Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Really quite good fun. Bugger all to do with Doctor Who, though.

(more follows)

Thursday, December 21, 2006

And so this is Christmas....

1st Shepherd:

Hayll, kyng I the call! Hayll, most of myght!
Hayll, worthyst of all! Hayll, duke! Hayll, knight!
Of greatt and small thou at Lorde by right;
Hayll perpetuall! Hayll, faryste wyght!
Here I offer,
I prey the to take --
If thou wold, for my sake,
With this may thou lake--
This lytyll spruse cofer

2nd Shepherd:
Hayll, lytyll tyn mop, rewarder of mede!
Hayll! But oone drop of grace at my nede;
Hayll, lytyll mylke-sop! Hayll, David sede!
Of oure crede though art crop: hayll, in God-hede!
This ball
That thou wold resave --
Lytyll is that I have;
This wyll I vowche-save -
To play the with all
An go to the tenys.

3rd Shepherd:
Hayll, maker of man! Hayll, swetyng!
Hayll, so as I can! Hayll, praty mytyng!
I cowche to the than, for fayn nere getyng;
Hayll, Lord! Here I ordan, now at oure metyng,
This botell --
It is an old by-worde,
It is a good bowrde,
For to drynk of a gowrde --
It holdys a mett potell.

He that all myghtys may, the makere of heven,
That is for to say, my son that neven,
Rewarde you this day, as sett all on seven;
He graunt you for ay his blys ful even
He gyf you good grace;
Tell furth of thise case;
He spede youre pase,
And graunt you good endyng

Saturday, December 16, 2006

The US vs John Lennon

The way things are going, they're gonna crucify me.

'I suppose they tried to kill John,' says Yoko Ono in the last moments of David Leaf's documentary about John Lennon 'but they couldn't, because his message is still alive.' Yoko has made a career out of inviting people to imagine that the moon was a grapefruit, but this is a baffling remark even by her standards.

Who are 'they'? In 1998, Sean Lennon revealed that he believed his father had been murdered by the U.S government. Does Yoko also now believe this theory? In the newspaper adverts she took out on the 26th anniversary of Lennon's murder she admitted that she could not forgive 'the one who pulled the trigger' -- as if she thought there might indeed have been other people involved. But if this is what she thinks, the subject is not mentioned, or even alluded to, anywhere else in the film.

If you like conspiracy theories, here's one. The makers of the U.S vs John Lennon set out to prove that the C.I.A murdered the singer. They assembled the evidence; they recorded their interviews--, but at the last moment, the studio decided that it was too hot to handle and deleted all references to the assassination from the film -- except for that one elliptical comment from Lennon's widow.( Oh, and if you play the film backwards, you can hear President Nixon saying 'I buried John.') Completely bonkers, like all conspiracy theories, but it does account for one otherwise inexplicable fact. How did such a dull movie as this ever come to be made?

If you are a John Lennon fan then very little in the film will be new to you. If you are not, then this isn't a particularly good introduction. For one thing, it is relentlessly Yokocentric. 'When he met Yoko' we are told 'He found the other half of his voice.' If Lennon had a song-writing partner before he married Yoko, then they are never mentioned by name. Indeed, but for a few bars of 'Revolution' and 'The Ballad of John and Yoko', you would hardly be able to tell that John Lennon had ever been in a group called the Beatles. And it is a very selective account, ignoring facts which don't fit in with the story it wants to tell. Yoko may have been half of John's voice, but during the period covered by the movie, Lennon walked out on her (or perhaps she kicked him out) for two years. Since the movie celebrates a Johnandyoko who believed in non-violence and compared themselves with Ghandi, it conveniently ignores his rather embarrassing sympathy for the I.R.A. ('You Anglo pigs and Scotties / Sent to colonize the North / You wave your bloody Union Jacks / And you know what it's worth... / ....Though Stormont bans our marches / They've got a lot to learn / Internment is no answer / It's those mothers turn to burn!') Occasionally, the film is downright misleading: John is allowed to describe himself as working class without anyone pointing out that while Paul lived in a council house, John decidedly grew up in the middle-class part of town and even went to grammar school. And the song which begins 'What a waste of human power / What a waste of human life' is placed over footage of the Vietnam war, even though it is actually about a prison riot.

The film starts with a brief recap of the 'bigger than Jesus' debacle. It isn't really clear what bearing this has on the overall argument. It is certainly true that some people in the Bible Belt were inexplicably offended by Lennon's suggestion that 'Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I’m right and I will be proved right'. I wonder how extensive the ensuing antibeatlemania actually was? It's always the same Beatle records we see being put on the same bonfire: if that's the only footage anyone has, how widespread a phenomenon can it have been? Is the film trying to say that America hated Lennon from the beginning because he wasn't a Christian (except on the days when he was)? But I have never heard it claimed that his subsequent troubles with the U.S government were religiously motivated.

We then proceed to Lennon's marriage to Yoko Ono, and the story of how the couple turned their honeymoon into a publicity stunt against the Vietnam war. This is pretty familiar stuff, although the scene where he records 'Give Peace a Chance' lying in bed and surrounded by miscellaneous hangers on most of whom can't quite manage to clap in time with the music remains very funny and rather moving. At some point after this Bed-In for Peace the Beatles split up, but this isn't mentioned: what matters is that John and Yoko relocate to America and get involved in the peace movement and radical politics there.

The film argues that the pivotal event is John's appearance at a benefit concert in December 1971 to campaign for the release of one John Sinclair, a political activist who'd been given a ten year jail sentence for possessing two joints of marijuana. John wrote a protest song (possibly in his sleep) and performed it at the concert. Astonishingly, 55 hours later, Sinclair was released from prison. The following February, John and Yoko's temporary visas were withdrawn and they were told to leave America. I don't think anyone now doubts that this was not, as the immigration department claimed at the time, because John had a trivial conviction in the UK for possessing marijuana, but because the Nixon administration was frightened of him as a political activist and peace campaigner with an influence on newly enfranchised young people. J. Edgar Hoover himself wrote 'All extremists should be considered dangerous' across his F.B.I file. The film shows documents which appear to prove that President Nixon must have known about, if he didn't personally order, the campaign against the Lennons.

Lennon hired a clever lawyer and staged publicity stunts and 'happenings' to further his campaign to be allowed to stay in America. We see some very amusing footage of the press conference at which he announced that he had founded a new country, declared himself an ambassador of it, and therefore granted himself diplomatic immunity. It was not until 1976 that he was finally given indefinite leave to remain in the U.S.A by which time Nixon had resigned in disgrace.

The film ends with some unfamiliar home movies of John during his 'Househusband' phase, including an amusing recording of him interviewing Sean while changing his nappy. This sequence is cut short by the sound of five gunshots, but nothing else is said, either about Chapman or the circumstances of John's death. And it wisely avoids mentioning the appalling fact that if President Nixon had been successful in his attempts to kick him out of America, John Lennon would almost certainly be alive today.

So there is a massive gap in the film. We are being asked to draw a line between the 'bigger than Jesus' controversy; the attempts to deport John from the U.S.A; the acknowledged criminality of the president (we actually hear Mr. Bernstein himself explaining what a bad egg Richard Nixon was); and what happened outside the Dakota Building in December 1980. But so far as I can tell, no link is proven to exist. The immigration department acted legally (if in a petty and paranoid way) in trying to deport a political agitator with a drugs record. If it is true that the F.B.I bugged Lennon's phone then I believe they were within their constitutional rights to do so if they thought he was a threat to national security. His anti-Christian remarks were not (so far as I know) cited as a reason for removing his visa. And I'm sorry, but Mark Chapman was a lone nut who thought (rightly) that he could gain a kind of fame by selecting a famous person and murdering them. So what, in the end, is the film saying?

