Saturday 20 December 2008

Nine Lessons And Carols for Godless People – Bloomsbury Theatre, 19th December 2008

Just because I take a rational and scientific view of the world we live in rather than a religious viewpoint, I don’t see this as a barrier to enjoying this festive time of year. I love the time off work to spend with family and friends, eating, drinking and making merry, and I see no reason to curtail my partying just because I cannot accept the notion of implausible virgin births and other associated incredulous doctrines. This lack of faith has led me on a journey of scientific discovery and enlightenment that has pushed my levels of wonder and awe of the universe far beyond what religion ever achieved for me. I’m therefore very keen to celebrate that wonder, and this time of year seems to be a suitable time to do just that. I imagine the thought process that led Robin Ince to instigating this event must be somewhat similar to my motivation for wanting to attend. We don’t want to be perceived as a bunch of miserable Atheists wanting to take the joy out of Christmas. I for one am happy to maintain our Christian heritage and Culture in a secular way whilst fully embracing the knowledge and understanding that has superseded our religious myths.

So for those who missed last nights Nine Carols and Lessons for Godless People at the Bloomsbury, or for those who just wanted a reminder of what they saw, I have written a review of the evening. NB I wrote this blog for a general audience unlike the more focused clientele on the night so I have to apologise for competing with Cybil Fawlty at times on her specialised subject of the bleeding obvious.

Anyway I bumped into Sid Rodrigues in the Foyer prior to the show who told me that however good I thought this show was going to be, based on last nights feedback I could multiply that tenfold. Well Sid, I’m sorry to say you underestimated; it was even better than that.

During the first half of the show I managed to take a few notes on my phone to help jog my memory on who was performing and the running order. However, at the half time break my wife gave me a load of grief for tapping away on my phone during the show. Apparently it’s rude. Anyway as a result I failed to make any notes during the second half and as a consequence my review will inevitably and unforgivably miss out some of the acts or at best have them in the wrong order. So here’s a summary of the acts, bearing in mind that if your planning to see this show on Sunday night at the Hammersmith Apollo, you may want to stop reading now as the rest of the blog is bound to include a few spoilers.

Carl Sagan
I may not necessarily pick Carl Sagan as my choice for the greatest scientist of the 20th Century, but if I had to pick one person whose passion for science and whose skill in writing and broadcasting did the most to promote the public understanding of science in the 20th century, it would have to be Carl. Sagan is perhaps the only author I have read who is capable of writing poetry that just happens to be about science. In fact, so skilled and passionate was he in promoting the wonders of science and the awesomeness of the universe; he is not overly inconvenienced by his unfortunate death in 1996 in continuing this mission. His presence this evening opened the show with a description of our planet taken from Cosmos. Sagan’s dulcet tones explaining how the small pale blue dot on the screen caught in a ray of sunlight is the only stage on which all events in human history have played out. It’s the nearest thing to being placed in Adams’ Total Perspective Mind Vortex. As Sagan’s voice drifts over us the Mystery Fax Machine Orchestra led by Martin White on the Accordion pipes in with Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra (from 2001 a space odyssey) and we’re off.

Robin Ince
Our compare for this evening welcomes us to his folly and sets the comedy bar at a frighteningly high level for the subsequent acts to follow. Ince is please to be playing to a knowledgeable scientific audience and I think he promises a Heisenberg gag later on and, but I’m uncertain. Ince also notes that he will need to be careful to get his facts right. I therefore don’t feel too much of a pedant in pointing out that his story of Charles Darwin noting a comment from his brother Erasmus on “Survival of the fittest” is fatally flawed in the fact that the quote should be attributed to Herbert Spencer rather than Darwin.

Phil Harris
Our first musical act of the evening required a bit of a sing along, and although the words were simple enough, “Maybe something’s, wrong with me.”, as an audience we failed to raise the rafters and I sure my out of key droning along probably didn’t really help.

Stewart Lee
Although one half of the comedy duo Lee & Herring, Stuart Lee is now very well known as an outspoken atheist and his Jerry Springer Opera has certainly touched a few Christian nerves, much to my amusement. It turns out that we were lucky not to loose Stewart to the other side, after all surely a being as complex and intelligent as Richard Dawkins could not have evolved by chance. This evening Stewart shared with us his thoughts on Pope John Paul II lollipops, and mused on the likely Catholic opinions of licking the face of the Pope on a lolly after his death. And what should the face of the new Pope, Benedict XVI, adorn, well Stewart suggestion was a warning on Bleach bottles.

