Friday, March 30, 2012

So, Obviously, Don't Pay Any Attention To Me

Isambard Folk Award
Colston Hall
March 30th

The Isambard Folk Awards, named after the fella who invented bridges, are a newcomers thang. Anyone can send in a CD, the five best get to perform at the finals; the judges say how terrific the standard has been and that music isn't really a competition anyway, and the winner gets to appear on the main stage at the festival next month. All jolly nice. Fairly certain I was the only person in the audience who wasn't in, related, or at any rate connected to, one of the bands.

I was pretty sure I had it down to a two horse race between Solarferance and Misshaped Pearls. Solarferance did a sort of folk electronica, somewhere between the early Jim Moray and Duotone: that thing where the musicians are playing acoustic instruments and then mixing them live on stage with apple macs, so they end up accompanying themselves and creating what soundscapes. The process may have been taken slightly to an extreme: not only was the good old Cutty Wren accompanied by a mortar and pestle and musical saw, but it was also sung simultaneously in English and Welsh. (So we now know that the Welsh for "Milder and Mulder" is "Dibber and Dobber".) And when your act positively invites comparisons with Mr Moray, maybe its a little courageous to attempt Lucy Wan, without a rap artist but with a reel of sellotape. However Nick Janeaway and Sarah Owen can actually properly sing and the wierd sounds they produced were genuine response to the songs themselves. I particular liked the fading reverberations of "...and what will you do when your father gets home?" in Lucy Wan . (In real life "wait til your father gets home" is proverbially said to a naughty child who has catapulted a pebble through the dining room window; less often to a lad who has made his sister pregnant, chopped off her head and spoiled her pretty bodee.) Much my favourite act, partly because it wasn't like anything else and partly because, in a funny way, it was the most traditional thing of the evening. 

But I fully expected the judges to give the prize to Misshaped Pearls, a big seven piece world music ensemble with a Taboresque leading lady who offered complicated instrumentation of Latin lyrics by Ovid and finished up waxing all south American with something which I didn't get the title of written by a Mexican nun. Not precisely my sort of thing, but awfully polished and professional, with a big rich sound that was arguably closer to being actual music than the first lot. 

On balance, I ruled out the opening act, Common Tongues, who seemed to be doing very pleasant, singery songer-writery acoustic rock; very listenable to but quite like a lot of other things I'd heard somewhere. I also didn't think that the rather interesting Welsh five piece Evening Chorus, who started out doing close harmony that veered dangerously in the direction of the barbers shop, but then expanded into long drawn out complicated multi-layered rambles, putting me rather in mind of Alasdair Roberts at his more expansive, would get it.

"Either the clever electronic people", I said, "Or the big world music band, with just a small chance of the interesting Welsh five piece."

So, naturally, the judges gave it to Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker. Josienne is a lady who sings semi-traditional songs with her hands, squeezing out an awful lot of emotion and drama, as if she was personally gutted by the fact that her Donald works on the sea. Ben plays fantastically detailed tinkly-tonkly guitar, counterpointing her music rather in the manner of Mr Martin Simpson, who he lists as an influence, as does everybody else. 

I can only suppose that the judges gave it to them because they were clearly the most talented people in the room. If not necessarily the cleverest or most innovative. 

Which is, like, crazy talk.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Yes, I Think It Would Be A Good Idea

Tony Benn & Roy Bailey
St George's Bristol
29 March

I am guessing that one or two of the congregation at St Georges on Thursday night already knew what Ghandi said when someone asked him what he thought of Western civilisation. A lot of them had probably heard of Gerard Winstanley and the Diggers. But when Tony Benn tells an old political story, you clap anyway. I wasn't quite clear if we were clapping the actual passage from Soul of Man Under Socialism which he read out, or the sacred name of Oscar Wilde, or Tony Benn, national treasure. It didn't really seem to matter.

I can't remember when Tony Benn became a national treasure. In the 80s, the smart thing to say was that there were only two decent politicians, Tony Benn and Enoch Powell, the honest commie and the honest fascist. There may be something in that, in as much as they both regarded saying what they thought as more important than advancing their political careers. Although Benn worked pretty hard at advancing his political career, as well. If he had succeeded in replacing Dennis Healey as deputy leader of the Labour Party in 1981, as he very nearly did, then the whole political landscape of 21st century Britain would probably be exactly the same.

He's very frail now: he had to be helped onto the stage, though he stood up to speak. The idea was that he would do some political readings and tell some political anecdotes; and Roy Bailey would sing some protest songs in between. The whole thing was meant to add up to an informal history of the radical movement in England. Bailey's opening number was a powerful rant about English school history lessons, somewhere between "What Did You Learn In School?" and "1066: And All That." The songs were meant to reflect what Benn had been talking about, so if Benn spoke about the Peasants Revolt Bailey would sing "With Ball and Tyler, Wraw and Lister, Grindcobbe and Jack Straw"; if Benn spoke about the Diggers and Bailey would (of course) sing "In 1649, to St George's Hill..."  But fairly rapidly, this format broke down and Benn just talked and Bailey just sang songs. It worked just fine. 

We probably already knew that his mother thought that the Bible was the story of the conflict between the kings, who had the power, and the prophets, who preached righteousness, and that he decided when he was very small which side he wanted to be on. We'd also heard the one about the women who tied teddy bears to the fence outside Greenham Common (which contained enough weapons to blow up the whole world several times over) and were sent to prison for a breach of the peace. He would wound up his section ("that's all I have to say to you...") straight after the interval, leaving Bailey to fill the second half by himself. It wasn't clear if Benn was too tired to carry on, or had merely lost his place in his notes. I think this meant that Bailey had to resort to standards he wouldn't otherwise have sung, but he knows one or two protest songs so this was hardly a problem. He had to work quite hard to persuade the audience to join in. (His slow, thoughtful World Turned Upside Down is just as valid as Billy Bragg's electric one or Dick Guaghan's snarled one, but harder to sing along to. In the interval a local choir, possibly the Roving Blades, sung Ye Diggers All Stand Up without any provocation at all.)  But with a bit of prodding, the Bristol culteratti were persuaded to agree that wherever workin' men are out on strike, Joe Hill was probably at their side. Rosselson was well represented, of course, not only "World Turned Upside Down" but also a very touching "Palaces of Gold". (I couldn't place the very touching ballad about the old man who lives as a recluse because "they say that in his younger day he loved another man" but it sounded Rosselsonian to me.) So was the aforementioned Robb Johnson: we had the repetitive, rabble rousing "Medals Bloody Medals" and a more thoughtful piece about Vic Williams, the soldier who became a conscientious objector during Blair's war, which I felt summed up the political message of the evening rather well. 