'I suppose they tried to kill John, but they couldn't, because his message is still alive.' What message? This film is possibly worth 90 minutes of your time because it gives you the opportunity to look at clips and recordings of John Lennon. His charisma jumps out of every frame: this poorly educated, pretty obviously damaged young man, shooting from the hip, saying whatever comes into his head, angry, passionate, witty, surreal. In the middle of answering questions about Vietnam when he is still a mop top, he suddenly interrupts himself to do a riff about 'show business, darling.' When asked how he feels about the people who tried to deport him he says, apparently off the cuff 'Time wounds all heels.' And his energy and commitment as a performer take your breath away. 'It ain't fair / John Sinclair / In the stir for breathing air' is a terrible, terrible song -- yet this doesn't seem to matter as Lennon uses it to channel the anger of a stadium full of people. I defy anyone not to be moved when we see Sinclair coming out of prison hours after Lennon sung this song. So the film does nothing but reinforce my admiration for Lennon the man.

But Lennon's message? The film suggests that he allowed himself to become a political tool of left wing activists like Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman (who he later described as 'Mork and Mindy'). It rather pointedly doesn't say that he was also a tool in the hands of a radical surrealist named Yoko Ono. Lennon seems to have been one of those natural forces that needed to be harnessed and pointed in a constructive direction by someone. But can he really be said to have had a 'message' of his own?

Lennon's later work consists of powerful, memorable, but ultimately meaningless phrases, endlessly repeated: 'Woman is the nigger of the world'; 'War is over, if you want it', 'Just Give Me Some Truth'; 'Power to the People, Right on!', 'Free the people, now!' There is no suggestion of what the people are going to do once they are empowered, or what feminists need to do to improve the position of women in society. He refuses point blank to make any specific critique of U.S foreign policy. When someone asks him 'What should the President do?' he replies simply 'He should declare peace.' Yoko once suggested that people should go naked for peace. (How? Why? To what end?) 'Peace' seems not to be a political concept or a state which can exist or not exist between nations: it's a magic word to be said over and over, like one of the Maharishi's T.M mantras, until it stops meaning anything at all.

Lennon may have believed that he was literally raising people's consciousness, that repeating a phrase could somehow release peace and love into the world: instant karma. One can't help thinking that much of this came from Yoko, and that the authentic voice of Lennon comes through only in the (often inaudible) intermediate stanzas. 'Everybody's talking about ministers, sinisters, banisters and canisters, bishops, fishops, rabbis and popeyes, bye bye.' There speaks the true voice of the man who used to think he was a walrus.

Above all, Lennon was a performer. Aligning himself with the 'peace' movement – on the days when he wasn't sitting in paper bags, demanding acorns at the wrong time of year, or making 45 minute films of his penis (*) -- was indeed a powerful political act. But take away the surrealism, the bottoms, the silly little drawings, the records consisting of nothing but feedback and try to present him as primarily a peace campaigner and revolutionary and it becomes painfully obvious that he didn't have a message. All he was saying was 'give peace a chance.'

What we really need at this stage in the day is a long, joyous documentary with lots of complete recordings of Lennon's music and lots of unexpurgated interviews and footage of John Lennon: swearing, angry, silly, infantile, magnificent. What we don't particularly need is to rake over this ancient quarrel.

I saw the movie on the 26th anniversary: the cinema was empty.

(*) A good joke, to be fair. He'd previously made a film called Erection which turned out to be nothing ruder than a 20 minute film of a building site, this one, called Self-Portrait was a film about a prick. Like most conceptual art, once you've heard it described, you don't actually need to see it.

I say what it occurs to me to say

Andrew, I've noticed that in the last few months you seem to have increasingly devoted your weblog to the sillier rantings of your country's right. Given, though, that the utter lack of chance that there will be a Conservative government in the near future renders these folks ineffectual buffoons, why bother? It merely raises your blood pressure.

Andrew Reeves

As a matter of fact, I would welcome the replacement of the Blairite junta by a genuinely Conservative government. (That is: I would prefer a Socialist government to a Conservative government; but I would prefer a Conservative government to a Blairite one. But neither Socialism nor Conservatism are on offer at the moment.) That said, I happen to believe that after a six-month interregnum under Gordon Brown, David Cameron will get his statutory three terms in Number Ten. Since Thatcher, we have had a Presidential system in all but name, and I don't believe that The People will elect a dour, clever, dull Scotsman as President when there is a photogenic young blair-lite toff on offer.

You assume that the right-wing press won't have any influence unless and until Cameron becomes Prime Minister. This assumes that New Labour is on the political left. And it assumes that the tabloids don't have any influence until 'their' party gets back into power. I don't think this is true. And incidentally, the Sun has said 'Vote Labour' at the last three elections.

There were four pundits on last week's Any Questions (a political talk show on BBC Radio 4.) They included the sensible ex-Tory minister Ken Clarke and the surprisingly coherent evangelical Anne Atkins. All four took it for granted that 'councils' were trying to stamp out Christmas, that it was jolly silly of them and they should jolly well stop it.

The next Prime Minister Gordon Brown made a speech in which he said:

Just this evening, I was told that some Sure Start centres are being urged this year to call their children's Christmas parties 'winter celebrations'. The fact is children of all faiths all over Britain will be looking forward to Christmas in a few weeks time, and it is right that they can celebrate Christmas.

Gordon appears to be working on the old-fashioned (pre-2005) theory that 'Christmas' is a secular festival, one that all British people should join in, and you shouldn't really try to bring God in to it. At least, I assume that's what he means: surely his mad plans for a national holiday called Britishness Day and everyone putting Union Jacks on their lawn doesn't include the idea that 'children of all faiths' should be forced to participate in specifically Christian ceremonies? But he as made a conscious decision to associate himself with the 'Christmas is canceled' mythology, knowing perfectly well how the tabloids will report it.

Gordon doesn't commit himself to saying that Sure Start Centers (or nursery schools, as they used to be called, are replacing Christmas parties with Winter parties; he only says that he has 'heard' that person or persons unknown are "urging" them to do so. This just as well: the Sure Start website contains no references to a Winter Party or Winter Celebration. The Warrington branch is holding a Christmas Card competition, though.

Minister for Veils, Jack Straw used his column in his local newspaper to say:

If I may speak on Gabriel's behalf, I'm very clear on his view for 2006. Put the tinsel in the office. Celebrate Christmas publicly and Muslim and Jewish festivals too, and those of other faiths as well. Jesus was a prophet for all of us.

Lets pass over the question of whether Muslims would be comfortable with singing 'veiled in flesh the godhead see' and 'our god contracted to a span incomprehensibly made man' or whether Christians would necessarily agree that 'Jesus was a prophet'. I actually prefer Straw's ham-fisted syncretic Christmas to Brown's secular one. I only want to note that Straw has uncritically accepted the lie that there is a movement on to stop us putting up Christmas decorations, and the even bigger lie that this is 'so as not to offend non-Christians' (i.e Muslims).

The 'tinsel' bit is particularly good value. It has been pointed out that hanging tinsel around computer monitors is a really bad idea, because it could easily cause a fire. The Mail and the Express, have, as we've seen, adopted the tactic of treating every 'health and safety' rule as an instance of 'political correctness'. Straw appears to have been fooled by this trick, and accepted uncritically that we've been banned from putting tinsel in our offices because it might offend Muslims. The Express and the Mail have dictated the terms in which he thinks: he's been sucked into Express-land without even noticing it.

