Young people. Bright young things. Public school. Rugger. Oxford. First love.
The horror of the First World War.
Survivors, in the days after the war, nursing injuries and remembering fallen comrades.
A whole lost generation, the waste, the waste, the waste.
Empty chairs at empty tables.
Middle aged family men, years later, raising children doing mundane jobs, smoking pipes, the horror locked inside, never spoken off.
We've seen it. Over and over. And yes of course it bears repeating.
But what does this particular First World War film have to say about the particular Tommy who would grow up to create Middle-earth?
Pardon my Sindarin.
Tolkien had a boring life. Which is to say, he had the best possible life any writer could possibly have: he stayed at home and wrote. After 1918, says Humphrey Carpenter, nothing much happened. He taught undergraduates about Anglo-Saxon vowels and was the first person to spot that Beowulf is a good story. He drank beer with C.S Lewis and entirely missed the point of the Narnia stories. And he wrote some books which were in his lifetime modestly popular but attracted a cult following. He never finished his Great Work, but that's because his Great Work was pretty much un-finishable.
Compare and contrast with the life of his friend C.S. Lewis who kept getting himself into the most complicated and dramatic psychological scrapes. The story of his life is in grave danger of becoming more famous than his actual books.
Priscilla and Christopher Tolkien are both alive although approaching their one hundredth birthdays, and they have very sensibly deemed that their father's personal papers -- those not related to Middle-earth -- are not to be published in their life-times. I don't think that there are any Dark Secrets waiting to be revealed, but clearly sometime in the next decade it is going to be possible to publish a much more detailed and intimate biography of Tolkien than has been possible up to now.
In the mean time, there is this. It is hard to say much more than "Son; you are no Shadowlands."
Any Tolkien bio-pic was always going to fall into a fairly predictable shape, based on two inescapable biographical facts. In his rambling introduction to Lord of the Rings, Tolkien complains that everyone assumes that the story was inspired by the 1939-45 war, even though the Great War was a more significant event in his own life. And then he suddenly blurts out "By 1918, all but one of my close friends were dead." And in Wolvercote cemetery in Oxford, anyone can find a grave bearing the real names John Ronald Reul Tolkien and Edith Mary Tolkien, along side the fictional names Beren and Luthien.
So there is your story. While he was at school, Tolkien used to go and drink tea and eat cake with three other young men, and talk about the novels, poems and music they were going to write. They jokingly called it the Tea Club and Barovian Society. (Their tea shop was in a department store called Barrows.) As they got older and moved apart, they started to mythologise the TCBS. It is hard to know if Geoffrey Smith would really have been a great poet and Robert Gilson would really have been a great artist if they had survived the Great War. You would hardly have known from his juvenilia that young John Ronald was going to write the Best Loved Book of the Twentieth Century. Young people always think that their friendships are the greatest and most important friendships that there have ever been, just as they always feel that no-one before them has ever been truly in love.
People of Tolkien's age and class seem to have been more than usually prone to carry childhood jokes and nicknames into middle-age. C.S Lewis's letters to his brother are dense with private jokes about piggiebothams and pdaddybirds. I wonder if this is a product of the public school ethos which teaches that you are an Etonian or a Harrovian first and everything else a very poor second. Nothing of any real importance happens after you are done with Hogwarts.
Geoffrey and Robert died in the trenches, and the fourth member of the group, Christopher Wiseman, gave up his ambitions to be a classical composer. Before he died, Geoffrey Smith wrote a letter asking Tolkien to "say the things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them."
So there is one half of the story: four young men set out to change the world through their art. Two die; one comes home damaged and never fulfills his dreams; but the last makes good on the promise and really does change the world.
When he was only sixteen, Tolkien fell in love with a slightly older teenager named Edith Bratt. He was a catholic and she was a protestant and his legal guardian, a Jesuit, told him to stop seeing her or lose his inheritance and any chance of going up to Oxford. He wrote an proposed to her when he became a legal adult on his twenty first birthday. The whole thing sounds so much like an operetta that we should be relieved he wasn't born on the twenty ninth of February. They got married and lived happily ever after, for certain values of "happy". The story of Beren (who can't marry Luthien unless and until he steals one of the holy Silmarils from the Crown of Morgoth) and Aragorn (who can't marry Arwen unless and until he becomes king of the reunited kingdoms of Gondor and Arnor) are to some extent inspired by Tolkien's own circuitous love story.
And it is at this point that the film collides with a very large and very immovable object. The basic facts of Tolkien's life are in the public domain. His stories and poems are very much protected by the Berne convention. So we are faced with a film about the origins of Middle-earth which cannot quote from any Middle-earth related story and which is barely permitted to actually use the term Middle-earth. At one point we see Tolkien looking at the nigh sky and muttering a verse about "bright Earendel", but no-one gets around to telling the, actually rather fascinating, story about how the Anglo-Saxon name for the planet Venus got incorporated into Tolkien's private mythology as the name of Elrond's legendary father. Although we see Edith dancing in some woods by moonlight, we can't be told directly that this is awfully like the moment when human superhero Beren meets elvish demi-goddess Luthien. Similarly, when the sick JRRT is blundering around the trenches in the company of his loyal batman, we are left to draw our own conclusions from the fact that the batman's first name is, er, Sam.
