Saturday, October 01, 2005

I don't always trust everything Tony Blair says; I sometimes suspect the Archbishop of Canterbury may be a bit on the liberal side; Bob Dylan's really rather good, Richard Branson's trains are occassionally late; I've learned three obscure new facts about Tolkien, there's a new comic book you really ought to read, Dave Sim talks a lot of rubbish and a little bit of sense, Doctor Who isn't as good as it used to be, except when it is.

Sorry haven't posted recently, will become vocal again before too long.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

What I did on my summer holiday (2)

Saturday, 10 AM
"I shall need a dinner jacket," thought Andrew to himself.

"I shall hop on a Bus to glamorous Macclesfield, purchase one in Burtons, and be back in time for lunch" he decided.

Sunday :8PM:
Andrew returned home, the proud possessor of a dinner jacket.

Mr Burton had never heard of dinner jackets. Nor had Mr Marks and Mr Spencer. So Andrew decided he had better go to Stockport, which is even more glamorous than Macclesfield.

Mr. Branson had put a big notice outside his railway station, saying that there were no trains to Stockport. Or Manchester. Until October. (He was kind enough to drive everyone to Stockport on a Very Slow Bus, and to allow them to pay the full fare so they wouldn't feel bad about it.) In Stockport, they had heard of dinner jackets, but said that only very, very thin people were allowed to wear them. So on Sunday Andrew allowed Mr Branson to drive him all the way to Manchester on the Very Slow Bus.

Manchester is more glamorous than Macclesfield and Stockport put together. It has an art gallery, and a cinema, and a tram, and a theater and a Great Big Shopping Mall which will sell dinner jackets even to fat people.

Andrew left Manchester with a dinner jacket, and a funny shirt and a red bow tie to go round his neck, and a red cummerbund to go round his tummy. (48 hours later, he would discover that he did not own a pair of cuff-links.)

Funnily enough, "Own a cummerbund" had never featured on any of Andrew's lists of "30 things I expect to do before I die"

Note for Americans
Dinner Jackets" are "Tuxedos". Side-walks are "Y-fronts".

Friday (morn)
I fly just rarely enough that I still find it exciting. It amuses me that if you go up high enough on a rainy day, you can find a sunny one above it. It intrigues me that from a sufficiently high vantage point, the ground looks like a map -- and yet they had maps before they had areoplanes. However much money I may have paid for the ticket, the in-flight wine and sandwiches still feel like "free stuff". I even like airports. In the terrestrial world, I only go to a shopping malls as a last resort, when I need to do something desperate like buy a dinner jacket. I get out again as quickly as possible, hoping not to have been corrupted by the experience. But when I am flying, it feels wonderfully naughty to spend an hour in an area where there is nothing to do but look at silk ties and buy croissants from Cafe Nero.

Oh, and I discovered that I'm a racist. There was some small delay while queuing up to have our passports checked, and I found myself thinking "That's typical, that is: the security guy is obviously giving that woman a hard time because she's wearing a hajib". When it was my turn to go through I discovered that the woman in the hajib was, er, the passport officer.

Speaking of stereotypes: every single train we caught in Germany left and arrived on time. But who on earth had the idea of laying out railway timetables by time rather than by destination -- so you can find out what trains leave at 18:00, but not the time of the next train to Nuremberg?

Friday: Eve
The first thing I actually saw outside the station was a piece of public art (or possibly an advertisement for the local sushi bar) consisting of giant plastic multi-colored frogs climbing the side of a building.

I thought: "I'm here. I'm actually here."

Actually, that's a lie. I really thought "Where's the taxi rank?" and "How can I be thinking about something so mundane as taxis" and "Are all these other people fellow pilgrims?" and "We shouldn't look too excited, or they'll think we're mad English tourists?" (I guess foreigners arriving in Stratford expect the shop staff to wear ruffs and the policemen to speak in iambic pentameters.)

Bayreuth is not, in fact, a Wagner theme park. The chemist shops all appeared to have operatic names ("Parsifal Apotheke") and the bookshops all have musical tomes prominently on display but its probably easier to avoid Wagner on Bayreuth high-street than to avoid, say, Godiva in Coventry or Shakespeare in Stratford.

Louise had visited the town once before. She pointed out that if I crossed the road and looked to my left, you could see the festspielhaus at the top of the hill. So, frogs notwithstanding, we had come to the right place. It was 4PM. People would have been sitting down for Act 1 of Tristan at that very moment. Bastards.

I don't speak any German. I can follow the text of a libretto and work out that walvater sounds better than Father of Battles, but Louise had to brief me for ten minutes so that I could say "Guten Tag" to her German friends without sounding like a complete idiot. (I didn't wish to look too much like an ignorant Englishman in front of the person who had performed The Miracle of the Tickets.) Over lunch I expressed an opinion about Gotterdammerung, and evidently gave the impression that I was referring to something called the Twilight of the Dogs.

Three hours before curtain, I started to become twitchy, like an alcoholic who needs to know where all the liquor is before the party starts. Could I actually have a look at the tickets, please? I need to see the words "Flying Dutchman, Curtain 6PM" or I won't be able to relax. I think we should definitely have our pre-theater snack at the festspielhaus rather than at the hotel, and I think we should get there two hours early, in case it turns out that 6PM is 4 o'clock in Euros.

So we had tea and cakes in the the big posh expensive restaurant in the park near the theatre. We decided that chocolate fondue would be dangerous to my dinner jacket, and the confection described as Cup Tristan and Isolde would just be dangerous. We watched people arriving. Men in Dinner Jackets, presumably not purchased in Macclesfield. Women in a range of styles, from the mildly formal to the most outrageous ball-gowns. The doors don't open until shortly before curtain; Wagner's grand vision of total theater evidently didn't include front-of-house amenities, so people assemble on the courtyard in front of the theater. They admire everyone else's clothes, and drink champagne and think "How did they get their tickets?" A man appeared on the balcony and snapped photos of the assembled Wagnerians. For some reason, there was a large alsation dog running lose among the opera goers. "Is it Uncle Wolf?" asked someone.

There is nothing so mundane as a bell. The brass section of the orchestra comes onto the balcony and blows a fanfare.

Then we are inside; inside the theater Wagner built with his own hands, or at any rate, his own money, or at any rate, Prince Ludwig's money. The only theater suitable to perform his works. Parsifal is sub-titled "a festival play for the consecration of the stage". This festival. This stage.

And if you are relatively sane, there's no way of explaining it to you. Louise phoned me on my 40th birthday to tell me we had the tickets. (I think they were returns; it seems likely that in the wake of July 7th, someone had decided that Bavaria was too close to London for comfort.) I spent the next 48 hours telling all my friends that I had tickets for Bayreuth. I could tell they were impressed by the way they said "What's a Bayreuth?" I referred extensively to the seven year waiting list to try to get my point across. "Oh I see" said one of my colleagues, "It's a bit like getting front row seats for Last Night of the Proms." Flash ended up with " what you are saying is that you are going to Germany to hear a German opera sung in German by Germans." Louise explained it to her friends in these terms: "Remember the pop group you fell in love with when you were imagine that you never fell out of love with it, and imagine that they have just reformed, and that you have a ticket. It's like that." Like me, her first brush with Wagner were the TV broadcasts of a Bayreuth Ring on BBC2 in the 80s. Like me, she spent her teenage evenings obsessively playing the Goodall Rings and Parsifals on vinyl, when she should have been listening to Duran Duran and taking drugs. Occasionally one of would say "Of course, our name's on the waiting list. One day we'll go to Bayreuth." Neither of us really believed that one day we'd be inside Wagner's own theater listening to an opera.