The normally sane Archbishop of York preached a harmless little sermon about how in very real sense we shouldn't be like the innkeeper who said that there was no room at the inn but that in a very real sense we should all as it were invite Jesus into our hearts and our lives blah-de-blah-de-blah. Doubtless all very true and the sort of thing that any Vicar might have said at any time in the last hundred years. However this year the Bish is not saying that all the hustle and bustle of Christmas might, in a very real sense, make some of us forget what is, in a very real sense, the meaning of Christmas. This year, secularization is part of a plot. We Christians are being prevented from celebrating Christmas by people who think that 'a Christian festival is offending other faiths'. He doesn't blame the Political Correctness Brigade or the Muslim Hoard; and (for some reason) he doesn't mention whether he thinks it is particularly bad to ban Christmas from white areas. His preferred bogeymen are 'illiberal atheists and aggressive secularists.' (Has Richard Dawkins made an ex-cathedra statement about tinsel? I thought he was okay with residual religious traditions provided you didn't actually believe in them.) Yet these illiberal atheists and aggressive secularists seem to be doing very much the same things as the PCB: the statement begins:

'Responding to media enquiries over the banning of Christmas celebrations in workplaces, nativity plays which no longer include Jesus and playgroup 'winter festival' parties where Christmas has been removed, the Archbishop issued the following statement...'

So even Most Revd and Rt Hon Dr Sentamu has been dragged into the fantasy world of Daily Expressland.

Last but not least Tony Blair himself made his incoherent 'integration' speech. I have to say that I don't actually know what he was talking about: I cannot translate phrases like 'The right to be different. The duty to integrate. That is what being British means.' with any confidence.

(If he thinks that 'the right to be different' defines being British in the way that liking cheese defines being French and taking your clothes off defines being Greek, then I would say that he is simply wrong. I think the British have always had a rather endearing low-level stay-at-home xenophobia. I can remember when using garlic in cooking was thought to be dangerously European. Are we really better at dealing with people who are 'different' than, say, the United States? But I think that the whole idea of defining 'Britishness' is dangerous nonsense. 'My parents were British'; 'I have a British passport'; 'The immigration office granted me British citizenship'. That is what Britishness means. That's all Britishness can ever mean. That's all Britishness should ever mean. )

Blair concludes:

Our tolerance is part of what makes Britain, Britain. So conform to it; or don't come here. We don't want the hate-mongers, whatever their race, religion or creed.

But Tony, Tony, Tony. The July 7th bombers didn't come here from anywhere; they were British. The Admiral Duncan nail bomber didn't come here from anywhere: he was British, and, in some perverted way, even Christian. The Tory councilor who wrote 'me have hobby, it called breeding' didn't come here from anywhere (except possibly cloud-cuckoo land) she was British. And the millions of Sun readers and Mail readers and hundreds of thousands of Express readers who salivate over 'All terrorists are scrounging asylum seekers' and 'Migrants taught how to scrounge' they are British, British, British. The London bombers were British people with dark skins. Harold Shipman was a British person with a beard. They didn't cease to be British when they became murderers; they simply became British criminals. Yet Blair slips imperceptibly into saying that the forces of Intolerance are aliens which came to England from Outside and can be sent back there.

Tony Blair is not a xenophobe. But the Mail, the Express, and the Sun control the political agenda to such an extent that he slips into their way of thinking without noticing it. Or else he pretends to be a xenophobe to get positive coverage in those papers. The fantasy world of the British media is not something which may have an influence if the Continuity Conservative Party ever get back into power. It is causing the political class to inhabit a fantasy world, here and now.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Humbug (4)

I'm really, really sorry about this, but I think I may have caught the Daily Mail telling the truth. I've done an extensive survey of all the specialist greeting card shops in Bristol and I can confirm that it is very difficult to find a religious Christmas card in any of them.

Don't you find the whole concept of 'greetings card shops' a bit strange? In a healthy society, I think that greetings cards would be a sideline in a stationers or maybe an art-supplies shop. But every shopping mall in the country can support not just one, but two or three shops which sell nothing but cards. Well, cards and wrapping paper. Cards, wrapping paper and expensive Eeyore cuddly toys intended for adults. Which is quite strange in itself: if I want to send my love an amusing cuddly toy of Kanga or Piglet, then I'm also stuffed. Eeyore is the only Winnie the Pooh character you can get. I think it was Anthony Thwait who pointed out that A.A Milne has largely replaced the Bible and Homer as a source of easily identifiable character-types. If you say 'He had a Tigger personality' or 'I was having an Eeyore day' everyone knows what you mean. So what is the point of selling idols of the 'Sad' archetype in which he is represented as happy? All twelve pictures in this years 'Eeyore' calendar (you can get an Eeyore calendar, a Piglet calendar, and a Tigger calendar) show Eeyore with a smiley face.

The substance of the Daily Mail piece is quite true: if you want a picture of Littlebay Beejeezuz Clintons can't help you. But I would hesitate to conclude that Clintons must therefore be part of an anti-Christian conspiracy. They have a nice line in Christening cards, with pictures of babies, bells, churches and even crosses. The Daily Mail would presumably regard 'Christening' as a 'Christian' ceremony. The rest of us would note that, like Christmas, the Rite of Baptism is an important Christian festival, but that, like Christmas, it is often celebrated for purely secular reasons, and that, like Christmas, most of the customs associated with it -- silk shawls, silver teddy bears, depositing money in Premium Bond accounts -- have no possible 'religious' significance. We might also note that you can get First Communion and Confirmation cards of both the secular and the religious variety. A secular confirmation card depicts a stereotypically teenaged child, possibly with a church in the background, but with the clear message 'Congratulations on turning 13.' Whether or not anyone buys them, I don't know, but you can see how the marketing department came up with the idea. 'We sell a lot of Bar Mitzvah cards and its not only religious Jews who send them. So maybe be can make it the done thing for not-especially-religious Christians to send congratulations-you've-become-a-teenager cards when their friends kids are confirmed?' We might also note that the Sacrament of Marriage can be celebrated with cards which depict churches and (especially) church bells, and that Clintons have made no attempt to replace the English religious Mothering Sunday (fourth Sunday in Lent) with the secular American Mother's day (second Sunday in May)

My special friend Oliver Burkeman points out that the Mail piece is based on very questionable statistics. He notes that they claim to have looked at 5500 cards and found only 67 with images of the nativity. That could presumably mean that 96% have images of snowmen, carol singers, churches, bells and other 'traditional' images on them. Conflating 'not explicitly holy' with 'not traditional' and saying 'You can't get 'traditional' cards, therefore, Christmas is being stamped out' is another bit of sleight of hand.

What Burkeman doesn't say is that even if the Mail's statistics are valid, the piece itself is based on a lie.

Christmas cards are losing their religious message

Traditional pictures...are dying out

Scenes of the nativity has been replaced

There were fears that religious images were being scrubbed from the cards...

Hundreds of cards avoided any image linked to Christmas at all

Card manufacturers who ditched Christmas symbols... sitting in offices who decide that Christmas is offensive to other religions they must scrub all Christian images.

Oh: and while we are at it:

The Royal Mail has faced criticism for axing the Bible story from its festive stamps and....

Can you guess what's coming?

....councils have been ridiculed for re-naming Christmas 'Winterval'.

I was particularly pleased with the use of the plural. We now know that it's a good idea for employers to supply food at office Christmas parties to prevent staff getting too drunk. I expect that the very religious party at the offices of the Daily Mail will supply lots and lots of pork pies.

