Thursday, December 31, 2009
Wednesday, December 30, 2009
Tuesday, December 29, 2009
Sunday, December 27, 2009
Saturday, December 26, 2009
Thursday, December 24, 2009
Sunday, December 20, 2009
Scrooge-like local politicians have decreed that there should be no traditional decorations in the new Cabot's Circus shopping mall.
In order to avoid offending Muslims (TM) shops have given up using the word "Christmas" in favour of neutral expressions like "Seasons Greetings", "Happy Holidays", "Happy Solstice", and "There's Probably No Father Christmas: Now Stop Worrying and Enjoy Your Life"
The German Winterval market had no traditional characters associated with it, in order to avoid offending Muslims:
In order not to offend Muslims (TM), it was impossible to find any traditional nativity scenes, particularly not in charity shops:
and if they had appeared, they would have been regarded as purely fictitious scenes with no more religious significance than Santa Claus:
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Wednesday, September 09, 2009
Sunday, August 16, 2009
"Andrew Rilstone has written the finest analysis of Watchmen that I have so far read." -- Eddie Campbell
"....One of the best things (if not *the* best) I’ve read on comics this year...probably the best thing I’ve ever read about Watchmen, and one of the best things Rilstone’s ever done."
"The only essay on Watchmen that you will ever need...It's setting off fireworks in my head."
"(Rilstone) has at times reduced me to a state of teeth-gnashing envy. Sometimes he has said things I wish I could have said first, or even as well....It’s like I study every line, every damned line, only for Andrew to come along and point out some fresh angle of perspective that has been there all along. 'But you were looking so hard at the trees, old bean. What about the wood?' "
"My fave critic ever."
"A long essay about comics..."
Many thanks to everyone who has said nice things.
Monday, August 10, 2009
Please set your PDF reader to View / Page Display / Two Up & View / Page Display / Show Cover Page During Two Up.
Or, for the complete 1980s fanzine experience, print it out, cho0sing Print Scaling / Booklet Printing, fold down middle, and staple with inadequate staple gun.
Friday, August 07, 2009
Sunday, March 22, 2009
Gonna change my way of stinking.
House of the rising pong.
This land is not your land
You're gonna make me litigious when you go
See that my cistern is kept clean.
Buckets of disinfectant
All along the wash towel
I can't wait
If you gotta go, go now.
Where have you been, my blue eyed son?
Sooner or later one of us must go
Most likely you'll go your way and I'll go mine
Knock, knock, knockin' on the bathroom door
One more cup of coffee was probably a mistake
Ballad in plain pee
Man of pees
Wee shall be released
The gates are weed on
Subterranean homesick poos
Tangled up in poo
Freight train poos
Just like Tom Thumb's poos.
If not for poo
Shit of love
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
The Independent has been giving away little booklets called "A Pocket History of the World." The "Classical" section spends 1,500 words dealing with the early history of Christianity:
Thursday, March 05, 2009
John Lennon - The Life by Philip Norman
We knew, I think, that Lennon's grandfather had been a musician. (Julian was the fourth consecutive generation of the Lennon family to cut a record, wasn't he?) But Norman is, I think, the first writer to make "John's grandpa was a singer" part of the grand narrative of John Lennon's life.
Norman is very fond of these story arcs. The four sections of his biography of the Beatles (unaccountably called Shout!) were entitled 'Wishing', 'Getting', 'Having' and 'Wasting' - such a perfect summary of the story that it risked making the rest of the book redundant.
Everyone knows that John Lennon loved The Goon Show. And he referenced Lewis Carrol in at least several of his songs. One of Norman's most telling images is of teddy-boy John slumped in his suburban bedroom endlessly re-reading the Alice books. But for the controlling narrative of this biography, Norman fixes on John's liking for the Just William series. It works, up to a point. Lennon had certainly been a cheeky schoolboy, permanently outside the headmaster's study. He'd been the leader of various mildly subversive schoolboy gangs; the Beatles were arguably an extension of the same kind of playground fraternity. It's telling to compare John's return home, tail between his legs, after the first disastrous trip to Hamburg, with William coming back from yet another misadventure. When posh Brian Epstein wandered into the Cavern, it was exactly like one of those vicars or mayors who end up inadvertently sponsoring one of William's schemes. And apparently Lennon associated journalist Maureen Cleave with Richmal Crompton, causing him to speak too freely to her about the relative sizes of Jesus and the Beatles. Obviously.
