IT IS AMAZING what an effect H.G. Wells’ book has had since it was written in 1898, isn’t it? In October 1938, Orson Welles’ radio broadcast based on The War of the Worlds caused chaos throughout the United States.
Despite announcements throughout the one and a quarter hour broadcast that this was fiction, emergency services were overloaded and people took to the streets in their thousands in total panic.
For me, The War of the Worlds is best interpreted by Jeff Wayne’s amazing musical production of 1978 (now re-released). Unlike Spielberg, Wayne stays true to the book – we have terrifying tripods, creeping red weed and the valiant “Thunder Child”. The Martians are finally defeated, not by man’s endeavours at all, but by human bacteria. The narrator is Richard Burton – they don’t come much better than that – and the soundtrack is pure brilliance. Even nicer, being sound only, it leaves you free to use your imagination to build pictures rather than having everything “in your face” as modern movies tend to do.
The book was written over a hundred years ago and it still pulls crowds today. Why? Because, I suggest, it appeals to one of our most basic fears – fear of the unknown. We all have our comfort zones, our daily routine, but how easily that superficial confidence and security is destroyed. Less than a year ago, we saw how a tsunami ripped through people’s lives and how the resources on the ground were totally unprepared to cope with a disaster of that scale. Volcanoes, earthquakes, meteors: these are natural phenomena and, therefore, we can somehow explain them if they do – literally – rock our world.
But how would you feel if you turned on your car radio or your TV and heard a report of aliens landing? What would your first reaction be? Would you assume that they were hostile and want to destroy them immediately? Would you support a more cautious, open-minded approach? Would you say, “How did they get that close in the first place? They should have been destroyed before they landed.” I think we all want to know what’s “out there”, don’t we? We would perhaps love to think that we are the only intelligent life in the universe: that is the supreme arrogance of Man. Given all the millions of planets in our universe – which in itself is only one of who knows how many – statistically that is highly unlikely. Of course there is other life out there, far more intelligent than we are.
I wonder if, when we finally get to explore planets that are inhabited, what sort of welcome we will receive? Will we be killed even before we land, or before we have a chance to say hello? Will we find little green men killing each other because of greed, for economic gain? Will we find planets where strange creatures allow a majority of their fellow inhabitants to starve to death while a minority throws food onto the garbage heap? Will they be destroying their planet, as we are destroying ours, because short-term profit and political gain are more important than longer-term management of limited resources? I doubt it very much.
I can remember going to a conference last year where one of the speakers was astronaut Ed Mitchell. He said that, for him, one of the most profound moments of the whole voyage was on the return journey. The spaceship travelled upright and rotated on its journey to maintain an even surface temperature. As he looked out into infinity, he saw sun, moon and Earth passing by the window at regular intervals. “Anyone who has seen the earth from that perspective, and who has seen how beautiful she is, would not want to destroy it,” he said, simply.
But even on this planet, there is a kind of war of the worlds in the Algarve at this time of the year, isn’t there? Residents suddenly find their world invaded – in the nicest possible sense of course – by tourists. These tourists, wherever they are from, combine to create a very different place from the one that we know and love for the rest of the year. The region survives on tourism, of course, and so we cannot complain when so many people choose to spend their precious holiday time with us. Nevertheless, I would like to write a short, personal note to these holidaymakers:
“Dear visitors, welcome to the Algarve. I am happy to share my little bit of paradise with you while you are here on holiday, but may I please ask a couple of simple things? First, remember that you are driving in the Algarve and not in a city centre. Remember, when you are speeding around our country lanes, that you may well come across slow vehicles, horses and carts or even people walking: slow down! Bear in mind, when you complain about the traffic jams and the delays on the roads, that it is the sheer volume of traffic caused by visitors that leads to these situations. Be patient. Be tolerant. Better to arrive late than injure yourself or others trying to beat the queue. And one more thing: the restaurants that my friends and I support all year round are, of course, very grateful for your custom and will, I am sure, be as polite and courteous to you as they are to my friends and I. These friends and I find it very strange that some of you hiss and even snap your fingers at the staff. Do you really still do that where you come from? Here, in my personal experience, treating staff as people, with a smile and a few words, results in great service – you should try it. Do enjoy your stay and we look forward to seeing you again (really!) next year.”