"At some point" said Nietzsche, "We will all be sitting together in Bayreuth, unable to imagine how anyone could stand being anywhere else." (1)

Nothing that I had read, or imagined, or dreamed could possibly have prepared me for how uncomfortable the seats would be.

You might think that here, at the epicenter of his cult, at a festival still largely controlled by his grandchildren Wagner's intentions would be followed pretty slavishly. You'd be wrong. There is as much experimentation here as there is anywhere else. This is a Good Thing: Bayreuth is a living theater festival, not a mummified pastiche of productions from 1878. This years Parsifal apparently interprets the Holy Grail as a dead woman's vagina. We got off relatively lightly by comparison. A production of the Flying Dutchman which, er, didn't have the Flying Dutchman in it.

(My synopsis of the opera can be found here, if you think that might help.)

The very first stage image gave us a pretty good idea of what we were in for. Wagner's stage direction is "A steep cliff....a wide expanse of sea. Daland's ship has just cast anchor close to the shore." This was represented by a modern house interior: wallpaper, an armchair, a radiator. A big flight of stairs divides the stage in two -- the wall behind the stairs is hidden by a red curtain. Something which is recognizably the first scene of the Flying Dutchman is going on in the little flat: a man in a naval officer's uniform is telling his sailors that they aren't going any further tonight, and they might as well have some rest. On the stairs, a little girl (silent, not in the libretto) is playing with a toy ship; moving it slowly along the banisters. There's a framed picture of a ship on a wall, lit by a small light: next to it, there is a blank, discolored space, where another painting has obviously been removed. The girls also plays intermittently with a marionette in a sailor's uniform, like her father.

"Aha!" I thought "So, the conceit is going to be that the story is going on in the little-girl's imagination."

After the steersman has fallen asleep, the Dutchman arrives, and sings his great opening aria: "The term is up. Once more the seven years have run their appointed course." (2) He delivers the soliloquy on the stairs. He's dressed as a modern naval officer, the same as Daland. The two characters are made up to look completely indistinguishable. During the monologue, the Little Girl and Daland are in the main room. The girl is sitting on Daland's knee. Daland is reading her a story. The story of the Dutchman, perhaps? The red curtain at the back of the stage is slowly raised, revealing that the space behind the stairs is exactly the same as the space in front of it. Except – hang on, why is there a radiator hanging from the ceiling? Realisation dawns: what has been revealed behind the curtain is an upside-down reproduction of the same room. We are looking at two identical rooms, one a mirror image of the other, bisected by the flight of stairs. While Daland reads to the girl in the main room; the Dutchman sings his aria in the reflection of it. In fact., the person singing isn't "the Dutchman" at all, but some kind of double or doppelganger for Daland. When Daland and the Dutchman meet and strike their bargain (the Dutchman's treasure in return for the hand of Daland's daughter in marriage) the two singers strike identical poses; make identical gestures: at one point, the two of them stand in front of each other. Just as we have two reflected images of the same space, so we have two reflected images of the same person. My old man's a Dutchman.

In scene 2, we meet Daland's daughter Senta; who is dressed exactly the same as the little girl. Unexpectedly, Mary (Daland's housekeeper) is a third copy of the little girl. She's wearing dark glasses – apparently blind. The picture of the ship has been removed from the wall: both Senta, and the little girl -- or, as we are clearly supposed to say, both the young Senta and the grown-up Senta – reach out obsessively for the blank space.

No-one does any spinning during the spinning song: the other girls circle Senta threateningly.

At one point, slides of the two rooms are projected onto the stage and rotate, giving a powerful kaleidoscopic impression -- reflections of reflections. In another sequence, a slide of the red curtain is projected onto both halves of the stage.

When grown-up Senta meets the Dutchman, they sing their great duet on the stairs (in the mirror image room); but while the song is going on, Young Senta is again being read stories by her father. Before he reads to her, the little girl hitches up her dress and makes a few dance steps in front of her father – possibly hinting that there is something un-usually close in their relationship?

When the curtain opened on scene 1, I thought "This is rather interesting and clever"; but by the time we had got to the end of scene 2, and the various permutations of Little Girl interacting with Daddy Daland and big girl interacting with Daddy Dutchman had been worked through, I was starting to feel "Yes, I've got the message, and I am not convinced that it's a very interesting one".

But when we get to scene 3, the production becomes so visually playful that I stopped worrying about interpretation. The one thing everybody agrees on is that the Bayreuth chorus is fabulous. The climax of the opera comes when Daland's crew try to wake up the sailors on the Dutchman's ship. They are terrified when the crew of ghosts appears. Unusually for Wagner, this is a big, tuneful choral number. Although the Flying Dutchman is a reasonably short piece of work, Wagner still managed to make it an endurance test for the audience by insisting on its being performed in one long act. And when you hear the end of the Senta/Dutchman duet in "act II" segue directly into "Steersman leave your watch" in "act" III you realise that he was absolutely right. It's an overwhelming moment which would have been ruined, musically and dramatically, by sticking an interval in between. So, as ever, it may very well be that the music was so wonderful at this point that it made everything else in the production seem wonderful as well.

Young Senta – the silent girl – is playing with her sailor marionette. The chorus of sailors are all dressed like the puppet, and engaging in Pinnochio style dancing. They are obviously marionettes too. But Senta also has another puppet: a skeletal deaths-head dressed in the more dressy uniform of her father and the Dutchman. When the puppet sailors are joined by the ghosts, the Dutchman's crew turn out to all be dressed like the Dutchman: which is to say, Senta's toy sailors are terrified by a whole ship full of copies of her father. And at the climax a gigantic figure the Daland/Dutchman/Death puppet is lowered, upside down onto the stage; and lifts up the grown-up Senta and carries her away. Obviously, one remains absolutely silent during a production at Bayreuth – I believe you still aren't allowed to applaud Parsifal – but I certainly felt like cheering at this point. Even though I didn't have the faintest idea what it meant.

At the end of the opera, when Senta proclaims her life-long faithfulness to the Dutchman by committing suicide, we see grown up Senta advancing up the stairs towards the Dutchman, who recoils from her, rather like a movie vampire being repelled by the Cross. He eventually disappears at the top of the stairs...but Senta finds that all the doors in the reflected house are closed off, and she can't leave. She's left trying to find an exit: Mary (old, blind Senta, we assume) is still looking at the empty space left by the picture of the boat.

What to say? Clearly, this has more to do with Sigmund Freud than Sigmund the Walsung. I thought that the idea was that the Daland character had sexually molested his daughter; and that Daland and the Dutchman were a series of reflections of "good father" and "bad father". The blank space left by the painting of the ship represents Senta's repressed memories of her abuse – I think Freud may actually uses the metaphor of an empty picture frame to describe his concept of a "screen memory", a single image which "stands in" for something which is too painful to face. The ghostly Dutchman are the monstrous memories of what her father did to her, which she's both frightened of and obsessively attracted to. Marrying the Dutchman represents recovering the memories of abuse, which would cure her. Louise, on the other hand, thought that Daland was not an abuser but merely an absent father; a father who was away at sea or who had died when the girl was very young -- hence the death's-head. The Dutchman is a dream father who she has created to compensate for the absence of the real one. These memories means that she can't "move on" and grow up: she'd sooner go with the dream lover than stay with real-life Erik.

