. Sagan was the real thing. Sagan was Oannes. Sagan came and gave us good stuff. Sagan had gills. Sagan was the man. Sagan laughed at chocolate clubs. Lord Protector of the U-men. Sagan and I'll say Gantu. Let's grow erbs in his onour. What kinds of erbs? Baysil. Baysil, yes. And parsec-ly. And thyme's arrow too. And when we've grown them, let's take them to Scarborough Fair and give them to Artery Garfunkle and Appalling Simon.