The Daily Mail aren't simply reporting a piece of data: it's hard to find a card with a picture of Our Lady on it. They are telling us that a process is happening whereby religious imagery at Christmas is declining, on the decrease, dying out -- that where there were images of Littlebay Bejeezus there are now Snowmen and Santas. But that's more than we know. How many secular cards were there in 2005, before the arrival of the Muslim hoard? In 1980 when we were ruled by the Blessed Virgin Margaret? In 1950 or 1850? Without figures from previous years, we have no basis to say that traditional pictures are 'dying out'. It is entirely possible that there were always more Father Christmases than there were Angel Gabriels.

The Mail also wants us to think that the secularization of Christmas is part of a conscious, deliberate (and fairly recent) process. But even assuming that the researchers really did find fewer B.V.Ms and more Christmas Puddings this years than they did last year, you can't infer that anyone is consciously replacing, avoiding, scrubbing, ditching, banning or outlawing anything at all. It's possible that there are so many Christians that, by the time the Mail's researcher got to the shop all the religious cards had sold out. It's quite likely that the kinds of people who want to send pictures of Littlebay Beejeezuz buy them from church bazaars, charities and religious bookshops, but not from Clintons.

As ever, it's the offhand comment, the un-noticed parenthesis, that reveals where the Daily Mail is really coming from.

Critics said card manufacturers and shops must not abandon British shoppers who wanted to celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25th.

And we have a rant from a random Tory:

Conservative MP Philip Davies said card manufacturers who ditched Christmas symbols were falling victim to....

Can he do it? Will he manage to speak to the Daily Mail for 20 words without saying it?

...'politically correct madness.....I'm sure one reason is because of do-gooders sitting in offices who decide that Christmas is offensive to other religions so they must scrub all Christian images.'

So. We start with a fact: 'Many cards have snowmen on them; some cards have silly jokes on them.' We go from this to 'Someone has decided that we must scrub all Christian images.' We then create a fantasy – literally without any evidence at all – that this has been done so as not to offend 'other religions'. And we end up saying that Clintons and Hallmark have 'abandoned' British people. The idea that there are millions of people, British or otherwise, who want to buy religious cards, but that greeting cards manufacturers have refused to sell them any for political reasons is so paranoid as to be laughable. But we are clearly meant to believe that this fictitious purge on 'all' Christian images is being done to 'British people' (i.e us) but 'other religions' (i.e Muslims). It will be remembered that twelve months ago the Mail particularly objected to the fact that Father Christmas had been banned from the town of Havant (which he hadn't) because the population there was 99.1% white. Me think England damn nice place. Much too nice for white man race.

Finally, we have a quote from our old friend Stephen Green, who the Mail introduces as

Stephen Green, of the religious group Christian Voice – which forced TV bosses to scrap plans to show the ‘blasphemous’ musical Jerry Springer: The Opera.

It might be more helpful to say 'Stephen Green, the fundamentalist fruitcake whose group Christian Voice want to ban mosques and enforce a kind of Christian sharia based on the book of Leviticus. And who still believe in the Angels of Mons. Oh and I have the video of Jerry Springer: The Opera. I taped it. Off the telly. Christian Voice didn't force anyone to scrap anything. Could I have another one of those nice looking pies please?' Green says that he wants people to go out of their way to buy religious cards. The Mail translates this as 'boycott irreligious cards', which is an interesting example of how their little brains work.

Mr Green is worried about cards with blasphemous jokes on them. The Daily Mail says that one card 'risks provoking Christians' (to do what?)

by suggesting that the shepherds only saw the angel appear on the hillside because they were hallucinating after smoking drugs.

Further down, they quote the joke verbatim. There is an angel with a trumpet in the background, and one of the the shepherds in the foreground is saying:

'I don't know about you guys, but this sheep shit is really doing my head in.'

So the actual joke is 'one of the shepherds initially mistook the angel for an hallucination because he had been smoking drugs.' Similar jokes (shepherds quarreling about whether the angelic music is a dream or not) occur in the Medieval Mystery Plays: the shepherds are drunk and vulgar until they recognize the angel, when they stop quarreling and start looking for Jesus. It doesn't particularly matter; either way, the card is in pretty poor taste. But it is interesting that the Mail's automatic reflex is to slightly distort the story. (It will be remembered that the humour free Stephen Green repeatedly said 'This opera says that Jesus Christ was a nappy fetishist' where the more boring truth was 'This opera makes a weak joke about the fact that the loincloth used in many paintings of the crucifixion looks a bit like a nappy.')

I read that Tescos have started selling ready made Shepherd Costumes and Virgin Mary Costumes for small children because they noticed that their sales of tea-towels quadruple during the nativity play season. Clintons sell Christening cards because people buy them. They don't sell Littlebay Beejeezuz cards, because no-one wants them. Happy Eeyore has replaced Gloomy Eeyore because thats what sells. It's Thatcherism gone mad, I tell you. You'd think that the Daily Mail might approve.

Saturday, December 09, 2006


"I've had enough of watching scenes of schizophrenic, ego-centric, paranoiac, prima-donnas."
NOTE 1: On "Question Time" this week, man-in-the-beige-shirt explained that global warming may by caused by the imminent onset of a new Ice Age, or by Cosmic Rays. (If the latter is correct, then I want to be the stretchy one, not the one with orange rocks.) Before they made him shut up, he referred to the "politically correct theory" that global warming was caused by carbon emissions.

NOTE 2: In "Metro" on Friday there was a puff-piece for a new book on urban myths called "That's all bollocks". It included a list of 15 "myths", including the one about Charlie Chaplin entering a Charlie Chaplin lookalike competition, and the one about the man who insured his cigars against arson. They asked us to select which were true and which were false. One of the ones labelled as "true" was the surprising fact that, when Titanic went down, the silent version of the movie the Poseidon Adventure was being shown on the ship's cinema. This is, of course, "bollocks": it is another fake urban myth invented by the Snopes website in order to demonstrate that if you say something in a sufficiently authoritative way, then people will believe you, however obviously stupid and absurd it is.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Humbug (3)

The 'Cancel Christmas' story in the December 6th Sun is a masterpiece of the genre. Like an expert conjurer, it tells no direct lies but uses a well-practiced sequence of moves to misdirect its victims into believing logical impossibilities.

We know that fir trees and tinsel are on display in every office and school in the country; we know that Christmas carols are being blared out over the tannoy in every shopping mall....but when we are told that Christmas Has Been Banned This Year we believe it.

The front page of the tabloid has a photograph of a Christmas decoration overlaid with the headline:

Now PC killjoys want to ban Christmas decorations. We fight back!

Pages 4 & 5 are a montage consisting of three separate items. The focus of the page is a colour picture of an (artificial) Christmas tree, with the headline:

Tree may seem a joyous symbol of Christmas, but to the PC brigade it's a...

'Silent nightmare'. It's a joke, you see: not quite up there with 'Super Cally Go Ballistic Celtic are Atrocious', but at least they're trying. Various items on the tree are labelled, and the right hand column, headed

What a list of 'shame' tells us: why the P.C brigade want the labelled items to be prohibited.

