Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Notes from a parallel universe

Ten things I learned by reading the Daily Express

1: Princess Diana Was Murdered. And somebody is responsible!

On August 31st 1997, the car in which Diana, Princess of Wales was a passenger crashed into a concrete pillar at 110 mph. The Princess was not wearing a seatbelt. The driver was drunk. So what could possibly have caused her death? For nine years, the Daily Express has been trying to solve this mystery. A few months ago, it proposed the theory that she was poisoned.

On Monday, May 8th the paper announced a new breakthrough.

Princess's body was illegally embalmed to cover up pregnancy.

It is worth spending five minutes studying this report, because it provides an excellent seminar on how to create a Daily Express 'news' story.

a: Start with a headline which suggests that something Very Important has happened.

'Diana’s Death: Truth at Last' suggests that the Express has discovered the real circumstances of Diana's death. If this were true (and if it differed from the official story that she died in a car crash) then this would be certainly be one of the most sensational news 'scoops' of all time.

b: Then print a sub-headline which reveals that the news is not quite as exciting as the headline promised.

It turns out that the Express has not discovered the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about the death of Princess Di. It has merely discovered one additional fact about what happened to her mortal remains. The sub-headline makes four separate allegations, any one of which would represent a moderately sensational discovery:

a: the Princess was embalmed;

b: this embalming was illegal;

c: the Princess was pregnant at the time of her death;

d: she was embalmed because someone wanted to conceal this.

However, it is going to turn out that none of these is the new 'truth' that the Express claims to have discovered.

c: Make sure that the first paragraph of the story is literally true.


Dramatic new evidence emerged last night that the body of Diana, Princess of Wales was embalmed on the orders of panicking British officials. The controversial process, which broke French law, was carried out just two hours before she was flown back to Britain.

As we will see, all the facts in this paragraph are (if we can trust the Express's sources) quite correct. But anyone reading it would naturally assume that what the headline is claiming to have discovered is the fact that Diana's body was embalmed when under French law this should not have happened until any autopsy had been completed. The revelation that the body of such a high profile celebrity was treated irregularly would, indeed, be a fairly big scandal. However, this is still not the new fact that the headline promised us.

d: Reveal the substance of the story gradually. Bury any actual facts you may have on page 5

In fact, everybody who has been following this story already knew that Diana's body had been embalmed. Page 5 of today’s paper reproduces a headline from nearly two years ago, which had asked: 'Why was Diana's body embalmed....just what are they trying to hide?' So what is today’s news?

The Daily Express has learned that hurried discussions between British and French officials were held to make sure that embalming went ahead before the Princess’s body was flown home. It had always been understood that Diana’s body had been embalmed in the chaotic hour immediately after her death.
So, what has been revealed 'at last' is not 'someone interfered with the Royal Corpse’ but 'someone interfered with the Royal Corpse seven hours later than we thought' or possibly 'English and French officials talked to each other before they interfered with the Royal Corpse.' This new data leads the Express to infer that the officials who gave the order must have had some reason to want the body to return to Britain only in an embalmed state, and that they can only have decided this at the last minute. So the story as stated in paragraph 1 is literally true: the Express does indeed claim to have evidence that Diana’s body 'was embalmed on the orders of panicking British officials.' It’s just that what they are announcing is not 'she was embalmed' but 'the people who ordered her to be embalmed were panicking at the time'.

e: If you don’t actually have any story at all try not to reveal this until the end of the item.

Even the evidence for the panicky-ness of the officials is not especially solid: we can only discover that 'sources close to the investigation' say that the remains were embalmed seven hours after Diana died; and that 'a source' thinks that this revelation 'will increase the pressure on Lord Stevens to clarify what happened that night.'

The 'pregnancy' aspect of the story is even shakier. We are told that unspecified 'experts' say that the process of embalming a body 'corrupts pregnancy tests which may give a false positive reading.' Again 'experts' apparently believe that embalming fluid corrupts DNA tests. the identity of the father of any baby Diana might have been carrying could never be verified.
This is an extraordinarily audacious aside. The main headline claims that Diana was embalmed in order to cover-up the fact that she was pregnant. It turns out that someone unspecified thinks that embalming would ensure that 'the identity of the father of any baby that Diana might have been carrying' could not be discovered. And note the bet-hedging. If she was only slightly pregnant, then the embalming fluid would make it impossible to do a pregnancy test; but if she was very pregnant, then the embalming fluid would make it impossible to find out who the baby's dodi was.

The question which occurred to the paper when they broke this story in 2004 was 'What are they trying to hide?' A number of more relevant questions occur to me. For example: is it physically possible to do a pregnancy test on a stiff? Would such a test be carried out on the remains of a road accident victim? Are there any health and safety laws about whether unpickled bodies can be carried on aeroplanes? And why would British officials, panicking or otherwise, care whether or not Diana was pregnant -- given that, at the time of her death, she had no constitutional position?

The ongoing Diana saga provides a particularly clear illustration of the way in which the Daily Express constructs it's narratives. The text of the news item describes fairly un-sensational events which, so far as I can tell, really happened in the real world. But this text is surrounded by headlines, sub-headlines, cartoons, captions, phone-in polls, readers letters, and op-ed columns -- all of which tell a completely different, and much more dramatic story. On Planet Earth one un-named source says that there is a discrepancy about the time at which a body was embalmed; one or more unnamed experts say that formaldehyde interferes with pregnancy and DNA tests. Oh, and a 'a senior French policeman claims he saw medical papers showing that Diana was pregnant.' But on Planet Daily Express, this has transmogrified into 'Princess's Body was embalmed to cover up her pregnancy.'

2: How to stay eternally young

It's Wednesday, and someone has discovered the Philosopher's Stone. Or the Fountain of Eternal Youth. Or something.

New health secret revealed.

Unfortunately, this new health secret has only been revealed on Planet Daily Express. On Planet Earth 'ground breaking new research' has discovered that exercise is good for you. Astonishingly, it may also help if you quit smoking and eat more fruit and veg.

3: Everyone is incredibly rich

On May 12th, the reality-based community was preoccupied with the report into the July 7th bombings. But on Planet Daily Express, something even more important had happened.

A marketing research company has discovered that people in Britain have an awful lot of money and that they spend it on stuff. Men spend 110% more on clothes 'in real terms' than they did in 1995; and we all spend 21% more on furniture 'taking inflation into account'. Consumer spending is now £37,000 per household in Britain, which amounts to a trillion a year across the whole country. (A trillion is a million million, apparently. Whatever happened to our good old British billions?) Given that the average salary is around £20K, an annual spend of £37K can probably be translated as 'In many households, both partners work, and people are really crap at saving'. On the other hand, the biggest increase in expenditure comes from mortgages ('up 51%'); so it may be that 'people spend more money' equates to 'mortgage rates are very high'. But this is not the spin which the Worlds Greatest Newspaper (And Proud of It) puts on the figures.

And it's all generated by sheer hard work.

I don't know how the Express thinks that we might have got our hands on a £1,000,000,000,000 apart from by working. Robbed the Tower of London, perhaps, or won the lottery during a roll-over week. Or--just possibly--Britons earned their trillion quid by buying property at the right time and sitting on it. On Tuesday, the Express ran a separate front page story about how over-inflated UK property prices have become, and how it is impossible for people on modest incomes to buy houses -- or, as they put it

The market is already up by a third this year.

A new property bonanza is underway....and that is welcome news for home-owners bombarded with dire warnings of an impending housing crash....
Er...whether or not you regard this news as ‘welcome’ rather depends on whether you already own one of the 'three bedroom semis' that are now worth £200,000 or whether you are hoping that one day you might be able to buy one.

However, it's the 'sheer hard work' which is the point of the Friday story. I would have supposed that any consumer spending boom would apply to single people as much as to married ones: indeed, I thought that gay men were widely thought to have an exceptionally high disposable income. But in fact, the one trillion pounds is coming from only one sector of the population:

Britons have pushed their spending beyond the £1trillion barrier for the first time in pursuit of a good time. The extra money is being created by families' sheer hard work -- and it is being spent on holidays and luxury purchases.
Now, in the lexicon of the Daily Express (and, not un-coincidentally, of Mr Tony Blair) 'hard-working family' is a code word. It means 'good person', 'normal person'; 'one of us' as opposed to 'one of them'. The Express has cleverly avoided using that precise phrase, but it is clear that they have taken a boring set of economic figures and transmuted them into a Calvinist affirmation that 'we' are rich because 'we' deserve to be rich. 'We' have created a zillion pounds by sheer hard work; and 'we' have been rewarded with lots of nice things like electronics, clothes, holidays, houses and (we'll come back to this later) gardens. The implication must be that if you don't have a £200,000 semi and don't go on three holidays a year then you are not 'hard-working', not a' family', not a 'Briton' -- not one of 'us'.

The idea that a 'a trillion pounds has been spent' means the same as 'a trillion pounds has been created' implies a rather shaky grasp of economics.

4: Scotland is Not Part of Britain

The people who have earned a trillion pounds by their hard work are 'Britons'. The Daily Express takes Britain very seriously. The week’s most important event was the decision by Heinz foods to close the factory in Birmingham that makes H.P Sauce and transfer production to Holland. For reasons which are completely unfathomable, the World's Greatest Newspaper (And Proud Of It) has decided that brown ketchup is an important component of British identity. The closure of the factory therefore becomes a pretext for a bout of self flagellation The fact that our sauce bottles will now say 'made in Holland' rather than 'made in Britain' is another example of the way in which ‘we’ are being stripped of ‘our’ national identity. We’ll still be able to pour H.P Sauce on our Fish and Chips, but

One more British icon has bitten the dust. Somehow, it just won't taste as good.

But even worse than the threat which Heinz foods pose to our nationhood is the threat from...Scotland.

Tony Blair is a little bit Scottish; Gordon Brown is very, very Scottish; and there are a number of people from Scotland in the cabinet. But that doesn't matter because the people of England, Scotland, Wales and the North of Ireland are all loyal subjects of the Queen and patriotic Britons. Or, as a columnist Leo McKinstry puts it:


....Perhaps unique among Western democracies, England is a country largely governed by politicians from another nation. If anything, Blair's mishandled reshuffled has only strengthened the stranglehold that the Scots exert on our Government.
You may need to read that twice to see where the cards are being palmed. If one democratic nation were ruling another democratic nation that might very well be absurd. In fact, the nation of Britain is made up of four countries. England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all send representatives to the national government in Westminster. (Some people think that Scotland and Wales ought to be nations in their own right; they call themselves Scottish Nationalists and Welsh Nationalists.) But Mr. McKinistry deliberately uses 'country' and 'nation' interchangeably in order to advance his absurd fantasy that England is the only country which is ruled by another nation.

We continue:

It is an outrage that control of English domestic policy should be in Scottish hands...What makes the tartan takeover even more unjust is that Scots have had their own parliament since 1998.
Having confused us by saying 'nation' when he means 'country', McKinstry is now trying to get us to associate what he calls 'the tartan takeover' (the fact that Prime Minister and some cabinet members come from Scotland) with the completely separate and extremely boring West Lothian Question.

Try to stay awake: I'll make this as painless as possible. People from Scotland and England elect MPs to Westminster. People from Scotland additionally elect MSPs to Scottish parliament, to which Westminster has 'devolved' certain powers. There is no equivalent English parliament since England is governed directly by Westminster. It follows that Scottish MPs vote on certain issues which affect England (but not Scotland) but English MPs cannot vote on equivalent issues which affect Scotland (but not England.) This is certainly an anomaly and you may think that Tony Blair made a pigs ear of devolution. There is a fair-to-middling case for saying that either England should also its own devolved parliament or else that Scottish MPs should be asked to leave the room when a specifically English issues come under discussion.

But this has nothing whatsoever to do with McKinstry's fictitious 'tartan takeover'. If it's unfair that English MPs don't have a say about who empties the rubbish bins in Balamory, then that would still unfair even if every though every single cabinet minister was an H.P sauce drinking Englishman. If you don't think it matters, then it still wouldn't matter even though the whole cabinet started to put salt on their porridge. (And on no possible view does 'Scottish MPs voting on English issues' amount to 'Scotland ruling England'. Before devolution, if English MPs had wanted to pass a law prohibiting Haggis and Deep Fried Mars Bars, they could have done so, and all the Scottish MPs voting together could not have stopped them. After devolution, it is still impossible for the Scottish MPs to get together and pass a law banning fish and chips and decent beer -- for the very simple reason that English MPs out number Scottish MPs by nearly ten to one.)

Having misdirected us with this sleight of hand, McKinstry is able to pull a rabbit out of his hat.

They voted in favour of devolution because they did not want England running their domestic affairs, yet they believe they still have the right to rule south of the border.
Are you keeping up, here? There are Scottish cabinet ministers; there is a possible constitutional anomaly about devolution. Therefore Scots, in general, believe that they have the right to rule England. It is a small step from here to conflating Labour with Scotland and saying we have a government that hates the English:

It is no wonder that Labour is sinking so dramatically in the popularity in England when it is encouraging such a naked bias and abuse of power. The tartan led Labour government has bent over backward to address every kind of Scottish grievance, no matter how synthetic, but has treated England's identity with indifference and even hostility. They have shown no real love of this country because they are not really part of it.
Again, the writer is very cleverly throwing dust in our eyes. A lot of people have a general sense that Labour is unpatriotic: it doesn't love this country (Britain) sufficiently. Since the left tends to be anti-nationalist and pro-European, there may be something in this. McKinstry turns this general feeling into a specific allegation that Labour doesn't love this country (England) at all, because they are foreigners from Scotland. He then makes general allegations that these foreigners 'bend over backwards' to accommodate Scottish interests, and that they are 'positively hostile' to English identity, without citing a single instance of either of these things happening.