It is beautifully filmed and impeccably acted -- there is even a funny turn by Dear Dear Sir Derek as Tolkien's tutor Prof Wright. It takes place in that movie version of the Olden Days where the sun always comes through the trees at exactly the right angle and everyone's motor car is shiny and new.
But it is probably the silliest film you will see all year. Ludicrous, overwrought scenes tumble off the screen. The script is a dead cert for the "Most Bio-Pic Cliches In a Single Movie" Oscar. The high production values and decent cast make the unintentional comedy seem even funnier.
It is hard to select a favorite moment. Perhaps it is Tolkien's departure for The Front. He and Edith say goodbye in a restrained, stiff upper lip kind of way, and he marches off….and then suddenly turns around, runs back, puts his tongue down her throat and proclaims undying love. ("Stay alive!" she suggests, not entirely constructively.) One wonders why they didn't just play Rachmaninov in the background and have done with it.
FACT: Tolkien and Edith were already married when Tolkien left for France.
Or is it the scene when Tolkien, having been sent down from Oxford for failing his exams and holding a rather drunk TCBS meeting on a bus, receives a letter to the effect that his True Love is Betrothed To Another and starts proclaiming Elvish poetry to the heavens, waking up everyone in college. But -- how ironic! -- Prof Wright is one of those he wakes up, and he wants to know what language Tolkien was speaking. Tolkien follows the old man around Cambridge for some time until he agrees to let him join the philology department. On condition he writes a 5,000 word essay on Norse Survivals in Gawain. That afternoon.
FACT: Tolkien started out studying Classics, but did disappointingly in his first year exams. He was allowed to switch to English because he had scored 100% on his philology paper.
I adore the scene in which the relatively uneducated Edith puts brilliant Tollers to rights on the True Nature of Language. He only cares about the sounds of words, and goes off on one about why Cellar Door is the most beautiful sound combination in English. She shares with him the original insight that the beauty of language consists in both sounds and meanings. This gives him the idea of creating imaginary people to speak his imaginary languages. So it's all her fault.
Another moment of comic genius occurs when Edith has a falling out with Tolkien. Tolkien takes her to meet his tea shop friends, but becomes jealous because she shares an interest in Wagner with Christopher Wiseman. Tolkien doesn't particularly like Wagner. "It shouldn't take six hours to tell a story about a magic ring" says Gilson, at which point several members of the audience cut their own throats in desperation. To make it up to her, Tolkien takes her to hear Rhinegold at the Birmingham opera. Only they don't have tickets and aren't dressed for the opera and can't get in. So, and you'll like this, they climb over a wall and sneak into a costume store from which they can over hear the music...and dress up in the costumes and mime the story as the music plays.
FACT: Edith never attended a TCBS meeting: Tolkien's friends didn't know about her until after they were at college.
But the greatest moment; the moment which will live in cinematic infamy, comes in the final seconds. It is just the most perfect mixture of historical inaccuracy and cliche you ever saw in your life. Some years after the war, Tolkien is sad because he doesn't know where his Great Work is going. Edith counsels him to decide what he really wants to write and write that or to write what he knows or something of that sort. Out for a walk in the Shire with their children, Tolkien starts to promise a new story, which the kids will help him with -- and which, he promises, will be about love, loyalty, quests, dragons, small people who are big on the inside, skateboarding elves....
Alone in his study, we see him take a beautiful clean sheet of manuscript paper. We see an extreme close up of a fountain pen nib. We see the pen dipped in ink. We see it start to write on the pristine page, in beautiful hand writing.
And then bugger me if he doesn't stop and think and we go into extreme close up on his lips and hear him whisper the word "hobbit" just before the screen blacks out.
FACT: Tolkien wrote "in a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit" on the back of an old exam paper on the spur of the moment. He didn't at that point know what the story was about, and had no idea that it would eventually connect with his long germinating mythology.
There may come a day when someone will make a worthwhile movie about the life of Tolkien. But it is not this day.
I'm Andrew. I write about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn.
"I know I tell off-colour jokes. But I don't mean it. Deep in my heart I want the Roman Catholics and the Church of Ireland -- along with all the Jews and the Atheists, the Muslims and the Hindus and the Sikhs -- to come together in one great brotherhood...and beat up the bloody Methodists."
I think of that every time a politician talks about "delivering Brexit" and then "bringing the country together."
Is it at this point too late to consider all the benefits of a Conservative / Labour alliance?
The Liberals want to Revoke Article 50, but stand no chance of forming a government on their own, and will not form an coalition with Labour under any circumstances. Even though Labour want a fresh referendum with Revoke Article 50 as one of the options.
The Tories say they want to Leave with a Better Deal than they one we have already agreed, but aren't seriously trying to negotiate one. Labour really does want a Better Deal, although they would really prefer to Remain.
