Friday, May 26, 2023

Micronauts #4 and #5

Micronauts # 4: Death Duel at Daytona Beach Part 2 /  A Hunting We Will Go

Micronauts # 5:  The Prometheus Pit

OK, so that means that our whole solar system could be like one tiny atom in the fingernail of some other giant being. This is nuts! That means that one tiny atom in my fingernail could be one tiny little universe!.... Can I buy some pot from you?

National Lampoon's Animal House

"Sheesh! This Prometheus character is like a bargain basement version of Baron Karza" observes Bug in issue #5 of Micronauts.

Well, quite.

The Marvel Canon Keepers seem to take the view that the Microverse is not literally an itsy bitsy teeny weeny universe; but simply an alien dimension that humans access by shrinking. If you mutter "quantum realm" authoritatively, makes more sense.

Bill Mantlo equivocates on the point. The Microverse is another cosmos, separated from us by something called a Space Wall. Prof. Prometheus speculates that it may be one of many "microscopic universes". But the writer is clearly thinking in terms of sub-atomic particles which have been blown up to planetary size.  Homeworld is depicted as a collection of spheres joined together with little sticks, very much as chemistry teachers illustrate chemical compounds. It's described as "the molecular planet of Homeworld" (issue #4) and "the spiralling molecular chain which is the planet Homeworld" (issue #6). Prior to the 1920s, this would have been tolerably good science fiction. Back then, atoms really were tiny little spheres zooming around according to more or less Newtonian principles, so there's no reason they might not look like planets, from a certain point of view. But it's now 1979 and news of quantum theory really ought to have reached the Marvel Universe. 

Once you have invoked the idea of a Microverse and a Macroverse, it is hard to avoid thinking in terms of  microcosm and macrocosm in the Platonic sense: "as above, so below". Whether this would have occurred to Bill Mantlo I couldn't say. Unlike Jim Starlin or Steve Engelhart, he doesn't strike me as the kind of guy who would have been into mysticism, although the aforementioned Sword in the Star has a distinct hippy vibe. But when he needs to bring his earthbound and microcosmic storylines together, what he comes up with is an earthly conspiracy that mirrors and foreshadows the politics of the Microverse.

Professor Phillip Prometheus is a scientist, and therefore, it almost goes without saying, mad. He was injured during a space mission, and his spaceship's automated repair systems rebuilt him. Better than he was before: stronger, faster, better. He's a cyborg, which given the action-figure genealogy of the Micronauts is quite ironic in itself. 

Cyborg was also the title of the 1972 novel which introduced a very expensive multiple amputee named Steve Austin. The TV show based on the book ended in 1978, but Mantlo uses the term "bionic" to refer to augmented humans without explanation. One side of Prometheus's face is human, but the other side is robotic. A 1973 proto-cyberpunk superhero, Deathlok ("the demolisher"), had the same disfigurement, as did a made-up bounty hunter named Vallance in a 1978 issue of the Marvel Star Wars spin-offs. Deathlok and Valance seem to have had half their faces replaced by machinery: Prometheus is robots all the way down. But he tears off half his face so we can see the robot beneath the skin. He is, incidentally, a black man: but this is not relevant to the story and is never mentioned by any other character: a minor but significant victory for 1979 comic book diversity. Interestingly, DC would introduce a black cyborg called Cyborg the following year.

Prof Prometheus is obsessed with prolonging human life. He has robot minions ("humanoids") who call him The Master and obey his every whim. And he has created a kind of boom-tube or star-gate which connects his laboratory to the Microverse. He calls it, portentously, the Prometheus Pit. When we first meet him in issue #4, he talks like a perfectly sensible scientist ("Welcome, old friend") but when his back story is revealed in issue #5, he shifts to Villain Voice: "I can transcend the small portion of humanity left in me! I can become like unto a god!" 

Prometheus is a former colleague of Ray Coffin, Steve's Dad. Ray Coffin was an astronaut; he and Prometheus served together. Before long, Ray will be having an extremely close encounter with the Enigma Force, just like Rann did on the edge of the Microverse. It's not a terribly subtle analogy: Prof Prometheus is the human equivalent of Karza and Ray Coffin is a lot like Arcturus Rann. As the storyline plays out, the two humans will become explicit avatars for their Microversal equivalents. 

Oh. And while he is on the Endeavour, Rann still likes to sleep in the cryogenic pod he used while he was exploring the Microverse. It is shaped, quite distinctly and explicitly, like a coffin

In one way, it all hangs together. Prometheus has become obsessed with the Microverse because he has discovered the remains of Karza's Dog Soldiers who (it appears) keep getting killed while trying to get through the Space Wall. The Dog Soldiers have been said from the beginning to be half-human and half-machine, so it makes sense that a a person with an interest in bionics would want to know more about them. We were told that the roboids of the Microverse were a synthesis of man and machine in the very first issue. This might be dense foreshadowing -- Mantlo might have put a lot of cybertech into Homeworld because he had foreseen the character of Prometheus from the beginning. But it might equally be a sort of retrospective mining of his own material: when he needed an earthly villain, what he had already established about the Microverse suggested an evil bionic man. Prometheus's transformation from skeptical scientist to full on ranting super-baddie in issue #5 is rather sudden: if you told me it was the result of an authorial rethink between issues I would not be entirely surprised. 

DIGRESSION: When our heroes first encountered Muffin in issue #2, they didn't know what sort of a creature he was. Later, Mari explains to Rann that he is a "dog" and that "dogs" are extinct on Homeworld. Even allowing for translation, why would Karza name his stormtroopers after an obscure extinct animal? ("Because it's cool, that's why.")

But even by Marvel Comics standards, quite a lot of belief has to be suspended. When he's first mentioned, Steve's Dad is merely a NASA astronaut who served on Starlab. Starlab is obviously meant to make us think of Skylab which was real and in the news. It crashed out of orbit and into the sea in 1979. It's quite a big jump from the 1970s space programme to super intelligent computers that can rebuild human beings; and quite a big jump from being a US astronaut to creating intra-dimensional portals and secret robot armies. Marvel generally keeps the "real world" and "super science" in separate boxes: we are allowed to believe in the Fantastic Four and the Avengers, but New York Police generally don't have ray guns. But even if we can accept that Steve's Dad's friend is a Reed Richards level genius, it requires a huge leap of faith to accept that Rann just happened to crash his ship in the garden of the human being who is his exact analogy on earth. 

