Robyn Hitchcock is a legend of English music. The singer, songwriter and guitarist has a huge back catalogue of hits with bands including The Soft Boys, The Egyptians and The Venus 3 as well as having a prolific solo career. His music tends to surrealism, comedic elements and good old fashioned English eccentrics. He continues to release new music and headline gigs across the globe.
What is it that distinguishes us from just being homicidal apes?
On first memories of science
My first memory of science? It was coming in from the window from the next room, it was, my father was an engineer, a post office engineer, he worked for Mercury Communications in the 1950s and he used to go up to London to work in that field, I suppose it was satellite technology, but he was in the course of swapping over from that into being an artist, he became a painter for a while, and then, in the end, he became a slightly more successful novelist, um, so it would sort of come off of him in waves. It was quite reality driven, it wasn’t quite like the science that we then saw, kind of, in the books like Brian Aldiss or J. G. Ballard or H. G. Wells. So I had a kind of aura of some kind of real science from my father and then the world of potential science, if you like, science fiction’s never really a good word, but they both sort of came through to me combined in the, ah, mid to late 50s I guess when I was…when I was small.
On science and humanity
Skepticism’s an interesting word. I take it by that we mean a non-religious viewpoint, you mean a viewpoint that’s informed by scientific information rather than superstition. I mean, it’s kind of terrifying that so much of the world is still in the sway of thinking that people developed before they knew what we know now, you know. I mean, it’s a bit as if people decided to build bridges over rivers that weren’t there or conversely decided that they didn’t need a bridge because they didn’t realise the river was there. So you’ve got the whole might of Catholicism or the, you know, fundamental convictions of Islam which were devised when people just didn’t know what we know now. I mean, if there’s anything good to be said about humanity, and that’s a moot point, not so much morally good, but actually successful, I mean, do we succeed the way tigers and baboons and geckos succeed, they’re very good at what they do, they live and they die and they replace themselves, they all kinda work, we’re the misfits really. We don’t seem to be able to function properly despite our enormous talents, not least our brains and our fingers, you know, what is it that distinguishes us from just being homicidal apes? Oh no, we can kill far more than any homicidal ape would kill.
The best thing you can say about us as a species is that we’re the people who discovered the Andromeda Galaxy and The Milky Way and we are the species that have have sent Chuck Berry records into deep space, um, we are the people who unless something happens will colonise Mars in the next 40 years and spread the human disease even further, or perhaps we’re just going to bring it all to a halt before we even get there. It’ll be nature’s way of containing the toxin that is humanity. But science, the ability to find things out, to know things, to name things that were extinct billions of years ago or to name things that, you know, their existence is barely proven and yet we know that they do exist. That knowledge, that ability to find out, you know, we have found out more about the universe than the geckos and the terrapins and the pandas have, it doesn’t necessarily make us better but it’s a superpower of a kind and perhaps our memorial will just be that spaceship with the Chuck Berry record on it endlessly orbiting the outer reaches of the universe or, you know, our ability to Skype people from Jupiter or something if they ever get up there. I mean, it’s fascinating. I suppose it’s skepticism, I just think it’s knowledge, you know, we are restless creatures, we inevitably are drawn towards trouble. We want to know things that other creatures are not bothered by. I don’t know if it’s doing us any good or not, but that’s what we’re for really.
On human discovery
Penicillin, steam, harnessing of electricity, even if people don’t really know exactly what it is. Is it just some sort of, is it atoms and molecules, and some sort of agony that we’re harnessing, you know. The enslavement of matter.
Or just simple things like realising the existence of gravity, which had always been there and then someone suddenly realising it was a force, not a given, you know, being able to look at the world like that. Something that everyone had grown up with for centuries but no-one had actually put it into words and thought, ‘Oh God, this is actually a force. This is why this is happening. It’s not, this is not just the will of God.’
The problem with God is it covers a bit too many things. It’s a bit like saying that all places you go when you’re not…when someone’s not in the room, they’re on holiday or something, but actually they’re not. They might be dead, they might be getting married, they might be having babies, they might be in the room upstairs, they might be in the room next door, they might’ve gone to Ethiopia, you know, these are all absences but if you just called them all holidays just as using the word God to describe, ah…I think what people mean when they say God is the unknown. Seems to me that that’s the…they want to placate to the unknown, they want to get the unknown on their side, they will sacrifice to the unknown, they don’t want to piss the unknown off in case the unknown sticks it to them, you know. Totally I believe in the unknown. In that respect I believe in God, but I very much doubt that the same force that permeates the leaves and the trees is necessarily the same force that decides destiny, if anything does, or is the same thing that decides a plane will or will not fall out of the sky or is the same force that causes the moral, ah, that kind of makes the moral compass flicker, you know, the sense of good or evil. I think these are all very, really different facets of life and it seems crazy to call them all God but people like to. And they like to fear it too. So I just respect anybody who researches without any fear into what we don’t know. I mean, sometimes we turn up really terrifying things like atomic power so it’s not all good, hence the myth of Prometheus and I suppose the myth of Icarus. Two awful warnings about what happens if you try to get too far or learn too much, you know, your place is down in the mud with the cavemen. But it’s too late. We have discovered fire, we can’t undiscover it.