Chapter 13 


My second TV appearance, thanks to Stephanie, is on the influential panel show Four on Four, chaired by Lark Morrison. We'll be discussing genetic modification. My enthusiasm for the programme has gone up since visiting Foxglove. I'm keen to maintain my public profile as a famous freak so I can earn money through product endorsement and fund my lawyer's extravagant lifestyle. I really don't want to become a Foxglove product. Doing battle with Joe Progress will have to wait, though curiously I feel the two issues are pretty much one and the same. Foxglove is a kind of manifestation of Joe Progress on Earth, and my battle against the company is an extension of my original fight against genetic modification in heaven. 

Once again I find myself in a TV studio, on a tiny island of light and structure inside a man-made cavern that's far larger, with a constellation of suns above, lighting and heating the stage to the limit of bearability. There are maybe 200 people sitting in the angular curved terrace overlooking the stage. From where I'm sitting I can see the top of the scaffolding holding up the seating area, but magically it never appears on camera. One thing I can't see is the 30 foot projection screen the audience is now watching. The four of us on the panel – and in the middle, Lark Morrison, our chairperson and master of ceremonies – can't see the screen as it's directly to our right. Instead we watch a couple of feeble monitors suspended amongst the upside-down forest of lights above. 

We're watching the introduction to the programme on videotape, or VT as the producer calls it. Asamah Bulamaya is an attractive Asian reporter in her mid-twenties. She's standing by the company sign at the entrance to Foxglove Laboratories, by the silver letters etched into grey marble lit by a small spotlight in the ground, as it's night-time. Here in the studio it's late afternoon, but the programme will go out at night, so an introduction filmed in darkness is appropriate. For a moment I wonder when this footage was taken, how many days ago, and whether I might have been sneaking around in the background buildings while the camera rolled. It seems unlikely, though the thought is a curious one. 

My escape from the laboratories wasn't difficult. The fences were designed to stop humans getting in, not partially goat-like creatures getting out. Yet I surprised myself with my agility. Life here in the other world seems to suit me well. I feel much fitter than I did just a few weeks ago, despite the smelly air. To be frank, I'm fairly bursting with energy.

"…ability to take genes from one species and add them to another," continues Asamah. "Through this technique we get crops containing their own bacterial defence against pests, and plants containing useful chemicals such as insulin, which can be harvested and distributed to diabetics. But have we gone too far? Scientists at Foxglove Laboratories…"  

Here Asamah pauses and glances sideways at the entrance sign, just to make sure we all understand why she's standing like a lemon by a corporate sign in the middle of the countryside at night. 

"…have gone a stage further. Rather than inserting genes, they've been working on maintaining the genes we already have. Keeping these in good order could extend the human lifespan by two hundred years." 

This is not entirely correct, the planned extension is a little over one hundred years, bringing the total to around two hundred, but Asamah is on the screen and in millions of homes and I'm not in a position to correct her. 

"This comes at a price," she continues. "Nobody will say exactly how much the lifespan-extension treatment costs, but our secret research reveals a price tag of over one hundred thousand pounds a year. If you want to live a long time, you'd better be rich." 

The videotape ends. I wonder how extensive the secret research went. Did it, for example, go further than the journalists' table in the pub? Lark Morrison now takes over the reins. He's an affable guy with white hair and a quick sense of humour, but his greatest asset is his voice, which manages to combine authority, undeniability and somehow at the same time humanity. His voice is unquestionably the key to his success. And he has sparkling eyes. Those always help. 

"Thank you, Asamah. And here to discuss the moral and social aspects of genetic modification, I'm joined by our panel of experts. On my left, Dr Teresa Hartley, a retired GP and author of the book, "Give Up Gracefully," advocating euthanasia, and Charlton Montblanc from the pressure group Biogenetics Halt. On my right, Rosalyn Cornwell from the Centre for Ethics in Biogenetics, and Peter Alan Nesmith, a mixed-species genetic product of Foxglove Laboratories." 

My ego gets a nice starting boost – I get far more applause than any other panellist. The others are non-entities of course, but it's still nice. 

Only when I think about the seating arrangement do I realise I've been parked on the "pro" side of this debate. Everybody assumes that because I'm the product of genetic modification, I must be in favour of it, though actually this isn't the case. Buddha and I have discussed the implications of the 200s program and we're in easy agreement that it will be a disaster for the planet and for every other species apart from humans, because people will stay alive longer, rather than shuffling off to make space for the next generation, and human overpopulation is the underlying cause of most of the planet's problems.

