Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Lipstick on My Scholar

1: In the beginning....

The Devil I will leave strictly alone. The association between him and me in the public mind has already gone quite as deep as I would wish: in some quarters it has already reached the level of confusion, if not of identification. -- C.S Lewis "The Inner Ring"

According to the Bible, the first man and the first woman lived in a garden. God gave them only one rule:

"You are free to eat from any tree in the garden, but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it, you will surely die."

But there's also a Talking Beast in the garden(1). The Beast misquotes the rule, and thereby hugely extends YHWH's list of prohibited substances:

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God really say 'You must not eat from any tree in the Garden?' "

You may eat of any tree except... You may not eat of any tree. The serpent knew that you only need to change a couple of words to turn a text on its head. He knew that in the presence of a misquotation, people very rarely go back and check the original. And he knew that if you repeat them often enough and confidently enough, the misquoted words will eventually become better known than the real ones.

2: Being for The Benefit of Mr Pullman.

Phillip Pullman writes books. Some children seem to like them, which is nice; and so do some adults, which is okay. His books are better written than J.K Rowling's, although they don't sell nearly so many copies.

J.K Rowling's books have been turned into hugely successful movies, with the result that she is richer than the Queen. Phillip Pullman's books have been turned into very serious plays by the English National Theater, with the result that he is admired by the Times Literary Supplement and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

"His Dark Materials" has been compared with C.S Lewis's "Chronicles of Narnia" because it is a serious tale with literary and mythological allusions which uses symbolism to deal with profound religious questions. "Harry Potter" has been compared with the "Chronicles of Narnia" because there are seven books in the series.

When people ask Phillip Pullman what he thinks of C.S Lewis he always gives the same answer:

"Susan isn't allowed into the stable and the reason given is that she's growing up. She's become far too interested in lipstick, nylons and invitations. One character says rather primly: 'She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown up.' This seems to me on the part of Lewis to reveal very weird unconscious feelings about sexuality. Here's a child whose body is changing and who's naturally responding as everyone has ever done since the history of the world to the changes that are taking place in one's body and one's feelings. She's doing what everyone has to do in order to grow up".

"And it is a god who hates life because he denies children life. In the final Narnia book he gives the children the end-of-term treat of being killed in a railway accident so they can go to heaven. It's a filthy thing to do. Susan is shut out from salvation because she is doing what every other child who has ever been born has done - she is beginning to sense the developing changes in her body and its effect on the opposite sex."

J.K Rowling doesn't dislike C.S Lewis and God nearly as much Phillip Pullman does. After all, her books outsell Lewis's and she's richer than God. But her comments about Narnia have an oddly familiar ring:

"There comes a point where Susan, who was the older girl, is lost to Narnia because she becomes interested in lipstick. She's become irreligious basically because she found sex...I have a big problem with that."

Recently, the newspapers have been talking about C.S Lewis, because there is a new movie coming out, starring New Zealand and a computer. These articles become rather repetitive after a while.

"The reason Lewis gives for (Susan's) exclusion from paradise is that "she likes lipstick and nlyons and invitations". To Pullman this has suggested that Lewis considered a girl reaching sexual maturity to be such a terrible thing she should be banished to hell." (Times)

"Pullman has often spoken of his disgust at the exclusion of Susan from paradise at the end of the stories. She has started to become, not a sexless angel, but a young woman interested in evil snares such as "nylons and lipsticks and invitations." (Independent)

It's clear that nylons and lipstick are the most important things about which C.S Lewis ever wrote, and the offending passage deserves the closest possible analysis. It occurs at the end of chapter 12 of "The Last Battle", which is the final book in the Narnia series regardless of what order you read them in. Seven of the protagonists from the previous books have been re-united in Aslan's country, which they have entered through a magical doorway in Narnia.

"Sir," said Tirian, when he had greeted all these. "If I have read the chronicles aright, there should be another. Has not your Majesty two sisters? Where is Queen Susan?"

"My sister Susan," answered Peter shortly and gravely, "Is no longer a friend of Narnia."

"Yes," said Eustace, "and whenever you've tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says 'What wonderful memories you have! Fancy you still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.' "

"Oh Susan!" said Jill "She's interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grow-up."

"Grown-up, indeed," said the Lady Polly. "I wish she
would grow up. She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she'll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one's life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can."

"Well, don't let's talk about that now," said Peter.

Can you see what has happened?

Lewis: "She's interested in nothing except nylons and lipstick and invitation."
Pullman: She's become far too interested in nylons and lipstick and invitations.
Rowling: She's lost to Narnia because she likes lipstick
Times: She's excluded from paradise because she likes nylons and lipsticks and invitations.
Independent: She's interested in evil snares such as nylons and lipsticks and invitations.

The sin of "liking nothing except lipstick..." has become the sin of liking it too much, which has become the sin of liking it at all. Finally, lipstick has become an intrinsic evil. It's rather as if you had read "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" and concluded that, since the White Witch uses Turkish Delight to bribe Edmund to betray his siblings, Lewis thinks that confectionery is a great evil.

Pullman, to be fair, is trying to make a sophisticated point. He doesn't say that, in the story itself, Susan's sexual maturity causes her to stop being a friend of Narnia. Rather, he thinks that the story allows us to to infer things about C.S Lewis's unconscious attitude to sex. This game - discovering feelings that writers didn't know they had on the basis of things they didn't say - is great fun, and anyone can play it. (There's is a bit-part player in "Prince Caspian" called Mrs Prizzle. Well then, the fact that Lewis chose this name proves that he had an unconscious desire to spank women using the penis of a bull (2). See how easy it is?)

But Rowling and the two journalists have not understood Pullman's subtle point about Lewis's unconscious motivations. They've reproduced his comments without going back and checking the book. As a result "Susan is sent to hell as a punishment for her sexuality" has become one of those things which "everybody knows".

Did God really say...? Did God really say....?

3: What did C.S Lewis say about lipstick?

Lady, a better sculptor far
Chiseled those curves your smudge and mar,
And God did more than lipstick can
To justify your mouth to man
-- 'Epigrams and Epitaphs'

It is probably fair to say that Lewis did not spend much of his career thinking about lipstick. Women have been painting their mouths since ancient times; Desmond Morris helpfully points out that artificially reddened lips resemble a vagina and are therefore very sexually arousing to men. But modern "lipstick" was first sold in 1915, when Lewis was 17. Obviously, women's tights couldn't have been made from nylon until the 1930s; but once they became available, they were greatly preferred to the unattractive and inconvenient cotton variety. "Nylons" were hard to come by and therefore greatly sought after during the war and into the 1950s. (In the film "Vera Drake" one pair of nylons is swapped for eight packets of cigarettes.) Lewis must have regarded both of them as relatively new-fangled items.

Lewis may not have quite approved of women's make up in general. Arguing that something is not necessarily important because it is in a newspaper, he remarks in passing that "a very commonplace protest against make-up would be News if it came from a film star."("Letters to Malcolm" XXII) So he evidentially thought that disapproving of cosmetic products was a unremarkable thing to do.

Perhaps this simply shows that Lewis was a little old fashioned, and still believed, like his Victorian parents tthat make-up was appropriate for prostitutes and actresses, but not respectable women. But he also felt that the cosmetics and fashion industries "manipulated" men's sexual tastes and encouraged women to aspire to an imaginary idea of "beauty" that it's impossible to live up to.

