THE scenario feels familiar: a faithful clergyman, slogging away
at his duties in an unyielding country parish, is victimised by
anonymous hate-mail. It gets far worse: his son, blamelessly
working as a solicitor, is charged with a spate of animal maimings,
found guilty, and sent to prison.
Several years later, the case is brought to the notice of Sir
Arthur Conan Doyle, prostrated by the recent death of his wife. Has
the mantle of his most famous creation fallen on to his shoulders?
He can write crime fiction - can he solve a real crime?
This is the scenario of ITV's new Arthur and George
(Mondays), based on Julian Barnes's novel, retelling a sensational
true history. It has started excellently, the period conjured up
with swirling mists and over-stuffed drawing rooms, an idyllic
country parish revealed as a place of manifest evil. The clergyman
in question is Parsee; and Conan Doyle concludes that a shocking
case of racial prejudice has been played out.
In fact, he is prone to make snap judgements (above all, the
conviction that a miscarriage of justice has taken place, before he
knows anything about it), and one of the ironies of the piece is
how fiction relates to real life. Does Sherlock Holmes proceed less
by logical deduction than by intuition, which, because that is the
way the story is written, proves to be correct? Will his creator be
shown up as inferior to his creation?
It is a constant temptation to imagine that we are God rather
than merely his earthly representatives, and, if you are of a
radical theological bent, then you will be familiar with the idea
that the Almighty is, in a sense, our creation rather than the
other way round; so Conan Doyle is acting out the fate of all
clergy as we fail to live up to what we proclaim.
Horizon: Secrets of the solar system (BBC2, Tuesday of
last week) unsettled whatever certainties we still cherish about
our place in the universe. Research proves that, far from the
planets' revolving since their creation in fixed orbits, what we
currently observe is a settling-down of a chaotic, dynamic origin.
From a distance, the solar system looks like a star with four gas
giants - and several lumps of rocky debris closer in.
We are one of the lumps. The key player is Jupiter. Now that we
have identified 1000 planetary systems, we realise that our system
is the odd one out. This means that the circumstances that
encouraged the evolution of carbon-based life on earth are much
rarer than hitherto appreciated - almost infinitesimally unlikely.
Whether this supports the notion of a creator God was not
Our human version of God's first act of creation was explored in
How We Got To Now with Steven Johnson (BBC2, Saturday).
His account of how we invented new sources of light was, well,
illuminating - and also sharp, engaging, and cheery. Candles gave
way to spermaceti oil, itself displaced by Edison's long-lasting
electric bulbs, and then by neon. Lasers might now be able to
generate limitless safe electricity; but all this artificial light
has messed up our natural rhythms of sleep. In the week's best
news, I find that my insomnia is entirely proper.