The enemy ain't the other side wherever they draw the line
The enemy is the ruling class who draw the bloody line

I've been at revivalist meetings. They usually involve a good looking but learned preacher talking for an hour and half about the second chapter of Nehemiah, with references to the original Greek. And I'm not sure why everyone complains about preaching to the choir. The choir aren't necessarily particularly religious, they just joined up because they like singing. Benn's beliefs become progressively narrow as he gets older: he reads from Utopia and the writings of the Diggers about how there should be no private property and how everyone should share everything and how real wealth would be not having to worry about the future because the state will take such good care of you when you get old. He gets a big laugh by saying that crazy ideas like giving women the vote were once dismissed as "Utopian". He assures us that Cromwell solved the house of Lords by making a law that said "The House of Lords shall no longer meet, either here or anywhere else". Everyone agreed that war was a jolly bad thing. Nelson Mandela was included on the list of non-violent protesters. I don't know if everyone in the audience was really a pacifist communist. I don't know how Oliver Cromwell would have got to to abolish the house of lords and the royal family if he'd been a pacifist. I don't know if there is really any hypocrisy involved in swearing allegiance to the Queen and then trying, democratically, to replace her with an elected head of state. I'm not sure that the army is the best career to go for if you are a conscientious objector. It didn't actually seem to matter terribly. 

Benn was pleased that the concert was taking place in a former church because the progressive movement has been bound up with religion from the very beginning; whether we are talking John Ball and the peasants' revolt, the conscientious objectors who felt that they couldn't be warriors and followers of the Prince of Peace and the Diggers who talked about a creator-of-reason rather than the traditional Christian God. But this doesn't prevent Bailey finishing the evening by belting out the violently anti-religious (and very good) "I ain't afraid of your Yahweh, I ain't afraid of your Allah, I ain't afraid of your Jesus" to thunderous applause.

In his last illness, a male nurse told Bernard Shaw that he had to get better because he was a national institution. "You mean an ancient monument" snapped Shaw. Well, quite.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

How Do You Spot An Irish Boomerang?

Ron Kavana
Cellar Upstairs Folk Club
17 March

St Patricks night in the Cellar Upstairs Folk Club, hidden away in a back street near glamourous Euston Station, was a bit special. I was there because I wanted to hear Mr Ron Kavana who regular readers will remember won the Monty Award for Best Gig of the Year in 2010. Irish guy with guitar. He sings traditional Irish songs: ("the Night the Goat Got Loose on Grand Parade") and traditional Irish songs he wrote himself ("Reconciliation") and modern old fashioned protest songs. ("We laid the last old soldier to rest today / a lingering relic of the older way") 

There don't seem to be too many opportunities to catch him live: he describes himself as having "gone amateur" and complains at some length about the pricing policies of the CD sellers: there was no point in him selling copies of his new collection of Irish folk music, or his epic musical history of Ireland, because Amazon and HMV are selling them to the punters for less than he could get them wholesale. Not quite as intimate a gig as the one in the Bristol pub; possibly the St Patrick Nights atmosphere didn't lend itself perfectly to his intimate, meditative, interpretative singing-around-the-songs style of delivery. He suggested that the audience join in with Mountains of Morne in whatever key, rhythm or tune we liked. Some members of the audience took this a little literally and decamped to the bar when they were politely asked by the regulars not to drown out the act. 

There appeared to be some controversy about whether, as Ron thinks, the stanza which says

I've seen England's king from the top of a bus
And I've never known him, but he means to know us.
And tho' by the Saxon we once were oppressed,
Still I cheered, God forgive me, I cheered with the rest.

is the heart of the song shamefully omitted by some performers; or whether in fact he has discovered or interpolated a treacherous new verse. Obviously, I've never been oppressed by Oliver Cromwell and shouldn't have an opinion, but it looks to me as if the whole song, with or without the "bus" verse is about assimilation: Paddy tells Mary that this London is a funny old place, but he's not actually planning on going home any time soon. 

But very much the star of the evening, from my point of view, was the actual club: an old-fashioned folk club of the sort that I didn't think existed any more. Upstairs in a pub; a little room that had that complete lack of atmosphere normally associated with church halls. Very friendly: lots of people chatted to me. Give or take a loud lady, lots of appropriate singing along with the act. And, before each of Mr Kavana's sets an open mic in which regulars at the club got up to sing. Every one of whom was worth listening to, and several of whom you would have happily paid to hear. Didn't get any names down, unfortunately: there was a dotty fellow who did comic readings of cod Oirish poetry; a couple who did traditional Irish songs; and a fellow who sang "Price of My Pig". But the thing which really blew my head off were the two old time fiddle sets -- that very delicate, understated, polka style violin -- performed by a a very elderly gentleman with the remains of an American accent. He turned out to be (I had to come home and check, but I'm right) Tom Paley, usually referred to as "the legendary" whose been active in traditional American music since the 50s and once performed with Woody Guthrie. It really isn't every club where you get a bona fide legend playing support.

At the end of Ron's set there was still raucous Paddy's Night noise coming from the downstairs bar, so he wave persuaded back onto the stage to do his famous Midnight on the Water (recorded by the Watersons among others) his meta-song incorporating the traditional American waltz tune. Mr Paley couldn't get his fiddle tuned in time to join in; but someone spontaneously accompanied him on a musical saw. 

