Friday, July 31, 2020

I'm Andrew. I write about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn.


Or consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)


Monday, October 14, 2019

Mark 4 1 - 20


and he began again to teach by the sea side
and there was gathered unto him a great multitude
so that he entered into a ship
and sat in the sea
and the whole multitude was by the sea on the land

The last time Jesus went down to the beach, there were so many people that he asked the disciples to get a boat ready. This time, he actually gets into the boat: the crowd must be even larger. Once he's in the boat, he starts to teach. (That word again: teaching as opposed to proclaiming.)

I don't think we are supposed to imagine that he is shouting at a huge crowd from a boat. How on earth would they hear? (I think some irreverent comedians could probably come up with a clever sketch based on just that question.) I have heard this story many times, and I have always assumed that Jesus preached from the boat, to the people on land: that he was using the ship as a floating pulpit. But I now think this is incorrect. I think that what actually happened is that the multitude who converged on the beach mainly wanted to see miracles and ask for healings and Jesus withdrew onto the boat in order to teach his disciples. A few pages ago, Jesus was inside Peter's house, teaching, while a mob were outside, breaking the ceiling down, because they wanted miracles. In this story a boat has taken the place of Peter's house. For all we know it may have been Peter's boat. 

Jesus has not got into the boat to make it easier for the crowd to hear him: he has got into the boat to make jolly sure that they can't.

and he taught them many things by parables,
and said unto them in his doctrine,

hearken;
behold
there went out a sower to sow:
and it came to pass, as he sowed,

some fell by the way side,
and the fowls of the air came 
and devoured it up.

and some fell on stony ground
where it had not much earth;
and immediately it sprang up
because it had no depth of earth:
but when the sun was up, 
it was scorched;
and because it had no root, 
it withered away.

and some fell among thorns,
and the thorns grew up,
and choked it,
and it yielded no fruit.

and other fell on good ground,
and did yield fruit that sprang up
and increased
and brought forth, some thirty
and some sixty
and some an hundred

This is the first time we readers have been allowed to listen in on one of Jesus' seminars, so Mark gives it a big build up. He tells us twice that Jesus is about to start teaching. "He taught them lots of things using parables; this is what he taught them in his teaching." Then he hands the floor over to Jesus. Jesus tells everyone to listen, and then he tells everyone to use their imagination and look. And then the seminar starts.

But it is strange sermon; a meta-sermon: preaching about preaching, teaching about teaching. We may get to the end of the Sermon on the Boat more baffled than when we started. And, alarmingly, this may be the whole point of it.

First comes the story of the sower. Unless you are a Martian, or a Hindu, or Prof Richard Dawkins, you know this story. Well, it is hardly a story: it is little more than an image. A farmer throws seed out at random, without regard for where it goes; so naturally, some of it comes up and some of it doesn't. This is called broadcasting, but you would normally only broadcast seed when you want the crops to come up densely over a whole area — sowing a lawn, say. The Sower is being profligate and wasteful with his seed: that's the point of the story. Jesus was an artisan; his disciples are fishermen: perhaps they take it for granted that all farmers are idiots.

"There's this farmer, right — and imagine this — he just chucks his seed everywhere without paying any attention to where it goes. And, do you know, in a funny way, God is a bit like that silly farmer….."

and he said unto them,
he that hath ears to hear, let him hear

We've all got ears. Very nearly all of us, at any rate. And hearing is very much what ears are best at doing. So one's first reaction to this phrase is "Since we all have ears, this story is meant for everyone." But then we stop and think, and realize that it could mean "If you are capable of hearing this, you should. But not all of you can…." So perhaps this story is only meant for a minority. The minority on the boat, perhaps.

and when he was alone,
they that were about him with the twelve asked of him the parable

So. It's a simple story. A sower plants some seeds. Some of them come up, some of them don't. Maybe because it is so simple, some of Jesus students ask him what it means. His answer pretty much throws the whole of the book of Mark, and everything we think we know about Jesus, into disarray.

Mark seems to refer to two groups: "those who were about him" and "the twelve". Jesus is alone at the center telling the story. Around him are his twelve chosen envoys. Further out is a larger group of students who can still be said to be near to him. And some distance away is a huge undifferentiated beach-bound crowd, who can't hear what is being said.


unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God:
but unto them that are without,
all these things are done in parables:
that seeing they may see,
and not perceive;
and hearing they may hear,
and not understand;
lest at any time they should be converted,
and their sins should be forgiven them.

