Saturday 16 February 2013

What they really meant when they wrote it.

Have you ever read a book and felt that the content of the book doesn't match the promise of the title? What if the writer had misspelt the title and had really meant the content to be something else? Well here are some re-imaginings.

The Lord of the Files

This is the terrifying and gripping story of a group of schoolboys who are flying in a plane over the Pacific Ocean when the plane crash lands on an island. They try to organise themselves under the leadership of Ralph, who rescues important files detailing the students' homework for the next term. He is aided by Piggy, who, as the boy with glasses, is the only one intelligent enough to interpret the files and allocate the homework which needs to be done before they are rescued, especially as the glasses convey mystical powers onto the wearer, a secret known only to Piggy. However, a faction led by the evil Jack rebels and attempts to steal the files and take Ralph's place as the boys' leader by virtue of possession of the Sacred Files. In the ensuing battle, Piggy loses his magic glasses, and with that his intelligence, and he falls off a cliff to his death. Then the true lord comes to reclaim the Sacred Homework Files and the boys start crying.

King Solomon's Fines

This is the epic story of a gruelling expedition across the Dark Continent by a group of intrepid explorers with their trusty native African porters to the ancient land of Sheba to uncover the hidden history of the fabled visit by King Solomon to the court of the legendary Queen of Sheba, most beautiful and alluring of ancient women of power, and to locate the treasure said to be hidden there. They risk man-eating wild animals, fiercely hostile tribes, ferocious storms and rancorous internal disputes over the beautiful but pointless female that they take with them to arrive at their destination, only to discover nothing more than the records of penalty notices issued to the retinue of King Solomon by the Sheba State Police for parking their camel trains in the wrong place.

The War of the Words

One ordinary day in Woking, south west of London, or maybe in New York, depending on your viewpoint, nothing much is happening. Then there is a flash in the sky and a strange spaceship crashes to earth. A crowd gathers round as the never-before-seen alien craft, throbbing loudly in a very non-pre-synthesiser-age manner, and giving off an eerie reddish glow, lies smouldering. Then a strange arm-like object slowly rises from the object with a flashing red light on the end. Suddenly, a volley of words flies out from the end of the arm. The words are so painful that people fall to the ground clutching their heads and explode in clouds of dust, with comments like “you earthlings are a bunch of non-entities” and “we Martians will wipe the floor with you puny humans” horribly ringing in their ears. The evil Martians fan out around the world and proceed to infect anyone within earshot with their terrible put-downs, until suddenly, all the machines start going out of control and crashing, with the Martians slowly perishing from an unknown cause. It turns out that they have been infected by the most banal utterances known to humanity, which humanity has grown so used to that they have developed total immunity. Unfortunately for the Martians, they have never encountered these utterances before and it proves deadly to them – politicians' promises. Armed with this knowledge, people all over the world blast the Martians with proclamations of tax cuts, manifesto pledges of prosperity and solemn-faced promises of firearm reform, and the world is saved!

Great Expectorations

This is a warm and touching 19th C novel about a young orphan called Pip and his attempts to escape his lowly position and make a success of his life. When he is young, he encounters a horrible escaped convict called Magwitch, who forces him to bring him food and a file to cut away his chains. Pip is mostly impressed by Magwitch's ability to clear his chest of phlegm in huge quantities and resolves to be like him, even after Magwitch is recaptured. He spends his youth improving his chest-clearing abilities, and goes to live with an old woman called Mrs Havisham, where he falls in love with Estella and trains her in the niceties of throat clearance in exalted company. He then finds out that he has received an inheritance consisting of finance to build a chest-clearing device factory. He becomes rich and finds out that it was Magwitch who gave him his inheritance. Unfortunately for Magwitch, he falls desperately ill after the biggest chest-evacuation he has ever attempted and dies. The factory collapses and Pip loses all his money and with that his ability to perform outsized mucus movements. However, he finally makes up with Estella and they live out their lives together with their great expectorations reduced to modest but manageable levels.

Peter Pun

This is the magical and heart-warming story of boy who never grows up and can fly owing to his ability to produce an apposite turn of phrase for any occasion. He arrives at Wendy's house and persuades her to fly with him to Neverneverland, where they will be able to indulge in magical word plays all day. They fly off together after Tinkerbell sprinkles Wendy with witty expressions to give her the power of flight. Once in Neverneverland, they encounter Captain Hook, a dour, humourless pedant, who leads a band of mirthless pirates that combat any kind of witty wordplay with swordplay. Peter constantly raises his ire with expressions like “have you hooked up with anyone recently?” and “come on captain, I'm waiting for you to get stuck in”. Eventually, the epic struggle of verbal witticism against cold literalism reaches its climax when Hook is eaten by a giant crocodile, with Peter wisecracking “fangs for the memory, it was a jaw-dropping experience!”

The Lord of the Rungs

This is the epic tale of a small and simple Hobbit called Frodo, who, aided by his fellowship of eight companions, must risk his life to protect his world and rid Middle Earth of the greatest evil in its history, the evil lord Sauron. In the mists of time past, Sauron created a giant ladder leading to the top of Mount Doom which he invested with most of his power. However, the ladder was destroyed in an epic battle at the end of the second age and all its rungs were scattered far and wide. Now Sauron has managed to recover most of the rungs, but one rung remains, the last and greatest rung, which will complete the ladder and allow him to ascend to the top of the mountain and regain his lost power. Frodo's doughty band, led by the great wizard, Gandalf, whose knowledge of ladders and rungs is unsurpassed, battle through danger, horror and treachery, not least from the evil Gollum, who himself once possessed the Great Rung and used to stand on it to become invisible. Frodo, aided by his trusty servant, Sam, manages to fling the rung into the fire of Mount Doom, thereby denying Sauron his last chance to reach the top of the mountain, destroying the ladder and his power in the process and saving the world. One small step for a Hobbit, but a giant step for Elfkind, Mankind, Dwarfkind and every other kind in Middle Earth.