Unless Time Traveller planned it that way. 

The Enigma Force is the manifestation of our old friend, The Plot. When Arcturus Rann was at the very edge of the Microverse, he encountered The Plot. Karza is scared of Rann because Rann seems to have inside knowledge of The Plot. When Mari was imprisoned she was able to summons The Plot to get her out. And in issue #7, one of the mysterious Shadow Priest will quite literally tell Argon that they know the ending of the story but that he won't be needed until the final chapter.

Issue #4 is, truthfully, a bit of a muddle. It tends to confirm the theory that the first issues of Micronauts are the result of a hastily executed cut and paste job, a superhero comic and a Star Wars comic glued together at short notice. For one thing, it has two different titles. The main splash page takes us back to the Microverse, showing us Karza's dog-soldiers raiding "the underground" on Homeworld. (This seems to represent a shift from the opening issue, where "the rebels" were specifically insurgents against the Royal Family.) This is entitled A Hunting We Will Go. The first two issues went with science-fiction lettering and single-word titles  (Homeworld, Escape, Earth) but from #3 onwards we've reverted to standard Marvel bombast. Strangely, the splash-page is enclosed in a larger frame, with head-shots of the main characters in the margin, and a second title at the top: Death-Duel at Daytona Beach Part Two. It's very unusual for a Marvel comic of the era to call a story "part two". Although the story follows on directly from the last episode, it isn't really a duel, and it doesn't take place anywhere near the beach. It seems pretty clear that one comic (Rann and his friends lost on earth) and an entirely separate comic (Karza, Belladona and Argon) have been fairly clumsily edited together. 

Baron Karza himself appears on the cover, for the first time since issue #1. Had Jim Shooter come around to the idea that space opera and Darth Vader lookalikes sell even better than lawnmowers? But in fact, we only get five pages in the Microverse before cutting back to Steve Coffin's yard. Anyone who judged the comic by the cover would have been sorely disappointed. 

The Dog Soldiers arrest the rebels: Karza is primarily interested in a rebel leader called Slug. One of the other rebels does the noble "I'm Spartacus" routine, laying down his life so that Slug has a chance to contact Argon in Karza's cells. The astonishing twist is that Slug is, like, not a boy. In issue #5, the captives are taken to the slave pits. (The captions draw attention to their nudity, but the art coyly contrives that limbs are positioned over private parts.) Duchess Belladonna identifies Slug as the captive whose body she would like her mind transplanted into; and we discover that Karza has turned Argon, for no particularly good reason, into a centaur. I think we are supposed to think he has been amalgamated with Oberon, his telepathic horse from issue #1, but this is not stated directly. 

Meanwhile, Ray takes Steve (who has put some clothes on) to his place of work, to show his old friend Prof Prometheus the wrecked space-craft which proves that they have encountered extraterrestrials. (Just to remind us that we're in the 1970s, Prometheus initially thinks that Steve's imagination has been fired up by Close Encounters of the Third Kind.) Prometheus's institution is called the Human Engineering Life Laboratories, but otherwise there is absolutely nothing sinister about it. Rann, Acroyear and Marie limp back to Steve's house to pick up Bug, but Bug has followed the Coffins to HELL, so they fly off after him in the Astrostation (another detachable section of the Endeavour) leaving Biotron to fix the main ship in Steve's kitchen. 

Left by himself, Biotron wonders out loud if Rann and Mari are in love, and the comic just kind of stops: you could hardly describe it as a cliffhanger. The American reworking of Battle of the Planets introduced a comedic robot called 7-Z-7 who narrated the action for the benefit of the viewer; and Biotron's habit of talking to himself feels like a similar breach of the "fourth wall".

But issue #5 distinctly gets its mojo back. (I am not quite sure what mojo is, but issue #5 definitely has some.) It has some of the qualities of the first issue: an awful lot is going on, and we have to keep our wits about us to avoid getting lost. (For example, the fact that Prometheus's orderlies are robots, referred to as Humanoids, is tossed out in a single speech bubble on page 10.) Mari befriends Muffin (the dog) and gets into Prometheus's lair riding the furry pup like a very big horse; while Acroyear cuts through the electric fence with his light sabre energy sword. He says that he using the ship's blasters would be a waste of energy, but we know perfectly well that it's just cooler that way.  Prometheus rips off his own face, reveals his back story, and drags Ray Coffin into the Pit. One thinks of Holmes and Moriarty.

It is often said that Microtron, the short "fiesty" robot is a stand-in for Artoo Deetoo, while Biotron, the tall, pompous one is a cover version of See Threepio. And this may be true up to a point: although we are repeatedly told that Biotron has a kind of mystical union with Arcturus Rann, we never feel he's much more than a robot butler and side kick. A lot of the time, it is Microtron who gets Threepio's lines: this exchange, just before the big battle is pure Anthony Daniels.

-- What do you think we'll find here, Mr Acroyear?

-- Battle! Glory!

-- Oh dear.


I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider backing me on Patreon (pledging £1 each time I publish an article.) 

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Sunday, May 21, 2023

Micronauts #2 and #3

Micronauts #2: Earth

Micronauts #3 Death Duel at Daytona Beach

"Tell me why are smurfs so small?"
"We're not small but you are tall."
           The Smurfing Song

Micronauts 3 contains a small mis-print.

Or perhaps it isn't a misprint. Perhaps it is like the barefoot Paul McCartney on the Abbey Road cover, desperately trying to warn his fans that he is no longer alive. Or like that tiny piece of paper that says "Help, I'm being held prisoner in a fortune cookie factory."


Shaitan (the Dark Lord's lieutenant) is chasing Arcturus Rann (the thousand year old Buzz Lightyear Action figure) across a Florida skate-park. Because of course he is. It's 1978; everything which isn't Star Wars is skate-boarding. 