Well, the libretto of the Dutchman certainly contains lots of imagery about dreams, fantasies, and fathers. Almost the first thing which Daland says is "to trust a wind is to trust the devil"; and within five minutes, the Steersman is falling asleep at his post, singing "Oh gentle south wind, do not fail". Immediately, the Dutchman appears and tells his story about cursing the wind and being cursed to wonder the earth until judgment day. It is not too much of a stretch to say that the Dutchman has to some extent being invoked or called by Daland and the Steersman's words – as Freud might have said, that he is a projection of their fears. When Daland discovers that the Dutchman is fabulously rich and looking for a wife, he says "Could all this be a marvelous dream?" Senta, of course, has been looking at a picture of the legendary sailor and singing ballads about him just before the real thing turns up on her doorstep: again, it is not too unreasonable to think that he could be an externalisation of her erotic fantasies. Before the Dutchman turned up, Erik says that he had a dream of Senta's father giving her away to a mysterious sailor – making the Dutchman a projection of his fears that Senta will leave him. The Dutchman himself says that he has dreamed of Senta ("for in my dreams of yearning long unnumbered this was the face that I would see"); Senta wonders if the Dutchman is only a dream. And the big musical climax is Daland's crew trying to wake the Dutchman's crew up. So at some level, you could read the story as a complicated nest of dreams in which everybody is everybody else's fantasy . The idea that the Dutchman is Senta's memory of her father is perfectly valid, but (as ever) less interesting than the complex web of dream and reflection that is going on in the actual opera. (3)

So I don't really have a problem with the interpretation that this production places on the work. My problem is that it is really asking you to follow two different stories in parallel: the mythical story about the ghost sailor and his lover which is in the libretto; and the psycho-realist drama about the girls memories of her absent Father that's being acted out on the stage. The words tell one story, but have little to do with the actions. The action tells a different story, but don't match the words. The music expresses both. The producer assumes that you know what "really happened" and are playing it out in your head, watching "his" version as a sort of critical negation of it. That's a lot to hold in your head: it makes Wagner's romantic melodrama seem quite intellectual.

It also means that there is an awful lot going on on the stage. While Senta and the Dutchman are falling in love, your eyes are being drawn away from them to look at Daland (arguably) falling in love with his daughter. While Erik is protesting his love for Senta, you are thinking "why have they lowered the red curtain at the top of the stage again." A production which you have to solve like a puzzle probably not doing its job very well. And this really did feel like a puzzle. When we were getting onto the plane home on Tuesday morning Louise suddenly said "Oh, I get it: the second blank picture frame was the where the picture of the Dutchman himself should have been."

Some mad people -- okay, Germain Greer – claim to like Wagner despite the storyline and despite the libretto. They think that Parsifal is as a symphonic tone poem; whose psychological impact comes wholly from the music; the story and the libretto is more or less dispersible. If you think this way, you might say of the Flying Dutchman: "This music invokes love, fear, horror, father-daughter relationships and dreams But the libretto is only a crap ghost story that makes no sense; so I am justified in making a completely new story that largely ignores the libretto, and treats the opera as abstract sounds." You'd be wrong, but I think this kind of production may be a symptom of this kind of thinking.

But it was done brilliantly well and the opening of the third act in particular was as stunning a piece of theater as I've ever seen. The singing, particularly the chorus, was head and shoulders above anything I've ever heard before.

The other main musical shrine in the town is the Markgrafiches Opernhaus, which I hadn't heard of before I arrived. In Wagner's time it was one of the largest opera houses in Bavaria; and it was what drew him to the town to begin with. Of course, when he saw it he realised that it was quite unsuitable for his music-dramas. One pictures a man arriving in London and taking one look at Covent Garden: "Very nice, but not big enough. I shall my own – over there."

Seeing the Margravial certainly helped me understand what was so radical about Wagner's festspielhaus. It's a gloriously vulgar baroque knickerbocker glory of a building, with with gilded cherubs holding a coat of arms above the proscenium arch, and neo-classical painting of Apollo on the ceiling. The royal box is totally out-of-control: it's in the center of the balcony, and has a gigantic crown floating about it. And get this: the auditorium is horse-shoe shaped so that the audience face towards each other, and towards the occupant of the royal box, rather than towards the stage. By comparison, the festspielhaus is relatively austere: its almost un-adorned, apart from a few Greek columns, and the seats may be uncomfortable, but you can see the stage from anywhere in the auditorium. Wagner even completely hid the orchestra – they are underneath a wooden platform which apparently does wonderful things to the acoustics (4) – and for the first time, turned the house lights out. You go to Bayreuth to see the stage, not the theater and certainly not the audience.

And thence to Haus Wahnfried, Wagner's home in Bayreuth. "The house of freedom from illusion," apparently: well, there was no chance that he would have called Accacia Terrace. Due to a bit of unpleasantness that broke out in the 1930s, it's actually something of a reconstruction of his house: it was badly bombed but restored in the 1970s. The hall and drawing rooms are apparently quite close to the way Wagner left them: the rest of the house is a museum. Rather an old fashioned museum, it must be said; with glass cases containing hand written musical scores and yellowing programmers; effigies of Senta and the Dutchman, used in an early production to give the effect of them floating up to heaven; rooms and rooms full of photos from all the Bayreuth productions; the Holy Grail from the opening nigh of Parsifal; and other holy relics: Wagner's hat, his death-mask, the chair he died in, and the piano on which he composed Siegfried, Gotterdamerung and Parsifal.

The drawing room (where you can sit and listen to recording of his music) is lined with Wagner's own book collection. I don't know if this has been arranged by the custodians of the museum or whether it is based on on his own bookcases, and I don't particularly care. We saw copes of Wolfram's Parzifal alongside the Nieblung saga and a copy of Beowulf.

"Do you know" said Louise "I do believe that's the same wallpaper that was on the set of the Dutchman." I think she was probably quite right.

The balcony of the house overlooks the garden where Wagner and Cosima are buried.

So on Sunday evening, after our German friends had departed, we ended up in a pub drinking German beer. We had a white beer in tall curved glasses, and when the waitress came back, we said "We liked that very much, but we want to try another beer. Bring us any nice German beer of your choice." She brought us a sweet hoppy beer in an earthenware beer mug. Also drinking and eating were people in dinner jackets who obviously been to that nights Lohengrin. Bastards.

We had a last wander round the town. We found the shop where the man on from the balcony was selling his pictures, and ordered a number. I bought some chocolates with Wagner's face on them for my mother, and plaster bust of Wagner for me.

"There's time for another beer before we catch the train", said Louise. "Unless you want to go and have another look at Wagner's house."

"We ought to go back to the house", said I.

"Are we going to put a flower on the grave?", said Louise.

"We should", said I.

"OK", said Louise. "I am going to go into that coffee shop there and offer them two Euros for the rose sitting in the vase on their table."

"That's an excellent idea", I said. "While you do that, I am just going into this green grocers to see if the ground opens up and swallows me."

