This week I am appearing in Humble Boy, by Charlotte Jones, at Progress Theatre, Reading.
You should Buy Tickets.
In this comedy about love, lies and bees, astrophysicist Felix Humble returns home for the funeral of father James to find that his mother has not only discarded all of his father’s belongings along with his beloved bees – but has gotten a little too friendly with his ex-girlfriend’s father…
If you are not familiar with the play, it won the 2001 Critics’ Circle Theatre Award for Best New Play. It deals with bees, botany, string theory, Glen Miller, love and grief in a style reminiscent of Tom Stoppard. Some elements of the plot are inspired by Hamlet, but unlike that play, it is largely comedic and in some places farcical.
In a recent TV documentary, Philomena Clunk talks of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and its “famous speech about bees”. This may have been what Charlotte Jones was thinking of when she took the Bard’s play as her inspiration for Humble Boy. In both plays, a young(ish) man returns home for the funeral of his father, only to find that his mother has found solace in the arms of another man – coarser and less noble – with what seems to be unseemly haste. Suicide is contemplated. Prince Hamlet is unsure whether to be, or not to be. Felix Humble cannot even say “be” without stuttering.
There are other parallels. A character speaks of flowers and their meanings. There is a girlfriend, spurned – but their reactions are very different. Ophelia is told to “get thee to a nunnery”. Rosie wonders if Felix expected her to “hie herself to a nunnery”.
And so on. A vacillating son challenges an overbearing mother. In one play a skull appears, in the other, skulls are spoken of. There is a duel of sorts. We won’t go on: if you know your Hamlet, you will enjoy spotting the parallels and references for yourself, including at least one biggie not mentioned here. If Shakespeare’s famous tragedy has passed you by, fear not: you will still be able to enjoy Charlotte Jones’ comedy just for itself.
So, I am directing this little play at Progress Theatre. The movies come to film a historical epic in a little town in County Kerry, Ireland. The story is told from the point of view of two locals employed as extras and two actors play all the parts, from the glamorous Hollywood star, to old Mickey, possibly the last surviving extra from The Quiet Man.
It’s exhausting directing a play but I probably have it easy compared to the two actors who have to remember all the lines and cues, switch between Irish, American, Scottish and English accents and recall where they last left their props.
Dear Alistair Campbell,
I do hope that your holiday has not been ruined by worry over the Labour leadership. You seem to be a nice man and I enjoy seeing you when you appear on my television. Thank you for thoughts on the matter, you have made your points calmly and without rancour and I truly hope you are not vilified for it.
But you are wrong. I believe you know a little bit about the creation of New Labour. With your help, Tony Blair created a new narrative for the Labour party, won 3 elections and, as you and Alan Johnson point out, delivered a lot of positive changes for working people. 1997 was a watershed, but that was then and this is now. What Labour needs is a new story, a new perspective, and it is not coming from the ABC candidates. If all the things that failed Labour candidates heard on the doorstep are true then that’s because the Conservatives and UKIP were allowed to set the agenda. Modifying policy to address those concerns won’t make Labour more electable. It will just make Labour look like ersatz Tories. Why vote Labour when you can have the “real thing”?
It won’t be enough to win back old Labour supporters in 2020 – it will be 15 years since Labour last won a general election. That’s 15 years worth of younger voters added to the electorate. And 15 years of older voters joining the great electorate in the sky. To win in 2020 Labour will need the support of many voters who have never voted for them before. Time to create another New Labour that is not the old New Labour rehashed. I know it’s tempting to suggest that Jeremy Corbyn is just summoning up the spirits of Foot and Benn, or that Militant Tendency and their successors will get their foot in the back door, but if you pay attention to what Mr Corbyn is saying it is a lot more nuanced than that. He draws a distinction between state ownership and public ownership. He has many messages that strike a chord with people who Labour failed to engage with their austerity lite, mea culpa maybe, platitudes. The really terrible mistake with the much maligned Ed Stone was that, of the six pledges carved into it, five and half could have been, and perhaps were, said by Cameron and Osborne. JC is offering something that looks very different. If he wins – or even comes close – because thousands of new supporters choose him, then the Labour party will be a very changed beast. And that would be a Good Thing.
The Conservatives are banging on about “One Nation” again. This is hardly a new idea: Benjamin Disraeli coined the term in his novel, Sybil, Or The Two Nations.
