Friday, January 22, 2010

In the most recent season of the dreadful Torchwood, Gwen Cooper had a strange interlude:

"There's one thing I always meant to ask Jack, back in the old days. I wanted to know about that Doctor of his, a man who appears out of nowhere and saves the world ... except sometimes he doesn't. All those times in history when there was no sign of him. I wanted to know why not, but I don't need to ask any more. I know the answer now. Sometimes the Doctor must look at this planet and turn away in shame."

Well, that's one possible explanation: but there are others. Maybe our intellects are so limited and the Doctor's so vast that it is literally meaningless for us to question him. Maybe we're so degenerate that what seems bad to us is good from the Time Lord's point of view. Maybe the Doctor can perceive all kinds of unintended consequences and knows that there are occasions when saving the world is not the best thing to do for the best of all possible worlds. Or maybe from the right perspective we'll be able to look back and see that during the earth's times of trial and suffering, when we saw only one set of footprints, it was then that the Doctor was carrying us.
*
You expect closing nights to be a bit self-indulgent. Actors thank each other for being so lovely. They give each other flowers, burst into tears, make speeches and maybe play a silly prank during the very, very last encore.

Remember the final episode of Logopolis? Having saved the universe from The Master, Tom Baker fell off a telescope and changed into Peter Davison. But Mr Producer decided that it would be a wheeze if, before the big switch-over, the Fourth Doctor's whole life flashed before his eyes. This sequence consisted of a series of clips of enemies and companions from the previous seven seasons all saying the word "Doctor!" Tom Baker had been the Doctor for longer than anyone else and this leant a certain gravitas to his last bow. It also established a precedent: when Peter Davison changed into Colin Baker three years later a series of specially filmed cameos of his former companions hovered around his head, encouraging him not to die. 

So maybe the epilogue to The End of Time was simply keeping up a noble tradition of flashbacks and cameos and last night pranks. Admittedly he Tom Baker scene lasted a total of 30 seconds and the Peter Davison one for about 50 while David Tennant's curtain call went on for a full twenty minutes. But that's because Russell Davies believes that everything in new Who should be bigger and better than what went before. When he can't manage that, he just settles for bigger.

Regeneration was never that big a deal. The Fourth Doctor fell from a great height; the Fifth Doctor consumed poison and the Sixth Doctor - well, lets not talk about the Sixth Doctor. The point is that they were all pretty much standard issue Doctor Who stories which just happened to end with the death of the protagonist. But David Tennant is different. David Tennant is the greatest Doctor of all time. David Tennant has been the Doctor for almost as long as Peter Davison, and even longer than Paul McGann. David Tennant is the only Doctor who people who started watching Doctor Who during David Tennant's first season have ever known. There was a clip of David Tennant pretending to be Santa before every, single TV programme during the whole Christmas period. (Has anyone, even Eric and Ernie, ever had that kind of hype?) He is Britain's best loved actor. He is the definitive Hamlet. So of course his exit has to be specially doom-laden; specially epic; specially long drawn out; bigger and bigger than anything else in the whole history of Doctor Who, ever.
*

Why, exactly did they leave in the two scenes which foreshadow the arrival of a Norwegian prince and then cut the actual scene where the Norwegian prince turns up? Come to that, why leave in the rather irrelevant bit about Fortinbras marching through Poland, if our Dave is only going to get to say the first few lines of "How all occasions do inform against me?" Or let him complain about how the only thing anyone knows about the Danes is that their King holds loud, drunken parties if he isn't going draw the conclusions that the same thing sometimes applies to individuals? And have you ever seen anyone in mental distress doing that thing of pressing the balls of their thumbs on their foreheads? There was certainly a very high quantity of acting. But do BBC 2 audiences really have such short attention spans that they can deal with three hours of the bard, but not four? I remember the days of the BBC Television Shakespeare when the whole evening was given over to unexpurgated Hamlets, with maybe a five minute break for the news headlines at 10PM. Derek Jacobi, who was very nearly the Master, played the Dane; Lalla Ward, who has been married to both Tom Baker and Richard Dawkins, though not at the same time, played Ophelia; Claire Bloom, who everybody but me seems to know is the Doctor's mother, played the Queen; and Patrick Stewart played the King. What's he doing nowadays, I wonder?