Moments later, Louise returned.

"I think they would have sold me the flower", said Louise, "But they asked me whether I wouldn't rather go into that florists shop two doors down."

So we went into the florist shop two doors down, and Louise, though a combination of German and bluff, gave them to understand that we wished to purchase a small bunch of roses. The florist lady said something along the lines of "Ah! Vor der putten-onnen-Rikard-Wagner-houze-grave" followed by something which may have been "Das Inglish are krazy but in buzziness keepen uz"

So we went back to the house, which we actually know is not much more than a copy of the house, and there were some cyclists sitting on a bench having a rest, and they could see we had a bunch of flowers, and we got back to the big grave mound, where there were fading floral displays from the New York Wagner Society and the South African Wagner Society, and I had to stretch to get the flowers on the slab, and I said that photographing someone by a grave was inappropriate, but we took a picture of our roses on Wagner's grave, and then we went on a train and a plane and another train and on Tuesday we we were standing in Louise's kitchen in London and while she was making a cup of tea and toasting a crumpet she said "It's funny to think that our flowers are still in Bayreuth, isn't it?"

"We badly need," said C.S Lewis, "a word which means 'the exact opposite of disappointed'. 'Appointed' won't do."

(1) I know this because I have it printed in German on a teeshirt.

(2) The bookstall was selling postcards with a cartoon version of the Dutchman on the festspielhaus stage. "The seven years have run their appointed course. Perhaps this year I will get a ticket."

(3) And anyway, everyone knows that the sea is a symbol for the spirit and the unconscious. Doesn't Jim Hawkins dream about John Silver before he ever meets him, and carry on dreaming about him once the real John Silver is dead. Come to think of it, he sets out to Bristol to find the one-legged sailor whose been haunting his nightmares just after his father dies.

(4) The reason why they won't put modern seating is, apparently, that soft cushons could mess up the acoustics.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

What I did on my summer holiday (1)

Saturday morning -- The Cambridge Tolkien society are doing their dramatic reading (actually, a full scale performance with singing and sound effects) of highlights from the Brian Sibley radio adaptation of Lord of the Rings. We have got as far as Shelob's lair. And I'll need your star-glass Mr Frodo; you did lend it to me, and I'll need it, for I'll be always in the dark now... I glance around the audience to confirm I'm not the only person who appears (inexplicably) to have something in their eye.

Over the course of the convention, I think I attended a total of 33 (*) lectures on different aspects of Lord of the Rings. It is doubtless very interesting and important to learn about the root of the elvish word for 'tree', to wonder about the influence that Shakespeare or William Morris might have had Tolkien's writing; or to compare Melkor with Milton's Satan. (They were both evil. The end.) I am even prepared to own up to a little light filking. But it was nice to be reminded of why the 50th anniversary of the publication of the Lord of the Rings is an event worth commemorating. Just how many books are there which, even on the twentieth reading, can still make you laugh and cry. Sometimes on the same page. Sometimes at the exact same moment. Now sir, you shouldn't laugh. I was being serious.

Saturday lunchtime -- Stagger out of Martin Barker's lecture on sociology, thinking 'I now have a spare hour to get some lunch.' Find printout pinned to door saying 'Extra talk: Michael Scott Rohan on Tolkien and Wagner.' It was that kind of weekend.

The root of the elvish word for 'Tree' is the same as the root of the elvish word for 'Light'.

Some people imagine Elvish to be an artificial language, the sort of thing that you could learn and have a conversation in, like Klingon and Esperanto. In fact, Tolkien left only a grammatical structure and a few hundred words of his made up languages. His primary interest was in philology. How language develop; how words form; how mythology informs language and language informs mythology.

(The award for 'lecture I understood least of' goes to the promisingly entitled 'Tolkien as I knew him', which turned out to be an elderly Swedish academic explaining the finer points of the Anglo-Saxon and middle English PhD that Tolkien had supervised him in. But it contained one fascinating scholarly anecdote: Tolkien met a French academic, and was able to say to him 'I expect in your dialect you pronounce such-and-such a word in such-and-such a way' -- purely by applying the rules of philology and sound change)

Within the mythos of the Silmarillion, 'the light that was before the Sun and the Moon' came from the Two Trees of Valinor: so of course 'tree' and 'light' are the same word... because they are the same concept. (c.f Gil-galad, star-light; Galadhrim, tree-people.) In a lecture entitled 'Galadhremmin Ennorath', John Christie pointed out that the images of 'trees' and 'light' are consistently connected in all of Tolkien's writings from the terribly early poems about Earendal down to the Lord of the Rings and beyond. And there is also an association between light and hair: (Galadriel's hair is said to resemble the light of the Two Trees) and between light and gems (Feanor captured some of the light of the Trees in the holy gems known as Silmarils). One example of the images appearing in conjunction occurs in Sam's song in Cirith Ungol – shortly after he has taken Galadriel's star-glass from Frodo:

Or there may be tis cloudless night
and swaying beeches bear
the Elven-stars as jewels white
amid their branching hair.

This kind of thing almost scares me. Lord of the Rings is so dense; Tolkien put so much into the book without drawing attention to it. In fact, he probably didn't 'put it in' at all: light and trees and hairs and jewels just come out together because he is thinking in Elvish. How much more of this stuff would there be to discover if I knew more Quenya?

Friday Night : The Cambridge Tolkien Society also revived their 'Reduced Silmarillion Company' revue, which was first performed at Oxonmoot in 2002. There are not too many social settings in which you could get uproarious laughter out of, say, the textual history of 'The Fall of Gondolin' while depicting the Silmarils as three cans of beer. The story of Beren and Luthien was done in pantomime style rhyming couplets, but it appears that some real lines from the 'Ley of Lethian' were smuggled in.

It was a lot funnier than I am probably making it sound.

But I wonder who had the brilliant idea of staging this satyr play first, and following it up with the Greek Tolkien society's extremely serious performance entitled either 'Oedipus and Turin' or 'Doom and Fate: where myths meet.' It will be remembered that both Turin and Oedipus marry a close family member, and both of them have a black sword, apart from Oedipus. I take my mithril coat off to the Greek people: can you imagine a group of Brits saying 'I know, when we go to the Athens Tolkien convention, we'll put on a play involving some excerpts from the Silmarillion and some excerpts from Hamlet. And in case that's too easy, we'll do it in Greek.' A fairly literal dramatisation of the last few pages of Turin's story made out a pretty good case for it structurally resembling a Greek tragedy (messengers coming in with terrible news and begging to be allowed to keep silent, and all that). The substantial excerpt from Oedipus Rex made better theater; presumably because Sophocles was a slightly better playwright than Tolkien. This successfully made the point about the difference between Doom and Fate. Turin marries his sister because the malicious dragon wants to harm in, and because Morgoth has cursed him. Oedipus marries his mother because...well, because life's like that and fate's a bastard.

But still, I felt sorry for the guy playing Turin. He walked onto the stage in a pretty good costume and started declaiming serious lines at a pasteboard dragon, and all anyone in the audience (well, me at any rate) could think of was the R.S.C version we'd seen ten minutes before in which Turin was depicted as an over-enthusiastic school-boy delivering lines like 'I know, I think I'll go forty leagues out of my way in order to commit a pointless act of genocide against a civilian population'!