I don't think the existence of this club is quite enough to make me relocate to London. I see they have one Leon Rosselson (who he? ed) playing there in June.

It doesn't come back, but it sings about how it's going to some day. 

Friday, March 16, 2012

Jewel in the Crown

Martin Carthy 
Kings Place London 
16 March


He comes out onto the stage; peers out into the audience; says "Hello!"; pauses to re-tune his guitar. And straight into "Come, listen to my story, lads, and hear me tell my tale, how OVER the seas from ENG-LAND, I was condemned to sail". And we're off on another mixture of long, long ballads, give away comic songs, and "The Fall of Paris". At one level, he's a showman, of course he is – the walking onto the stage at the opening of the second set and reciting a Victorian music hall monologue (this time "Me Mother Doesn't Known I'm On the Stage") has been honed over many decades of gigging, of finding out what works and what doesn't. He always opens with Jim Jones because he's found that Jim Jones is the perfect song to open on. But it's still the naturalness which floors me; that sense that he'd be singing these songs even if the audience hadn't turned up.

He does the one about the Blind Harper who stole the kings favourite horse, which is one of three he regularly claims as his favourite; he does Patrick Spens which he says has only recently come back into his repetoire. Everyone jokes about folk songs which go on for ever and ever; but in fact, songs like Sir Patrick really, really gain from being song in full. It takes 25 verses.  (Martin Simpson rattles through in a dozen or so.) Because it's a story, and leaving in all the verses makes it clear and easy to follow; we're in no doubt about why the King needs Patrick to set sail in such a hurry, nor why he has to come back in an equal rush.

He winds up with the best double-whammy you could hope for; the epic Prince Heathen and the silly Feathery Wife; both, in different ways, about love: the evil domineering love of the satanic nobleman for lady Margaret; the devoted love of the nagging wife who comes up with the ruse to free the farmer from his faustian bargain.

I spent some time in this forum earlier in the year trying to answer the question "What is a folk-song, anyway?" Carthy's Prince Heathen could stand as a test-case. It's Carthy who matched the words to the incongruously jolly tune; its also Carthy who adapted Child Ballad 104 (I looked it up) into modern English. 

The Child version has the refrain:

"O bonny may, winna ye greet now?"
"Ye heathenish dog, nae yet for you."

which Carthy freely turns into

"O lady will you weep for me? Lady tell me true"
"Ah, never yet ye heathen dog, and never shall for you!"

Sometimes he's fairly close to the original:

"A drink, a drink, frae Prince Heathen's hand,
Though it were frae yon cauld well strong!"
"O neer a drap, Prince Heathen," said one,
Till ye row up your bonny young son."


"A drink! A drink! The young girl cried
All from Prince Heathen's hand!"
"Oh never a drop Prince Heathen cried
Til you wrap up your son!" 

But sometimes, he's bringing his own imagination to the printed text:

He's taen her out upon the green,
Where she saw women never ane,
But only him and 's merry young men,
Till she brought hame a bonny young son.

Becomes the horribly brutal:

So he's laid her all on the green
And his merry men stood around
And how they laughed and how they mocked,
As she brought forth a son

But it's recognisably the same story; except, of course, that he's changed the ending: Carthy rightly feels that after the Princess has kidnapped lady Margaret, wiped out her entire family, raped her, and imprisoned her in a dungeon, its unacceptable for Anon to imply that, in the end, his heart was softened and they lived happily every after. Traditional song or new song? For all we know, the anonymous source who submitted the "traditional" version to Mr Child might have interpreted and earlier version just as freely.

A lot of Martin's identiy as a folk-singer continues to depend on the idea of source-singers: for every song reconstructed or re-invented out of a printed source, there is one that he got from an old recording on a wax cylinder. His My Bonny Boy is Young But He's Growing comes off a recording Vaughan Williams made of a pub landlord in 1907. He kisses his fingers to show how beautiful the long dead singer's voice was. (*)

"These songs are the real crown jewels" he says before Prince Heathen "And this is one of the jewels in the crown." His own acoustic guitar is "in hospital" but his guitar maker has leant him a beautiful instrument to use in the interim. At the end of the song, he allows the guitar to take the bow and acknowledge the applause.

(*) You can listen to it here, through the wonders of the internet. In places it sounds uncannily (even disturbingly) like Mr Carthy's version. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2012


When you saw Star Wars, you honestly felt that you would give anything to find out what the Clone Wars were and to see Obi Wan Kenobi in the days when he was a hero and all the Jedi Knights had Swords and the Old Republic. 

But that "honestly feeling that you would give anything" is precisely the emotion that made Star Wars the Best Movie Ever, and actually telling you what the Clone War were like removes that "honestly feeling you would give anything" feeling and actually ruins Star Wars forever. Watching a lady not quite taking her clothes off is far more sexy than being on a beach where no one is wearing anything at all. 

The Star Wars prequels were just a very bad idea. As it was, they were a very bad idea  poorly executed but they would have been an equally bad idea even if they had been very well executed indeed. Their one redeeming feature is that they were George Lucas's really, really bad idea. It was George Lucas who created Star Wars to begin with. He didn't just dream it up: he actually thought up the characters and wrote the script and worked with the actors and model makers. So of course I was interested to find out our George Lucas imagined the Jedi Knights at the height of their powers and the Imperial Senate and the pre-lapserian Darth Vader because he created the whole idea of the Jedi Knights and Imperial Senates and Darth Vaders in the first place. If the movie had been made by Some Other Guy then it wouldn't even have had that excuse. I like the Jedi Council scenes because they tell me what George Lucas thinks the Jedi Council should look like. Some Other Guy's version would have exactly the same validity as the version of the Jedi Council that me and Jeffrey made up in the playground of East Barnet Lower school in 1978 with airfix spacemen and toy action figures. (Less. Less.) Even if the films had actually been really rather good. Especially if the films had been actually really rather good. Especially if the films had been actually really rather good and George had specifically said that he thought they were a really, really bad idea.


