Smoke signals

On Tuesday, after showing my face for the morning’s lab meeting, I bunked off to catch a train up to London, being, as I was, in possession of a ticket for the Darwin and God debate at Westminster Abbey that evening. But, as I don’t get to London half as much as I’d like, and as the debate didn’t kick off until 6-30 pm, I’d decided to make a day of it by also taking in the Picasso: Challenging the Past exhibition at The National Gallery. And why not?

With half-hour to kill before I was allowed entry, I decided to go back out into the sunshine to take a longer look at the other exhibitionist I’d just walked past who was the centrepiece of some seemingly music-free dancing on the walkway between The Gallery and Trafalgar Square. By now it was obvious that this was a solo performance by a wannabe Michael Jackson impersonator, egged on by a bunch of attention-seeking, Radio 1-savvy sixth-formers. I found this concert a little disconcerting. Not so much for the physical dissimilarity – he was a good foot too short, of wide as opposed to narrow build, and with skin several shades darker – but because he wasn’t really very good at it. It was possible to pick up on the songs he was enjoying himself to, as he hummed along to his earplugs, and pirouetted, moon-walked, threw out limbs, and made girth-defying cod-grabs at his ‘codpiece’, but it was wholly unconvincing, much to the amusement of the crowers who attempted to mimic him even more badly, and get their mobile shots with him, and hug him, and pat themselves on the back for all the fun they kidded themselves they were having. ‘Jacko’ seemed to enjoy the adulation, not minding, or oblivious to, the fact that he was being laughed at. I’m quite certain he was, if not ill, certainly deluded. The sad thing was, if he’d have laid down the heavy, knee-length, black leather jacket he was profusely perspiring under, he’d have very likely made a few quid!

Whilst taking in some of Picasso’s work, I got to thinking at how some people realise very early in life that they are good at something they love to do. Which can be a blessing and a curse. Although it seems to me Picasso, a hypomaniac who produced over 14,000 paintings plus other works, had a blast. That’s the thing, isn’t it? You have to be reasonably self-confident in the belief that, if you’re going to create, you’re good enough to reach people. But to so do, you have to keep working, such that from among all the inevitable dross, there occasionally emerges something sublime. Doesn’t necessarily have to be wholly original: ‘Bad artists copy, great artists steal’, said Picasso (I nearly bought the T-shirt).

After, I popped into one of my favourite bookshops – Henry Pordes, on the bottom of Charing Cross Road – and almost bought an old copy of Creative Malady by George Pickering (and, having since seen the price on Amazon, I now wish I had, but they wouldn’t take my book tokens). According to the cover notes, Darwin, within two years of returning from The Beagle’s voyage, had virtually become a recluse (or become a virtual recluse? There’s a difference, no?). So he could work. And work. That’s the way it has to be. In order to sporadically produce something really significant, one has to keep constantly at it. Maybe that’s why most scientists won’t and don’t – because they don’t work hard enough. Not out of laziness, I hasten to add; but because they’re not manic. And/or supremely talented. Picasso, it seems, had it all in spades. Not so the Bad dancing man outside, who needs a lot of practice.

(Warning: there follows a somewhat fumbling attempt at a bridge.)

Anyway… one of the notices in the exhibition informed on the ‘…Cubist principle of simultaneity that enables the viewer to grasp reality from all directions at once.’ The one who was later tasked to assist the assembled in doing so was the impressive, Emma Thompson-esque, Sarah Montague (that can’t be the first time that’s been noted, can it?), who very capably chaired the debate. However, it got off to a trite start with the panel, seated within yards of Darwin’s bodily remains, being asked, ‘Did Darwin kill God?’ Any familiarity with the panel members and you knew pretty much what their responses would be. (Much as you might be able to guess the bent of a reviewer by the review.) However, more interesting elaboration by Steve Jones (who’s always good value) sparked reaction from Lord Winston, who refused to state his own personal beliefs, as ‘almost irrelevant’ (which was confusing, seeing as how he’s been more than ready to offer them up in the past when unrequested). Having no such reservations, Denis Alexander (who expounded on this at length on his book plugging tour here in Southampton last night) considers religion and evolution perfectly compatible, as they both serve a function depending on the questions being asked (So, God is a cubist?!).

It wasn’t all fun. Self-righteousness manifested behind me in one whose compulsion to provide a whispered opinionated commentary on proceedings to her colleague was tempered only by an occasional glare from my direction (I bet you she talks in cinemas. I betcha!), and with the inevitable tedious question on ID (let it drop will yers?!), which, pleasingly, was unanimously dismissed with contempt.

Darwin didn’t kill ‘God’. Because you can’t kill human imagination. But he certainly challenged the past by providing a more realistically informed way of looking at the world. However, as Lord Winston acknowledged, religion does have a problem with moving on. But then I wonder that some of these attempts at harmonising incongruence are sometimes over-imaginative. Too artful. Like Picasso, perhaps. But interesting nonetheless.

Towards the end, Steve Jones self-deprecatingly joked that he’d wasted 35 years of his life studying snails. Which made me feel better about my own particular sprig of futility. Like ‘Jacko’, I’m a parody of the real thing. But he appeared to know what makes him happy, so maybe he has as much to teach us as anybody.

Before my train back, I returned to Charing Cross Road, for a couple of Guinnesses in The Porcupine, one of my favourite London pubs, which has a lovely photo of Kristin Scott Thomas on the wall. Now there’s someone who’s good at what she does. It’s my turn to present at the next lab meeting, and I haven’t a clue what I’m gonna talk about. I imagine I’ll need some data.

2 responses to “Smoke signals

  1. Masterful post, Lee.
    And I can relate to Steve Jones’ comment – I spend my time looking at molecules and there are days when I stop and think: I’m a grown man; this is ridiculous!
    I’m not stopping, though.

  2. Thanks. I’m sure (although I’ve never asked him) that Steve Jones was being tongue-in-cheek. I’m stuck in an orbit around cells, looking for the sling-shot out. And I frequently wonder why I’m bothering. But, I’m not stopping either (yet).

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