We are all familiar with the idea of fables. They tend to be vivid concrete examples of self-evident moral precepts; they don't contain any esoteric secrets or mystical revelations. We know that lying is wrong. We know that people doubt the word of habitual liars even when they are telling the truth. The story about the little boy who kept setting off the wolf-alarm when there was no wolf-emergency and as a result got eaten by a wolf doesn't tell us anything that we didn't already know. But it fixes it in our minds; it helps us remember it. I suppose it may scare children by showing that a fairly small offence might have a catastrophic consequence. (And anyway, children like stories in which other people are naughty and cop it.) Platitudes are conveniently expressed in concrete form: it is relatively hard to say "I wonder if it has occurred to you that projects can be overstaffed as well as understaffed". It is easy to say "Well, you know what they say about too many cooks…."

I think that most of us are also familiar with the idea of allegories. They are stories which require some sort of key or explanation. The seem to be about one thing, but they are really about something else. There is a story about a traveler who is captured by a giant in a swamp and imprisoned in a castle, but manages to escape when he finds a key. It is a rousing little story if you like that kind of thing. And I suppose you could read it as a fable: the moral of the story is "Don't give up. However bad things look, there is always a chance they will turn out okay." But it is actually an allegory. In the background, the voice of the author provides a key. The traveler is named Christian, the swamp is named Despond, the giant is called Despair, his castle is called Doubt but the key is called Hope. If you ask me, that is quite a complicated way of telling us that if a Christian has hope he will never despair. (Pilgrim's Progress. Boring book; excellent theme song.)

A parable literally means a juxtapositioning; putting two different things alongside each other, so we can spot the similarities. But according to Mark, Jesus's parables aren't fables, to help us hold onto a truth, or allegories, to make a moral message palatable. According to Mark, Jesus's parables are more like puzzles. Riddles, even. The Kingdom of God is a Mystery.

There were, in the classical world, many "mystery religions" which taught their rituals and doctrines only to initiates. In medieval times, the word "mystery" simply meant "trade secret" or even just "trade". The religious "mystery plays" were plays put on by the different craft guilds, and have nothing to do with mysteries in the religious sense. It isn't exactly clear when "Mystery" took on its present meaning as "puzzle" or in particular "a story about an unsolved crime". The title of the 1794 story which Jane Austen lampoons is The Mysteries of Udolpho. I've always taken that to mean "the puzzles which our intrepid heroine had to solve" but it could still have meant "the experience which was in a funny way like an initiation".

The kingdom of God is a Mystery. There are people on the inside — on the boat? — who know the secret; and people on the outside — on the beach -— who do not. So Jesus preaches in parables to make sure that the people on the beach don't find out the secret.

The "lest" part is particularly troubling. If the people on the shore solve the puzzle, they would turn their lives around and send their sins away. And we wouldn't want that, would we?


and he said unto them,
know ye not this parable?
and how then will ye know all parables?

the sower soweth the word.
and these are they by the way side,
where the word is sown;
but when they have heard,
Satan cometh immediately,
and taketh away the word that was sown in their hearts.

and these are they likewise which are sown on stony ground;
who, when they have heard the word,
immediately receive it with gladness;
and have no root in themselves,
and so endure but for a time:
afterward, when affliction or persecution ariseth for the word's sake, immediately they are offended.

and these are they which are sown among thorns;
such as hear the word,
and the cares of this world,
and the deceitfulness of riches,
and the lusts of other things entering in,
choke the word,
and it becometh unfruitful.

and these are they which are sown on good ground;
such as hear the word,
and receive it,
and bring forth fruit,
some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some an hundred.

If we don't understand this parable, we won't understand any of the other parables either. That could be taken two ways. Is Jesus saying that this is the master parable, and that once you have decoded it you will be able to solve all the others? Or is he merely saying "I am surprised you need my help to solve this: it's actually one of the easier ones."

Jesus is preaching. It's his biggest gig ever: more people than can get onto the beach. But he is withdrawn with a small number of students; more than twelve but less than fifty. And they have questions. Why is it that such a lot of people listen to you, but so few hear you? Is there a problem with the Word? Maybe you need to focus group a New Improved Word? Maybe you could triangulate with the Pharisees and come up with some Word that would have better market penetration?

To which the answer is: "You don't blame the seed because of where it lands. If it lands in bad soil, it doesn't come up. If it lands in good soil, it does."

The key to the allegory isn't that surprising or complicated. Different types of soil equals different types of people. Some people give up following the Word because it gets too hard: when being a follower of Jesus becomes dangerous or unpopular. Some people give up following the Word because it gets too easy: when there is money and fun and lipstick to be had instead. And some people never hear the Word in the first place: one of those Dirty Ghosts can get in between the preacher and the listener.