I think we are also over-working the phrase 'tartan army' and 'tartan takeover' a little. I wonder what the Scottish equivalent would be? 'Bowler hat takeover'? 'Morris dancing army'?

But this contempt cannot go on. It has awakened a new sense of exclusively English pride, manifested in the revival of the cross of St George....
Well, the use of the cross of St George as the logo of the English soccer team, at any rate. The Daily Express's own logo has always been a crusader knight with a St George cross on his shield. So much for Us Britons.

....and it will culminate in driving the Scottish elite from power.
If you think that all this is mad, then some of the letters of support from 'readers' published over the next few days were positively scary. One lunatic thinks that there is a 'constitutional issue regarding the handover of power' to Gordon Brown because:

Mr Brown represent a Scottish constituency and cannot therefore legitimately bring forward legislation that does not affect his constituents but does effect the English and Welsh electorate.
Got that? The West Lothian Question means that foreigners from Scotland should be debarred from being Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Perhaps on Planet Daily Express, the Act of Union never happened. (I also like the use of the word 'handover', with its implication of 'surrender' and 'giving up without a fight'.)

Another letter-writer drifts into genuinely fascistic language:

Wake up England, and take back what belongs to us....all English people know of the history between England and Scotland and also the perceived hatred our friends north of the border feel towards us Sassenachs. So why do we sit back and take this abuse of power from our so-called leader Tony Blair....We have had enough. Why is it so wrong to want England ruled by the English?

5: No taxation, just 'no taxation', basically.

Tax is bad. Tax is theft. Tax is a bad thing which bad people do to us out of spite. On Planet Daily Express a malign State comes and takes money from hard-working H.P sauce eating Britons from England and gives it to lazy skiving sponging foreigners and asylum seekers. Some days, I get the impression that it goes into Gordon Brown's personal bank account. None of this tax money seems to go to pay for police-men, soldiers, prisons, schools, hospitals and other things that Britons might think were quite a good idea. The state does things to us; it never does things for us.

On Tuesday, the Express declared victory in its crusade (that logo again) against inheritance duty. As the law now stands, you have to pay 40% tax on any legacy above £285,000. Since good time Britons are enjoying a property bonanza, even quite modest houses can sell for this amount. There is a perfectly reasonable argument that the threshold for inheritance tax should be modified up and down in line with the property market. But you will not hear that argument here. Tax money is money stolen from you by the government, and nothing more need be said.

The latest inheritance tax smash and grab....the devastating tax raid....Mr Brown's inheritance tax-grab
But because of all the taxi-drivers putting 'Property Tax is Theft' stickers on their cars, the tax has been abolished and you won't have to pay it any more. Well, perhaps on Planet Daily Express. In the real world, something rather more boring has occurred.

Treasury officials were last night said to be having second thoughts about the devastating tax raid that would leave millions of Britons facing huge tax bills.'

'A spokesman for Association of British Insurers said a meeting with Treasury and Revenue officials had produced some results.'
So: an un-named person had a meeting with another un-named person, and thinks that as a result of it, the government might be thinking about changing their mind about something. On Planet Daily Express, this equates to 'Cilmbdown On Death Tax'.

And it isn't even the £285,000 tax threshold about which someone thinks that someone else may be thinking of changing their mind. What might be happening is that some rather technical changes to the laws on trust funds (or, on Planet Daily Express: 'new rules hidden in March's budget') may not being going forward. These changes might have meant that some people might have had to change their wills. If ten million people had done so, and if their lawyers had charged them each £250, 'that would cost Britons up to £2.5 billion.' Leaving them only £997,500,000,000 a year to spend on their gardens.

6: The state is at war with the citizen

But the foreigners from Scotland who run the country are doing much more sinister things than hiding laws about trust funds in the Budget (the last place that an accountant would think to look for them.) It has declared war on people who own houses; it has declared war on people who drive motor cars; it has a sadistic desire to punish gardeners; and it is going to use spies and surveillance satellites to prosecute this war.

On Thursday, the front page announced

Big Brother satellite will charge you £1.34 a mile and will know if you are speeding.

while the internal sub-headline was simply

War on the motorist.

It seems that the government has decided to charge a toll on road use, and to use a satellite tracking system to enforce the toll. The satellite will be able to tell exactly how far you have driven, and will then bill you at a rate of £1.34 a mile. Some of the implications are even more sinister. As a pull-quote explains

This control-freak government will now be able to track us wherever we go.
Of course, as we cast our eyes down page one, the assertion that there will be a satellite tracking system for cars, and that you will be charged £1.34 per mile becomes more and more hypothetical

...critics warned that the technology could be used to snoop on the private lives of citizens was revealed that the system could be used to check if drivers were speeding the spy in the sky could work
...this system could be used to track people's movements everywhere they go
The most frightening thing of all is that could in time also be used to enforce speed limits
Because everybody on Planet Daily Express agrees that the idea that people might be expected to stick to the speed limit is

Just like Big Brother and typical of this control freak government.
It turns out that behind all these could-bes, might-bes, and can't-be-ruled-outs is a letter from the Prime Minister to the Minister for Transport, asking him to look at the feasibility of having a tax on road usage instead of (not in addition to) the present tax on vehicle ownership. The idea being floated is that 'you' would be charged £1.32 if 'you' made use of the busiest roads at peak times. If 'you' used quieter roads at off-peak times you’d be charged 2p per mile.

But 'Someone has floated the idea that you might perhaps be charged a road toll of tuppence at some indeterminate time in the future' would not be as interesting as 'Control Freak Government Declares War on Motorist', would it?

The government's other war is the one against home-owners. On Monday we were warned about:

'The pets and garden tax: Astonishing plot for a stealth raid on homes'.

Apparently 'council tax snoopers' are soon going to be 'peering over the fence for a furtive glimpse into your back garden.' Why they would peer over your fence furtively is never tackled: one would have thought that it would be easier for them to knock on your front door and say 'Hello, I am a government tax inspector.' They could even use the government's spy-in-the-sky satellite, if not for the fact that it doesn't actually exist.

The reason for this snooping is that if you add 'a fish pond, rabbit hutch or just that humble old vegetable patch' to your garden, you are going to have to pay tax on it. This is described as 'the latest punishment for people trying to build a better life'

Local taxation has always been a very contentious issue in the U.K -- presumably because you actually have to write out a cheque to the council each month, whereas the Inland Revenue takes money straight out of your pay cheque without you ever seeing it. Mrs. Thatcher's attempt to replace the old system of Rates with the barking mad Community Charge actually precipitated riots and brought down her government. Under the present system of Council Tax you are taxed a fixed amount annually based on the value of your home. The theory behind the Daily Express's 'pets and garden tax' is that if you build a rabbit hutch or plant a rose bush in your garden the Sheriff of Nottingham may decide that your house is worth more today than it was yesterday and plonk you into a higher tax band.

The major problem behind this theory is that it's bollocks. The Express admits that it's bollocks almost immediately. At the top of the report, there are pictures of a pond, some flowers, and a bunny rabbit, with captions that read:

This water feature could lead to you being soaked for higher council tax
A colourful display might cost you a pretty packet
Even the children’s rabbit might catch you on the hop
At the bottom of the page, we asked to cast our vote on today's phone-in poll 'Are you fed up of being fleeced by Labour' (99% of us are, surprisingly.) There is also risible op-ed column which runs:

Now is a great time of year to add a few attractive touches to your garden -- but you may come to regret it. Push the boat out even more and invest in a whole new vegetable patch or some floral borders or perhaps a rabbit hutch or fish pond and there could be an even bigger price to pay. Scary? You bet, but that is what happens when Labour is in charge...How else do you explain that everyday improvements to your garden could put your property in a higher tax band...There's talk about anything that adds value being taken into consideration. In other words a garden tax should not be ruled out as Labour continues its war against Middle Britain picking pockets at every opportunity....To punish homeowners for making the best of what they've got is not just unfair - but plain nasty.
Actually, what I find plain nasty is the paranoia which the Express slips into at the drop of a gnome. The state is out to get you -- you personally, out of sheer maliciousness. The imaginary garden tax is part of a war on the home owner. The imaginary scheme for road-tolls is part of a war on the motorist. The op. ed column sees the fictitious tax as a 'punishment' for people who want to improve their homes; the news story sees it as 'the latest punishment' for people 'trying to build a better way of life.' Yes, only the latest such punishment -- although the details of all the previous punishments aren't actually mentioned. This is indeed nasty, because it sets out to make people who own houses with gardens and people who drive motorcars -- that is, us, hard-working Britons from England -- feel that we are victims. Someone is snooping over our fence; someone is watching us from a satellite; someone is stealing our inheritance; someone is taking away our H.P Sauce. And this is the same State that is run by England hating foreigners from Scotland; the same State whose officials are colluding to protect whoever-it-was who murdered The People's Princess.

The significance of the phrase Middle-Britain (as opposed to Middle-England) is left as an exercise for the reader.

The actual basis of the garden tax story would seem to be a parliamentary question asked some months ago by one Caroline Spelman (John Prescott's conservative shadow). According to Hansard, it went like this:

Mrs. Spelman: To ask the Deputy Prime Minister whether the presence of an (a) orchard, (b) vegetable patch, (c) fish pond and (d) attractive flower arrangement influence the Valuation Office Agency's assessment of value significant codes GG, GN, NA, PS and PL when conducting a council tax valuation. [30837]

Mr. Woolas: The valuation of a domestic property is based on the valuer's estimate of what the capital value of the property is.
According to the Express, Spelman interprets this answer to mean that

They are actually refusing rule out whether they'll be taxing you on your vegetable patch or animal hutch. Is this Labour's latest stealth tax -- a tax on pets?'
'Stealth-tax is' yet another code-word. Tony Blair boasts that, unlike previous Labour PMs, he has not increased income tax. However, according to some people, he has made up the shortfall in less obvious ways -- for example, by increasing the range of goods on which V.A.T is payable -- meaning that we actually pay more tax over all. But the phrase has been cast pretty widely, so that the charge for replacing a lost passport, or the cost of a digital box for your TV might well be described as 'stealth taxes.' It is hard to think of anything less stealthy than receiving a letter headed '2007 Council Tax Bill.'

The way in which the Daily Express spins Mr Woolas parliamentary answer deserves some kind of award:

In its reply, the government admitted only that the valuation of a domestic home is 'based on the valuer's estimate of what the capital value of a property is
'Admitted only.' Mrs. Spelman asks a rather silly question. The relevant minister gives a straightforward answer: nothing has changed -- a valuer decides the value of your property and you are taxed you on that basis. And the Express, instead of saying 'The government said clearly that they weren't taxing vegetable patches' says 'They admitted only' that the tax was based on a valuer's estimate of what the property was worth. Which isn't much of an admission: it's the way that Council Tax has always been assessed; it's the only way in which it could possibly be assessed. The op. ed column glossed this as '(you can't) get a clear answer about this from the office of the deputy prime-minister.' It seems like a pretty clear answer to me; but they got an even clearer answer from 'a spokesman for the Valuation Office Agency' and printed it in the body of the article:

A fish pond or rabbit hutch isn't going to cause an increase in council tax band. It's all about scale. If it as an ornamental lake in a large property with rolling acres, it might increase the value of the property.
So: the 'garden tax' is a pure, paranoid fantasy. But this point is evidently lost on the inhabitants of Planet Daily Express. On Wednesday a letter appeared on the letters page under the headline: 'Ditch this daft garden tax'. (Do you see what has happened? Yesterday, the Daily Express made up the phrase 'garden tax' out of their own heads: today, readers are demanding the abolition of this non-existent tax.) The writer explains:

So, Prescott et al are going to penalise us for beautifying our homes.
No, they aren't. The news story made this quite clear.

If, after tax, you choose to spend what little is left...
'What little?' I thought we all had a trillion pounds in our pockets, and houses that were becoming more valuable every day?

...on going out, a holiday, or some electronic bauble, that's OK.
I thought it was more than okay, I thought it was part of a year long party that hard working Britons from England were enjoying?

...But woe betide you...
I had a junior school teacher who used to use that phrase as a euphemism for 'I'm going to hit you'. I didn't know that it was still in use on Planet Earth.

..if you spend it on some plants to make your home pretty. You will be rewarded with increased rates...
No, you won't. You'd have to put up some stables or an ornamental lake. The news story said so.

...How utterly wrong that is.
Wrong in the sense of 'incorrect' or 'not true'..

Does the great Labour levelling machine want everyone to live in slummy ghettos?
Another example in the genre of 'Very Interesting Questions To Which The Answer Is No'. (There is also the point about 'ghetto', which generally means 'the part of town where foreign people live' being used in conjunction with 'slummy', but we'll leave that to one side for the moment.)

Rather than taxing those who try to make Britain a green and pleasant land it should do what the Dutch do and penalise those who allow their properties to become derelict junk heaps.
So. In three days, we've gone from 'Your council tax is based on the value of your property' via 'Labour is going to tax rabbits' to 'Labour wants everyone to live in a slum.'