Not that the location is particularly important. There is a tracking beacon on Rann's ship. Because of course there is. It's the only explanation for the ease of their escape. Shaitan's Battle Cruiser could perfectly will  have been chasing Rann's Endeavour through an asteroid field or across a forest moon. It happens to be chasing it through Florida -- along a freeway and in a skate park and into young Steve Coffin's back garden. It's clearly a Star Wars scene: people keep saying things like "Rear deflector breached" and "Man the thorium guns".

Shaitan's Battle Cruiser splits into six smaller modules. Because of course it does. Modular vehicles were all the rage that season. Judge Dredd had crossed the Cursed Earth in a big land rover that split into two small land rovers. It was called a Killdozer and it was based on a line of Dinky toys, for reasons which have never become entirely clear. Cyborg (Time Traveller's forbear) had a big spaceship, the Invader with a little spaceship, the Interceptor, inside it. Even Gerry Anderson was in on the act, selling his Star Cruiser model kits. It had a detachable cockpit at the front and a piggyback star-fighter on top and a Thunderbird 2 type landing pod on the undercarriage. He never made a TV show to go with it, but there was a cartoon strip in Look-In and the Airfix kit was cool. It was snap-together and came with stickers so it could be assembled by relative klutzes. 

There is probably some deep seated reason why little boys think that big machines which divide into smaller machines are cool. But Shaitan's Battle Cruiser just isn't cool enough. Michael Golden's art is still too sketchy, too small, too distanced; and it's all over and done with in a panel. A big triangular spaceship splits into six tiny small doodles. We needed a double-page schematic at the very least. That's Micronauts all over for you. Cool ideas that don't stay long enough for you to get a decent purchase on them. Perhaps Mantlo just assumed we all had a Battle Cruiser on the bedroom floor and knew what it was meant to look like.

Acroyear (the good guy, the one who looks like a knight in armour) proposes jumping out of the Endeavour (the spaceship) and taking on Shaitan (the bad guy) hand to hand. Biotron (the robot) is left in the pilot's seat and Marie (the princess) is left manning the guns. Acroyear leaps onto one section of the Battle Crusier with a lightsaber energy sword, yelling "Tell your traitor prince that his brother has come for him!" Acroyear gets all the best lines. Until Time Traveller moves to the centre stage, he will provide most of the Fizz in the comic.

And then. We cut back to the Microverse. For just one page.

We are in Baron Karza's body banks. He is standing on a yellow glowing square, surrounded by short green monks who on a bad day could be mistaken for Jawas. They are the mysterious Shadow Priests. Their job is to be mysterious. They don't do anything apart from be mysterious until the big reveal in issue # 11. (It will, in fairness, be a very big big reveal.) He, Karza, is talking to a little old lady, Duchess Belladona. One of the perils of living on the intersection between Mego Action Figures and Kirby's Fourth World is that everyone has very silly names. One of the Baron's underlings is called Major D'Ark. Belladonna wants to buy a new body from Karza. Ideally, she wants Princess Marie's body; but Karza has to admit that she has escaped. Alternatively, the duchess would like Prince Argon, which suggests an admirably enlightened attitude to gender. Karza hisses that he, Argon, is slated for a "rather special experiment ".

And in neat lettering, just under the final panel are the words "To be continued".

And then we cut back to Earth. The US airforce is being scrambled, skateboarders are being tripped up by toy spaceships and Acroyear is yelling "Traitorous Dog!"

"To be continued." At the bottom of the page. Half way through the issue. I can imagine Stan Lee cutting away from a subplot with a wink to the reader "We'll learn more about the mysterious Mr Osborn next issue, but for now..." But To Be Continued comes at the end of an issue. And there are still ten pages to go.


The second and third issues of Micronauts entirely fail to pay-off on the promise of the first. Issue # 1 felt more like Star Wars than Star Wars: issues #2 and #3 feel a lot like any other late 70s Marvel Comic. Everyone banters and wise-cracks in the face of certain death. Rann and Marie fall in love at first sight. ("She's one helluva of a girl"; "I like that in a man".) The adjective "feisty" is applied to Microtron. The first cover was a pastiche or half memory of the Star Wars poster: a hero; a princess; a knight; a dark lord. The cover of #2 shows us the same group of characters...threatened by a suburban lawn mower. The tone is comedic; even parodic. Our heroes are running away. Marie has her arms around Rann a little too exaggeratedly, a little too much like a silent movie heroine. There is something of the Warner Brothers cartoon about Bug's demeanour. Only Acroyear seems to rise above it all, literally and metaphorically.

It's perfectly good fun. "Star Wars but Marvel Superheroes" is by no means a terrible selling point. But the consciousness expanding first issue has been relegated to a prologue. Marie and Rann helpfully tell each other things they already know for the benefit of the reader. "The Homeworld you left died ages ago, commander, enslaved by Karza's science; the royal family fought back, but..." "He slew my parents, but that's the least of his evil. He wants every living thing subservient to him..." Characters in 1970s comics did have a bad habit of stating and restating the premise ("Eternals can't die..."). But this feels like a rear-guard action to make sure we're au fait with the salient points after the information-dense first issue. If you started reading with issue #2, you wouldn't feel you'd missed very much. 

I've sometimes called it conceptual story-telling. You can read, say, a late John Carter story, or one of the Conan adventures when Howard wasn't really trying, or anything at all by David Eddings -- and find that you are enjoying the idea of swords and dragons and martians even though the story is doing nothing to make the swords and the dragons and the martians particularly interesting. Kids in particular fill in details for themselves -- you only need a cursory sketch of a pirate ship or the barest hint of a haunted house and they are off on a day dream of their own. (For grown ups, this really only works with soft pornography.) Conceptually, Micronauts #2 and #3 are an absolute blast: tiny epic spaceships zooming through suburbia, tripping up skaters and stunning puppies. But the execution feels perfunctory.

Issue #1 ended with our heroes reaching "the fringe". Issue #2 begins with them crashing through something called The Space Wall. This seems to be a physical barrier which encloses their universe and separates it from ours. Karza's dog soldiers periodically hurl themselves at the barrier and get killed; but Time Traveller, in his primary role as mysterious deus ex machina, has helpfully blasted a hole through it. Rann's thousand year voyage took him literally to the edge of the universe: he is now going to infinity and beyond. 