Then again, Yoko's grandfather was, get this, a famous artist and musician, and, get this, he regarded his wife as an equal partner. "One day in his garden he spared a few moments to talk to a young man who was collecting funds for a workers' hostel. When Zenjiro declined to make a contribution, the young man assassinated him." Spooky. Norman says that John had wondered out loud if he could be a reincarnation of Zenjiro. (I think everyone was probably a reincarnation of everyone else in the 60s.) Yoko replied: "Don't say that, he was assassinated." Maybe she really did say that: but maybe the story has improved with 40 years of hindsight.
Or again: when John was a small boy, his father (after giving him an idyllic and extravagant holiday in Blackpool) asked him whether he wanted to stay with Daddy or go home and live with Mummy. John initially choose Dad, but then changed his mind and ran after Mum, an event which may provide a narrative key to the rest of his life. When the Judge in a perfectly above-board custody hearing asked Yoko's daughter Kyoko whether she would rather live with her mother or her father, Norman hears a "chilling echo" of this primal scene. It's also "weird" that Mark Chapman's wife was Japanese and "eerie" that when moptop John first visited New York, he was photographed quite near the Dakota building.
Norman's book is very aware that people have been telling stories about John Lennon for a very long time. He's good at dealing with contested events which he wryly describes as "hallowed legends". He thinks there may be something in the too-bad-to-be-true theory that the undiagnosed skull fracture which may have caused the death of Stuart Sutcliffe may have been the result of a blow delivered by Lennon himself - if only because it's hard to think of anyone else who might have punched Stuart. The narrative in which John Lennon got drunk and started fooling around with a ladies sanitary towel seems to be true; but regrettably, no-one heard him asking the waitress if she knew who he was, so she can't have replied "You're some asshole with a Kotex on his head." The very important pissing-on-nuns story is scaled back to "embarrassingly sprayed some people who were on their way to church." Norman doubts that the middle-period Lennon would have been paying sufficient attention to Julian's school work to use one of his infant scrawls as the title for a song – although it isn't obvious to me why the later Lennon, (who had admitted to heroin use and wife beating) would carry on denying one coy reference to LSD.
Norman is inclined to believe Yoko's account of history's most important hand-job. Lennon certainly did go on holiday with Brian Epstein; Brian was definitely gay; John was definitely cute, and Brian definitely preferred younger men. According to Yoko, John told his friend Pete Shotton that he and Brian had briefly had sexual contact during the holiday "so that everyone would believe his power over Brian was absolute". But we know - because Norman keeps mentioning it - that Just William used to engage in utterly heterosexual group masturbation with his school mates and, indeed, contributed an incredibly witty sketch to Oh Calcutta! on the theme. ("You know the idea, the four fellows wanking....they should even really wank, that would be great".) So might he not have had a brief encounter with a slightly older man in a spirit of "all boys together"?
A John Lennon who was attracted to men, however subliminally, would provide an excellent story arc: his homophobia would be that of a straight man with unacknowledged gay feelings; his bitterness towards Paul over what was really only a business quarrel would be the baggage from an unrequited crush – hence his resentment of Linda, his possessiveness towards Yoko, and his taunting of Paul's pretty face. The theory falls due to the lack of any actual evidence. (I've never been able to hear John singing "Baby you're a rich fag Jew" and The Hours and the Times may be the dullest film I've ever seen.)
Norman is also very good at presenting smaller incidents and anecdotes. The story that when John finally met Jerry Lee Lewis he prostrated himself and kissed his boot was new to me. I knew that the working class hero grew up in a quite posh part of Liverpool; I hadn't known that Aunty Mimi had paid for a made-to-measure school uniform, or that the previous owner of their house had installed a system of bells for calling servants. I knew about John's prejudice against disabled people, but I'd never spotted that straight after telling the Queen to rattle her jewellery he makes a face which suggests he's about to do a childish impersonation of a what were still called "spastics". (It's interesting to wonder how the story of the Beatles, and, indeed, the second half of the 20th century would have developed if he'd followed through on his original plan to tell the Sovereign, on live TV, to rattle her fucking jewellery.)
Norman says that he hopes that his book will improve on Ray Coleman's by bringing John alive on the page. I have to say that I didn't feel that. John comes through with a novelistic intensity in the early chapters – school, art college, and Hamburg; but seems almost to disappear during the Beatlemania period. By the time we get to the post-Beatles section, the book almost seems to have a blank space at the centre: we don't "see" the Tittenhurst mansion in the way we saw the teenage bedroom (even though, as a matter of fact, we've seen pictures of it.) I think this is why Norman latches onto the Just William template so strongly. We can imagine what it was like to be a 1950s schoolboy and even a savage young ted going wild in Hamburg; John's life from 1963 - 1973 is almost literally unimaginable. So it helps to keep falling back on that picture of the cheeky kid in the school cap as the "real" John Lennon; the person who the story is about.