The Express have rather a thing about gardens. On Sunday, there is an impenetrable story which manages to go from 'new homes may be built on urban brown field sites' to 'Labour are going to take your garden away and build houses on it'; and concludes with a phone in poll to find out whether readers think that 'garden grabbing' should be allowed. But on Saturday, we dealt with the subject closest to Daily Express readers' hearts. Yes, even closer than H.P Sauce..... Privet hedges.

7: There is insufficient police brutality

This is the story of the week. This is a story so important that normal typography can’t cope with it. Upper case is not enough. Upper case underlined is not enough. Today, we must resort to upper case underlined and printed in red.

Judge says police are RIGHT to give yobs a clip round the ear

A bobby convicted of clipping two yobs round the ear was cleared yesterday after a judge ruled that he acted in the best traditions of the police force.
I wonder if this is remotely intelligible to readers from outside the UK -- or, come to that, under the age of 30? 'Bobby' is a slang term for police officer which no-one on Planet Earth has used for decades. (Neither do we say 'Peeler'. Even 'Copper' is pretty old-fashioned.) A 'Clip' is a light cuff or slap. 'A clip round the ear' means literally 'to slap the side of a child’s head'. In practice, clip-round-the-ear is a portmanteau phrase meaning 'mild, informal corporal punishment'. ('My school had banned caning, but we did get a clip-round-the-ear occasionally.') A 'yob' is a badly behaved youth, possibly backslang for 'boy'.

But the three terms are three more ideological code-words. 'Bobby' is nostalgic and affectionate: it doesn’t mean 'policeman', but 'good, old-fashioned police-man on a bike who knows the names of local people'. If I say 'British Bobby' you will hear 'Both you and I agree that the British police force is honest and incorruptible' or perhaps 'the Police were much better in the 1950s.' Similarly, if I say 'clip-round-the-ear', you will hear 'Both you and I agree that corporal punishment is an acceptable way of disciplining children.' We are all against cruelty to children, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't give kids a clip-round-the-ear now and again… And of course, Prime Ministers since John Major have said that What Is Wrong With Britain Today is something called 'yob-culture.' So 'The days when bobbies could give yobs a clip round the ear' is code for 'you and I agree that nowadays, young people have insufficient respect for authority.' Or perhaps just 'things were better in the olden days'.

It is very doubtful whether there was ever a time when police officers on Planet Earth were permitted to administer on-the-spot corporal punishment to badly behaved children. What is certain is that, for the past 25 years, any teacher who administered a clip-round-the-ear, either literally or metaphorically, would be guilty of criminal assault; and that the law has become progressively less supportive of parents who slap their own children -- on the ear or anywhere else. Maybe in 1906, a policeman could have been considered in loco parentis and done to a naughty child whatever a reasonable parent or teacher might have done in the same circumstances; that certainly isn’t the case today.

So: the first thing to say about Saturday’s headline is that it is irrelevant. You, me or Judge Adrian Lion may very well think that police should give yobs a clip round the ear. We may for that matter think that Teach should give them a good slippering or the Witchfinder General should burn them at the stake. But neither you nor I nor Judge Lion can arbitrarily re-write the law of assault on a personal whim. The Judge's opinions are neither here nor there.

The second thing to say about Saturday's headline is that it is obviously and transparently untrue. The main headline: 'Judge says police are right to give yobs a clip round the ear'; the internal sub-header: 'At last, a judge who says yobs deserve a clip round the ear from police' the phone-in poll: 'Should police give yobs a clip round the ear', and the leading article: 'he was right to overturn P.C Mullaney’s ludicrous assault conviction for giving two trouble-making yobs a clip round the ear' -- all come from Planet Daily Express. If you bother to 'turn to page 17' you will discover that what happened on Planet Earth was almost the exact opposite.

PC Sean Mullaney, 38, was arrested and suspended 18 months ago for confronting the teenagers who terrorised his neighbours and taunted him after damaging his hedge…The court heard how the boys, aged 16 and 17 had been terrorising PC Mullaney’s neighbours in Hindley, near Wigan, Greater Manchester, leaving them 'frightened to death.' The officer told how he had been forced to move the pair on more than 50 times from outside his house and had lost count of the number of times they had damaged his £200,000 semi. The problems came to head in December 2004 when he took firmer action after he realised they had wrecked his privet hedge.'
The value of P.C Mullaney's house is crucial to the story. He owns a £200,000 semi. He has a share in the one trillion pounds generated by sheer hard work. He has a garden. He is a Briton. He is English. He is hard working. He has a family. He lives in Middle-England. He is very probably a Motorist. He may even put H.P Sauce on his rabbit hutch. He is precisely the sort of person against whom the Government has declared war. He is, in short, one of Us.

So. On this side, two yobs. On the other, an expensive suburban house. Separating them -- a privet hedge. What better symbol of Middle-England (against whom the State is at war) could there be? (Consider where J.K Rowling locates the Durselys.) Everything which the Daily Express believes is encapsulated in this scene. And what do the Out of Control Yobs do to the Ordinary Hard Working British Bobby? They damage his hedge. They damage his privet hedge. Tear down the wall! Tear down the wall!

And now it comes:

Although the louts, who cannot be named for legal reasons, claimed PC Mullaney went outside and slapped both of them across the head….
'Claimed'. Pause. Savor the moment.

….the officer insisted he had only pushed one after he was called a 'prick'.
And in a flash, the whole story vanished. The judge who says yobs deserve a clip round the ear; the Judge who says police are right to give yobs a clip round the ear. Total fantasy. What actually happened -- what the Daily Express admit happened -- was that two young men were vandalizing the property of an off-duty Bow Street Runner. The Bow Street Runner came out and remonstrated with them. The young men subsequently accused the Bow Street Runner of having assaulted them. The other Rozzers decided that he should be charged with assault -- they take this sort of thing seriously, do the Rozzers: if he had really hit a suspect, then Mullaney would no longer be a British Bobby -- he would be a Bent Copper. The Magistrate believed the youths; but he gave the Bow Street Runner a very mild punishment: a two year conditional discharge. However, this was still a very serious matter for the Bow Street Runner, because it meant that he was almost certain to lose his job. So the Bow Street Runner appealed to a higher court. And this time, the Judge believed his version of events. Listen to what the judge said:

There is no doubt the officer acted properly and appropriately in standing up to these young people who were seeking to wind him up. He did so in the best traditions of the police force....It is the essence of a police officer that he can control his anger in circumstances that to other people would be highly provocative
That is: he acted in the best traditions of the police force by not hitting the teenager when someone else might have done. He acted properly and appropriately in the sense that hitting a teenager would have been improper and inappropriate. Another Bow Street Runner, P.C Schofield is quoted 'Sean is a gentle giant. Any situations I have been in with him he has always been composed and calm' -- that is, not the sort of person who would give a clip-round-the-ear to anyone at all. (Schofield is Mullaney’s beat partner. Under the circumstances, I think we can assume this means: 'The officer who accompanies him on patrol' not 'the officer who helps him beat people up.') In case you doubt this, then I recommend you pick up the Daily Telegraph and read what Mullaney himself said.

They knew what I do for a living and disliked it. That was the cause of it all. One of the boys called me a prick. He clearly wasn't frightened of me and came into my personal space. I felt threatened and pushed him away. I certainly didn't thump him around the ears. That's not the way I conduct myself.
And once again, the original statement was literally true. 'A bobby convicted of clipping two yobs round the ear was cleared yesterday after a judge ruled that he acted in the best traditions of the police force.' He was indeed cleared, and the clearing did indeed happen chronologically after the judge said he acted in the best traditions of the police force. But 'Policeman denies hitting teenager; Judge believes him' has somehow become 'Judge says policemen should be encouraged to hit teenagers.' This would make about as much sense as translating 'Man found Not Guilty of Murder' as 'Judge says murder perfectly all right' -- which come to think of it, is not that far away from the Daily Express’s reporting of criminal trials.

8: England has legalised murder

On Planet Daily Express, people are literally getting away with murder.

'Widows fury as husband's callous killer gets just four years in jail',

explain a headline.

Naturally, the Worlds Greatest Paper has a solution to this problem. A more-than-usually prominently displayed phone in poll asks the magnificently unbiased question 'Do you agree that hanging should be brought back'. In the first paragraph of the news item, the grieving widow expresses the opinion: 'If the prisons are so full, they should bring back hanging.'

Perhaps they should. Perhaps they should bring back hanging, drawing and quartering and transportation to Australia, while they are at it. Or perhaps we should use those nice lethal injections that Tony's friend George Bush is so enthusiastic about. But even if 'they' did, it would have made bugger-all difference in this case because no-one was actually convicted of murdering anyone. Rather boringly, what actually happened was that one man, Alan Fessey, became involved in altercation with two other men David and Christopher Ratcliff. Mr. Fessey was hit with a crash helmet and a broken bottle; he subsequently died. Both men said they didn't intend to kill him. The younger admitted 'grievous bodily harm with affray'; and was sentenced to three years in jail; the older man admitted manslaughter and got four years. No-one, absolutely no-one at any point suggested that they got a comparatively light sentence because there was insufficient space in prison. (Is the Daily Express seriously proposing that we should execute people convicted of manslaughter, or, come to that, of juveniles convicted of serious assault?)

Anyone reading the headline and not studying the text would get the impression that four years in prison is the going rate for offences that fifty years ago would have earned you a very brief meeting with Albert Pierrepont. This is, of course, nonsense. But these kinds of headlines give the inhabitants of Planet Daily Express the impression that we live in a country where hardly anyone is ever punished for anything (apart from building rabbit hutches, of course.)

9: Human Rights are a bad thing and should be abolished as soon as possible

An English football fan is currently serving a sentence for murder in a Bulgarian jail. Some people think that he may be innocent. One British official went so far as to express grave doubts about Bulgaria's justice system. On Monday, the Express published a reader's letter that appeared to argue that it doesn't matter if a British person is being punished in a foreign country for a crime he didn't commit; because foreigners in this country are sometimes not punished for crimes they did commit. At any rate:

If my guess is correct, the whole British nation has grave doubts about our justice system. Anything connected with the Home Office is in freefall, police detection rates are lamentable, sentencing is derisory and a sad joke, prisons are thin on the ground as serious crime rises; and the immigration system is in chaos and puts the indigenous population in danger.'
Mr. Atkinson doesn't say in what way the immigration system is putting people in danger. He doesn't need to. Weeks and months of Daily Express headlines has made 'immigration' and 'asylum seeker' synonymous with 'foreign criminal' and 'terrorist'. The writer says 'the immigration system is in chaos' and we hear 'there are lots of foreign terrorists, murderers, and rapists roaming the streets.'

I would have thought that if you let an actual foreign criminal into the country, then he would be a danger, not only to the indigenous population but to everyone else as well. If he was a terrorist, then he might not only kill members of the indigenous population, but also any tourists who happened to be travelling by tube at the time. And course, the terrorists who actually did kill a lot of people (indigenous or otherwise) on July 7th were born and brought up in Britain, and, indeed, England. Are British Muslims part of the indigenous population, we ask ourselves, or are they, like Scotsman, not Britons at all?

In another letter, printed under the headline 'find the courage to boot out these foreign thugs' one Mr Flynn explains that

Asylum seekers and immigrants should be told that they are expected to conform to our laws and that if they commit a crime they should expect to be deported.
He explains with enthusiasm that last year, Norway deported 1,500 'foreigners who had committed crimes', and are going to extend the law so they can depart even those who commit minor offences 'because they believe that their public has a right to be protected'.

Alongside this letter is a picture of a not very indigenous looking person, with the caption: 'SUSPECT: Somalian Mustaf Jama was not deported.'

This is rather clever. The letter gives the impression that, as a matter of policy, the UK does not deport foreign criminals, and contrasts it with Norway, which does. But as a matter of fact, the UK does have a policy of deporting foreign nationals who have been convicted of serious crimes. The whole furore over deportation of foreign criminals blew up because the Home Secretary -- who was subsequently sacked -- admitted that due to an administrative error a number of foreign criminals who, according to the law as it now stands should have been deported were allowed to stay in the UK. There are a small number of hard cases, of the kind that make bad law, where we have decided that we can't deport someone because they might be tortured in their own country. Mustaf Jama -- who is suspected of murdering a police officer -- is one such: at the end of long prison sentence, a decision was taken to let him stay in the UK because it would not have been safe to send him back to Somalia. This may or may not have been a good decision. But it has somehow been transformed into a general policy of allowing, even encouraging, foreign criminals to come to this country; which in turn means that the whole idea of 'immigration' is putting white, sorry, indigenous people at risk.

But there is a solution to all of this:

Mr Flyn asks

Why is it that in this country our rights are deemed less important those who would come here for the sake of committing crime
Mr Atkinson concludes

Before we accuse Bulgaria, let us see some root and branch changes at home, starting perhaps with the abandonment of the ridiculous Human Rights act.
Ah, 'Human Rights' -- currently hated by Daily Express readers even more than the 'Political Correctness Brigade.' On Planet Daily Express, 'human rights' is only ever used to mean 'the rights of criminals and immigrants'. So far as I can tell, such people do not really have any rights at all -- at any rate, the word rights is generally printed in quotation marks, or spelt 'so-called human rights.'

A news story on Thursday makes the point pretty clearly:

Maniac freed to kill because his 'human rights' were more important than ours.