Phil Jupitus
This is the second time I’ve seen Phil Jupitus this year, the first time was filling in for the late great Ian Dury with the Blockheads. Tonight was somewhat different as Jupitus read us a couple of poems, one of George Stephenson and one on the joy of lying to children at Christmas. Phil freely admitted that reading his freshly written poems is much easier than having to do stand up and remember his lines, but due to the high quality of poems, he’s fully excused.

Simon Singh
Introduced by Robin Ince as his favourite living physicist, Simon Singh was one of one of the best performances on an evening of high standards. Simon Singh latest book “Trick or Treatment” is still wrapped up under my Christmas tree, so I can’t comment on that, but “Big Bang” made a superb job of explaining how we have gained our understanding of the universe, and this was his text for this evening. The Book itself explains how our knowledge has built up, from discovering the earth is round, to discovering the circumference of the earth and that we in fact revolve around the sun, right the way up to expanding universe and big band theory. At each stage of the journey he eloquently shows how we worked it out and built upon our previous understanding to arrive at the complex understanding we have today. This evening, Singh jumps right in at the end of the book to explain how Georges Lemaître predicted the expanding universe theory in 1927 and how it was confirmed by observations ten years later by Edwin Hubble. The main point of Singh talk however was his annoyance at the lyrics to the Katie Melua song “10 Million bicycles”. I have listed Katie Melua’s original lyrics below, with Singh’s corrections underneath.
We are 12 billion light-years from the edge,
That’s a guess — no-one can ever say it’s true,
But I know that I will always be with you
We are 13.7 billion light-years from the edge of the observable universe,
That’s a good estimate with well-defined error bars, Scientists say it’s true, but acknowledge that it may be refined,
And with the available information, I predict that I will always be with you
More amazingly, Simon tells us that Katie actually got in touch with him and recorded a version of the song with Singh’s more accurate lyrics, which he kindly played to us.

Darren Hayman
The singer and guitarist from Indie band Hefner entertained us all with jolly song played on a jolly small ukulele

Ricky Gervais
I had to look this guy up on Wikipedia, but I guess we can’t expect a completely star studded line up. Anyway, it turns out that he’s pretty well known as a result of pigging backing on the success of that deep philosophical muse, Karl Pilkington. You know, the chap with a head like a fucking orange. Anyway, this Gervais fellow admirably entertained those present by testing out some stuff from his new show “Science”. From the extracts given, “Science” bears as much resemblance to its title as its predecessors, “Animals” and “Politics”. But as this was a Christmas show, Gervais showed us one of his previous gifts. A small card explaining that his present was a goat that had been given to an African Family. Gervias’ comic outrage on missing out on his present in lieu of some goat given to people he doesn’t know, was well received be my wife who to her dismay received a Well donated to Africa from one of her friends a few years ago. I assume the look on my wife’s face after receiving this gift was what encouraged her friend to purchase another gift for her a few days later.

After a brief intermission to empty bladders and purchase more beer Robin Ince gave us another short set before introducing what for many, me included, was the main draw of the evening.

Richard Dawkins
Not that we Skeptics accept truth merely on authority, but the first lesson after the intermission was taken from the 6th Gospel of St Richard (Unweaving the rainbow). Prior to this extract however, Dawkins read his article on “Gerin Oil”, which is an anagram of widely available and extremely dangerous drug.

It is of course at this point of the evening that my lack of note taking in the second half lets me down. The remainder is therefore the hazy memories of the next day. Curiously enough later on Chris Addison, assumed as Skeptics and Scientist we would all be taking notes. I gave the wife a hard stare at this point. Anyway, on with the show….

Phil Jeays.
Phil Fucked us all with a jolly child friendly little ditty about the attitude of a dying man on his deathbed. A laudable attitude that I hope to take myself one day, although not yet.

Robyn Hitchcock
Robyn had a little trouble plugging his guitar in. Trying to plug to female connectors together I think, but as he commented at the time, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Josie Long
Josie told as a completely true anecdote relating to David’s Hume’s refusal to have a deathbed conversion. What I liked about this event, is that Josie found no need to fill in such a knowledgeable audience on whom she was talking about.

Jo Neary
For those not bought up in the UK in the 1970’s, Pan People’s dance routines to one of the weeks top pop songs were renowned for their literal translation of lyrics into the medium of dance. Jo took this literal translation one step further with her one woman pan’s person dance version of Harry Nilsson’s “Without You”. The facial expressions and exaggerated mine had the whole family pissing themselves.

