This Is What Happens When You Have A Drink Before Song Nine

Eurovision in space. I read that Catherynne Valente sold her book with these three words. I bought it on the same basis.

The early scenes are excellent, introducing us to Decibel Jones, a Bowie, Bolan, Essex, New York Doll amalgam of a faded glam rock star. With his band, the Absolute Zeros, he had a short but intense period of success, brought to a shuddering end when one of the founding members died in a car crash. Now Decibel gets by on the strength of nostalgic gigs, typically booked by wealthy middle aged men throwing birthday parties.

Who knows how long Decibel would have continued in this twilight zone of a career. We never find out because the aliens land. Extraterrestrials, who have monitored Earth via our radio transmissions, arrive to judge whether humanity is worthy of a place in wider intergalactic society. The procedure for judgement involves participation in a song contest, staged on a world which had once been the centre of interplanetary war. Because Decibel is something of a favourite amongst influential members of his off-planet audience, he, and the one surviving member of his band, are selected to represent Earth at the contest. As well as the usual nerves that come with being a performer, Decibel faces the additional stress of knowing that the penalty for coming in last place at your first contest appearance, is destruction of the race applying for membership of the wider community of planets.

I enjoyed Space Opera until this point. The characters are, in a Jackson Pollock sort of way, well drawn; and the basic idea of the story, bizarre as it might sound, made sense to me. The idea of a song contest growing out of war was not so far fetched. After all, the Eurovision Song Contest, first held in 1956, was established only a decade after the Second World War ended in Europe. Then when the Cold War ended in the early 1990s, many eastern bloc countries entered for the first time. Eurovision really does seem to emerge from the ashes of war and conflict. In the new order of things, national competition is filtered through the glitter ball prism of fun and music.

However, I couldn’t say that I found the book a complete success. There are long digressions which describe the galaxy’s former wars, and the history of the song contest. We do not see any of this extra material through the eyes of the book’s characters. Instead there is just an overwrought, disembodied author voice telling us about it. Clearly Douglas Adams is an influence on Space Opera, but in his books the amusing, tangential stuff generally comes to us through Adams’s famous invention, the vast and not always reliable, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, designed to help a space traveller find his way around the galaxy on less than thirty Altairian dollars a day. There is no such framing device in Space Opera, and it suffers as a result. I found myself tending to skip the digressions so that I could get back to the story as told by the characters in it.

Overall, this book was not douze points, or nil points. It was somewhere in between, with some nice key changes, a group of chaotic backing dancers and over the top staging. So I think it would get a seven or eight from this jury. A good effort, but better luck next year.

Nobody Cares What You Know Until They Know That You Care

The Wind At My Back is Paul Maunder’s memoir of failing to find success, both as a professional cyclist and a novelist. He finally puts these two failures together to make a successful career as a cycling journalist. In that sense I found The Wind At My Back heartening. People see success in terms of well-marked routes, whether that means a structured progression through the civil service, or making it as a professional cyclist or novelist. But there’s no shame in turning aside to explore winding byways, which might be more suited to a particular individual. And this sentiment marries nicely with The Wind At My Back’s many descriptions of cycle rides on quiet roads.

However, with no disrespect to Paul Maunder, I can perhaps see why he didn’t make it down the road of successful novel writing. His book reveals a personality more interested in places than people.

“My failure was in becoming too dependent on this sense of place, and not investigating people as much as places.”

Maunder writes of trying to overcome this, but in a revealing aside while talking about Proust, he says that empathy is something you learn. I don’t believe this is true. Certainly children seem to develop an understanding of others as they get older, but it is also the case that some people never develop this ability. And if empathy does not develop, you cannot teach it. It is possible to learn the social conventions of empathy – as Sheldon Cooper often tries to do in The Big Bang Theory. Psychology Today also tells me that people who are naturally empathetic can become more so, if they live in the sort of society that values fellow feeling. But essentially if you lack empathy you can’t learn it. I became aware of this sad fact through much reading when someone I know had the misfortune to marry a woman who had a constitutional inability to comprehend the feelings of anyone except herself.

