Thursday, April 29, 2010

"By God..."

When someone says that they don't like Furriners coming over here, then I am inclined to think that they have a problem with Furriners. The exact species of Furriner changes: it may be Polish people taking our jobs or Muslim people taking our Christmas decoration or Bleck people out breeding us (you know that they say about Bleck men) and causing us to concrete over this once green and pleasant land. Me have hobby, it called breeding, white man pay for baby feeding, remember?

The Nasty Press has spent the better part of the last decade winding Voters up. There are swamps, floods and swarms of furriners coming over here until the "indigenous" people are a minority in their own land. And stopping "us" from celebrating Christmas and consuming HP sauce. And getting lots and lots of freebies. A lady on Newsnight yesterday opined "A new person comes in they get everything their houses things like that you know they get new beds new you know like everything television TV licence paid for now and again you know like and basically what do we get?"

Anyone, in any country, at any time, might say "The law about residency, naturalisation, right of entry, political asylum, and the eligibility of foreign nationals to claim welfare says 'X', I think it should say 'Y', because...."And someone else might reply "On the contrary, I think it should say 'Z'." Technically and lexically, they would be "having a debate about immigration." It's certainly true that if you transfer 100 unemployed persons from Paris to London, that's 100 less people for France to worry about, and a 100 more for England to worry about, and England might reasonably enough have words to say to France on this subject.

But that's not what "having a debate on immigration" means, because that's not what immigration means. Immigration is a shout word, a code word, a whole bundle of confused ideas bundled up in four syllables. (Where are these people handing out beds to furriners but denying them to indigenous folk?)

So Gordon meets a Voter, who is doubtless a reader of the Nasty Press. (Mr. Prescott appears to think that the Nasty Press might have put her up to it.) "You can't say anything about immigrants," she says apparently forgetting that the Nasty Press have been going on and on about little else for year. "If you say that, you're...."

If you say what, Mrs Voter? What is it that you want to say about immigrants, and what is it that you fear will happen to you if do? I suppose it's possible that Mrs Voter felt that she couldn't say that Immigrants make a real and valuable contribution to the vibrancy of our culture but feared that if she did she would be called a pinko by the Nasty Press. But I don't think that was what she had in mind. I don't think that was what she had in mind at all.

Inexplicably, Gordon Brown chooses to fight an election on terms which have been set by the Nasty Press, as if getting positive coverage from wierdo hang em flog em expatriates was possible or desirable. Maybe he really, really still believes that The Sun Backed Blair because The Sun had undergone a sudden conversion to Socialism, and is hurt and confused because lovely, lovely, Rupert has turned against him. He's not the first person to make off-record comments into a live mic. John Major described his colleagues as bastards. Tony grovelled to that nasty Texan thicko. It really, really, really, isn't news that politicians say one thing to peoples faces and another thing behind their backs. It's called "good manners". (And it really, really isn't sensible for John Prescott to say that broadcasting an off-record remark by the P.M is on the same level has hacking private phone conversations.)

The big question is this. Why does Gordon dance to Rupert's tune and spend an hour and a half apologizing? How is it that his first instinct once he starts running scared of the Libdems is to start accusing them of being "soft" -- soft (that is, liberal, progressive) on crime; soft (that is, liberal progressive) on nuclear weapons; soft (that is, liberal, progressive) on immigration? How is it that the only policy that the left wing party can think of is to look as nasty and right wing as possible?

I'm fine with him saying rude things about voters behind their back. I'm particularly fine with him saying rude things about the kind of voter who would like to say nasty things about furriners but feels she can't cos of plickle krecness. But when he gets caught out he should damn well have the decency to say that he called Mrs Voter a bigot because that's what he thought she was.

NOTE: He says that he called Mrs Voter a bigot because he had misheard something she had said. Does anyone want to look at the transcript and tell me what it was that he thought she had said?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Will Kaufman

Jazz@FutureInns Bristol
24 April

Woody Guthrie was Bob Dylan's last idol. For me he was more of an acquired taste. I picked up an album called something like The Very, Very Greatest Songs of Woody Guthrie and Several Other Rather More Obscure Ones as Well on Bob's recommendation. When I popped it on the CD player (this was before iPods) my first reaction was: "oh, a cowboy singer". I found the music and the accent slightly squeamish and embarrassing. Tastes change; Guthrie can be corny and sentimental; most anthologies insist on including things like "Put My Little Shoes Away", "A Picture From Life's Other Side" and the unforgivable "Goodnight Li'l Arlo" which don't show him in the best light. Even some of the wartime songs can seem a bit astringent by modern standards. "We'll kill the axis rattlesnake and thieves of old Nippon", indeed. Aren't folksingers meant to be about peace and love? Guthrie, of course, painted "This machine kills fascists" on his guitar. Pete Seeger preferred "This machine surrounds hatred and forces it to surrender."