Disraeli knew that after working class men were given the vote in 1867, the Tories must appeal to them if they were to remain electable. He also believed that the rich upper classes had obligations to the poor. It was patronising but his government passed a number of social reforms that improved the lot of working people, including legalising the right to strike.
So is Cameron’s government returning to these paternalistic ideals? Hardly. More erosion of trade union powers, nibbling away at social housing, freezing benefit levels and the vague promise of £12 billion cuts to welfare. This is “One Nation” in name only, a meaningless catchphrase. David Cameron should go back to his history books.
Conservatives: you tell us not to worry about inequality and welfare cuts because economic growth will fix everything. But you are not very good at running the economy are you?
Yes, the UK economy was not great when you took office in 2010 but neither was anyone else’s. There was a world crisis, caused by the banks, that you would have regulated even less than Labour.
As Professor Wren-Lewis of Oxford University says here, “Once we recognise that the (2008) financial crisis was a global event, then the three remaining major departures from trend growth happened under Conservative led administrations. In all three cases they can be associated with poor policy decisions taken by those administrations: money supply targets under Thatcher, ERM entry under Major, and austerity under Osborne.”
The recent media attention given to Mars One puzzles me. The project has insufficient funding and is unlikely to get it. It has dependencies on technologies that don’t seem to exist and in the unlikely event that it ever gets any humans to Mars, those individuals seem doomed to a short and miserable life there.
Much more reasoned is ESA’s explanation of humanity’s plans for a return to our Moon. And because it’s based on real science with real funding it’s much more exciting.
Are there planets beyond the Solar System where life might have got going? Yes, I think so. What we know about life on Earth is that it can spring up, and hold on, in the most unlikely and seemingly inhospitable environments. For example, the 8-foot tube worms that thrive on the hydrogen sulfide pouring from hydrothermal vents up to 8000 feet below sea level, at temperatures over 300 degrees celsius, under enormous pressures. See http://www.seasky.org/deep-sea/hydrothermal-vents.html for more detail. With dozens, hundreds, thousands of exoplanets already located in the habitable zone of their star, despite the extreme difficulties of tracking them down, I think it’s safe to assume that there is some environment out there that can replicate conditions similar to the most unfriendly life-supporting habitats on earth. If there’s one thing you can conclude from studying life on this planet, it’s that it is very, very tenacious.
Similarly, there may be environments even in our own solar system that could support some basic form of life. If so, you can bet it will be very hard to find. It took until the end of the twentieth century to discover the giant tubeworms of the deep sea hydrothermal vents here on Earth. Imagine how much harder it is going to be to explore the deepest nooks and crannies of other moons and planets. Once you start to consider bodies beyond our own solar system, how much harder still. So just because we have not found it, does not mean it can’t be there. The universe could be teeming with life beyond our world and we would not know.
But of course, what really grabs us is the idea that there might be intelligent, organised, perhaps civilised, life out there in the stars. Life capable of reasoning, developing technology and maybe curious about us. We have learned how long it takes for visible light and other forms of electromagnetic radiation to reach us from distant stars and galaxies. The nearest such civilisation – if it exists – could be thousands or more likely millions, or more likely still, billions of light years away from us. We have been making enough commotion to be be noticed for only a hundred years or so with our radio waves and human engineered electromagnetic communication. Nobody is going to know we are here yet. If we find signs of civilised, communicating life around distant stars then it could only be from signals that were older than we have existed as a species. I am not a professional but I imagine that these ghostly hopes and hints are what impelled many career astronomers to to take up their calling.
It seems to me arrogant to think that we are the only intelligent, communicating, technology-developing species in this vast universe. If we are alone, then we had better start taking a lot more responsibility than we have displayed so far. We are the caretakers, not just of this demonstrably fragile planet, but of the universe itself. If we are not alone, then we had better grow up if we are to be accepted into any mature galactic or intergalactic society.
John Goodman used to run a company that developed websites. That company, Jorogo, has now ceased trading and this website is all that remains. John Goodman is no longer in the business of business. So, instead of offering website hosting and development, all you can find here are few pointless ponderings on whatever John Goodman is wasting his remaining days on.
You may have been hoping for more help than that. Please continue to live in hope.