There are hundreds of hours of extant footage of Lennon, and millions of words of contemporary writing by and about him. One could wish for one of those English-establishment biographies that Private Eye delights in lampooning: one that doesn't search for patterns or narrative keys but which chronicles Lennon's life on a day-to-day basis. "On Wednesday, he had tea with Yoko, who remembers that he said X; and then appeared on Y's chat-show during which he said Z." The footage of the Dick Cavett shows, say, or the moptop press conferences allow us some level of direct access to Mr. J. W Lennon, the charismatic, witty Englishman in New York, who, incidentally, wrote quite a number of rather good songs. Is there a future Lennon Anthology or Lost Lennon Tapes which will give us un-mediated access to this material? But in the meantime, Norman's book has "definitive" written all over it.
Wednesday, March 04, 2009
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
Clearly, something must be done.
Someone could help the little-girl take care of her baby. It could, for example, be adopted by its grandparents, provided they can show themselves to be suitable people to raise a child. Unfortunately, the question "Have you allowed your 15 year old daughter to get pregnant by a 13 year old boy" tends to feature quite prominently in most "Are you a fit person to raise a child?" examinations. Alternatively, then, the baby could be taken into care by her local authority: initially placed in some idyllic care-home; then looked after by loving foster-parents; finally adopted by one of the many childless couples who are desperate to give happy homes to motherless infants.
The trouble with this is that the very same people who are wringing their hands about the thirteen-year-old-dad have a deeply held fear of the state, and of social workers in particular. They doubt that governments should ever decide what is in the best interests of a child; and they doubt that social workers ever really have those interests at heart. They suspect that their actions are really motivated by politics or ideology or social engineering. (Apparently, social workers get a cash bounty every time they take a child away from its natural parents and place it with hoh-moh-sexuals. Would Richard Littlejohn lie to me?)
So, then: the little-girl who foolishly allowed the little-boy to make her pregnant could be prevented from actually having the baby. Medical science can manage such things, I am told.
But the very same people who are wringing their hands about the thirteen-year-old-dad think it very wrong that pharmacists should give morning after pills to little-girls, or indeed teenagers. Many of them think that it is wrong that doctors should give free, confidential, honest advise about terminations to little-girls: or, indeed, anyone else. Many of them have an a priori belief that abortion is wrong even in these messy circumstances: some of them have been honest enough to say so. (The Pro-Life Alliance praised the little-girl for having been brave enough to have her baby rather than getting rid of it.)
But the very same people who are wringing their hands about the thirteen-year-old-dad think it wrong that teenagers should be given access to contraception; or even given information about contraception. Contraception causes pregnancy, don't you know? (Would Melanie Phillips lie to me?)
So. The little boy who didn't know anything about contraception shouldn't have put his banana anywhere near a girl, but dealt with it in the way that little boys always used to in the olden days when there were no teenage pregnancies at all. [Check this - Ed.] But the very same people who are wringing their hands about the thirteen year old dad think that it is outrageous that the subject of, er, you know, Thing, should be broached in sex education lessons. Sex education should be all about the human reproductive cycle and not at all about feelings, emotions, or strange movements in the trousers. And (of course) no-one of any age should have access to pornography and the internet should be banned.
So. We'll probably have to re-organize our society in such a way that little boys are not allowed to go anywhere near little girls until they are old enough to know about and cope with the consequences of their stiffies. Let them be raised in all-male prep schools; socialize in all male sports clubs and Scout troops; educated at all-male boarding schools and all-male universities; and spend a few years in a presumably all-male armed forces. If it is absolutely essential for them to interact with females, let them be accompanied by parents, chaperones, maiden aunts, burkhas etc. (Of course, the very same people who would probably find this a perfectly sensible suggestion also think that sodomy is a very great evil, but let's not go there.)
Or, if that's not possible, then at least let's implement a regime of Rugby Football, Scout Camps, Look and Learn, cold showers and Mecanno to deal with the problem at source. No-one in the olden days ever got an erection - they were all far too tired.
But even this wouldn't really address the basic question, which is: why do boys insist on having willies in the first place? They didn't have them in the 1950s. Look at an Action Man, or any boys comic book. Crime only began in 1945 (would Tony Blair lie to me?). I'm guessing that people started to have willies at about the same time. Probably TV, or the internet, or coca-cola, or feminism caused them. If we could only go back to the sensible world where everyone was neuter, then this sort of thing simply wouldn't happen.