So: the best solution is to send Boris and Jeremy to Brussels together, as PM and deputy PM and come back with a deal that all the parties will have to accept. So Boris doesn't get his beloved No Deal, but at least he avoids the humiliation of revocation. Jeremy doesn't get to Remain, but at least he avoids the disaster of No Deal. And the Liberals get to spend the next twenty years saying "I told you so" and "I blame Jeremy Corbyn".
So as in all the best compromises, everyone is equally unhappy.
The time is right. It will work. And no-one will have to get nailed to anything.
I didn't hate Disney's Christopher Robin nearly as much as I intended to. It was funny when it was trying to be funny and charming when it was trying to be charming. It is hard not be charmed when the adult Christopher Robin walks across the Pooh Sticks Bridge and finds that Eeyore's stick house is still standing and accidentally falls down one of Pooh's heffalump traps. It seems to understand -- or at least have a passing interest in -- A.A Milne's original short stories.
I believe scientists have to write up failed experiments as well as successful ones, so honour demands a review. I am sorry it will not be as funny as it would have been if I had hated it. I promise to get around to the Tolkien biopic in due course.
Christopher Robin is all growed up. He has a very boring office job working for a company which makes suitcases. His boss, played by Mark Gatiss, needs him to work right through the weekend, even though he had promised to spend it with his wife and little girl. While he is struggling through his sales figures, his old friend Winnie-the-Pooh pops up in the park outside his London home. With, as they say, hilarious consequences.
Almost the best part of the film was the opening credits, in which simplified versions of E.H Shepard's illustrations are gently animated to re-acquaint us with the stories of the boy and his famous bear. These tiny vignettes caught a very large amount of what is entrancing about the original tales. A little boy and his toy animals pull a fat teddy bear out of a rabbit hole. The bear gets stuck up a tree, floating improbably on the end of a toy balloon; the little boy rescues him by bursting the balloon with a toy gun. These animations lead directly into a "live action" version of the final story, "in which" Christopher Robin says goodbye to his childhood friends and leaves the Forest.
Christopher Robin is played by a child actor and the forest is a real landscape, but the stuffed animals are 3D animations. The toys are part way between "classic Pooh" and "Disney Pooh": Piglet and Eeyore look very like Shepard's pictures but Tigger is pure Disney. Pooh is fuzzy and teddy-like and avoids being too bright a shade of orange, but he retains his red waistcoat. Christopher has a mercifully English accent; no gophers are in evidence.
The scene starts out by following the book pretty closely, with Rabbit making his pompous "goodbye" speech and Eeyore reading out his awful poem; but it rapidly degenerates into CGI animals throwing bits of cake at each other. I suppose Corporate Pooh can only think in terms of slapstick and farce. Pooh and Christopher go to their enchanted place and say goodbye and deliver most of the lines from the book. The line "I am not going to do nothing any more. They don't let you" has been changed to "I am not going to do nothing any more. They don't let you in boarding school." We zoom through Christopher Robin's post Forest life -- school, army, death of parents, marriage, baby, job -- in a few moments, and then the story proper gets under way.
I remember when we were surprised by Roger Rabbit and Jar-Jar Binks and Gollum: but now we all accept that a stuffed kangaroo can be part of the cast of a movie. The day is not infinitely remote when the idea that human actors had to go into a studio and perform their lines will seem outdated and quaint. Fortunately that day hasn't come quite yet: Ewan McGregor carries the film almost single-handedly. The whole of the second act consists of him interacting with a CGI bear; the bear is joined by an entire CGI menagerie, but no humans, in act three. Ewan only gets to talk to actual actors in the finale. I never once doubted him.
The film has essentially the same plot as Hook -- the distant work-obsessed father remembers his own childhood and reconnects with his family -- but McGregor never allows the adult Christopher Robin to come across as a monster. We entirely believe that he is unwillingly forgoing his holiday because Mycroft Holmes has forced him to; that he deeply loves his daughter but honestly thinks that making her cram to get into a prestigious boarding school is the right thing to do. He doesn't embarrassingly revert to childhood, but there's a light in his eyes when he meets his old friends and starts to remember the olden days. He pitches the thing entirely right; treating Pooh partly as a naughty child and partly as an embarrassing old college mate.
And he never once calls him "my young apprentice".
The "iconic" theme song only troubles the score a couple of times, and even I can't begrudge the brief reprise of The Wonderful Thing About Tiggers. ("He does that a lot," says Eeyore, gloomily.) But I have always found the Disney version of the willy-billy-silly-old Bear incredibly charmless. Slow and lugubrious, it is very hard to imagine this Pooh composing a pome or inventing a honey pot shaped boat. Almost his only personality trait is that he sometimes says the kinds of things that you can put on greetings cards and motivational posters. When Christopher Robin said that he liked to do nothing, he did, in fact mean something. He meant that he liked doing the kinds of things which are important to children but which adults don't understand. Playing with toy bears. Having wars with toy soldiers. Making up stories. But Disney-Pooh uses "nothing" simply as a play on words: "People say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing every day." It sounds vaguely wise; it goes nicely on a greeting card. But it doesn't actually mean anything at all. (How does the old Irish riddle go? "I am greater than God; I am worse than the devil; dead men eat me; if you eat me, you'll die. What am I?")
