Tuesday, June 09, 2015

By the way -- I thought I ought to point out that little small postings (like this one for example) don't get charged for on Patreon. My working assumption that 1500 words plus is a "proper essay" but anything less is an added extra or note. Sorry if that wasn't clear, and hope it wasn't holding anyone back from throwing a dollar in the tip jar....


It is all the more remarkable that A. A. Milne, so great an admirer of this excellent book [The Wind in the Willows] should have prefaced to his dramatized version a "whimsical" opening in which a child is seen telephoning with a daffodil. Or perhaps it is not very remarkable, for a perceptive admirer (as distinct from a great admirer) of the book would never have attempted to dramatize it. 

Sometime in the 1990s I was at a party. A friend was passing round pieces of gourmet chocolate. You know the kind of thing, 85% cocoa and a dash of sea salt.

"That looks lovely" said another guest "But could I have a piece of milk chocolate instead? You see, I am trying to reduce my caffeine intake."

"Oh, is the dark chocolate stronger?" asked my host.
"No" I chipped in. "Not stronger. Quicker. Easier. More seductive."

I know for a fact this happened in the 90s, because opportunities like that only come once in a decade. At some point in the 80s I had witnessed someone throwing a piece of cooked potato across a take-away fried fish emporium, such that it struck a lady customer, who was I recall wearing rather a low cut dress, just above breast. 

"Madam" I had the opportunity to say "You have a chip on your shoulder." 

And it is one of the great disappointments of my life that when, in or about 2005, staying in a village where some cottager kept poultry in his garden, I observed a chicken attempting to cross the road there was no-one was in ear-shot when I wondered out loud about her motivation.

More pertinently, perhaps, professional joke-teller Eddie Izzard once found himself wondering on stage about all the things which are never mentioned in science fiction movies. There must, surely, be cleaners and catering staff on board the Death Star. A less funny man would have concluded that Luke Skywalker was a war criminal because he personally caused the death of all those non-player characters. A more psychotic man might have concluded that if it was okay for Luke Skywalker to kill imperial catering staff, then it must logically be okay for him to, say,  put a bomb in skyscraper. But Eddie Izzard proceeded to riff about Darth Vader ordering lunch. Izzard's routine is funny because of the clash of registers. Vader carries on talking like a space opera villain, and everyone else talks as if they're in a staff canteen. ("Why, with all the power of the Death Star, do we not have a tray that is dry?")

Shadows of the Empire (one of the few extended universe novels I have tackled) seemed to do basically the same joke without noticing that it was funny. It was mainly about plumbing. We keep being told that water is being pumped into reptilian gangster Prince Xizor's bath, at great expense. When Luke arrives at Ben's hovel to construct a lightsaber, the first thing he does is takes a shower. I don't think that mysterious gurus living alone on desert planets have modern, or indeed futuristic, sanitary equipment in their hovels. I think they probably roll naked in the sand once a year, or go down to the creek to do their necessaries.  Or maybe there is a very macho bath-house in Mos Eisley? The truth is Obi-Wan doesn't ever need a shower. He's an archetype, or at any rate an action figure. He never gets smelly. It would be like asking if Aslan ever goes to the dentist. And then our heroes gain access to the baddies base via the sewerage system. Via the sewerage system. Big rubbish dumps with hideous one eyed squid monsters hiding at the bottom I can cope with. But sewers. Implying that archetypes and action figures sometimes need a poo? 

Do you not understand how this stuff works?


Star Wars characters doing things which are out of genre. Star Wars characters placed alongside people from a different genre. Lines from Star Wars being quoted in inappropriate contexts. Imagine 60 pages of that, with, admittedly, rather charming illustrations, and you have Darth Vader and Son and it's sequel Vader's Little Princess. 

You can read both of them in the time it took you to get to this point in my essay. They are very popular. I don't get them at all.