*
So. Martha marries Rose's ex (and not the medical student who she was engaged to last time we saw her) because dark-skinned people always marry other dark-skinned people, don't you know. And the Doctor is standing in exactly the right place at exactly the right time to save them from being zapped with a Sontaran zap-gun. And then he's standing in exactly the right place at exactly the right time to stop Luke-from-Sarah-Jane from being knocked down by a car. And of all the bars in all the the towns in all the universe, he walks into the one where Captain Jack and the dopey one from the Titanic who everyone said was a dead cert for the next Doctor (as opposed to the Next Doctor, which I am doing my very best to erase from my memory) are hanging out, so he can play match-maker. There'd been no previous indication that Alonzo was homosexual, but all the best people are these days, don't you know.

Has the Doctor been hanging out in one bar after another for thousands of years, content in the knowledge that eventually, Captain Jack and some cute gay guy are bound to sit down next to each other? Has he been observing Sarah-Jane from on high, waiting for the moment when Luke crosses the road without due care and attention? Is there always a Guardian Doctor ready to thump Sontarans in the dorsal vent whenever Torchwood personnel are about to cop it? Or has the Doctor just, without warning, between scenes, developed a magic "be in exactly the right place at exactly the right time" power? 

It might be argued that the Doctor is always in exactly the right place at exactly the right time or else there wouldn't be much of a series. Even when the TARDIS is malfunctioning or out of control or operated by a randomiser it always dumps him in a place where something really important is about to happen. But the Doctor himself doesn't seem to know this. When he arrives on the Planet Zog he always has to spend some time talking to the Zoggians, working out where he is, when he is, what's about to happen and how to stop it.
But now, for these six scenes, he can - what? - use his omnipotent telepathic Time Lord consciousness to survey the whole of time and space, spot the moment when one of Sarah's loved ones is going to step out in front of a car and pilot the TARDIS to exactly that moment without even pausing for one nano-second to agonize about the effect that the life or death of a genetically engineered boy genius is going to have on the subsequent development of the 21st century? But if he can survey the whole of Time and Space and see everything which is ever going to happen anywhere and intervene, then why is saving Luke the priority? What about all the other kids who were hit by cars, in London, on that same day? 

What would you do if you had a TARDIS and a few hours and could visit any six moments in times and space and interfere with them with impunity. How would you change the universe? Whose lives would you save? If you could go back in time and speak to your only true love on the day before you met her, what would you tell her? What is the one thing the Doctor would tell Rose if he had one more minute with her? Dunno. The idea of the Doctor seeing Rose on New Years Day 2005 is interesting enough. Or rather. The idea that Billie Piper should walk across our screens one last time is interesting enough. Why on earth should you expect anything to lead up to it, or follow from it?

*

In Bad Wolf among other places, it was stated that the Doctor inadvertently destroyed Gallifrey while wiping out the Daleks at the end of the Time War. In The End of Time, it is randomly revealed that the Doctor intentionally destroyed the Time Lords because they had a scheme to turn themselves into gods. He thought that this would be a Bad Thing.

So there are two possibilities:

1: RTD had always planned to reveal that the Doctor had lied, or lied to himself, about the reasons for the Time Lords destruction. He has been living this lie, even to Rose, from day 1 and this has informed his personality. Now the truth is out, he will be a very different person.

2: RTD thought the line up on the spur of the moment and just bunged it in because it sounded good?

When Bob Holmes needed a legendary founder for the Time Lords (in Deadly Assassin), the name "Rassilon" emerged from his typewriter. He had evidently forgotten, or never known, that there was already a perfectly serviceable legendary Time Lord founder named "Omega". So now there were two legendary Time Lord founders. And yes, as it happens, I have read the prologue to Remembrance of the Daleks, and no, I actually don't care very much.

So: when the Doctor, out of the blue, refers to the Top Time Lord in End of Time as "Rassilon", there are two possibilities

1: RTD and Steven Moffat have a long standing and detailed history of the Time Lords worked out, and there is going to be a really interesting twist in which the current Rassilon either
a: turns out to be the same person as the original, legendary Rassilon or
b: doesn't.

2: RTD thought up the line on the spur of the moment and just chucked it in because it sounded good.