Whenever I re-read Watchmen, Doctor Manhattan's very tactful phallus reminds me of the  enormous anatomically correct cock in the movie. Something that I hardly noticed in the comic has become funny, or embarrassing, offensive or whatever the hell the socially approved way of reacting to an enormous blue willy is. 

The movie changed the comic. It did. It just did. 

Read Frankenstein without thinking of Boris Karloff. I dare you.


Does DC comics appalling opportunistic piece of shit corporate Watchmen rip off really matter?

No. In the total scheme of things, of course it doesn't.   

Monday, March 12, 2012


Harry Potter and the Da Vinci code are not reducible to the MSS that J.K. Rowling and Dan Brown submitted to their publisher. This is true even if the published text was very close to those MSS and not, as sometimes happens, co-authored by their editors. At the very least, several hundred people were involved in drawing covers and typesetting and printing and physically manufacturing the object that you bought in Waterstone. And someone else created the marketing campaign; decided that it would be cool for bookshops to open in the middle of the night to sell the first editions; carefully honed the Rowling persona; spotted that a series of school based children's fantasy stories might be the sort of thing that kids would want to read. No-one but JK Rowling could have written Harry Potter but if JK Rowling hadn't written Harry Potter, some other publisher might have identified some very similar author to place at the center of a very similar maelstrom.

It is tempting for a writer to think "It is my words that the Public wants, and all the publisher does is put them in the hands of the reader."

It is equally tempting for a publisher to think "I make beautiful books, and one small part of the process is the artisan who I hire to write the words which go into them."

It is tempting for an actor to think: "I have a special talent: people come to see me act, and the director's job is simply to decide where I should stand so that the audience can hear me declaiming.

It is equally tempting for a director to think: "People have come to see my version of a play, based on my knowledge of literature and stage craft. An actor is simply a skilled individual whose job it is to read the words and perform the gestures that I am tell him to."

Would it therefore be unreasonable for the theatre architect to say "I am in the business of giving people an exquisite evening. You create a beautiful building, and then you hire anyone to sell ice cream, pour drinks, and strut about on the stage?"


You can sometimes get a very small child to eat his greens but arbitrarily declaring that these are special Tellytubby greens. It works better if the person performing the alchemy is Mr Sainsbury: the spinach that was wrapped in official Tellytubby packaging really does taste better than the kind which Mummy says came all the way from Tellytubbyland.

I am sometime told that Peter Jackson's parody of Lord of the Rings has to be judged on it's own terms: it doesn't matter whether or not it is an accurate translation of Prof. Tolkien's book.

It is certainly true that Lord of the Rings works very well as a Hollywood pop corn flick. I would place it almost precisely on  a level with the Pirates of the Caribbean series, full of sound and fury but signifying less and less as it goes along.

This is not to deprecate Lord of the Rings. I like the Pirates of the Caribbean series very much indeed. They provide a huge dollop of cutlasses, cannons and eye patches, wrapped in the illusion of a narrative, and enough macguffins and plot coupons to propel the ships from exotic location to exotic location. They are, in short, exactly what you want from a pirate movie. 

I feel much the same way about Lord of the Rings: it is the Goonies with dragons, ill matched semi competent protagonists dropped into the middle of a story in which far too many precipices collapse underneath them and far to many dragons drop rocks on them for anyone to have any chance to work out what is actually meant to be happening. 

Saying that the Lord of the Rings is to be judged on its own merits is the same as saying that Jackson, having made his big budget cartoon, used the name Lord of the Rings to give it a quite spurious gravitas: that the Lord of the Rings movie is only a Lord of the Rings movie in a manner of speaking, just at the Tellytubby spinach is only Tellytubby spinach in a manner of speaking.

If I say this, I am accursed of snobbery by the meta geeks.  

Sunday, March 11, 2012


Can anyone remember who the Ghost Rider was, or what comics he appeared in, or what kind of villains he fought? (It was a rhetorical question, Nick. Please sit down.) I believe he had sold his soul to the devil, as one does. Gary Friedrich didn't dream up the idea of the Faustian Pact: Christopher Marlow did. He didn't come up with the idea of the heroic stunt-cyclist, either: that was Evel Knievel. The not-that-bad-movie did indeed make use of the idea of the stunt cyclist who sold his soul to Beelzebub and then tried to use his evil hell fire powers for good (or something). But what everyone remembers about the character is the guy in biker leathers on the harley davidson with the flaming skull where his head ought to be. It is, how you say, iconic. 

Stan Lee, as everybody knows, believes that comic book characters have an essential, platonic being outside of the actual stories they appear in. He believes that these platonic essences are created in a single, metaphysical, quasi-divine act, which only he has control of. He calls this unified act "dreaming up". Once the "dreaming up" has been done, the character has existence, and any one of a number of different hired hands can do the donkey work of putting it on paper. There's no actual work involved; the demiurge just sits in his armchair and has creations. On this view, the person who came up with the elevator pitch "He's kinda like Dr Faustus, only on a bike" "dreamed up" Ghost Rider, and everything else (drawing the pictures, thinking up villains, making up words for him to say) was just dot-joining that any artisan could have done. I believe that there are sincere differences of opinion about who did the original up-dreaming in this case. 

You might think that 90% of the success of Spider-Man came from Stan Lee's funny speech bubbles, and only 10% from Steve Ditko's design the costume. You might think it was 50/50 or 60/40. No-one apart from Walt Disney's legal department doubts that two people were involved. It seems to me that 100% of the success of Ghost Rider as a comic book and 100% of the reason it was turned into a not-too-bad movie was the physical design of the character: the idea-of-the-Ghost-Rider is the guy on the bike with the flaming head not Satan or Mephisto or Zathros or anything else. In which case, if anyone "created" the Ghost Rider, it was not Mike Friedrich or Roy Thomas but Mike Ploog, who drew the actual pictures.