Thursday: Inexplicably, all conventions have opening 'ceremonies'; equally inexplicably, people go to them. It's the only point at which all attendees are assembled in one place, and can be addressed by the convention committee. I'm glad I showed up this time. The 'one or two surprises' turned out to be a short speech by Priscilla Tolkien, the Professor's daughter. Priscilla sometimes feels a little like the Tolkien society's equivalent of the Queen Mother. At the Oxford conventions, the society committee is always very protective of her -- clearly, a very old lady doesn't want to be mobbed by fanboys, or more importantly, by journalists. According to tradition, I was briefly introduced to her at my first Oxonmoot, but it was nice to hear her make an actual speech, and even better, to hear her do a brief question-and-answer session in a packed lecture hall the next day. Not surprisingly, she politely avoided all controversial and scholarly questions -- but it was extremely moving to hear the little domestic details.

To think: we are actually in the same room as the little girl who first received the Father Christmas letters. All a bit overwhelming, really.

It appears that we have learned to stop worrying and love Peter Jackson.

Well, that may be an exaggeration. When we are consciously or specifically debating the movie, we are likely to be very critical of it. Priscilla told a story about having re-typed the early chapters of Lord of the Rings for her father, and being terrified to the point of nightmares by the Black Riders. Someone asked if she had seen the movies. With her very English (almost headmistressy) tact, she said that she would 'rather not go into that'. The questioner just wondered if she had still found the Black Rider's frightening in the film. 'Oh, good God no!' she exclaimed, adding something about 'spectacle and sensation'.

Thunderous applause.

On the other hand, Martin Barker gave a talk about a massive sociology project which he is involved with, researching the impact of and response to the movies. His statistics show that the more times someone has read the book, the more likely they are to like the movies. Applause from floor. 'I wonder why you applauded?' he asked.

Voice from floor: 'Because there is too much Jackson bashing!' More applause.

(He has also discovered that people who first read the book in the 1960s are more likely to miss Tom Bombadil than people who read it more recently...)

But in general, the movies seem increasingly to be accepted as another text; a fact to be taken into account, a piece of data that you need to refer to. An American academic talking about 'The theme of sacrifice' mentioned that Frodo says to Galadriel 'I know what I must do, it's just I'm afraid to do it'....and left the lecture room relatively unscathed. This would not have been the case three years ago. The aforementioned talk about light and hair used stills from The Fellowship of the Ring alongside texts from The Book of Lost Tales. A very helpful piece in the 'religion' stream pointed out that although a lot of the specifically Christian elements of the book vanished from Jackson's screenplay, the film retained a lot of very Catholic looking visuals. (The evenstar looks like a cross or a traditional star of Bethlehem; Minas Tirith looks like a cathedral; Aragorn's mum looks like a Madonna; and the Red Book looks like a Bible.)

People wishing to stay up all night had the opportunity to watch the extended versions of the movies on a projection TV. On Day 3, the sign outside the video room offered a 'prize for the best heckle'. So we obviously haven't all made friends with movies. Maybe it's more of a watchful peace.

(My entry in the clerihew competition failed to win a prize.

Elijah Wood.
Is not particularly good.
His fidelity to the text is not exactly slavish
But at least he isn't John Rhys-Davies. )

A film-studies lecturer gave a talk on a soft-porn movie called Lord of the G-Strings, and for the first time ever, the Tolkien society admitted the existence of slash fiction.

Saturday: That journalist was spot on about the way the audience spontaneously mumbled along with Tom Shippey when he quoted All that is gold does not glitter / not all those who wander are lost. This is called 'spotting a telling detail', and is, I guess, how one gets to write feature pieces for the Guardian.

I have often wanted to present certain of my colleagues with a diagram of a human figure, with two labels, clearly delineating the 'arse' and the 'elbow.' In the same way, certain academics seem to require recognition guides enabling them to clearly distinguish between 'wood' and 'trees'. A very interesting scholarly lecture made out a good case for the 'endless knot' or pentangle on the shield of Sir Gawain in the middle-English poem 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight' which Tolkien edited and translated having been recognisable to medieval English people as a three-men's Morris board. (Pentangles engraved in church pews are therefore less likely to be pagan survivals and more likely to be a means of passing time in boring sermons.) Someone from the floor got in before me with the obvious question: 'Is it significant that Gawain has a game-board on his shield, given that playing games is so much what the poem is all about?'. 'That hadn't occurred to me' said Mr Speaker.

Mr Film-Studies Man was surprised that we laughed when he referred to a character called 'Ara-porn' in Lord of the G-Strings. 'It didn't really occur to me that this stuff was funny,' he said.

As the weekend progresses, I started to feel that I didn't need to hear any more about how Tolkien was influenced by, or the influence he may have had upon, Shakespeare, William Morris, G.K Chesterton, Phillip Pulman and a large number of people I had never heard of. I am also not sure that I need to be told that, say, the myth of the Ents and the Entwives in some ways resembles modern gender politics and in other ways doesn't.

One occasionally ended up feeling sorry for the academics. It must be rare enough for them to be addressing students who have actually read the text under discussion; and unheard of to have an audience who have all read it dozens of times. One speaker made the mistake of implying that Frodo only goes to the Undying Lands in spirit, and had to deal with quotes from the Silmarillion in the question and answer session. Another one asked how anyone could possibly know the Rhyme of the Ring, since it was spoken by Sauron on Mount Doom...and lots of people told him.

A ten year moratorium should be established on referring to Tolkien's metaphor of the 'soup of story' in lectures about sources and influence.

Most obscure subject for a talk: 'Middle-earth re-enactment in Estonia'.

Tolkien never quite made up his mind about Galadriel's back-story. In one version, Feanor asks for three strands of her hair (which, it will be remembered, resembled the mingled light of the Two Trees.) She refuses him. Centuries later, Gimli unknowingly makes the same request. Because of his courtesy, she grants it to him. He says that if he survives the War of the Ring, he will preserve the threes hairs in imperishable crystal to be an heirloom of his house forever. At this point, Beth Russel, who was giving a talk entitled 'Galadriel and her lovers' speculated out loud; 'I wonder if he put them in one crystal, or in three.' I swear that there was a gasp of astonishment from the audience. Because, of course, three crystals, each containing a hair of Galadriel (which resemble the light of the Trees) would be an obvious symbol of the three Silmarils, which Feanor made, and which contain the actual light of the Trees. Given that Feanor made the Silmarils because Galadriel had refused him her hair, the symbolism is irresistible. I repeat. It scares me that Tolkien's legendarium (as we like to call it) has this much depth and complexity: that every time you study a passage, you find new connections which you hadn't spotted before.

'I bet there weren't any women there,' said a colleague by the water-cooler on Wednesday. Actually, I would have said the ratio of Ents to Entwives was very nearly 50/50; including married couples with kids; older looking people with grown-up children; aging hippies with scraggy beards; and someone with the badge-name 'Gramps.' On the other hand, despite the international flavour of the event it was, as the fellow said, hideously white. More people were inclined to begin sentences with ' my church' or '...well, as a Christian, I...' than would probably be the case at a Star Trek convention. I was twice asked 'What's your field', expecting the answer 'What did you study at college?' not 'What's your job?'