The left side of the page contains the substantive news story a number of supposed incidents of anti-Christmas legislation, and some quotes by the usual right-wing nutters. At the bottom of the page is a picture of a woman in a veil, alongside a story about Channel 4s Alternative Christmas Message. (The station has a childish tradition of putting something silly up against the Queen: last year, it was Homer Simpson, this year, it will be a Muslim lady.) For balance, the right hand column of the spread is written by the Sun's tame Muslim, Amla Baig, and is headed Tinsel isn't offensive, claims like these are. Finally, the op-ed page is headed Save Christmas and has a bullet point list of things which it thinks Christmas might need to be saved from. And today's editorial cartoon is a picture of -- stop me if you've heard this before -- a woman in a veil. She is saying 'Merry Christmas from Channel 4'. There may be a joke in this, but I can't find it. Anyone scanning the paper will pick up the message 'There is a widespread move to prohibit Christmas decorations because they are not considered politically correct and this is bound up in some way with Muslims, especially Muslims in veils.' Each element of the story contributes something to this impression:

1: The front page

This is a classic example of the self-reflexive headline, something which is quite unique to the Sun. It does not refer to anything which has happened in the real world; it's a headline about a headline. Today's front page news story in the Sun is a story about the story which the Sun has run on it's front page today. The headline is a smutty pun that doesn't work ('baubles' and 'balls' don't really sound the same) but the text is incredibly pompous; the language of the infants' school playground alongside the language of the political press-release. 'The Sun today makes no apology for printing pictures deemed deeply offensive by the PC brigade – of Christmas trees and baubles.' Of course, at no point does anyone remotely suggest that anyone has claimed to find photos of Christmas trees 'deeply offensive'.

2: The Half-Truth

It seems that our old friends the Political Correctness Brigade want to ban Christmas decorations. This is stated about six times in the piece:

Now PC killjoys want to ban Christmas decorations.
Bah humbug to killjoys who try to ruin yuletide.
A survey revealed that three out of four firms have banned festive decorations.
A survey of 2300 employers reveal red yesterday showed an astonishing 74% have banned Christmas decorations for fear of upsetting followers of minority faiths.
Firms are banning Christmas decorations in case they offend other faiths

A survey says that sensitive employers have decided that putting up a Christmas tree and sparkly adornments might cause some take legal action.

The source of this figure is a press release from a firm of employment lawyers called Peninsula. They seem to issue a press release along these lines every December, presumably in the hope of drumming up business from companies who get involved in January litigation. No information is supplied about how the information was collected or what question was asked; I leave it to Ben Goldacre to tell us whether 2300 firms amounts to a statistically significant survey. All that matters at this stage is that 'One law firm says that some companies say they are not putting up decorations' is not synonymous with 'Decorations have been banned.'

Last week, the Daily Mail got its union jack knickers in a twist about an ACAS press release. ACAS is a government run employment, mediation and arbitration service. The press release was intended to inform employers about their responsibilities under the law during the Christmas party season: For example, they pointed out that if you supply infinite free booze to your employees, it's partly your responsibility to see that they get home safely. This document includes the following passage:

Q: My recently-recruited manager has issued an e-mail to staff telling them that Christmas decorations breach health and safety rules. She also said they are outlawed by the religion and belief regulations. Is she correct?
A: As long as a proper risk assessment is carried out looking at where and how decorations are sited, particularly if they could pose potential fire hazards, health and safety rules will not normally be breached. Regulations on religion and belief do not outlaw traditional customs. As most Christmas decorations such as tinsel, lights and trees are secular and not inherently religious, it could be difficult to argue that they cause offence to non-Christians.

So: the official advice by the official agency which deals with official employment laws specifically refers to tinsel and trees and specifically says that there is no objection to them. 'P.C Brigade Want To Ban Tinsel' translates as 'Some employers have decided not to put up any tinsel, even though the official advisory body says that there could be no possible objection to it.'

3: The incremental lie

According to the op-ed column "Mince pies are outlawed as a health risk." But on page 4, this story comes out rather less dramatically: "Villagers planning a festive party were told by council chiefs that it would be cancelled unless the carried out a risk assessment on the mince pies made by the Women's Institute." And if you read right through to the end of the story, we get to the even-less dramatic truth. The mince pie row erupted in Embsay North Yorkshire. Council chiefs say that the WI pies must be accompanied by posters warning that they contain nuts and suet pastry. But we still haven't quite got to the bottom of things. The Sun omits to point out that the W.I were only compelled to follow council health and safety rules if they wanted to hold the event on council property. No-one was threatening to raid their party if it was held on private land. Clearly 'Please put up a sign saying "contains nuts" if you are giving those pies away in a council hall' does not amount to 'outlawing pies', and even if it did, it would have nothing to do with political correctness or offending minority groups.

4: The Factoid

"The Sun Says Save Christmas" column also warns us that 'Christmas has been re-branded as Winterval'. Well, up to a point, Lord Murdoch. It is perfectly true that Birmingham City Council re-named Christmas 'Winterval', insofar as they used that made-up word on leaflets advertising the turning-on of the Christmas lights, the arrival of Father Christmas and other events related to Christmas, Hanukkah and Diwali. The problem is that they did this in 1998. The lie that 'Birmingham wants to replace Christmas with 'Winterval' ' is taken down from the loft and hung up every year at this time -- along with the old saw that 'Luton has re-named Christmas 'luminos' '. That council did indeed (and rather cleverly in my opinion,) name their turning-on-the-lights ceremony after one of Harry Potter's spells. In, er, 2001.

For the record, from this year's websites:

Luton council: 'Christmas all wrapped up'
Birmingham council: 'Christmas market'; 'Visit Father Christmas'
Havant council 'Christmas in Havant' 'Carols in Meridian Centre'
Portsmouth Council: 'Christmas sounds', 'Christmas pantomime', 'Civic Carol service'

5: The In Your Face Bare Faced Total and Utter We Made This Up and We Admit We Made This Up Load Of Twaddle Taking Up a Page and a Half.

The centrepiece for the spread is the Politically Correct Christmas tree, which consists of a series of comments at the level of:

Fairy lights – Could be construed as homophobic by some
Fake snow – Clearly this may be unsettling and cause distress to people from warmer climates.

This is, of course, completely made up, and the Sun admits that it is completely made up: it clearly describes it as 'The Sun's tongue-in-cheek guide to the shocking and provocative items found on your Christmas tree.'

What can be said about this kind of stunt?

1: It is not even slightly funny

2: Some of the jokes are fairly offensive. (Have you ever heard a gay man referred to as a 'twinkle'?)

3: It mixes up truth and lies in a ways calculated to cause maximum confusion. The piece about Rudolf (' In future we may have to substitute faithful Rudolph with a shiny amoeba') is prefaced by a bit of copy about how Robert L May wrote the song in 1939; which appears to be accurate.. On the other hand, we are told that 'Satanists complain that baubles are a mis-use of witch balls from the 1700' – which is, so far as I can tell, complete gibberish. Some time ago, the Snopes website demonstrated how easy it is to invent an urban myth by presenting a publishing a theory, clearly marked as a joke, that 'Sing a Song of Sixpence' was a recruiting song first writing by the pirate Blackbeard. Within two years, this piece of made up folk lore was being quoted as the gospel truth. Bill Bryson points out that nearly all of the extreme cases of politically correct language ('gravitationally challenged' for 'fat') come out of a satirical 'politically correct' handbook, and were never, ever used seriously. It's a safe bet that some Sun readers will read this load of old baubles and run away with the idea that someone really does think that the term 'crackers' is prejudiced against mentally handicapped people – and that this is precisely what the editor wants them to think.

6: Conflation of different stories. The majority of the stories which the Sun cites are about health and safety: trivial instances of officials making the lives of small organisations slightly inconvenient. But the joke Christmas Tree piece is all about 'political correctness' in the more normally understood sense -- people being hyper sensitive to things which could offend minorities. The tactic is quite brilliant. The Sun like the Mail, the Express and to a lesser extent the Telegraph and the Times have committed themselves to believing that the Political Correctness Brigade are trying to stamp out Christmas. The problem is that the Political Correctness Brigade are doing nothing of the kind, for the very good reason that they don't exist. So the Sun's 'Christmas correspondent' (no, really) has convinced himself that 'health and safety' and 'political correctness' are interchangeable, and, furthermore that any attempt to make a Christmas celebration conform to regulations is a direct attack on the festival itself. Once you've believed these three impossible things, it becomes possible to say 'someone has pointed out that the Santa Claus carnival float is unsafe and asked the owner to add a seat obviously, they think that Rudolf toys should be banned because they are prejudiced against homosexuals.'