Monday, February 16, 2009
Tuesday, February 03, 2009
Should anyone want to link to the particular articles, I would sooner they linked to the relevant part of :
(if you need to know where / whether an article is on the portfolio site, just drop me an e-mail.)
Supplied "as is". I am not responsible for the opinions I may have held during the last millennium.
Monday, February 02, 2009
Blogger resists temptation as increasingly ludicrous Aunt Sally figure provides him with yet another obvious feedline.
Ignorance is no crime. I am as ignorant of football as Mr Neilson is of science. But if I were to write a letter pontificating about football, I hope you wouldn't publish it.
Richard Dawkins - Letter, "Independent"
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
a: You are reading a more than usually dubious piece of slash fiction or
b: You are attending Bath Theater Royal's annual production of “Jack and the Beanstalk.”
Poor Colin. We're half way through the second act before there's any hint that he might have once appeared in a TV show which the kids would have heard of. Eventually, when he needs to bash down the door to the giant's castle, he whips out his sonic screwdriver. When that doesn't work, he hands someone his sonic mallet. (“When I nod my head, you hit it.”) Time was he wouldn't have been allowed on the stage until someone had gone through the “Knock knock?” “Who''s there?” “Doctor...” routine.
He is playing the giant's evil henchdemon, and therefore has to exchange rhyming couplets with the good fairy. His performance is every bit as subtle and nuanced as the the one gave in "Doctor Who" i.e not. But he relishes every corny line. “Did you find the gypsies' camp?” “No: as a matter of fact I found them rather butch.” Before the inevitable, luvvie-ish appeal on behalf of the Variety Club of Great Britain, he assures us that we've been “the best Saturday night audience we've had all week!”
How to describe a pantomime to a person who has never seen one? You know the sophisticated Italian commedia d'ell arte, where skilled mimes wittily improvise stock characters in traditional situations? We'll, it's nothing like that. A Christmas entertainment for children “of all ages” they must, at some time in pre-history, have been lavish dramatizations of fairy tales. But a Dawkinsian process of copying and re-copying means that you can no longer quite see the shape of the original story. Does the fairy tale lack a stock character? Then one can be invented: Jack the giant killer has acquired an idiot brother called Simple Simon, and is followed up the beanstalk by a pompous king who has fallen in love with his mother, Dame Trott. (Chris Harris has been playing dames in Bristol and Bath pantos for as long as anyone can remember. It's him, not the minor show business personalities, who's the evening's main draw.) The Dame is so poor that she must sell the cow. Cue a slapstick routine in which the cow refuses to be milked, tries to sit on the milking stool, apparently makes rude smells and finally provides a litre of semi-skimmed in a plastic carton. (“Why are you waving that milk in front of your face?” “It's past your eyes milk.”) Jack takes the cow to market; no-one will buy it. Cue several credit crunch jokes. The cow is too dirty to sell. Cue a song and dance cow-washing routine.
Lewis Bradley – Jack – came third on a reality / talent show called “Any Dream Will Do”: I suppose this makes him minor royalty. He's actually rather good. But it's a safe bet that when he was ritually intoning “I want this...I want this so badly” to Andrew Lloyd Weber, singing “I am a moo-cow cleaner” to the tune of “I Yam A Zider Drinker” wasn't precisely what had in mind.
But still, the general structure of the tale can't be deviated from. A peddler must swap Daisy for some magic beans. (The peddler is Colin, which would make no sense in terms of the story if anyone were actually following it.) As surely as night follows day, Jack's mum must throw the beans in the garden, and Jack must climb the beanstalk. The castle at the top of the stalk turns out to be inhabited, not only by a giant but also by various ghosties and ghoulies. Jack doesn't want to be caught by the ghosties. His brother doesn't want to be caught by the....“We try that joke every single year” says the Dame.
I don't think pantos were quite so scatological when I was small. ("There's a stool coming" says Simon, before fetching something to sit on while milking the cow.) I don't think that a Dame, while dressed as a Viking (you had to be there) would have done quite such filthy things with her horn. But the topical references are perennial. In the end, the giant falls from the beanstalk and is killed, and everyone celebrates. “And even better news – he's fallen on Trowbridge!”
I am not saying I would like to go every night. As a matter of fact, I am not saying that I would like to go every year. But there is something unquestionably joyful about watching adults behaving like silly kids for two hours. (Also watching the actual kids: the little ones who think that yelling “behind you!” at the ghosties is actually going to make some kind of difference; the slightly bigger ones who are too cool for this kind of thing but still laugh at the poo jokes.) I'd forgotten how genuinely funny a perfectly timed pie-in-the-face routine can be.
