All existing things. The whole creation. The cosmos.
That’s what ‘universe’ meant to me, as a schoolgirl.
And where did nine-year-old me live? I scrawled it on the packet which holds the pinking shears I still have in the sewing box:
Tong, Bradford, West Yorkshire, England, Europe, The World, The Universe.
As soon as I began to hear about universes, plural, my understanding – small as it was, like me – waned to a pinprick. So did the awe, the mystery. It simply became incomprehensible to a mere, little, mortal. And not incomprehensible in the magical way of one finite yet infinite universe.
It’s odd, that, because you’d think that the more incredible and beyond mere earthly horizons ‘everything’ (or nothing) was, the more I’d be inspired or amazed. But once anything becomes so utterly other – well, I start to switch off.
That’s not to say all things unfathomable turn me off. Doctor Who inspired me from an early age – still does, on occasion – but then, he’s a Time Lord and Brian Cox is not.
Here we go.
Last night I watched ‘The Human Universe’, with a nerve-calming bottle of red wine to hand and Archaeo-Man (AM) twirling edgily in his swivel chair beside me.
Because last year he was contacted by a researcher, working for the BBC, on a new programme featuring the affable, approachable, scientist-cum-presenter (or is that presenter-cum-scientist, now?) Professor Brian Cox.
As with all things, AM took the request for help on the early bits of human evolution seriously. Doing things properly requires more than just answering emails and talking on the phone. It requires checking the very latest publications, checking the right people to approach in places like Ethiopia, checking that you’re doing your very best to help them make something sound.
He reckons, AM, that he probably spent the equivalent of a day of his time on it. And enjoyed it. He always enjoys enthusing others about what inspires his own work. And the researcher bought his book, so that was nice. It’s called From Hand to Handle, The First Industrial Revolution, published by Oxford University Press. Rather expensive – the paperback’s not out yet 😦
There were early signs it might not go quite as well as he hoped when his advice, having balanced pros and cons, to go to South Africa rather than Ethiopia – because there was more information available and more to see, more accessibly – was rejected. But never mind, the Gelada baboons were fun. They make the most amazing ooh err umm sounds, don’t they?
When he heard what was being planned, he suggested that a novice (B Cox) might benefit from popping over from Manchester to nearby Liverpool, to award-winning labs where he might handle skulls, stone tools – and even learn basic knapping (shaping stone tools from scratch), in just a couple of hours. The suggestion was not rejected, just ignored.
The result? A rubbish attempt at knapping, from Brian, which looked like it annoyed him. (Yes, there’s something he can’t do.) But it amused me, so, thanks for that.
There’s more, but this is beginning to sound like vicarious sour grapes.
It’s not. Wait, you’ll see.
As the programme progressed – or rather, continued – I heard AM ask me, ‘did you follow that?’
Oops. I’d switched off.
It was, I thought, a rambling, hop-skip-and-jump of a programme, alive only when BC was briefly with the baboons, but mostly when dealing with his beloved space, the final frontier.
I hated the loud and persistent music, hated the demeaning ‘portraits’ of black rural poor people standing smiling or looking up at the sky but, mostly, taking no part. I hated the row of skulls on the ground and the villagers standing, a dutiful audience, as BC spoke to the camera, not them, about skulls.
Skulls! In rural Africa … Have they thought of people’s sensitivity to such things?
I hated the use of people whose mouths didn’t open when their words were voiced, as if they couldn’t be trusted even to speak on camera.
I know, I’m too touchy about the way we cultural colonials treat the human zoo in Africa – but I did not like the way this programme did what it did.
I also think it did it in a superficial, gaudy, disconnected, disjointed way that neither led nor followed.
I’m glad. Glad that the programme was not great. Glad that, after all, there was no credit to AM for all the time he put in – for free.
And I’m glad for another reason.
Seeing B Cox, the latest in a line of excellent presenters of knowledge, who have strayed beyond their own field to the detriment of their standing in my ordinary eyes, (Professor Alice Roberts, at one time taught by AM, is an honourable exception) I’m glad that many attempts at TV series featuring my own in-house presenter of things beyond my ken have come to naught.
I don’t like what fame does.
So, thanks, Brian Cox, for the no thanks.