I’m busy transcribing Rapley’s Royal Court monologue. It’s awful, but in a totally different way to Emmott’s Ten Billion.
Rapley delivers his well-turned phrases, each one decorated with curlicues of statistics, in a clear, if rather boring, voice. As I wade through the tedious enunciation of exactly how many scientists from how many countries took part in this or that intergovernmental initiative, I long for Emmott with his rambling stuttering verbless sentences, his nervous tics, and his surrealist Alice in Wonderland factoids. Whereas Emmott dealt in hamburgers that consume thousands of gallons of water in their creation, Rapley is more interested in how long a glacier flowing at x kilometres a year takes to raise the sea level by y millimetres. Rapley’s delivery is like that of a primary school arithmetic lesson, while Emmott is more like a tragic actor raging against the elements. They’re both bonkers of course, but Emmott in a more interesting way.
Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!
We’re fucked I say, so teach your son
to wield the murd’rous musket
And thus act out the sordid fantasies that
Obsess thy Guardian-reading brain.
Which is a lot more fun than Rapley’s:
Unless we succeed in reducing our emissions
By thirty percent in the next twenty years
(Which I’m sure we can, given goodwill on all sides.)
The reviews I’ve seen are unanimous about the tedium and the lost opportunity:
“…a nervous but poised performance …The professor never stirred from his chair. I watched several people drop off to sleep..” (The Observer)
“It’s low-key to the point of dullness. There’s … no plot, no characters, no dialogue and less emotional upheaval than most audience members will have encountered on the Tube journey to the theatre … this is a lecture, and a dry one.” (Financial Times)
but equally sure that the message is spot on:
“the facts themselves are where the drama resides.” (Financial Times)
It was an evening to make the craziest of climate change deniers blush.
Ben Pile, in a typically cool and even-handed review at
entitled ‘The Most Skull-crushingly Dull Piece of Green Propaganda in the Planet’s History” observes:
“Chris Rapley is keen to qualify his role as lecturer by professing his expertise in many things during the opening ten minutes (they felt like hours). One of those things is the cryosphere (the frozen parts of the planet), which is so-called because Rapley went there and bored entire mountains of ice to tears.”
Ben compares the performance to a ritual, and in an article at
he wonders if a sermon might not be a more appropriate term, which is unfair to the practitioners of two thousand year tradition of speaking with tongues and rousing the faithful to a pitch of fervour in which miracles happen
They don’t sound too worried about a 3mm per year sea rise, do they? And in case anyone thinks it’s patronising to equate religious fervour with oppressed minorities in the deep south, we old white men can do it too
A fairer comparison would be with “Thought for the Day” the BBC’s god slot that’s always on in the morning when you switch on Radio 4 to get the news, in which some worthy vicar or imam or rabbi or lay preacher tries to extract some deeper meaning from the trivial events of their lives. Their shapeless musings only last for two minutes, but they seem to go on for over an hour while your toast burns and your coffee goes cold. Rapley’s ramblings really do go on for over an hour, but, when they occasionally rise above the level of interest of a warning notice in a packet of aspirins, they catch exactly the tone of “Thought for the Day”:
“We can observe the change in atmospheric concentration over time by looking at data from ice cores drawn from the ice sheets and glaciers in Antarctica and Greenland […] The deepest ice cores extracted from the Antarctic are more than three kilometers long, and contain a record going back 800,000 years. As the director of the British Antarctic Survey on one of my Antarctic trips in 2002, I visited the European drill site at a place called Dome C. I watched as a fine section of ice core nearly half a million years old was extracted from a depth of just under three kilometres. It took an hour to load the drill, a few minutes to drill the core section, and an hour to winch it up to the surface.”
So far this is typical Rapley, a man who can’t unwrap a Mars Bar on the tube without measuring its length and reading aloud the ingredients on the wrapper to the other passengers. But then he gets intensely personal:
“There are offcuts, small chunks of the core which aren’t useful to science. I picked a piece up. As a scientist, I try to remain objective and dispassionate, but here I was in a part of the world that had fascinated me since I looked at that area marked “Region unknown to man” as a child, holding a piece of ice that had not seen the light of day since before the dawn of mankind. I listened to the air bubbles pop and crackle as the ice melted in the heat of my hand.”
Pure Thought For The Day. We prepare ourselves for the inevitable dénouement, the reflection of mind-searing banality on the meaning of life that will round off this life-changing experience. Instead, we get this:
“By measuring this air, it’s possible to study the composition of methane and carbon dioxide over time. We then melt the ice and measure the ratios of different atomic isotopes in the water. This provides us with a history of global temperature. We can then study the relationship between trace gases and temperature. The ice core data show an almost perfect match between the time curves of global temperature and atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane. As temperature increases, carbon dioxide and methane are released from the ocean and by the biosphere, causing further temperature rises through their enhancement of the greenhouse effect. The opposite takes place during the cooling phase.”
I‘ll leave it to others to comment on the science. My point here is that Rapley embarks on an anecdote meant to lead up to some intense meditation on something or other – and stops. He can’t do reflection. (Why should he? He’s a geography teacher.) Yet he vaguely senses that if you want to persuade the world (or even Sloane Square) of the need to change the world’s economy and every detail of the way we live, isotopes in very old ice won’t hack it.
If only we could feel what he felt when he held that bit of old ice in his hand (Isn’t that rather dangerous in Antarctica?) then we’d understand the need for five thousand delegates from a hundred and ninety five countries to hammer out an agreement to limit CO2 emissions to x gigatons by the year y in order to limit the temperature rise (Rapley calls it a “guard rail”) to 2°C in the year z.
2071 is named after the year that Rapley’s grandchild will be the age he is now. Every year that date will change (go on, do the maths – it’s not complicated) and every year he will have to rename the play, just as every year he will have to put off the date of the doom which is never quite upon us.