*
Old people always complain that young people's music doesn't have proper tunes. That may be because, when you hear something unfamiliar, you focus on what's unfamiliar about it: you say "This music is all drum beat, where's the melody?" because you are so not-used to music with a drum-beat that you don't actually notice the perfectly good melody behind it. It may even be that very sophisticated modern writers use non-standard, but perfectly valid, musical structures ,so that an old person claiming that pop music doesn't have tunes is in the same position as a western person who is unable to discern the melody in Chinese or Indian classical music.

But more often, I think, it's because the young people's music actually doesn't have a tune. It's very natural for teenagers to want to annoy grown-ups, so they very probably play tuneless music, and play it very loudly, precisely because it pisses the old gits off. .

So, maybe when I complain that a story which doesn't follow some discernible pattern of cause and effect isn't a "story", I'm simply marking myself off as a grumpy old man who can't see the point of this new skiffle music. Maybe expecting stories to make sense is as ludicrous as expecting poems to rhyme and scan. Maybe this quasi-narrative is what young people want nowadays. But it has to be said that the Archers and Battlestar Galactica and Cranford and Being Human and the Simpsons are all based around what I can recognize as storylines.


*
I was very pleased with Walters of Mars because it was a rather traditional bit of Who (multi-racial scientists on a space station being picked off by alien zombies, forsooth) which also managed to do some things with the character of the Doctor and the format of the programme which hadn't quite been done before. The Doctor started buggering about with the laws of time on a massive scale, and I was genuinely interested to find out what was going to happen next. My guess: a Doctor who is not bound by the Laws of Time is the greatest threat that the universe has ever faced: he himself is the darkness mentioned in the teaser for the next episode. In an ironic reversal, the Master has to destroy the Doctor in order to save the universe. Davies has been building up to this pretty much since the show started. 

The Doctor would make a good Dalek. The Doctor needs a companion to "stop" him. If the Doctor had the choice of who lived and who died, he'd be a monster.

But in fact, nothing happened next. Because nothing in new Who has a consequence. The Doctor's agonizing about what he had done and his yelling about "the Time Lord Triumphant" was just a bit of drama-queen histrionics; a scene which existed because it made a good scene but which had. No. Effing. Point.

The problem with the epilogue is not that RTD has invented a new superpower for the Doctor. People invent new superpowers for the Doctor all the time. If Gerry Davis was allowed to invent magic change-into-different-actor powers, then RTD is certainly allowed to invent magic-be-in-the-right-place-at-the-right-time powers. (RTD invented magic get-into-any-secret-meeting paper, and magic get-into-any-secret-meeting-paper turned out to be quite a good idea.)

The problem is not that magic-be-in-the-right-place-at-the-right-time powers undermine the whole concept of Doctor Who. The whole concept of Doctor Who has been written and rewritten many times over the years, and doubtless will be again.

The problem is not even that magic-be-in-the-right-place-at-the-right-time powers raise theological difficulties of the type that were troubling Gwen.

The problem is that the script does not bother to give us one sentence, one word of explanation of where this new power comes from. It does not even seem to be aware that it is a new power, or that any explanation would be thought necessary. The Doctor can, by virtue of being the Doctor, disregard all normal dramatic rules of cause and effect: if Davies feels like writing a scene in a bar, then a scene in a bar he will damn well write. Nothing leads up to it. Nothing follows from it. There. Is. No. Point. 

*
If you spent too much time thinking about the metaphysics of regeneration, your head would explode: although obviously when I say "your head would explode" what I actually mean is that a "special baddie zapping ray would zap out of your head zapping the baddies who were about to kill you and you would go to sleep for a bit and then wake up feeling perfectly all right."

Why was the Fourth Doctor followed around by a zombie called "the Watcher" who turned out to be a future version of himself? In what way and for what reason did the Fifth Doctor's regeneration feel "different"? Why did the Seventh Doctor spend several hours in a mortuary being mostly dead? Why was Romana able to try on bodies like clothes? Why was the Valeyard?

The simple view of "regeneration" is that a Time Lord's body can, from time to time, repair itself from the inside, but that this process also jiggles up his personality. The Virgin Novels thought that this was due to itsy-bitsy teen-weeny nano-machines in their blood. It's not quite true to say that the current notion of "regeneration" was only established as dogma in the final episode of Planet of the Spiders. Yes, it was sometimes implied that Troughton was simply a younger Hartnell and Pertwee was simply Troughton with a different face, but as far back as The Three Doctors there seems to have been an idea that each version of the Doctor is a distinct person. And there is also a half-articulated notion that each of these people continues to exist in some limbo or afterlife or that they have some kind of pre-existence.