Gavin Osborn
Gavin song about his fateful date with one of the curtain twins (Anna Curtain). It all was going swimmingly until he realised there were 3 people in the relationship. Having been involved with the Church during my teenage years I found this masterful song very easy to relate to.

Mark Thomas
After listening to the tales of Mark’s family and upbringing, I’m intrigued to meet his dad, Colin.

Christina Martin.
Christina put the fear of God in us, Oh hang on, not the fear of God, but the fear of something. Anyway she proclaimed herself to be a born again Christian with a captive audience of atheists. Fortunately she turned out be as sane and rational as the rest of the audience, only an awful lot funnier.

Colin Watson – (AKA Waen Shepherd)
Woooo, Yeah. Well actually I don’t remember those beach boyesque hits of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s but his song about a monkey, a blind kid, a shoe and something else was a complete triumph.

Natalie Haynes
After a hilarious routine on her annoyance with parents, I tried not to catch her eye as I had my kids sat on either side of me, they were incidentally finding her routine very amusing too.

Andrew Collins
One of the great Christmas traditions, mused Andrew, is the Christmas Movie, and after inviting the audience to nominate the best secular Christmas film, he went on to proclaim the Poseidon Adventure as the champion and the cause for his conversion to atheism. While the believers hang around in the upturned hull of the ship, awaiting rescue, the non-believers escape through the arse of God. Great Stuff.

Peter Buckley Hill
Peter gave the audience a choice of songs this evening, one about maths or one about Xmas. The audience’s clap-o-meter provided little help in making his mind up so he opted for the Xmas song on account of performing the maths one the previous night. I wanted to hear the maths songs, but was very happy with his choice in the end celebrating all the greats things about X, during this Xmas period.

Ben Goldacre
Ben defends the Rational from the attack by the Woo’s from his regular column in the Guardian and his equivalently named Bad Science Blogs and Book. Ben always takes a strong stance against quackery, alternative medicine and pseudoscience and the dangers they may lead to. This evening was no exception with a poignant and harrowing account of countless thousands of deaths in Africa from Aids due to the suppression of anti HIV drugs in favour of vitamin pills. Ben left the audience reeling with the true cost of the harm that one small piece of bullshit can cause. A tough act for the next comic to follow.

Chris Addison
Familiar to many, including myself as Ollie from BBC’s “The Thick Of It” Chris started off his set with “In the beginning was the word”. This turned to be far more relevant to an enlightened atheist audience than a meaningless bible quote. Chris talked about the importance of language and how the invention of the printing press was the key catalyst in the spreading of knowledge and the precursor to the advances in technology and understanding. So taken in was I, that I failed to notice the time, it was getting quite late by this point but I didn’t realise how late until Chris pointed out that my 10 year old son sat next to me in the front row should be in bed by now.

Tim Minchin
Tim’s 9 minute beat poem about “Storm” an Australian guest at a Dinner Party he attended was an unexpected treat and for me the highlight of the show. The poem itself was sheer genius, with Tim biting his lip throughout the first half of the poem listening to the inane ranting of Sagittarian, Storm and her spiritual and pseudoscientific viewpoint before finally cracking in an abuse of logic and reason. I tried to find a clip on YouTube to share with you all, but I couldn’t find one. If anyone can spot one please forward on to me.

Carl Sagan
Carl Sagan and Martin White’s Orchestra brought the evening to a close. I was hoping Robin would make a final appearance to take a bow on harvest his well-earned standing ovation, but the house lights came on, and we shuffled off into the night.

Well that’s about it for this review. Almost as long as he evening itself. The only better way I can see of fully expressing the feeling of joy, awe and comedy at this festive time other than “Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People” is to hope that this is merely the inaugural annual “Nine Carols and Lessons for Godless People”. I sincerely hope we can do it again next year, if so can we invite Stephen Fry, David Gilmour and Eddie Izzard. Thanks

20th December 2008

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Jack of Kent said...

Slightly more positive than my review, see:

Good stuff overall, but could be great next year.

Do note, Josie Long's rambling anecdote about Hume was actually wrong in many respects (Johnson wasn't catholic; it was not Adam Smith but Boswell, etc) - so your comment above tells one more about a mainly "science" audience :-)

Crispian Jago said...

Touché Jack. I’m only a Computer Scientist, not a real scientist and my knowledge of that particular anecdote was obviously insufficient ☺