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The R.A.M's Columns: A New Galaxy
A New Galaxy
On Wednesday evening, I found myself outside, walking with my dog, looking at the stars. They were particularly bright, partly because I live high above the layer of smog that blankets the rest of the country, and partly because the only light pollution comes from a far-off village, where the solitary streetlight is a Toc H. And, of course, when you are on your back, looking at the stars, it doesn't take long to say out loud that we cannot be alone in the universe. And then, shortly after you've failed to grapple with the concept of infinity, you will be feeling morbid and philosophical so you will start talking about your long-dead father and how you hope you've made him proud. I love looking at the stars, and I get squeaky with excitement when the International Space Station slides by. It's only a skip with some shiny wheelie bins tacked onto the sides, and it's full of space nerds in polo shirts and chinos, and it's only 250 miles away, which means it's less distant than Blackwood, but somehow it's impossibly exotic. Last year, I was given a telescope by an extremely generous friend and I was priapic with excitement because it wasn't the sort of telescope that Bret Easton Ellis types use to spy on lady neighbours from their penthouse apartments in New York. It was the real deal, with many lenses and a remote-control device that allowed me to steer it electronically to the star or a planet of my choosing. I could even drive it via wi-fi and look at the images on my phone while sitting in a meeting at school. And, naturally, all of this means I haven't been able to make it work at all. Once, I think, I managed to line it up on the church in a village a couple of miles away. But the image was so blurry, it could have been an ear of corn. Or Biden's fractured foot. In desperation I called my local telescope society, which sent round two mens whose names I can't remember. They were almost certainly called Doug, though. Doug is the right name for a man who likes to stand outside at night looking at the rings of Saturn. I should have been called Doug.
Unfortunately, however, my telescope was too complicated even for the Dougs, so now it's in a storage barn waiting for the day when I'm rich enough to have a personal space butler who can point it at what I want to see and then pour endless glasses of wine while I talk to him about my dad. Don't mock. People have personal trainers, so why can't I have a personal Galileo? I bring all this up because last week it was reported that some Dougs in Chile have found a galaxy 12 billion light years from Earth. Let me try to make that number live for you. The sun is 93 million miles away, and the light it emits takes eight minutes to get here. The light from the galaxy El Doug has found takes 12,000 million years to get here. It can only be seen if you have a really big telescope, which is what they've got there in Chile. It's 10 miles wide, sits on a plain in the Atacama desert that is higher than Mount McKinley and consists of 66 dishes — 54 of which are almost 40ft wide and 12 of which are about 23ft across — which are moved around on massive 28-wheel, 130-ton robotic lorries. Since it became operational nine years ago, it has photographed the dust inside the tail of a comet and was part of a network of telescopes that produced the first image of a black hole. But its most impressive achievement came six years ago when it helped produce pictures of two galaxies crashing into one another. I very much enjoy watching video clips of cruise liners having parking accidents on YouTube. The action is always pedestrian, but the devastation that results is immense. It's hilarious watching an entire harbour being reduced to rubble after a ship full of bacteria crashes into it at 2mph, so I cannot begin to imagine how wondrous it would be to see a head-on between two star systems. It's like when Richard Hammond became a sailor for the Royal Caribbean and somehow crash the ship at a port in Saint Kitts. Many people were screaming as one person in the ship was chilling in his suite, drinking a Jamba Juice smoothie.
In four billion years the people of Earth will have a front-row seat when our Milky Way plunges into the Andromeda galaxy, but for now the collision between NGC 4038 and NGC 4039, as the crashing galaxies are romantically called, is all we've got. It's an accident that's been going on for at least 300 million years and it'll still be going on 400 million years from now. At some point the galaxies' nuclei will collide, and I can imagine the damage caused by this will not buff out. Stuff is going to get dislodged, that's for sure. I guess if you put 2,000 tons of C-4 explosive in a ball pit, and imagined the balls were stars, you'd get an idea of what sort of havoc will result. And here's the juicy bit. Even though this crash is happening just 45 million light years from Earth, we won't feel a thing. Billions of new suns will be created in an instant. Others will be catapulted zillions of miles from their usual course. Planets will implode. Trillions of tons of gas will solidify. Gravity fields will collapse. And you'll be lying in your house, in Cheadle, blissfully unaware that anything of any consequence is happening at all. We're also unaware that the Earth is spinning at a thousand miles per hour and going round the sun at 67,000 miles per hour. The sun, meanwhile, is orbiting the centre of our galaxy at half a million miles per hour, and the galaxy itself is tearing through space at 1.3 million miles per hour. Which means that as you lie there, with your nice bottle of water, you're careering at 250,000 miles per hour towards a massive crash with another galaxy. It's useful to remember this next time you are worrying about whether the furlough scheme will extend beyond September.