A sex attacker who killed a mother had been freed from prison because officials placed his human rights above protecting the public, an official watchdog ruled yesterday.
Well, up to a point. Anthony Rice had indeed served 16 years of a life sentence, and did indeed commit murder while on a Life Licence. Everyone agrees that something went badly wrong with the system. What the Daily Express calls an official watchdog, and everyone else calls Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Probation summarised their findings in the following boring and careful terms:

We find evidence to conclude that on balance Anthony Rice should not have been released on Life Licence in the first place, and once he had been released he could and should have been better managed....This principal finding arises from our analysis of a complex picture where a sequence of deficiencies in the form of mistakes, misjudgement and miscommunication at all three phases of the whole process of this case had a compounding effect so that they came to amount to what we call a cumulative failure.
They go on to say that it was 'often not clear who was in charge of the case' which led to 'diffusion and discontinuities in lead responsibility for the case, and we consider that these were key contributing factors to the cumulative failure.' They say that the Parole Board did not know enough about the inmates previous behaviour; they were given over-optimistic reports of his progress; they were allowed to think that the fact that the inmate had transferred to an open prison made it more or less inevitable that we would be let out. And they also say

The whole process is additionally complicated by the human rights consideration in each case which have grown in importance follow a series of court judgements...It is a challenging task for people who are charged with managing offenders effectively to ensure that public protection considerations are not undermined by the human rights considerations.
There is a problem in the way in which the human rights act is being applied; it is complicating the process of paroles; and some lawyers may be applying it more widely than it should be. A footnote on page 36 of the report points out that according to the human rights act as it now stands a persons right to privacy and family life are not absolute; and that according to the present law, interference with both of these rights can be sometimes be justified.

What has happened is that a long, detailed report which says, among many other things, that human rights laws may have caused problems in this case has been spun into an unequivocal statement that this man was let out 'because his human rights were more important than ours ', This would give anyone reading the story the impression that a parole board said 'Oh, he'll probably murder someone if we release him, but what the hell, his human rights are the most important thing' -- which is, of course, total fantasy. And the suggestion that we may want to look again at the way in which the human rights law is being applied to parole board hearings turns into an even more general feeling that the human rights act must be scrapped, abolished, dumped, banned, got rid of.

On Saturday, we have a headline about Conservative Leader David Cameron:

'Human rights laws must go' says Cameron .

Cameron is actually quoted as saying 'We will reform, replace or scrap the human rights act' but the qualification have vanished from the headline. In the same report Anne Widdecombe says 'If we have a review, we can show that (the act) does not work, and scrap it.' And abandoning actual quotes from real human beings, the story continues

Privately many Tories are now convinced that that Human Rights Act is beyond reform and should be scrapped immediately. It is being blamed for the 'rights' of hoards of offenders being upheld while the suffering of their victims is forgotten.
As ever, there is a perfectly sensible debate to be had about how you take a nebulous idea like 'human rights' and turn it into a workable law. You could even have a philosophical discussion about the whether there is any such thing as a 'human right' in the first place. (Maybe we should forget about my right not to be tortured, and instead talk about my obligation not to torture you?)

But once you have framed the question in terms of a conflict between the human rights of the criminal and the human rights of the victim, you've guaranteed that that sensible debate is not going to take place. It is certainly true that we would like the state to do as much as it possibly can to stop us from being murdered. For example, we would like some of the money that it steals from us in taxes to be spent on bobbies who could arrest murderers, or failing that, clip them round the ear. But to cast this aspiration as a 'right not to be murdered' and to set it in conflict with a criminal suspect's right not to be detained without trial, or to be kept in human conditions if convicted is not much more than a pun. We're using the same word ('right') to refer to two quite different ideas.

Those of us who spend a few minutes each day on Planet Daily Express may get into the habit of conceptualising the question in these terms. And if we can only ask the question in the form 'What is more important -- the human rights of the terrorist, or the right of indigenous people not to be blown up?' then there's only one way for us to answer the question.

10: Doctor Who is rather good at the moment.

If you want to give a group a sense of identity, then tell it that that identity is being taken away. If you want to make a group pull together, make it believe that it is being threatened from the outside. And if you want to make a group of people do something very, very stupid, then allow them to believe that they are helpless.

The Daily Express has convinced itself that the mainstream of British (or at any rate, English) society -- the car driving, home owning middle-middle classes -- are a marginal, persecuted sect; ruled by a despotic foreign government which hates them and which uses high tech surveillance and low tech spying to prosecute a war against their traditional values. But have they convinced the people who buy their paper? Do millions of my fellow Britons believe that the real world resembles Planet Daily Express? And if so, what are they going to do about it? I find the idea of a radicalised middle-class declaring a jihad in defence of their vegetable patches and privet hedges far more frightening than any number of yobs, louts, immigrants, asylum seekers, thugs or Scotsmen.

But I don't want to create the impression that everything in the Daily Express is paranoid rubbish. On Monday, the TV reviewer said that he thought "The Girl in the Fireplace" was quite a good 'Doctor Who' story.

It was.

Vox Pop

Should we ever pay criminals? Yes 1% No 99%
Should HP Sauce only be made in Britain? Yes 98% No 2%
Should Tony Blair quit immediately? Yes 92% No 2%
Are we fed up of being fleeced by Labour? Yes 99% No 1%
Should Prescott lose all his perks? Yes 96% No 4%
Should hanging be brought back? YES 97% No 3% (The actual question was 'Do you agree that hanging should be brought back?')
Should all foreign criminals be deported? Yes 99% No 1%

Andrew read the Daily Express from Monday May 8th to Sunday May 14th, but he has since made a full recovery.

Monday, May 29, 2006


Some of the things that some of the non-canonical texts may perhaps say about Mary Magdalene

The following are cited in M.R James' "Apocryphal New Testament"

1: Fragment of a lost work quoted by Tertullian

John has said that "the teacher" did not permit women to take the Eucharist. "Martha said "It was because of Mary, because he saw her smiling. Mary said "I laughed not yet: for said unto us before that: That which is weak shall be saved by means of that which is strong."

2: Egyptian fragment called "The Twentieth Discourse of Cyril of Jerusalem" in which Mary Magdalene is said to be the same person as the Virgin Mary and Mary the Wife of Clophas.

3: A document called "The Gospel of Peter" which repeats the standard Resurrection story:

"Now early on the Lord's day, Mary Magdalene, a disciple of the Lord...took with her her women friends and went unto the tomb...."

4: An extended Passion story called "Acts of Pilate" in which John tells the Virgin Mary that Christ is condemned and the Virgin goes with Martha, Mary Magdalene and Salome and to the cross.

5: A late "Epistle of the Apostles" which has another version of the resurrection story

"And thither went three women, Mary, she that was kin to Martha, and Mary Magdalene and took ointments to pour on the body."

The Nag Hammadi library of gnostic texts is slightly more interesting.

1: There are a number of writings in which different disciples ask Jesus questions, and receive obscure answers. In several of these, someone called Mary is one of the interlocutor.

Examples include but are not limited to:.

"The Dialogue of the Saviour" "

Mary said "There is but one saying I will speak to the Lord concerning the Mystery of truth. In this we have taken our stand, and to the cosmic we are transparent."

"The Sophia of Jesus Christ"

"Mary said to him "Holy Lord where did you and you disciples come from and where are they going and what should they do here?" The perfect Saviour said to them "I want you to know that Sophia, the Mother of the Universe and the consort desire by herself to bring these to existence without her male consort..."

2: The "Gospel of Phillip" contains one tantalizing non-sequitur:

"For it is by a kiss that the perfect conceive and give birth. For this reason we also kiss one another. We receive conception from the grave which is in one another. There were three who always walked with the Lord: Mary his mother and her sister and Magdalene, the one who was called his companion. His sister and his mother and his companion were each a Mary. The father and the son are single names, the holy spirit is a double name. For they are everywhere..."

3: The very brief "Gospel of Mary" contains the following dialogue:

"Peter said to Mary "Sister we know that the Saviour loved you more than the rest of the women. Tell us the words of the savior that you remember...."

After she has done so:

"Andrew answered and said to the brethren "Say what you wish to say about what she has said. I at least do not believe that the Saviour said this. For certainly these teachings are strange ideas. Peter answer and spoke concerning these same things. He question them about the Saviour: did he really speak with a woman without our knowledge and not openly? Are we turn about and all listen to her. Did he prefer her to us?"

Then Mary wept and said to Peter "My brother Peter, what do you think? Do you think that I thought this up in my heart or that I am lying about the Saviour?"

Levi answered and said to Peter. "Peter, you have always been hot-tempered. Now I see you contending against the woman like the adversaries. But if the Saviour made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her? Surely the Savior knows her very well. That is why he loved her more than us."

4; The Gospel of Thomas concludes with the following exchange:

"Simon Peter said to them "Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life." Jesus said "I myself shall lead her in order to make her male so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male with enter the kingdom of heaven."

The texts which M.R James cites are obviously simply re-tellings of the canonical gospels; the only interesting point is that there is already an ambiguity about whether Mary Magdalene is the sister of Martha.

The Nag Hammadi texts indicate that the idea that Mary was a person of some importance; on intimate terms with or favoured by Jesus; and disapproved of by some of the other disciples, had occurred to a number of gnostic Christians in the third and fourth centuries. They might have been drawing on gossip, rumours, legends or folk-memories which might have been current at the time; and these could have had some historical basis. On the other hand, we might simply be dealing with religious fiction or gnostic allegory.

Two Random Pieces of Information
1: The name "Martha" is the Aramaic feminine of "lord", as in "Lady" or "Mistress."

2: The writer of the medieval York Mystery Play depicts the following dialogue between Mary and the resurrected Jesus. Thinking him to be the gardener, she has asked if he moved Jesus' body:

Woman, woman, turn thi thoght!
Wyt thou well I hyd him noght
Then bare hym nawre with me;
Go seke, loke, if thou fynde him oght.

In fayth I have hym soght,
But nawre he will fond be.

Why, what was he to the

In sothfastness to say?

A, he was to me --
No longer dwell I may.

Mary, thou sekys thy God, and that am I.

Rabony, my Lord so dere!
Now am I hole that thou art here.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Public Service Announcement

Everything the Bible says about Mary Magdalene

1: Jesus performed an exorcism on her.

Luke 8:2 ...Mary called Magdalene, out of whom went seven devils
Mark 16:9 ...Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had cast seven devils

2: She had been a follower of Jesus in Galilee, and came with him to Jerusalem
3: She was one of a group of women who helped Jesus financially (Matthew, Mark and Luke.)

Mark 15: 40 ...Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the less and of Joses, and Salome (who when he was in Galilee, followed him, and ministered unto him) and many other women which came up with him unto Jerusalem.

Luke 8:2 ....and the twelve were with him, and certain women, which had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary called Magdalene, out of whom went seven devils, and Joanna the wife of Chuza Herod's steward, and Susanna, and many others, which ministered unto him of their substance.

Matthew 27:56 ...And many women were there beholding afar off, which followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering unto him among which was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedee’s children.

4: She witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus (Matthew, Mark, Luke (implicitly) and John.)

Mark 15: 40 There were also women looking on afar off: among whom was Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James the less and of Joses, and Salome.

Matthew 27:56 And many women were there beholding afar off...among which was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedee's children.

Luke 24:10 And all his acquaintance, and the women that followed him from Galilee, stood afar off, beholding these things.

John 19:25 Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene.

4: She witnessed the burial of Jesus (Matthew, Mark and Luke (implicitly)

Matthew 27:59 And when Joseph had taken the body, he wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock: and he rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed. And there was Mary Magdalene, and the other Mary, sitting over against the sepulchre.

Mark 16:46 And he bought fine linen, and took him down, and wrapped him in the linen, and laid him in a sepulchre which was hewn out of a rock, and rolled a stone unto the door of the sepulchre. And Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses beheld where he was laid.

Luke 24: 55 And the women also, which came with him from Galilee, followed after, and beheld the sepulchre, and how his body was laid.

5: She went to Jesus tomb on Sunday morning and found the body missing. (Matthew, Mark, Luke (implicitly) and John)

Matthew 28: 2 In the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre.

Mark 16:1 And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him.

Luke 23:55 And the women also, which came with him from Galilee, followed after, and beheld the sepulchre, and how his body was laid. And they returned, and prepared spices and ointments; and rested the sabbath day according to the commandment. Now upon the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they came unto the sepulchre, bringing the spices which they had prepared, and certain others with them.

John: 21:1 The first day of the week cometh Mary Magdalene early, when it was yet dark, unto the sepulchre, and seeth the stone taken away from the sepulchre.

6: She was the first person to tell the disciples about the resurrection (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.)

Matthew 28: 6 And they departed quickly from the sepulchre with fear and great joy; and did run to bring his disciples word.

Mark 16: 10-11 Now when Jesus was risen early the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene….. And she went and told them that had been with him, as they mourned and wept

Luke 24:10 And returned from the sepulchre, and told all these things unto the eleven, and to all the rest. It was Mary Magdalene and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and other women that were with them, which told these things unto the apostles. And their words seemed to them as idle tales, and they believed them not.

John: 20: 4 Then she runneth, and cometh to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, and saith unto them, "They have taken away the Lord out of the sepulchre, and we know not where they have laid him."

John 20:18 Mary Magdalene came and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord, and that he had spoken these things unto her.

7: She is the first person to see the resurrected Jesus.(Matthew, Mark, John.)

Mark 16: 9 Now when Jesus was risen early the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene….

Matthew 28:9 And as they went to tell his disciples, behold, Jesus met them, saying, "All hail." And they came and held him by the feet, and worshipped him.