The hole-in-the-space-wall ought to have been something like the Hellmouth which causes Buffy Sommers such endless trouble. Or even like the Boom Tube from the New Gods tetralogy: a ol' hunk of plot device through which goodie toy space ships and baddie toy space ships can endlessly pour into Steve Coffin's back yard. But it never becomes particularly central to the story: Shaitan chases Rann from the Fringe to Earth and returns home with his armoured tail between his legs, and the story moves on. It's one of the things which makes Micronauts such a dizzying, exasperating, but ultimately thrilling experience. Mantlo bleeds out premises for stories; uses them once; and discards them.

On our side of the Space Wall, the Micronauts are about three inches tall. This is kind of necessary to justify the title. Things which seen small to us appear big to them. It's possible to make this kind of thing interesting. Jonathan Swift wrote a moderately well known satirical novel around the idea. Land of the Giants ran to two whole seasons. The Incredible Shrinking Man was quite scary. There is a black and white Doctor Who story called Planet of the Giants in which our heroes spend an inordinate amount of time wondering why anyone would bother to build a giant matchbox and if they are on a planet where giant ants have evolved. Within three minutes the audience is shouting "You've been shrunk you dozy buggers!" at the TV screen. It's quite fun and has a certain sense of wonder: but it helps that Ian and Barbara can be assumed to already know what a box of matches is.

Marie and Rann have never seen a lawn, or a garden swing, or a dog. Earth would be strange to them even if they were normal sized. Bug is surprised that earth-fauna is so much bigger than the forests on his own planet; they think the giant metal structure has some religious significance; and they use stun-guns on a puppy. But it all gets sorted out with a couple of pages. They encounter Steve Coffin, a semi-naked teenager, who instantly realises that they must be aliens and is only mildly surprised ("Oh wow, I mean wow.") Marie explains the entire backstory to him off panel, and he's pretty fine with it. ("We'll, sure I'll help you.") The issue ends with the lad surveying his wrecked garden and wondering what he is going to tell Dad. He decides to tell him that "It was a war, dad, between two forces from a microscopic planet called home-world. They had spaceships and ray-guns and..." His Dad believes him. He is, very conveniently, and ex-astronaut; something of a Buzz Lightyear himself. His plot arc is going to be one of the most bizarre things in the comic. 

When John Byrne rebooted Superman in 1986, he stuck with established tradition; starting the story on Krypton and following baby Kal to earth. He later said he regretted this: he wished he had started with Jonathan and Martha Kent finding their star-child, and only gradually revealed his origins. The narrative would have had the quality of surprisingness, even if the readers were not actually surprised. There is something to be said for dramatic irony. 

I think there would have been a strong argument for making Steve Coffin the viewpoint character in the Micronauts. It makes a lot more sense to see space-aliens through a teenager's eyes than teenagers through space-alien's eyes. (This is largely how Mantlo constructed Rom, showing us the Space Knight from the point of view of his human girl-friend.) We readers could have first perceived the Endeavour as strange toys clogging up Steve's lawnmower, and only gradually learned about their epic origins. Our confusion could have been his confusion; and the Microverse might have seemed more wonderful because we had never been there. Kirby showed as Darkseid from Jimmy Olsen's point of view before showing us the inside of Apokalips. Alternatively, the aliens-eye-viewpoint could have been used to defamiliarise the mundane: we could have stayed with Rann and Marie, seen a strange new world through the windscreen of the Endeaour, and only gradually working out where they had fetched up. The shifting viewpoints tend to melt the sense of wonder: no sooner have they seen the strange religious artefact than they have realised that it is a child's back-garden swing, and no sooner has Steve seen the Micronauts than he has understood that they are visiting aliens.

How many of Stan Lee's Weird Wonder Tales and Tharg's Future Shocks ended with mighty space fleets being destroyed by house-wives with fly swatters and alien diplomats deciding that ants are the dominant life-form on earth. Douglas Adams sent the whole idea up, having the battle fleets of the Vl'Hurgs and the G'Gugvuntt swallowed ("due to a terrible miscalculation of scale") by a small dog. But Mantlo is slightly too at ease with his own sense of wonder. When young Steve smashes Shaitan's ship with a garden rake, it ought to be awesome. A whole Star Destroyer full or Evil Mandalorians destroyed in a single blow; Godzilla pulling a jumbo jet out of the sky. Or else it ought to feel uncanny: a whole civilisation of tiny two inch scale human beings. But we don't really feel the narrative disjuncture between the physical size of the heroes and the narrative size of the story. We see a kid breaking a toy spaceship. Awe fails to be inspired.


So: a chase and a dogfight; some Lilipution silliness; and multiple statements and restatements of the backstory. But threaded through this: two tiny-small cutaways to the Microverse. Two pages in Issue #2; a single page in Issue #3. Prince Argon spread out cruciform on some luminous platform; taunted by Karza and warned that he is going to be experimented on. The old lady demanding Argon's body and being told she can't have it. The inset scenes are part of the same world, artistically and tonally, as issue #1. The Daytona Beach material seems to come from a different comic-book. 

I wonder. Did Mantlo originally envisage Micronauts # 2 as a direct continuation of Micronauts #1: swashbuckling, intrigue and exposition in a space-fantasy cosmos? Had that second issue already been drawn when Stan Lee admitted that issue #1 left him baffled; resulting in a much more mainstream second issue? And did Mantlo chop up the unpublished #2 and distribute the pages through the rewritten issues? 

There is a precedent for this sort of thing: material from an abortive Inhumans comic was repurposed as a subplot in Fantastic Four #51 - #64. I've argued that the Silver Surfer material in Fantastic Four #49 was added after the fact. 

I assume that in the Real World, the "To Be Continued" caption was a mistake. The Duchess Belladonna story was originally scheduled to come at the end of issue #2 (or perhaps to be presented as a separate "Tales of the Microverse" feature) and someone forgot to erase the lettering during the editorial process. But as a piece of text, it does seem to be an acknowledgement that what we are reading is two conceptually different comics, glued together. A warning that the comic we really want to be reading and the one Bill really wants to be writing has been carved up and served in bite sized chunks? Or even a secret message from Bill: "Stan has told me to make this comic more Marvel Style. Like he told Jack to put a robot Hulk in the Eternals. But don't worry. We'll get back to the kosmic stuff before too long."