So: at whom is the story directed? Is Jesus talking to the soil? "Try hard not to be the kind of soil which has weeds growing in it. Try hard not to be the kind of soil which isn't deep enough for wheat to take root? Try hard to be good soil."

Is he talking to the people outside the process? "You may wonder why not all the seeds come up. But don't worry. There is nothing wrong with the seed, although there may be something wrong with the soil."

Or is he talking to other sowers? "Don't worry if not all your seed comes up. That's not your fault. You can't second guess what kind of soil your seed will land in. Carry on sowing."

We can't change what kind of soil we are. The seed is the seed. The message is for the people already with Jesus, on the boat. "Don't worry. You will always be a minority. You are good soil. But the ear-less majority will never hear what I am saying."

It starts to seem terrifyingly possible that Jesus was a Calvinist.

FUN FACT
In Greek an "ear" of corn is a stachui, and the things on the side of your head are ota and what you do with them is akou. There is no world play between "ear" of corn, a human "ear" or the act of "hearing".



I'm Andrew. I write about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn.

Or consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)

Monday, October 07, 2019

Annoying Facebook Science Meme Critique Rant

A friend of mine posted one of those annoying memes which go around facebook under the umbrella title "I fucking love science".

This one went as follows.



Frivolously, I said: "Have you got a week."

"Possibly." said my friend. (These may not have been his precise words.)

So I wrote the following.

DAY ONE

It is always possible to frame Paradise Lost or the Book of Genesis as "that story about the talking snake", in the same way it is always possible to frame Hamlet as "that story about the sad kid" or Parsifal as "that story about the lost cup".

But if you choose to frame them in that way, I will probably think "Oh, these Science Dudes don't get what art and literature are for".

In fact, I will probably think "If Science Dudes look at the Bible and Milton and can't see anything but a talking snake, I definitely don't want to be a Science Dude."

This doesn't make them wrong, necessarily. You can get science and not get literature, in the same way that you can know everything about sport but nothing at all about cookery. But it does make my fur prickle and my hackles rise. It makes me disinclined to pay attention to the rest of their argument.

Which, I strongly suspect, is the object of the exercise. No-one is trying to persuade anyone of anything. They are just saying "Our side -- hooray! -- Your side -- boo!" If I had flaccid hackles and smooth fur they wouldn't be doing their job.

Indeed, there is a kind of a trap here. If an annoying person is standing on a virtual street corner saying "Science rocks! Religion sucks!" it is very tempting to turn around and say "No, on the contrary, science sucks!" Which means the annoying man can say "See, told you so! Religion is anti-science."

I shall attempt to get to the end of this week without at any time saying "Science! Boo!"

I think that it is entirely possible to fucking love science without fucking hating religion.


DAY TWO

Some Christians think that their Bible is the exact word of God. They think that God wrote it, in the same way that the Earl of Oxford wrote Hamlet. Similarly, Muslims believe that their Koran (which has also got a snake story in it, I think) existed in heaven before it was dictated on earth, and would have existed even if God had never created the universe.

If you went up to one of those Christians or Muslims and asked "What would happen if every single copy of the Bible and/or the Koran were destroyed... and everyone on earth for some reason forgot all about them?" they would reply "I suppose God would dictate them all over again when he thought humans were ready for it." Which is a perfectly reasonable answer.

Now, I don't believe that the Bible is a magic book in that sense, and neither do you, and neither does the Archbishop of Canterbury, and neither does the Pope. But some people do. And if you go up to one of those people and say "If we forgot about the Bible, it couldn't possibly be reconstructed" they would simply retort "Oh yes it could." It's the kind of evidence that only works if you have already decided what verdict you are eventually going to come to.

"I can prove that God doesn't exist" says the science dude. "If God existed, he would exist. But he doesn't exist... so it follows that he doesn't exist!".

"I can prove that God exists" says the Christian. "If God didn't exist, he wouldn't exist. But he does exist! So it follows that he exists."

Truly, you have a dizzying intellect.

DAY THREE

I am pretty sure that if human culture was wiped out then the exact combination of words which go to make up Hamlet would never exist again.

This is what makes works of art especially precious. All over the universe there must be aliens who know about evolution by natural selection and Pythagoras's theorem; but none of them know about the death of Ophelia or why Hamlet thought he was a rogue and peasant slave. Gravity is just sitting around waiting to be discovered: only one being in the entire universe could have written "oh that this too, too solid flesh would melt..."