John 20:10 Then the disciples went away again unto their own home. But Mary stood without at the sepulchre weeping: and as she wept, she stooped down, and looked into the sepulchre, and seeth two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain. And they say unto her, "Woman, why weepest thou?" She saith unto them, "Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him." And when she had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus. Jesus saith unto her, "Woman, why weepest thou? Whom seekest thou?" She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, "Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus saith unto her, "Mary." She turned herself, and saith unto him, "Rabboni"; which is to say, "Master". Jesus saith unto her, "Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God."


Matthew and Mark records a story about an anonymous woman who poured precious ointment on Jesus head. Luke reports a substantially different story about an anonymous sinful woman who poured precious ointment on Jesus feet, “and did wipe them with the hairs of her head”.

Luke and John both say that Jesus was sometimes the guest of two sisters named Martha and Mary who lived in a village called Bethany. John says that Jesus raised their brother, Lazarus, from the dead; and that this Mary is the same one who anointed Jesus.

John also tells a story of how Jesus forgave an unidentified “woman taken in adultery”.

None of these women are said to be the same person as Mary Magadelene. Nor for that matter, are the frequently married Samaritan woman, the wise Syro-Phoenician, the woman who touched the hem of Jesus robe, or any other nameless female character in the New Testament.

Monday, May 22, 2006

No one is innocent

I found “See No Evil” -- ITV’s docu-drama based on the notorious Brady-Hindley murders -- very disturbing viewing. But possibly not for the reasons the filmmakers intended.

Before watching the film, I knew practically nothing about the case. Naturally, I was aware that Ian Brady and Myra Hindley had murdered several young children in the 1960s. I knew that Lord Longford believed that since Hindley had become a devout Catholic, she was a reformed character and should be considered for parole. I knew that the Sun thought that since she had peroxide hair, she was evil and should not be. But I didn’t really know who they had killed, under what circumstances, and why. This extremely gripping but curiously evasive three-hour drama didn’t leave me feeling much the wiser.

Dealing with this kind of material presents a writer with two problems. First, he has to stick to the facts. The film is proud of the fact that it has been made in close collaboration with the victims’ families, police officers and others closely associated with the case. The very first thing we are told is that “This is a true story”, and one gets the impression that no incident is put into the film which hasn’t been checked against two sources. In itself, this is a Good Thing: it would be quite unacceptable to take a real-life Orrible Murder and use it simply as a jumping off point for a work of fiction. But it creates an obvious difficulty. Hindley and Brady never made full confessions so their states of minds at the time of the murders is a matter of conjecture. Even the precise details of their crimes aren’t fully known or knowable. This leaves a gaping hole in the middle of any fact-based drama. Secondly the film wants to avoid being sensationalist, exploitative or ghoulish. So it has to adopt a “tell, don’t show” approach. We hear what the police say that Myra did; we hear what little she admitted to; but we actually see very little of it. A lot of the time, this approach makes perfectly good dramatic and documentary sense. The scene in which the police officers search the moor and dig up a child’s shoe is far more distressing than any Brady themed slasher-flick could have been. But sometimes it leads the filmmakers into unintentional surrealism. The evidence which damned Hindley and Brady was, of course, the discovery of a tape recording of a little girl being tortured. There is, thank goodness, no attempt to recreate this tape for the edification of TV audiences. Instead, as the horrified police play the recording on their old-fashioned reel-to-reel tape recorder, the TV audience listens to a child's voice singing "The Little Drummer Boy".

The solution to this structural conundrum -- a true crime movie which can't represent the actual crime -- is to take Maureen Hindley and her husband David Smith as viewpoint characters. For almost the whole of episode 1, nothing happens. Maureen and Dave spend time with sister Myra and her weird boyfriend Ian, and the film allows Dramatic Irony to create its own chilling effects. The audience knows what Myra is doing, even though the police and her family do not. Myra comforts Maureen over the death of her first baby: but we know that she is simultaneously plotting to murder other children. Myra let's slip that she knows what a dead body looks like, and quickly claims that she is talking about childhood friend who drowned. We know the real reason. Myra mentions in passing that her car is convenient for carrying bulky luggage... None of this is made explicit in the screenplay: we don’t “know” that Myra and Ian are murderers until the very end of episode 1. I wonder what a Martian, or come to that an American, who has never heard of the Moors murders would make of the film?

Meanwhile, some old-fashioned no-nonsense police officers - the type whose idea of detective work is to yell “You killed him, didn’t you!” at suspects - are investigating a string of missing children, only gradually spotting that the cases are connected. Inevitably, one of the coppers is Obsessed with the case of Keith Bennet, and has Started to Take it Personally. We even see him sitting in his office staring at the “Have you seen this child?” poster at one point. Even if this is what happened in real life, it's still a dreadful cliché.

So what we have is basically a high quality episode of Columbo. Not a "who dunnit" or a "why dunnit", more a “when and how will the police realise that that they dunnit.”

In the last ten minutes of episode 1, Dave goes to the Hindley/Brady residence and witnesses them committing a murder. We do get a glimpse of this killing, but only momentarily, and in flashback. The bloodstained Dave tells Maureen that "Brady has killed a man" -- and then we flash for a few brief seconds to a shot, lit heavily in red, of Brady frenziedly attacking Edward Evans with an axe while Hindley watches impassively. Nothing that comes beforehand in the story really prepares us for this scene and nothing which comes afterwards explains it. It’s presented as out-of-context, free-floating self-existent terror. As a Stephen King moment, it's quite brilliantly done: two demonic figures presiding over a literally hellish scene. The juxta-positioning of the banal and the horrible; the jump from the world of cop-show and soap opera into the world of gothic; the jump from "perfectly normal Myra" and "pretentious bragger Ian" to "Satanic child killers" certainly had the desired effect. My immediate reaction was "Is that what they did? I can see why people call them Evil."

And there’s the problem. Actress Maxine Peake offers us three separate characterisations of Myra Hindley. She spends the first episode playing her as an aggressively normal northern lass. We entirely understand and believe that Maureen never suspected anything bad about her sister. She spends most of episode two as a film noire villain -- sneering at the court, refusing to admit to her part in the killings -- very much the callous play-acting monster that we’ve come to know and love through 40 years of “evil-Myra” news-stories. And then, in a coda, we see a no-longer-peroxide Myra telling her sister that she has found God in prison and is truly sorry for what she did. The big question, narratively and philosophically is what connects these three women. Can someone be both normal and murderous? Can someone go from murderous to remorseful? Why did Myra become a murderess but Maureen turn out all right? No attempt is made to suggest, or even hint at an answer. Significantly, the explanation which Myra herself is shown offering is pathetically inadequate -- she thinks that she is “damaged” because her father beat her.

Brady is even more of a problem. He seems to be some kind of Nietzschean super-man; believing that if he is strong enough to commit murder, he will make himself superior to the common heard. He hasn’t been on screen for five minutes before he is asking whether or not animals have souls, and suggesting that if souls don’t exist then the whole idea of god and morality is “shite”. He implies that Dave isn't a proper man because he's never killed anyone; lends him copies of the Marquis de Sade and forces him to play Russian roulette as an initiation rite. (Brady may have been “grooming” Dave Smith as a second accomplice, but when Dave witnesses the murder, he goes straight to the police. Dave is still alive and presumably helped with the making of film, which bends over backwards to show that he didn‘t do anything seriously wrong.) Of course, as an explanation, this doesn’t go very far beyond “He murdered people because he was the kind of person who murdered people.”

At least since “Silence of the Lambs”, we have had a rather ambivalent attitude to mass murderers: they are to be feared and locked away, certainly, but we also find them rather attractive because of the energy they draw from their “evil”. I don’t know whether the real Brady expressed these kinds of views, or if he is slipping into the role of T.V serial killer, in the same way that Detective Mounsey slips into the role of TV cop. But this characterisation makes him a dangerously romantic, even heroic, figure. More than once, I caught myself thinking “This guy seems rather interesting; and of course, he is still alive: I'd sure like to read an interview with him" This was not, I imagine, what the writers had in mind.

So: the film proposes no reasons for the Moors murders. And popular wisdom has always said that there are no reasons. Hindley in particular is in a unique metaphysical category called Evil and nothing further can be said. To try to explain what happened -- in terms of damage to her personality, madness, addiction, manipulation by someone else, childhood abuse, even literal demonic possession -- is to make excuses for her and therefore lessen the evil of what she did. And to do that devalues the suffering of the people she murdered and their families -- who are, of course, at the absolute pinnacle of the modern cult of victim-worship. The film, due to its very structure, draws us into this tabloid worldview. While I was watching it, I felt myself starting to think like a Daily Express reader. I found that very disturbing indeed.

The film trips over its own feet trying to deal with the question of Myra’s eventual reform. Maureen believes that Myra is truly remorseful; but Dave rants that she is even more evil than Brady on the philosophically intriguing grounds that he is “just” a sex monster, but she is “still human”. (I fear that this means "You expect this kind of thing from a man, but when a woman does it, it's really bad.”) Despite the fact that the trial judge had (more or less) sentenced Brady to life without parole but Hindley to between twenty five years and life in prison, successive home secretaries refused to consider her for parole. David (spit) Blunkett said in so many words that she couldn’t be let out because ordinary people didn’t think she had reformed: that is, her sentence was decided by her image in the tabloids, an image which films like this tend to perpetuate. There is actually a more interesting movie to be made about what happened to Myra Hindley while she was behind bars: Lord Longford’s diaries, her own prison writings, and forty years of journalistic gossip, would surely provide a lot of documentary material for this. But it would have to explore the forbidden territory of "explanation".

Even at its best, TV is the most clichéd of media. Just as there is an etiquette for reporting a royal death or an election, so there is an established vocabulary out of which dramas about "real life tragedies" have to be constructed. From the first, inevitable establishing shots of the wind-swept moors we knew -- we just knew -- that the film would end with a caption saying "Keith Bennet's body was never found“. But, as the credits rolled in silence over images of the five real life murder victims, there was one significant break with established practice. The continuity announcer was somehow persuaded to keep his mouth shut.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Doctor Who - Season 2: Episodes 1 - 3

I think that I have worked out what’s wrong with Russell Davies' new 'Doctor Who'. It’s roughly the same thing that was wrong with Tony Blair’s new Labour.

Yes, I know I am being an ungrateful little asexual fanboy. I spent 14 years wanting 'Doctor Who' to return: surely now that it’s back on Saturday nights, it’s my duty to like it uncritically. And no, I’m not denying that a lot of the time the new series is very, very good. Each of the first three episodes of Season 2 has had a number of Great Moments. 'New Earth' had the scenes between the Doctor and the head-in-the-tank. It had the unexpected pay-off scene in which Cassandra dies in her own arms: a genuine coup to turn her from a comic villain to tragic heroine in the space of one episode. (But note: the 'time goes round in a circle' motif has already been used in both 'Father’s Day' and 'Parting of the Ways.' You might want to watch that, Russell.) 'Tooth and Claw' had some neat in-jokes ('Dr. James McCrimmon from the township of Balamory,' indeed.) It had some classic gothic atmosphere; and a really great scene between Rose and the werewolf in the dungeon. It had Queen Victoria. And as for 'School Reunion' -- well none of us asexual fanboys were ever going to be anything other than deliriously happy with a story that had both K-9 and Sarah Jane in it, along with more references to old stories than you can shake a sonic screwdriver at. The pre-cred sequence, in which the Doctor walks into a classroom and starts to teach a physics lesson made me laugh out loud.

So what’s the problem?

Before Russell Davies embarked on his Project, 'Doctor Who' had spent 14 years in the wilderness. Of course it had to be re-branded before it could get back on air: no one wanted or expected the new series to be a pastiche of the old. To be a viable TV programme, as opposed to a fossil, it had to look outside its natural constituency (the asexual community) and appeal to the mainstream. It had to become the sort of programme that your mother could watch. Naturally, certain sacred cows -- the TARDIS consol, the 25-minute format, cliff-hanger endings -- had to be slaughtered. We didn’t care. We had our baby back.

However, it has gradually become apparent that the main purpose of Season 1 was to get renewed for Season 2, and the main purpose of Season 2 is to get renewed for Season 4. (Season 3 is in the bag.) To achieve this, R.T.D needs there to be impressive gobbets that can be put into the trailers. He needs unexpected scenes which the tabloids can run spoilers for, as if 'This is the moment when the Doctor kisses Rose' was an important news item. He needs Comic Relief sketches, Christmas specials and Radio Times covers -- so that the series is in people’s minds even when it is off-air. He needs all the papers to run exclusive photo galleries of all this season's 'new monsters'. He needs people to be talking about the return of Sarah and K-9 six months before it actually happens. He needs people to know that the 'The Cybermen are coming back' even if they don't know what a Cyberman is; in much the same way that even of us who don't know anything about cricket can hardly avoid knowing that someone called Wayne Rooney has twisted his ankle. What he doesn’t necessarily need is coherent stories which actually make sense.

Davies conceives of episodes as simple, easily marketable high-concepts. His original pitch for Season 1 included a broad outline of what each story would be about -- first, one set in the far future involving the end of the world, then a ghost story featuring Charles Dickens, then, a big present-day alien invasion (1). It's been a standing joke for years that while asexual 'Doctor Who' fans refer to stories by their titles ('The Green Death', 'The City of Death'), everyone else uses a kind of shorthand -- 'the One with the maggots', 'the One in Paris.' Davies seems to conceive of stories as 'the one with Queen Victoria and a Werewolf' and not feel the need to elaborate the idea much further.