But you can't listen to Woody Guthrie for very long without coming to see why he is revered, canonized, even deified not only by American folksingers but by singers all round the world. Everyone knows Bob Dylan's long monologue about how, in the end, you either turn to God or you turn to Woody Guthrie; but Dylan's tongue-tied introduction to the piece is, in a lot of way, more moving than the poem itself. ("But really somethin' more than a folksinger.") I think that we British have been taught that we have to choose between patriotism on the one hand and left-wing or radical politics on the other: that the Union Jack inherently belongs to the Conservative Party (if not the BNP) and if you are a liberal it's your duty to stay in your seat during the National Anthem. What knocks me out is the way that Woody can support the trade unions, identify with the working man, hate the cops, the bankers, the lawyers and the rich men while all the time continuing to love the United States: this land is my land. I don't think that there has ever been, or ever could be, a British equivilent of Grand Coulee Dam, probably my single favourite song by any performer. There's the deep love and affinity for place and landscape alongside a triumphant enthusiasm for the wonders of modern industry; like a good Marxist, he treats the farmers and the factory workers as the real heroes, but puts all that alongside a deep affection for good old Uncle Sam and his battle against the Nazis -- and wraps it all up in a catchy old tune about a steam train. "Now in Washington and Oregon you can hear the factories hum / Making chrome and making manganese and light aluminum / And there roars the flying fortress now to fight for Uncle Sam / Spawned upon the King Columbia by the big Grand Coulee Dam."

Will Kaufman's is both an academic (Professor of American culture at the University of Central Lancashire) and a mean guitarist and singer. He describes his show "Hard Times and Hard Travellin' " as a "live documentary". There's a slide show; there's a lot of talk about Guthrie's life story; and there's also a lot of singing. Kaufman concentrates on the early part of Woody Guthrie's career – the time of the depression and the dust bowl migration, finishing with the composition of "This Land" in 1940. He provides a lot of historical back-story: the opening section about Coolidge, Hoover and Roosevelt and their varying degrees of culpability and attempts to cope with the Great Depression was invaluable for those of us whose teachers inexplicably skipped the chapter on early 20th century American history. He has a relaxed style; with well rehearsed one-liners and a deep knowledge of the subject. He's slightly apologetic about talking about American political history on Saturday night in a jazz club, but although I learned a great deal, I never felt that I was being lectured at. A lot of the time, he feels more like a story-teller than an academic speaker.

He spends a good deal of time on the appalling story (new to me) of Joe Hill, the radical song writer who was framed for murder and executed because of his revolutionary views, and performs a powerful rendition of The Preacher and the Slave ("Pie in the Sky"), Hill's most famous song. Sung in it's original form, it's an absolutely vicious bit of political satire, which Kaufman argues was a model for a lot of Woody Guthrie's political music: humour, catchy tunes, and instantly memorable political slogans.

I had entirely failed to realise how many of Woody Guthrie's songs were responses to or direct parodies of the popular music of his day. The great migrant anthem, "I ain't got no home in this world any more" is (obviously, now I come to think about it) a parody of pious hymns which tell the faithful that "this world is not my home / I'm only passing through". I've heard "If you ain't got the do-re-mi" a hundred times without understanding the specific context. (The California police and thrown up an entirely unconstitutional road block along the state line, and were ruling that any migrant who didn't have at least $50 was unemployable, and turning them back.)

Rather sensibly, Kaufman makes no attempt to impersonate Woody Guthrie: he's singing his own versions of the songs. I perhaps didn't agree with all his renditions – I'll stick with Guthrie's own jaunty, melodic version of Do-Re-Me over Kaufman's more bluesy version. But a lot of his songs are absolute eye-openers. He does a trio of songs about outlaws, finishing with a brilliant, finger picking banjo version of Guthrie's great ballad of Jesus Christ – complete with a rather pointed attempt to make the word "coward" rhyme with "Iscariot". It's a fine old melody, of course, but Kaufman really conveys the fire in Guthrie's Marxist Jesus. The story finishes, as it has to, with "This Land Is Your Land" – except that Kaufman chooses to sing the words from Guthrie's original manuscript, when the refrain was "God Blessed America For Me" -- a riposte to Irving Berlin's syrupy "God Bless America" -- an angry, ironic protest song. It's an astonishing, in-you-face restoration of a too-familiar piece; quite worth the price of admission by itself.