Moby Duck

A crazed ship captain known as Ahab swears vengeance on the denizen of the ocean which has blighted his life for years. He pursues the creature, a gigantic white quacking waterfowl known as Moby, and finally corners it near an island where the bird is exhausted and doesn't have enough room to take off. Ahab launches himself with his duck harpoon at the massive aquatic avian, and in the ensuing struggle gets himself tangled up, with the result that they both go to their doom at the bottom of the ocean.

The Adventures of Tom Lawyer

This is the ripping story of the adventures of a poor boy living in a small town on the banks of the great Mississippi river. His shenanigans involve falling in love with his classmate, Becky Thatcher, hanging out in a graveyard with his friend, Huckleberry Finn, and getting into all kinds of trouble. However, he dreams of becoming a respected attorney, and seizes his chance when he defends the town drunk, Muff Potter, framed for murder by the local mob don Injun Joe, who actually committed the crime in an attempt to take over the local crime syndicate. Revealing, in truly dramatic fashion in the courtroom, that Muff is indeed innocent, and Injun Joe is guilty, he earns the accolades of the townsfolk and the eternal hatred of Joe, who escapes and swears his revenge. In the end, Tom triumphs in the face of adversity and travels abroad as a great international advocate.

Look out for more of these in the future if I can think of any.

Friday 15 February 2013

The Prehistory of the World in Welsh Tribes and Chalk

What's in a name? Why do certain phenomena have certain names? To my mind, one of the most fascinating and idiosyncratic naming processes was that of naming the periods in prehistory up to the end of the dinosaurs: Cambrian, Devonian, Silurian, Ordivician, Permian, Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous. Generations of palaeontologists, geologists, bonehunters and schoolchildren have had them rolling off their tongues, probably with no real idea of how these names actually came about, what they're named after, and how the names have resonated in time.

So, how did these periods get their names? Clearly, the people who researched these times over the last couple of hundred years, after interest in the prehistory of the world really took off, had their own favoured naming strategies. Let's start at the beginning, quite literally

The first period of the Palaeozoic Era, literally “ancient-life era”, was the Cambrian period, from about 541m to 485m years ago. It was characterised by the first explosion of multi-cellular life forms, the fossils of which were first found in rocks in Wales, known as Cambria in Latin, and Cymru (pronounced “come-ree”) in modern Welsh, ultimately from an ancient British form meaning “fellow countrymen”.

The Cambrian was followed by the Ordivician, which lasted until about 443m years ago. The Ordivices were a Celtic tribe living in North Wales and conquered by the Romans in 77-78CE. Their name was applied to the period whose rocks mostly appeared in their territory. The Ordivician was followed by the Silurian period, lasting till about 419m years ago, the Silures being a tribe living around South Wales and the English borders, where the rocks from that era predominated. Strangely, the use of Silurian to describe an ancient race of human-like reptiles in Doctor Who is inappropriate, not because the Welsh tribe actually consisted of humans as opposed to reptiles, but because no reptiles existed at the time, the most dominant life forms being early bony fish and giant sea scorpions

So far, so Welsh. For the next period, we have to move south, across the Bristol Channel. The Devonian period lasted till around 359m years ago, and was named, surprisingly enough, after Devon, where such rocks abound. However, Devon gets its name from the Dumnonii, a Celtic tribe which occupied the furthest south-western region of Britain, so in essence, they were an extension of the Welsh. So there we have it; the first four Palaeozoic periods named effectively after ancient British tribes.

So what of the next one? Was there a tribe called the Carboniferi? No. The Carboniferous period, which lasted till about 299m years ago, literally means “carbon-bearing”, because this was the period when huge forests dominated the land and were transformed over time into the coal that fuelled the industrial revolution. This was followed by the Permian period, the last of the Palaeozoic, lasting till about 252m years ago. So, who were the Perms, actually, Permians, and how were they related to the Welsh tribes? Well, they weren't. Permia was a medieval kingdom on the western slopes of the Urals in Russia and gave its name to the age as a result of the rocks found there which dated from that era

The Mesozoic, or Middle Life, Era is probably the most famous in prehistory, mainly because it was the period of the dinosaurs. The first of the three Mesozoic periods was the Triassic, running till about 200m years ago and named after the three-colour rock formations, black on white on red, which were found mainly in Germany. Then the most famous period, the Jurassic, followed, lasting till about 145m years ago and named after the Jura mountains straddling the French-Swiss border. The third and last period, lasting till the end of the dinosaurs about 66m years ago, was the Cretaceous, named after the Latin for chalk, creta, which was laid down in western Europe in the shallow seas of this period.

So, there we have it: Wales and two of its tribes, an ancient west country tribe, bearers of carbon, a province in Russia, three German rock layers, French/Swiss mountains and western European chalk; a motley and varied crew defining almost 500m years of prehistory, named mostly according to the personal whims of the geologists who defined them. And if you look into virtually any other area of science, you will find remarkably similar stories.