It will be remembered that in 1969 Stan Lee allowed Cadence Industries to believe that he was sole creator of all the Marvel characters and Ditko and Kirby were merely hired illustrators. This applied even to the Silver Surfer, even though Stan had said over and over again, that Kirby created, and therefore presumably "dreamed up" the character without input from him. It is perfectly true that Stan Lee's inferior 1970s version of the character added lots of elements which had not been part of Kirby's original conception, and that it is this inferior version which still appears in comic books today and was used in the the not-completely-awful Fantastic Four movie. It is also clear that the three Spider-Man movies were based on John Romita's version of Spider-Man, which was inferior to Ditko's tio the point of being parodic. 

It is not to be suggested that Lee had no imput into the creation of the Silver Surfer; only that, by his own arguments, he didn't dream him up. This is not to argue that Steve Ditko was the sole creator of Spider-Man; Mike Ploog the sole creator of Ghost Rider or Jack Kirby the sole creator of everything else; only to argue that the concept of "dreaming up" is palpable bullshit. The idea of Spider-Man, or Ghost Rider doesn't exist apart from actual Spider-Man or Ghost Rider comics: the people who created them are the people who did the hard work of drawing and writing, not whoever it was who happened to have first pitched "What about a guy on a bike with a skull instead of head." 

Sigh. No, I don't think that Marvel Comics should pass 100% of the profit from The Avengers movie to Jack Kirby's estate. 15% would be fair; 5% would be a realistic. 1% would be a nice gesture. At this stage of the game it would count for more if Kirby's grandchildren joined Stan Lee on the red carpet, and if Stan Lee said "Me and your grandpa created these characters together" or even "I suggested this idea to your grandpa, and he created the characters, and I thought up things for them to say" which everyone knows is the truth. But even that can never happen, because Stan Lee's faith-position conveniently matches the legal fiction that characters have essences and those essences are created and owned by corporations and buildings and legal entities, not by human beings with stuff they want to say.


What were the Daleks?

Were they

1: A script written by Terry Nation

2: A prop designed by Raymond Cusick

3: Characters in a children's television programme directed by Verity Lambert

4: A cultural phenomenon which began in 1963 and was over by 1968

Once you've framed the question in that way, the answer is pretty obvious. "The Daleks" were an ambience, an atmosphere, a period when, wherever you looked there were Dalek toys and Dalek magazines and Dalek soap and Dalek colouring books. Those of us who came in during Jon Pertwee sometimes feel that we missed "the Daleks". BBC props moving around a quarry just don't have much to do with Daleks. Re-runs of Peter Cushing movies on wet Sunday afternoons and dog-eared Dalek comic books seem to bring us closer. But no collection of ephemera can really recreate the Daleks. We weren't there when they happened.

Similarly, people of my generation have seen The Beatles reduced to 15 very good CDs, 2 very good movies and Magical Mystery Tour. This has practically nothing to do with the Beatles, although Hard Days Night goes some way to telling us what the Beatles would have been like had we been there. The Beatles were a moment when people were wearing particular clothes and watching particular cartoons on TV, and incidentally stopped rationing sweets and hanging people. The fact that John, Paul, George and Ringo also happened also to sing some quite good songs was neither here nor there. People only went to Beatles concerts in order to shout them down. 

Or again, the 12 action figure that were sold in 1977 were not an adjunct to Star Wars. They were Star Wars. Star Wars was a particular summer, which included Star Wars toys (if you had lot of pocket money) Star Wars bubble gum cards (if you didn't) Star Wars comic books...oh and also a film. (Remember, if you are British, Star Wars was a comic first and a film second. One of those big Treasury Editions they don't make them like any more.) You saw the film once, or, if you were particularly sad, five times. You read the comic every day for a month. You played with the toys until you got too old for them. George Lucas's attempts to deny that things like The Star Wars Christmas Special and Christmas In the Stars ever happened represents a blatant falsification of what Star Wars was. Is.

Can you get "Force Blades" on ebay? Not reproductions of lightsabers that actually look like lightsabers -- actual 1970s force blades. The real thing. 

One imagines the Beatles and Star Wars and Spider-Man putting their essential being forth into the surrounding culture until they themselves no-longer exist. (This is a reference to Tolkien. It would take too long to explain.) Everyone knows what Mickey Mouse looks like: hardly anyone has seen an actual Mickey Mouse cartoons. Disney rather discourages it. A strange composite Winnie the Pooh -- definitely not A.A Milne's character but not exactly the the Disney character either -- seems now to have an existence outside of the original stories. It is very common to find young children who are crazy about Spider-Man, but who have never seen a Spider-Man comic or scene a Spider-Man movie.

Spider Man isn't a superhero: he's a lunch box. 

Saturday, March 10, 2012


So far as I can tell, the inhabitants of Barsoom never do anything except get captured, get rescued, and fight minor wars. So it is possible, not to say plausible, that Dejah Thoris was kidnapped on more occasions than the seventeen or eighteen recorded in the canonical texts. A twelfth John Carter novel would be no sillier an idea than a tenth or an eleventh. (The series had, in fact, run out of steam by volume 4.) So if I were to write a Martian fan fic, an admittedly remote contingency it could be judged purely on its own merits. The best you could say about such a book was that it captured the tone of an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel rather well, in which case I'd have given the world something it arguably needed – more stories in style of the second greatest pulp writer who ever lived. But the worst you could say is that my novel is rather dull, and you would rather re-read the ten and a half canonical stories than waste time with my apocrypha.

But why write a story set in Edgar Rice Burroughs setting rather than create one of my own? Because we all love the Martian stories and wish there could have been more of them. Because I think that Burroughs' Mars is a distinctive setting, and the the story I have thought of couldn't have happened anywhere else. Because the fact that it is pastiche gives me freedom to write in a way that I couldn't if I were using my own voice. (It is easier to write about abduction and rescue of incomparable princesses in a Martian setting because we already know that that's the kind of thing which happens there.) 

Or maybe the real answer is as simple as: "Yes, I could create my own setting in which to tell thrilling adventures. But I don't need to, because E.R.B has already done it just about as well as it could possibly be done." 

E.R.B did, in fact, write "Tarzan at the Earth's Core". He never wrote "Tarzan on Mars" but he damn well should have done.