The Sun is, it must be said, less nakedly racist than the Express. The political correctness tree is directed at homosexuals, people from hot countries and the mentally handicapped as well as at Muslims; the opinion piece by Anila Baig contains some valid points. But both campaigns are rooted in the same paranoia. Either the Sun reflects what its readers think; or it reflects what Tony's boss Rupert thinks that they think; or it reflects what Tony's boss Rupert wants them to think. Either millions of my fellow countrymen are paranoid; or else someone is trying very hard to make them paranoid. Either way paranoid people are scary. They elect scary governments.

You can't really fool children: they go on believing in Father Christmas for as long as they want to believe in Father Christmas. Any conjurer will tell you that you can only fool an audience that, at some level, wants to be fooled.

Friday, November 24, 2006

In the comment section attached to 'Christmas Doesn't Come Early...' we were talking about fictional characters, and whether any one in comic books has changed as much as Doctor Who.

Andrew Stevens asked
Producers have fiddled around with the edges of the character (and this has been done to the Doctor, I believe, more than literally any other character in the history of fiction), but the Doctor has always stood for justice.

Although I agree with his point, I am slightly tempted to reply: 'Er...Geoffrey of Monmouth, Thomas Malory, Alfred Lord Tennyson, T.H White, Marion Bradley.'

Phil Masters wrote.
But what perhaps makes (Batman) such a strong, almost archetypical figure is that the core myth has never changed much. The same goes for Superman, but not so much for other (less durable) DC superheroes. 'Saw his parents killed in front of him as a child; swore revenge on all criminals; perfected himself to achieve this'. 'Last son of a doomed, super-advanced planet; sent to Earth by his parents; raised by good, rural folks, then travelled to the big city'. If either character ever lost those cores, they'd be doomed.

'Last son of a doomed, super-advanced planet.'

Unless you count Kara, Mon-El, Zod, Jax Ur, the Super-Menace, several thousand inhabitants of the bottled city of Kandar and various animals.

'Sent to Earth by his parents; raised by good, rural folks'

Unless you go by the radio version in which he arrived on Earth as a full grown man and immediately got a job with Perry White. (Hence 'Strange visitor from another planet' rather than 'Rocketed to earth as a baby'.) Was Smallville mentioned in the George Reeve version?

I'm not being a fan pedant. Well, obviously I am being a fan pedant, but the fact remains that what we see as the 'irreducible core' of these characters came about by a process of evolution. It changes. People who like folk songs say that each singer changes the song a little before he passes it on, so an authentic folk song is the work of many hundreds of musicians: no single composer can reproduce that style. I think that this is also true of characters like 'Superman' and 'Doctor Who'. Good as the early episodes were, you can't say that 'Doctor Who' was created by Sydney Newman: he's the product of every writer who has ever worked on the series. This is also true of Superman and Batman. Less so of Spider-Man and Mr. Fantastic: Marvel comics is more inclined to treat old issues as Holy Writ: new writers do not so much contribute to the evolution of The Fantastic Four as provide a midrash on the work of Rabbi Jack.

A lot of fans said that John Byrne had radically changed the irreducible core of Superman when he decided that Ma and Pa Kent were still alive. (In a sense, they are right: it was a powerful part of the original myth that both Jor-El and Jonathan Kent existed only in Superman's memory – where they acted as, for want of a better word, a super-ego.) Yet everyone now accepts that Superman has a wise old earth mother to bake him apple pie and give him advice when he's in trouble. It was taken for granted in Superman Returns: but for 40 years of continuity, it wasn't true.

It was also said that when Byrne made the antepenultimate son of Krypton kill the three Phantom Zone criminals he violated the irreducible core of the character -- that Superman had a Code Against Killing. I've just been reading the reprints of the Silver Age Superman, and I have to admit that they are terrific fun. If I had grown up with them I might very well have thought that John Byrne's super-yuppie was simply not Superman. But now he is.

Superman's costume and insignia remains fairly constant, and so, on the whole, do his powers. (He can fly, he's strong, he can see through walls.) But the personality of the guy in the costume changes beyond recognition. I just listened to one of the old radio stories in which some small time gangsters are extorting protection money from Jimmy Olsen's mother. One episode begins: 'Having given the hoodlum a thrashing, Superman...'. You couldn't imagine the nice-as-pie Silver Age character doing that. Neither is he the 'Stranger in A Strange Land' that Kirby tried to make him, or the demi-god who Alan Moore put in Swamp Thing. ('I mean, how many atoms are there in the atmosphere?' 'Would you like me to count them for you?')

It would seem to me that the Irreducible Core of Superman is actually Clark Kent, Perry White, Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane. (Jimmy started out on the radio: but he migrated to the comic pretty rapidly: I'm sure Nick will tell me the issue number.) Fortresses of Solitude may come and go; Smallville, Jor-El and Superdog may vary in importance, but every version of Superman has been built around those four characters. Their personalities are malleable -- Lois is no longer an uberbitch; movie-Clarke is a complete klutz where radio-Clark is super-competent But their relationship never changes: Jimmy admires Clark and Superman; Lois loves Superman but looks down on Clark; Clark loves Lois.

The question of whether you have one character called Superman or several different ones is rather interesting. It is perfectly true that the 1940s Superman, the one who fought gangsters and Nazis, is now said to be the Superman of Earth-2, while the one from the 60s, the one who used to be Superboy and had a dog called Krypto, was the Superman of Earth-1. But this was an after-the-fact explanation of the changes that had crept into the character: no-one woke up one morning and said 'Let's re-invent Superman from the ground up' – there was simply a process of gradual change.

In the 1960s, Jack Kirby (along with some dialogue writer whose name I forget) created The Fantastic Four. He included a character called The Human Torch. Now, there had certainly been a previous character called the Human Torch, a war-time android who could burst into flame. The new version was a 1950s teenager who could burst into flame. There was connection between the two characters apart from the name and the superpowers; and Marvel made no real attempt to present the old 1960s character as sharing a 'brand identity' with the 1940s one. This wasn't 'a new version of an old character', it was more 'Jack leafed through some old comics and spotted a venerable character which gave him the idea for a new one.'

A bit later, Jack (with the same assistant) introduced a character called 'Captain America' into the Avengers. This Captain America was said to have been a superhero in World War II, and to have been frozen in ice for the intervening 20 years. Now, there had indeed been a 1940s character called Captain America. He did indeed fight the Nazis, and his real name, like that of the 1960s version, was 'Steve Rogers'. Does this mean that the 1960s Cap is the same person as the 1940s Cap in the same way the the Sherlock Holmes of 'A Study in Scarlet' is the same person as the Sherlock Holmes of 'His Last Bow'. Or should we say 'Captain America was a new character. He had a back story which involved fighting Nazis in the World War II, just as Mr Fantastic has a back story which involved fighting with the French Resistance. But the new character is not the same character that appeared in those 20 year old long out of print comics. What would that even mean? The new character happened to share a few plot elements with the old one.' But there is no question that Kirby's assistant used the fact that Captain America was a 'revival' of a famous old character as a Unique Selling Point for the new comic.