During a brief Q & A I asked if Guthrie was likely to have read The Grapes of Wrath – Kaufman had said that he spent more time in libraries and was better educated than he liked to pretend. The answer is that no-one really knows, but I was rewarded with a performance of the long and brilliant Ballad of Tom Joad, which summarizes Steinbeck's novel (or, arguably, John Ford's movie) in a dozen verses. "Wherever little children are hungry and starve / Wherever people ain't free / Wherever people are fightin' for their rights / That's where I'm gonna be, ma / That's where I'm gonna be."

Quite an evening. Prof. Kaufman seems to do this show all round the country (and there's a second part specifically about Guthrie as an anti-racist campaigner). If you get a chance to hear it, grab the opportunity with both hands.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

A paradox, a paradox, a most ingenious paradox

In Episode 1, the Doctor lost his sonic screwdriver, but the TARDIS made him a new one, with a different design.

But, but, but, in Silence in the Library, it turned out the Doctor had given / will give the screwdriver to Mrs. Who at some point in the future (and it was the same screwdrive, and had the emergency backup of Mrs. Who on it, and everything.)

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Olden Days

Martin Simpson
Folk House, Bristol
3 April

You know that bit, just before the last song of the first set, when the performer mentions that there are copies of his latest CD on sale at the front? Tonight, Martin Simpson used that space to point out that we are all agreed that all the politicians on all sides have, this time around, been more corrupt, useless and dishonest than ever before, that it is incredibly tempting to say that they are all the same, but that people died to get us the right to vote, and that if we don't use our votes on May 6th there is a real danger that the BNP will get in.

I don't necessarily share all their politics or all their religious views. But over the last few weeks I've increasingly felt that old guys with guitars in poky little venues are the only people left who talk my language.

There is a rumour going around that the BBC are going to rename the Radio 3 Folk Awards "The Martin Simpson Awards". This year he was nominated for Best Singer, Best Musician, Best Song (twice), Best Traditional Song and Best Album.

Quite unaccountably, the actual prize for best song went to Show of Hands' obvious bit of ranting about not liking politicians and bankers very much, rather than to "One Day", Mr Simpson's hauntingly delicate song of grief and healing. Simpson's songs have an absolute knack of changing direction half-way through: almost like a well wrought joke, except that the result is tears, rather than laughter. His most famous song "Never Any Good" (winner, Best Song, 2008) appears to spend six stanzas writing his his father off as a wastrel, before suddenly revealing how much he owes to him in the final stanza. (Come to think of it, the lyric doesn't identify who the song is about until the penultimate verse, where it is revealed almost in passing: "If you had been a practical man / You would have been forewarned / You would have seen that it never would work / And I would have never been born".) "One Day" takes this a stage further. As he explains it, his friend Martin Taylor wrote the opening, heart-breaking stanza's about the suicide of his son Stewart. Taylor wrote "You rode like a king and you sung like an angel / but it brought you no pleasure, it brought you no joy" and Simpson turns the song round with the inspirational "One day I'll hear hoof beats and not grieve for the rider / and the songs that you sung will bring peace and not pain." He absolutely proves the old rule that the most specific is also the most universal: a song full of reference to gypsy customs and snatches of Romany language, it will speak to anyone who has ever lost a loved one.

Although the new album is called "True Stories", Simpson isn't really a story teller in the way that Chris Wood and Martin Carthy are: these are songs expressing feelings and (very often) places.

I think this gig was the first time I've properly understood what it is he does with his guitar: over and over again his hands are playing a different tune to the one his mouth is singing. Counter-melody is probably the polite term. Which is, I imagine, physically very difficult to do. He doesn't have the world's greatest singing voice: the complexity of the guitar and voice arrangement is greater than the sum of its parts. Louise said that it often sounds as if there are two guitarists playing together.

The set contains a good mix of his American bluesy material English traddy stuff and his own songs. I have to say I'm not convinced by his Patrick Spens (which actually did win the award for Best Traditional Track) but that may be because I prefer June Tabor's versions of practically everything on general principles.

He finishes with two pieces on an electric banjo, complimenting the audience for not running from the room when such a monstrous device appears. Everyone agrees that Stag-o-lee was, all things considered, a Bad Man. Woody Guthrie has him hanged, where Peter Seeger has him going to the electric chair, but Martin tells us that "Stag-o-lee shot Billy in eighteen ninety five / Billy's in the grave yard, but Stag-o-lee's still alive" which is both a better line and closer to what actually happened.