It's all a fake, of course, the figures in the popular art are falsely drawn; the real women in bathing suits or tights are actually pinched in and propped up to make them appear firmer and more slender and more boyish than nature allows a full grown woman to be. ("Screwtape Letters" XX)

Feminists would probably agree with him about the falsification of women's bodies for commercial ends; although they might doubt whether the Devil is creating "the beauty myth" in order to stop people from marrying the partners with whom "spiritually helpful, happy and fertile marriages are most likely." (Screwtape is, incidentally, very proud of the fact that most women now dislike men with beards. "There is more in this than you might think." Occasionally, Lewis says something so off-the-wall that I actually can't imagine what he means.)

So, 'she likes lipstick and tights' doesn't mean 'she wants to look nice and attract men'. It means 'she wants silly, expensive, new-fangled consumer goods in order to conform with what the fashion industry says is pretty this season.' Do Pullman and Rowling have an – er – unconscious belief that the only way a person can make themselves look nice is by buying stuff? That would amuse Screwtape no end.

4: What did C.S Lewis say about heaven and hell?

"It's all in Plato; all in Plato, bless me what do they teach them in these schools." -- "The Last Battle".

Lewis believed in a literal heaven and (up to a point) a literal hell. He also believed in purgatory, but let's not worry about that for the time being. He thought that whenever you desire something on earth, you are really desiring heaven; but that nothing on earth can ever really satisfy that desire. He believed that if you love heaven more than anything else, you will in fact, go to heaven; but if you love anything more than heaven, then you won't.

The idea that we should desire heaven and nothing else could be very austere and puritanical. Pullman, typically, says that it is a life-hating creed. In fact, the opposite is true. Lewis can come across as almost cloyingly romantic. He rejects asceticism, the idea that they material world is evil and we should turn away from it and seek heaven. The material world is good, because it is heaven's reflection. His image of "visionary gleams" shining on us from another world is pure Wordsworth:

"There have been times when I think that we do not desire heaven; but more often I have found myself wondering whether, in our heart of hearts, we have ever desire anything else?....All the things that have ever deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it -- tantalising glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear.("The Problem of Pain" )

For Lewis, of course, these glimpses and promises came through Wagner, William Morris and the landscape of Southern Ireland; but he quite acknowledges that other people experience "joy" through different things -- through sport, or gardening, or hobbies such as woodworking or sailing. These are all Good Things. In "The Last Battle" it is strongly implied that Edmund is a railway enthusiast, and it isn't remotely suggested that this innocent pleasure is a barrier to him coming back to Narnia. They only become Bad Things when you start to love them instead of heaven. For Lewis, literally anything apart from heaven is an evil if it is allowed to become an end in itself, rather than the means to an end. The devil in Screwtape doesn't remotely care whether human beings are soldiers or pacifists, provided soldiering or pacifism become more important to them than heaven. Even love, according to Lewis, "ceases to a be a demon only when it ceases to be a God."

This idea is absolutely central to Lewis's thinking. You mustn't confuse means with ends; you mustn't confuse copies with realities; you mustn't confuse reflections for the original; you mustn't confuse a secondary, partial good with a primary or total good. "You can't get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first." The idea pops up over and over again in different forms. He says that classical Paganism was a Good Thing in so far as it was a reflection or shadow of Christianity; but a bad thing otherwise. He say that, as a little boy he used to snaffle his father's tobacco, and because he wasn't an experienced smoker, came away with the idea that cigars are a second rate substitute for cigarettes. He says that the human race is like an ignorant child preferring to carry on making mud-pies in a slum because he has no conception of what is meant by a holiday at the seaside.

"The woman who makes the dog the center of he life loses, in the end, not only her human useful and dignity but even the proper pleasures of dog-keeping. The man who makes alcohol his chief good loses not only his job but his palate and all power of enjoying the earlier (and only pleasurable) levels of intoxication ....If Esau really got the pottage in return for his birthright, then Esau was a lucky exception."

To be damned, then, means to turn away from heaven and instead pursue some little earthly substitute -- which can't, by definition, have satisfy you. Hell is populated by little people who have become so atrophied as human beings that they have become incapable of wanting any kind of happiness. On no possible view does Lewis send Susan to hell as a punishment for liking lipstick. He may, however, define hell as "That state in which you would rather have pretty red lips than be Queen of Narnia."

5: What happens to Susan?

"I think that there are in the end only two kinds of people: those who like happiness, and those who really don't"

It is untrue to say that Aslan expels Susan from Narnia. Susan isn't present at Polly and Diggory's re-union dinner; presumably, because she choses not to be there. Since she isn't there, she doesn't witness the the phantom of King Tirian calling for aid. Therefore, she doesn't play any part in the scheme to recover the magical rings; so the isn't on the train which crashes, so she doesn't die. Since she isn't dead she doesn't go to heaven.

It is also quite untrue to say that Susan is sent to hell. By the end of the book Narnia has come to an end, and all the Narnian talking animals have been judged by Aslan. Those which don't please him are turned into dumb beasts, and disappear into Aslan's shadow. This is a sort of Narnian last judgment. But there's no hint that Susan has met this kind of fate. Our world hasn't yet come to an end; and Susan is presumably still alive and will have every opportunity of coming to Aslan's country by a more circuitous route. (When Lucy asks Aslan if he will tell her how to get into his country from our world, he replies "I shall be telling you all the time".)

Susan is not blamed for becoming an adult. We are told that of the seven "friends", only Jill and Eustace are young enough to be at school. It follows that Lucy, the youngest of the Pevensies must be at least 16 when she comes to Aslan's country. In fact, according to Lewis's "Outline of Narnian History" Peter is 22, Susan is 21, Edmund is 19 and Lucy is 17. So Aslan can hardly be singling Susan out because she has hit puberty.

Certainly we are told that children beyond a certain age can't enter Narnia; this is why the younger Eustace and Jill encounter King Tirian in the "old" Narnia, but the other four only see him in Aslan's country(3). However, this exclusion from Narnia does not represent any kind of punishment or loss of paradise. On the contrary, they are being sent back to their own world to learn to know Aslan under a different name and so find their way back to his country. (Lucy, incidentally, has taken this seriously: when she is shown the magic stable which in some way contains Aslan's country she immediately says "In our world too, a stable once had something in it that was bigger than the whole world": the only explicit reference to Christ in the whole saga.)

Granted, Jill says that Susan is "too keen on being grown up." (Not "grown up" or "keen on being grown up" but too keen on being grown up.) But Jill is herself still a child. Polly, a very old lady, corrects her immediately and says Susan's problem is not maturity but immaturity. ("Grown-up, indeed... I wish she would grow up.") Polly thinks that Susan was the kind of school girl who would rather have been in her 20s, and will carry on behaving like a 20 year old when she is 50.

So, we are left with the actual reasons that Lewis gives for Susan's absence from Aslan's country:

1: She denies that she ever really came to Narnia; she says that her experiences there were only part of a game that she and her siblings used to play as children.

2: She is interested in consumer beauty products and parties to the exclusion of everything else.

3: She is an air-head, fixated with staying at a "silly age", probably 21.

Susan has lived in Narnia; she has reigned as Queen of Narnia during its golden age. She and Lucy have had an intimacy with Aslan that ever Peter does not experience(4). She comforted Aslan during his agony before going to the Stone Table, and he let her stroke his mane. After his resurrection, she celebrated with him and he let her ride on his back. However, she now denies that any of this ever happened, and instead seeks joy exclusively through beauty products. Pullman wants us to believe that "Susan became interested in lipstick, and is therefore thrown out of Narnia." I think Lewis is really saying "Susan ceased to love Narnia, and therefore, became a pathetic figure -- a woman of 50, trying to be a girl of 21, capable of loving nothing apart from lipstick."