This is, I think, how the endless stream of Fantastic Four knock offs have to be regarded. In one sense, the idea of the Fantastic Four without Stan Lee is almost as ridiculous as the idea of the New Gods without Jack Kirby. No-one but Stan could write Reed Richard / Ben Grimm dialogue; and no-one could fail to see that Reed Richards / Ben Grimm dialogue (and Reed / Johnny dialogue, and come to that Doctor Doom dialogue and Galactus dialogue) were a very major part of what made The Fantastic Four The Fantastic Four. The other major part was Jack Kirby's villains and alien worlds and plots and characters and fight scenes, obviously.

On the other hand, Fantastic Four #103  is not an intrinsically sillier idea than Fantastic Four #102. The Kirby conceived the F.F, not as the protagonists of a self-contained novel, but as heroes who would continue to have adventures, month after month, for as long as he could think them up and readers wanted to read them. No-one supposes that it is important to the impact of Fantastic Four 1 – 102 that after defeating the Submariner (again) they all gave up heroing and retired. 

But if you want to tell a story about a group of heroes who fight space monsters and mad scientists, why not think up your own group of heroes, rather than steal Kirby's? Well, because the chances are that any team you dreamed up would consist of The Clever, Stuffy One; The Sensible, Motherly One; The Firey, Impetuous One and The Strong, Bad Tempered One, because that's a natural kind of team to send on adventures. We know how they talk to each other and what they are going to argue about; we know what Reed will say to Ben and what Ben will say to Reed; we can drop them into any situation, however banal, and it can hardly fail to turn into a story. It would, of course, be possible for you to dream up your own group of interlocking characters and send them off on Adventure. But you don't need to: Kirby already has.  


Yes, yes, yes of course it is cool that the Fantastic Four lived in Spider-Man's city and Spider-Man lived in the Fantastic Four's city, and that that city was based on New York and this remained true even in those episodes of Spider-Man where the Fantastic Four weren't mentioned and those episodes of the Fantastic Four where Spider-Man wasn't mentioned

But get this: Marvel New York, or indeed the Marvel Universe doesn't really exist and never did. It isn't real in the way Camden Town is real: it isn't even real in the way that Barsoom is real. It is a way of thinking about stories; it is not itself a story. It is a literary conceit. The idea that we could read the Avengers because it "reveals" to us "fact" about "history" of the Marvel Universe is as fundamentally wrong headed as the idea that we might listen to Elenor Rigby in order to find out about the architecture of Father McKensie's church -- indeed, that the church has some kind of essential existence outside of the words of the song.

NOTE: Remind me to write an essay one of these days on The Fantastic Four as an instance of C.S Lewis's Four Loves. Reed loves Sue as a wife, Ben as a friend and Johnny as a son; Ben loves Reed as a friend, Johnny as a brother and Sue as a sister; Sue loves Johnny as a mother but Johnny loves Sue as a sister, etc etc etc. You could probably draw a map.


Friday, March 09, 2012


When Jimmy Olsen is kidnapped by the Clan of the Firey Cross (or as it may be, the Yellow Mask) Clerk Kent gives his description to the police chief, and distinctly describes him as brown-haired.

Do you say:

a: Clark Kent made a mistake. The Historical Jimmy is a red-head.

b: The red haired Jimmy is a different person from the dark haired Jimmy: there are two Jimmies, just like there are two Ronnies. Radio Jimmy is dark-haired, but Comic Book Jimmy is red-haired.

c: How interesting: when he was very young, Jimmy must have been embarrassed about his colouring and used hair dye (when that would have been a very unfashionable thing for a boy to do in the 1940s.) Perhaps his friendship with Superman caused him to accept himself as he was. Or maybe hair colouring just became too expensive during the war. That could make a really interesting piece of fan-fict, come to think of it...

d: I wonder what specific cosmological force resulted in the Jimmy Olsen of Earth-R having different colouring to the Jimmy Olsen of Earth-2?


Some people got very cross with Harry Potter and the Deathly Harrows because it closed the setting down and off. Some of these people had written stories in which Harry married Hermione. J.K Rowling revealed that in real life he didn't, and this matters a great deal to them. 

I overheard someone who had just seen the abomination remarking "I am well pissed off with J.J Abrams, because I have two shelves of Star Trek DVDs, and now they didn't really happen."

Whatever "really" means. In real life, neither Harry Potter nor Captain Kirk exist. Nor Santa Claus, nor Hamlet. I have serious doubts about Nick Clegg. 

Some people say that they have tried to read Jane Austen, but felt that it was spoiled because someone had removed all the zombies. Actually, disregard that: they probably only say it to annoy me. But go back and try to read  The Final Problem on the assumption that Holmes really died and is really not coming back, which is clearly what Arthur Conan Doyle intended when he wrote it.

That's the problem with worrying about what authors intended, isn't it? If an author writes his story meaning one thing, and then goes home and changes his mind, does the story change, even though it stays exactly the same? Did Obi-Wan "really" lie to Luke Skywalker because George Lucas says he did, even though, when he made Star Wars, he clearly intended him to be telling the truth? Obviously, Obi-Wan didn't "really" do anything at all, because there is no such person. 

Try to excavate Bob Howard's pulp hero from the corporate Conan that L Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter and Frank Frazetta and Arnold Schwazenegger and above all Roy Thomas created out of his corpse. Reading the stories in publication order, rather than as a spurious biography helps somewhat. Imagining that you are reading them in a magazine helps a bit more. Consciously picturing Conan as not looking like Frank Frazetta's pictures helps a lot. (He was Saddam Hussien's favourite artist, don't you know?) Saying "Bob" helps, a bit, actually. But it can't really been done. The bad fantasy epic has overwritten the very good collection of yarns and tall tales. The terrible movies are the dominant flavour in the soup. Conan has that haircut. He just does. The lake of story has been well and truly pissed in.