I believe that if you are a proper French Gourmet, the correct answer to the question "What was the best meal you ever ate" is "The last one." I am told by people who know that Martin Simpson is one of the greatest acoustics guitarists in the world; I think he's certainly the best musician I have heard.

Oh, and he sings "Come Down Jehovah" better than Chris Wood does. Sorry, but it's


Which reminds me. Chris Wood complained about sound engineers who play unrelated CDs before and after the main act comes on. So was there some obscure ironic vengeance in Mr Wood's raucous Cold Hard Haily Night blaring out over the PA only a few seconds after Martin's delicate encore of Boots of Spanish Leather had faded away?

Robin Williamson & John Renbourne
South Bank Club, Bristol
12 April

After Dylan, the Incredible String Band's "Big Huge" was the first folk album I bought. The first bars of Maya bowled me over with their overwhelming strangeness; self indulgent, certainly, fey, possibly; long rambling songs which contain several different melodies; lyrics which make no sense at all and one track that lasts exactly 20 seconds. Yet it all seemed to hang together in some kind of vision. All very child-like and English: where John Lennon's controlling muse was Alice in Wonderland, theirs was clearly Winnie the Pooh.

So while the Band itself are (I believe) not on speaking terms, I feel incredibly –seriously– privileged to have heard Robin Williamson perform live on three separate occasions. He has matured from the archetypal hippie to the archetypal ageing hippie, in an entirely positive way: white beard, long hair, wise, whimsical, charismatic, yarn-spinning, the chief bard of the order of celtic-something or other. His primary instrument is the harp; but in the course of the evening, he also pulls out a recorder, a whistle, a mandolin, and does some drumming. John Renbourne, an equally venerable 60s veteran, sits to his right, looking like your slightly bemused grandfather, doing his guitar thing content in the knowledge that he invented jazz folk (arguably) and doesn't need to show off.

There was a minor glitch at the venue. Everyone marched into the downstairs bar where the music usually happens, and found that this time things were being set up in the upstairs bar, which wasn't quite ready. This had the neat effect that the people who arrived first had the last choice of seats. Two of the haven't-been-to-a-concert-in-years fraternity kept opining that this was a poor show given how much we paid for the tickets. (Two members of the same club became rather agitated at the Martin Simpson gig because the venue's doors remained closed until the, er, "doors open" time.) I refrained from saying that the really surprising thing was that one could get into the presence of these demigods for less than fifteen pounds. I mean, seriously. Does Bob Dylan play church halls in Southville? Next month, the Colston Hall will be asking £40 to hear Don McClean. (I thought American Pie was a clever song until I heard Desolation Row and realised where it came from. Forty pounds!)

They start with a long blues number, Sometimes I Just Can't Keep From Crying. Then John Renbourne picks out a long, delicate instrumental which becomes a tub thumping gospel song. He and Robin Williamson sing together. They are arguably not singing quite the same tune, but it doesn't really matter. "Thank God I can sing this song of his love / I know some day I'll be singing above." The last time I heard Robin, it was in the basement (one could hardly say crypt) of an evangelical church in Clifton. He seems to be one of those hippies who takes a little of this and a little bit of that from the different religions of the world, as happy singing "Keep to the sunny side of life" as something all Celtic and mystical. Or maybe he can just enter into the spirit of whatever song he happens to be singing. Later on, they do a country and western number called something like "You keep me stoned on your love baby" which Robin described as corny and mawkish and sang without a trace of irony. He tells us that Bob Dylan once described the Incredible String Band as "quite good" and then sings "Where are you tonight, sweet Marie" on his harp. I don't know whether it was intended as a send up of Dylan, or whether slowing down and articulating the words simply allows us to see what funny, witty lyrics the master wrote. John did "Lord Franklin" (which, as we all now know, mutated into Bob Dylan's Dream) sounding unbelievably sad and unbelievably ancient. Robin told us that real life cowboys were nothing like John Wayne, but more likely to have been Mexicans or Irishman, and then did an arrestingly different version of Buffalo Skinners, which he thinks probably gives an accurate picture of what cowboy life was like: "Well then our season ended and the drover would not pay / You've ate and drunk too much, you are all in debt to me." A strange artefact; a bluesy version of a song more associated with the Oakie tones of Woody Guthrie, accompanied by an ethereal harp. It works.