When he first visits Christopher Robin's house Pooh knocks over a cup which rolls along the shelf causing everything in the kitchen to crash to the floor. Someone has him confused with Paddington. The other characters come across very much as a rabble of badly behaved toddlers; only Eeyore feels like a character. Never having seen a grown-up before, the animals all assume that Christopher Robin is a heffalump. Which is rather cute.
The film has taken some trouble to think about the metaphysical status of Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends. It would have been tempting to make Pooh function like Hobbes in Calvin and Hobbes: a living being to Christopher Robin, but a stuffed toy to everyone else. But this Pooh definitely has agency and individual life and literal existence -- when people in the real world encounter the crying talking sleeping walking living teddy bear, they are freaked out. Although the film doesn't put it in these terms the Hundred Aker Wood seems to be a separate magical universe connected to our world via a magical tree. The magical tree is situated near Christopher's childhood home, but when Pooh travels back through the, as it were, wardrobe to 1950s England, he emerges in a park near Christopher's Bloomsbury home. "I suppose it is where ever it needs to be," he explains. He may be a bear of very little brain, but he knows a Plot Device when he sees one.
The trouble with this is that it removes any of the symbolism and poignancy which Winnie-the-Pooh could have had. This Pooh is not an imaginary friend: he's just a friend.
You could make a good story around the question of what happens to imaginary friends when their children grow up. Perhaps they go and find new children to befriend. Perhaps they Cease To Be. Perhaps they wait around like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, hoping that their erstwhile playmate will appear again? Peter Yarrow sanctioned a picture book in which a little girl arrives in Puff's cave shortly after Jackie Paper deserts him. Father Christmas told young Christopher Tolkien that he wouldn't be writing for a few years, but would catch up with him when he had children of his own. A cartoon did the rounds on the internet a while back in which a grown up Calvin found an old stuffed tiger when his own little girl was being menaced by monsters under the bed. And there are some people who would say that "where does the delusion go once you are cured of it?" is a silly question, like "where does eighty miles an hour go when the car stops?".
The ending of the House at Pooh Corner is about a boy reaching a point in his life where he no longer plays with stuffed toys. The prologue to Christopher Robin is simply about a boy going off to school. Boarding school at that. It is taken for granted that the fall of man would have been averted if children never had to sleep away from home. Christopher Robin has become so busy with unimportant things like getting married, raising children and defeating the Nazis that he has lost touch with some of the friends he had when he was six years old. Once he gets back in touch with them, he's much happier.
I believe I remember the name of one (non imaginary) friend from when I was six. I haven't spoken to him in twenty five years. I still have some of my cuddly toys, though. The New York Library wasn't interested in taking them off my hands.
The denouement of the film is quite clever. Christopher Robin applies Pooh's philosophy of "nothing" to the problem of suitcase manufacture and everyone lives happily ever after. Although the luggage company which Christopher Robin works for is very small, it is run by a mega-capitalist who owns nearly all the companies in England. Christopher points out that if he allowed his millions of employees time off to do "nothing"; they would be able to go on holiday and the company would sell millions more suitcases.
You may think that trades unions had to fight tooth and nail for paid leave: it turns out it was actually gifted by a magic bear. Or perhaps that is the message. A world where mega-capitalists facilitate work-life balance of their own free will is about as likely as a talking teddy?
If this is the 1950s, why do Christopher Robin's "very important papers" appear to have come off a laser printer?
The more I think about the message of the movie, the more puzzled I am. Winnie-the-Pooh, who literally does nothing all day, is happy. When Christopher Robin hung out in the Hundred Acre Woods, throwing sticks in rivers and chasing non-existent heffalumps, he was happy. Now Christopher Robin has a job and a nice house in town and a nice cottage in the country, he is sad. Madeline Robin studies hard all day because her dad wants her to go to a prestigious boarding school: this makes her sad. When she stops studying and starts playing imaginary tennis matches with a balloon, she is happy. Play is good. Work is bad. School is bad: forests and teddy bears are good. Doing stuff is bad. Doing nothing is good. Quit your job. Lower your ambition. Spend more time with your friends and your family. Play instead of studying. Money doesn't buy happiness.
What was it Walt Disney paid to buy Winnie the Pooh from A.A Milne's descendants? Three hundred and fifty million dollars, wasn't it? The real life Christopher Milne's real life daughter got a cheque for forty four million. Which is nice.
There is nothing wrong with giving a child a book which says "be kind and generous and prayerful" when you yourself are cruel and mean and irreligious. That's just perfectly normal hypocrisy. And there is nothing surprising about grown-ups telling children actual deliberate lies. Of course an elephant can't fly if it wants to fly badly enough. But put the idea about and all the other elephants will start to believe that its their own fault they can't fly, that they would have been able to fly if they'd wanted to badly enough, and they will be content with their lot and go and work in luggage factories and not form trade unions like those nasty circus clowns.
