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The Strand magazine, 1896: a Howard Grubb Illustrated interview

The Strand magazine, 1896: a Howard Grubb Illustrated interview

After writing about telescopes in space in my last article, I was reminded of this “illustrated interview” of Howard Grubb, published in the Strand Magazine in 1896. It starts perhaps not very promisingly: “The poverty of Ireland is such that the superficial observers are apt to wonder whether any good thing can really come out of that distressful country”. It does improve from there! It was sent to me by a descendant of Grubb. It is very interesting, especially the part at the end about future large telescopes which, of course, will be floating in water. The image below is supposed be “casting the mirror for the great Melbourne telescope” but it doesn’t look like any kind of “astronomical” ceremony to me!

“Casting the mirror for the great Melbourne telescope”

Read the PDF here:

TheStrandMagazine-1896-b-Vol.XII-Jul-Dec-Sir-Howard-Grubb-illustrated-interview-1

“Surviving doomsday”

“Surviving doomsday”

For as long as I can remember I was interested in science. For the first ten years of my life, we lived across the street from the Cookstown public library, and I devoured anything I could find in there about science or astronomy. (I remember later hearing a Carl Sagan story where, as a child, he goes into his public library, asks for a book about the stars…and comes out with a book about Hollywood). There was only one bookshop in our town, and I’m happy to report that it’s still there today, but one day I was in there and saw this interesting book called Surviving doomsday. Interesting for me because there was a drawing of a mushroom cloud on the cover, and that was science, right? In the foreground, a man with a geiger counter in hand and wearing full radiation protection strode confidently away from the cloud. I managed to persuade my parents to buy it for me. I must have been around 8 or 9.

Yes, to survive Doomsday, all you need is a geiger counter and the right clothes.

This must have been 1979 or 1980, and we were in the depths of the cold war. I was fascinated by the book. Inside, one could find details concerning how to build a nuclear fallout shelter (but was there enough space in our Cookstown garden, I wondered) together with helpful hints concerning what colour to paint the walls. Of course, at this time there were programs on TV all the time imagining how nuclear war might unfold. I remember standing in our garden talking about one of these shows with my cousin. “Did you hear when they said they hit Lisburn?” I asked him. Lisburn is a suburb of Belfast. Of course it was Lisbon. At the age of 11, my knowledge of world capitals was very sketchy.

I brought the book to school to show it to my friends, I found it so fascinating. Our horrified teacher confiscated it from me. But I think I was too young to be horrified. Perhaps I didn’t fully appreciate yet what was in the world to be unhappy if it was no longer there. Later on, as a teenager, when we moved further out into the countryside, I made an extensive study of post-apocalyptic literature, discovering amongst other classic works George R. Stewarts’ Earth Abides, which describes America after the population is decimated by deadly virus. At the end of Stewarts’ book, a hundred or so years after the catastrophe, the survivors simply lose interest in rebuilding civilisation. What does it mean to them anyway?

And so today we are almost at the end of the second decade of the 21st century. We survived the cold war. A few days ago I learned that those folks at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (remember them?) have advanced their doomsday clock to only two minutes to midnight. Not even enough time to paint the fallout shelter walls the right colour … Let’s just hope that that particular solution to Fermi’s paradox (where are all the aliens) based on the durability of technological civilisations turns out not to be true, after all…

Irish Cinema: “Garage”

Irish Cinema: “Garage”

It’s not so often that I see an Irish movie in the cinemas here in Paris. Much longer than I remember. So it was with interest that I went to see “Garage”, a film by Lenny Abrahamson and starring the well-know Irish actor Pat Shortt, which opened here last week.

The plot is minimal: Shortt plays Josie, a simple-minded petrol station attendant deep in Ireland. It’s very much a film in that favourite genre of mine, the “Inaction movie”. His service station is a fossil, a museum of 1950’s Ireland. Shortt lives in a dingy room in back and spends his evenings either at the small pub in town (where a few of the clients are needlessly cruel to him) or staring out across the fields. The station’s owner, we are told, is content to let it decay because he knows that it will only be a matter of time before it will more interesting, financially, to bulldoze the site and build houses. This is, after all, the new Ireland. One morning the station’s owner arrives with his girlfriend’s son, who is to help Josie at the station.

Josie has been working at this garage for a very long time, and has dug a very deep hole of solitude for himself out in the fields where his garage is. He is desperate to make friends, to strike a bond with someone, but he just can’t communicate what he thinks, and no-one really takes the time to listen to him. He is relentlessly cheerful and friendly to everyone, regardless of what they tell him. Josie develops a bond of sorts with his new assistant, but all does not work out well.

I was reminded me of Patrick Kavanagh’s lonely farmer in that classic of Irish poetry,”The Great hunger”, condemned to spend the rest of his life staring at the field across the road. The countryside around Josie is beautiful and desolate in a very Irish way. You see, these fields and hills do not speak. There are no swathes of great open spaces inviting freedom and liberty here: this Irish landscape is very different from the one which Sean Penn’s wild-eyed seeker-after-truth experienced in “Into the wild” which is currently filling up the cinemas here in Paris. Instead, the flat level fields and shimmering lakes (all beautifully filmed) have a horizon which is foreshortened and proximate.

The film’s dominant register is a very subdued, tragicomic one, and the story proceeds relentlessly from one event to the next to the film’s inexorable conclusion. Everything is presented in an unaffected, ultra realist way. I thought a little of Aki Karismaki’s miserablist classic, “The matchstick girl” but the difference here is that Josie doesn’t fight back. I felt relieved to leave the cinema and find myself once again surrounded by the streets and buildings of Paris.