Science review: Radiation

I didn’t think I knew very much about radiation, but I’ve suddenly become full of insight since a freak accident in which I was saturated by gamma rays, leaving me with the ability to bend space/time thus altering the rules of probability and endowing me with the strength of a KGB-trained leopard. Well, and also I have been writing biographies of Marvel superheroes for a living.

Radiation is great for the underdog: it really helps them blossom, growing muscles and a desire to devote their lives to fighting crime. (Why so many policemen among the superheroes? Jobsworths, to a man. The world of post-radiation superheroism is a quaint place, rooted in the 1950s. Everyone is married or existentially tormented, and I had to delete, for noble moral reasons of word count, a breathless reference to Elektra’s habit of “loving for thrills!”.) For everyone else, it’s rubbish, because it gives people diseases and makes their hair fall out and then they die either of radiation sickness or because of choking on toast in the kitchen while reading an article about Chernobyl.

I read a book called Brother in the Land when I was quite small, about the aftermath of nuclear war, babies being born without mouths and dead cities and no one being kind to children because childhood is a luxury you can only have when no one has dropped a bomb on you recently (similar in this way to other luxuries eg dark chocolate, quilted toilet paper, Versace ashtrays etc). The book was full of radiation sickness, it was like the common cold in Shakespeare. All this was very troubling to me – I was far too young for the book, it was my comeuppance for having the intellectual equivalent of eyes bigger than my belly. To this day, when I see a particularly lurid sunset, I scan the horizon for accompanying mushroom clouds.

Radiation: On balance, not that great, but useful for manufacturing half-men half-beasts with the agility of an Olympic gymnast, the sheer brute strength of a Sumo wrestler and laser beams for eyes. 4 out of 10.


Review: Big Brother

It’s disgusting how lazy some people are, failing to update their blogs in favour of lolling around watching Big Brother and reading the Big Brother online forum and talking to people about Big Brother.

Jumping on the bandwagon late, as ever, I’ve fallen in love with reality TV this year. TV drama disgusts me now: as BS Johnson wrote, “Enough of all this lying!” Why make stuff up, when you can watch a cross-dressing teenager paint his toenails, an aspiring rapper from Leeds cornrow his hair and the most beautiful man on TV walk around in his pants? Why leave the house? I am furious that the weather is perfect: it’s eating into valuable BB obsession time.

Pearls of wisdom so far include, “I go for a girl’s personality as well as her looks – I know that makes me sound like a mincer”, “If a human touches a dolphin, it’s like putting it in acid”, and the revelation that there are people out there who have never gone without sex for more than 25 days. That’s what it’s like, when you’re an experienced sailor on the… OK, will give hilarious Relation Ship pun a rest for now.

Big Brother: I’ll miss it when I’m gone. Unless they have it in Tanzania, with Big Brother voiced by Bob Geldof and insipid theme tune composed by Chris Martin. 8 out of 10.


Review: Charity bracelets

My little sister was reeling off a list of worthy plastic bracelets in her possession:

Little Sister: “I’ve got Make Poverty History, diabetes, breast cancer, cruelty to children, and another cancer one. I wanted to get a Live Strong one from Nike Town, but they’d sold out.”
Me: “What’s Live Strong?”
Little Sister: “The yellow ones.”
Me: “I know, but what are they for?”
Little Sister: “They’re for Lance Armstrong. He’s had cancer, so he’s a walking charity.”

As Chunky Munky observed recently, there’ll be hell to pay when the kids get sick of these plastic bracelets. I have a bright pink A Future Without Diabetes wristband, courtesy of Little Sister. Diabetes makes you eligible for disability benefit and free cinema tickets. My mother spends the disability benefit on designer children’s clothes for Little Sister. I once asked her why that was. “That’s what you’re supposed to do with it,” she said. Visions of women in wheelchairs comparing shoes: “They’re Marc Jacobs. I got them with my disability benefit. Best thing is, they’ll never wear out, because I can’t walk.”

Charity bracelets: I was thinking of creating my own, with Make Eskimo Rich printed on them. I am underpaid and drink too much, but am I a walking charity? 5 out of 10.

Review: The word 'Eskimo'

Google teaches us that the word Eskimo is a term for the Inuit invented by the Southern Algonquin, God knows who they are, meaning “the eaters of raw flesh in the north”. People are forever making these wild, implausible claims for words in foreign languages, as you will realise if you have ever listened to a debate being translated into different languages. Once, I was listening to a Hungarian go on and on for what felt like hours, as they tend to, and when he stopped, our translator said, “He disagrees.” We were suspicious: there are long words in Hungarian, but not that long.

A list of racially sensitive terms in the Mayfield Handbook of Technical and Science Writing (with Google I’m like Moses with the commandments, I don’t judge, I don’t ask, I just chip away at the tablets because I don’t have a pen handy) notes that “in Canada the official term for local native people is Inuit rather than Eskimo. Many Alaskan natives also prefer this term.” Canadians are very pleasant people, very polite, although I find the books of Margaret Atwood disappointing. The Inuit for ‘Inuit’ translates as ‘real people’, apparently. In this respect, the Inuit are showing an upsetting lack of cultural sensitivity.

There is a scene in the film Heathers where Christian Slater underlines the word 'Esquimaux' in a girl’s copy of Moby Dick before making it look as if she’s topped herself. I liked that scene, as an impressionable child:

“Heather Duke underlined a lot of things in this copy of Moby Dick, but I believe the word ‘Eskimo’, underlined all by itself, is the key to understanding Heathers pain. On the surface, Heather Duke was the vivacious young lady we all knew her to be, but her soul was in Antarctica! …We'll all miss Sherwood’s little Eskimo. Let’s just hope she's rubbing noses with Jesus!”