I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider backing me on Patreon (pledging £1 each time I publish an article.) 

 Pledge £1 for each essay.

Thursday, May 11, 2023

Said Alice (2)

So, yes, I went to the Cathedral to watch Charles ascending the throne on a big screen. 

It seemed the thing to do.

Grown-ups have talked about the Coronation all my life. There is a soap opera and a kind of chicken named after it. It is connected in my head with the Millennium and the Blue Peter time capsule. A thing I knew when I was little would happen when I was old. I could have watched it on my I-Pad, but I would have been tempted to make a cup of tea or check Twitter. I would have liked to go to the Abbey, but like Meghan and President Biden, I somehow got left off the guest list. I wanted to have a specific memory of the Coronation as a thing I did; not a thing I half watched on TV. I suppose I will be around for William's but definitely not for George's.  

And so the burning question is: did I or did I not pledge my true allegiance to his majesty and to his heirs and successors according to law?

Church services often involve public responses. May the Force be with you, and also with you. Do you renounce Francis Ford Coppola and all his works? The congregation even have to say "I do" during a Christening ceremony, even if they don't particularly know the Mum and Dad whose baby is being dipped in the font. There may even be a "Will you help and support the happy couple?" in the marriage service. 

A lot of people pretended to be very shocked that the coronation service was going to involve a public declaration of loyalty to the new King, and then a lot of other people pretended to be even more shocked that the first lot were shocked. One side were Orwellian and the other side were Traitors. 

What had actually happened was that Charles thought it would be a wheeze if the traditional Homage of the Peers (where members of the House of Lords say that the new incumbent is quite definitely king) could be replaced by a Homage of the People in which ordinary folk get to say so as well. In a last minute Anglican compromise, the good Archbishop decided to invite everyone to swear allegiance, instead of actually calling on them to do so. They were also allowed to say God Save King Charles if they didn't have the full script in front of them. I don't know why the BBC couldn't have scrolled it across the screen with a little bouncy ball. 

Yes, of course, I mumbled along with the rest of the congregation, as I would have done at any other service. 

Shall I tell you a secret? I have seen avowed atheists mouthing "I believe in God the Father Almighty" when they've found themselves attending church for some social reason. I don't actually see much wrong with that. Paris is worth a Mass. 

When the King of England started pushing Yankees around
We taught him a lesson down in Boston town
A very brave negro, Crispus Attucks was the man
The first to fall when the fighting began

I found it all rather beautiful and moving and impressive. 

I am sorry, but I did. 

I was particularly impressed, for some reason, by the choir singing "Vivat Regina Camilla!" Last year I was particularly struck by the simplicity of the Palace's announcement: "the Queen died peacefully at Balmoral" and without a pause "The King will remain here until tomorrow." Not even "the new King" or "King Charles": just "the King". 

Camilla looked utterly terrified throughout; Charles maintained the correct sense of dignity and bemusement and managed to refrain from swearing at his fountain pen. The reason he read the vows off the cards is that they are the part of the service with constitutional force and he has to get them exactly right. I enjoyed the Gospel Choir and the Greek Orthodox band and Sir Bryn doing his thing in Welsh. I nominate the curly haired lad with the freckles who enunciated just slightly too much as the Best Chorister, but the row of young chaps with big spectacles are very highly commended. Some of the barking mad pageantry is undoubtedly fascinating: I enjoyed Penny Mordaunt giving the sword to the king and the king giving it to the Archbishop and the King buying it back and returining it to Penny. 

It is strange to think that there is someone whose job it is to know all these stuff: the Royal College of Heralds, I suppose. I believe that part of the fun of being a Freemason is learning the ins and outs of a deliberately obscure rite. That's also part of the fun of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. It is strange to think that there is still such a thing as the Royal College of Heralds. 

I don't think anyone could fail to be impressed by the theatre of the old man taking off his cloak and his tunic in order to be anointed (behind a screen). You can use words like "cos-play" or "dress-up" all you want: I like the theatricality and artifice. The actual King is dressing up as a King; the real King is role-playing being a King, with props and costumes which are the kinds of things we imagine a pretend-king ought to have. Orbs and coaches and robes and rings and gauntlets. If you don't go to church and aren't used to people wearing cassocks and robes and mitres and standing up and sitting down and kneeling I can see why it might all look a bit silly. If I were visiting, say, Oklahoma and had the opportunity to see, say, the investiture of a knew Shawnee leader I would most certainly go and I expect I would find it interesting and impressive. Finding it silly and quaint would be cultural appropriation, I shouldn't wonder.

Joseph got a royal pardon and a host of splendid things
A chariot of gold, a cloak, a medal and some signet rings.

C.S Lewis (we were bound to get to him eventually) thought that the Book of Common Prayer would, sooner or later, have to be revised: it was four hundred years old and words change their meaning. 

But he didn't think the church was ready for a new prayer book quite yet. He said that two things would indicate that the time was right. First, the Church of England would have to be going through a period of comparative theological unanimity; and secondly, there would have to be an obvious Anglican poet who was good at writing liturgy. You'd need to be at point when the Church was pretty clear what it wanted to say and had someone on hand who could pick the right words in which to say it. This seems admirable good sense. I think we can probably agree that neither condition was conspicuously met in either 1980 or 2000. 

I think something similar applies to the British constitution. Is there a broad consensus about what an English British Republic, or a reformed English British Constitutional Monarchy, ought to look like? Is there someone other than Olly Murs on hand to compose a new National Anthem and someone better than Pan Ayers to write a Presidential oath of office?