The "idea" behind the books is that the Darth Vader of the films is also playing Dad to Luke Skywalker — which is to say, to a little boy who looks a bit like a pint-sized Luke Skywalker. (Obviously there is no point of departure in the movies at which Vader could have been Dad to Luke. As soon as he knows he exists he wants to kill him.) The sequel starts out as if it is going to do all the same jokes again only with a little girl who looks a bit like a pint-sized Princess Leia, but realizes that's scraping things a bit, and ages her into a teenager half way through. Not that Leia was much more than a teenager.

So we have basically three "jokes".
1: Darth Vader acts like a Dad and Luke or Leia act like kids. e.g Princess Leia is brushing her teeth, and Darth Vader is saying "Make sure you get the backs."

2: Darth Vader acts like Darth Vader, while Luke or Leia behave like kids. e.g Vader is about to Force strangle an admiral, while Leia tugs on his trouser leg saying "I love you, Daddy."

3: Darth Vader acts like a Dad and Luke or Leia act like kids but Vader says a famous Vader line out of context. e.g Luke is wining "you said we could go to Tosche station after nap!" and Vader responds "I am altering the deal. Pray I don't alter it any further."

4: Something happens which either is, or strongly resembles, a scene out of one of the movies, but Darth Vader acts like a Dad. e.g Luke is hanging from the bridge thing in Cloud City and Vader says "Come down from there, it's dangerous." 

Literally, that's the whole book. I don't know if it is intrinsically funny to take an ordinary American father and son and re-skin them as an archetypal Father and Son. I recall that someone did something along the same lines with God and Jesus once. I also recall that that wasn't particularly funny. I suppose it is interesting that the main thing that a non-geek audience can be expected to know about Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker is that the one is the other's father. Or else that there is no limit to what a geek audience will spend money on. A lot of Star Wars lore is taken for granted and worn lightly — when Luke goes to the zoo, we see a bantha, a dewback, a rancor and the salaac in cages, and there's a cute scene in a toyshop with Luke surrounded by toys in classic era Star Wars toy packaging. 

And in fairness, this one did very nearly make me laugh:
That actual joke was very nearly in Phantom Menace. 

A few years ago, there was a fad for Winnie-the-Pooh t-shirts and fashion items, with the various characters reduced to the minimum possible number of pencil lines. It struck me as an interesting take on the idea of ideas and memes. A real little boy has a real toy; a proper artist draws a realistic picture of that toy in a book. A cartoon artist takes the proper artists drawing, simplifies it, and colours it in. Years later, another artist takes the cartoon, reduces it to the simplest number of lines possible, and put it on a t-shirt, and it's still instantly recognizable. But no longer really a picture of anything: "Winnie-the-Pooh" is just an image, detached from Disney and Shepard and certainly from any toy actually owned by C.R Milne. So is Hello Kitty and Mickey Mouse. 

Is there a process in play where "Darth Vader" has stopped being a character in a movie and becomes simply a shape?

Jedi Academy, by the same author, I did actually find rather sweet. Roan Novachez from Tatooine wants to go to Space Pilot Academy, but he's turned down and is afraid he'll have to go to agricultural school instead. But then he gets a letter from Yoda inviting him to go to
HogwartsJedi Academy. At first, he finds it hard to cope (everyone else having started when they were little kids: this book cares quite a lot about continuity) but by playing to his strengths and making friends, he stops dreaming of being a pilot and decides he wants to be a Jedi. 

There is a heartwarming twist at the end. (Actually, honestly quite heartwarming.)

Jedi Academy turns out to be very much like an American middle-school, with a school newspaper and much rivalry about who should be president of student council. Lightsaber fencing competitions are treated a lot like baseball tournaments, or more precisely, quidditch. The whole thing is presented as Roan's diary; partly hand-written, partly comic strip, with pages from the student newspaper, Roan's report-cards and so on. (Unlike Greg Heffley, Roan can actually draw quite well, which spoils the joke. He contributes a comic strip called Ewok Pilot to the student newspaper. It's about an Ewok who is a pilot.)