Come to that, the Buscema-Lee version of 'The Silver Surfer' has no real connection with the superior Jack Kirby version: Lee took the look and feel of Kirby's design and created a new character around it. I certainly don't feel any obligation, when reading the Fantastic Four 48-50 to think 'The Surfer is lying, of course. He knows perfectly well what 'love' and 'eating are'. And he is only fooling about fancying Alicia. His True Love is waiting for him on his home planet, and he's only been travelling with Galactus for a few months.' (Yes, there are fanwank rationalisations of this, which usually involve Galactus taking Norrin Radd to Anchorhead and having his memory wiped. I don't believe them any more than you do.) But the Lee version is the famous one, the one everybody knows: the nonsense about Zenn-La is part of the irreducible core of the Silver Surfer whether I like it or not, and people on submarines sometimes have fist fights about it.

From '63 to cancellation, Doctor Who was a continuous 'tradition'. No-one ever said 'let's wipe the slate and start again'. Doctor Sly had virtually nothing in common with Dcctor Bill; 'Survival' 4 was not recognisably the same programme as 'Unearthly Child'. But the change had happened incrementally. The grumpy but lovable old man in the 'Gunfighters' is not the scary misanthrope of 'Tribe of Gum' (or whatever we have to call it now) but you would be hard pushed to say when he changed. 'Power of the Daleks' could have been a Hartnell story; 'Spearhead From Space' could have been a Troughton story; 'Robot' very nearly was a Pertwee story. Each producer passed the torch onto the next producer; each producer inherited scripts and script editors from the last one. RTD has been the first producer to have had to actually re-light the torch and try to get it moving again. He isn't inheriting an on-going series, but looking back on an old one. What he is doing is much more like creating a 'new' Captain America than adding one more issue to the infinitely long sequence of gradually evolving Superman stories. The fact that there was an 'old series' is very important to the new one; just as the fact that your Dad might have read a comic called 'Captain America' was an important part of the overall poetic effect of Avengers #4. Otherwise, why have Sarah Jane or K-9. Why have Daleks? Why mention Time-Lords? But the old series is something which we are looking back at and commenting on; not something which we are adding a new chapter to.

That said, I am unhappy with SK's claim that Doctor Who is a null concept, that anything with 'Doctor Who' on the label is part of Doctor Who, and that we can't really discuss Doctor Who any more than we can discuss the square route of Tuesday or the philosophical convictions of Tony Blair. When a new TV series labels itself with the title of an old one, then surely one of the things which it is doing is inviting comparisons, claiming to have picked up the torch or to be continuing the tradition. Supposing I say 'The new Jackanory completely misses the point of Jackanory,' (and I think it is the sort of thing that I am quite likely to say). I am not making a null-comment. I am saying 'I remember a TV programme called Jackanory in which well known actors spent fifteen minutes reading to children from a book. I think this was a very good format, because it encouraged children to read and because the human voice is an intrinsically powerful tool for story-telling. I don't think that the new programme, which appears to involve adapting books into cartoons is nearly such an interesting format. And I think that today's kids would still go for the old format, particularly if your started by reading from some modern popular kid's; books, possibly ones involving wizards and boarding schools.' The BBC is not doing anything morally wrong by applying the brand-name Jackanory to its new cartoon show: if they want to, they can create a post watershed adults only comedy show and call it Crackerjack. But I'm at liberty to point out that they are trying to imply that the new programme is something like the old one, whereas in fact, it isn't.

If you create a new version of Sherlock Holmes, then you are positively inviting readers to say 'This is very faithful to Conan Doyle's original text' or 'This is very interestingly different to Conan Doyle's original text' or 'This is a very funny hatchet job on Conan Doyle'. I agree that 'This book is written by someone who doesn't know Holmes; he seems only to have seen the Basil Rathbone movies; and he doesn't seem to know that there weren't any thatched cottages in Victorian London' doesn't exhaust the things that you could say about the hypothetical book. You might well say 'It's nothing to do with Holmes, but it's quite a clever whodunnit.' God knows, there are things to say about Jackson's Ring cycle apart from 'It isn't very faithful to Tolkien' (such as 'For God sake, you should have grown out of belch jokes when you were at primary school.) But comparing it with the book is one thing that a reasonable person might reasonably do to a film which says Lord of the Rings on the tin.

Neither Doctor Who nor Superman has an unchanging, irreducible core. But this is a long way from saying that there are no themes, styles and genre conventions which enable us to describe a particular cluster of narratives tropes as Doctor Who stories; and therefore to meaningfully discuss (and respectfully disagree) about which are 'good Doctor Who stories' and which are 'bad Doctor Who stories'.

It is true that in such a very long established tradition, you can find an exception to almost any statement. If I say 'The name of the character is The Doctor', you can say 'In Part 2 of War Machines' he was called 'Doctor Who', as he was in the the dutero-canonical Docotr Who In And Exciting Adventure With the Daleks; the apocrphyphal TV Comic and the downright heretical Doctor Who and the Daleks movie. ' But if I write a Doctor Who story and ignore the 'War Machines', I am not simply turning my back on evidence which doesn't support my cause: I'm following a whole string of predecessors in the Great Tradition. There is a narrative consensus to repress 'War Machines' from our textual consciouness. (Don't tell anyone, but this is how the faithful treat all other sacred texts as well.)

If I had been asked 'What is the unifying feature that makes Doctor Who Doctor Who' I probably wouldn't have said 'justice'. I would have been more likely to say 'Wherever he is, he's an outsider, an alien; he always brings a fresh, unexpected perspective to the world.'

Maybe 'strange visitor from another planet' would have done the trick. Here's to the next 43 years.
Torchwood sucks, incidentally.


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Thursday, November 23, 2006


Throughout history, you Thals have always been known as one of the most peace-loving peoples in the galaxy. When you get back to Skaro, you'll all be national heroes. Everybody will want to hear about your adventures. So be careful how you tell that story, will you? Don't glamorise it. Don't make war sound like an exciting and thrilling game. Tell them about the members of your mission that will not be returning - like Maro and Vaber and Marat. Tell them about the fear. Otherwise your people might relish the idea of war.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Humbug (2)

But meat commendeth us not to God: for neither, if we eat, are we the better; neither, if we eat not, are we the worse.

St Paul

Whatsoever is sold in the shambles, that eat, asking no question for conscience sake: for the Earth is the Lord's and the fulness thereof. If any of them that believe not bid you to a feast, and ye be disposed to go; whatsoever is set before you, eat, asking no question for conscience sake.

St Paul

And saw heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending upon him, as it had been a great sheet knit at the four corners, and let down to the earth: Wherein were all manner of fourfooted beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air. And there came a voice to him, 'Rise, Peter; kill, and eat.' But Peter said, 'Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean.' And the voice spake unto him again the second time, 'What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common.' This was done thrice: and the vessel was received up again into heaven.

The Acts of the Apostles

Are ye so without understanding also? Do ye not perceive, that whatsoever thing from without entereth into the man, it cannot defile him; Because it entereth not into his heart, but into the belly, and goeth out into the draught, purging all meats?


O.K. This one is completely off the wall.

A school decided to have a special Christmas dinner for its pupils. They decided it would be nice for the Muslim pupils to join in, so they decided they had better serve food that they were allowed to eat. First, they thought that they might serve a Muslim-friendly main course to everyone; but then, they decided to have a halal option, a non-halal option, and a veggie option. So far as I can tell, that's the whole story.

The Express – in fairness some of the grown-up papers covered it as well – reported the story in its usual measured tones:


PARENTS expressed outrage last night over a school’s plans to serve pupils a Muslim Christmas dinner.

The headteacher announced that she intended to replace the children’s traditional turkey meal with halal chicken.

She explained that eating poultry which had been slaughtered in the Muslim way would create an 'integrated Christmas'.