The King was in the counting house, counting out his money
The Queen was in the parlour, eating bread and honey
The maid was in the garden, hanging out the clothes
When down came a blackbird and pecked off her nose

The great Scottish Folk Singer Dick Gaughan once remarked that he couldn't make up his mind about Johnny Cash. "Sometimes I think he's great. But sometimes I think he's a wee redneck shite." I agree. But I am actually not un-fond of the Redneck Shite genre. The one about all the Texans getting slaughtered by the Mexicans in a fort, for example. The Johnny Cash monologue about the American flag somehow crosses the "so bad it's good" line and comes out the other side. On second thoughts, I do like to brag, I feel mighty proud of that ragged old flag. 

Of course, the Ragged Old Flag isn't about a piece of cloth, any more than the Old Rugged Cross is about a piece of wood. It's a metaphor, or possibly a symbol. I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States and the republic for which it stands.  

I understand that situation comedies have given British viewers the impression that the Pledge of Allegiance is more ubiquitous in modern American schools than is actually the case: but I was never as horrified by the idea as some of my fellow Corbynites seem to have been. I suppose if you want to go the whole way and imagine that there are no countries (which isn't hard to do) then we shouldn't be pledging allegiance to anything at all. But as long as we are allowed to have nations then I think we can probably have national symbols, and symbolic shows of loyalty to those symbols are somewhere between perfectly harmless and quite nice. People have put the Union Jack to bad use, but then the have done the same with the Hammer and Sickle and the Christian Cross. 

I do have a problem when devotion to a flag imbues the flag itself with magical properties. It's one thing to say that you bring her down slow every night, don't let her touch the ground and fold her up tight. That's a matter of form and etiquette. It's another to say that if you don't handle the flag correctly you are guilty of literal treason. Most of us understand the difference between The Flag as a symbol and the flag as a piece of cloth, although some of us sometimes pretend not to. Most of us understand that when we talk about loyalty to the Crown we aren't talking about being loyal to the thing on Charles' head, pretty as it unquestionably was.

William, William, Henry, Stephen
Henry, Richard, John, oi!
Henry, Ed, Ed, Ed, Rich two
Then three more Henrys join our song
Edward, Edward, Rich the third
Henry, Henry, Ed again
Mary one, good Queen Bess
Jimmy, Charles and Charles and then
Jim, Will, Mary, Anna Gloria
George, George, George, George
Will, Victoria
Edward, George, Edward, George six
And Queen Liz two completes the mix

We used to be told that the point of the Monarchy was that it stood above party politics. I used to partly believe it. I don't say that Prince Phillip was apolitical. Nothing is apolitical, not even David Attenborough or Rice Krispies. But the Silver Jubilee didn't feel like a Labour Thing or a Tory Thing -- it was just a Thing. There were actual Communists who pretended it wasn't happening, and young men with safety pins who were very rude about it, but most people were no more For or Against the Jubilee than they were For or Against the sky. Even the Punks were relatively amusing and quite cool; green hair and safety pins rapidly found their way onto postcards alongside beefeaters and fish and chips. The dissent was part of the festivities. In 1977 I pointedly didn't like pop music and would have thought that the Sex Pistols didn't play proper tunes. That's how sophisticated I was at the age of 13. Only since I started going to folk music have I been able to appreciate the punk's poetry of rage. 

Lee Anderson is odious, of course, and it's his job to be odious, but surely even he can see that "If you don't like the monarchy, your should emigrate" is a bit of cliche, a Viz level parody of what Mr Disgusted Of Tunbridge Wells would have written, probably in green ink? 

But is it not rather counter productive? If the point of Charles is that he stands above politics, then why would a Monarchist work so hard to rebrand him as a Tory symbol, to spend so much time saying that Labour don't love our King? If you repeat over and over again that things are "as Republican as Apple Pie" then haven't you spoiled Apple Pie as a symbol of wholesome patriotism?

We're the flowers in the dustbin
We're the poison in your human machine

I read Roger Lancelyn Green's Tales of King Arthur when I was maybe nine or ten; off the same library shelf where I found Chris Godfrey and in the same year I discovered Spider-Man and the Wombles. 

I read TH White's Once and Future King in the fifth form and washed it down with some Idyls of the King. The same people who did Children of the Stones did a TV show about a juvenile delinquent who turned out to be the One True King of England. His probation officer was Merlin. I was given both volumes of the Penguin Malory for my eighteenth birthday and read them all the way through, even the Tristan sections. My whole long Arthurian infatuation culminated in a multi year game of Pendragon . 

But even without round tables and swords in stones, the Kings and Queens of England the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Their other Realms and Territories have always been there. Victoria was not amused; King John was not a good man; one Henry inadvertently ordered his men to kill the archbishop and another one beheaded several of his wives. George the third went mad and Richard the third lost his horse and another Henry found the crown hanging on a gorse bush. Upon this charge cry God, for England, Harry and St George. Five bad kings and two genuine dates. I don't believe in the mystic Albion or that the king and the land are one. I am not sure I believe the King is the head of the Church; in fact I am not complete sure how the Anglican doctrine of succession works. 

There is much to be said of Rob Young's notion of Electric Eden. Folk music as the music of an imaginary England: the songs create the past. A mythology for England: who said that? 

If you want to be cynical about them, Coronations are historical cos-plays or expensive dressing up games. If you want to be less cynical, they are adding new chapters to a story which goes on an on forever. The beginning of the story might not quite stretch back to Lear and Cymbeline or even Ethelston and Cnut but it certainly goes back to Charles II and the Prince Regent. 

Can you enjoy the story, the holy oil, the ancient book, even if in these enlightened times, no-one believes a word of it? Or does that put you in the category of one of those clergyman who sings Jesus Christ Is Risen Today on Easter Sunday and then writes a learned article in the Observer about how it's all a load of bollocks? Do Charles and Camilla and Justin Welby and Rishi Sunak believe that God chooses Kings of England? Do they believe that King Charles is connected to a spiritual power-grid that draws power from Henry VIII and Saint Augustine and Saint Peter and ultimately Jesus? If they don't, then wouldn't we have to say that the whole operation is not so much a charade as a blatant lie? The Church of England carries on because one or two of the clergy and several of the laity really do genuinely believe in God. I doubt if one single person, in that sense, believes in Charles.

A dying race, numbly rehearsing the ancient ways in a blur of forgetfulness. But today, the ritual gives no comfort. 