However, I already know enough about TV to recognise that it doesn't really matter whether I sit on the pro or anti side, as long as I'm entertaining. 

I've not had a chance to talk to my fellow conspirators. Our paths overlapped occasionally in the prelude to the programme, but never for more than a few seconds, and I get the feeling this was intentional, that it's policy before a contest to keep the gladiators apart. 

"So without further ado, let's get the ball rolling," says Lark. "Let's have the first question from the audience. In the middle over there, in the black jacket, no, to the left. Yes sir, what is your question?" 

  Naturally the man in the black jacket begins his question before the microphone arrives, but he's clever enough to start again when he realises what's happened.

"Tom Daley from Birmingham. Are we going to finish up as a race of super-humans, with the eyesight of eagles, the running speed of cheetahs, and the strength of gorillas? It seems inevitable, doesn't it, if we start taking genes from other creatures?" 

"Eye of newt and tongue of toad," says Lark, for no reason I can fathom. "Dr Hartley, what's your view?" 

"Yes, the Olympics are going to become tricky." 

This is all she says. I think she's slurring, but she has a very posh voice that makes it difficult to tell. The words sound like they have to struggle past some huge obstacle on their way to freedom, and it's not clear if the obstacle is alcohol or class. Yet of the panellists this is the one I like the most – just from her body language. She slumps in her chair as if she's watching a Western and eating pizza on a Sunday afternoon. 

Lark is nonplussed for a moment, but soon recovers.  "Rosalyn?"

"Though it's nice that we'll get the opportunity to add to our abilities, I think the most important aspect of genetic improvement is that we'll be able eradicate genetic weaknesses. No more Down's Syndrome, no more Parkinson's Disease, no Crone's, Alzheimer's – these are the things we should be celebrating. Mankind has been going through a brief phase where we've maintained and kept alive every combination of our genes, even bad combinations. We're now looking at a future where we can eradicate bad gene combinations and live healthier, longer lives."

Personally I think she makes some good points, but she gets no applause. Perhaps her tone of voice isn't good enough. It's too even, bland and sanitized. Or perhaps it's something to do with her posture. She sits rigidly upright in her chair, which may be due to nerves but certainly does nothing for her image. It leads me to coin a secret name for her. I call her Rigid Rosalyn. 

"The strength of a gorilla?" says Charlton, who clearly doesn't need to wait for an invitation to speak. "How about the spirituality of a rabbit? We were made special, in the image of God, and now we're about to spend billions of pounds on making ourselves ordinary, mixing animal genes with our sacred human ones, until we finish up with the intelligence of a computer and the soul of a cockroach." 

Charlton does get some applause, but then he has terrific delivery. He could be a preacher. I start to wonder whether he once was, and I suspect Lark is wondering something similar. I think he's giving Charlton the warning eye. 

I'm not very keen on Charlton. He's fat, with a triple chin and small facial features huddled together in the centre of his face, and at the same time he's driven by nervous energy. The two in combination seem unnatural. 

Lark now looks at me expectantly. I have nothing much to say about this. I'd like to correct the inaccuracies of Asamah's introduction, and ultimately I'd like to explain that I'm not really a product of genetic experimentation at all, but Stephanie McVeigh has advised me that on TV everybody is expected to move things forward, and going back to correct inaccuracies is generally a mistake.  

"I'd like to apologise for eating the flowers in the green room. But they were daffodils and I'm afraid daffodils are my favourites." 

There's a one second pause – I can almost hear all those neurons firing – then a ridiculous roar of appreciation. Whistles, cat-calls. This is all very silly, but strangely addictive, I have to admit.  

"An interesting selection of views," says Lark to camera. He turns back to the questioner. "And what is your view on the forthcoming super-human, Tom?"

Tom grins. "I hear that lions sometimes screw for days." 

"Thank you, thank you," shouts Lark, above the noise. "Can I remind members of the audience that this is a recorded programme. If you say anything too outrageous it will simply be cut." 

  Tom still grins. His girlfriend, next to him, is giggling. They've had their fifteen seconds of fame, even if it won't go further than this audience.

"Time to move on to the next question," says Lark, consulting his crib-sheet. "Douglas Riffen, from Belfast." 