We finished on some daft Irish musical hall whimsy. Robin is enjoying himself so much that he sings the last verse twice, and the audience join in the chorus. "Her lips were like the roses / Her hair was raven hue / By the time that she was finished / She had me ravin' too." He relishes the daftness; the cod Irish accent; the silly jokes. Yet there is no incongruity of going from heavy blues (he loves to play blues on an actual harp, instead of a "blues harp") and "Buckets of Rain" to wondering where on earth the blarny roses grow. This song, just as much as the hymn or the country ballad, is worthy of his respect.

He said that the man who made his steel whistle was the closes thing he'd even met to a Hobbit; yet it was hard to avoid thinking that this old, bearded, whimsical, wise hippy was the nearest thing you'd ever seen to a leprachaun.

Godlike. No, seriously: God like. And for fourteen quid.

Jim Moray
Jazz@Future Inns, Bristol
April 14

"This is a song about beating your sister to death with a stick and throwing her body in a river".

Last week, Martin Simpson told us the story about how a young man met two sisters and gave the younger a gay gold ring (and didn't give the elder anything). This week, Jim Moray tells us how a younger sister was given a beaver hat (the elder sister, she didn't like that). In the first version, once the younger sister had been murdered by her jealous sibling her body is fished from the river by a miller, whereupon "a fiddling fool" cuts up her body and turns it into a violin, as you do. "But the only song that fiddle would play was 'oh, the dreadful wind and the rain' ". (Martin Carthy does a version in which the ghoulish instrument, more helpfully, identified the older sister as the murderer.) In Jim's version, the dead girl floats down the river. The miller fishes her out. And then he takes the rings off her fingers, and throws her in again.

There is probably some kind of a message here, both about millers and about folk songs.

The first time I heard Jim Moray (at the Folk on the Oak festival) I was a little underwhelmed: he seemed to to be singing a lot of old standards which hardly any one else would touch (Barbara Allen; Early One Morning) with electrical beats which mostly drowned out his voice. However once I'd listened to his albums, especially the superlative Low Culture, I decided that I had totally misjudged him. He has a sweet singing voice and uses a range of electronic sounds to put genuinely clever twists on (mostly) familiar old songs. Not all of it works, but when it fails to work it fails to work interestingly. ("Lucy Wan" is a charming folk song about incest and murder; the Daily Mail complain a lot about how nasty black people's music is violent; so the notion of alternating the traditional verses of the song with a modern, how you say, hip hop interpretation of the same story is extremely clever, even if I don't care to listen to it very much.)

So I was decidedly intrigued to hear that he was doing a purely acoustic set – grand piano and guitar only – in the Jazz club beneath the hotel in the new shopping centre.

He certainly knows and cares about his folk music, and, to my untrained ear, he can play the piano very well and the guitar well enough. He opens on the piano with a rather good Dives and Lazarus ; his plinky plonky guitar version of the Raggle Taggle Gypsies had Martin Carthy written all over it. The more raucus songs survive the acoustic treatment best. Lord Willougby is loud and dramatic (the recorded version depends mainly on Jim's keyboard, I think); and he makes Oh Don't Deceive Me, Lord Never Leave Me sound almost sinister in such a way as to banish all memories of Frank Spencer! He seems like a nice, self effacing chap – and frankly, he's a big enough "name" that he doesn't need to be playing this tiny venue – but has no real stage presence or "patter". Some of the songs outstay their welcome: Lord Bateman can seem interminable at the best of times.

On record, he has a rather interesting voice – words like "cheeky", "naive", "boyish" and "innocent" all entirely fail to describe it. Tonight he was, I think, getting over a cold: that thing where your voice changes from low to high half way through the line was probably happening more than he meant it to. On the CD, "Gilderoy" is a really, really, poignant ballad: listen to that giggle or twinkle he puts into the word "rakish" in the line "he's such a rakish boy". He carried the song off well enough on the piano tonight, but that detail didn't seem to come across.

All credit to the guy: his massive reputation depends on sticking two fingers up at sacred cows and singing Early One Morning with a drum machine, but he's still prepared to come to a venue that seats 50 and let his songs and his pleasant voice speak for themselves. He's not a natural story teller like Martin Carthy or Chris Wood and he's not a brilliant musician like Martin Simpson. He his, however a man with an absolute genius for iconoclastic recordings of familiar songs. And Low Culture is a superlatively brilliant album.

Mawkin: Causley
Theatre Royal Bath
April 16th

Mawkin: Causley is the result of a coalition between Mawkin, a folk instrumental band, and Jim Causley, a folksinger. They have been described as a folk boy band, and there is certainly a general sense of boyish naughtiness in evidence: a sort of camp rivalry between band and singer. You never quite forget that this is a team up between two acts, rather than a single entity. ("I wrote this song," says Jim "And then I gave it to Makwin, and they did what they always do..." "Yeah," says the guitarist "We threw it in the bin.")