The jokes are structurally the same as in Darth Vader and Son. Ordinary things happen but are given a Star Warsy twist; Star Warsy things happen but are treated as if they are quite ordinary. Roan records funny things his various teachers have said. In the case of Kitmum, the Wookie PE teacher, these include "Rwoaar!" and "Rawarr!" There is a diagram of a lightsaber, with a space for 4 AA batteries ("remember to put them in the right way"). 

At first, I thought that Yoda was going to be played straight, but by the end he's being sent up mercilessly. ("Hunger is a path to the dark side. Hunger leads to being cranky. Being cranky leads to suffering. Eat a proper breakfast you should.")

There has been a spate of middle-school observational comedy books, mostly in journal format. Children can't get enough of them, but they have zero cross-over appeal. Adults can relate to old-fashioned boarding school stories, with or without the addition of magic; but in order to laugh at jokes about changing rooms and cafeterias you have to still be a kid, Wimpy or otherwise. (British kids laugh at the American school jokes, though: I guess adolescent embarrassment is adolescent embarrassment, wherever you live.) Whether the joke still works in an imaginary school, I couldn't say. At one level, we are supposed to be treating it seriously as a sub-Star Wars story: I think we are supposed to punch the air with pleasure when Roan finally manages to use the Force to levitate five or six huge boulders. (NOTE: I didn't.) At another, it seems to be laughing at the whole idea of Star Wars. Yoda's "Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try" in Empire Strike Back is a nice enough mini-midget aphorism about the importance of self-confidence. But if you say it over and over again, it appear to be funny. The mysterious old mentor who lives in a far away swamp has morphs far too easily into the dotty old codger who spouts a lot of nonsense. The book is at its most engaging when it forgets that it's a Star Wars riff and just talks about being a kid.

--Have you ever kissed a girl?
--A couple of times
--Sure, I have
--Just last week actually
--None of us have ever actually kissed anyone, have we?
--Do grandmothers count?

When I was Roan's age, I had a record. Record's were like CD's only big and black and crackly. This one was blue. It had a booklet with pages and pages of photos. The Story of Star Wars it was called. I suppose it had about 50% of the dialogue from the film, with a spoken narration. Apparently, it was only semi-official: approved by Lucas, but royalty free. 

This was before DVDs. The comic and the novel didn't count. This was the closest you got to owning the movie. (Unless your Dad was a home movie enthusiast. You could buy one-reel silent excerpts from famous movies. You basically just got the Millennium Falcon fleeing from the Death Star.) I know I went to the Barnet Odeon ten or twenty times that summer, but who knows how many times I played that record. Dozens? Hundreds? I literally knew it by heart. And one passage in particular:

Your father's LIGHTSABER. This was the weapon of a JEDI knight. Not as clumsy or random as a blaster. An elegant weapon, from a more civilized age. For over a thousand generations the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace and justice in the old republic. Before the dark times. Before the Empire...

Over and over again.

Out of that speech was built Yoda in the Swamp, making Luke face Vader in a gnarly old tree. Our of Yoda in the swamp was built the younglings, patiently attending lightsaber class on Coruscant.  (And out of that scene to the five Younglings being taken to the planet Kiros to choose their wands, sorry, did I say wands, I meant lightsabers.) And out of that scene, somehow, this.

Jeffrey Brown is a Star Wars fan. Jeffrey Brown, I am sure, played Ben's speech  over and over again. I am sure that when Ben gives Luke the lightsaber for the first time, he also wanted to reach through the screen, grasp it, and keep it forever. 

But he didn't see that if you could — if you actually could grasp it -- what you would be left with would not be that moment, but something like this: 

"LIGHTSABER FENCING TOURNAMENT. Tryouts next week. Five positions available for each squad. Squad A will be coached by Master Yoda. Squad B will be coached by Mr Garfield. Squad C will seit in the bleachers and cheer for everyone. Watch out for sparks though. DON'T FORGET YOUR LIGHTSABER."