Here is Herman Melville on the subject: “Only the most unprejudiced of men like Stubb, nowadays partake of cooked whales; but the Esquimaux are not so fastidious.” Maybe Herman Melville and the Southern Algonquin had some underhand and secret pact to muddy the good name of the Inuit.

The Eskimo language neither exists nor has an unusual number of words for snow. Here is
Geoffrey Pullum, author of an essay called The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax, on the issue:

“There seem to be only a handful of roots that really are snow roots in the languages of the Yup'iks and Inuits, maybe four or five, not very different from the number found in English (snow, sleet, slush, blizzard).”

The word Eskimo: Statcounter tells me that someone arrived here recently by googling “naked Eskimo girls”. It breaks my heart to disappoint you, sir or madam. 9 out of 10.


Review: Being single

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a girl in want of a boyfriend, must not shave her legs very often. Those with boyfriends might well reflect on how much time, energy, effort, willpower, water, and soap could have been saved had they showed a bit more restraint, instead of whoring around bars trying to find an occupant for their boyfriend vacancy.

There’s a page in Cosmopolitan called Why It’s Great Being Single or something where women celebrate the ways in which being single has freed them up to look for a boyfriend. I am not sure whether or not it is great being single. It’s a bit like asking a badger, “Is it great being nocturnal?” The badger would merely look you up and down, in that supercilious way badgers have, and go back to foraging for insects.

“First comes love,” as Chaucer observed in Troilus and Criseyde, “Then comes marriage, then comes the baby in the baby’s carriage.” Only, Criseyde runs off with another man, and Troilus dies, but apart from that it’s just as I said. The best thing about getting married is wedding lists. This is where people buy you stuff for no reason – like begging, or busking, but with matrimonial vows instead of Stairway to Heaven on an accordion.

My mother, who is vigorously monogamous, doesn’t really do being single. Here, nevertheless, are two of her important insights:

1. “I wouldn’t live with a man again, unless he had a separate flat in the same house and I didn’t have to see him except when I wanted to.”

2. “Men are disappointing.”

Being single: Yonge fresshe folkes, he or she, / In which that love up groweth with your age, / Repeyreth hoom from worldly vanitee. 7 out of 10.


Review: Race relations

A friend of mine who works in South Africa went to the beach with some black people last weekend. Well done, friend!

I find her example inspiring and intend to spend the next few weeks making friends with black people who are not related to me. Next month, I’m moving to a country where everyone is black. Last time I was there, I received this brilliant summary of my racial identity, from a man in a market: “You’re white,” he said, “but a funny colour.” Thinking of the money I’d saved on buying books by Paul Gilroy, I bought a sack of rice for 20p.

A few years ago, my father, who is Jamaican-Irish, decided to rediscover his African roots. He took to wearing batik-print gowns and yin-yang necklaces, in a triumph of mixed cultural messages. Before dinner, we’d do a libation to the ancestors, which is where my dad went out into his Manchester back garden and poured a bowl of water on the tomato patch. Go the ancestors! Roots, I believe, should stay buried underground, where they can make themselves useful.

The benchmark for a truly inclusive society is an STA Travel advert in which a racially mixed group of attractive young people gambol around in a tropical paradise, raping the local culture. Advertising has always led the way in the area of race relations: when my brother and I were small, people in supermarkets used to congratulate my mother on her children, saying we were just like a Benetton advert. This was before the period when Benetton adverts featured Death Row inmates and AIDS patients. It seems obscene, now, that Benetton ads used to be culturally relevant. The 1980s were a desert, even worse than the Noughties.

Race relations: As a child, I was under the impression that we weren’t allowed to eat South African fruit because the man from Del Monte killed black people. Later, I worked in a bar with the daughter of the actor who played this heartless monster. True story! 6 out of 10.


Review: False killer whales

"False killer whales share some characteristics with killer whales, though they are not as aggressive.

"Like killer whales, they are not actually whales, but dolphins."

-BBC News website, 2 June 2005

False killer whales: Glad we've cleared that one up. 10 out of 10.

Review: Paranoia

Now that the national archives have helpfully exposed Harold Wilson as a paranoiac of the first order (Russians spying on him, portentuous omens around Downing Street and so on), it's become obvious that mental instability is no barrier to a successful career.

All over the country, the drug-addled breathe a sigh of relief. Cheap and plentiful recreational drugs have made psychosis a common social hazard, equivalent to the possibility of being sick when drunk.

Everyone has their story: one friend of mine used to have incredibly boring hallucinations of sofas and assorted soft furnishings after taking Ecstasy, another became obsessed with the meaning of time after smoking dope continuously for a couple of years, another claims that he managed to "sort himself out" by taking acid and sitting in his room, alone, for five hours.

The kind of rampant paranoia that drugs can produce is no fun at all, but in its milder forms, paranoia is the perfect urban outlook. With heightened peripheral vision and pepper spray in hand, the paranoiac is an expert at city living. And paranoia can be a beautiful thing: all this CCTV and a glossy ID card, just so MI5 can trace your every move. What is the government: some kind of obsessive ex-boyfriend?

Paranoia: Neither am I paranoid, nor are they out to get me. I am living a quiet life, and have lost my passport, so am temporarily without identity, like Sandra Bullock in that film. 5 out of 10.