By tea-time tomorrow, all this will feel very irrelevant. Sacred role-play will have given way to a silly Command performance and lots of cream teas, and by the end of next week, there will be nothing left but Duchy Original Shortbreads and equestrian march pasts. How long will it be -- days? weeks? -- before the Daily Mail forgets the loyal toast and denounces the King as a woke commie? Some people want to keep the King but lose the pageantry; I rather wish we could keep the pageantry but lose the king. The republicans want to scrub the illuminated capitals off the constitution and have a country that conducts itself in black typescript, rubber stamps and filing cabinets. And that would certainly be much more sensible. But I wouldn't march for it and I don't know if I could bring myself to vote for it. 

Do you think the king knows all about me?
Sure to dear, but it's time for tea.


I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

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Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Said Alice (1)

There are six protestors standing in the rain outside Bristol Cathedral. They are at a respectful distance; I think it is possible that one of the copious clergy has taken pity and brought them cups of tea. No-one seems particularly interested in arresting them. Perhaps they have made a conscious decision to have their demo after the ceremony is over; so they can't be accused of intimidation; or because they want to make their point without spoiling anyone's day. Or maybe anarchists just don't get up early in the morning. I take one of their "not my king" leaflets and said "jolly good arguments on both sides." 

You won't have read about this in the paper. Polite, good natured protests don't count as news. If one of them had got inside the cathedral and thrown an egg at the giant TV screen... we would probably have said "Where on earth did you get that egg from? Don't waste it. Lidl have completely sold out and I wanted to make a Coronation Quiche." 

They are singing to the tune of Coming Round The Mountain": You can stick your coronation up your arse; you can stick your coronation up your arse; you can stick your coronation, stick your coronation, stick your coronation up your arse. 

It is not the best constitutional argument I will hear over the weekend. But neither is it the worst. 

I know thee not old man; fall to thy prayers. 
I have long dreamt of such a kind of man
....but being awaked, I do despise my dream.

If Diana had survived the car crash, she would currently occupy a similar status to the Duchess of Windsor (nee Mrs Simpson); a posh old lady living in more or less contented exile in France or Florida, occasionally giving interviews; sometimes photographed from a distance like Marlene Dietrich.

If Diana had not separated from Prince Charles, she would be the very elderly king's very elderly wife; looking rather ridiculous in coronet and ermine. The Daily Mail would be writing nasty articles about how she had Let Herself Go. Beautiful women often age less gracefully than good-looking men. I am always slightly surprised to see photos of the young Princess Elizabeth and the young Prince Phillip and to be reminded how glamorous they once were. If she were still alive, a substantial number of people would be accusing Queen Diana of Treason because of long-standing rumours about the colour of Prince Harry's hair. Camilla would be a long forgotten scandal. Or just possibly, she would be sitting in the background, with some polite title like the King's Sister. 

If Diana had never married Prince Charles then no-one would have heard of her. 

On no possible time line could the beautiful shy young icon in those postage stamp photos have been crowned Queen yesterday, and it is slightly unhinged to suggest that she could have been.

But while the King was looking down, t
the Jester stole his thorny crown...

Two people at the screening were literally wrapped in the Union Jack (wearing plastic flags as capes). Alarmingly there was an elderly man with a trumpet and a dog dressed as a Chelsea pensioner, but he didn't do anything weird; nothing weirder than bringing a dog and a trumpet to a church service, anyway. The man behind me kept pointedly saying Ay-Men in a way that no Anglican has ever said Ay-Men before. When the procession got under way and a band struck up God Save The King a lady at the front not only stood up but gestured that everybody else should stand up. It became apparent that someone was going to play God Save The King every hundred yards or so, but mercifully she didn't insist on any more patriotic gestures. The Dean got up in the pulpit and led a prayer of her own and said that everyone was invited to join in the televised service as much or as little as they wanted to. So people stood up and murmured with exactly the same level of enthusiasm you would get in any other Church of England service. She double-checked that there were no deaf people in the audience and then switched off the BSL interpreter; which was a relief. I've seen Children of a Lessor God and Four Weddings And a Funeral and totally grok that it's a proper language but it's very hard not to find some of the gestures unintentionally comical. 


Too late to be known as John the First, 
he's sure to be known as John the worst: 
a pox upon that phoney king of England.

I would have been very much more impressed with Malcolm Muggeridge and the Bishop of Oxford if they had said that Monty Python's Life Of Brian was a very clever and funny film, but that nevertheless they felt that it was wrong to make fun of Jesus. I would have been very much more impressed if some of the Muslims had been prepared to say that the Satanic Verses was a very fine novel but they nevertheless believed it contained a grievous blasphemy against their Prophet. I wish more people were prepared to say (like the young actors who appeared in her movie) that JK Rowling is completely wrong about gender despite having written some wonderful books which have given joy to literally dozens of children. (As an admirer of Dave Sim, Richard Wagner and John Lennon I get quite a bit of practice at this kind of thing.) But the impulse to say that Life of Brian is tenth rate adolescent comedy, that the Satanic Verses is meaningless, illiterate, unreadable verbiage; and to refer to the Potter series only as Those Shitty Wizard Books is very strong. 

You might also think that Rushdie writes a load of rubbish but ought to be allowed to carry on writing a load of rubbish without being murdered. Even Dilbert was quite funny until it wasn't.

Tony Benn used to deprecate republicans who said nasty things about the Queen. (He always spoke in terms of letting her retire with a generous pension and possibly even remaining in Buck House until she passed away.) I wish that more Republicans were prepared to say that the Coronation was a magnificent and moving service, replete with meaning and significance, brilliantly enacted; a good example of one of the things which our country has always been terribly good at, but that they nevertheless thought that now would be a good time to move towards an elected head of state. Or no head of state at all. 

Perhaps some Monarchists could say that they approved of the hereditary principle and a head of state who was not a politician, but that nevertheless the Coronation was archaic, expensive and a bit silly. 

I have a kneejerk reaction against cynicism and flippancy. Smartarses on Twitter and in the Guardian saying "Charles who?" and "What's so interesting about an old man in a funny hat?" make me all the more likely to go and watch it. As a matter of fact, he is your king. The argument that he ought not to be is one I am eminently prepared to listen to. 