(*)It's the hippy shake that really drives you insane. Apparently.
Thursday, January 22, 2009
Sunday, January 18, 2009
Thursday, January 15, 2009
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
Round and round
Round and round
The argument about god goes round and round
The bishop on the bus goes waffle, waffle, waffle
Waffle, waffle, waffle
Waffle, waffle, waffle
The bishop on the bus goes waffle, waffle, waffle
The biologist on the bus goes rant, rant, rant
Rant, rant, rant
Rant, rant, rant
The biologist on the bus goes rant, rant, rant
The argument about god goes round and round
Round and round
Round and round
The argument about god goes round and round
Tuesday, January 06, 2009
Last year, the War on Christmas took a very sinister turn.
Not content with re-branding the festivities as "Winterval", banning fairy lights and insisting that all mince pies be kosher, the Political Correctness Brigade abolished the Nativity Story itself.
According to the Times our old friend Rowan Williams had declared that the birth of Jesus was:
ALL A CHRISTMAS TALL STORY
When the Daily Telegraph reported the story, it made use of quotation marks, a device that papers use to alert readers to the fact that they are being lied to:
ARCHBISHIP SAYS NATIVITY "A LEGEND"
The Daily Mail had no such scruples:
THREE WISE MEN ARE JUST A LEGEND, SAYS ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURY
According to The Times:
"The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, dismissed the Christmas story of the Three Wise Men yesterday as nothing but 'legend'...."
According to the Telegraph:
"The Archbishop of Canterbury said yesterday that the Christmas story of the Three Wise Men was nothing but a 'legend'....The Archbishop went on to dispel other details of the Christmas story, adding that there were probably no asses or oxen in the stable."
And according to the Daily Mail:
"Jesus was born in December, in a snow-covered stable, where he was visited by three wise men bearing gifts, and was wrapped in swaddling clothes by his mother. Or rather he wasn't - according to the leader of the Church of England. Dr Rowan Williams yesterday debunked a large part of the Christmas story as a myth..."
Columnists and pundits rose to the theme. The Archdruid had denounced the whole Christmas narrative. Here is Gerard Baker in The Times:
"The retreat continues, despite the best efforts of the Anglicans to keep making concessions to disbelieving modernity, as the Archbishop of Canterbury did again this week with his observation that we were obliged to treat the Christmas Story really as just a legend. Like Alfred and the burnt cakes, I suppose."
And Simon Heffer in the Telegraph:
"But when the country's most senior prelate tells me that aspects of Christianity are simply 'legend', I wonder what that faith - and, of course, Christmas itself - must be about. After all, if the Christmas story is legend, then what is to be said about the rest of Christ's life? Are the miracles legend, too? I am no theologian, but it would seem to me that, if they are, then one of the main bases of Christian faith sustains something of a blow."
And someone called Rush Limbaugh, in Cloud Cuckoo Land:
"By the way, the Archbishop of Canterbury also said the nativity scene is a 'legend.' Not real, just a legend. So for those of you out there who feel compelled to take some of your Christian beliefs, discard the miracles, and replace them with modern science and thereby invent a new religion, go right ahead - and if this is what Dr. Rowan Williams wants to do, if he wants to throw out the things in Christianity that he just can't explain in his 'superior mind,' go ahead, Dr. Williams. But just don't call it Christianity... "
I am sorry to have to debunk such a much-loved fable, but this old traditional story of the Bishop who thinks the nativity story is only a legend is, itself, a legend....a myth....a conflation.... a work of pious fiction... a lie.
If we go back to the original text, we will discover that the story goes more like this:
On Dec 19 2007 well known theologian Simon Mayo conducted an interview with the Archdruid on Radio 5. He asked him what I take to have been honest questions about which parts of the Christmas story are "true and crucial to believing in Christmas" and which parts aren't. He made a list of items such as "the stable and the manger" and asked the Druid if they were "historically and factually true".
Quite uncharacteristically, the Druid gave straight answers to these straight questions. No, the Bible doesn't actually use the word "stable" but it does very strongly imply that Jesus was born in an outbuilding of some kind. It certainly says that he was laid in a manger. It doesn't specifically mention an ox, an ass, or any other kind of animal, although there might very well have been livestock in an outbuilding that contained a feeding trough. It doesn't snow in the Middle East, as any fule kno.