Susan is committing Lewis's cardinal sin: getting confused about what is real and what not. She choses to believe that Narnia is only a play-world, something which she and her three siblings made up. This reminds us of the scene in "The Silver Chair" where the Witch imprisons Prince Rillian in a cave and tries to convince him that there is nothing outside it: that Narnia was only ever a figment of his imagination. Indeed, there is a certain similarity between Susan's voice and that of the Witch:
'What wonderful memories you have! Fancy you still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.'

'Well, 'tis pretty make-believe thou to say truth it would suit you all better if you were younger. And look how you can put nothing into your make believe without copying it from the real world, this world of mine, which is the only world. As for you, My Lord Prince, thou art a man full grown. Fie upon you! Art thou not ashamed of such toys."

Prince Rillian is saved by Puddlegum who tells him that even if the Witch is right "the made up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones." Whether anyone wakes up Susan, we don't know.

Susan's state of mind is also an an ironic inversion of that of Peter and the others. Peter has discovered that Narnia is "not really real"; in the sense that it is only a shadow or reflection of the real Narnia in Aslan's kingdom. Susan thinks that Narnia is "not real", in the sense that it is something made up or copied from the real world. For Peter, Narnia is "not real" because there is something more substantial above it; for Susan is is "not real" because it was only ever a fantasy. Susan thinks that Narnia was "just a story"; from the point of view of Aslan's country, our world and Narnia are both just the first page of a story which is now beginning.

You might compare Susan's and Peter's perspectives to the contrasting viewpoints of "allegory" and "symbolism" suggest by "Lewis" in "The Allegory of Love". The allegorist takes something in a story to point to something in the world outside the story. ("The dragon represents the Spanish Armada"). The symbolist takes something in the real world to point to something outside it, ("The Pelican is a symbol of God's love.") "To the symbolist, it is we who are the allegory."

Lewis's parable is intended to provoke a response. Parables often work like that. They don't so much instruct us try to provoke us into seeing the point for ourselves. We listen to this part of the story and say – don't be absurd. No-one, having run their hands through Aslan's mane, could possibly decide that they prefer parties. Yes they could, says the story teller – and every day people give up heaven for equally trivial reasons -- sex, booze, money, power...

Even readers who don't share Lewis's conviction that there is a source of "joy" outside of the material world can surely go some way with him on this point. Doesn't most of the human race spend most of its time giving away things which they know will make them happy in return for things which they know will not?

6: ....and Finally.

At the end of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe", the Pevensie children are crowned kings and queens of Narnia. For many years, they govern it along Tory lines:

They made good laws and kept the peace and saved good trees from being cut down, and liberated young dwarfs and young satyrs from being sent to school, and generally stopped busybodies and interferers and encouraged ordinary people who wanted to live and let live....And they themselves grew and changed as the years passed over them."

Peter becomes a "deep chested man and a great warrior". Edmund is a "graver and quieter man". And as for Susan -- the Susan who Lewis wants to keep as an infantilised, asexual angel; the Susan who Lewis blames for wanting to look pretty and damns for becoming sexual:

Susan grew into a tall and gracious woman with black hair that fell almost to her feet, and the king of the countries beyond the sea began to send ambassadors asking for her hand in marriage.

Game, set and match, I think

A word from the author

Hello, fellow Narnians....

I wrote this essay more than a decade ago; it's by far the most-read thing I've ever written.

If you've enjoyed it, can I encourage you to have a look round the rest of this site. I'm currently writing an experimental commentary on Marks Gospel; before that I wrote about Spider-Man for two years!

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Andrew Rilstone


(1) Genesis does not say that the Serpent is Satan; although certain New Testament passages imply that he is. Much depends, therefore, on the order in which you chose to read the books of the Bible.

(2) No, seriously. See "The Skeleton in the Wardrobe" by David Holbroke. This book also proves that Aslan is an unconscious portrait of the sadistic schoolteacher described in "Surprised by Joy". Oldie had a beard; Aslan has a mane. Q.E.D (I will grant you that "Pizzle" is the dialect term used in "Tess of the D'Urbevilles" to describe the "characteristic part" of a male pig.)

(3) If we go by the ages in the "Outline", then 13 would seem to be the cut off point: since Edmund and Lucy are 10 and 12 at the end of "Dawn Treader" when they learn that they are becoming too old to return to Narnia. (Peter and Susan, who missed that trip, are 14 and 15.) But this makes Eustace a full 4 years younger than Lucy, which is hard to reconcile with the rest of "Dawn Treader."

(4) My forthcoming book "The Cair Paravel Code" will conclusively prove that Lucy was Aslan's consort and the mother of his cubs.

C.S Lewis on Walt Disney

Or "How Journalism Works."

"Lewis himself loved "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" when he saw the Disney cartoon in 1939."
The Independent

"Lewis was repulsed by almost all aspects of popular culture, from Disney to Jazz."
The Times

"But about Snow-White...I thought it almost inconcievably good and bad -- I mean, I didn't know that one human being could be so good and bad. The worst thing of all was the vulgarity of the dwarfs and the winking dove at the beginning, and the next worst the faces of the dwarfs. Dwarfs ougth to be ugly, of course, but not in that way. And the dwarfs jazz party was pretty bad. I suppose it never occurred to the poor boob that you could give them any other kind of music. But all the terrifying bits were good, and the animals really most moving: and the use of shadows (of dwarfs and vultures) was real genius. What might have come of it if the man had been educated -- or even brought up in a decent society"
C.S Lewis

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Narnia movies -- C.S Lewis in his own words.

(Read this quickly before someone tells them that 'owning a letter' and 'owning the right to publish that letter' aren't quite the same thing.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Interviewer: Why do you think they are so upset about moving the font?

Father James: Because that's where it's been. That's where it's supposed to be. Somebody put it there, whenever that was. You put a chair in a church and 30 years later, if you try to move the chair, you're going to have the church split over it.

Monday, November 21, 2005

I'm a Celebrant, Get Me Out of Here

If you enjoy this essay, please consider purchasing a copy of Where Dawkins Went Wrong and Other Theological Blockbusters from this address - a collection of  some of the best and most-linked-to essays from this blog and its predecessor. It contains my five part assault critique of 'The God Delusion', along with essays on gay bishops, the 'gospel' of Judas, the 'legend' of the three wise men.

Could I remind everyone to watch "Priest Idol" tonight? It's one of those rare T.V programmes which makes you think that John Logie-Baird maybe did the human race a favour after all.

Monday-night is God-night at the moment on terrestrial TV. BBC2 recently completed a re-run of "Battle for Britain's Soul", a history of Christianity in the UK by the remarkable Rev. Peter Owen-Jones. Rev. Jones is to God what David Attenborugh is to copulating tropical fish. His enthusiasm momentarily fools you into thinking that the influence of the Salvation Army on the plight of Victorian match girls or the campaign to allow MPs to Affirm are the most fascinating subjects in the world. He dresses like Tom Baker, in a wide brimmed hat and something which might be a leather coat and might be a cassock. He leaps from concept to concept -- jumping over a fence to show you the very chapel where the Tolpuddle Martyrs were shafted by a Methodist Minister. "There's no need to run" you want to say "It's been there for two hundred years, it's not going anywhere."