Tolkien's books contain a lot of singing; and most of the songs have now got established tunes; I guess that everyone agrees the tune of Gil-Galad was an elven king is the one which Stephen Oliver wrote for it, despite that fact that someone demonstrated that it can be sung successfully to 'When the saints go marching in.'

At lunch time on the last day, there was an impromptu musical session in the canteen on the top floor. Some of it was more or less normal convention filking; Tolkien fans being as capable of silliness as anyone else. (Thar's been a courtin Pippin Took / On Ettenmoor bah t'at etc etc etc.) There's also been an outbreak of rather good Beatles filks which I sadly didn't get the words of. (All you need are rings, rings, rings are all you need.)

But before long, someone was doing a heartbreaking Bilbo's Last Song in a version I didn't know, and someone stood up and did In Western Lands un-accompanied.

The truth is, of course, that conventions are the normal and sensible part of life, and everything outside them is crazy. What could be more rational than an environment where everyone knows the same corpus of stories and wants to study them, talk about them, make up serious plays about, burlesque them, sing about them; where everyone can be assumed to be friends with everyone else because everyone loves the same things. It seemed rather a shame to have to go back to the weird fantasy world where you have to interact with people who don't love Lord of the Rings.


"The title of my talk is "Pennas Echuir Enydon", on the origin of the ents. Yes, I came all the way from America to show you my Pennas."

"Tolkien said that he cordially disliked allegory, which must have made writing Leaf by Niggle a very unpleasant experience for him."

"How is it that everybody says that they don't read slash, and then goes on to make generalisations about it?"

"I was doing some research into Star Trek fans....Don't laugh. People laugh at you."

"Well, he didn't like spiders, but I never heard him mention beetles..." (Priscilla, answering a question on Tolkien's attitude to the popular music of the 1960s.)

(*) Frodo as Sacrificial Hero; Tolkien: the critic and the fiction writer; Invented and Borrowed Myths; Tolkien and Williams; Wise Sayings in Lord of the Rings; Tolkien as I knew him; The Science of Lord of the Rings; Tolkien's lunar creation myth; Influence of Climate on myth; the loss of the Entwives; Tolkien's theory of reading; WWI and the passage of the Dead Marshes; Tolkien in Fiction; Tolkien and Oral Tradition; LOTR international audience project; Tolkein and Wagner; Peter Jackson and catholicism; Tolkien and Christianity; Satan and Melkor; An ecumenical approach to Tolkien; Tolkien the pagan; Tolkein Dirty: The Lord of the Rings and sexploitation movies; the Inklings in their political context; the Question of the Round Arda; Death and Mortality; 'Galadhremmin Ennorath; Sir Gawain's pentangle; Hobbit names aren' from Kentucky; They might have been giants (the origin of the ents) ; Snergs, Hobbits and Pygmies; Narratorial authority in Lord of the Rings; Tolkien and Shakespeare; Galadriel and Her Lovers; the Ace Copyright Affair; Tolkien in the 60s.

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider buying a copy of Do Balrogs Have Wings?, which contains all my essays on Lewis and Tolkien, including some previously unpublished. Alternatively, please consider making a donation of £1 for each essay you have enjoyed.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Off to Birmingham...

...for the Tolkien 2005 convention on Thursday. So I although I have things to say about Tony Blair and Conan the Barbarian (that's two seperate essays) don't expect me to post anything here for about a week.

Goodness me, "Keys of Marinus" sucks.

Monday, August 08, 2005

This is completely unfair....

....and if anyone gave a similar treatment to Tollers or Jack, I'd be deeply sniffy. But it made me laugh and laugh and laugh....

His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, Condensed

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

We Come In Peace....

Daphne: It makes me glad we don't have so many guns in England
Frasier: You don't need them. You've got steak and kidney pudding.

This is bad. Really, really bad. Bad on the "if this wasn't so really, really, really bad, it would actually be extremely funny" scale. One imagines Mr. Blair sitting down last Thursday and saying "Right, then: what's the worst thing we could possibly do? Well let's go for it! It's last thing anybody will be expecting!"

I'm not even sure if I ought to be writing this. P.C Plod has asked Tony for new powers to "suppress inappropriate internet usage". So of course, I'm checking back over my recent articles. There was that one where the words "Galloway" "Maybe" "Point" and "George" occurred in the same sentence. The one where I said "I can see how Johnny Muslim might be feeling a bit aggrieved, right now." And of course, the one where I said "Haven't we all, at one time or another, got on a train a blown ourselves to smithereens. Youthful high spirits, don't you know." So it's quite likely that, before I finish this piece, a british bobby on the beat will burst into house and shoot me. Through the head. Eight times.

If you come from Foreign, you'll probably find it strange that the English are still surprised when one of our bobbies on the beat shoot at someone. But we are. Our peelers are still generally unarmed. Most people from England have never seen a gun. The first time I went to Abroad when I was a kid, I literally couldn't believe that the French police had guns on their holsters. I couldn't take my eyes off them. I thought that kind of thing only happened in cowboy films. Hence the general sense of shock. This isn't America, where (I understand) primary school teacher carry shotguns and civil litigation is generally settled with pistols on mainstreet at high noon.

(It doesn't help that it happened at Stockwell. I didn't even know that Stockwell was a real place; I thought it was just a conceptual entity which existed in order for me to change branches of the Nothern Line.)

I'm not saying police should never have guns. No-one, apart from the Dali Lama doubts that there are some circumstance where the use of "lethal force" is the least worst option. I made a list of circumstances under which a British bobby on the beat might reasoanbly be expected to splatter someones brains over the platform.

I came up with the following list:

1: Someone presents such a serious and immediate danger to you, your fellow officer, or the public, that they have to be put completely out of action in the next five seconds.

An example of a "serious and immediate danager" might be "They are carrying a bomb, or you have good reason to think they are carrying bomb"

An example of a "good reason" would be "They are running down the street saying 'Look at me, I've got a bomb' ".

An example of "not a very good reason at all" would be "They are wearing an anorak of the sort that you could probably stuff a bomb down if you were the sort of person who went around with bombs stuffed down their anoraks."

Based on literally hours of painstaking research playing computer games, my understanding is that if someone is, say, brandishing a chainsaw or a shotgun, then there are ways of restraining them without being posthumous. Shooting them in the leg or the chest would probably do the trick. It's quite hard for an axe-wielding maniac to carry on wielding his axe if he he's preoccupied with the fact that blood is pouring out of his chest. But if you were planning to blow yourself to the Islamic equivilent of Kingdom-Come the fact that you are severely wounded won't necessarily stop you from lighting the blue touch paper. It might actually act as an insentive. So the English bobby on the beat can't afford to let his suspected suicide bomber so much as twitch. The only foolproof way to stop him detonating himself is to make sure that he is devoting one hundred per cent of his attention to some other activity e.g being dead.

But not everyone sees it like this. On Saturday morning, the tabloids were finding it hard to conceal their glee at the fact that a baddie having been killed. "One down, three to go" explained the "Daily Express", as if we were hunting down and summarily executing some sort of alien rodent. Shoot-to-kill wasn't a tactic in life-or-death situation; it was a declaration of war against terrorists in general. The only good terrorist is a bad terrorist, its easy to talk about the human rights of these scum but what about the human rights of the people who were blown up on the tube do you think if they took you hostage they'd give you a fair trial.