And I wonder if there are younglings, even now, reading Jeffrey Brown's engaging, witty book, without having seen A New Hope or even The Phantom Menace? And how many years it will be before they realize what has been stolen from them? 

If about lightsabers in P.E lesson first you hear, to Obi-Wan Kenobi's cave go never you will.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

So Long It's Been Good To Know You (Compleat)

So Long, It's Been Good To Know You (7)

XI: Survivors

The first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things - praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts - not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.
                                C.S Lewis 

We're science fiction readers. We know how you survive in a post holocaust world. 

In Earth Abides Isherwood realizes that it is impossible to preserve civilization after a plague: there are simply too few people left to continue the old ways of living. All he can do is hand on tiny little bits of knowledge that may give the human race a slight survival edge. 

In Terry Nation's TV riff on the same idea, the remnant of humanity keep on keeping on, laying out tablecloths, singing We Plough The Fields And Scatter, wearing floral print dresses and making tea. When the tea runs out, they use toasted carrot. They carry on being BBC English people even if nine tenths of the population of BBC England has died of Lurgy. 

So: there are a few of us left who still believe in sharing and equality and fairness and politeness and kindness. We don't need to go as far as Socialism. Socialism is a word with too much baggage. Lots of people think that the unemployed should be paid an allowance but certainly don't regard themselves as Socialists.

So what are we Survivors to do in the face of the apocalypse?

Well, promote equality and fairness and sharing and kindness and politeness in the old fashioned ways, of course: demonstrations, letters to the newspapers, chaining ourselves to railings, jumping in front of race horses if it really comes to it. The Opposition won't support us: they will say that these are old fashioned approaches, not the way of the future, likely to discourage the John Lewis Pizza voting for Our Lot in 2025. If you really love the BBC, the best thing is to let the zombies destroy it, they will say. And the Government won't pay any attention. If we get a million man pro-Human Rights march together, they will say "Hooray! That means that the other 63,100,000 people agree with the Horrible Torture (Restoration) Bill." Probably, these things will progressively be banned as extremist and contrary to British values; quite likely the thing that replaces the BBC will only be able to interview us if our words are spoken by an actor.

So we will create single-issue parties, single-issue campaign groups. The next progressive coalition, I submit, will not be Our Lot and Your Lot against Their Lot. The next progressive coalition will be the Anti-Climate Change Party, the Medical Treatment For Poor People Party, the Public Service Broadcasting Party, the Humane Treatment of Prisoners Party, the Free Education Party, the We Love Badgers Party and the Free Books For Everyone Party — a huge alliance of people voted into parliament to ride particular hobby horses. They will have messy arguments and massive rows. (There will also be a Christian Party and a Muslim Party and a Jewish Party and they will be embarrassed about how much they agree on.) They will have lots of huge defeats and lots of tiny victories. The Survivors will save a small theater in Putney even as the zombies dissolve the Arts Council; the survivors will force the screws in Wandsworth Prison to provide prisoners with toilet paper even as the Zombies are restoring flogging. (As a deterrent and a last resort, of course. We don't envisage ever actually doing it to anyone, oh dear me no.) No Anti-Slavery Party ever won an election; no Homosexual Party or Anti-Caning Party and certainly no Suffragette Party. Groups of nutters with agendas gradually won reforms. 

Parliament will become increasingly irrelevant. It doesn't, in the end, matter if the NHS is abolished. What matters is that everybody, however poor and however black, gets medical treatment when they need it. So maybe all the people who believe in sharing will have to agree to pay a tithe, over and above their taxes, into a huge trust fund to pay people's medical bills. 


A few years ago, a confused man in America wrote the following. 

With regard to the idea of whether you have a right to health care, you have realize what that implies. It’s not an abstraction. I’m a physician. That means you have a right to come to my house and conscript me. It means you believe in slavery. It means that you’re going to enslave not only me, but the janitor at my hospital, the person who cleans my office, the assistants who work in my office, the nurses.