Paul Maunder’s book does reveal a lack of natural empathy. I’m not suggesting any slur on the author’s character; but it is true to say he focuses on himself and the places he sees from his bike. You feel little about anyone else. He talks about empathy, but only in the sense of trying to learn how to do it, like another technique taught on a fiction writing course. It did not seem to be a natural part of him. He tells you about empathy but does not show it; and we all know the novelist’s rule about showing and not telling. There is a brief attempt towards the end of the book to imagine himself into the life of his two friends Daniel and Sarah, but this is soon abandoned. Apart from his father who you feel briefly as a person, it is Paul Maunder all the way. You hear about the places he has been, his cycle related philosophical reflections, which in an unfocused sort of way, are interesting. But the people he knows remain as ghostly figures beside the road.

We can’t help who we are, and if this author has trouble understanding other people, he does come to understand himself in an honest way. In those terms his book ends as a success.

Rarity In The Midst Of Plenty – Watching Birds At Oare Marshes

I felt something of an outsider at Oare Marshes bird reserve near Faversham. This was a place populated by two forms of life, the genus of birds and bird watchers. To my diffident eyes all the birds looked lovely, from mallards to long-beaked, coffee coloured things, called godwits, according to a chap carrying an impressive stubby telescope with upward angled view finder. He seemed to find genuine peace gazing into that view finder, as though he were an old shepherd and the birds were his flock. We were standing in a shed. Along the wall opposite the door ran a line of three bunker slits, which seemed to magnify a glittering body of water with an island off to the left side.

We watched groups of godwits for a few minutes. The old shepherd decided to move on to other pastures. He was replaced by a second birdwatcher. Heavily equipped with bags, binoculars and that standard, stubby telescope, she looked like birdwatching special forces, and spoke with senior officer authority.

“Did you see the hobby fly over just now? Boomerang shaped wings?”

We admitted missing it.

“There were some cormorants over on the other pond,” my wife replied, trying to make conversation.

“Cormorants, yes,” said the woman, metaphorically patting my wife’s empty head.

We left the hide, chastened.

It seemed that while cormorants flocked to Oare, hobbies were a more unusual sight. Doing some reading after our visit, I discovered that birdwatchers enjoy observing birds, but their ultimate goal is to collect sightings of rare birds, referred to as megaticks in twitcher jargon. I also discovered that while birdwatchers seek rare birds, they are not nearly so interested in odd ones. If a species of bird mates with another species and produces a hybrid, then this unusual and rare individual is not sought after. It does not fit into search lists, and is considered, by some schools of thought, as a threat to biodiversity. These unfortunate creatures are sometimes more likely to get shot than photographed. A new and unknown bird has no value, even if there might only be one example. Rarity, it seems, is not solely about how scarce something is. A few examples of an old species are rare: a few examples of a new hybrid species are imposters.

I then wondered if the bird-watching world had examples of that other type of rarity valued by collectors – the unusual variation in something very numerous – the equivalent of the Queen’s head upside down on one stamp in ten million. A brief internet search soon told me that birdwatching made the mainstream press in 2018, when someone spotted an albino house sparrow in Somerset. Crucially this rare bird was not a hybrid, but an extremely unusual variation of a common bird – though not as common as they once were, sadly.

So this association of rarity with the well established, and with small variations in something very numerous – both indicate that an apparent interest in rarity is actually a lesson in the extremely conservative way people tend to react to something out of the ordinary. It is fitting that humanity’s general idea of rarity is so closely connected with tradition and Old Money. We could think of Fabergé eggs, dusty bottles of wine from 1945, First Folios of Shakespeare, or caviar derived from sturgeon in the Caspian Sea, served in Pall Mall clubs by deferential waiters. Perhaps we should bear this in mind at the moment. Maybe we are too quick to see value in the well established, and threat in the different. And maybe we are limited by only valuing differences which are small albino-sparrow variations on what we already know. It would be good to remember that all individuals are different and unique in some way. We are all rare and valuable specimens.