The reason that hanging was finally abolished in the 1950s was that the British public, who could deal with and I imagine quite enjoyed the idea of smalltime gangsters gurgling on the ends of pieces of rope, became squeamish about doing it to innocent people. The abolitionists didn't say "ritual strangulation doesn't seem very Chrisitan, does it, chaps?"; they said "Evans, Hanratty, Ellis, Bentley" as if that settled the argument; which, indeed, it did. It's rather impressive that the first beneficiary of this new fast-track capital punishment system should turn out to be a miscarriage of justice on a similar scale. Let's hope we can proceed directly to abolition, like we did last time.

All may be well, and all manner of things may be well. Maybe the british bobby on the beat had some intelligence...I'll rephrase that: maybe he had a very good reason, which we don't yet know but which will come out at the inquest, to think that the recepient of his target practice was about to let off a bomb. In that case we're in the realm of cock-up, not conspiracy. "Oh, did we say shoot the guy at number 23? We meant the guy at number 24. How incredibly embarassing." Accidents happen.

But the minute someone says "We knew he didn't have a bomb, but we thought he was a terrorist; and if he's a terrorist, then it doesn't matter very much if he has a bomb today – he's going to have one sooner or later, and the best thing to do is to liquidate him" -- the minute we go from "shooting to kill terrorists who are an immediate threat" to "shooting to kill terrorists" then things are really, really bad.

A fortnight ago, we had nothing more to fear than psychotic fundementalists with semtex in their rucksacks, and the web was full of inspirational pictures of chirpy Londoners telling the world that "We are not afraid." Now, the danger is from british bobbies on the beat with automatic pistols, who apparently believe that it is a truth universally accepted that a dark-skinned man in possession of a thick jacket must be in want of bullet through the head.

Speaking for myself, We Are Bloody Terrified.

This is, as I believe I mentioned, really, really bad. But in one respect, it could have been so much worse. If there was a million strong community of radical, militant Brazillians in this country; and if many of them already felt agrreived, alienated or marginalised -- where would we have been on Sunday morning?

Sunday, July 24, 2005

....because they never go all the way

On Saturday, I travelled on a train called "Doctor Who."

No, really: someone at Virgin Trains decided that it would be a wheeze if all their "Voyager" trains were named after famous "voyagers". There's one called "Charles Darwin" and one called "Marco Polo". (The "Voyager" trains are the ones with no space for luggage, toilets that don't work, and a buffet carriage which sells copies of the Da Vinci Code.)

There was even a little plaque in one of vestibules that gave a potted summary of "Doctor Who", taken out of one of the standard guide books. He's been on TV since 1963, has a TARDIS, left Gallifrey with his Grandaughter Susan, etc.

Unfortunatley, they seemed to have left a bit of text off the bottom. Presumably, it should have read:

"His TARDIS continuously breaks down, and he finds it impossible to predict what time he is going to arrive anywhere."

(I looked on the Virgin Website to try to find out the actual text of the plaque. It didn't have it, but it did inform me that they had planned a ceremony at Kennsington Olympia to give locomotive 221122 the name "Docotor Who", but, er, it had to be cancelled because it broke down at Three Bridges.)

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Fan Club

I balanced all, called all to mind
The years to come seemed waste of breath
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

I remember a Christian Union meeting. The preacher was a talking about miracles. In her church, they had them all the time. On one occasion, she'd been at the ladies prayer group and prayed for all sick folk in the community, and when she got home, she learned that husband's headache had been healed in that very hour.

She looked up from her notes, and admonished us like a very severe piano teacher.

"Do you think it is possible to be too fanatical a follower of Jesus?"

The students at the meeting seemed reluctant to commit themselves on this point.

"I said, do you think it is possible to be too fanatical about Jesus?"

Slightly more affirmative noise from the floor. No. Probably. Depends.

"No? Well I don't. I don't think it's possible to love Jesus too much, do you? Do you?"

I remember a Bible study group, four or five of us sitting on cushions in someone's college room, drinking mugs of nescafe and eating bourbons and reading from the New International Version (only ever the New International Version) a verse at a time. As we tried to distinguish our Elihus from our Bildads, I let slip that I doubted that Job was a real person; that I wondered whether real people would have made such long, erudite speeches; that I thought that what we were reading was pretty obviously a play. I don't think that any one argued with me or tried to refute me; certainly they didn't accuse me of heresy. It was more embarrassed, as if I'd farted in front of the vicar. I'd broken the rules of the game; said something you just don't say.

Weeks later, someone said: "I heard you didn't believe the Old Testament is the word of God?" I guess he must have known that there were crazy people like me in the world, but he seemed quite intrigued to talk to one face to face.

I learned hedge my theological bets; never voice skepticism out loud, never stray too far from the consensus. Don't argue about secondary issues. Theology can grind down your weaker brothers faith. Sit down, sit down, sit down, sit down, sit down you're rocking the boat.

I remember a prayer meeting. The guitars were swaying more than usual. Someone said "Can I pray for you?" He laid his hands on my head. Several other people joined in. They started to pray inaudibly. The guitarists played another hymn, or more likely, the same hymn for the fifth time. Something was obviously expected of me, but I didn't know what. Some helpful soul tried to prompt me. "Perhaps you are hearing strange words in your head right now?" I wasn't. After the meeting, someone asked me how I felt. I said something involving in the word "blessing" and everyone went away satisfied.

I now understand that they had been trying to induce a shamanistic state called "baptism in the spirit", and that I ought to have either fainted ("slain in the spirit") or vocalised wildly ("speak in tongues"). I am pretty sure that if I had known the rules, I would have improvised some kind of babbling noise and afterwards convinced myself that I had indeed been possessed by the Holy Ghost. In an emotionally charged atmosphere, it's not easy to say "I didn't experience anything, and I don't have the remotest idea what you are talking about."

I remember going to a park, in the spring, with guitars, and sitting in a circle, and singing hymns and reading out of the Bible, and people with kids looking at us with good humored curiosity. I remember thinking about lions and sandals and roman centurions, and hippy Jesus freaks in caftans, and thinking "This feels good. This is the real thing."

And let's be honest, I also remember sitting in a dark room with cheap beer in plastic glasses, watching a bad black and white sci-fi movie and knowing that in some sacramental way, this defined us all us "geeks", and that we would not, for all the world, change places with those "mundanes" who didn't know their DS9 from their B5. All groups do it. You can easily spend all evening at a committee meeting, passing resolutions demanding soft paper in the loos and five minutes more lunch time, and go home believing that your in the vanguard of the proletariat revolution.

I remember visiting the headquarters of some missionary organisation, with tracts and slides shows and copies of the Bible in Chinese. They sent missionaries to live in communities where very obscure languages were spoken, with a view to produce a text of the Bible in the local tongue. Maybe some of you might become the next generation of missionaries, they said. "I don't even speak French", I explained. Oh, but you wouldn't have to. We are talking about languages that practically no-one speaks: you'd have to learn it from the ground up. Two of my friends were very moved by this. For the rest of their time at college, they were going to choose courses that would be useful to them as linguists. When they got their degrees, they were going to become Bible translating missionaries. They felt sure that this was what God was telling them.