The series suffers from Modern Documentary Syndrome. Everything must be visual; everything must be dramatic. Apparently, the young people would not be able to grasp the fact that Isaac Newton was able to reconcile his mechanistic view of the universe with the his belief in God without seeing Rev. Owen-Jones stetting up a Scalectric race track in a church. Without, indeed, seeing Rev Owen-Jones going into a toy-shop and buying the Scalectric set. The car whizzes round and round the track, but someone had to set the track up in the first place - get it?

Rev. Owen-Jones approaches religion from a sociological point of view: he has very little to say about doctrine. In Wesley's time, the church catered mainly to the middle-classes; and many of them disapproved of him preaching to poor people who never came near a church. Methodist chapels were democratic and inclusive; working-class local preachers expounded the Bible to their neighbours. Very probably: but surely Wesley's beliefs differed from those of the established church as well. His "whosoever will may come" inclusiveness was a reaction against the hyper-Calvinists who thought that some people were simply beyond salvation, and that wealth was a sign of divine election. Again, Jones thinks that the modern "Alpha" movement has been successful because of its strong sense of community; but isn't it more to the point that Nicky Gumball offers a straight-forward and fairly coherent explanation of what Christians believe, as compared with the vagueness and evasion of the average Bishop?

Possibly in the name of "balance", when Rev. Jones went away, his slot was filled by Jonathon Miller's "Brief History of Unbelief" -- an equally biased and equally polemical history of atheism. Rev. Jones never quite went so far as to say that Christianity was a Good Thing and the Athiests were Wrong but one rather suspected that this was what he thought. Miller makes no secret of the fact that his series is making out a case for the sceptics being right and the theists being wrong. Miller is, of course, Britain's Top Intellectual. He started out as comedian and ended up producing plays and operas, with a career break in the middle to study brain-surgery.

When he was dealing with ideas and philosophy, the programme was rather excellent. It wheeled on an analytical philosopher to give answers to questions about the nature of "belief" that it wouldn't have occurred to me to ask. (Do you believe in something when you are not thinking about it? Can you say of someone who is asleep or in a coma "He believes such-and-such"?) It then turned to an anthropoligist to show us what all world religions, even the most primitive, had in common. Miller strikingly resisted the idea that religion and science were necessarily in conflict, or that religion had necessarily declined as science had advanced. He pointed out that Galileo, Copernicus and Newton had all remained pious Christians despite their scientific discoveries. Even Darwin's loss of faith had more to do with the death of his daughter than the Galapagos tortoises. (Happy birthday, by the way.) Miller's final conclusion was that "belief" or "disbelief" had as much to do with temperament as anything else: there were ancient Greeks with a totally materialistic world-view; and there are modern-day people who see supernatural forces everywhere. Nevertheless, it is historically inevitable that religious belief will come to an end.

"History of Unbelief" was marred by Miller's need to do a small amount of sneering each week. One got the impression that he thought that there was so little atheism on TV that he had better make the most of it. The first episode's philosophical rigor was rounded off by footage of Jonathon and his clever friends laughing at all these stupid religious people and wondering if Jesus and Moses were insane. The final one had some off-hand remarks about "ignorant and stupid" fundamentalists who believe in Creation, without any attempt to talk to an ignorant, stupid fundamentalist and find out how he actually thinks. It was evidently produced on a much lower budget than "Battle for Britian's Soul", and contained some very weird production ideas. At times, we had Miller watching himself on his laptop and commenting on what he had just said. At random moments, we would gets strange grainy - almost subliminal - clips from black and white movies. Some of these were relevant, such as a monochrome shot of priest nailing something to a church door, to indicate we were up to the reformation. Others, less so, such as a shot of a schoolboy taking a test to illustrate the point that "knowing the alphabet" and "believing in god" are in some ways similar and in other ways not. Where Owen-Jones had actors in period costume pretending to be Wesley or William Booth all of Miller's quotes from famous atheists were read out in a sinister voice by Theoden.

The best bit was Miller inducing Richard Dawkins to make a complete arse of himself -- not, admittedly, the hardest of tasks. Miller could understand how having feathers gave one an advantage in the natural selection stakes; but he couldn't see why the most primitive mutation that will eventually become a feather -- a bump in the skin or a pimple -- could make the pimple-bearer more likely to survive. Dawkins opened his mouth without checking to see if his brain was engaged, and found himself irrevocably committed to the sentence "Well, I suppose it comes down to a matter of faith on my part." I know what he meant; I know that faith in the scientific process is not the same as faith in a supernatural being; I know that there are a dozen good answers to Jonathon's good question. But that sentence is so going to come back and haunt him.

In short, Miller's programme on atheism had far more intellectual meat and better ideas; but was ultimately unsatisfying; Rev. Jones programme about religious belief had less rigor but was much livelier and more engaging. I feel a metaphor coming on...

Meanwhile, Channel 4 is running "Priest Idol". Watching this programme is like watching someone in doc martins kick a very small, very cute kitten, repeatedly. I mean that in a good sense. The original idea behind the programme sounds dreadful: on the back of talentless shows like "Pop Idol" and "Fame Academy" someone had the idea of a "reality TV" show about Vicars. The idea was to interview a number of clergyman about possible strategies for turning around a failing parish in Barnsley (average weekly congregation - 9.) The Vicar who came up with the best ideas would move into the parish with a large sum of money and try to put them into practice. It's a protestant Church, so they couldn't call it "Pope Idol"; although strangely, everyone in Barnsley seems to address C of E clergymen as "Father."

In the event, they only got one application for the position, a very well-meaning episcopalian from Pittsburgh U.S.A. He accepted the job, and the TV people decided to drop the game-show metaphor and just do a fly-on-the-wall-of-Jerico documentary about how the Yank coped in a Tough Northern Parish. The sacrificial lamb, Father James McGaskill is endlessly friendly and optimistic. He's the sort of fellow who doesn't just talk about the Shield of Faith, but tells you that it's from Ephesians 6. He only looks a bit embarrassed when people say "fuck" to him, which they do a lot. He hands out thousands of leaflets inviting people to his inaugural service; the pews stay empty. He introduces himself to everyone in the pub and invites them to come to church; they don't. He goes to the supermarket over the road and tells shoppers that the service is starting in a few minutes. It doesn't make any difference. He says that what he really wants to do is get teenagers into his congregation: everyone looks at him as if he is some kind of Martian.

At one point, the off-camera interviewer shows us the crumbling building and the empty pews, and then asks the asks the Vicar's Mum, visiting from the states, if she believes he can turn it around. "No, he can't" she says "But I believe the Lord can." I think that may have been the best moment I've ever seen on TV. An actual bit of spontaneous religious faith; more than you'd get in five years of "Though for the Day."

Depressingly, when a few teenagers do show up in church because their mates are in a "pop choir" which is singing a Christmas carol, the Vicar starts to obsess about whether they are going to disrupt the service. "Give me your word that you will be respectful," he whines. After a few minutes, they get kicked out. This is the only time at which Father James appears to show any sense of despair. "They don't have any respect for anyone, or anything, or any place" he says "I guess because they've never been taught it."