Next time someone asks you what's so special about humans, that's the answer.

If you don't like Hamlet then substitute Les Miserables or Lord of the Rings or Here Comes Noddy! or any book you do like.

But if we entirely wiped out human culture humans would carry on making babies. And I think -- I am not quite sure but I think -- that as long as we go on making babies, we will still have the idea of "fathers" and "sons". And if we've got the idea of "fathers" and "sons" then wouldn't we also have the idea that one of the worst things that could happen to a young man is for his father to be murdered? And that one of the worst possible crimes is for a man to kill his own brother?

And I think that if we entirely wiped out human culture, human beings would soon spot the fact that everyone dies in the end, and some of them would start wondering "where do people go when they die?" And once they've asked that question, the idea of ghosts would occur to some of them.

So sooner or later it would occur to someone to tell the story of a young man who gets a message from his murdered father's ghost...

Maybe this is all a bit Neil Gaiman. But I think that there is a very good chance that if we rebooted human culture, humans would sooner or later come up with a story that was very much like Hamlet.

Sherlock Holmes and Spider-Man I wouldn't hold out as much hope for....

DAY FOUR

Jung and his disciple Joseph Campbell thought that human brains are wired to tell particular kinds of stories. The story of Luke Skywalker is a bit like the story of Gilgamesh because the journey of those two particular heroes are a bit like everyone's journey through life. Deceitful snakes and wise old men and tricksters pop up in stories all over the world because they represent things which are in every human being's mind.

Archetypes, if you insist.

If they are right, then the Very Big Stories are the ones which humans are most likely to start telling even if culture has been rebooted. So if it is possible that Future Humans would have a story which is a lot like Hamlet, then it is very likely indeed that they would have a story which is a lot like Paradise Lost.

I don't know if this is true. I recanted my faith in Hero With a Thousand Faces a long time ago. A lot depends on what we mean by "culture" and exactly how the reboot scenario works. If snakes have gone extinct then no-one would think to tell a story about the snake in the garden of Eden -- or even about Kaa or Sir Hiss. And maybe, once we have wiped out a million years of human culture and started all over again, the new lot of humans wouldn't understand the idea that, say, kids are innocent and old men are wise, in which case the Journey of the Hero wouldn't have anything to be about.

Maybe the new lot of humans wouldn't even understand that there are things called rules with consequences if you break them or think that it would be odd for two adults to be naked all the time.

But if the New Humans thought so differently, I am not sure I would call them "human". And if they were that different from us, why assume they would come up with that very specific way of investigating the universe called "science"?

DAY FIVE

Either

1:  God exists, or
2:  God does not exist.

But these are not the only options. (That would be too simple.)

1.1 God exists, and wise and clever humans can work this out for themselves.
1.2 God exists, but humans wouldn't know that he existed unless he told them so himself.

2.1.1 God does not exist, but some wise and clever humans honestly believe that he does.
2.1.2 God does not exist, but some wise and clever humans made up the idea of God because they honestly thought that believing in God would make humans nicer.
2.1.3 God does not exist but some ignorant and stupid humans think that he does because they don't know any better.

2.2 God does not exist, but some wicked humans invented the idea of God for some nefarious reason -- to fool other people into giving them money, or to make everyone respect the king or to give them a pretext for wearing nice red uniforms.

3: God does not exist, and the the fact that some people think he does is a complete historical fluke -- if history had gone differently, the Fish Slapping Society might have taken the place of the Church of England and Henry VIII might have quarreled with Rome over the precise interpretation of the rules of Tiddlywinks.

But in each case, if human beings came up with the idea of God once, they would probably come up with the idea again. If God exists, then some of the New Humans will figure it out eventually. If the existence of God isn't the sort of thing that can be figured out, God will do his "Hey guys, look at me!" routine with the burning bush all over again.

If God does not exist, but was a more or less honest mistake by some more or less well meaning Humans, then it is quite likely that after the Reboot, some more or less well meaning New Human will make the same kinds of mistakes all over again. The New Humans will live in the same universe that the Old Humans did. They will ask the same kinds of question about it. And they will very probably come up with the same sorts of answers. "I reckon that someone must be in overall charge; I reckon he must be good but quite cross with us when we are bad; I reckon he wants us to acknowledge him in some way..."

But supposing the idea of God was a deliberate con-trick? In that case I think that the same sort of Naughty Priests who came up with the idea in the first place will come up with the same kinds of fibs after the Great Cultural Reboot.