There's a pleasant variety to the evening: Brothers Dave and James Delarre (who say they learnt their trade as buskers) do a guitar and violin set together; the whole of Mawkin does a set of hornpipes without Causley; Jim straps on a piano accordion and sings a comedy song with Alexander Goldsmith, the real squeeze box expert. (I was aware of the song which warns young married men about the dreadful consequences of allowing German musicianers to tune their wives' pianos, but I hadn't heard this one, in which a German clock winder winds up a married ladies clock. What is it about these Germans?) And no-one can restrain Jim from taking to the stage by himself to recite, with voices, Roahld Dahl's version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. You can honestly only get away with this kind of self-indulgence if your music is stunningly good.

Which it is.

There are some weird musical jokes. The traditional North Eastern song "Greenlanders" is presented in a cod Spanish arrangement – because Dave once met some Geordies on the Costa Del Sol. (The Greenlanders were Geordie miners who spent the winter on whaling ships. "I know that's not very popular nowadays, catching whales," says Jim. "But it's better than catching crabs.") But mostly it's just clever, beguiling arrangements. The absolute stand out is "Jim Jones in Botany Bay". The band create a complicated changing sound scape around the piece, particularly notable for Dave using the guitar almost as a percussion instrument. ("A bit like Voodoo Child" he says, which leaves me unenlightened.) But the arrangement never seems to swamp the original song -- although perhaps Jim can't quite do "angry" in the way that the last stanza requires.

One bijou problem, by the way, is acoustic: in the songs where the whole enemble is together and Mawkin are getting into the groove it can be quite hard to hear Jim's voice over the instrumental; which doesn't matter too much in something like The Cutty Wren -- which is more or less giberrish anyway -- but a bit of a shame in something like George's Son which has a good story to tell.

If the Radio 3 people had followed my plan and given Martin Simpson the prize for "Best New Foksong" then they could have given Mawkin: Causley the "best traditional track" prize for "The Cutty Wren". I don't think anyone knows precisely what the song means, although it has something to do with the Peasants' Revolt, but this arrangement manages to make the repetitive lyrics positively sinister. Jim confides that one day when he sings "oh where are you going said Milder to Molder" it's going to come out as "said Mulder to Scully".

Jim's introductions take the mickey out of all his songs – and out of other singers, and folk music scene in general. ("Some other, more...mature...singers on the folk scene also take a long time to tune their guitars.") Yet he knows where his traditional songs were collected, and the one song he wrote himself ("The Keeper of the Game") is derived from a volume of Anglo Saxon riddles that he just happened to be reading. Given the subject matter, Mawkin naturally decided that the arrangement should have a reggae vibe about it. There is something self consciously over the top about the performance, which tempts one to say "camp" -- as if they are trying to put the songs in quotation marks. But it's less showy and anarchic than Bellowhead. Jim apologizes for the number of depressing songs he's singing: the little drummer boy who dies at Waterloo; the soldier singing about all the places he's seen action – which actually turn out to be the names of London pubs and brothels; the psychotic sea captain who has killed his entire family and means to starve the passengers on their way to Americee. But in fact it's a funny, joyful, sing-a-long evening. They finish with a drinking song ("Let union be with all it's fun / For we will join our hearts in one") and then top it by doing "Cropper Lads" as an encore. There is a huge sense that the band is having a good time and sharing it with the audience.

"The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again..."

When the hated Blair regime seized power 13 years ago, the Daily Mail (The Paper That Supported Hitler) fairly wet itself with joy because he said that the free ride was over, and that he would cut unemployment benefits for those who refuse to work. ("We'll make them work" was the headline.)

This morning, the Daily Mail ("Hooray For the Blackshirts!") is fairly wetting itself with joy because David Cameron has said that the free ride is over, and that he will cut unemployment benefits for those who refuse to work.

It need hardly be said that it has always been a condition of claiming unemployment benefit that the claimant can prove that he is making a reasonable effort to look for work, and that he doesn't turn down any reasonable job offer. It should also be said that unemployment benefit -- £60 a week -- is (rightly) calculated as the very minimum that anyone can be expected to live on, so if you were really going cut people's benefit, you would, by definition, be creating more homelessness and crime.