As part of the wreckage of the original "reality TV" concept, an advertising agency has been brought in to promote the church: we won't find out what their ideas are until part two. Even they think that the idea of making teenagers come to church might be a bit optimistic but they dutifully arrange a focus group with some kids. One of them suggests that the only way he would go inside a church would be "in a box". Another one, more hopefully, says he might consider it if he doesn't have to believe in God. "Does that new Vicar believes in God?" he asks. "I should imagine that he does", says the woman from the agency. Meanwhile, Father James' predecessor, Father David, a camp high church caricature with postcards of the Virgin Mary in his kitchen, sneers from a safe distance. The whole idea of a marketing agency horrifies him. Jesus didn't have an advertising agency, apparently. He just had twelve very ordinary people. "You don't even have that many," one may wish to reply.

Someone has painted "Fuck God" on the back of the church; our dog-collared Pollyana is glad that they didn't paint it on the front. Even the advertising people are shocked by this. They read out the word repeatedly, but Channel 4 thoughtfully bleep it out, and pixellate the letter "U", so that our moral well-being is preserved. But in final five minutes Father James reports that people keep asking him why he came to their town. "I say 'Why not?' and they say 'Because it's shit'. If that's what they think about their own community...." The word "shit" is left un-bleeped. Possibly we are close to the 9PM watershed when all children go to bed. Possibly they think that the word "shit" is purged by passing through these ecclesiastical lips. One can only hope that this holy innocent has something other than a moral victory to look forward to in part 2, and that Father David will end up being thrown to some particularly hungry lions.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Administering Corporal Punishment to a Metabolically Challenged Quadruped Non-Human Associate

"That's all right. It's in every contract. It's what they call a sanity clause." 

This week, the Mail and the Express reported that Havant City Council has banned both Christmas lights and Santa Claus. Both stories were similarly worded – I would hazard a guess that the quotes were lifted verbatim from the Havant local paper. 

Why is this "news"? The Daily Mail makes its agenda chillingly clear: xxx "Yesterday, the decision to drop the Christmas lights was greeted with amazement in a borough where 99.1% of the population are white."

"Where 99.1% of the population are white." 

Step away from the computer. If, like me, reading that makes you feel violent: makes you actually want to start walking around the house breaking things, have a break and take a walk round the garden. 

 99.1% of the population are white. Words literally fail me. 

To start with, notice the way that they have slipped the phrase "drop the Christmas lights" into the middle of a sentence. This is typical of the way in which P.C.B stories are constructed. The front page headline in the Express (1) yells: 

"Yes, it's hard to believe, but now Santa AND Christmas lights have been banned." 

This is clearly intended to make us think that Santa Claus has been the subject of some country-wide prohibition. After all, if Tony Blair has banned fox-hunting and the cane, what might he not ban next? The upper case "AND" is quite interesting: "You knew and accepted that Christmas lights had been prohibited" it seems to say, "but can you believe that Father Christmas has now been banned as well?" (It would be more surprising if someone had banned one and allowed the other to go ahead. If I were Scrooge, I would certainly ban lights, trees, Christmas Pudding, the Wizard of Oz, and the Doctor Who Christmas Special. "Inconsistent puritan bans mistletoe but says Christmas pud can go ahead" would be a headline worth printing.) 

 If you turn to page seven, the internal headline reveals that this outrage is in fact limited to only one place: 

"Now a town bans Santa AND the Christmas lights." 

 Whew! So the rest of us can carry on celebrating as normal. It's only one town where Christmas has been prohibited. But still banning Christmas in a whole town is pretty nasty. The Daily Mail headline for the same story asks "Is this the most miserable town in England?"(2) 

Read the story itself, and you will find that something even more modest is being alleged: 

 Politically Correct commissars caused outrage in a town last night after banning the term Christmas lights. Residents were up in arms after Havant Borough Council removed the word Christmas from the turning-on-ceremony and renamed it The Festival of Light 

 So. By headlining the story "Christmas lights banned" and slipping in phrases like "the move to drop the lights", we clearly intend to give our readers (particularly those who don't bother to "turn to page 7) the impression that it is the Christmas decorations themselves which have gone away. This is what the non-analytical reader will remember about the story six months hence. But we are not in fact talking about "banning Christmas"; or "banning Christmas lights" or "banning the word Christmas" but merely "removing the word Christmas from the turning-on ceremony."

 However, let's be fair. The mere fact that the council have "removed" the word Christmas indicates that they are being a little officious. Or at least, it would do, if it were true. 

I checked on Havant Council's website. And yes, they are indeed running organising an event called the "Festival of Lights"(3) – including such delights as late night shopping, fireworks, and a ceremonial turning on of illuminations. As municipal events go, it actually sounds rather cool: 

 Younger children will be able to dress as their favorite character for a special fancy dress competition with a pantomime theme. The winner and their family will be treated like royalty and be driven around town in a shiny limousine and given the chance to flick the switch that will kick off the evening's spectacular firework display. 

 Okay, I'd rather see the Doctor and Rose turning on the lights in Cardiff, but still, it sounds like some little kids are going to have a good time. 

"This event is a first for Havant town center and we are delighted to be working with Havant Business Group and the Meridian Center to create a wonderful winter fiesta that the whole community can be part of" said Senior Retail Support Officer, Gail Grant "A torch lit procession will wend its way through the town center streets, the Christmas tree will be illuminated..." 

 Hang on, could you say that again, please? 

 "...the Christmas tree will be illuminated and everyone will be able to enjoy a family carol concert..." 

 That would be a Christmas Carol Concert, of the kind that has all but disappeared because of the P.C.B? 

 "...and a firework display....until 7PM or so visitors will be able to start their Christmas shopping..." 

 That word again... 

 ....with their windows decked for Christmas...the town center shops will be open until 7Pm. There will also be a chance to stock up for Christmas 

 So, to summarize. 

"Local council doesn't ban the word Christmas from light switching on festivities at all." 

But mere facts aren't going to stop a lot of people in Havant telling the Daily Express that they are very angry indeed. A man who sells vegetables thinks that: 

"dropping the word Christmas is ludicrous. It will make for a miserable Christmas in Havant" 

What would have to be going on in someone's head for the wording on a council press-release to effect their joy or misery at Christmas one way or the other?

 One David Gillett (the council leader, apparently) explains: 

"I can't for the life of me see why people would be offended and to be honest I don't think that anyone is. It's just a case of" 

 Is he going to say it? Is he going to say it? 

 "political correctness gone absolutely barmy" 

 But what of Santa Claus? Is he coming to town or not? This part of the story is so exciting that readers of a nervous disposition may want to leave the room. It appears that there exists a club called the Havant Lions, which raises money for charity by engaging in such daredevil endeavors as running a Tombola at the annual Emsworth and Rowlands castle shows. In an ancient tradition stretching all the way back to 1996, they also run a Santa's Grotto at the local shopping mall. On November 2nd, Portsmouth Today ran an item under the almost unbearably witty headline "Santa Has to Find New Ho-Ho-Home". It reported that the Grotto couldn't go ahead in shopping mall this year because of fire regulations: 

 "Center manager Tim Smith said that changes to the interior of the center meant a bulky grotto could hamper the ventilation system in the event of a fire. There is no sprinkler on the ground floor, where the grotto is located. Mr Smith said that he was advised by the fire prevention officer last year that the center should not have a grotto." 

 Sensationally, Havant Lions have therefore moved their grotto from the Meridian shopping center in Havant to the Asda supermarket in Bedhampton. (Remember this is front page news or a national paper.) As ever, the Express finds out both the age and the opinion of the man in the street: 

 Shopper Steve Sackett, 43, said "I would normally take my son to the Grotto, but I'll have to take him the Portsmouth instead. Its completely daft." 