But furious parents accused the school of undermining the Christian faith.

They were backed by Labour MP Denis Mac Shane....

This is another example of the Baron M√ľnchhausen school of sub-editing. No halal Christmas dinner has or will be served. The Mail ran the story as School in U-Turn over 'halal only' Christmas meal; the Telegraph, which should know better, had School in retreat on 'halal-only' Christmas. But the Express allowed people who only look at page 1 to think that a halal dinner had actually been served. What we are dealing with here is thought-crime. Someone thought 'Let's have halal chicken' and then thought 'No, on second thoughts, let's not.' Nothing has happened. At all.

But parents are 'furious'. Well, the Express, the Mail, and the Torygraph between them can come up with one furious parent, a Mrs. Rachel Johnson.

It has really rocked my boat because I feel my culture is being stolen away from me. I have no objection to halal meat being on the menu so long as there is a choice of traditional Christmas fare. A lot of parents have been in touch supporting my views. Our culture and religion are being trampled on and it is not right.

So, the story depends on the opinions of one count them one person. (The rest of the Express piece consists of quotes from the usual reactionary pressure groups – Campaign Against Political Correctness; Campaign for Real Education, and -a new one on me- Christian People's Alliance.) But it isn't at all clear what precisey it was that rocked Mrs. Johnson's boat. From what she says, I think that she must regard Christmas Turkey as an important Christian principle -- like H.P Sauce. We've always done it, and if someone suggests that we should stop doing it, we feel that our culture is being taken away. (1) It's leaving turkey off the menu she objects to; she doesn't particularly mind that the chicken which replaced it may have worn a veil or been a terrorist while it was still walking around.

Confusingly, the Telegraph thinks that she also said:

Why can't the non-Muslim kids enjoy traditional Christmas fare. Why can't we have a choice of chicken which suits everyone, both Muslims and non-Muslims.

Surely this is just what the school was proposing: serving a meal that could be eaten by Muslim kids (who only eat halal) and also by Christian kids (who don't care what they eat, provided it has been attacked on prime time TV by Jamie Oliver )

Unless, unless....does she think that halal is a special sort of Muslim food that is somehow unsuitable for Christians? Did she think that, if halal food was the only thing on the menu, Christians would have to go without?

The Express also quotes Mrs. Johnson's daughter, who doesn't want to be named. (I would have thought that her anonymity is probably quite compromised by the interview with her mother.) Ms. Johnson Jnr. says:

I have no objections to including Muslims in celebrating Christmas but it is quite wrong to offer us only halal meat. A lot of my friends feel the same and say there should be a choice and they were thinking of boycotting the Christmas meal. I also think a lot of people will be horrified to know that halal meat is often served at school without a choice. I will not be staying for any more school dinners

So her problem is that she might be be forced to eat halal food, not just that she might not get turkey. She's prepared to take extreme measures and a packed lunch to avoid this possibility. It occurs to me to wonder whether Mrs. Johnson Snr. has totally missed the point, and that her daughter is in fact one of those animal welfare johnnies who for reasons of kindness to chickens wants to avoid nasty cruel ritually slaughtered meat in favour of the produce of good honest Christian battery farms.

Small theological aside: Mrs. Johnson Snr. thinks that eating halal chicken at Christmas is 'almost as stupid as serving up pork on Eid.' The nut-jobs in the Daily Mail on-line comment section wonder if we will soon have halal hot-cross buns and halal easter eggs as well. (I would be very surprised if it hasn't be possible to buy kosher Christmas puddings for decades.) Note how a particular local Christian tradition has been given almost the status of a koranic injunction. Rowan, you really need to work a bit harder at instructing your flock.

Now, Dennis McShane M.P agrees with the parents, sorry, parent, who thinks that the school is undermining the Christian faith. Well, up to a point. Mr. MacShane is quoted as saying:

No child should be obliged to eat food that is contrary to their personal convictions or religion. Schools should offer a choice and not allow the joyous celebrations of a Christmas dinner to become a divisive issue. I hope all the children can join in this fun and if I am invited I would be delighted to sit down with all the children for a Christmas dinner, halal, non halal or the healthy option, vegetarian.

Now, that sounds awfully as if he was asked the question 'How do you feel about schools serving halal chicken?' or 'How do you feel about a school offering a choice between halal chicken and haram turkey?' -- to which his answer, like any sane person is 'It sounds like a jolly good idea.' The only way I can make his answer come out as supporting the Johnson family is if the question was: 'Ms. Does-Not-Want-To-Be-Named refuses to eat halal meat because she thinks it is cruel. Do you think that the school should offer a choice of halal meat and humanely slaughtered meat?' Which is a long way from supporting the parents who said that the Christian faith was being undermined, which, in any case, none of them did.

Why does the Express believe this to be an important story? Is it now possible to catch Islam by eating a piece of halal chicken, in the same way that, in the 80s, it was possible to catch HIV by talking to a pooftah on the telephone? Or is the point that we should not make any accommodation whatsoever to people with dark coloured skins? We should serve them pork chops and tell them that they should either eat them, or else go hungry, as they would to us if we were in their country?

There certainly are those who object to state insitutions respecting religious taboos. A while back, the Sun got its hands on a non-story about how, during the routine refurbishment of a washroom at Brixton jail, some of the stalls were repositioned because some Muslims think it is haram to face Mecca while using the toilet. The Sun objected to this ('Loo kidding!') because if someone is in prison in the first place, he must have broken some rule in the koran, so he can't be a very serious Muslim. According to which logic, we would give pork sausages to Jewish prisoners, beefburgers to naughty Hindus and not have any services in the prison chapel on a Sunday.

But I think that the real problem that the Express had was this. The school, very reasonably, decided that if it was going to have a Christmas dinner, it should have a Christmas dinner that everyone could join in, and therefore came up with a menu that was acceptable to everyone. That's what you do if you are organising a dinner party. If there's only one meat dish, you make sure it is a lamb or chicken, which everyone can eat, and not pork or beef, which some people can't. If you can only offer a single choice, then it has to be veggie, because non vegetarians eat vegetables, but vegetarians don't eat meat. (Would Mrs. Johnson still have objected if the school had done the sensible thing and offered halal turkey?) The school's idea was to have an 'integrated' Christmas, where everyone was eating the same thing. But the Express doesn't like this. The point of Christmas is that it is Christian, and the point of Christianity is that it seperates people with light coloured skin from people with dark coloured skin. They want a world where all the children sitting down to dinner can see that the dark skinned children are Not Like Us. They want the dark skinned people to eat different food, or not to eat any food, or, (according to one Daily Mail headbanger) to stay away from Christmas parties altogether. 'Integration', like political correctness and multi-culturalism, is now a dirty word.

NOTE: Do you think that the free chocolate advent calandars they are giving away have pictures of Our Lord Jesus Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary on them, or nasty Islamic snowmen?

(1) We may, of course want to ask whether or not turkey is an authentic Christmas tradition. The most traditional Christmas rhyme I know says Christmas is coming/The geese are getting fat. In It was Christmas day in the workhouse the paupers are eating puddings, but it isn't clear whether this is the main course or the dessert. Scrooge certainly sends the butcher's boy to buy the prize turkey for Bob Cratchett's dinner, but the fact that he has to distinguish between the big one and the small one suggests that the butcher only had two in the shop. And since you could hardly cook a very large turkey in a couple of hours, they were presumably not going to have it for lunch. I am going to stick my neck out and say that, since a normal sized family aren't going to eat a turkey in a single meal, they can't have become ordinary people's dinner of choice before fridges became ubiquitous in the 1950s.