But why on earth would anyone feed children with a morality that they themselves don't believe and which they definitely don't want the child to believe? If we all took on board the message of Christopher Robin, then it is certain that movies like Christopher Robin would never get made.
I'm Andrew. I write about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn.
we are totally totally fucked the liberals who want a second referendum with remain as one of the options and the labour party, who want a second referendum with remain as one of the option are going to spend the next election fighting each other so whatever happens the next government will be a coalition between johnson's reimagined alt-right tories and farage's fascist tribute act the most likely ballot box result to the extent that ballots actually matter any more is still tories largest single party but unable to form a government with the liberals and labour having enough mps to form a working majority between them but it seems that any lib/lab coalition is ruled out from the start so we are totally fucked yellowhammer is the least of our worries some of us may die remember statistically it is not likely to be you but most of us will presumably not die there will be food shortages and medicine shortages and riots and martial law nation will rise again nation and there will be earthquakes and famines in various parts of the earth but probably more fascists will get shot than non fascists and more old people will die than young people and it will all be over long before jodie whitaker regenerates assuming there is a still a BBC is the whole point of the excercise to provide a pretext for martial law i wonder? the right love martial law. it's just like dad's army and the venture scouts but afterwards afterwards boris... aftewards the people operating boris will get what they have always wanted and the damage will take centuries to undo no more trades unions no more health and safety laws very low tax and therefore presumably no more of what we used to mean by state education and certainly no more free health care at the point of need the NHS will continue to exist as a branding concept remember that pageant before the olympic games in twenty twelve? one of the tableaux insinuated that the national health service was something to be proud of and that nurses were quite a good thing and the right wing press said that this was propaganda and political correctness gone mad buccaneering britain a northern singapore complete presumably with hanging and flogging but without noodles or cocktails in that world there will be no place for people like me in fairness in that world there will be no place for people like boris johnson either but he is too stupid to see that no trendy colleges where we learn critical theory and play dungeons and dragons but no posh schools where we play rugger and learn about homer either just just grandgristic utilitarianism institutes preparing us to be buccaneering tiger sixteen hours a day flexible high skills low pay employment at will zero hours gourmet pork pie factory that's assuming they don't really hang us from lampposts i don't know if mine interlocutor is correct that boris is at heart in the american sense a liberal. but i am quite sure that none of the sacred liberal cows like multiculturalism and hospitals will survive in buccaneering brexit boris britain liberal tears smash corbyn still not tired of winning we are fucked tony doesn't want labour to win if jeremy is in charge tony doesn't want labour to win if jeremy is in charge even if that were possible tony thinks jeremy's ideas are wrong ideas well tony doesn't put it in those terms because tony doesn't think in terms of right and wrong tony thinks in terms of new and old and he thinks that jeremy's ideas are old workers rights and trades unions and trains which people can afford to ride on and hospitals which are not mortgaged to fast food companies are old fashioned ideas i get that tony doesn't like jeremy because jeremy is a socialist and tony never was i understand why my local MP who i have an awful lot of time for doesn't like jeremy she doesn't like jeremy because she does't think he is a particularly good leader not in the sense of rah! rah! rah! leader! leader! leader! but in the sense of managing people and organizing stuff and running departments and running the country she doesn't think he is very good at that but so far as i can see the jeremy who jo has ruled out having an alliance with labour ever ever ever even though it means boris and the end of the world is the jeremy of faith the jeremy of the right wing papers the jeremy who was created by the people who operate boris it turned out to be anti-semitism it could just as well have turned out to be a bacon sandwiches or the national anthem it doesn't matter there cannot be an anti brexit alliance because jeremy therefore we are all fucked and yes maybe if the socialists had never voted for the socialist we wouldn't be in this mess and yet my own oath holds and thus we are all ensnared what am i going to do i have a bucket under the sink which catches water from a slightly dripping pipe. i have one in the corner of the bathroom with a mop in it. i think there is a metal bucket in the shed which was already there when I bought the flat, and somewhere I have one of those purple plastic buckets that I used to make sandcastles with when I was a kid i am going to do what i always said i would do in the face of the zombie apocalypse call up old friends listen to penguin eggs one last time. reread moby dick set up a large and complex star wars role playing game for as long as the internet holds out if we are 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 i am going to live as much like a narnian as i can even though we are definitely leaving narnia come all hallows eve we are totally fucked
I'm Andrew. I write about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn.
Richard points out that I have mixed up two different plays. The peril in the play by Ibsen was not a shark, but a complete different kind of marine creature. This is why it was called Anemone of the People.
Richard also points out Ibsen sets up a very Norwegian moral dilemma in the Hall of the Mountain King sequence in Pier Gynt, This is why it is always referred to as a Troll-ey problem.
Finally, Lawrence Miles points out that during his run for Mayor, Boris Johnson literally said that the Mayor in Jaws was in the right.
Hulk through with political analogy. Hulk want cookie.
If you want to read the beginning of the argument, which I wouldn't recommend, it is in the comment section beneath my piece about coups and referenda.
S.K is arguing that if you are not going to obey a referendum there is no point in having one; and that indeed going against a referendum involves a patronizing disregard for the opinions of ordinary people.