It is, indeed, completely daft: Asda is only up the road from the Meridian Center. (Here is a map for Mr Sackett's benefit.) He could drive there in five minutes and still be back in time for the fireworks. But "Town moves Santa five minutes round the corner" would somehow have lacked the sense of scandal and outrage that the festive period requires. 

 All this would be very funny and pathetic if the Express didn't have "Britian Defiant!" emblazoned across its masthead, and the Mail hadn't placed the story explicitly in a racial context. 

Yesterday, the decision drop the Christmas lights was greeted with amazement in a borough where 99.1% of the population are white. 

 The only possible inference is that "Christmas" is a festival for white people, and that black people are taking it away from "us". This is the inference drawn by readers who contribute comments to the website of the Mail . They say that Havant council is trying to eradicate "our" Christian heritage. They say that "foriegners of different religions must accept Britain's religious beliefs and respect them". They say that individuals of other faiths "would do well to remember that as nation we are Great Britian, a Christian country.". They ask us to imagine what would happen if "they" tried to "ban" other religion based festivals. 

I once saw a despicable leaflet distributed by the British National Party, arguing (if you can use the word) that by next Tuesday, "England" would be completely concreted over to provide free housing for black people who -- as everyone knows -- have more babies than white people and who would soon therefore be the racial majority. Since all black people get free houses, we'd have to put up housing estates all over the green-belt and bingo, no more green and pleasant land. 

Preaching a fantasy about one race taking away the winter traditions of another is not the same thing as preaching a fantasy about one race outbreeding another; but both lies play to the same irrational fears; both lies stoke up the same kind of hatred. And if you start to believe one lie, you are very likely to run into the arms of people who believe the other. 

"It's hard to believe, but now Santa AND Christmas lights are banned." 

 It is very hard to believe. Very hard to believe indeed. Because it's not true.

 (1) The day's main news items is actually "DIANA FUND PAYS OUT TO GYPSIES AND ASYLUM SEEKERS". This piece alleges that about £2 million of the £28 million raised by the Diana memorial fund has been given to what are described as "controversial groups", "fringe groups" and "weird minority groups". The controversial, fringe, weird, minority groups mentioned are "asylum seekers, refugees, gays and lesbians". The shout lines rather imply that if you're a Northern Irish Lesbian, you can expect to receive a cheque through the post any day now. The fair and balanced phone in poll asks "Should Diana's money be given to gypsies?" as if someone were walking around camp-sites handing out fivers. If you read down the article, you find out that what is actually being funded is a number of specific projects, so that "money for asylum seekers" translates to funding a community arts center providing courses for the children of refugees. The item as a whole is premised on various bizarre religious theories involving posthumous shame and the transmigration of souls which I frankly don't understand. "Her name will always be tarnished by controversy over these groups." "If that money is used simply to support weird minority groups, she will never rest in peace." 

 (2)The Daily Mail specialises in headlines of this kind, which have been described as "very interesting questions to which the answer is no," 

(3) Festival of Lights is, indeed, a really silly name particularly as it's about one month after Diwali. Just because we disbelieve in the existence of the P.C.B, we don't have to believe that no small-time bureaucrat has ever done or said anything A Bit Silly. I used to live in Tooting Bec, one stop on the tube from Balham. One year Balham Council decided to hold a (doubtless worthy and worthwhile) multi-cultural festival. But they promoted it under the slogan "Balham - Gateway to the South." Did someone on the council have sense of humour -- or did several people on the council have absolutely no sense of humour whatsoever?

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Hoots mon!

....from the "Scottish Heritage" website.

EVERY nation needs a symbol to express its identity. Out of Scotland's history three core symbols emerged: a plant (the thistle, commemorating Alexander III's crucial victory against the Vikings at Largs in 1263), an animal (the Lion Rampant, remembering the Royal beast kept by King William the Lion) and a saint (Andrew, chosen to root Scotland in Bible values)....

....For Scots today Saint Andrew with his cross is still a potent symbol: Andrew was a networker who brought the wider world to meet his Master; the saltire is a multiplication sign of dynamism and enlargement. This recalls Andrew's initiative in bringing the boy to Jesus at the multiplication of the loaves and fishes and is an appropriate symbol of entrepreneurial skills for Scotland in the 21st century. There are other advantages: sharing Andrew as our patron with Russia and Greece gives Scots a worldwide orientation.

thanks to Flash for drawing my attention to this

Friday, November 11, 2005

PC/BC - Appendix 2

When I was growing up, the children's TV show "Vision On" was interpreted in sign-language for the benefit of the "deaf and dumb". Christmas cards were sold in aid of the "spastics society"; and certain children were routinely described as "mongols". Newspapers openly used the word "pooftah" (in the sense of "10 ways to spot if your neigbour is a pooftah") All of that would be pretty unthinkable today.

I don't know whether the change in language reflected a change in social reality; or whether the social change was made possible because language had changed. Did our decision to start saying "paramedic" make it easier for women to enter that profession -- easier for little girls to imagine it as a profession that they could possibly aspire to? Or was it just that we started to feel silly using the term "Ambulance-Bloke" when it was obvious that the person applying the bandage was an "Ambulance-Bird"?

Similarly, the BBC used to think it acceptable to have a TV show called "The Black and White Minstrels" in which white performers put on black make-up and curly wigs and sang middle-brow pop-songs. They don't do that any more. Spike Milligan did sketches about a family of Pakistani Daleks, who said "Put them in the curry! Put them in the curry!"(*) instead of "Exterminate!"; Benny Hill did sketches about dirty old men and school girls which now look like borderline child-porn; and Jim Davidson made jokes about dis black guy called Chalkie who had de very long penis. You wouldn't get away with any of that today.

Again, it is hard to know whether we became a more racially inclusive society because we stopped insulting black people on TV, or whether we stopped insulting black people on TV because we had become more a more racially inclusive society.

So: there are certainly words that we used to use but don't use any more, and there are certainly TV programmes that we used to watch but don't watch any more; and if that's what you mean by "political correctness" then a movement towards "political correctness" certainly happened in the 1980s. And some of it may have been over-zealous. For example....let me I was at college, someone in the Student Union got very uptight about the fact that the lavatories were labeled "Ladies" and "Gentlemen" rather than "Male" and "Female." And I once heard someone refer to a wheelchair user as "differently abled". But actual examples of people saying "vertically challenged" and "chronologically superior" are embarrassingly difficult to come by.

I am extremely skeptical about whether any of this can be laid at the door of an identifiable movement, let alone one that consciously identified itself as "politically correct". I think that it is more likely that "political correctness" was an invented label, applied to a number of different activities by people who disapproved of them. Even supposing a more or less cohesive Movement For Political Correctness, I find it hard to see why "campaigning about racial and sexual exclusion" should be defined as "leftist".

The "PC" that I'm conceding the existence of has almost nothing to do with the purely imaginary PC Brigade from the Daily Express, of course.

(*) Okay, I admit that one has a certain surrealistic charm


On 21st October a group of my old college-type friends met up in Portsmouth, and starting out in a plasticated chain-pub called "The Trafalgar" worked our way around half a dozen pubs, drinking a pint of Real Ale in each. We had lunch in place called the Still and West which serves some of the best Fish-and-Chips in England. It adjoined the docks, and if we strained our necks a bit, we could see the masts of the Victory with the "England Expects..." flags blowing in the wind. I even put on a Union Jack tie for the occasion. At the end of the evening, we toasted Lord Nelson. Actually, a double rum on top of all that beer and fish and chips was probably a mistake. We rounded out the night with a traditional English curry from a traditional English Indian.