I agree that if the idea of God coming into being was an arbitrary and meaningless fluke then the same arbitrary and meaningless fluke is unlikely to happen twice.

So. Destroy all the holy books and wipe everyone's memories. I think that in a few thousand years, human beings will again be building temples, saying prayers, sacrificing goats and trying hard not to covet their neighbor's Oxen. I think they will get to this point a long time before they have worked out the Three Laws of Motion from first principles.

I cannot guarantee that anyone would re-invent the lyrics of Kum-By-Ya.

DAY 6

The Snake Story had probably been around for a long time before it got incorporated into the collection of stories we call Genesis. And the book of Genesis had been around for a very long time before Christians worked out what they thought the story meant.

Christians think the snake story is a partial description of how human beings relate to God. In particular they think it is the answer to one very Big Question.

"If God is nice, why is the world horrid?"

"Because humans keep on breaking God's rules. Let me tell you a story..."

Obviously, the Christian New Testament understands the story in a very particular way. Paul says "in Adam, everyone has sinned", which is probably not what the Genesis-writer had in mind when he wrote the story down. Later Christians have understood Paul in different ways. St Augustine probably didn't understand the story of Adam and Eve in quite the same way that Billy Graham does. I doubt if I could state the difference between, say, Hooker's doctrine and Thomas Aquinas', in any form which would hold water for five minutes. But the basic idea -- "things used to be okay between man and God; then man broke God's rules and they are not okay; someday God is going to do something and they will be okay again" -- is one which millions of people have found makes sense for them.

They might be wrong, but it can't just be written off as "a silly story about a talking snake."

So.

If all the stories in the world were suddenly forgotten, I think it is probable that in a thousand years time, humans would again be telling stories very like Hamlet, Gawain and the Green Knight, Superman, Cinderella, and Adam and Eve, because I think they are the kinds of stories which human beings tell, because I think that part of what makes us human is telling those stories.

If all the stories in the world were suddenly forgotten, I think that it is probable that humans a thousand years later would have come up with the idea that the universe is run by some sort of God, because that's the kind of creatures humans are and that's the kind of universe we live in.

If all the stories in the world were suddenly forgotten, I think that it is probable that some of the humans who believe in God would have come up with the idea of the Fall of Man. Things used to be okay between man and God, and things will be okay again in the future, but right now we are in God's bad-books and everything seems horrible.

I think it is less likely, but not impossible, that the New Humans who have the idea of the Fall of Man will tell a story quite a lot like the story of Adam and Eve. Humans keep on putting the same kinds of things in stories and the images in the story -- fruit, gardens, walls, snakes, nakedness and clothing, knowledge and ignorance -- are pretty fundamental. But I am not sure about that. Maybe it would be a different story and maybe they wouldn't put it in the shape of a story at all.

The trouble with the original meme is that it really says "If the story of the snake is just a silly story with no deeper meaning and significance; and if stories in general are just silly arbitrary things which people make up to pass the time and if the idea of God is just an arbitrary superstition which someone made up then if you wiped all the stories out then nothing at all similar would ever exist again."

And I don't think you can take any of that for granted.

DAY SEVEN

I am off to have a rest.





I'm Andrew. I write about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn.

Or consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)



Wednesday, October 02, 2019

A Black Day

Trying to work out how old I must have been at the time.

Primary school age. Before Star Wars but after Spider-Man.

Let us say that it was All Saints Day and that the Sunday School put on a pageant in which each child represented a real-life Saint.

Actually it was more elaborate than that. A full-length play in which both adults and children took part. Possibly it involved a man, possibly played by my Boys' Brigade captain, being questioned by Saint Peter at the Pearly Gates. Saint Peter had a big red book like Eamonn Andrews. I suppose he was played by the Minister. But it certainly involved children from the Sunday School proceeding around the church in the personas of various saints.

Someone recited The Son of God Goes Forth To War as we walked in. (*) I didn't know that "matron" just meant "an older woman" and "maid" simply "a younger woman". I took it that "the matron and the maid" meant "the woman in overall charge of a hospital, and also the woman who does the menial cleaning tasks." Childhood is full of those kinds of confusions.

"Which saint was Andrew selected to play?", you are all asking

I dressed up in a white shirt and a grown-up tie; and presumably some kind of jacket; and for reasons I do not quite understand, a false pair of glasses. This was before I had been prescribed glasses of my own. My "saint" was Martin Luther King, who I had never heard of. So naturally, I wore make-up on my face and my hands. Another girl in my class also wore make up. Of the same colour. I have literally no idea who she was pretending to be. Surely not Rosa Parkes? Mary Seacole was not much known-about in those days.