I invoked a famous play by Ibsen as a counter example.
The play is set in a beach resort. In Norway. At the beginning of the play, a pretty girl is eaten by a shark. The chief of police, having consulted with all the top shark experts, decides to close the beach, because the shark is bound to strike again. But the people of the town, who make their living selling ice cream and running hotels, have a meeting, and the democratic will of the people determines that the pretty girl probably wasn't eaten by a shark, or that if she was, there is no reason to think that the shark will come back, and that if it does, it is almost certainly a vegan shark. The police chief obeys the will of the people and the next morning a little boy becomes the shark's dinner.
This leads the police child to his famous conclusion: “The majority never has right on its side. Never, I say! Who is it that constitute the majority of the population in a country? Is it the clever folk, or the stupid? I don't imagine you will dispute the fact that at present the stupid people are in an absolutely overwhelming majority all the world over. But, good lord! — you can never pretend that it is right that the stupid folk should govern the clever ones.”
There is also syphilis. And an excellent score by John Williams. Or possibly Edvard Grieg.
Now read on:
The proposition is "we must always obey the voice of the people". Once you have had a plebiscite you have to obey it otherwise there was no point in having a plebiscite in the first place and democracy falls.
This is currently the only argument being made for Brexit. No-one any longer pretends that there is any practical case for Brexit. The only argument anyone is making for Brexit is the democratic principal
Ibsen's story about the shark is an example of a trolley problem—a concrete ethical dilemma intended to interrogate a supposed moral principal.
Lots of people say that they believe in "the greatest happiness to the greatest number". We have to act like the sailor who found that both his remaining ships' biscuits had been nibbled by disgusting insects, and chose the lessor of two weevils.
But it turns out that if you give them a concrete example, a lot of people no longer chose the utilitarian path. Suppose you are the signalman on a railway and suppose that a train-full of children is hurtling towards a cliff edge. As signalman, you can move the points and divert the train onto a different track. But unfortunately a pretty lady has been chained to the other track by her wicked uncle, the Hooded Claw, who wants to steal her inheritance.
Do you pull the lever?
Most people answer "no". They think that if they were actually in that position they would rather do nothing and let the kids die than do something and directly cause the death of the pretty lady.
This doesn't prove that utilitarianism is wrong, exactly but it does prove that at some deeper level most people are deontologists.
"Oh, but as a matter of fact, a German officer is not in the process of raping my grandmother."
"But as a matter of fact I am not the acting Captain of a Star Fleet vessel, and my best friend has not been taken over by the Borg collective, so the question doesn't arise.
"No, you are mistaken, I have never been down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho and even if I have I certainly have never seen an injured man lying by the wayside, so it's a silly question".
"I have never stolen a loaf of bread in my life, and so far as I know there is no-one living who is my exact double and even if there is they are certainly not in any danger of being sent to the galleys in my place. It seems like a very unlikely set of circumstances, if you ask me."
Well, quite. But hypothetical questions are interesting precisely because they are hypothetical.
In Ibsen’s scenario Roy Schieder has to decide between acting on his own convictions and on the advise of experts and closing the shark-invested beach or following the democratically expressed will of the people and allowing it to remain open. I asked SK what they would have done in the police chief's situation and they wouldn't answer.
I deemed that "not answering the question" was the same as "not pulling the lever". The beach is left open. A small boy is eaten by a shark.
What follows from this?
Should we say "The policeman did a bad thing by obeying the will of the people: he should have ignored it and done what the experts told him and what he personally believed was right."
Or should we rather say "The policeman did a good thing by obeying the will of the people because the will of the people is always to be obeyed without question. It is better that one child be eaten than that the will of the whole people be circumvented."
Do we say "We should obey the will of the people even though it is clearly stark raving mad. The law which says 'obey referenda' overrides the one which says 'prevent children from being eaten by sharks'."
Or do we say "We should obey the will of the people because as a matter of fact, the people can never be wrong or mistaken. The fact that the people want a thing is sufficient evidence that the thing is right, and if the facts say otherwise than the facts are undemocratic."
SPOILER: Everyone knows that we will in practice go with the last option. The people voted to let the little boy go swimming. The people are always right. It follows that there was no shark. It follows that no child was killed. Richard Dreyfuss was engaged in project fear. The dead boy is Fake News. The body you saw being pulled out of the water was a crisis actor. This is literally what would happen and what is already happening. That is the world we are now living in. That is the inevitable result of blind allegiance to the people's will.
Of course, Ibsen's conclusion that majorities are always wrong is not literally true. If it were then you could infallibly arrive at the right decision in all cases by having a vote and going along with the minority view. I don't think that is workable. In a multiple choice question, would you go with the second most popular option, or would you go with the option which had least votes? Or do you look at what the majority votes for and do the opposite? And anyway, pretty soon, people would be smart enough to work the system and refrain from voting for the position they agreed with. Like when Miles Morales deliberately got 0% in a test and the teacher realized that the only way of doing that was by knowing all the correct answers.