Douglas is identified and gets the microphone. "I hear that Foxglove Laboratories has created a pig with wings. Is this true?" 

"Rosalyn?" asks Lark. 

"No, this is complete nonsense. The Centre for Ethics in Biotechnology has close links with Foxglove Laboratories and there is no such thing as a flying pig. That's a categorical no." 

"If there is, I hope it has good bowel control," slurs Dr Hartley. "Can you imagine that? One moment you're happily walking down Regent Street. The next…" 

I still can't tell if she's drunk. It's quite distracting. 

"Another abomination," preaches Charlton. "Does it matter if it exists or not? The fact that we're contemplating the idea is surely bad enough." 

I don't need a prompt to answer this question, but I'm trying to work out how to answer it in a manner that will be honest to Radius, the real pig with wings. How to be honest to him and not endanger him – there lies the problem. 

"I heard that an investors tour of Foxglove was shown a flying pig only a week ago," I say. "Actually it couldn't quite fly, it could only glide. So technically it's a gliding pig, not a flying pig." 

"I'm happy to learn that," says Lark. "Whoever heard of a flying pig?" 

Rigid Rosalyn isn't so happy. Although we're supposed to be on the same side she's now giving me the sniper's eye, which is a couple of clicks above the warning eye. 

Lark adjusts his wayward hair. It took the make-up lady, Denise, twenty minutes to bring the correct degree of waywardness to that ageing forelock of fine light dead protein. It may have taken her longer than usual because she couldn't help glancing in my direction every few minutes. She perpetually eyed my hair and my beard from the moment I walked in, as a mountaineer might stand on the foothills and stare up at K2. When she finished Lark, she moved to stand in front of me and smiled broadly in my face, assuming this friendly action would annul whatever she did next. And it's true that I wasn't especially concerned when she removed my hat. She looked at my horns with the kind of face that doesn't change because it can't decide which direction to go. Should it be upset, astonished, should it cry? It can't make up its mind. She replaced my hat. "On second thoughts," she decided, "the hat suits you." And that was the end of the issue.

"Let's have another question from the audience," says Lark. "Madam, yes you, no, in blue, on the lower row." 

"I have a question for Peter. Where do you get your underwear?" 

I should have seen this coming of course, but it's like a stealth missile, and when it lands I'm as shell-shocked as everybody else. 

"That's quite enough sexuality for one day," says Lark, and his pointing finger begins to traverse the audience again. 

But I'm feeling mischievous. 

"I'm not wearing any. I rarely do." 

Lark hits me with a brief narrowing of his eyes, but there are a hundred women in the audience whooping and clapping and he's not about to do battle with them. He's a professional and deals with the loss of control gracefully, with a wide grin. "Well, now we've dealt with the important matters, I wonder whether we can get back to the trivial issue of genetics and mankind?" He looks at his notes. "Mister David de Briar, you have a question for us?" 

David gets the microphone. Despite his fancy name he's clearly Welsh. "Obviously we'd all like to live to two hundred, or three hundred if the figure in the intro was right. Why should we even question whether it's a good thing? We want it. We should do it." 

"Well, we have a question and answer there. But let's see if our panellists come to the same conclusion. Dr Hartley?" 

It's not clear whether Lark is approaching Dr Hartley first because it's Muggins' turn in a rota of fairness, or because he wants to dispense with her slurred commentary and get to the heart of the matter. Either way he's in for a surprise. 

"Yes, let's make an existing problem worse. The one item we haven't discussed yet is mental decline. Brain cells aren't maintained in quite the same way as other body cells, so it seems likely that all those people using the telomerase technique are going to end up as very fit and old vegetables. This is a ridiculous way for society to go. We have enough problems with our ageing population as things stand. You have no idea how much of our health system is dedicated to keeping old people alive. When I worked as a general practitioner, around two thirds of my surgeries were taken up by people over 60. It's the same for referrals. A very small proportion of our health system is used to repair relatively healthy bodies, and the majority is there for the benefit of old people. Add in this life-extension system and we're going to become a society of old idiots. Imagine driving, imagine what kind of governments will be voted in, imagine trying to find a parking space with a view over a valley, or just an empty park bench. We should be looking at the opposite kind of treatment, some genetic time bomb that rips apart our DNA the day after our seventieth birthday. Let's do the world a favour."