That narrows it down. I know that I did not wear glasses in Miss Beale's class and did wear them in Miss Griffiths's class. So I must have been eight years old, which takes us 1971 or 1972. Had it really only taken three years for M.L.K to become such a safe, uncontroversial figure that he could be represented in a children's Sunday School pageant? In England? A few years later the Minister mentioned in the course of a sermon that men like Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy, however flawed as human beings, could, in a very real sense, be seen as pictures of Jesus in our own age. I remember my father blustering that if they hadn't had "the extreme good fortune to be assassinated" he would still regard them both as far too "political" to mention from the pulpit.

Fast forward a couple of decades.

It is the middle 1980s. I am at college doing my second degree and playing more Dungeons & Dragons than is good for me. This was the period when I single-handedly and without precedent created the genre of "theater style" live action role-playing games out of my head.

I read it on the internet so it must be true.

A LARP is a game where you dress up in costume and fight monsters with rubber swords. A free-form game is a LARP where you dress up in costume and mostly talk to other people dressed up in costumes. Game guru Paul Mason once said that he couldn't take free form games seriously because they called to mind an image of Andrew Rilstone dressed in a blanket.

One of the freeform LARPs we ran was pirate themed. I think it was set in a dockside tavern. There were people with hooks who said "arr" and other people with hooks who also said "arr" and ladies disguised as cabin boys and kings' custom men disguised as beggars and a treasure map and a black spot and a cannibal witch doctor.

Dressed in leopard skin.

With a plastic bone though his nose.

And black make up.

I believe photographs exist. I would be mortified if anyone saw them.

It is a mistake to say that a racist thing is a thing done by a racist person and that it is therefore impossible for a non-racist person to do a racist thing. This was the circle which the editor of Doctor Who Monthly got into last year when the conversation turned back to Talons of Weng Chiang. Some people thought that the story, which involved a white actor in yellow make up playing a villain who was to all intents and purposes Fu Manchu, was racist. If the story was racist, then Robert Holmes and Phillip Hinchcliff were racists. But the editor had met Bob and Phil and there was no one in the world less racist than they were. Therefore Talons of Weng Chiang cannot possibly have been racist. So it follows that anyone perceiving racism in a story about a Chinese villain who says things like "I understand we all rook arrike?" had been infected with porritical collectness.

I imagine that there were people in my church in 1972 who I would now consider to be racists. There were certainly no black people in the congregation, or indeed the town. We were four years out from "rivers of blood", in a parliamentary constituency which had not returned a Labour MP since 1945. From time to time we had a lady come to talk to us about Home Missions, which meant "children less well off than ourselves" and another to talk to us about Overseas Missions which meant "children in far away lands". There is nothing wrong with sending charity to foreign countries and I doubt if Methodist missionaries at that time were much given to marching into native villages and burning their religious shrines. But there was an undercurrent of grass huts and primitivism about the whole thing. Poor benighted heathens who needed our pennies if they were ever going to learn to read or write.

You can see it in Blue Peter as well: poor strange dark skinned children who won't have anything to eat unless we send them our old teddy bears. Do they know its Christmastime at all? People still told us without irony that we had to eat the burned scrambled egg because they were starving in Africa.

I do not think that there was the slightest racist intention in the first of my two forays into blackface, which is not the same as saying that it wasn't racist. No-one was consciously making fun of black people. Certainly no-one was consciously making fun of Martin Luther King. One little white boy in a collection of twenty little white boys had put black boot polish on his face. Others presumably had swords and dragon-heads and collections of injured animals. Someone's mum had to produce a John Wesley costume.

I would have to place it in exactly the same category as my much-loved and now disintegrating gollywog. The lady who made the toy and put into the sale-of-work was not a racist. My granny, who bought the thing and put it in my Christmas stocking was not a racist. My parents, who let me play with it, were not racists. I was certainly not a racist toddler. And yet there it was: my favourite toy, a Jim Crow caricature of a black man.

We couldn't see the wood for the trees. Which is to say we couldn't see the racism because of all the racism. Lenny Henry was a regular guest star on the Black and White Minstrels. Jim Davidson told Chalkie White jokes in front of the Queen. Robertson's Jam had a gollywog on the label. (He finally retired as recently as 2002.) "Maybe you could think of a contemporary Christian hero which didn't involve blacking up a nine-year-old?" was not a question which had occurred to anyone.