Basically, once you imply a belief in a right to someone’s services — do you have a right to plumbing? Do you have a right to water? Do you have right to food? — you’re basically saying you believe in slavery.

I’m a physician in your community and you say you have a right to health care. You have a right to beat down my door with the police, escort me away and force me to take care of you? That’s ultimately what the right to free health care would be.

Now, the confused man was telling a willful lie -- or, at best, making a pun around the word "free" in the hope that we would become as confused as he is.  In England health care is indeed "free" in the sense that I don’t have to pay the doctor any money when I get sick. (People from Abroad would hardly believe how normal we find this. Do you remember when the Avengers' butler betrayed them to Ultron because he urgently needed money to pay his old Mum’s medical bills? I literally didn’t understand what "medical bills" meant.) But that obviously doesn't mean that doctors work for free, any more than police officers or court appointed lawyers do. 

However, it's worth taking the confused man on his own terms.

If a drowning child is washed up on the beach and I can do resuscitation, then it is absolutely my duty to save that child's life. If someone bangs on my door in the middle of the night and says that there's been a shipwreck then it's absolutely my duty to run down to the beach in my pyjamas and save as many lives as I can, until I fall asleep with exhaustion. 

If I the confused man were a physician and if he lived in a Wild West town and if there were a hundred miles of injun infested badlands between him and the next doctor, then absolutely it is his moral duty to treat everyone in town, at any time of the day or night, regardless of their ability to pay, as long as he was physically able.

If we can trust Little House on the Prairie, and frankly, if we can't trust Little House on the Prairie we can't trust anything, Wild West physicians did, in fact, treat everybody. Doc Baker sends bills to the very rich and treats the very poor for free. The middling people bring him eggs and apples and fruitcake, or fix his wagon for him when it needs fixing. Unadulterated communism. If it were the case that Doc Baker was being woken up every night by dying children and never got to catch his breath or go fishing, then presumably he would have sent for a doctor friend from Chicago and they would arrange things so that when one of them was having a day off the other one was on call. They would share out the money and the eggs and the apples and fruit cake between them. 

Voila: socialized medicine. It really is a very good idea. 

I understand that the confused man is going to run for U.S President next year.


If the Health Service is abolished or privatized, most doctors will continue to treat people who can't afford to pay or don't have the requisite papers. But if there are zombie doctors who won't, well, the rest of us will have to shame them. Maybe there will have to be some kind of non-violent vigilantes who stand outside doctors houses in the middle of the night banging saucepans together until they get up and save the dying child. I wouldn't go as far as planting burning crosses on the lawns of physicians who stayed in bed and left poor patients to die, myself. But I could envisage troops of Morris dancers following them round town, rattling little bells, whacking them with balloons on sticks, and singing "He let an old lady die! He let an old lady die. Hey nonny no, he let an old lady die." 

Hey: I'm brainstorming here. 

But we may have to go a stage further back. The Nasty Party won it's famous victory because people stopped believing in fairness and politeness and equality and kindness and sharing. They stopped believing in them because the Nice Party stopped telling people what brilliant ideas they were. And the Nice Party stopped telling people, I think, because they became complacent. We all started to think that paying poor people an allowance and treating everyone the same even if they looked different and not strangling criminals and not hitting children and not calling black people bad names on TV comedy shows and taking care of sick people out of a common pot and all chipping in so we could have the best television and the best radio in the whole world were simply the natural order of things.

And this allowed genuinely nasty people to come out of the closet. It turned out that behind every sensible leading articles about English speaking schools finding it hard to cope with Polish speaking pupils without extra help, there was a failed reality TV contestant wanting to exterminate immigrants like cockroaches and cancer cells. Behind every perfectly reasonable comment about small businesses finding it difficult to fund maternity leave, there was a disgruntled science fiction fan who couldn't quite see the problem with throwing acid in women's faces. While sensible people with serious faces made hard choices about cutting back on library provision in the name of austerity, children's authors came right out and said that poor people had no right to read their books without paying for them. 