Davies puts it like this:

'Last year we did Charles Dickens and ghosts; this year we're doing Queen Victoria and a werewolf...There's a certain comfort zone in watching 'Doctor Who' and thinking 'Oh, they're doing this sort of an episode. It's what I call a celebrity historical. Shove a real famous person in there - one you will recognise at the drop of a hat. There's no point in doing Louis Pasteur, because what did he look like? With Queen Victoria or Charles Dickens you just recognise them immediately. It's almost like the Horrible History take on historical travel.'

I want to die.

By his own admission, he wants to treat 'Doctor Who' as a character piece in the mould of 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer.' There is nothing particularly wrong with this: 'Doctor Who' has always swiped omnivorously from the TV hits of the day. In an episode of 'Buffy' the theoretical plot -- some new kind of vampire threatens the town -- is rarely more than the background against which the real storyline, about the relationships between the main characters and their supporting cast -- can emerge. In principal this transfers well enough to 'Doctor Who'. In 'New Earth', the science-fiction plot about cloned zombies in the hospital basement (which makes absolutely no sense whatsoever) is little more than a device to set up the comedy-romantic situation in which Cassandra steals Rose’s body, which also doesn’t make much sense, but is rather entertaining. The Doctor waves his magical deus ex machina at the zombies and they go away in about 30 seconds. We know quite well that he’s just going through the motions: our attention is meant to be directed at Cassandra, and her realisation that she can‘t prolong her own life at the cost of someone else‘s.

The trouble is that the writers are still under the impression that they are writing 'Doctor Who' stories. They come up with milieu that contain enough material for an old 100 or 150 minute story, and then try to cram the whole thing into 45. Very strong ideas -- anthropomorphic animals vivisecting humans; a Victorian werewolf who wants to found a steam-powered Galactic empire; the Doctor being offered the One Ring and being tempted to take it -- are introduced and thrown away in the space of half a scene.

(Interestingly, the BBC continues to market the programme as a 'spooky' and 'scary' monster show, and to promote it to kids, complete with 'Totally Doctor Who' in the 'Blue Peter' slot, and a comic that includes a free slitheen whoopee cushion with every copy. One wonders how long it will be before some latter day Michael Grade says 'Enough with the soap opera: give the kids more time with the monsters!')

Look at 'School Reunion': not so much a story, more an idea for a story. It’s the three-way relationship between Sarah Jane, Rose and the Doctor that we are supposed to be interested in, and this is handled fairly well. We are asked to picture the Doctor as a tragic, Peter Pan figure with an endless succession of Wendys -- a strikingly new conception of the character, but one that is implicit in everything that has gone before. 'You can stay with me for the rest of your life, Rose, but I can’t stay with you for the rest of mine' is a fine, genre re-defining line. The episode’s central question -- what does a 'companion' do when she stops travelling with the Doctor? -- is one which has never been asked before outside of asexual fan-fiction. However Davies and writer Toby Whithouse do not allow themselves sufficient space to elaborate this idea. Rose realises that she isn’t the Doctor’s first companion; Sarah is pleased to see the Doctor, then angry that he left her behind, then accepts that her time travelling days are over. Rose and Sarah are jealous of each other but become best friends. Even Mickey has an epiphany. That’s more like a novel than a single incident in a soap opera: certainly far to much character development to be squeezed into 45 minutes. One feels that Davies has had the idea of the Rose/Sarah relationship, but can’t quite be bothered to turn it into a story: it is raised and disposed of within a single scene. (2)

We have managed to survive for 43 years without thinking that the Doctor was more or less romantically involved with all of his previous companions, so I don’t really see why Davies feels compelled to re-write history. Yes, there were occasional moments of sexual tension in original TARDIS -- notably the curiously Oedipal relationship between Doctor Jon and Jo Grant. (Jo goes off and marries a scientist who is explicitly said to be like a younger version of the Doctor. The Doctor won’t go to the engagement party, but drives off in a sulk.) And of course Doctor Tom and Romana could easily have been read as an old married couple -- was that trip to Paris a honeymoon, or a dirty weekend? But in general, the relationship between the Doctor and his companion has been avuncular, fraternal or paternal. Doctor Bill once threatened to give Susan a jolly good smacked bottom, which is not something one can imagine Doctor Chris doing to Rose -- although, god knows, I’ve tried. Doctor Jon was Sarah’s eccentric old uncle, even her grandpa. Doctor Tom was younger, but he was too alien, too Other to be the sort of person you could think of taking on a date. Sarah and the Doctor were close, certainly, but there was never anything remotely flirtatious about their relationship.

The background story about the alien infested school, is completely unrelated to the Sarah Jane plot: it’s just a device to bring the Doctor and Rose, Mickey and Sarah together, and to keep them on the move. Any other threat-to-earth would have done as well. It‘s a pretty good idea, or it would be, if Davies would slow down long enough for us to have a look at it. 'There is a school where the teachers are child-eating shape-shifting aliens. The school dinners are made of Magic Alien Goo that keeps the kids pupils docile. While the kids are eating the poisoned school dinners, the teachers are eating the kids!' For an idea like this to feel spooky or scary, it needs to emerge gradually, and we need time to get to know the subsidiary characters. (In an old-style four part story, the fat school-boy who isn’t allowed any chips would have been the viewpoint character in episode 1: we would have followed him through his school day and been presented with a series of mysteries. The revelation that the Headmaster eats children would have been the cliffhanger ending to part 1.) The writer solves the problem of not having enough space to tell even this simple story properly by adding a second story and not telling that properly either. The Evil Child Eating Alien Bat Creatures aren’t merely feeding on the kids; they are using them as living components in a super-computer that will enable them to take over the universe. (The Evil Child Eating Alien Bat Creatures would have made total sense without the addition of the Demon Headmaster; the Demon Headmaster could have been using the kids in his Magic Computer Plot Device even if there hadn’t been any Evil Child Eating Alien Bat Creatures. It really does look as if two scripts had been spliced together; and the rumour that the Headmaster was originally going to turn out to be the Master seems horribly plausible.) A third underdeveloped plot thread in which the evil Headmaster tries to make a Faustian pact with the Doctor has to be dropped into the mix as well. So while lots of cool stuff happens on the screen -- people run around, things explode, villains talk apocalyptically about the end of the universe and we cut back to short intense character based interludes -- there’s no attempt to make it hang together as a story. One key piece of information is barked out so quickly by David Tennant that I had to rewind twice to work out what was supposed to be going on (3).

It’s a safe bet that RTD and his target audience don’t care. People will turn on 'Doctor Who' because Davies has successfully created a piece of Event Television. Many of them will watch it with their brain disengaged. Provided they are not actually bored they will turn on again next week -- more so, if next week’s episode is an Event as well. If they turn on it will get high ratings; if it gets high ratings, it will be back for a fourth, and a fifth season. Plot explanations, fleshed out minor characters; elaboration and exposition of ideas might risk seeming boring. Action and set pieces won't. And provided there is a programme called 'Doctor Who' on TV on Saturday nights, we asexual fans have nothing to complain about. Davies 'Doctor Who' exists primarily in order to be an advertisement for itself.

(1) Other writers are commissioned to write some of these stories, presumably in close collaboration with R.T.D. Compare this with the Olden Days, where story concepts and scripts were pitched to the producer by freelance writers, and then beaten into shape by a script editor. This meant that the old series had an 'anthology' feel: you couldn’t mistake a Robert Holmes script for a Terry Nation script. The new series is more homogenized -- whoever is actually writing it, you feel you are watching a Russell Davies script.

(2)One is reminded of 'Boom Town', the low-point of Series 1. Davies starts out with the (excellent) idea of the Doctor having to decide what to do with a defeated enemy; he turns this into the (excellent) idea of the Doctor and the Slitheen eating a meal together. The brief restaurant scene contains some (excellent) dialogue between the two characters. But it is embedded in a story that almost ostentatiously fails to make sense (nuclear power station in the middle of Cardiff, blowing up the earth in order to power a skateboard?) and is resolved by a more-than-usually silly deus ex machina. 'That was a good story' we are left thinking, 'I certainly hope they write it someday.'

(3) The shape shifting alien bats have shape shifted so many times that they are now allergic to their own Luminous Magic Alien Goo. Since you have to eat Luminous Magic Alien Goo in order to make a Take-Over-The-Universe-Super-Computer, they are feeding the Goo to human children who are not allergic to it. K-9 can defeat the aliens by blowing up barrels of Luminous Magic Alien Goo and splattering them with it.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

My computer exploded. Library only gives me 30 minutes unless I book in advance. "Doctor Who" is quite good. That is all.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Complete text of sensational new "gospel" that will radically re-define our understanding of Christianity

Jesus: Peter will deny me in just a few hours,
Three times will deny me -- and that's not all I see:
One of you here dining, one of my twelve chosen
Will leave to betray me!

Judas: Cut out the dramatics! You know very well who.

Jesus: Why don't you go do it?

Judas: You want me to do it!

Jesus: Hurry they're waiting.

Judas: If you knew why I do it...

Jesus: I don't care why you do it.

Judas: To think I admired you! For now I despise you.

Jesus: You liar -- you Judas!

Judas: You want me to do it. What if I just stayed here and ruined your amibtion? Christ you deserve it.

Jesus: Hurry you fool, hurry and go. Save me your speeches, I don't want to know.

from the apocryphal gospel of Andrew and Timothy, Act 1, Chapter 13

Saturday, April 01, 2006

"Enter Into Thy Closet"

A neglected aspect of the life and works of C.S Lewis

In 1917 C.S Lewis wrote in a letter to his friend Arthur Greeves:

"Cher ami, j'ai a confession to make. I have told thee a lie. A certain operation is NOT called going North at Malvern. I invented this phraze so that you & I might have some convenient & safe way of referring to that thing. It wd. be unpleasant to have to use the ugly expressions which slang has evolved and this one has the advantage of being quite meaningless to an outsider."

What on earth does he mean? Manners change, but surely a man of 19 doesn't need to invent a brand new euphemism for "toilet" to use in the company of his oldest and most intimate friend -- even when they are in danger of being overheard by strangers. Yet it's hard to know what other subject they could have needed to refer to conveniently and privately while out for a walk. (If they had found themselves discussing masturbation, as one does, they could presumably have called it "THAT", as they did in their letters to each other.)

A decade later, Lewis is telling his brother Warnie a funny story about how an eccentric old lady persuaded him to stay up all night in order to prevent another neighbour, Mrs Studer, from committing suicide. How standing in a street outside her house all night was supposed to help is never explained. Lewis tells his brother:

"My next step was to provide for calls of nature (no unimportant matter in an all night tete-a-tete with a fool of an elderly woman who has had nothing to do with men since her husband had the the good fortune to die several years ago) by observing that the striking of a match in that stillness would easily be heard in the Studer's house and that I wd tiptoe to the other end of the road to light my pipe. Having thus established my right to disappear into the darkness as often as I chose..."

What exactly is going on in Lewis's head? Was it really so unthinkable for him to say "I need to be excused?" in front of an old lady? And what has the fact that she's not been around men since her husband died got to do with anything? Does he think that old ladies don't go to the toilet? Or that they don't know that men go? Or is he assuming that there is a general rule (which Warnie knows but his neighbour doesn't) that men need to go more often than women?

Much later, during Joy Gresham's first visit to Oxford, Warnie offers his own take on the lavatorial theme:

"(She is) quite extraordinarily uninhibited. Our first meeting was lunch at Magdelen, where she turned to me in the presence of three or four men, and asked in the the most natural tone in the world "Is there anywhere in this monastic establishment where a lady can relieve herself?"

Why was this incident worth recording in a diary? Women visitors were sometimes entertained at Magadelen so it could hardly have been unheard of for one of them to want to go to the toilet. I imagine that Elizabeth Anscombe might have paid a quick visit to the Ladies before her famous debate with Lewis at the Socratic Club -- although since she wore trousers long before it was fashionable for women to do so, I suppose it is just possible that she used the Gents. But there must have been a socially acceptable way of asking where it was.

Is it possible that what we are dealing with here is simply a case of transatlantic miscommunication? Walter Hooper reports that, after sharing several strong cups of tea with Lewis at their first meeting at the Kilns in 1963, the young student from Kentucky asked the great English don if he could use "the bathroom". Lewis obediently showed him the bathroom, and even provided him with soap and towels -- but left Hooper none-the-wiser about the whereabouts of the toilet. Hooper wasn't to know that in most English houses at that time, the toilet and the bath were still in different rooms: so to English ears referring to "the toilet" as "the bathroom" sounded completely absurd, if not actually incomprehensible. (Presumably, an American, who expected all the plumbing to be behind a single door, would have been equally bemused by an Englishman asking for directions to "the smallest room.") (1)

A.N Wilson says -- typically without attribution -- that Warnie, being a gentleman, has "considerably toned down" what Joy said after lunch in Magdelen. One wonders whether Joy had already made several requests using some polite American expression which the Englishmen had entirely failed to understand, and had resorted to the unambiguous "Where can I take a piss?" our of sheer desperation.

But I think that what has really surprised Warnie is not that Joy used a plain word rather than a euphemism, but that she mentioned the subject in the company of males. The rule appears to be that men can under no circumstances refer to toilets in front of ladies, and that ladies should not do so in front of men. Of course, Joy had a reputation for plain speaking in other respects, a habit which Lewis found attractive but which embarrassed some of his male cronies. Wilson implies that she was quite foul-mouthed, but the quoted examples are relatively mild ("Who the hell are you?" "Damn it, Jack!") Perhaps the problem was not that she used foul language, but that she didn't understand the rule that men and women didn't say "damn" in front of each other. Or perhaps she was signaling that she wanted to be treated as one of the boys.