So yes, I value English Culture in the same way that one values one's old armchair or one's ancient and much loved teddy-bear: it's yours, you've got used to it; you feel comfortable with it; and you wouldn't want anyone to take it away from you.

One of the bits of English Culture I find quite endearing is the tradition of Morris Dancing -- a sort of heavily stylised country dance, in peasant costume with much waving of hankerchieves, generally done by hulking great beery men in clogs. (By "find endearing" I mean "when I came upon some Morris Dancers outside the town hall a few weeks ago, I watched a dance and put 50p in their bucket.") A few Morris "sides" maintain the tradition of, er, blacking up their faces with boot-polish. (The were originally "Moorish Dancers". Possibly.) If someone were to say "That's actually highly offensive to black people" then I don't think "We've been doing this dance since before black people were invented" would necessarily be a good answer. (The town of Lewes takes bonfire night more seriously than most, with people dressing up in Puritan costume, carrying banners saying "No Popery" and burning a firework filled effigy of the present Pope. If anyone were to say "This is in questionable taste" then I don't think "It's a longstanding tradition" would settle the question.)

Do minorities or incomers have the right to tell the majorities or natives how to behave? Provided we only mean "how to behave in public" then I think possibly they do. If I wish to display a racist caricature of a Ruritanian in my own front room, then I think that I have a perfect right to do so; but if I display it on a public hoarding, I think my Ruritanian neighbour has a right to complain, even if he's the only Ruritanian in the village. "Ah, but in this village, we've been abusing Ruritanians for a very, very long time" is neither here nor there.

I don't think that the British should maintain British culture "as a default", because I don't think that there is any such thing as "British culture". There are, and have always been, a large number of different "cultures" in these islands. I don't think that an English member of the house of Lords who went to Eton, attends his parish church and tortures foxes in his spare time shares more culture with a working class Catholic from Glasgow than either of them do with a British Hindu from Tooting Bec.

If someone had told me to take off my Union Jack on Trafalgar Day, I would have been very aggrieved, just as I would have been if someone had taken away my armchair or my teddy-bear. I would have been more annoyed if they had taken away some part of my Englishness that I value more highly than my tie, say, Glastonbury Tor or the works of Shakespeare. Whether we are parts of a majority or minority culture, we should be free to practice our made-up rituals and festivals, unless and until they proven harmful to someone else's welfare. Or that of the fox. Try to stop us, and we have every right to get cross.

But no-one is. The same issue of the Daily Express which carried the "JESUS BANS CHEDDAR CAVES" headline contained an op-ed piece which spent five columns listing those aspects of British culture which have been "banned".

"Christmas Trees and carols are now widely banned in public places...carol concerts have all but disappeared.... displays of the Union or St George's flag are regularly challenged by officials... crackdowns on bonfires and firework displays with the result that the excitement of November 5th has all but disappeared... this month that shining symbol of London individualism, the open-backed Routemaster bus was withdrawn..."

Every word of it total fantasy (except for the bit about the London buses, which are very old and being replaced by modern, safer ones). If British culture was under attack, the Denby-Scholes of this world would be right to be angry; in the same way that if there were Vampires in London, I'd be right to get some garlic.

But there aren't.


I think that there are Christian hegemonists who would like every school lesson to open with a prayer; "Thought for the Day" to go out at prime time, and TV shows critical or disrespectful towards Christianity to be more or less banned.

And, sadly, there are also Secular hegemonists who would like all religious discourse banished from the public sphere, to the extent that they feel horribly oppressed by the existance of "Songs of Praise".

The other 99% of the universe are secular pluralists, who think that Jonathon Miller and Peter Owen-Jones can live happily together on BBC 2.

The Arch-Druids point, I think, was that some of those who say that we shouldn't dispaly Christian symbols for fear that it might offend people of Other Religions are really secular hegemonists who think that we shouldn't display any religious symbols at all.

I think that he theory may have some hypothetical merit; but he appears to have been speaking in response to a Daily Prophet journalist asking him what he thought about "some councils prohbiting traditional festive symbols" - which they aren't. It was a plausible theory about a non-existant problem.

Do non-religious folks really feel offended and excluded if someone hangs up a picture of Babyjesus in their shop-window, by the way?

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

On the Origins of the BCs

They've started called lunatic asylums "care homes". It's madness gones politically correct, I tell you.

On Friday, the Daily Express ran a headline.


Two lines of text, black on white. A sort of poetry of the apocalypse


Four words.


"In addition." "On top of everything else" "We knew things were bad, but this is really the last straw." The word drags us into the conspiracy.... we all know, it's so obvious it goes without saying, that many things have been banned recently, we can't think of any actual examples, but we're sure they have, and now this!


The person? The religion? Or just the word? I think there is a little wordplay going on here. We have just had the annual "local council abolishes Christmas" stormover. This year it is the Cromwellian Lambeth Council who have canceled the festivities – or more specifically been caught using the phrase "Winter Lights" to describe its municipal December decorations in some literature.(1) We are supposed to infer: "Yesterday, they banned Christmas, and now, Christ is banned."


The journalistic present. We are not reporting an event which has happened. We are informing you of a state which now exists. You have woken up in a bad new world where a new thing has been prohibited.


A key tabloid word. It's meaning is ambiguous – it doesn't been prohibited by law, necessarily, or censored, or abolished – but it implies that Someone is telling us what to do, and we don't like it.


Who is the evil authority figure doing the banning? The Curator of Cheddar Gorge geological museum. What has he done? Removed the letters "B.C" from the dates on some of his exhibits.




That's it. That's the whole story. Main headline, front page, inside page and leading article in a tabloid on sale in every shop in the land, predicated on "Small Museum Re-Labels It's Exhibits."

Museum bosses are trying to erase Jesus Christ from the pages of history. In the latest ludicrous attempt to tear down traditions, curators have banned the phrase BC --before Christ -- and insist on using BP -- Before Present -- to avoid offending other faiths. The astonishing decision caused national outrage last night

I like the use of the term "Museum Bosses". It implies some kind of powerful, dictatorial autocrat, a geological Fat Controller. I like the way in which, somewhere between Page 1 and Page 7, the plural "Museum Bosses" shrinks to mean the curator of one small museum. I like the idea that there was "national outrage" on Thursday night, even before the Express had broken the story. We don't do national outrage very well in this country. The French set fire to other people's motor-cars. We write mildly rude remarks in museum visitors books.

BC is used for dates leading up to the birth of Christ to help place the timing of eras throughout history and is internationally accepted. But officials at the Cheddar Caves Museum in Cheddar Gorge Somerset -- one of Britain's most popular tourist attractions (2) -- say that this is not politically correct, and have changed all exhibit dates to BP....'BP has no meaning, and if it means the present day, then it's always moving. It really is a completely nutty idea'.

The writers of this piece – sorry "ludicrous tabloid bosses" – apparently to want us to believe that the BP dating system is the crazy whim of an individual museum curator who is hyper-sensitive to the feelings of those of other-religions-and-none. In fact, as everyone knows (3) "BP" is actually a long established notation when dealing with extremely ancient events. I assume that, when we are talking about a geological time-frame, we can't necessarily come up with a date which is accurate even to the nearest millennium, making "BC" and "AD" fairly pointless distinctions. If a dinosaur skeleton is sixty-five million years old, you would hardly label it "Tyrannasauraus Rex: 64997995 BC". For the purposes of the BP dating system, the "present" is deemed to be 1950, because the advent of nuclear testing messes up the results of carbon dating after that point. If you were being very strict, you might use the term "Radiocarbon Years Before Present". It seems to be a fairly widely-used when talking about geology: the educational section of the Yosemite National Park website gives the history of the valley in the "BP" system.