Books and movies influence books and movies which come after them. But they also influence books and movies which come before them. Jackson's King Kong and J.J Abrams abomination will affect every single viewing of King Kong and Star Trek for as long as people continue to buy DVDs of old TV shows and very old movies, which. They aren't just parodies: they are acts of psychic vandalism.

Whatever you may have heard, all stories are NOT true.


All You Fascists Bound To Lose

Robb Johnson 
Bristol Folk House 
9th March


Just occasionally, I wonder if I might give up on the whole the geek thing; that maybe it wouldn't be the end of the world if there was a folk gig in Bristol and I wasn't there. And then there is an evening like tonight, and I remember why I started to listen to this stuff to begin with.

Robb Johnson's gig at the was literally like nothing I've ever been to before. He was going to wind up his set with a sentimental song about talking to a fox on his way home from the pub. (The fox says its heading for the street where he grew up, where he used to pick blackberries; but there's a supermarket there now "and none of the fruit tastes of anything at all.") But someone from the audience calls out a title, so he sings that as well, so instead of lyricism we end the night in chanting: "We hate the Tories! We hate the Tories! Yeah Yeah Yeah! And Tony Blair! Same difference there!" Except, of course, that he comes straight back onto the stage and encores with "Be Reasonable (Demand The Impossible Now)" It's a small audience, but they all seem to be fans, or friends, or his. So everybody except me knows all the songs:

No master, no landlord, no flag, no guru,
No gauleiter, no commissar,
Just justice and poetry with jam on it too,
When they ask 'who's in charge here?' We'll all say....

"WE ARE!" calls out the audience as one. But even this isn't the end...he can't leaves the stage, and the finally finishes on The Siege of Madrid, and heartfelt mediation about the fall of fascism. Two guys stood up at the back, arm in arm, and started singing along to the whole thing, making clenched fists at the appropriate moments. ("Each child born is born an anarchist") I've have never, repeat, never felt a more corporate communal feeling at a folk gig, or indeed performance of any kind...never had the sense that everyone in the audience wants to get up and shake each others hands because we've just shared such a great....thing. 

How to describe him? There's an element of Billy Bragg in the deliberately naive tub-thumping socialism; folk with a fairly large dollop of punk sensibility behind it. But it's lyrical as well; "be reasonable" is much prettier than it really needs to be. He can do satire: possibly the highlight of the night was a ranting, comedic, diatribe against the press corruption, ending up in a grotesque parody of Rupert Murdoch: "We're sorry...we're sorry...we're sorry we got caught"...which leads directly into a straightforwardly chilling rant about the summer's rioting:

Cops shot Mark Duggan on Thursday night
When his family asked why, they wouldn't say a word
When they still said nothing Saturday night
Tottenham burned

There's a pastoralism to it: it seems that once we've overthrown the state and a lot of our time is going to be spent drinking tea and sitting in fields. We start in fully grown up agitprop mode -- ("they cut all the benefits, close all our libraries") but just when you start to think that maybe a whole evening of being harangued is going to get tiring, he starts to talk with great affection and wit about his pupils (he is, of all things, a primary school teacher) but there's still a socialist moral to be drawn from a series of perfectly observed vignettes about his kids. ("Little people, big ideas.")

I don't endorse all his politics. I think maybe its okay to send Christmas presents to soldier, even if we think that the war in Afghanistan was a catastrophic misjudgement. I don't think we middle class folkies would really be that happy in the anarchist New Jerusalem. I think that bankers might be slightly easy hate figures, although I did like the idea of a lot of city wide-boys getting trapped in a pub basement at the same time as the Copiapo disaster. (People come from all over the country with whatever bricks and rubble they can spare to make sure they don't escape.) But as I've said before, I think "agreeing" with a song is a category mistake. You don't have to agree with all his politics to agree with what he is doing: creating a communal outpouring of joy based around the idea that things could, maybe, be different from how they are. 

As the other fellow said: the song's the thing.

Thursday, March 08, 2012



The King died and then the Queen died - History
The King died and then the Queen died of grief - Story
No one knew why the Queen was so ill: but it turned out that it was with grief over the death of the King -- Plot


A movie on the theme "The Death of the First Mrs Kane", or "Was little Charlie Really A Victim of Child Abuse?" or "The Woman On the Ferry With the Parasol: Her Backstory" could, in fact be imagined. It is even possible to imagine a good movie on those themes. A good director could make a good movie on any theme. Of course the death of a failed politician's ex-wife in a car crash is a possible set-up for a story. (Was it just an accident? Or suicide? Or did Prince Philip dunnit?) But if the story is worth telling in it's own right, there is no need to give the main character the same name as one in Citizen Kane. And if the story is NOT worth telling, why does it become any more worth telling if the name of the main character is the same as one in Citizen Kane? "Because every time I hear the narrator of the News on the March sequence mention that Kane's first wife died in an accident, I want to know what really happened." But nothing "really happened": she's only a character in a story. One of the things she does in that story is die mysteriously. That is the point of her. Your film will not tell us what really happened. It will just be some shit you made up. Out of your head.

Will anyone claim that such films (even if well made) could ever be regarded as expansions or additions or extensions to CItizen Kane, as true, in their own way, as Orson Welles' version? And will anyone say that the original movie would be improved (or left the same) if  it became a truth universally accepted that "the story of Citizen Kane" comprised "Orson Welles epic + Andrew's home movie"? Does anyone think that it would be a good idea for some third party to bring on stage what Welles left off it, to say outright things that he chose to hint at, to provide answers where he only gave questions? Could anyone possibly be stupid enough to think that the question 'Doctor Who?' might one day be answered?

Does anyone remember the daft attempt to recut The Godfather and The Godfather II into chronological sequence, on the assumption that TV audiences are confused by non-linear story telling and freaked out by the expression "son of a bitch"? The Sicilian material from Godfather II came first, then the bulk of Godfather I, then the 70s material from part II. Will anyone say that this made no difference: that a film in which the murders of  Don Ciccio and Fredo Corleone are juxtaposed is the same as one in which they are separated by four hours of screen time? That Coppola carelessly filmed his epic out of order and the TV version corrected the mistake? That the Magicians Nephew is the first book in the Narnia Series?

Granted, I have picked examples of movies where the plot is a lot different from the story: where the order in which events unfold is a lot different from the order in which they actually happened. (But nothing actually happened. They are stories.) But the same is true to a greater or lessor extent of all fiction: what happened is never as important as the way in which we are told that it happened. A film which includes a steamy bed scene is not the same as one in which the lovers tantalizingly close the bedroom door, even if, as a matter of fact, in both versions, copulation can be assumed to have taken place. A film which depicts some hideous childhood abuse in shocking detail, and then adds a caption that the victim suffered from mental problems for the rest of their life is not the same film  as one in which it is slowly revealed that a mental patient suffered from some horrible trauma when they were a child. A detective story starts with a dead body and works backwards to the murder and the motive; a thriller may start with the motive and move forward to the murder. The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe is so the first Narnia Book. The Phantom Menace was such a bad idea. Is any of this complicated? 


Wednesday, March 07, 2012


Ernie: I am going to do Singin' in the Rain...
Eric: Gene Kelly did that very well.
Ernie: Yes, but I'm going to do it just that little bit better.


We sit in your front room, which looks like the bedroom of a very rich 14 year old.

We move the pile of this months 52 DC comics (cost: roughly what the government says a single person needs to live on for three weeks); brush the dust of our latest box of Dalek action figures (cost: two weeks child benefit) ; pause disc 27 of our complete Battlestar Gallactica boxed set and say "Oh, you aren't getting worked up about some comic book are you? The original graphic novel will always be there, and anyone who is friendly with psychopaths can find it. You don't even have to read the new thing if you don't want to. It really doesn't matter."

We are, to a man, the same people who said George Lucas Raped Our Inner Children when he made a small change to the screen play of Star Wars and that only a genius like like Peter Jackson could have taken such a boring book and turned it into the single greatest masterpiece since John Logi Baird invented the cinema.

If Geek B says something which Geek A doesn't agree with, then Geek A's first resort is always to say that Geek B is geekier than he is. You think Phantom Menace was a good movie, and I think that it was a travesty, but you are the sort of person who cares about Star Wars so I'm certainly not going to pay any attention to YOU.

We are also the ones who read bad reviews of good movies and say "What right have YOU got to say if a movie is good or bad, having never made a movie yourself? Critics are just embittered frustrated writers! No movie is good or bad there's only what you just happen to like and anyway you are only pretending that you enjoyed the Artist because you don't want to admit you wasted two hours watch a terrible film if you were an honest-to-god all right joe you'd watching Twilight with me wobbly sets wobbly sets wobbly sets."

Goo goo g'joob. Goo goo g'joob.


I am dimly aware that, in the 1970s, some corporate House-Roys tried to write Kirbyless continuations of the New Gods. One of them was called "The Return of the New Gods", which was a pretty good signal to stay away. They might as well have called it "The New Adventures of the New Gods" or "The New Gods Babies." I think I may even own a couple of 1980s issues by people who should have known better and John Byrne.

They are irrelevant. 

The Fourth World is, for better or or worse, and very often for worse, what it is, Hunger Dogs and all. Jim Stalin can pretend that Darksied died, if he wants to. It has precisely the same impact as if I were sitting in a pub and said "Fnaar, fnaar, what if the Green Goblin had a WILLY? Fnaar, fnaar, what if he fucked Gwen Stacy behind Spider-Man's back." It's not part of the comic. It's just something I said when I was drunk. It doesn't become part of the comic even if Marvel inexplicably hire me (say on the basis of some incoherent Star Trek rip-off I worked on twenty years ago) and write "Stan Lee presents" on the front of my sad little wank fantasy.

I haven't read Sins Past. For all I know it is quite good.

Actually, the Fourth World is a pretty bad example, because the original is so definitively enormous that it makes everything that has been pinned on to it after the fact look pitifully small  and insignificant. I can paint a man's willy on my poster of the Mona Lisa if I want to: the Mona Lisa is still the Mona Lisa and I am still a pathetic little child who paints willies on posters. It doesn't become a witty subversion of male sexuality just because I scrawled it on a famous painting. Even if I am quite a good painter and it's quite a good painting of a man's willy. 

And please, please don't say "It doesn't matter that he painted it on the Mona Lisa. He could have painted it somewhere else. Consider the willy on its own merits." It does, he didn't, and you can't

Superman would have been a better example. Everyone has long since forgotten Man of Steel, and I seem to remember that Man of Steel was quite a good comic, provided you pretended that it didn't have anything to do with Superman. If New Gods is a vast adamantine monolith which repels every attempt to paint graffiti on it, which admittedly it isn't, then Superman is more like a vast lake whose composition is only slightly changed when someone pisses it it.

It's rather a shame that so many cooks spoiled Siegel and Shuster's rather piquant broth quite so quickly. It is worth going back and tasting their original flavour from time to time: it really is fresher and crisper and more bracing than anything that was added to it afterwards. But the broth was well and truly spoilt, and Action Comics # 1 now has almost nothing to do with Superman. So many ingredients – Jor El and Jimmy Olsen and Lex Luther, to say nothing of Kandor and Krypto and Kryptonite were added by subsequent hands. Even I am not pedantic enough to say "Superman's news paper is really called the Daily Star, not the Daily Planet, because that's what Siegel and Shuster originally wrote." All Star Superman is connected to Action Comics # 1 only in a manner of speaking, like the lumberjack who said that he still used his grandfather's axe, but admitted that it had had a new handle and perhaps a new head.

There are fans for whom post-Kirby New Gods does matter: it is quite possible to be a fan of Darkseid and never to have read New Gods. There are websites that straightfacedly say that The Great Darkness Saga is the "greatest" Darkseid story. 

They are wrong.

a series of essays by Andrew Rilstone 

if you do not enjoy this, then you will almost certainly not enjoy Who Sent The Sentinels ("the finest analysis of Watchmen that I have so far read" -- Eddie Campbell)