I hear the sound of young hands clapping while old hands slip out of sight beneath withered thighs. 

Whether I agree or not, her viewpoint is an interesting one. I was beginning to think this programme would stay in the shallows of trivia for its duration. Then I get the shocking realisation that Lark's gentle admonishment was valid. I am the guilty party here. I've done more to trivialise the programme than anybody else. My mere presence has trivialised it. 

"I think you misunderstand how the telomerase treatment works," says Rigid Rosalyn. "The idea is that you start this treatment as a young adult, and the period of your life that is extended is healthy adulthood, not old age. Artists, scientists, great thinkers - they usually come up with their best work around their mid-thirties. It's this golden age that we'll be extending. Just imagine how fast our society will be able to develop if talented people stay in peak condition for ten times as long. Imagine if Einstein had spent a hundred years in his thirties. Where would science be now?" 

"If God had intended us to live for two hundred years, he wouldn't have given us seventy year lifespans," says Charlton, with his own kind of gravity. "We shouldn't meddle. We should leave well alone." 

Maybe this is too much God for Dr Hartley. Although she's sitting next to him in the "anti" camp, and although they appear to roughly agree on the ideal lifespan, she turns on him.

"If you use any medicine at all, then you're a hypocrite." 

Lark does nothing to quell the rebellion. Actually, he looks very happy.  

Charlton is glowing red. I suspect it's anger rather than embarrassment. 

Dr Hartley jabs a finger at Rigid Rosalyn. "And you're just a mouthpiece for the biotech industry. You get almost half your funding from Foxglove Laboratories. How can you have the cheek to turn up here and claim to be from the Centre for Ethics in Biotechnology, as though it's some paragon of objectivity, when it's basically funded by the industry we're discussing? It's ridiculous. Of course the biotech industry wants to charge for life-extension, whether it works or not. What a fantastic way to get money out of people." She points at Charlton. "At least we can tell he's a plain old God-squadder, whatever organisation he claims to come from. He wears his heart on his sleeve." 

"I'll tell you something, young lady," returns Charlton, although Rosalyn isn't especially young, and she's not responsible for his anger, but nevertheless it's her that he's addressing. "If Christ was around today, there would be an eleventh commandment - Thou shalt not meddle with thy genes." 

Now the young people sit on their hands while the old applaud. But I'm half lost to my surroundings. My head is light and empty and I can sense a tidal wave of thought on the cusp of arriving to fill it. It's a very physical sensation. I'm thinking of Christ writing an eleventh commandment, though I don't recall he had much to do with the first ten, which were just between God and Moses, but I'm following Charlton's muddled train of thought and thinking about the Christ I know and wondering how the new commandment would be written. In this day and age it would have to be written as an email. It would be quick, cheap, and in the blink of an eye it could be transmitted to a quarter of the world's population. But I can't recall if Christ has any keyboard skills, or if he's a computer ignoramus, like me. Does it matter either way? He knows absolutely nothing about genetics. Why should he have anything to say on the subject? 

  And yet these humans here in this studio, not all of them, but a reasonable proportion, are trying to form their view on genetics by interpreting a doctrine developed two thousand years ago, just after mankind left the iron age, if it ever really left it.

Strangely, this doesn't devalue their faith in my eyes, it strengthens it. If they can go through the massive convolution of trying to view modern science through a two thousand year old doctrine, it must be an incredibly important doctrine. 

And then the tidal wave arrives. I realise that Christ is very fit and well in heaven because of this belief on Earth. The faith of all these people is what sustains him. And exactly the same applies to Mercedes and Joe Progress. They're the new icons of belief, they're the new gods in this modern world. And there's only one reason why I've become much fitter and healthier since arriving here on mortal Earth – and that's because of my fame, because of my popularity. Meanwhile, back in heaven, Isis and Horus are increasingly ignored and they age and decay, and Frigg and Maal have been consigned to the scrapheap and unless the faith in them is resurrected here on Earth they'll never live again.  

Not surprisingly, this revelation hits me hard. 

I, and all my colleagues in heaven, we are products of the human imagination. We are dependent on human faith. If the faith goes, we no longer exist.  

I realise that in the studio nobody is saying anything, and they're all looking at me. Oh dear. 

 "Yes," I say, because it's a word for all circumstances.

It works well and I'm applauded, though I haven't a clue what the question was. 

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