Once someone asked the question, everyone knew the right answer. Nearly everyone. The world split neatly into the majority who said "Dear God in heaven what were we thinking of?" and those who said "We didn't mean anything by it then we don't mean anything by it now so we are going to damn well buy MORE gollywogs to stick it to the liberals."

The live action role playing incident is completely inexcusable, although I hope everyone see the difference between "inexcusable" and "unforgivable". I can hardly believe it happened. The most I can say in my defense is that everyone did stupid things while they were students. A friend of mine immersed himself in a bath of green poster paint in order to play the role of a goblin, and found the next morning that the stuff was almost impossible to remove. Another friend found that he was the only boy who had signed on to a course about feminist literature. He attended the final seminar of term in full drag. And I am told that some of the more sporty students, who were not on speaking terms with us D&D nerds, would occasionally take the bet to run out of the changing room showers and do a lap of the sports center with nothing on.

We didn't think we were doing something awful. I don't think we even thought that we were doing something a little bit naughty, like the streakers and the drag. It was just the kind of thing that people did. RPGs deal in broad, over the top caricatures. There had to be pirates who said "Ahh, bejabbers, me hearties, belay and belike" and admirals who said "I say, blast the bally blighters, what?" and Frenchmen who said "Sacre bleu, oh la-la." So naturally there had to be witch doctor who said "Dis um some powerful magic man."

There are lots of things in my life which I am acutely embarrassed about. Embarrassing memories creep up on me in the street for no reason and make me literally cry out, or bite my own fingers to distract myself. They are nearly all examples of social gaffs and being a show-off. There was one Boys Brigade camp when a different boy was invited to lead prayers each night. This generally ran to "Thank you God for a lovely day, and thank you for the ladies who cooked the sausage stew." When it was my turn I took it upon myself to explain to the assembled multitudes, including the vicar, what I understood by the doctrine of the Trinity. I would like to say that I am acutely embarrassed about having blacked-up for a role-playing game; that I come out in a cold-sweat whenever I think about it. But I don't. I ought to, but I don't. In fact, the only feeling I have about that long-ago evening is a vague sense of pride because I improvised a passably decent one-liner on the spur of the moment.

Cannibal Witch Doctor: To work magic, put powder in mouth, go to bad man, and spit in face.
Governor's Beautiful Daughter: In his face, or in my own face?
Cannibal Witch Doctor: You know how spit in own face, you got more powerful magic than me!

I am offering this up as a piece of data. I ought to be embarrassed, but as a matter of fact, I am not.

In 1972, I didn't know any better. In 1985, I damn well should have done. But apparently I didn't. Neither did anyone else. Not the person who scripted the game (one of the most right-on guys I've ever met). Not the other players, at least one of whom I believe to have been a left-wing student union rep. Not the astonishingly humourless joke-shop man who sold me the plastic bone. ("I can also do you a bone through the neck, if you'd like one.")

"Would you have done it if there had been any black people in your RPG group?"

Of course not. But there weren't. Which is probably the point.

"What would you say if someone asked you do it now?"

I would say dear god have you entirely taken leave of your senses fucking hell of course not. And if Present Day me could walk in on Past Me, preferably before he put the damn make up on, I would say for goodness sake Rilstone what the hell are you thinking of?

I don't know if bad words or bad costumes or bad make up or bad jokes are less bad in some context than others. I don't know if "Yes, I did say the n-word, but I was rehearsing a play" is ever an excuse, or a partial excuse, or a mitigating factor. I am disinclined to believe that some words and concepts exist as free-floating signifiers, obscene or racist regardless of where you say them and who you say them to. Mrs Mary Whitehouse believed that merely pronouncing the f-word caused concrete social harm. Anne Widdicombe MEP claimed to be physically unable to watch even one minute of In The Thick of It, even after she had agreed to appear on a talk show in which people try out things they don't think they will like. I think they would both have struggled to see any difference between the rugby club prank and a pervert displaying himself to young children in the park.

Jonathan Miller thinks that theater is a special space where anything goes. Could I argue that a live-action role-playing game is a highly stylized piece of improvised theater, so what is permissable for the RSC to do at Stratford is acceptable for the SF&F Soc to do in meeting room L049? Is the stage so sacred so that words and actions which would be unacceptable anywhere else become magically sanctified? I suppose the arch represents an invisible barrier: you aren't in the same room as a naked dude or being sworn at by someone, you are looking at them or listening to them through a mirror or across a wall. I wouldn't take my clothes off on stage for any money. And some sort of subversive racism for a high artistic purpose is a lot different from me playing a stereotype in what was basically a pantomime.