Felt sure that this was what God was telling them. And for a second, I pictured myself – sandals, toga, caftan, guitar -- in some exotic village, living in a tent, wrestling alligators and exploring Inca temples by day and translating the Bible by night. A sense of Cosmic Purpose -- well, at any rate, a clear Narrative Structure for my life. What could be more important than bringing God's word to the Lost? But also a sense of escape. Decide today that I will I spend the rest of my life translating the Bible into Oompa-Loompa and I would never again have to worry about the careers center or job applications or revision and finals. A clear Path laid out before me, and one that God approved of.

Honestly, only for a second.

But it makes me wonder. What if we'd been having our Bible studies and prayer meetings and house parties in a some communist state (this was when there was still communism)? Suppose we'd been running the risk of being arrested for our Christian beliefs? Suppose we had had good reason to think of ourselves as outsiders, victim of prejudice, an underclass by virtue of our religion? Keep them yelling their devotion / but add a touch of hate at Rome."

Do you think it is possible to be too fanatical about Jesus? Well, do you?

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Parliament was united against a common enemy yesterday, an enemy that will stop at nothing, that has only contempt for our way of life, and is utterly indifferent to our loathing. But as well as attacking George Galloway, MPs also had harsh words for the London bombers
Simon Hoggart

....It may be relevant to remember that only quite recently western foreign policy envisaged thermonuclear destruction of the entire human race rather than risk the spread of communism. Having quite happily countenanced that MAD idea myself - better dead than red - I feel bound in conscience at least to give today's extremists the benefit of the doubt.
Peregrine Worsthorne

Thursday, July 07, 2005

" He drove me to the Tower of London, more huge and terrifying than I'd imagined, like a sprawling medieval Alcatraz. We got there just at ten, so I could watch the guards lock the Tower gates. For all their flashy black-and-scarlet unforms, they are grim and frightening as they lock the gates to that dread prison with darkness closing in. You think of the young Elizabeth sitting somewhere beind the stone walls, wanting to write and ask Bloody Mary to have her beheaded with a sword instead of an axe.

' When the gates were locked the guatds marched back toward the huge iron Tower door. It rose to let them pass through, lowered and clanged shut behind them, and the light voice behind me said: "They haven't missed a night in seven hundred years".

' The mind boggles. Even going back only three hundred years, you think of London during the Great Fire, the Great Plague, the Cromwell Revolution, the Naploleonic Wars, the First World War, the Second World War

' "They locked the tower with this ceremony," I asked him "Every night, even during the Blitz?"

' "Oh yes," he said.

' Put that on Hitler's tombstone tell that to that great American patriot Wernher von Braun whose buzz bombs destryoed every fourth house in London.

' He drove me home and I tried to thank him..."

Helene Hanff "84 Charing Cross Road"
Grey city, stubbornly implanted,
Taken so for granted for a thousand years.
Stay, city; smokily enchanted,
Cradle of our memories and hopes and fears.
Every blitz your resistance toughening,
From the Ritz to the Anchor and Crown,
Nothing ever could override the pride of London Town.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Oh no!

Tony Blair looking smug. More racism than usual in the Sun and the Mail. Tony Blair looking smug. More traffic jams than usual in London. Tony Blair looking smug. Trains more crowded than usual (and they do so smell of shit.) Tony Blair looking smug. And everyone banging on and on about sport.

Think I'll leave the country. For eight years.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Site Admin


I've been in Barcelona for the last five days. The city, not the planet. All the dogs I saw definitely had noses.

I've changed the "settings" of this site to only accept comments from registered uses. It appears to be possible to create a blogger account in 12.5 seconds, and it doesn't generate any spam. (You could always claim that your e-mail accout was " I'll probably reset things back to normal in a week or two.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

.....because they are very eager to please, but not quite sure what they're supposed to be doing.

Memo to self:

When remonstrating with one of Branson's drones -- say, for example, about the fact that if they are going to replace all their trains with busses, (meaning that a 20 minute jaunt from Birmingham to Coventry is going to end up taking close to two hours) then they really ought to put up some posters on the station warning you about this -- it is best to maintain an aura of moral superiority. It is not a good idea, for example, to storm out of the ticket office shouting "And by the way -- all Virgin Trains smell of shit."

But they do.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Revenge of the Sith (Redux)

Once upon a time, a man made a horror movie. A lot of people thought it was the most frightening horror movie they had ever seen. It involved the most frightening monster in the world. One of the clever things about the movie is that you never actually saw the frightening monster: you just saw glimpses of it, shadows, the damage that it had done, and occasionally just a tiny glimpse of a claw or fang or tentacle.
Everyone who saw the film imagined that the monster was the thing that they were most frightened of. The movie cleverly called up the worst fears of everyone who saw it, and everyone left the cinema thinking they had seen the most frightening movie ever.
Over the years, a lot of people who had been scared of the movie started forming internet discussion groups. And one of the things that they did was try to work out what the Most Frightening Monster in the World really looked like. They watched the films and its sequels over and over, and spotted tiny points and details. ("It must be snake" said Sid, "because in Episode III, Dick Barton says the victim is poisoned. ""Not necessarily" said Peter "It could be a giant venomous spider.") But there was no "right answer" to the question: the Most Frightening Monster In The World didn't really look like anything, because it never appeared on the screen. The Director had just dropped hints, and left the fans imagination to do the work. (Indeed, the Director said, many times, that he himself didn't know what The Most Frightening Monster in the World really looked like.)
Then, one day, someone offered the director an awful lot of money to make just one more film, and he announced that, in the final moments of the film, he would finally show what the Most Frightening Monster in the World looked like.
And, when the film came out, everyone admitted thatthe it was a very good special effect, and very, very frightening. But it was no longer the Most Frightening Monster in the World. Sid, who was scared of snakes, had imagined that the monster was a snake; Peter, who was scared of spiders, and imagined that the monster was a spider. And it turned out to be neither of those things.
The fans carried on talking about the new film in the internet chat rooms. And some of them liked the CGI version of the World's Most Frightening Monster, and some of them didn't. And some of them pointed out that the CGI Special Effect Monster wasn't really very consistent with the monster that had appeared in all the old films, e.g in Episode II, the monster had very definitely had red blood, but the blood of the CGI Special Effect Monster was green. Some of them came up with theories to explain this; wondering if perhaps the monster had blood that changed colours depending on who it had last eaten. (Some fans started to call the series "The Monster With Two Coloured Blood")
A lot of younger fans saw the CGI Special Effects monster first. And then they went back and watched the old films. And they didn't see The Most Frightening Monster In the World. When they saw a claw, or a shadow, or a horribly mutilated body, they imagined that the claw or the shadow belonged to the CGI Special Effects Monster from the new film. Which was Very, Very Frightening, but not The Most Frightening Monster in the World.
The younger fans couldn't understand why the older fans thought the old films were so frightening. The older fans thought that CGI monster had spoiled the films for the younger fans. When they heard that the director was going to produce New Improved Editions of the old films, with the shadows taken out and footage of the CGI Special Effects Monster put in, they did not bother to go and see them.
And the director sold lots of action figures to the younger fans and lived happily ever after.
The end.

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Sunday, June 19, 2005

Friday, June 17, 2005

Avoid the internet until Saturday

Davros would be too obvious. No ground work has been laid for the Master. The Valyard would be preposterously fannish

So it's either Von Straten's Dalek, or else its Adam.

I'm betting 25p on Adam.