In a letter written when her cancer was in remission, Joy told a friend how much improved she was and mentioned in passing that she could now "use the john like the big folks" – which is exactly the sort of harmless, non descript semi-euphemism that normal adults use all the time. Unfortunately for scholarship, Walter Hooper doesn't tell us which word Lewis would have preferred him to use instead of "bathroom". Talking about his prep school in "Surprised by Joy" Lewis refers to "the sanitation"; and in a conversation with Charles Wrong in 1959 he allegedly referred to the "lavatories" at Malvern (also, incidentally, using the schoolboy slang "bumf" (bum-fodder) for "toilet paper".) But my guess would be that left to himself, Lewis would have referred to the "water closet" or the "W.C"

I say this because, in a letter to his brother when their father was seriously ill, Lewis makes the following remark:

"It was very alarming the night he was a little delirious. But (I cannot refrain from telling you) do you know the form it took? The watercloset element in his conversation rose from its usual 30% to something like 100%."

"Watercloset element"? I assume that Lewis must mean that his father "used a lot of scatological language" – not an aspect of his father's character that he mentions in "Surprised by Joy". (The only other interpretations that I can think of are "he was a hypochondriac about his bowels and bladder" and "he was worried about the plumbing in the house" which don't seem consistent with a man suffering from delirium. It's just possible that "watercloset element" means simply "bad language"- as someone might say "potty-mouth" – but this would, even for Lewis, be a curious circumlocution for "Dad swears a lot".) Lewis says that his father's bad habit of melodramatic emotionalism contributed to his own repression by making him fear emotions in general. If his father perpetually embarrassed him with inappropriate toilet-humour this could also have contributed to his extreme reticence about this subject. (2)

Lewis seems to have enjoyed a very close relationship with his bladder. His friend and biographer George Sayer mentions that even as a young man "Jack was in the habit of passing water far more often than most men." He apparently kept a chamber pot in the room adjacent to his study, and (to his students' surprise) would nip out and use it during a tutorial (while continuing to talk about courtly love in Spencer.) In "The Four Loves" he draws a rather donnish distinction between "need pleasures" and "appreciation pleasures". Listening to music doesn't cure our need to listen to music; smelling a rose doesn't stop us from enjoying the smell of roses: these are therefore appreciation pleasures. On the other hand:

"The scullery tap and the tumbler are very attractive indeed when we coming in parched from mowing the grass; six seconds later they are emptied of all interest. The smell of frying food is very different before and after breakfast. And, if you will forgive me for citing the most extreme instance of all, have there not for most of us been moments (in a strange town) when the site of the word GENTLEMEN over a door has roused a joy almost worthy of celebration in verse.", actually. Speaking for myself, there have not been. And if we are specifically talking about the word "GENTLEMEN" there have presumably not been for around 50% of his audience. Is he again slipping into the assumption that going to the toilet is something mainly done by men? But a very weak bladder would obviously have made tracking down public lavatories especially important for him. Again, does he assume that it is a general rule that all men, and no women, have this particular problem?

Some people might think that it is odd to refer quite gratuitously, and in the context of a series of lectures intended for American religious radio (3) to a subject which caused you so much embarrassment; to make such a song and dance about doing so ("you will have to forgive me") but to still be unable to say the actual word. But Lewis does this kind of thing all the time. He introduces a passage about sexual equality with "This calls for plain speaking.." and proceeds to speak so un-plainly as to leave most of us with no idea why too much equality will prevent women from enjoying intercourse. In his autobiography, he comes to an event in his life which he isn't at liberty to talk about, and spends several lines talking about the fact that he can't talk about it. In the essay "Prudery and Philology" he wonders why it is so much more acceptable for an artist to draw a picture of a a naked figure than for a writer to describe one. He decides that the problem is with the English language. Try to write a description of a naked person:

"When you come to describe those parts of the body which are not usually mentioned, you will find that you will have to make a choice of vocabulary: a nursery word, an archaism, a word from the gutter, or a scientific word. You will not find any ordinary neutral word comparable to "hand" or "nose."

As a generalization, this is simply false. There are a number of taboo areas of the human body; and a number of strongly taboo words which describe them. It was, after all, a vernacular reference to Lady Chatterley's buttocks which Mervyn Griffith-Jones didn't want his wife or his servant to read.(4) But if you want to write a description of a nude, you are quite free to use the neutral word "bottom" if you would rather not say "arse" or "gluteus maximus"; "breast" is a perfectly neutral alternative to "tit" or "booby". Lewis's rule actually only applies to one part of the body: "parts of the body which are not usually mentioned" is itself a euphemism for "genitals". But of course, he can't say this: even in an essay about what can and can't be talked about, he can't bring himself to talk about the thing which he's talking about not talking about. Surely, in 1955, the readers of "The Spectator" would not have been scandalized if he had simply said "There is no neutral English word for penis."

Lewis appears to be slightly less reticent about referring to his bowels that to his bladder. In describing a typical day to his brother he feels the need to mention that he "goes to the stool" at around 8.40 in the morning; later, during a very busy week, he asks jocularly whether saying ones prayers could be combined with moving one's bowels. And bottoms apparently do not fall into the category of "those parts of the body which are not usually mentioned". He is quite happy to quote the old joke about the girls-school production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" ("I particularly enjoyed the opportunity to see a female Bottom.") The extremely rude poem that he quotes with approval to Warnie is more anal than sexual ("I grabbed him by the hair of his head/And shoved it into a bucket of water/And I screwed his pistols up his arse/A damn sight harder than I screwed his daughter".) (5) And of course when he and Warnie were still toddlers, their nursemaid threatened to smack their "little piggy bottoms". This remark was so astonishingly funny that 60 years later, they were still referring to each other as "Big Piggybottom" and "Small Piggybottom". (6)

This could come from an old fashioned Victorian attitude to "regularity". Properly maintained Church of England bowels can be relied on to perform at roughly the same time every day: they are therefore simply a mundane fact of life, a chore. The bladder on the other hand makes more frequent and unpredictable demands on you: it is therefore embarrassing and even shameful. One also wonders whether Lewis regarded his weak bladder as self-inflicted. Hooper describes him drinking tea by the pint, and Tolkien reported that he regarded three pints of beer at lunchtime as "going short". So is it possible that Lewis regarded his frequent trips to the toilet as in some respects a sin; the result of too much self-indulgence; something to be ashamed of?

Since we have raised the subject of penises and bottoms, we probably at least ought to mention buggery. There were, of course, a lot of gay relationships between teenagers and younger boys at Lewis's second boarding school. Lewis insists that "the vice in question" was one of only two which he has never been tempted by. But he adds that he find it "opaque to the imagination". I have always thought that this was an odd turn of phrase. Maybe he doesn't mean anything more than "I really can't think why anyone would want to do that." But is it possible that he means it literally: "I've been told what they got up to; but when I try to form a mental picture of it, I simply can't."

So: we have a man with a very weak bladder, possibly the result of an undiagnosed medical condition. He has to be perpetually thinking about his next trip to the toilet; coming up with silly stories to excuse himself, inventing spurious euphemisms; looking out for public toilets in strange towns and even placing a chamber pot in the room next to his study. He thinks that this is a male phenomenon, one that all men but no women would understand. He also thinks that it is self-inflicted, even sinful, because of the amount of tea and beer which he drinks. But this sense of being controlled by unpredictable "calls of nature" fits in rather closely – and may actually inform – his dualistic theology, in which "the body" is sometimes an enemy one has to defeat and sometimes a beast one has to tame. His father, who he had a complicated relationship with, used to talk all the time about lavatories, which makes him almost afraid of any reference to them. And he is more than usually repressed about sexuality: he has spent years trying to resist the temptation to masturbate because of the violent fantasies which were associated with it; he finds the word "penis" unmentionable; and he finds it impossible to form a mental picture of a homosexual encounter between two men. So to say "Excuse me, I am just going upstairs for a second," in front of a woman is something which he is pathologically unable to do: because it would involve admitting the existence of his penis. Freud talks about the stages which infants go through before they understand the anatomical difference between men and women; and suggests that at an unconscious level, some people continue to "believe" in their infantile constructions (so a man may have a subconscious belief that women have penises; and that the ones he actually sees naked have been castrated for some reason.) Is there something childish in Lewis's unconscious which says "Urinating is a specifically male concept, since it is done with one's penis: women, not having penises, do not urinate." Some psychologists tell us that sex arouses feelings of shame is because of the proximity of the organs of procreation to the organs of excretion: we can't help feeling that sex is dirty. One wonders whether Lewis, (like the man who disapproved of sex because it might lead to dancing) was exceptionally disgusted by toilets because they forced him to admit the existence of sex.

In 1961, at the age of 63 C.S Lewis was diagnosed as having an enlarged prostate gland. He was initially fitted with a catheter, but this seems to have caused his kidneys to become infected, which in turn led to a heart problem which made it impossible to operate on him. He died two years later of kidney failure.

(1) Studies in words: A "toilet" was originally a place for ladies to "make their toilet" i.e wash and apply make-up. ("And now, unveiled, the toilet stands displayed/ Each silver vase in mystic order laid.") And a "lavatory" was originally a place to "lavare" i.e to wash. So both words do in fact mean more or less the same as "bathroom". The O.E.D claims that "lavatory" was first noted as a euphemism in 1924 -- seven years after Lewis apparently told Arthur that he needed to "go north". But Lewis appears to use "lavatory" in the older sense: when his is living with Mrs Moore he mentions in his diary that the plumbing has gone down, and that he has to go to college to use the lavatory: which must surely mean "to take a bath" rather than "to go to the toilet."

(2) Incidentally, this reticence appears to have been shared by Lewis's uncles. Lewis quotes one of them as having said: "Now Dick, you'd better go and take off your collar and wash yourself and that sort of thing and have a bit of a shave" (my emphasis.)

(3) It will be remembered that the station he had been commissioned by were so coy that they objected to the fact that he had "several times brought sex into his discussion of eros."

(4) ."Tha'rt not one o' them button-arsed lasses as should be lads, are ter! Tha's got a real soft sloping bottom on thee..." etc etc etc

(5) It is interesting that he finds this funny; that he admires the "Miller's Tale"; but that he is exceptionally disgusted by the idea of gay sex.

(6) The fact that Walter Hooper has made sure that we know about Lewis's interest in spanking may put a slightly different slant on these nicknames.

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Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Double Dutch

I am not what you would call a purist. In the last two years, I have seen Siegmund pull Notung from between Sieglinde's legs; Siegfried on a skateboard wearing a cowboy hat; and a "Flying Dutchman" which seemed not to have an actual Dutchman in it. All of these productions earned at least a qualified "bravo!" from me. They made sense dramatically; they were theatrically interesting; and they explored ideas which are certainly present in the operas which they were responding to.

The Welsh National Opera's current staging of the "Flying Dutchman" is directed by someone called David Pountney. His programme notes explain that Space represents to the twenty-first century imagination very much what Sea did to that of the nineteenth: "the ultimate lonely, desolate place where someone might be condemned to wander aimlessly." Well, yes, which is why sci-fi appropriates sea-stories so shamelessly. There are probably half-a-dozen updatings of the "Dutchman" story in "Star Trek" alone. It's not hard to imagine a science-fictionalized staging of the opera. The helmsman falling asleep on an empty bridge as an ancient black starship appears on the viewscreen; the cursed Captain emerging from cryogenic storage and beaming aboard; holograms of his long-dead crew terrifying the living during their shore-leave; the final moment where Senta hurls herself out of an air-lock and the black ship dissolves into an Industrial Light and Magic explosion (followed by a brief hologram of the lovers against the stars.) Yes, Wagner's music is explicitly and un-subtly about the sea; but science fiction frequently appropriates nautical music, so there wouldn't be too much of a culture clash.

Instead, Mr Pountney offers us a Cube. A very nice Cube, certainly. Some critics thought it was an allusion to "2001: A Space Odyssey" which smacks of desperation. On to this Cube, all kinds of video-imagery is projected: it's that kind of production. The first thing we see may be the radar receiver on a submarine; although it could possibly have been a rotating sofa. (It's that kind of production.) We keep seeing film of what appear to be factories and industrial sites. The notes inform us that some of these are "the Soviet space training center in Kazakhastan" because "in its crumbling bureaucratic Soviet way it has something of the lonely, isolated world of the Flying Dutchman." Well, obviously.

Daland and the Steersman are discovered above the Cube, on metal scaffolding. In the Dress Circle, we had to crane our heads to actually see the singers, but we did have an excellent view of the Cube. (We had no chance of seeing the surtitles, though I doubt they would have helped very much.) The Steersman descends to stage level to sing his ballad. He is upstaged by the Cube. It turns out that the Cube is made of four separate panels. They are capable of sliding around the stage independently, and do so incessantly. Memo to producer: If you insist on using sliding panels; and if your stage machinery is apt to make scraping noises, then for goodness sake don't slide the panels during the quiet passage in the score. The Steersman falls asleep rather dramatically: if you didn't know, you'd have thought he was having a heart attack. (The programme notes claim "Solaris" as an influence. This would make sense if it was the kind of production where the Steersman is dreaming the whole thing. But nothing further seems to come of this.) As the music becomes sinister, we see huge, close up video images of someone's Eye. The sliding panels eventually part to reveal Bryn Terfel, initially in shadow. During the Dutchman's great monologue, we encounter Production Idea #2: a huge, black and white close up video of Bryn's face is projected on the Cube. (Not, however, live footage of him singing, because this would have been too "Brechtian.") The panels move around him while he sings.