We allowed nasty to become the new normal. So we may have to go back to first principles and restate the case, not for Socialism or Liberalism or Marxism but for being nice. Basic human altruism.  

For historical reasons I don't necessarily agree with, it's quite easy for Rev'd Dum and Rev'd Dee to get a platform: in their local paper, in the House of Lords, on the Today Programme. So they might agree to use that platform to promote being nice instead of banging on and on about where men put their willies. Similarly humanists could spend less time banging on and on about suicide and more time explaining why being nice would be a brilliant idea. Same goes for the Muslims. There's some nice bits in the Koran, I believe. Atheists seem very committed to utilitarianism, which is a nasty idea, but individual atheists are often much nicer than the people who claim to speak for them on television.

The important thing is that the survivors make themselves visible: don't every let the nasty people believe they are majority, and never again allow politicians to think that they have to be nasty in order to win an election. Nice people should talk about how much they like paying tax; how proud we feel if we are rich enough to pay the higher rates. Maybe we could start organizing parties at the end of the financial year, with everyone wearing badges saying "I contributed yay much to living in a civilized society." (We could invite the Morris Dancers.) If we get sick, remember to tell everyone how great our local hospital is; all the great things our kids are doing at school; what a weird and brilliant idea it is to have big parks that even unemployed people and poor people and immigrants can play in.

We need to be careful of becoming prigs, but people who make their living being Nasty need to be shunned, shamed, or at least have custard pies thrown in their faces. If someone looks at the horoscope, there is a good chance that someone else will say "you don't honestly believe in that rubbish, do you?". If someone lights up a cigarette, there is a good chance that someone will tell him he needs to give up, and he'll certainly be asked to leave the room. So why do we let nasty people get away with it? Billy Bragg tells me that it is still fairly hard to buy a copy of The Sun in Liverpool: that if you are seen reading it in some pubs, you will be asked to leave. If we see a friend reading the Daily Mail, why don't we react as if they told us they were driving home after five rum and cokes; or as if they oggling a girly magazine in public? Calling a person in receipt of JSA a "scrounger" ought to have the some effect on a room as calling a dark skinned person the n-word.

The BBC may die: but we'll still have the DVDs: let's agree to show our kids Doctor Who and Life on Earth and Bagpuss regardless of what Murdoch's tits and propaganda channels are showing. Libraries may come to an end; but we can still lend our own books to people who haven't go any. (We may have to put stickers in our windows. "Ask to borrow my books. Ask to use my toilet." I think things may get that bad.) Or, at any rate, tell anyone who will listen that stories are brilliant and there is more to studying than cutting and pasting Wikipedia pages in a different font. Cameron may start conscripting the unemployed to stack shelves and sweep floors in return for their "welfare", but we can agree to call it by it's proper name -- scab labour -- and boycott those businesses which employ scabs.

Boycott; and paint graffiti on the windows; and stand outside their offices playing annoying music all day. 

And one last thing: let's not make any of this the only, or the main thing, we do. What's ultimately nasty about the nasty parties is their gradgrindianism, their willingness to sacrifice everything to make sure that Our Lot has more votes than Their Lot. They want there to be libraries so kids can do well in their SATS and get a well paid job; they want kids to play sports because that reduces the amount of juvenile crime; they want people to be healthy because healthy people work hard and earn money; they want the BBC, if they want it at all, because it gives "us" some kind international prestige. We want people to be healthy because healthy people can go for walks in the country and play cricket; we want there to be libraries so that people can accidentally stumble on Tarzan Triumphs and Imperial Earth and the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. We want the BBC to carry on because Just A Minute is bloody brilliant. 

The zombies have deep emotional feelings about Scottish Devolution, First Past the Post Voting, Disfranchisement of Prisoners and Pork Markets In China. We must never start to love those kinds of things. Because if we do, we will have become zombies too.

Barbarism is the natural state of mankind. Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.
Robert E Howard