Essays: Deep-sea spaghetti |
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Deep-sea spaghetti

ONE and a half miles down off the Galapagos Islands, according to The World About Us (BBC2), there are hot-air vents on the ocean floor. Around these vents cluster some of the least photogenic life-forms known to man.

Man goes down there by means of a cute little submarine known as Alvin. When man gets there, he searches around for hot-air vents. The vents are caused by the pressure of the earth’s molten core blowing holes in its thin crust. When this happens, the temperature of the sea is raised, and life appears where no life had been before. The life includes tube-worms, sea-spiders, weirdo fish of the type that we are always warned we will have to eat when we have finished off the kinds we don’t mind looking at, and, inevitably, Alvin.

Crouched in the bowels of Alvin, American scientists gaze out in rapture at the clustered tube-worms. The tube-worms are red-blooded, like scientists. They dwell in lengths of tube. They look like lengths of tube. There is nothing about them which is not tube-like. But look over there! What is that strange, spaghetti-like structure? Is it spaghetti? No, it is more worms. And now a rat-tailed fish noses towards the window, obeying the universal instinct of all creation — to be on television.

As a special edition of Panorama (BBC1) inadvertently demonstrated, life around a hot-air vent on the bottom of the sea off the Galapagos Islands has a lot in common with modern China. For example, there is about the same standard of public debate in each case. Reporter Michael Cockerell devoted his investigations chiefly to the Role of the Media in Chinese Society. The People’s Daily now has the democratic right to say anything it likes about the Gang of Four. This right, however, must not be abused. Nobody is allowed to criticise the Communist Party.

Since the Communist Party, as personified by its all-wise father Chairman Mao, was directly responsible for the Gang of Four coming into existence, you would think that being debarred from mentioning this fact would place a pretty large restriction on political analysis, and you would be right. The People’s Daily keeps Deng’s clichés set up in type so that they can get his latest speech into print without delay. This is merely laughable, but it was pitiable to see and hear the paper’s editor trying to think in the same manner.

The editor had been arrested during the Cultural Revolution and tortured for a grand total of seven years. During the daily torture sessions the Red Guards invited him to criticise his own errors. Not much of a one for public displays of emotion, he nevertheless gave way to tears when he remembered this. Yet recently his newspaper congratulated the Party on jailing the dissident Wei for fifteen years. Wei’s crime had been to suggest that Deng’s famous Four Modernisations would be meaningless without a fifth, namely democracy. Plainly Wei was right, but tube-worms are not allowed to talk like that. All they are allowed to say is glug.

We were shown some dedicated cadres removing Mao’s sayings from a wall in Peking. Perhaps some day soon his god-head will be removed too. The problem will then arise of whom to worship next. I suppose it will be Deng, but a better choice would be Wei, who is a true hero. Wei, when you think of it, is the hope not just of China but of the whole world. As a teenager he was a Red Guard, which meant that he spent his days making life miserable for his elders and betters. But when he grew up he realised that it had all been a mistake: that the Party was not infallible after all, and that there was such a thing as individual conscience. Wei figured this out all by himself even when the whole pressure of the State was coming down on top of him. One’s conclusion — small consolation, but some — is that human society can never be quite like the bottom of the sea.

In Spitfire MII 434 (Thames), a documentary by the redoubtable Frank Cvitanovich, one of the last dozen airworthy Spitfires spoke eloquently. Whenever it was in the sky, the sweet song of its busy Merlin gave you a noise to go with the pictures. Less good vocally were the contributions of all the surviving people who had ever flown this particular aircraft. It was an inspired idea In get them all together, but when finally assembled they revealed themselves to he collectively tongue-tied, with the occasional exception of one of the female ferry-pilots. For a few moments she lit up with the memory of how poetic the early Spitfires felt to fly. The later ones, apparently, were a bit nose-heavy.

More dramatic things had happened to some of the other pilots, but they couldn’t find the words to express them. It would have been churlish to expect otherwise, but it was also hard to ward off a feeling of frustration. MII 434 helped, After human speech had limped too far for too long, the beautiful aeroplane would come winging in. There was also some previously seldom seen footage of the Battle of Britain, including a lot of that camera-gun film which shows :he reality of aerial combat like nothing else. The film The Battle of Britain (BBC1) reshown to mark the fortieth anniversary of the battle, counts only as a good try. As part of the same nostalgic gala, Alistair Cooke narrated Blitz on Britain (BBC2). He did his usual well-barbered job, but kept referring to something called an ‘airplane.’ The RAF flew aeroplanes.

A visually beautiful Horizon (BBC2) somehow managed to he inarticulate about the faraway galaxies. If it is at all possible, scripts for such programmes should he written and delivered by the same person. It is never a good idea to patch together a scrappy commentary and hand it to an actor. Still, the telescopes were very interesting and some of the far-gone phenomena they were examining looked simply terrific. There were also some computer simulations of turning galaxies that looked certain to feature as control panel readouts on the bridge of the Millennium Falcon the next time it flies into action against Darth Vader.

For more than a week now News at Ten (ITN) has been regaling its with pictures of Sandy Gall modelling a safari suit in Vietnam. In the latest half-minute instalment of his adventures, Sandy managed to creep up on a pair of lovers coyly necking on a Hanoi river bank. An extended report would have done him and his subject more justice. Pinter’s Langrishe, Go Down (BBC2), directed by David Jones, gained from a second viewing, although I still wondered why the information was so grudgingly presented.

Peter Cook & Co (LWT) was very funny in spots. So were Morecambe and Wise (Thames). The first episode of Flickers (ATV) was no funnier than an abscessed ear, but it might improve. We, The Accused (BBC2) fell apart somewhat in the second episode, but it was a serious project which I might save to praise next week, as a moment of heart’s ease during the all-consuming task of analysing Mackenzie (BBC1).

The Observer, 21st September 1980
[ A much-shortened version of this piece appears in Glued to the Box ]