Interestingly enough, someone had fed Mayo the old lie about the story of the virgin birth being based on a mistranslation, but the Druid set him straight. Matthew and Luke definitely say that Jesus had no human father, but Matthew may have wrongly understood a passage in the Old Testament as foretelling that this is how the Messiah would be born. When asked whether the story of the Virgin Birth was essential or inessential, the Archdruid waffled a bit :
"....I don't want to set it as a kind of hurdle that people have to get over before they, you know, be signed up; but I think quite a few people that as time goes on, they get a sense, a deeper sense of what the virgin birth is about. I would say that of myself. About thirty years ago I might have said I wasn't too fussed about it - now I see it much more as dovetailing with the rest of what I believe about the story and yes..."
But, translated from the gobbledegook, it's clear enough what he was saying: "Yes, this is what Christians believe; and yes, this is what I personally believe, but no, if you are seriously looking into the claims of Jesus Christ for the first time, that's not the best place to start."
But what everyone focussed on is the bit about the Three Kings. Mayo asked if they were historically real, and if so, why one of them is usually depicted as a black man. The Archdruid told him what anyone in possession of a Bible could have found out in 30 seconds flat:
"Well Mathew's gospel doesn't tell us that there were three of them, doesn't tell us they were kings, doesn't tell us where they came from, it says they're astrologers, wise men, priests from somewhere outside the Roman Empire. That's all we're really told so, yes, 'the three kings with the one from Africa' - that's legend; it works quite well as legend."
And there you have it. From "The Bible says that there were wise men from the East, but not necessarily three of them, and certainly not kings" to "Three wise men a legend" and thence to "Nativity story a legend" in one easy step.
See also under "lipstick, nylons and invitations."
As everyone knows, the New Testament contains two different and incompatible stories of the birth of Jesus. In Luke's Gospel, his birth takes place in secret: only Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, some shepherds, and two holy people in the Temple realise what has happened. Matthew, on the other hand, presents it as a big, spectacular, cosmic event. (He always does: even hard-core fundamentalist have problems with his suggestion that the death of Jesus was marked, not only by a thunderstorm, an earthquake and an eclipse, but also by an invasion of zombies.) Jesus is born, like King David, in Bethlehem and there is a divine firework display, just as you'd expect when a new King is born. But the villain of the piece, Bad King Herod, the Royal Quizzling who sold out the Chosen People to the invading pagans, doesn't notice the light-show. A deputation of foreign wizards have to come and point it out to him. His own Rabbis – his own wise men, if you will – find that their Scriptures agree with the wizards' astrology: if a King is what you are after, Bethlehem's the place to look. Bad King Herod sees this new King is a potential usurper, so while the Pagan holy men are taking fantastically precious gifts to the prince, the Jewish King is arranging to have him murdered.
The visit of the indeterminate number of wise men is commemorated in churches on January 6th, the last of the Twelve Days of Christmas. There's no reason to suppose that the magi really did turn up in Bethlehem on 6/01/0002. The star is said to have appeared when Jesus was born, and it must have taken the Wise Men at least several weeks to get from The East to Herod: and more time for them to get from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Christmas cards always show the Magi finding Mary and Joseph in the Stable, with baby-Jesus still in the Manger; but presumably after twelve days, the crowds would have thinned out and they could have got a room inside the Inn. Miss Muir explained that it was OK for our class nativity play to have both shepherds and wise-men in it, because the shepherds would naturally have come back every few days to see how mother and child were getting on. But Matthew says that the Wise Men came to a house and found a child there: not a newborn in a stable. Herod orders the cull of ever child under two, which gives some idea of the time frame.
What has actually happened is that churches have decided that the story of the wise men is a good example of God being interested in the whole world, and therefore an appropriate passage to read out at "epiphany". The story of the wedding at Cana (arguably the first event in Jesus public ministry) was also occasionally used: no-one ever suggested that that happened on Twelfth Night. Another good January 6th passage is Psalm 72, attributed to King Solomon. The poem imagines a future time when Israel is Top Nation and people from all over the world will pay homage to one of Solomon's illustrious descendants:
The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall bring presents
The kings of Sheba and Seba will offer gifts
Yea, all kings shall bow down to him
and all nations shall serve him
So: is what the Archdruid calls a legend actually a misunderstanding? Simple folks heard the two passages being read out on Twelfth Night, and assumed that Matthew's magi and Solomon's kings were one and the same?