BC is also a little unhelpful if you are talking about the early history of Christiantiy. Christ fairly obviously wasn't born 4 years before the birth of Christ, but he is generally reckoned to be born in 4BC. (If you aren't careful, you get caught up in millennial conundrums about whether it was 1 BC up to December 25th and became 1AD on Boxing day, does that mean that the year 1 only lasted until Hogmany, and how on earth did the Romans manage for so long without a zero?) Academics, of course have been using the terms "CE" and "BCE" since..well, since the year dot. You can pretend that this means "Before Common Era", "Before Christian Era", or "Before Current Era" depending on your mood.

These points bypassed Rosemary and Mark Yule (both 45, apparently) who told the Express that they were "shocked to see the BP signs when they visited the museum with their sons Greg, eight, and Robbie, seven." (Maybe this gratuitous information about the ages of their informants and their informants family is intended to make a point about the importance of dates. Or maybe it's just a way of filling up space. Incidentally, in the context of last week's "Lambeth Bans Christmas" stormover the name "Yule" looks highly suspicious).

Rosmary said "These signs are all over the walls -- every date says BP instead of BC it's...

wait for it...hold your breath... it's coming


Will she or won't she? Can she spot a cliche at 50 paces? Is there a an invisible autocue following her around? Or does she just say the kinds of things she thinks she's supposed to say when interviewed for the Daily Prophet?

....political correctness gone mad.

Just in case we've missed the point about who is to blame for all this the Express provides us with a 25p-a-go phone-in-poll in which we readers can answer "Yes" or "No" to the fair and balanced question: "Are PC fanatics right to ban Christ?"

"But Andrew -- its only the Daily Express (4). Do you really need to write a five page article about how the Express wrote a three page article about a ten line label on an exhibit in a museum that hardly anyone ever goes to?"

Actually, yes. Because while it was a very bad news item, it was a very good example of something we should all be terribly scared of.

The words "Politically Correct" used to be used to mock clumsy or redundant attempts to use inclusive language ("We've been told to stop saying "freshmen" and start saying "freshpeople" – isn't that a bit politically correct?") But the Express seems to be using it primarily to refer to a a group or organisation or movement with a political agenda. We read of "the political correctness brigade", "PC fanatics" and "fanatics of political correctness". We are told that their aim is "to tear down our traditions" "to write Jesus out of our history" "to erode the very foundations of British culture." It envisages a conflict between one group – "the political correctness brigade", and another group who have a shared culture (our tradition, our history, British culture) which the first group hates and wishes to destroy.

Who, exactly, are the "we" who are under attack? In case we are a bit slow on the uptake, elsewhere in the paper, a reader's letter spells out the answer for us.

"Ban this," rants Ms Diane Denby-Schole from Birmingham "prevent the other, change all our traditions, turn what was once the the proudest nation on Earth into some wishy-washy grey pulp where only immigrants can follow their traditions..."

Pause, breath in. "Our" traditions are being changed, but "immigrants" can follow theirs.

"Indeed, they are actively encouraged to maintain the traditions of their homelands."

Their homelands, being places other than Britain. I trust you are keeping up?

"Birmingham council is an oppressive vehicle that had already banned the flying of our national flag."

Has it, Ms Denby-Scholes? Has it really? Banned it from where? Under what legislation? (I very much doubt that the flying of any flag is banned under English law, and that I would be perfectly within my rights to run the swastika up the flagpole if I so desired.) Are you sure that "banned" doesn't mean "isn't flying it from the town hall at the moment."

"Come on Britons. Stand up for your traditions." (5)

I think that is pretty unequivical. "We" are Britians, non-immigrants, true-blue Brits: they are immigrants, with different traditions, from different homelands. Or, not to beat about the bush, black people.

And so we come to the point. Every day, I read a news story about how someone called "the political correctness lobby" has done something faintly ridiculous, and how some ordinary person has been shocked and outraged by it. Without needing to remember, or even believe, the details of any specific story, I acquire a general sense of paranoia. I start to believe that a "politically correct" minority is out to get me; and I gradually and insidiously associate them with the non-white Other who is still an immigrant after two or three generations. And so my white middle class neighbour and me start to think of ourselves as an oppressed minority. If you keep winding us up, we are apt to do something crazy like vote in for a far right Conservative government, or even the BNP. Which is (I assume) what the people who write this kind of drivel are hoping for.

On Monday, the Express reported on the front page that British Legion collectors had been banned from pinning poppies on people in case they injured them.

(1)In Tate Modern there is a glass of water. It is a very ordinary glass of water, but it has special significance because it was poured in 1973 by surrealist artist Michael Craig-Martin. Mr Martin said that the the glass of water was, in fact, an oak tree. "Craig-Martin’s assertion addresses fundamental questions about what we understand to be art and our faith in the power of the artist," apparently. Or possibly it's about Catholicism: if the Priest can say that a wafer is Jesus, why can't I say that a glass of water is a tree? Given that it was created in 1973, it isn't clear how the curator's stop the work from evaporating; or whether they are allowed to top it up from time to time. But this is probably part of the joke. I assume that the Daily Express is up to date with the idea of a conceptual art, and thinks that, as bed or a pile of bricks can become a work of art if an artist intends it, so a row of fairy lights turn from "religious" fairy lights to "secular" fairy light depending on the intentions of a local politician.

(2) According the Office of National Statistics, the most popular tourist attractions in the UK are

1: Blackpool Pleasure Beach
2: British Museum
3: National Gallery
4: Alton Towers
5: Tower of London
6: Tate Gallery
7: Pleasureland
8: Natural History Museum
9: Chessington World of Adventures
10: Science Museum
11: Legoland
12: Windsor Castle
13: Edinburgh Castle
14: London Zoo
15: Roman Baths
16: Chester Zoo
17: Stonehenge
18: London Aquarium
19: Knowsley Safari Park
20: Edinburgh Zoo

(3) Everyone who took the trouble to look it up on Google, at any rate.

(4)PAXMAN: They also publish Horny Housewives, Mega Boobs, Posh Wives, Skinny & Wriggly. Do you know what these magazines are like?
BLAIR: No, I don't....

(5) To be fair, the sub-editor who composed Ms Denby-Scholes letter also points out that, and I quote "true-Blue-brits" have no problem with participating in, say, a Diwali celebration, and that Pakistani and Sikh shopkeepers sometimes fly the Union Jack (despite the fact that it has been banned...I give up.)

Friday, November 04, 2005

Not all Conservatives are fools, but...

On the basis of "Question Time", Cameron is an every bigger, smugger git than Blair, whose manerisms he imitates so much its spooky. Whereas the Other One shows some signs of being an actual human being. He talked in a normal human voice, and used something I recognised as English, rather than all that "vast majority / the reality is" un-speak that political clones think makes them sound clever. Although what he said was equally barking: most of the people in lunatic asylums are there because they smoke cannibis, apparently, and Ian Duncan Smith was quite clever. Cameron had the guts to come right out and say that he admired Mrs Thatcher in front of an invited audience of Conservative supporters.