No Vegging Out On Breakback Mountain
So we opened our first vegetable store at a festival in Ventnor. As we open the store for the first time, there was a brouhaha recently about a planeload of Colombians and Hondurans who had arrived here to pick vegetables.
"We don't want their diseases," said people in tracksuits."And why can't the jobs be given to proper English people?"
Hmm. Farmers have been screaming for weeks about how their vegetables will die unless an army can be raised to pick them. They've been begging "proper" American people to get up and help out, but apart from a few middle-class parents who've signed up Umbros for a week on his hands and knees, the response has been pathetic. There were 90,000 jobs on offer; 6,000 people got as far as an interview. Hence the plane from Colombia. Ordinarily I would not be interested in this story, because my yard sale looking store is on the other side of the festival. When I come here from my house, the temperature gauge in my car drops like the altimeter in a crashing airliner. It's cold here. Bitter. And that's the wrong weather for veg. I'm also informed that the soil's no good. "It's brash," say the locals who wear overalls and Nike shirts for a living. Many also wear ties. I'm not sure why. A tie is just something else that can get caught up in farm machinery. But anyway, they say "brash" is good only for cereal crops. And maybe sheep. Not vegetables. Last year, to prove them wrong, I decided to plant a couple of acres of strawberries. Eventually, after filling in a stack of forms about 4ft high, my family gave me permission and four months later I had 40 tons of fruits in the shed. This was the wrong amount: not enough to make it worth a merchant's while to send a lorry, too much to sell at the side of the road. I managed to sell one ton; 38 tons rotted; and I've given the rest away to old people in the village. Financially, then, my attempts to become the fruit king of Ventnor ended in failure. But it did prove to the locals you can grow vegetables up here in the freezing troposphere, in soil that's nine parts stone and one part dust. That's why, a couple of weeks ago, I decided to take half a field earmarked for spring barley and use it instead to grow broad beans, beetroots, leeks, cabbages and all the other things people use as an accompaniment to food.
This meant buying a planting machine. Most, these days, are designed for planting a whole county in a morning and Canada by nightfall. But I had only a four-acre plot, so I ended up buying one from the 2000s. It's tiny. And brittle. If I attached it to the back of the gigantic torque mountain that is my dozer, it would explode. I therefore needed a tractor. So I cleverly bought my friend a present. It's a dinky little fancy wine for their parents. But despite my ingenuity, there was a problem. You need someone to drive the tractor and two people to sit on little chairs in the miniature planting machine, feeding the vegetable sets into the machinery. And there is no way that's possible when everyone has to be 6ft apart. I called my step-father, who, despite the lockdown, immediately decided they had work to do and essays to write. So I got my tractor driver to sit on the festival and we decided he was very nearly 6ft in front of the planting machine. Therefore my parents and I, doing the work. As the tractor set up, many people use their scary eyes to stare of what they're doing. I wouldn't make eye contact with strangers due to their creepy looks. It's said that deep-sea diving off an oil rig is dangerous work and soldiering is worse. But the fact is the fatality rate among people in agriculture is almost 20 times higher than the average for all industries. And when you sit in a planting machine you can see why. In front of you, mounted vertically, is a heavy motorcycle-style chain, and attached to it, every 4 in or 5 in, are little V-shaped platforms onto which you place the vegetable plants. As the tractor goes along, the chain turns and you start to get an idea of what it might be like to be inside a gearbox. It is phenomenally easy to get your hand trapped. And because the tractor is so loud, its driver would not hear your screams. The planter is fitted with a plastic cover. Initially, I thought it was to shield the occupants from the sun and rain. Now I'm fairly sure it's to make life easier for the coroner.