Solomon seems to be hoping for we-four-kings, unless Tarshish-and-the-Isles share a monarchy, like Great-Britain-and-Northern-Island. "Tarshish" seems to be used in the Old Testament to represent anywhere that's an awfully long way away. When Jonah wants to get as far from God as possible, its Tarshish he heads for. Father Mapple in Moby Dick says that learned men have discovered that it's in Spain; a quick trawl of the interweb reveals that many loopy fundamentalists are taught that it's in Britain. Seba may be somewhere in Arabia. Sheba (as in "the arrival of the Queen of") is usually identified with Ethiopia. So that gives us three kings: an Arab, an African and a European. Medieval geography tended to regard the world as being divided into three continents: Europe, Asia, and Africa. So, very possibly, the Magi mutated into the kings of Tarshish, Sheba and Seba and then into three symbolic monarchs: one European, one Asian and one African. The symbolism is clear enough: the whole world recognises that Jesus is King - only the King of the of the Jews can't.
Matthew's original version of the story draws a contrast between the Jewish wise men, hunched over their dusty scrolls but failing to notice the great big shiny thing in the sky; and the pagan wise men who've followed it for thousands of miles. In the traditional version the contrast is between the false King of the Jews who wants to kill the prince, and the pagan Kings who want to worship him. There is a certain comedy to the Biblical version; but if you are painting a Christmas card or producing a nativity play, the King-centered version has a pleasing thematic unity; and the contrast between the poor king in the stable and the rich kings who visit him is irresistible. This is presumably what the archbishop meant when he said that the story of the Kings "worked as a legend".
In 1930, people on T.S Eliot's Christmas card list received the text of a new Christmas poem, which was carefully not called The Journey of the Kings. It has since acquired an almost canonical status: a Carol Service that didn't include "A cold coming we had of it..." would be as unthinkable as one which omitted "The bells of waiting advent ring...". (Last year's Carols from Kings College also included a poem by Alan Titchmarsh, but I'm guessing they won't make that mistake again. Ever.)
Mr. Eliot set his imagination to work on Matthew's story of the Magi:
A cold coming we had of it
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow...
Camels? Well, there are plenty of camels in the Bible: they spend their time going through eyes of needles, being accidentally swallowed by Pharisees, and embarrassingly herded by Abraham several centuries before they'd actually been introduced into the middle-east. So Eliot and the Christmas card artists are simply making an informed deduction: if you were coming all the way from the Orient, let alone from Tarshish and the Isles, camels are the kind of vehicle you might be using.
Or not. Another good Epiphany reading is Isaiah 60 which specifically deals with the Jewish God revealing himself to the gentiles.
Arise, shine, for thy light has come
And the glory of the lord is risen upon thee
For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth,
and gross darkness the people:
but the LORD shall arise upon thee,
and his glory shall be seen upon thee.
And the Gentiles shall come to thy light,
and kings to the brightness of thy rising.
Lift up thine eyes round about, and see:
all they gather themselves together, they come to thee:
thy sons shall come from far,
and thy daughters shall be nursed at thy side. ...
The multitude of camels shall cover thee,
the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah;
all they from Sheba shall come:
they shall bring gold and incense;
and they shall shew forth the praises of the LORD.
So again: someone has put an Old Testament passage in which gentile kings bring Gold and Incense to God's Top King alongside a New Testament story in which Magi bring gold, incense and myrrh to Jesus. The camels have leapt from one text to the other.
The staff of Starbucks think that it is very important that, during December, I should listen to loud, poppy versions of Christmas songs with my coffee. (Has anyone in the world ever felt their life enhanced by hearing "Frosty the Snowman"?) As I write, a ludicrous, rappy version of the "Carol of the Drum" is blaring through the loudspeaker at me. The final stanza runs:
The Ox and Lamb kept time...
I played my drum for him...
I played my best for him...
Then he smiled at me...me and my drum.
This is of, course, a piece of 20th century fiction in which Matthew's Magi are accompanied to Luke's stable by a purely apocryphal little drummer-boy. (Did he bring eleven mates along, seeings as how it was the twelfth day of Christmas?) There's no particular reason why he wouldn't have found a lamb there. If we follow Miss Muir's reconstruction, the Magi arrived a few days after the Shepherds, and if we agree with Christina Rossetti, one of the shepherds may well have left a lamb as a present. (In the Mystery Plays, the shepherds are much less generous: they bring things like a bob of cherries, a caged bird, and a tennis ball.) But the version of the song I grew up with said "the ox and ass kept time". The lyrics have presumably been changed to stop the Bart Simpsons of this world giggling.
Christmas Carols are positively heaving with this kind of livestock: "why lies he in such mean estate, where ox and ass are feeding?"; "ox and ass before him bow, and he is in the manger now";"saint and angel, ox and ass, kept a watch together". The Archdruid, curiously, said that he could live without the ox and the ass because "they don't figure very strongly in the gospels". So far as I can see, they don't figure in them at all: but they do figure in Isaiah's prophecy - on the very first page of it, in fact:
"Hear, oh heaven
and give ear, oh earth:
For the Lord hath spoken
I have nourished and brought up children
And they have rebelled against me
The Ox knoweth his owner,
and the Ass his master's crib
but Israel doth not know,
my people doth not consider."