I suppose that they still do Aladdin as panto, and I suppose that it is still set in China and I can't believe they cast exclusively Asian actors. Dear dear Sir Ian once played Widow Twanky, but he conceptualized her as an English lady who had once married a Chinese sailor. Has the D'Oyley Cart quietly dropped the Mikado from its repertoire?

The past is a foreign country. I was an asshole when I was in my twenties and when I am in my eighties I will think that I was an asshole when I was in my fifties. You shouldn't judge someone on the basis of one stupid thing they did a long time ago. I am not a racist: I once did a racist thing. I once did a racist thing: therefore I am a racist. If your society permits gollywogs and minstrel shows and Jim Davidson and what-not then even people who are not racists feel some how permitted to put bones through their noses. People who are racists feel permitted to do very much worse. White people can't see racism when it is literally painted on their faces. "Check your privilege" is not just a cliche. There is stuff which you and me and everyone else are doing now which twenty years down the time line is going to make everyone say "What the hell were we thinking?" So think about what you are doing before you do it. I never wanted to be president of Canada in the first place.


(*)A noble army, men and boys
The matron and the maid
Around the Saviour's throne rejoice
In robes of light arrayed
They climbed the steep ascent of heaven
Through peril, toil and pain
O God to use may grace be given
To follow in their train.







I'm Andrew. I write about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn.

Or consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)




Friday, September 27, 2019

You have to remember that the alt-right truly and sincerely hate us.

They think that the only thing which "liberals" have in common is that they we lie about everything, all the time.

They sincerely believe that those of us who went to state schools are sub-human zombies.

They honestly believe that there is secret organization (the Cultural Marxists, the Political Correctness Brigade, the S.J.W) working towards the downfall of civilization, and they honestly believe that this organisation controls schools and media and universities and have invented lies about climate change and vaccination and media studies and evolution and the world being round.

The Daily Mail literally ran a headline: "How the BBC fell victim to a plot to destroy civilization as we know it."

For these people "goodness" and "decency" are not real.

The worst thing they can call someone is "do-gooder" and "goody-goody".

Anyone who wants to make the world nicer is "virtue signalling" or "politically correct", that is to say, insincere.

Instead of goodness, they have a vestigial belief in "purity" which some of them associate with the Christian church. But their purity rules, like their schools, only exist to separate the world into "us" and "them", people who know the rules and people who do not. The rules of sex and the rules of grammar are about equally important. Dudes can't marry dudes or wear frocks. Children have to use the subjunctive and fronted adverbials. Everyone has to salute the flag or sing the national anthem in exactly the right way. If those rules were ever broken -- if we let gay people get married and started ending sentences with "by", "with", or "from" -- it would mean the end of civilization. They literally say this.

These people are not shocked when Johnson speaks ill of Jo Cox. In their mind Jo Cox was an SJW and a traitor and a virtue signaler and a snowflake and a liar and a LIBERAL. They are not horrified when politicians seem to incite violence against remainer MPs, because in their minds remainers are consciously working against the common good; pretending to support the common market, insincere, traitors, virtue signalers, snowflakes -- LIBERALS.

The majority of the Conservative Party are not part of this alt-right apocalypse cult, but the architects of Brexit and the press barons clearly are -- or at any rate, they are prepared to dance to their tune.

Witness the odious Quentin Letts in today's Times sneering about all the "halos" on display in the Commons. The voices raised against Johnson were not merely mistaken: they were insincere; because liberals always lie about everything; because goodness does not exist.

Witness the odious  Farage's positioning of himself along side alt-right poster boy Donald Trump.

The alt-right fooled America, and game-played the constitution, and inserted their guy into the White House.

I do not think that it is a foregone conclusion that, if there is ever another election, the British would do the same thing. I don't think that the majority of Brits are socialists or liberals or Liberals, and I don't think that we are any wiser or cleverer than Americans, on the whole. But I think that we have been brought up to believe in Fair Play and Sportsmanship and to dislike Bullies and and be skeptical of Con-Men and to think that Lord Snooty and Bertie Wooster need to fall on their arses, spelt with an R, from time to time.

Also queuing and tea.

But there is no point in appealing to the decency of the alt-right. There ain't no such animal.





I'm Andrew. I write about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn.

Or consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)



Thursday, September 19, 2019


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?

Absolutely fuck-all.

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.

In

a

hole

in

the

ground

there

lived

a

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.

Or consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)


You remember that old Bernard Manning gag?

"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."

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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.

Except the common people.