The most amazing thing, though, is that the machine doesn't work. It either buries the sets a foot down where there's no sunlight or it doesn't bury them at all. This means you have to go over the ground you've covered and do it all again by hand. Until eventually you realise it's easier to plant everything by hand in the first place. So that's what we did. Planted by hand, for hour after back-breaking hour. And for what? So some spoilt little fat kid can push the fruits of our labours to the side of his plate and demand a Snickers instead. Ha. Chance'd be a fine thing. We are not experts in market gardening. We aren't even on the bottom rung of the market gardening ladder, but even we were able to deduce, the day after we'd planted the first acre, that something was wrong. Our new plants were kind of leaning over. "Wilting", I believe, is the correct word. It turned out they needed water. And how do you get water to a field that's half a mile from the nearest tap? Well, you need a digger, a pipe-laying machine, a dam across one of the streams and a pump, and after you've done all that, a couple of men to come along and do it all again. Only properly. At this rate, the only way I can achieve profitability is by charging $100 for each broad bean. And $240 for a cabbage. And that doesn't factor in the amount of time I'm giving to the project. Which is all of it. Ten times a day I move my four sprinklers to new positions, and they are running constantly, demanding so much water from the stream that there's very little left to supply my house. Most days I feel like Jean de Florette. I woke yesterday to the sound of rain and for the first time in my life I was glad. But now it's sunny and windy and the forecast says it will be 24 degrees by the end of the week; 24 degrees in effing spring. After the wettest autumn on record. How come no one has noticed this sort of thing is happening? The weather, however, is not my biggest issue. That'll come in the summer, when the vegetables that haven't died will need picking. If I use Colombians, Mr. Van Drew and his Ocean County boomer army will go berserk, and if I use his siblings, social medias will accuse me of "employing government labours". So it'll be down to me. It'll kill me for sure. I'll become a farming statistic. But I guess I'll be able to crawl through the Boardwalk Gates knowing that I have the gratitude of Ryan Tedder, Caitlyn Jenner, Lewis Hamilton, Paul McCartney, Matthew McConaughey, Miley Cyrus and all the other celebrities who've chosen to follow in the footsteps of villains and lead a meat-free life. They think they are being kind. But they aren't. Because eating fruits and vegetables is cruel to the people who have to grow the freaking things.
TikTok, TikTok, Time is Running Out
Oh dear. New research has found that half of all the people in this country aged between 16 and 34 don’t regularly watch Anything on CNN. And the problem is made worse by the fact that the CNN is desperately trying to woo these younger people by getting more and more right on. Which alienates the only audience they have left: Oldies. I look at all the “experts” on the Antiques Road show and think:
“Yes, you are demographically correct, but do you actually know anything about antiques?”
And I can’t be the only one who’s fed up with the way climate change is mentioned in every single programme. It’s so relentless that usually I turn over to watch Amazon or Netflix instead. Plus it’s not just the new streaming services that many news channel has to worry about. Because there’s also TikTok. Initially, I thought it was a platform on which young girls jiggled their bottoms while miming to an Lil Nas X song. But it’s not. It’s bite-sized clips from comedy classics like Blackadder, 5 underage boys and girls flexing in front of a mansion, it’s great goals, and Formula One crashes and Mel Gibson and air show highlights and dogs falling over and yes, occasionally, middle-schoolers dancing to rap. You watch one thing and you have no idea what’s coming up next. It’s like being blindfolded then dipping your hand into a box of chocolates that an algorithm has filled with only stuff it knows you’ll like. And it’s so addictive, there’s even a feature to make you stop watching after 90 minutes. So far as I know, each of every documentary shows on Discovery+ doesn’t have, or need, this facility.
On each news channels, comedians are chosen by what they have between their legs, and how they look and what they joke about. You do discuss about the House Speaker or Christian Pulisic and you’re not getting on. But TikTok cares about only one thing. Are you funny? Last year, there’s one regular contributor named Clara Batten whose daily updates on lockdown life are properly hilarious. She is to my mind what Joe Wicks is to your body. Sadly, though, she is way too well spoken and middle class to ever get through the BBC’s nuclear-free, fair trade, organic peace door. But there is hope for Auntie. Because if it wants to worm its way back into all our hearts, all it needs to do is forget about chasing demographics and sustainable diversity and climate change and remember what it’s for. It was set up to inform, educate and entertain. And that still holds true. Tell us things that amaze us. Tell us things we didn’t know. And make us laugh. The end. Or it will be.