But the scary, scary, scary thing is that both parties, to appeal to the Daily Mail continue to make laws, or at any rate, policies, intended to slay fictitious dragons: fictitious schools which have fictitiously banned competitive sports; fictitious human rights laws; fictitious health and safety laws and fictitious legions of lazy unemployed people living in luxury during the kind of recession when there are thousands of and thousands of jobs for them to take, even though the fictitious hoards of fictitious immigrants have come over here and taken them all. British jobs for British workers! Hooray for black shirts! Vote for nobody!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Very good interview with Matt and Karen in this month's Sci-FI Now, I thought. Why, the interviewer asks very much the questions that I might have asked myself....

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Fish Custard

5:1 The Eleventh Hour
5:2 The Beast Below

You're like Father Christmas, the Wizard of Oz, Scooby Doo, and I love you very much...

This is going to be difficult.

Seasons 3 and 4 were so bad, and the End of Time was so jawdroppingly shameful, that one is tempted to rave about Steven Moffat on general principles – to give him the Nobel Peace Prize simply because he is not George W. Bush. On the other hand, the degeneration from Dalek and the Satan Pit (as good or better than anything in the Original Series) to, say, the Stolen Earth (literally beneath contempt) happened so quickly that one feels one should err on the side of caution. Yeah, this time you gave us a funny, well-paced scene between the Doctor and Little Amy. This time you presented us with a moral dilemma that actually seemed to be a dilemma. Sure, for the last 72 hours I've been thinking about the line "...and then I'll change my name because I won't be the Doctor any more..." and grinning. And granted that Steven Moffat thinks that Doctor Who has more to do with fairy tales than with science fiction – and granted that the floating England is supposed to be dream like and impressionistic – then the Beast Below seemed actually to be a story in which most of the plot-threads were actually tied up by the end.

But that's only this week. You're just leading us on. We've been hurt too many times before. Next week you're going to kick us in the teeth.


The first thing to say is that Steven Moffat has done this story before. Twice. At least.

This is not to say that it is not a good story. In fact, the idea of a character who meets the Doctor when she is a little girl, and then meets him again when she is all grown up works much better in the modern era than in seventeenth century France. One suspects that this is the story which the Moff has always wanted to tell, and that R.T.D. persuaded him to shoe-horn it into an historical.

So: The Girl in the Fireplace the big controlling idea behind Doctor Who Season 5. We are going to see the Doctor through Amy's eyes, which involves seeing him twice. He's the fairy tale raggedy Doctor that had breakfast with Little Amy and he's the super-sexy complex man who Big Amy handcuffed to the radiator. And that double vision is not a bad reflection of what the programme has become: maybe what it always was. Doctor Who is both the programme you remember from when you were a kid; and it's the programme you are watching now, warts and all. It's both a children's fairy tale and a modern cool CGI soap. Both adults and kids love it, but in different ways. And maybe, in "the language of the night" the Doctor really is and only ever should be Amy's imaginary friend; and the monsters are really only her nightmares. Doctor Who is the kind of thing which lives in children's imaginations. R.T.D.'s Doctor was Christ in plimsolls, space-Jesus worshipped by the whole universe and commemorated in stained glass. Moffat's Doctor does indeed come in answer to a little girl's prayers. But the god she is praying to is called Santa.

It was, I think, cowardly to do all this from the Doctor's point of view. It would have been braver to do it from Amy's. We should have stayed with Amy for some of the years when people thought she was mad, and spent some time doubting with her if the Doctor was real. We should have been looking at the Doctor through her eyes, wondering if this new visitor was the same man she met all those years ago: not looking through his eyes wondering if the woman in the police uniform was the little girl he met five minutes ago.

The scenes between the Doctor and little Amy were really well done. They felt like something out of the Secret Garden or Bagpuss. The joke about the Doctor not knowing what kind of food Doctors's like best outstays its welcome, but it does give us the sense that the Doctor has spent a reasonable amount of time with Amy: long enough for him to actually be her Imaginary Friend. And it's very funny.

The most wonderful thing about Time Lords is I'm the only one.

(When was it happening? The TARDIS is flying over modern London (Millennium Dome, London Eye) but ends up in a cottage "12 years ago" – where 12 years ago is clearly "the olden days". Are we being subtly informed that the Doctor met little Amy "now" and grown up Amy "12 years in the future". I hope that the village where Amy lives will become a regular setting and that we get to know some of the characters. Just so pleasantly different from that generic London-Cardiff where everything used to happen.)

Even in the Christmas Invasion, David Tennant was very definitely not Christopher Eccleston. One could see the direction that his "not being Christopher Eccleston" was going to take, even if he was going to fill in some of the details as he went along. Matt Smith, I'm afraid, very definitely is David Tennant. Same buffer zone between stylish and geeky clothing; same arrogance; same habit of fast-talking his way out of problems. So far his unique selling point seems to be his child-friendliness. He made friends with Amy when she was a child: he keeps interacting with children and empathizing with children. Tennant would not, I think, have made so much out of the line about "when grown ups tell you everything's going to be fine..."