Anyway, the claim is not that the majority is always wrong, only that it is never right.
So: the example of the shark establishes that it is morally justifiable to disobey the will of the people when the will of the people is fucking stupid. (This would also apply in the case of, say, a health spa where the water was infected with tuberculosis. Just saying.) That is: there is at least one circumstance in which the will of the people should not be obeyed. So the proposition "the will of the people must always be obeyed" falls: the most we can say is that the will of the people must usually be obeyed, or that it must be obeyed except in the most exceptional circumstances, or in short that the will of the people must sometimes be obeyed and sometimes not.
So, very boringly, the question becomes "how do we find out that if this is one those cases where the will of the people should be disregarded?". And the boring answer is "By looking at the evidence; by asking hard questions of the experts; by applying our innate moral judgement and whatever moral authorities we believe in; by discussing it in great forensic detail in a committee or a court room."
A long time ago, about last Tuesday, none of this would have been necessary. We would not have had to introduce sharks and TB infested water and out of control trolley cars into the question. We would merely have pointed out that referenda would not have approved the decriminalisation of homosexuality, the extension of the franchise to women, or the abolition of hanging. In those far off days, no-one would have dreamed of saying that we should have carried on locking up gay people on general democratic principles. At least, no one worth paying any attention to. Nowadays populism is all the rage and it is only a matter of time before someone says that it was undemocratic of Wilberforce to abolish the slave trade until this drastic step had been approved by the will of the people as expressed in a referendum.
Interestingly enough, SK says that the hyper emotive question of capital punishment is one which it would be sensible and reasonable to put to a referendum. And indeed, people who like strangling people have been saying for sixty years, very probably correctly, that a referendum on the subject would result in a pro-strangling majority.
It seems to me that this is a desperately bad augment and demonstrates the exact problem why referenda are never a good idea.
Capital punishment, simply as such, does not exist. What exists are particular laws and constitutions which allow people to strangle other people under certain specific circumstances. If you repealed the 2001 Human Rights act and restored the death penalty for high treason, piracy, naval sabotage and impersonating a Chelsea pensioner, then you would have "brought back" capital punishment. If you repealed the 1963 murder act and restored the death penalty for five specific and rare categories of murder, you would have "brought back capital punishment". The state of California has capital punishment: it asphyxiates serial killers at the rate of about one a decade. China has the death penalty: it thinks nothing of shooting several hundred people for tax evasion and corruption every Monday before breakfast. A certain vocal minority of Boris Johnson's supporters thinks that Remain voters should be hanged, specifically from lampposts. (Which seems a little impractical. They ought to watch that film with Timothy Spall.)
So: you can't simply have a referendum on "capital punishment". So far as I can see you have two options. Either your referendum says "the next time the government reconsiders the criminal justice laws, do you give them permission to consider strangulation as one possible criminal penalty for certain crimes?" The government would then go away and look at all the arguments in favour of capital punishment, of which there are none, and say "We've had a very good look at this, but we've decided that the present system of life without parole being the worst possible punishment is working just fine."
The other option is for the government to have the long, boring discussion first, and to come up with a parliamentary bill which includes strangulation as one of the options. They could then ask the public to approve or disapprove of that specific law. So the question is not "in a general way, would you be okay with us occasionally strangling someone?". It would be more like "do you endorse section 53 of the criminal justice (strangulation) bill?".
I understand that this is how the Irish system works. They don't take a popularity poll. ("Gay marriage—love it or hate it?") They say "Here is a new law that the government has written, which changes the definition of marriage in the following way, with lots of dull small print about divorce and adoption and inheritance. Do you endorse or reject this new law?"
Now, the Irish system has the advantage of not being obviously insane. But legislation is by definition long, boring and difficult to understand: so you are asking Seamus Public to endorse or reject something he has probably not read. The MPs have spent hours and weeks and months in committees listening to evidence from lawyers and psychologists and people who have been murdered, and gone through the law with a fine-tooth comb to make sure that every single word makes legal sense. How is it sensible to give people who were not at the meetings the final say?
And then what happens next? Suppose the motion put before the Popular Will is, in effect, "go through Criminal Justice laws; delete 'life imprisonment'; replace with 'death sentence'." Does this bind all judges for the rest of time to hand down death sentences where they would previously have sent people to jail? If a judge hands down a lessor sentence, or accepts a plea of mitigation, or if the Queen or the Home Secretary commute a sentence, is the Daily Hate within its rights to say "Traitor! Enemy of the People! Hanging Means Hanging!" And what about five or ten years down the line? After the tenth or twentieth innocent person has been strangled? Is the government of the day entitled to say "we've looked at the evidence, this isn't working, we are going back to how we were before and sending murderers to prison"? Is the Daily Hate not allowed to say "the people gave you a one off irrevocable instruction to start strangling people: if you go against it you are an enemy of the people!"
Enemy of the People is the title of the play about the shark, incidentally, although most experts now think "a public enemy" is a better translation. There's also one with a duck in it.
There is more.
SK says that the question of capital punishment could reasonably be put to a public vote because it is a question without a correct answer. It depends on fundamental moral values, apparently.