When he was Wotan at Covent Garden, Bryn was required to share a stage with actual pyrotechnics. One wonders whether having to sing against Silly Production Ideas had anything to do with his decision to take a break from opera and spend more time with his recording contract?

Interestingly, Daland, the Steersman and the Dutchman have come dressed for a perfectly sane performance in generic gray trench coats and indistinct semi-period sailor's gear. Daland and the Dutchman act out their meeting in a perfectly naturalistic manner, as if no-one had told them about the production going on around them. The video imagery on the panels remains at crossed-purposes to the action. When the Dutchman explains to Daland that his ship is loaded with treasure we are given videos of a room full of telephones. Have we perhaps wandered into "A Night at the Opera" by mistake?

The Spinning Song is performed by a group of women who are, I guess, meant to be Soviet factory workers, with Mary as a matriarchal overseer. They are doing some sort of work on big, luminous tubes which dangle from the ceiling; these could possibly have been fiber optic cables? If so, does this mean that the Dutchman and his telephones represent an obsolete form of telecommunications? Instead of mooning over a painting of the Dutchman, Senta is obsessively drawing a gigantic eye which Mary keeps erasing.

The duet between Senta and the Dutchman is the only point where the production achieved any kind of coherence. The singers walk between the moving panels as if through a maze; the panels at all times separating the two lovers from each other. The singer's faces are again projected on them. Senta stands on the stage by herself, singing to an image of the Dutchman; then the Dutchman sings to an image of Senta. As the duet proceeds, they get closer together: at one point, they are on either side of panel, touching each other through it. Only at the end of the duet do they come face to face, and Daland binds their hands together. This makes an obvious, sub-Freudian kind of sense: Senta has been obsessed by a painting of the Dutchman; and the Dutchman has spent centuries dreaming of a woman like Senta. They are both in love with an image of the other. I'm far from sure that the music says that they experience disillusionment or transfer their love from the erotic ideal to the real person, but it worked okay as a stage-idea.

The climactic choral section was completely doo-lally. In the text, Daland's sailors and their women jocularly invite the Dutchman's ghost-sailors to join their party; when the ghosts awake, they are terrified, and there follows a sort of musical battle in which the sailor's jolly tune tries to drown out the ghost's spooky one. Here, there is no differentiation between the ghosts and the sailors (both parts seem to be sung by one chorus). As the ghost's dark music starts, the sailors, er, gang-rape the women. One tries in vain to make sense of this: the Dutchman is a force which possesses mortals and drives them crazy? There's not much moral difference between Daland's sale of his daughter and an actual rape? I give up.

And so we end with Senta's redemptive suicide, which is represented on the stage by the panels sliding back together into a cube, and video images of an astronaut, followed by images of a desolate landscape, possibly the Challenger pictures of Mars, but equally possible a desert where a cosmonaut might land. Representing the lovers coming back to earth and being redeemed; or going off to Mars and being redeemed, or something.

Producers seems to only be capable of having two ideas about Wagner.

#1: "Despite the mythological setting, this is really a very human drama about ordinary people, who quarrel, fall in love, steal, screw their sisters and commit suicide just like we all do every day. I will therefore make the cast wear boiler-suits".

#2 "Despite the mythological setting, this is really a study of Freudian psychology in which the characters act out various unconscious and spiritual journeys. I will therefore make the cast perform in front of black curtain."

Pountney's production seems to involve both ideas. His programme notes tell us that "the horror is the least convincing aspect" and "the whole redemption theme is not an important part of the whole piece", which seems rather close to saying that he decided to omit the plot of the "Flying Dutchman". On the other hand (referring to the scene two duet) he explains "All we are describing here is the difference between the materialistic and the spiritual view of the world. You can find both of these in Kensington -- you don't need to go to sea."

There is no obligation on a producer to follow the composer's stage directions. There is not even any obligation on a producer to follow the composer's general intentions: in the theater, and in music theater, anything goes. The producer is, however, obliged to be intelligible to the audience -- preferably, intelligible to an audience whose only previous knowledge of the work is the programme synopsis -- and, above all, he is obliged to be interesting. This staging failed on all accounts: it had nothing to say about the opera; it was opaque; it was dull. One really felt that one was watching a brilliantly sung concert performance, with some rather uninteresting but irrelevant special effects as a distraction.

According to the programme, Pountney's previous production used a an open-air stage which floated on a lake. It was, apparently, socio-political. Erik lived on an island inhabited by ducks and Senta saw a grand piano coming up out of the water. "The one thing that it was impossible to do on a lake was have anything to do with boats."

I guess we got off lightly.


Monday, March 20, 2006

It's the 'Daily Express' Gone Mad, I Tell You

On March 7th and 8th, the 'Daily Express' dedicated two front pages, two leading articles, two inside pages and some space in the letter column to a Very Important Story. It seems that children in a nursery school in Oxfordshire have been made to sing 'Baa-Baa, rainbow Sheep' rather than 'Baa-baa, black sheep', because the traditional version of the rhyme might offend minority groups.

The March 7th front page managed to include the two most important 'P.C Brigade' cliches in a single headline.

Political correctness goes mad at the nursery: NOW IT'S BAA BAA RAINBOW SHEEP

As we've seen, 'Now' is an important 'Daily Express' code word, translating as "It's even worse than you thought". And of course the words 'Political Correctness' can only be used in conjunction with the words 'gone mad'.

The first paragraph tells us various people's opinions, without troubling us with anything as old fashioned as an actual news story.

A nursery school was last night accused of 'ridiculous' political correctness after removing the word 'black' from a nursery rhyme. Teachers at the government-backed school were ordered to change the lyrics of the classic Baa-Baa Black Sheep.

"Was accused of..." Well, the article does contain quotes from a local councilor and an un-named parent, both of whom use the word 'ridiculous', so I suppose that this is literally true. We don't have a factual news item followed by a comment: the fact that someone has made a comment is the news item.

"Last night...." The accusation happened at particular point, sometime on Monday March 6th. The story would be quite different if the accusation had happened in the afternoon. We are being asked to imagine someone rushing into the office late last night, shouting "Hold the front page! We've just heard that a mother in Oxford thinks that her kids kindergarten teacher has done something silly!"

"Were ordered to...." We never quite find out who or what did the ordering.

"Removed" -- An active act of censorship. Positive action taken against the offending monosyllable. Someone with a blue pen going through the Official Text of children's rhymes and 'removing' the B-word.

The core of the story is a quote from a 'mother' who 'did not want to be named for fear of jeopardizing her daughter's place (at the school)'.

" 'Baa baa black sheep' has been one of the most well-known nursery rhymes for generations. For people to come along and fiddle with it is ridiculous. What on earth is a a rainbow sheep anyway?"

Note that Mrs. Anonymous does not tell us anything about what has or hasn't been happening at the school, or how she heard about it. She merely says that she thinks that changing the rhyme is ridiculous. We then get an attributed quote from the 'manager' of the school.

"Basically, we have taken the equal opportunities approach to everything we do. This is fairly standard across nurseries. We are following stringent equal opportunities rules. Not one should feel point out because of their race, gender or anything else."

But wait a minute – Mr Chamberlain has also failed to refer to any actual incident; indeed, to make any reference to sheep, black or otherwise. He's just made some general comments about the school's race policy. And why does he twice use the phrase 'equal opportunities' rather than, say, 'racially inclusive language'. (Surely, 'equal opportunities' refers to which teachers you employ and what kids you admit, not what books and poems you use?) The 'Express' says that the school censored the rhyme in order to 'avoid offending children', but nothing in the quote from Mr. Chamberlain implies this.

There is no news story here. No-one has published a book of censored poems; no-one has issued a press release or a diktat, and (presumably) no 'Daily Excess' hack has been inside the school to report on what goes on. Maybe the toddlers have been singing about rainbow sheep, and maybe they haven't, but there is no hint in the paper about how we know, who reported it, how the story came to light. All we have is a couple of quotes in which people react to having been informed (by whom?) that the words of the poem have been changed.

We have to wait to Day 2 of the story for an actual piece of information to make itself heard.

The 'Daily Express' revealed yesterday how the Sure Start Center in Sutton Courtenay, Oxfordshire, had changed the words of the nursery rhyme. Center manager Stuart Chamberlain had said equal opportunities justified that extraordinary decision.... At the center itself yesterday the staff were still trying in vain to justify their actions. Felicity Dick the nursery's project coordinator, said; "What is ridiculous is that we were actually singing black sheep, white sheep and occasionally rainbow sheep. But afterwards we had a useful discussion about it all. We haven't often sung rainbow sheep as that is not their actual colour of course. And I will say that the children hear have made both black sheep and white sheep to put on the wall.'"

So: we now have an actual fact. At this school, the line 'Baa-baa Rainbow Sheep' has been sung, at least once, in addition to, but not instead of, the line 'baa-baa black sheep'.

But hang on. Isn't that what you do when you are playing with very small children -- make up silly words to well-known songs? Aren't the popular children's jingles precisely the ones where Mummy or Teacher can make up an infinite number of equally irritating verses? After the wheels on the bus have gone round and round a few dozen times, the wipers on the bus can go swish swish swish and the farmer can think up a large number of equally unlikely things to do in his den. If your toddlers have an appetite for yet another round of songs about sheep, then you can just imagine Miss Dick looking up from her piano and saying 'What colour sheep are they this time, children.... Baa-baa-blue-sheep'. The original story, that an un-named Big Brother figure has 'ordered' the school to 'ban' the word 'black' is in ruins.

Very fascinatingly, Day 2 contains a quote from two more parents without names:

One couple whose daughter attends the group felt the nursery's stance had been 'absolutely laughable'. The father said yesterday: 'I think most of us only heard about it today, but it's absolutely ridiculous. But after all the publicity an once we made our views known, I am pleased to say today that they are again singing black sheep.'

"After all the publicity": Mr and Mrs Anonymous have found out about what goes on at school, not from their child or from the teachers, but by reading about it in the 'Daily Express'. We are reading a parent's reaction to a news item which itself consisted of nothing but other people's reactions to a supposed event.

I don't think it is too hard to imagine the way in which these kinds of stories are created.

1: Some school children sing 'Baa baa rainbow sheep' because some teacher thinks it is funny at the time.

2: One child repeats this to his mother.

3: His mother telephone the 'Daily Express', using the 'Do you have a story' number prominently displayed every day on page two, and tells them that she thinks that it is 'ridiculous.'

4: The 'Express' phones round for quotes. The head of the nursery, knowing nothing about what songs Miss Dick may or may not have been singing yesterday, makes a general comment about the school's equal opportunities policy. They ask various people 'What do you think about nurseries singing about amazingly technicolour dream-sheep' and the politicians says 'We think it is rather silly'

5: They publish an article almost entirely made up of comments from people who say it is very silly.

6: Other parents with children about the school, who knew nothing about it read the comments, and also say that it is very silly.

7: The nursery issues a partial rebuttal, saying, yes, we did sing the song with variant words, but no, we didn't have any kind of policy against the use of the word 'black'

8: The 'Express' prints a front page headline implying that this rebuttal represents a change of policy ('Daily Express' halts the rainbow sheep PC nonsense' 'Ewe turn' 'The big climbdown').

A non-news story is follow by a non-event represented as a huge victory. There is no World War II bomber on the moon after all.

All of which would be very funny, were it not being used as a pretext to talk about race issues in general. The Oxfordshire local politician who thinks that rainbow sheep are ridiculous informs the readers of the worlds-greatest-newspaper-and-proud-of-it that "this kind of thing is happening all the time", and we seamlessly segue into a story about a toy-shop owner who was asked to remove three gollywogs from his window. When he got a phone call from a police officer "'I assumed there had been a break in. It's political correctness gone mad." (Twice in one article.)

Now, it would indeed be ridiculous to prohibit the word 'black sheep', which is why no-one has ever done so, but selling dolls which are grotesque caricatures of Negroes -- particularly when the word 'wog' is commonly used as a racial slur – is a much less clear cut issue. And then the co-founder of the sinister sounding 'Campaign Against Political Correctness' asserts that "There are missives coming down from Government bodies about equal opportunities, so schools get into trouble like this." We are no longer talking about a single schools hyper-correct editing of a particular poem: the whole idea of 'equal opportunities' is the problem.

The March 8th article concludes, in a complete non-sequitur, by re-cycling a story about positive discrimination in the police force. A constabulary "caused outrage" by launching "a recruitment drive aimed at gays, lesbians, trans-sexuals and people from ethnic backgrounds" which apparently meant that applications from 'white, heterosexual men" were "torn up". The question of how you deal with the under-representation of minorities is a real one and this kind of affirmative action (if true) is in my opinion rather a blunt instrument for dealing with it. But the 'Daily Express' wants us to draw a connection between the two issues. Banning black sheep and gollywogs and thinking that there should be more black policemen are both examples of the thing called 'political correctness'. Political Correctness is shorthand for the belief that it's Us, white people, not Them, blacks and hoh moh sexuals who are subject to prejudice. Our traditional nursery rhymes are taken away and our job applications are torn up.

England prevails.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Life's Little Ironies

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe won an Oscar.

For best make up.