The New International version goes so far as translate "crib" as "manger", just in case we missed the point.
So: the Ox and the, er, Donkey, turn out to be an iconographic representation of the same theological point which the stories of the Wise Men and the Kings are making: when God comes to earth, pagans and foreigners and even farm animals recognise him - only the Chosen People can't. Which is, of course, exactly the point which John makes in the poem which opens his Gospel: "he came unto his own, and his own received him not."
The question about which parts of the nativity story are "historically and factually true" turns out not to be a particularly helpful one. The Camel isn't there to inform us of the historical facts about the Wise Men's mode of transportation: it's a sort of sacred hyperlink which says "When you read about Jesus, I want you to keep Isaiah's vision in mind: that the gentiles would one day acknowledge the lordship of YHWH." The artists and poets who turned the Magi into Monarchs weren't revealing a previously neglected bit of history: they were saying "When you hear the story of the gentiles spotting Jesus and the Jews missing him, remember the poem about how kings from all over the world came to worship the Messiah." The Ox and the Ass are there, not because we care particularly what kind of a barn the inn-keeper put Mary and Joseph up in, but to refer us to the Old Testament passage which says "God's chosen people have totally lost track of what God is like."
And yes: one might very well wish to go a lot further. Perhaps Matthew only put the gold and the incense into the story because he was familiar with the Old Testament passage about people on camels bringing gifts to the Messiah; perhaps he made the Magi tell Herod that they had observed the rising of the new King's star because he wanted a concrete illustration of the idea that Jesus was the "light" that Isaiah was writing about; perhaps Luke added a manger because he wanted to invoke the poem about farm animals being better at spotting God than holy people are.
This year, the big Christmas Is Cancelled story was about a survey commissioned by a trendy evangelical church in London: it transpired that 70% of the Great British Public did not "believe" in the traditional nativity story.
Well, a great deal depends on what you mean by "believe" and "nativity story". If by "nativity story" you mean the one that the Daily Mail is waxing nostaligic over -- the one in which Jesus was born in a snow covered stable, between an ox and an ass, surrounded by camel and lambs - and if by "believe" you mean "think that it is historically and factually true"; then the really surprising thing about be is 70% of people did believe in it. If you mean "believe in the message that the traditional iconography is putting across - that God came in secret and wasn't spotted by any of the professional God-spotters - then it's a lot stickier. St Helen's Church seemed to think that the doubting majority regarded the story is simply mythical, a fairy tale set in some never-never land, and have put out a little a video pointing out that Augustus, Quirinius and Herod are verifiable historical characters and that at least some classicists find the story of the census not implausible.
But the more interesting thing in the survey is that 22% of church-goers, and 28% of the general population don't believe that Jesus is both human and divine. The first figure isn't terribly surprising: any church must have a certain number of doubters, enquirers and hangers-on - they aren't meant to be members-only holy clubs, after all. But the second one - that nearly 7 out of 10 people believe in the central supernatural claim of Christianity, is astonishing.
At any rate "Is Jesus both God and Man" has much more to do with what's "true and crucial to believing in Christmas" than what kind of camel the wise men were riding on or how much snow there was on the stable. The Torygraph reported with glee that, in the last twelve months, the Archdruid has changed his mind on the Wise Men: he now thinks that the story is basically true, because there might well have been Jewish astrologers just outside the Roman Empire getting involved in the politics of Herod's last days in Jerusalem. Now, for all I know, he may be right: just as, for all I know, the annual article by an astronomer pointing out that a conjunction, a solar flare, or a comet might provide a rational basis for the Star of Bethlehem may be on to something. But I am actually much more scandalized by the Archdruid's attempt to rationalize the story as history than I was by his suggestion that it's a legend. Because political astrologers and stellar conjunctions tell us precisely nothing about what Matthew and Luke were trying to say.
If I submitted a film script about 21st century America in which a young George W Bush is chastised by his father for chopping down a cherry tree on the White House lawn, would anyone think to ask if that was historically and factually true? Wouldn't they all spot that I was saying, pictorially: "Dubya was as famous for his mendacity as George Washington was for his honesty?" If they started to write learned essays about whether cherries grow in Washington and whether the security men would have let him get his hands on a hatchet, wouldn't we think that they had just possibly missed the point?