This is of course exactly what people who are on the losing side of an argument always say. No-one ever says "Oh, I am afraid I just have a gut feeling that the world is round and there is no way you can convince me otherwise, nor should you want to. We will just have to agree to differ." It is Tony Blair, when his positive case for invading Iraq falls apart, who says "I just happen to kinda feel sincerely that killing Saddam is the right thing to do, and only God can judge me." It is David Cameron when he has exhausted the sensible arguments in favour of first-past-the-post elections who says "This is not the kind of question that you can answer rationally. I just know deep in my heart that single transferable vote is unBritish".
I reject the idea that one's support for or opposition to capital punishment necessarily rest on unarguable moral assumptions. I think that one can demonstrate that capital punishment is wrong in principal and useless in practice by the use of logic, evidence, moral principles, and common sense. Hanging enthusiasts would doubtless wish to point out flaws in my logic, challenge my evidence, and cast doubt on my moral principles: this precisely proves the point that it is the sort of question about which you can have an argument. (It was Prof Lewis's go-to example of "a question on which good people can disagree", a thing which is "not certainly right, but not certainly wrong either".)
It may perhaps be true that some people maintain their support for or opposition to capital punishment regardless of the arguments one way or the other. This may be what SK means by "fundamental moral values". One guy says "I know that capital punishment has no tendency to reduce the murder rate; is more expensive than prison to administer; and will certainly result in the killing of many innocent people; but I don't really care, I just kinda like the idea of bad people getting strangled." The other guy says "I know that natural justice and retribution are sound moral principles; I accept that some people are so wicked that they will never reform and I concede that killing someone is hardly less cruel than incarcerating them for life, but I don't really care, the idea of the state employing someone to ritually strangle other people disgusts and appalls me." If anything, these are aesthetic premises rather than moral ones. I think that killing someone in cold blood is ugly; you think that the suffering of a bad person is beautiful.
You might, I suppose, go a stage further and say that all of our so-called-arguments are really only ever post-hoc justifications for our aesthetic preferences. You say that you are concerned with deterring crime, but really, you just have a gut level liking for hanging people. I say I am concerned with the possibility of killing an innocent person, but really, I am just squicked out by the idea of executions. It might even be that all arguments are like that. We just as well abandon all that pesky evidence and logic and vote with our guts.
That's another reason why referenda are so dangerous. In order to justify them we have to reduce complicated questions to gut feelings and then say that gut feeling are the only feelings which matter.
I think this country has had quite enough of experts.
I agree with A. J Ayer that moral questions can't be answered in a vacuum. The question "Is capital punishment right or wrong?" is literally meaningless: you have to ask "Is capital punishment right or wrong according to Christian morality?" or "according to the universal declaration of human rights?" or "according to the principle of the greatest good to the greatest number?" So it might be that after carefully weighing up all the pros and cons we find that I am opposed to capital punishment because I am a Christian, and you support capital punishment because you are a utilitarian. But it doesn't follow that no communication is possible and we might just as well have a straw poll and find out whether my lot outnumber your lot. We could have a grown-up discussion about whether our present constitution requires us to base our decisions on Christian or Utilitarian principles; and if that fails; about how we decide which set of principles should be enshrined in the constitution; and whether that is itself an ethical question, and so on "back to the original and highly controversial creation of the universe".
But perhaps there are "beliefs" which are even deeper and holier and more axiomatic than "I am a Christian", "I am an humanitarian", "I am a Tottenham Hotspur supporter." Perhaps we are looking for a unified field theory of morals. If you say "Anyone who has killed anyone else must be killed", I can say "And why do you think that?" If I say "No-one should kill anyone else under any circumstances", you can say "And what would happen if everyone agreed with you?" Perfectly good questions with perfectly good answers. As long as you can carry on asking questions, you haven't got to a first principle. Why is the sky blue? Because of the way the atmosphere refracts the visible spectrum. Why does the atmosphere refract the visible spectrum in that way? Because of the chemical properties of the gases which it is composed of. Why is the atmosphere composed of those gasses...
But if we keep digging for long enough, perhaps we will discover some fundamental bottom level gut
level archetypal irreducible heartfelt foundational beliefs that can never change or be questioned. Maybe it is like, I don't know, gender, or your True Name: a thing which is part of you on the inside and which no one else can know or challenge. The Bishop of Woolworths talked about The Ground of Our Being and said that these irreducible heartfelt foundation beliefs are what we are really talking about when we talk about God. And perhaps your fundamental bottom level gut level archetypal irreducible heartfelt foundational beliefs are different from my fundamental bottom level gut level archetypal irreducible heartfelt foundational beliefs. Perhaps my FBLGLAIHFB says that what is ultimately of value is Freedom. And perhaps your FBLGLAIHFB says that what is ultimately of value are Extensive Collections of Different Varieties of Rare and Exotic Newts.
Newts versus freedom.
Freedom versus newts.
Across such a chasm there can be no further communication.
Whereof we cannot speak thereof we should be silent.
I'm Andrew. I write about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn.