Sunday, February 17, 2019

Andrew's Folk Pile

The Devil's Doorbells
Pushing It (EP)

"Oh is it happening?" says a voice, just before a hootenanny version of Doc Watson's "Roll In” gets underway. It builds up a head head of steam. The singer sings "rollin' in my sweet babies arms" and the group call "sweet babies arms!" back at him. I swear someone shouts out "yee haw!" at one point. You can practically smell the campfire.

There's a lot of folk music in Sidmouth in August. You can't walk along the esplanade without a man with a guitar singing Streets of London at you. A busking outfit has to be a bit special to grab your attention as you rush between gigs. The Devils Doorbell had bagged the prestigious spot outside the public toilets and they had that quality which always stops me dead in my tracks. Authenticity. Reader, I bought the album.

Half the disc is made up of the folkiest of folkie crowd pleasers, possibly constructed to appeal to my personal comfort zone. The venerable Bella Ciao starts out with a breathy vocal lilt but rapidly turns into a singalong with a fiddle interlude that oozes pure Italiana. (Firepit Collective make this song a shouty student political rallying cry but here it's a wipe-a-tear-away lament.)

St Francis of Assisi replaces Franklin Roosevelt in a version of Only Passin' Thru which is definitely more Peter Seeger than Leonard Cohen. ("These birds fill the air with song/ they're not here for very long"). By comparison, Byker Hill is restrained, not to say lugubrious and a suitably mournful St James Infirmary is largely allowed to speak for itself.

So far so folky. I imagine this is the sort of thing which attracts many pennies into a guitar case. But the other half of the album is given over to what I take to be self-written songs. And while the sawing blue grass fiddle and old time choruses are still very much in evidence there's an uncompromising punk sensibility to the lyrics.

Track 2 Pisshead Bill has foot-tappin' melody which I can't get out of my head; paired with a set of lyrics which drip with nihilsm. ("Your fear of losing everything has lost you everything now everything you ever loved is gone"). The narrative could be compared, not unfavorably, with some of Chris Wood's recent-ish work -- a stream of observation about hard-luck cases and ordinary people

his father only pugilizes
ones of diminutive sizes
violence is the best disguise
to hide from the fear you lock inside

Glass Houses is a curious celebration of never doing the washing up ("I'm a dog that roles in its own it's shit, and I reckon I'm the happier for it"). Petri Dish flirts with cynicism but allows itself a brief flash of hope at the end; all set to a whimsical tune which made me think of Robin Williamson's funny little hedgehog.

Wouldn't it be nice to finally realize
that this life is best led taking risks
because no matter what we do
our significance is equal to
an amoeba in a petri dish

"I need to do that one again" says the voice at the end of Roll In. "It went a bit wrong". Well, maybe it did. But that's all part of the fun on this kind of album. “Recorded in fields, car parks and around campfires" says the back of the CD and I believe it. Folk music may sometimes get more polished than this but it rarely gets more real.

Andrew's Folk Pile

Hello. I am Andrew Rilstone. You may remember me from the Folkbuddies podcast, or from that time someone made me the “official blogger" of a festival without telling me or the festival. You may even have met me at a gig. I'm the very tall one standing in front of you with a hat, very probably clapping to a different beat from everybody else.

Folk music isn't necessarily the thing I love most in the world: but it is the thing I love most uncomplicatedly. Comic books carry baggage; movies carry baggage; and oh god does opera carry baggage, particularly if the only opera you ever really cared about was full of Teutonic maidens and Germanic warriors. Talking about movies or books or comics involves taking sides in a quarrel about who invented what and where and when and if they deserve a credit and where it fits into the canon and and if it passes the Bechdel-Wallace test.

Folk music I listen to. It makes me happy.

It doesn’t all make me happy. I have a general idea that a jig goes goes one-two-three-four-five-six/one-two-three-four and "key" is something I sing out of, but my heart sinks when the performer mentions the Playford manuscript or starts talking about Turlough O'Carolan. Every festival has at least one band which plays Scottish folk tunes very quickly with an electric guitar and drum kit as well as a set of bagpipes. It can all be very loud and very exciting and the crowd go nuts for it but I can't really tell them apart.

Too many notes Mr Mozart. Too many notes.

My ideal evening consists of a man (or a lady, but it does more often tend to be a man) with a guitar (or a fiddle, but usually a guitar) and a long introduction about how this is Child Ballad Number 76; or how it was originally collected by Cecil Sharp or (best of all) how they personally learned it just last week from an old traveler lady parked on the M5 underpass. Songs with stories; or stories with tunes. A good ballad bypasses my brain altogether and just hits me in the gut.

I was going to say the heart, but I really do mean the gut. That's what music's for, isn't it?

Maybe the best concert I went to in 2018 was Jim Moray at the little Chapel Arts Center in Bath, giving a first airing to some of the songs which are going to be on his next album. Jim Moray has the reputation for adding lots of clever jiggery pokery to folk sings, but this was just him and his guitar, doing When This Old Hat Was New and Napoleon at St Helena. (Listen to Another Man's Wedding and tell me it isn't the most powerful piece of musical story-telling you've ever heard?) He wound the show up with a version of The Leaving of Liverpool; and then encored with Alfred Lord Tennyson's Crossing the Bar -- the folkie setting, by Ramo Arbo, not the old churchy one by Parry. He does the song with his very loud folk rock outfit False Lights, but that night it was just a voice and some strings.

From out the bourne of time and place
the flood may bear me far
I hope to see my pilot face to face
when I have crossed the bar. 

You often get to talk to the Act after a show -- folk music happens in small venues and everyone is very friendly -- and I always aspire to say something intelligent to my musical heroes, showing some critical appreciation of what I have just been listening to. On that occasion, I just about managed "You've made me cry." And it was true.

Which is I guess the difficulty I have writing about music. It's a very subjective thing, for me, hard to put into words or be critical about. And I am apt to embarrass everyone by going all soppy.

I am considering taking an adult ballet class and embarking of a study of old buildings.

I may be paranoid; but I sometimes have a sense that some people around here are a bit cross with me for becoming infatuated with this kind of music. If you haven't been bitten by the bug, one song about a lady in a tower sewing a silken seam is very much like another, and my willingness to take late night buses home from pubs and church halls out of pure fear I might miss an interesting new take on The Bonnie Ship The Diamond probably comes across ever so slightly completely mad. It isn't only your most militantly atheist friend who gets all fidgety when you suddenly start attending Holy Communion. But probably it's mostly to do with the way I keep going on and on about it.

So; anyway. This is me going on and on about it.

I go to a lot of gigs. A crazy, stupid number of gigs. And truthfully this is where I think the music lives. I like the dramaturgy of a live performance, whether it's a Chris Wood surveying a packed house and saying "I don't know why you are all here" or Grace Petrie getting all sweary and political about Jeremy Corbyn. 

A few people used to read my gig reviews. A few of the actual bands used to read my gig reviews. I think I was even quoted on a poster. The first time the mighty Blackbeard's Tea Party came to the Croft they greeted a "very special fan named Andrew…” from the stage. Which made me insufferable for over a fortnight. But several of my actual readers said they didn't really want to read about gigs they hadn't been at. (Some of them were less polite.)

As a result of going to a lot of gigs and festivals I have acquired a very big pile of CDs. Most of which I haven't listened to. Or at any rate, haven't listened to properly.

So. Every week or so I am going to pull a CD or two off the pile and tell you whether or not it sparks joy.

If anyone wants to send me any CDs I promise to put them near the top of the pile.

Monday, February 11, 2019

God Woke!

The bastard. He doesn't exist.
Samuel Beckett

In 1937, a student at Dewitt Clinton High School in the Bronx was helping to edit the school newspaper. One lunchtime he found that someone had left a ladder in the tower which served as the paper’s offices so he climbed to the top and wrote a graffito on the ceiling. 


It was the first time he had ever used that pen-name.


After creating The Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk and Spider-Man, Stan Lee believed he had exhausted the possibilities of narrative fiction. “What was there left to invent?” Creativity is a matter of hyperbole: each character has to be bigger and better than the one before. But “Who could be stronger than the Hulk? Who could be brainier than Mr Fantastic?” If he was really going to out-super his existing superheroes, Stan Lee's next comic would have to feature God. And he didn’t think the Comics Code would let him get away with that. But then he had one of those epiphanies that used to occur regularly between 1961 and 1972. He certainly couldn’t do a comic about God. But he certainly could do a comic about a god.

And that is the true story of how Stan Lee created Thor, off the top of his head, without any input from anyone else.

But Stan never quite gave up on the idea of The Amazing Super-God. 

“You know, I’ve spent all my life writing about superheroes” he recalled in 2000 “And one day, about thirty years ago, I decided to write about the greatest hero of all.” 

“I have written about so many superheroes” he explained in 2016 “and each one gets stronger and more powerful. We ended up with Galactus and people like that and I said who can I get which will top all of them? Well who’s left? God! So I’m gonna make a hero out of God! And I hope he’s grateful!” 

He wasn't joking. In 2016, Lee's performance poem God Woke! was published in comic-book format, with Kirby-a-like illustrations by Fabian Nicieza. It is as close to a Marvel Comic starring Super-God as we are ever likely to get. 

On any view, God Woke is a pretty feeble piece of work. It is an extended piece of free-verse about the Deity constructed around a sequence of two word statements in which God does something ironically anthropomorphic: God woke; God laughed; God frowned; God sighed; God pondered; God cried. A lot of the meter is lifted from the Raven, a poem which Lee reportedly adored: 

While He pondered, watched and waited
Endlessly they supplicated…. 

The endless internal rhymes seem to have come directly from Poe’s The Bells 

Chanting, ranting, moaning, groaning, 
Sighing, crying, cheating, lying…. 

As poetry, it rarely reaches the level of Dr Seuss. But if it is truly Stan Lee's most personal work, it is worth a look. How did the creator of Marvel Comics imagine the creator of the Universe? 

It seems that the more powerful a character is, the less personality he has. Galactus, the closest thing the Marvel Universe has to a deity, speaks entirely in declarative sentences about how powerful he is. (Eternity rarely gets beyond "I am Eternity" and Kirby's Celestials don't communicate at all.)  Since God is ultimately powerful, Lee imagines him as being almost entirely personality-free. Nicieza draws him as a giant, featureless male figure with stars and planets drawn over his body. Lee writes him as an innocent moron, like the Hulk or Frankenstein, stumbling around the universe failing to understand the strange humans who populate it. Since humans spend most of their lives being baffled by God, the idea that God is baffled by man is a fair-to-middling literary conceit.

God, it seems, created the Earth and the human race as components of an unexplored "master plan" and then dropped off to sleep and forgot all about it. After he wakes up, the Deity checks in on the planet to see how it is doing. He is not particularly impressed.

God’s complaints — and let’s face it, we are all a bit cranky first thing in the morning — take up the rest of the poem. God complains that the human race are making too much noise; and in particular, he is irked by the sounds of their prayers. He has three main objections to humans praying. Stop me if you’ve heard them before. 

First, he complains that humans pray to God as an alternative to doing something about their situation. He seems to see prayer as an aid to procrastination: 

man the enigma, bewailing his fate, 
but plagued by inaction til ever too late 

Second, he complains that prayer is generally insincere 

mouthing his rote 
just from his throat 
words without feeling 
sound without meaning. 

And finally, he finds the whole idea of prayers personally insulting. There is a Groucho Marx logic to this: God despises prayers because they come from the kind of beings who think that he is the kind of being who would listen to prayers. He doesn't listen to prayers because they come from the kind of creature who is foolish enough to pray. I don't care to belong to any club that would accept me as a member.

And anyway, why would God limit his attention to humans when there is so much other cool stuff in the universe? This idea makes any Marvel Comics reader think of the Silver Surfer, doomed to spend eternity on this paltry planet (oh woe is me)!  It is expressed in what may be the worst line in the poem, and therefore in the history of American literature: 

who but a fool 
with a cosmos to stray in
would conceive himself an ant-hill 
and like a prisoner, stay in? 

The Silver Surfer's boss Galactus also regarded the human race as ants and earth as an ant-hill. It’s a very telling metaphor. God is greater than humans in the way that a human is greater than an ant: by virtue of being very much larger. Lee’s God, like Richard Dawkins’ God, is nothing more than a super-sized chap.

The idea that prayer harms God is not uninteresting. (Wasn’t wish-granting physically painful to the Psammead?) You could imagine it framed in Christian terms, with each prayer adding to Jesus’ suffering. I’d have been inclined to treat it comically, with God wading through prayers as a human wades through emails. "I’ll get around to blessing Tiddles the cat right after I’ve given Mrs Jones her double six at Las Vegas." But it comes out here as an anti-religious screed. I don’t think that the illustrations do the text many favours. The prayers which are so annoying to God are represented by a montage of pious people at holy sites — the Kaaba, the Wailing Wall, Stonehenge. Humans are not seeking contact with a higher power or trying to become their best selves; even the most committed pilgrims are essentially selfish. 

God then goes off an a new track. Humans have no right to ask him anything at all: his duty was fully discharged by bringing them to life in the first place. Creation had nothing to do with a divine master-plan after all: humans were only ever God’s plaything. 

at first I found the plan was sound 
and somewhat entertaining 
but once begun, 
the deed now done, 
my interest started waning. 

This is quite shocking; but Stan Lee doesn’t seem particularly shocked by it. The creator of the universe is an abusive or neglectful parent, and there is no cosmic Child Support Agency to force him to face up to his responsibilities. 

Having complained that the Earth is full of noisy creatures who want to talk to him, God withdraws into space for a few pages, and immediately starts complaining that he is all alone in the universe. The Silver Surfer and Spider-Man spent most of their time moaning about how badly the universe was treating them and how it wasn’t their fault. Superheroes with super-problems, as the fellow said. Having been told that God is the greatest hero of all, I suppose we shouldn’t be too surprised that he is the biggest whiner in the universe. I suppose “circular incoherence” is Lee’s best stab at “divine ineffability” but this mortal found it very difficult to work out what point the Lord was trying to make here. 

like unto children, lost in the night 
they created a God to guide them. 
like unto children huddled in fright 
they must have their god beside them 
yet what sort of children from cradle to grave 
would grant him obeisance yet make him their slave 
they have conjured a heaven and there he must stay 
ever responsive be it night be it day 
he must love and forgive them and comply when they pray 
ever attentive never to stray 
and like unto children in their childish zeal 
they worship their dream and think fantasy real 

There is something to be said for the idea that humans cling to gods like children clings to a teddy bear — particularly if human beings are only God's toys. Lee seems to be saying that Allah and Jesus and Buddha are no more than stuffed animals designed to get human beings through the night, but the big blue glowy chap is the real McCoy. Humans claim to worship these made up gods, but they are only interested in what they can get in return. Big glowy Stan Lee God is every bit as jealous as Yahweh; fictional gods make him very angry indeed. 

The“they have conjured a heaven and there must he stay” part is particularly perplexing. Is the complaint that people think that God is confined to the spiritual realm and not relevant to day to day life? (The illustration shows people leaving Sunday Morning service and returning to their cars.) But wait a minute — weren't we just told that God found "spiritual" prayers every bit as annoying and noisy as materialistic ones? Is there some Gaiman-esque idea that the Demiurge is literally being transformed into a wish-granting machine because that’s all humans believe him to be? Or are prayers somehow physically trapping God in heaven in the way that the barrier of Galactus trapped the Silver Surfer? 

At any rate, God comes back to earth. He has a jolly good look round the place and starts bewailing Man’s Inhumanity To Man. 

how to make them understand? 
how to make them see? 
how to make them recognize? 
their own insanity 
tiddly tiddly, 
tiddly tiddly, 
tum tum tiddly tee 

It is a little unfair of God to complain about the whole idea of religion on one page and to wonder about how to share his divine wisdom with mankind on the next. 

He has a number of highly original divine insights. It seems that people want to be rich and famous even though wealth and fame don't make you live any longer. Politicians and generals start wars, but it’s the young who die in them. Wars are only ever about meaningless things like flags and skin colour and never about defeating Hitler. Both sides think that God is on their side and both armies pray to God for victory. God comes across here as a Sixth Form Atheist, claiming sagely that all wars are caused by religion and if we didn’t have any religions there wouldn’t be any wars. (Woah woah, woah woah, you may say I’m a dreamer...) But "justice", it seems, is also a false value which humans use as a pretext for conflict: 

only man 
earnestly praying 
to god as he's slaying 
and piously saying 
as the corpses increase 
he does what he must 
for his motives are just 
the mayhem, the carnage 
the slaughter won't cease 
God's in his corner 
killing for peace 

I quite like the increase/cease/peace rhyme, incidentally. Lee was a big fan of Broadway musicals and this could have fitted nicely into a song. 

It’s the “war” thing, not the “prayer” thing which pushes God over the edge. If humans persist in having fights about made up stuff like religion and justice, he's definitely finished with them, and off he goes, this time for good. 

The final stanzas are vintage Stan Lee bullshit and I mean that in a deeply affectionate way: 

he looked his last at man so small 
so lately risen, so soon to fall 
he looked his last and had to know 
whose fault this anguish, this mortal woe. 
had man failed make or maker man 
who was the planner and whose the plan? 
he looked his last, then turned aside 
he had found the answer 
that's why God cried 


When the philosopher says “God is dead” he doesn't really mean that someone or something called God has really died. He means “People used to believe in God, but they don’t any longer.” When a scientist says “God does not play at dice” he doesn't mean that there is a an actual being called God who prefers games of skill: he means “I don’t think that at the most fundamental level the universe is random.” When a pundit says “Where was God on September the 11th?” he doesn't mean that there is an actual Deity who is capable of being in one place but not another. He probably means “When everything is going fine, it is possible to believe that the universe is benevolent; but events like this force us to think that it is indifferent or hostile.” And it seems that if a Bishop says “God died for the human race” he really means “Self-sacrifice is the most fundamental value I can conceive of: it is in a very real sense the ground of my being.”

All of these usages can be defended: but it is terribly easy to fall into nonsense without intending to. Someone says "Where was God during the last high school massacre?" and you reply "Don't you remember? You threw God out of school". The word "God" is being used to mean "religion" or "state religion": "we threw God out of school" means "religious studies ceased to be mandatory." But the same word is also being used to mean "the idea that the universe is just and arbitrary suffering doesn't occur." "If the universe is just, why do the innocent suffer?" is a good question. "The innocent suffer because there is no longer a daily religious assembly in this district" is a terrible answer.

I don’t think that Stan Lee ever seriously supposed he could turn the God of religion into a superhero character. A comic book about "the god of the Marvel Universe" — the most powerful cosmic entity in that entity filled cosmos — is perfectly imaginable. It may even be that that is how God Woke was originally conceived: a Silver Surfer story from the point of view of Galactus. But once Stan has named his protagonist “God”, he can hardly avoid talking about religion — or philosophy, or reality at the most fundamental level, or the ground of our, in a very real sense, being. He presumably doesn't believe that the actual Deity, if he exists, is actually capable of crying, or sleeping, or forgetting. “Galactus turned aside” or “Odin wept” are descriptions of things which happen to characters on the inside of a story. But "God cried" is a theological statement. We are entitled to ask "What do you mean by that?"


Lee presents the story as God complaining about mankind; but it is really a man, Stan Lee, complaining about God. The God of God Woke is not the greatest hero of them all. He is a bad God, a failed God. Instead of sticking around to nurture the human race he got bored and left them on their own. Result: wars, false religions and wasted prayer. God recognizes that this is all his fault. God weeps because he is finally aware that in this universe with ultimate power must also come ultimate responsibility.

Only atheists ever talk about a malevolent Deity. No-one who seriously believes in a God believes in a bad one. Indeed "Bad-God" may be a contradiction in terms, like "square circle". The ultimate Thing is the ultimate Good Thing almost by definition.

When someone says "God is bad" or "God has failed" they generally mean "the idea of God has failed" or "God is bad idea." When Stan Lee tells us that God created the world and went to sleep, he must mean "When we look at history, we cannot reasonably suppose that there is a God who is actively in charge of it", or more simply "History shows that God does not exist." When Stan Lee shows humans calling to God and God saying “Stop being so noisy” he is saying "No-one listens to or answers human prayers" or more simply “Religion is a pointless waste of time because God doesn’t exist.” 

Atheism could be a positive or liberating belief: but Lee's parable about a God who is useless, or asleep, or neglectful, or malevolent points to an atheism of the most pessimistic kind. The message on Stan Lee's bus is not "God is asleep! Stop worrying and enjoy your life!" It is more like "Only a God can save us; but unfortunately, God is asleep. We are therefore, fucked." 

But perhaps the poem is more hopeful than that. After all, God recognizes his shortcomings on the final page. Again, is is impossible to literally suppose that God is capable of recognizing his own faults and getting better at Godding. "God admits his flaws" can only mean "Human beings should recognize the flaws inherent in their own idea of God. So the message could be: "The Gods of religion cannot save us; but the alternative is not atheism, but a better idea of God. If we would shut up for a minute and listen to the real God, over and above our religious ideas about him, all manner of things may still be well."


If you are a gardener, you probably imagine God planting seeds and pulling up weeds and watering the universe. If you are a writer, you probably think that the universe is a great book which God is writing. Bob Monkhouse thought that God was a comedian and the Universe was a funnier joke than he could ever write. Freemasons call him the Great Architect of the Universe. It would not surprise me if sports fans think of the Deity as the referee in a very long and very beautiful game. 

God Woke was first presented as a performance piece, recited by Stan Lee’s wife and daughter, at the infamous Stan Lee at Carnegie Hall event in January 1972. It went down poorly. According to some accounts, the audience were throwing things at the stage before the evening was over. 

It follows that while God Woke was written a decade after the creation of Thor, Lee’s account of the creation of Thor was written a year or so after God Woke. The idea of God was obviously something Stan Lee was thinking about a good deal in the early 1970s.  Origins of Marvel Comics (1974) opens with a tasteless pastiche of the book of Genesis. 

“And the spirit of Marvel said ‘Let there be the Fantastic Four’. And there was the Fantastic Four. And Marvel saw the Fantastic Four. And it was good.” 

It is not surprising that Lee is attracted to a Deistic idea of God. The Demiurge isn’t personally responsible for each little flower that opens and each little bird that sings, in the same way that a comic book writer doesn't personally work out the storyline for the comics he works on. Once he has done the difficult bit of saying “Let there be the Fantastic Four!” he can leave the mechanism to run under its own steam. But that means that your creations won't always go in the way you intended them to. You might check in after a long nap and find that someone has killed off Gwen Stacey! And just because God set the whole thing in motion that doesn’t mean he has read every damn line of every damn fan letter and listen to every damn cry of every damn fan at every damn convention. The "Stan the Man" to whom the faithful send letters is partly a fictional figure anyway: he can't possibly be the real Stanley Martin Leiber.


he looked his last
he turned aside

That first performance of God Woke! took place in January 1972. The following August, he relinquished control of the Amazing Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four. He would be admired and revered — worshiped, even — as Creator of the Marvel Universe right up until his death in 2018. But he would never be a comic book writer again.


“I thought up the Fantastic Four, which did well” Stan Lee told Jonathan Ross in 2007. “So we did another book, called the Hulk, and then we did Spider-Man and the X-Men and on and on and on. And then, of course, on the seventh day, I rested.“

These things take me, like, forever to write. If you think they are worth while, please consider donating a dollar or two via my Patreon. 

Friday, February 01, 2019

The Rhetorical Strategies of Sensible Liberals.

1: Why don't politicians ever answer the question?

"Why don't you pay your staff better wages?" is a perfectly good question for a journalist to ask a businessman.

You could ask it deferentially, as it would have been asked in the days when the sun never set on Lord Reith and adverts weren't allowed. "Of course, some people might think that you don't pay your staff well enough. What would you like to say to them?" Or you could frame it as an accusation, in the modern manner of a Paxman and Humphries: "Come on! Isn't it the truth that you don't pay your staff nearly enough to live on!" But it's still a fair question.

The trouble with fair questions is that they usually have fair answers. The businessman under interrogation would have half a dozen to chose from. 

"I pay neither more nor less than is standard in this industry." 

"People come to my shops because my prices are so cheap. If I increased wages I'd have to increase prices, and then I'd go out of business and everyone would be out of a job." 

"The people you say I pay low wages to are kids who have just left school or immigrants who have just arrived in town and are still finding their feet. They quickly move on to much better jobs, often within my company." 

"I get twenty applications for every one job I advertise, so I can't be as bad as all that."

And doubtless a good interviewer could think of five good follow-up questions to any one of those responses. ("If paying your staff enough to live on would put you out of business, isn't there something very wrong with the whole system?")

There was a time, long, long ago, when this was what political broadcasting was like. Fair question; fair answer; fair follow-up question. Debate, we used to call it. Argument. A series of connected statements intended to establish a proposition. No-one's mind ever got changed, but everyone came away with a slightly better understanding of the other fellow's point of view. 

It was excruciatingly boring.

About a third of Monty Python's original output involved satirizing this kind of TV interview: the never-ending tedium of smug, middle aged males asking each other respectful questions:

"Good evening minister, may I put the first question to you? In your plan A Better Britain For Us  you claimed that you would build eighty eight thousand million billion houses in the Greater London area alone. In fact you've built only three in the last fifteen years. Are you a bit disappointed with that result." 

"No, no, not really.."

So everyone remembers exactly where they were on the day Jeremy Paxman asked Michael Howard if he had threatened to overrule the head of the prison service. It was a perfectly fair question. Michael Howard refused to answer it. So the arch-integrator asked him again. And again. And again.  

From that day onward, political interviews were no longer about arguments. Political interviews were now a spectator sport. The skillful journalist is a gladiator who goes into the arena with a quiver of questions to which no politician under any circumstances could possibly give a direct answer. And he asks them. And he asks them again. And again. And again. The more times he asks the question, the more decisively he is deemed to have won the interview.

2: Why don't politicians ever answer the question?

Here is Guardian columnist Owen Jones interviewing Tim Martin, who owns 936 pubs. (Really; nine hundred and thirty six. I looked it up.)

All my prejudices tell me that I should take the side of an articulate, well educated liberal journalist against a blokish, populist barkeep. I agree with all of Jones' points. Rich people should pay poor people enough to live on; bar-staff should be allowed to unionize; Brexit is an effing stupid idea.

But Jones' tactics mean that I end up sympathizing with Martin. I suppose this is what a football fan must feel like when his team are so unsporting that he finds himself cheering for the other side. It's like watching a barrister ask leading questions, bamboozle the jury, and twist the witness's words. You end up hoping the guy in the dock gets away with murder, just so you can say "Har-har, not so clever now, are you?"

"Do you consider yourself to be part of the elite?" would have been a not uninteresting question, and I imagine that Martin could have provided us with a not uninteresting answer. "When I talk about the elites, I am talking about an intelligentsia of intellectuals—in the media, the civil service and higher education—who maintain a liberal line on social and economic issues. This has nothing to do with wealth or privilege. To say that I am part of the very elites I criticize because I am rich is at best a non-sequitur and at worst a play on words...." To which Jones could have replied: "But the idea of a liberal elite is a conspiracy theory, and a pretty anti-Semitic conspiracy theory at that..."

But Jones doesn't ask questions: he makes assertions; assertions calculated to rile his opponent. And he doesn't pause for an answer--he just goes straight into the next assertion. He isn't the journalist trying to find stuff out. He is the accuser, telling the bad man to his face what he have all longed to say to him...

"You are part of the elite, you are a very wealthy man and you pay your own staff poverty wages."

Everything depends on that loaded phrase "poverty wages". Jones is presumably correct that some Wetherspoons bar staff are paid only £8.05 an hour. This is 67p more than the legal minimum wage, but 95p less than what the Living Wage Foundation calculates that you actually need to live on. "Why do you pay your staff 11% less than the living wage?" might have been a question. "You pay your own staff poverty wages!" is an emotive roar. The only possible response is "Oh no I don't!" and the only possible counter-response is "Oh yes you do!" 

And this is pretty much what happens. Martin calls Jones "silly", "rude" and "childish"; he insinuates that he is drunk. Jones repeats the question, and repeats it again, and repeats it again, until he is pretty much just saying "Poverty wages! Poverty wages!" over and over. Martin walks away from the interview.

What kind of answer did  Jones expect?  Did he think that Martin was going to burst into tears and send a giant turkey round to his scrivener's house in time for supper? 

The footage of Martin getting cross, insulting Jones, and walking out of the interview has been pasted all over the Internet. But it isn't clear what anyone thinks has been proved. That rich businessmen do not perceive themselves as exploiting their own staff? That if you ask people leading questions in emotionally loaded language, they won't answer them? That if you repeat the same question over and over, people tend to walk away?

3: Why don't politicians ever answer the question?

Here is a clip of James O'Brien debating with a Seventh Day Adventist clergyman, who has phoned in to his radio show to say that he agrees with Tim Farron about homosexuality being a sin.

"What did Jesus say about homosexuality?" might, at first glance, appear to be a fair question for a non-religious talk-show host to ask a god-bothering homophobe. The fair answer would be "Nothing directly, but he did say that marriage is between one man and one woman for life." To which the fair counter-response would be "So why do Christians interpret the 'man and woman' part so inflexibly, while being so willing to make exceptions regarding the 'for life' part?" 

In fact, "What did Jesus say about homosexuality?" barely qualifies as a question at all. O'Brien knows the answer, and the audience knows that he knows. He thinks that when he asks "What did Jesus say about homosexuality?" his victim will naively answer "Nothing whatsoever", allowing him to reply "Ha-ha! Gotcha! Then you have absolutely no grounds for saying that homosexuality is sinful! Bet you didn't see that coming!" Which is why he is put out when the clergymen refuses to give the expected answer. It forces him to deviate from his planned line of attack.

It's a naughty way of arguing. O'Brien doesn't really think that homophobia based on direct quotations from the Gospels would be valid, but that homophobia based on quotations from the Epistles is somehow less so, and neither does anyone else. Perhaps, hidden behind the question is an un-examined bifurcation between "spirituality" (nice) and "organized religion" (nasty); between "faith" (good) and "the church" (bad). Perhaps O'Brien thinks, or thinks that we think, that all the nice bits in Christianity come from Jesus and the nasty bits all come from Paul.  

The remarkable thing about the interview is not that O'Brien asks the same question twenty seven times. What is remarkable about that this interview is that O'Brien asks the caller the same question twenty-seven times after he had already answered it.

Here he is, answering the question.

Tell me the things which Jesus said about homosexuality. 

I'm trying to do that. 

Just tell me the things which Jesus said. Tell me the things which Jesus said... 

I'm trying to get a word in. What I am trying to say about the Bible is that it is God-inspired; and there are many people who contributed to the Bible and Paul is relevant, because he wrote most of the New Testament. So trying to excise Paul's teaching is like trying to excise the whole Bible. You can't do that. Paul made it clear...

Here he is, answering it again:

So you're not going to tell me what Jesus said? 

Well, if you'd let me get a word out...In first Corinthians, a god-inspired book... 

And here he is, answering it yet again:

So lets do it one more time my brother, what did Jesus say about homosexuality?

And I've answered the question

Remind me what he said? What were the words?

Let me make a point. Let me answer the question...


When Paul wrote the letters, in the New Testament, GOD WAS SPEAKING THROUGH HIM.... There other people than Jesus who wrote passage and scriptures in the Bible which were God inspired so it was God who spoke through Paul when he wrote that.

The caller may not be that good at handling O'Brien's badgering, but the substance of his answer is perfectly clear. If I had been briefed to defend his position in a debating society, I would have said: "Yes: I agree with the implication of your question. Jesus himself said nothing directly about homosexuality. However, my client believes that the whole Bible is the literal word of God and the Bible does say that homosexuality is sinful, for example, in some of the teachings of St Paul."

There are a number of interesting ways of going forward from that point. Had I been arguing on O'Brien's side, I might have said "If Tim Farron believes, as you do, that the infallible word of God teaches that homosexuality is a grievous sin, how could be possibly have stayed on as the leader of a party that campaigns for the rights of gay and lesbian people?" Or perhaps a more general question: "How can we use the Bible to make the law in a modern secular democracy where not everyone is a Christian--and where not all Christians take the Bible as literally as you do?" Instead, O'Brien attempts to go back to first principals and makes assertions about the Biblical canon: he claims that some parts of the Bible ought not to be in the Bible.

Borish Jonson was prepared to make fun of Muslim women in a national paper; and he was prepared to ask if the Koran (or "Scripture" as he quaintly called it) really mandated all Muslim women to wear burkhas; but even he wasn't stupid enough to say "Well, may be Koran isn't really the word of God, or maybe that bit doesn't count, have you thought of that?" (Salman Rushdie famously got himself into a spot of bother when he suggested that there were some verses in the Koran that didn't count.) Yet O'Brien is quite happy to say that the book of Corinthians is "just a letter written by someone who never met Jesus". Did he imagine that the caller would respond "Gad Sir, I believe you are right! The Bible is not the Word of God at all! I shall go home and re-examine my life!"

This embarrassing exchange has, as they, say "gone viral". "James O'Brien destroys a homophobic caller with one simple question", apparently.  I don't think James O'Brien does any such thing. I think James O'Brien makes himself look bad the homophobic caller look good.

4: No, I must press you, why don't politicians ever answer the question?

It's quite an achievement to make me feel sorry for a homophobic fundamentalist who thinks that Sunday falls on a Saturday. But to make me feel sorry for a right-wing Tory MP takes a kind of genius. 

Here is the same radio host talking to Brexit enthusiast and 1950s cartoon character Jacob Ress-Mogg:

O'Brien uses very much the same technique on Rees-Mogg as he did on his Christian caller. Take an arguably sensible question. Express it in loaded terms which the interviewee could not possibly be expected to answer. Repeat the loaded question over and over. Continue until the opponent leaves. Claim victory; post on YouTube. Rinse and repeat. 

Rees-Mogg thinks that Brexit will be economically good for Britain; O'Brien correctly says that every businessman and economist thinks it will be bad. So the substantive question is "Why do you think all those economic experts are mistaken?" Rees-Mogg's substantial answer is "I believe that these economic experts are mistaken because they have frequently been mistaken in the past".

But O'Brien frames the question as "What do you know which these experts do not know?"; and each time Rees-Mogg gives a substantive answer he dismisses it as a red herring and repeats the question. It's as if he is playing a game and setting the rules and the victory conditions off the top of his head. Rees-Mogg must come up with a piece of factual information available to himself but not to the experts. If Rees-Mogg cannot produce such a piece of factual information, O'Brien will declare himself the winner of this game of political Calvinball. But the premise of the question ("you can only be skeptical about expert opinion on the basis of factual knowledge") is entirely bogus. Rees-Mogg's response ("you can be skeptical about expert opinion if that opinion has been proved wrong in the past") is perfectly valid.

Once again, the Internet has given O'Brien the victor's laurel for comprehensively "shutting down" Lord Snooty. And once again I feel that the person on the right side has comprehensively and embarrassingly lost the argument.

5: Why don't politicians ever answer the question? Yes or no? It's a simple enough question?

Finally, here is a Channel 4 News reporter asking Jeremy Corbyn whether he believes that Britain will be economically better off outside the E.U. than it would have been if it had remained inside it. 

Clip of Jeremy Corbyn Interview

Again, "Do you believe that Britain will be better off outside the E.U?" looks at first glance like a fair question. But it is clearly a trap. Corbyn knows it is a trap; and the interviewer knows that he knows. They stumble through all the standard steps of the "why-won't-you-just-answer-the-question/why-do-you-keep-interrupting-me" dance. The point of dramatic tension is not "Will Corbyn fall into the trap?" but "How elegantly will he evade it?"

If Jeremy says "Yes, I do think Britain will be better off outside the E.U" then follow up question will be "Then why on earth did you campaign for Remain?" and tomorrow's headlines will read "Even remonaner Corbyn admits it--we'll be better off once we leave the E.U". But if he says "No, I think we would have been better off staying inside the EU" the follow up will be "Then how can you possibly contemplate leaving?", and the headlines will be "Traitor Corbyn claims Brexit will make us worse off."

Once again, the substantive content of Corbyn's answer is by no means un-sensible. "There is no point in asking me what I think would have happened if we had stayed in the E.U, because the decision to leave has already been made. What matters now is ensuring that we are as well off on the outside as we can possibly be." To which we would expect the follow-up question "Why should the voters believe that you would run the post-Brexit economy better than Theresa May?" 

But instead of challenging him on that substantive point, Channel 4 contracts full-blown Paxman-disease. It needs to hear the exact words "Yes, we would have been better off remaining in Europe", and only those exact words will satisfy it. It is happy to spend an entire interview relentlessly chasing the answer it is quite definitely not going to get.

I don't think Corbyn handles the pursuit particularly elegantly; but his judgement call is sound. Better for people to take the piss out of you for not answering the question than to offer the Tory press free ammunition.

6: Just tell me why politicians don't ever answer the question? I'll sing the words if you like...
It is great fun to say that the Prime Minister is a robot; and it is certainly true that she spent most of the last election replying "I will provide a strong and stable government" regardless of the question she had actually been asked. But it is unfortunately true that as long as journalists see themselves as scalp collectors; and as long as they ask the unanswerable in order to trap their victim, then robotically ignoring the question will remain the best policy

I enjoyed the video where the crazy conspiracy man tells Buzz Aldrin that he lied about having walked on the moon, and Buzz Aldrin simply turns around and punches in the gob. Idiots like that I cannot help thinking sometimes need to be punched in the mouth. If punching people is what politics is going to consist of from now on, I hope it is mainly the idiots who get punched. But I don't think that in the long term punching people is the best possible way of doing things.

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