Is the argument a purely aesthetic one? Are we talking about a difference in taste between people who like big ceremonies and people who don't? Would an elaborate investiture ceremony for President Attenborough or President Farage be just as bad as the coronation? Would republicans be basically fine with the monarchy if William IV were sworn in at a quiet ceremony in the church hall of St John the Baptist's Windsor, with quiche and sandwiches afterwards at the Horse and Groom? 

It's a bit like quitting the EU. You can whip up support for a single negative proposition, but unless you have some idea about what happens next a lot of us will stick with the status quo. I don't want to have an in/out abolish/retain referendum and then spend a decade arguing about whether what the people voted for was a Soft Republic or a Hard Republic or possibly the Australian model; and decades after that of both sides saying that this isn't the republic I voted for. 

We could have an elected president who rides around in a golden coach and is given magic gloves by Lord Singh. We could even have an elected King if that was what we really wanted: wasn't there a scheme at one point for George Washington to be called King of America? We could decide we didn't need a head of state at all: Kier Starmer could perfectly well become Prime Minister without kissing anyone's hands and we could take it for granted that Parliament was open when the new term starts. There's no particular reason why Charles and William and George couldn't carry on calling themselves Kings if some people wanted them to. Unless and until Kier Starmer abolishes inherited wealth, they would still be immensely rich. "Kings of England" could be allowed to exist, but with no more legal or constitutional standing than than the Pearly King Of Lambeth. I am not quite sure who owns the Crown Jewels, and I expect the Guardian would want them smashed up and used to make amends for the slave trade, but there is no particular reason that they couldn't be taken out of the museum and lent to the former royal family on solemn occasions. Is there a proposition on the table or are we still at the "republicanism Means Republicanism stage?"

You can say the same thing about Scottish Independence. 

When Helen Mirren appeared insufficiently sad about Diana it looked as if public opinion might finally turn against the monarchy. Fortunately Michael Sheen phoned her up in the kitchen and it all blew over. The day after tomorrow some dreadful scandal might erupt -- say if it turned out that the Royal family were more deeply implicated in the Duke of York's little peccadillos than they have been admitting -- and the country could turn republican over night. It is widely thought that Mr Rupert Murdoch dislikes the monarchy but feels it sells newspapers: that could change. But in any referendum, all the monarchists would go out and vote; and the six or seven republicans would go out and vote; and the apathetic majority would apathetically stay at home. No party is ever going to put abolition or reform in its manifesto, because if they did they would be crucified by the right wing press. And anyone within shouting distance of Ten Downing Street loves the reflected glory of a real live king. We briefly had a chance of a reforming Prime Minister but, we blew that because of beards and jumpers and murals, and, admittedly, because of the national anthem. It's like PR in the UK and gun control in the United States. A nice idea but it's just not going to happen.  

Louis was the king of France before the revolution
But then he got his head cut off which spoiled his constitution

On May 1st, a group of Morris Dancers (no, really) gathered in a green hill near Park Street in Bristol to watch the the sun come up and celebrate the fact that summer was a coming in and winter had gone away, oh. Mr Rumberlow got very jolly about it. I plan to go every year, but when it comes to the crunch, 4AM is a bit on the early side. It's an ancient tradition that goes right back to the 1960s; Morris Dancing is a pagan fertility rite that was dreamed up in Shakespeare's time and reinvented by some eccentric Victorian scholars. (Probably.) Everyone joining in the ceremony knows this perfectly well. Doing country dances on the first day of spring feels appropriate: and it says something about what you think about England and nature and music and sticks and handkerchiefs and bells. There's not that much difference between doing the kind of thing you think an ancient tradition ought to look like and keeping up a genuinely ancient tradition. And genuinely ancient traditions also evolve and mutate. Do the ceremonies still performed by American and Canadian First People's have historical continuity with their pre-colonial forebears, or are they partly revivals and reenactments? Highland games and the Gaelic languages are mainly inventions by the nationalist groups, but that doesn't mean they aren't important, and indeed, fun. 

The traditions associated with the coronation of a new King aren't nearly as old as most people think. Nothing is. But some of them are clearly pretty old: William the Conquerer is definitely depicted with an orb and sceptre in the Bayeux Tapestry. I don't imagine they played Zadok the Priest at Solomon's coronation in 1000 BCE, but anointing was definitely a thing they did to kings in the Very Olden Days. (Wasn't Zadok the villain in a dreadful Sean Connery sci-fi movie?) There will always be people who insist that these are exactly the same cakes that Alfred the Great burned, and will fight anyone who denies it. And there will always be people who think that if you can show that any part of the tradition is a later invention, the whole affair is debunked. But most of us can see that that there is a ludic element to religion and monarchy and folk music and don't have a problem with it. Evangelical Christians like to pretend that they are doing baptisms in exactly the same way that the primitive church did baptisms in the catacombs before being thrown to the lions, with very much the same guitars and very much the same overhead projectors. They also know in their hearts of hearts that that's nonsense: but it doesn't make the service less holy for them. Quite a lot of Jews admit that the Exodus, as an historical event, probably didn't happen, but they still do Passover. (David Baddiel is very good on this.) 

I do not, in fact, find it funny that an MP holding a ceremonial position had to perform a ceremonial duty involving a ceremonial object during what was undeniably a ceremony. I don't think that the fact that Monty Python made a joke about ceremonial swords in a comedy film about a legendary king makes it absurd that we use ceremonial swords in ceremonies involving real ones. (That was another good  argument against Life of Brian: if you ridicule religion or kingship in a big film, then ignorant people will come to find religion and kingship intrinsically ridiculous. That was also a good argument in favour of it.) And I certainly don't think "It's not really a feudal sword: it was made for Charles II in the seventeenth century" is a particularly devastating argument. A ceremonial item made in 1678 is still quite old. Older than the Conservative Party and Morris Dancing and America. Doing the same thing we did when the Queen was crowned, long before most of you were even born, still counts as tradition. 



I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider backing me on Patreon (pledging £1 each time I publish an article.) 

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