The beginning and the end of episode 1 were very strong. I didn't see either punchline coming. But the middle seemed to be in the very worst tradition of New Who. We have a monster which makes no sense whatsoever, but which the Doctor can exorcise using fast-talk and gobbledegook. Yes, the Doctor pointedly saves the day without his magic wand or his magic box: but in the end, he saves it with a magic computer virus and because these are the kinds of alien prison guards whose attention can only be attracted with a special magic alien guard attracty telephone. I don't think this particularly mattered – the story wasn't about the shape shifting criminal or the giant eye-ball. But it's interesting that when we need some kind of threat to act as a background to the Doctor and Amy getting to know each other, the new series still defaults to "puzzle aliens defeated by the magic internet" rather than, say, "men in rubber suits who want to conquer the earth".

Am I alone in finding it a little queasy that something which is explicitly constructing itself as kid-friendly includes quite so much innuendo? I understand that everyone else in the whole world thinks that the only notable thing about That Superhero Movie was that one of the characters used the word "Cunt". But That Superhero Movie was marketed as being for persons over the age of 15. Jokes about internet pornography and a lady not turning round when a gentleman is undressing seem a little... well... preferable to R.T.D. making toilet jokes every five minutes, actually.

The Beast Below I thought was very good indeed. The whole thing was driven by Big Red Buttons of the most shameless kind. There was really no way you could work backwards and imagine anyone actually building that space station. If you were leaving the earth because the earth's resources were running out, furnishing your schoolrooms with the kinds of desks that were obsolescent when I was at school would be rather more trouble than using modern ones, I think. (Do modern kids look at that scene and say "Oh, a rather traditional English classroom?" as opposed to "Why are those children sitting at funny tables?") And it's hard to see why anyone would say "Hey, make the surveillance cameras and the security robots look like seaside mannequins of the kind no-one can remember". But that didn't seem to matter, because we were clearly in the realm of Alice in Wonderland via The Prisoner. A dream/nightmare of England; a big floating metaphor. The imagery worked. I liked the idea of a spaceship where the transport tubes are still styled like the London Underground.

The Big Terrible Secret felt kind of like a lift from Ursula Le Guin but it was genuinely big, genuinely terrible and genuinely secret. I thought that the moral dilemma really worked nicely. I thought that the confrontation between the Doctor and Amy, though it came a bit too quickly, was convincing. I thought that the Doctor and Amy having the hearts-to-heart looking out into space was way too much like the End of the World. I thought the final pull-away at the end was much too much like the final pull-away at the end of Girl in the Fireplace: only there wasn't much point in it because we'd already been told about the whale.

It's a real problem that Doctor Who is now so much about the Doctor (as opposed to being about the places he goes and the people he meets). This is maybe why Smith is so much like Tennant: Tennant has so redefined the role - not the mannerisms, but what the Doctor is, that if Smith wasn't like Tennant he would run the risk of not being the Doctor. Only two stories after the regeneration, and it is already all about being old and sad and the only one of your kind. And this would not be so bad if Moffat didn't feel the need to lay it on with a bloody trowel. The Giant Space Whale, apparently, is old, and sad and the only one of its kind, but therefore it is kind, specifically, kind to children. At the beginning of the episode, we see the Doctor being kind to a child, and his whole relationship with Amy is based on having been kind to her when she was a child. This is extremely unsubtle.

But at the climax of the story, Amy has to explain that the Whale is old and sad and the only one of its kind, and therefore kind, especially to children, the camera pans to the Doctor and soppy music plays – as if the comparison was too obscure and buried for us to work out by ourselves. And then, at the end of the episode, Amy goes through it all over again. The Whale is old, and sad, and the last of it's kind, unable to decide what it wants for breakfast. "Sound a bit familiar?" Yes, fine, we got the message, could we move on now?

In the old days we knew that the Doctor was either a fugitive or an exile. But only rarely did he meet characters who were fugitives and exiles, and if he did, he didn't feel the need to say "Oh,did I mention? I'm a fugitive and an exile myself".

So: to over praise because they're not RTD, or to under praise because we don't want to set ourselves up for another disappointment? It's only a TV show, after all. It's not like I'm breathlessly willing it not to suck and can only really watch it properly on the second viewing. Let's go for a qualified, but still quite enthusiastic thumbs up.

Fanboy says new Who "quite good", shock.

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