* In the TARGET novelization of the Five Doctors, the First Doctor is discovered pruning his roses in a garden. "The Doctor" we are told "Sensed that the end was near: he had come to this place to prepare himself, to say farewell to a body and a personality almost worn out by now, to prepare himself for the birth of a new self." Does this mean that the First Doctor, in his malfunctioning TARDIS, somehow left Ben and Polly by themselves at the South Pole, nipped off for a quick burst of meditation and horticulture, and then piloted himself back into the continuity before anyone had noticed? Or is Terrence Dicks pointing at some more metaphysical idea: that the Doctor in the rose-garden is in some kind of limbo state between regenerations - almost as if the dead First Doctor spends some time in the afterlife before Reincarnating in his new body?

* In the novelization of the Tenth Planet, the Second Doctor introduces himself as "the New Doctor", as if he was a different chap taking over the position, rather than the same fellow with a slightly different physical appearance.

* In the Five Doctors and the Two Doctors, the Second Doctor appears to have knowledge of events which happened in The War Games - which makes no sense if he's simply been plucked out of time at some point prior to his regeneration. Did Robert Holmes have some notion of Doctor Patrick being borrowed from an "afterlife" in which he continued to exist after turning into Doctor Jon?

* In the possibly not entirely canonical Dimensions in Time The Fourth Doctor sends out a "mayday" message to "all of the Doctors" - past and future - as if they were different people from himself.

* In "Trial of a Time Lord" (I know, I know) the Valeyard is pointedly not "the Doctor at some time in the future when he has turned evil", but "a distillation of his evil side, somewhere between his twelfth and thirteenth regeneration". This may be entirely meaningless - most of Trial of a Time Lord was - but it perhaps it suggests that the production team had some notion that regeneration was something more complicated than a simple sequence of transformations.

* And notoriously, in Destiny of the Daleks, an upstart named Adams who had no idea at all about comedy or science fiction wrote a scene in which Romana went through a sequence of transformations before settling on one she liked. It's open to question as to whether this was intended to be a "regeneration" (or if Adams knew, or cared, what "regeneration" was) - it may just have been a surreal scene to explain the fact that the lead actress was changing. But if it was meant to be a "regeneration" in the established sense, then she appears to be getting her bodies from somewhere.

So: maybe Time Lords by their nature enter into some interim, hinterland state between "lives". Maybe the First Doctor, spends his limbo-time pruning the roses; where the Twelfth Doctor spends his conspiring with the Master and pretending to be a lawyer. Maybe, in between his Fifth and Sixth lives, the Fifth Doctor becomes the Watcher to help himself come into being. Maybe it's the First Doctor, in his after-life in the rose-garden, who appears on the monitor in The Three Doctors; and it would sort out a lot of continuity problems if the three post War Games appearances of Patrick Troughton were not part of the Second Doctor's time line but somewhere between the second and third regeneration.

So maybe the omniscient Tenth Doctor who flits around the universe is a sort of ghost, projected forwards and backwards in time, like the Watcher and the Valeyard. Maybe all Time Lords make this kind of final journey, and we're just witnessing it for the first time.

Or maybe I'm making it all up out of my head and radiation just happens to kill you more slowly than a bullet in the chest does and the Doctor knows he has a few hours before he "dies" and decides to use them constructively.

I'm sure that fans can come up with any number of fan fictional explanations which make perfect sense. 

But they shouldn't ruddy well need to.



Huge parts of the plot were vague and problematic.....Of course in science fiction you can basically make it up as you go along.
The Daily Mirror

Strictly between you and me, I haven’t the faintest idea what’s going on....Still, no matter because it’s just as enjoyable to let this whole story, picking up from the Christmas Day special, simply wash over you.
The Daily Star

You probably had to be a Time Lord yourself to make sense of the dizzyingly complicated plot...But this barely mattered: the episode charged forward with such apocalyptic brio it was hard to be unduly worried about what, precisely, was going on.
The Daily Telegraph

There are some sniffy people in the TV industry who have asked, archly why I am now writing genre instead of drama. Obviously they have never watched a single episode of Doctor Who. It's the best drama in the world.
Russell T Davies


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Monday, January 18, 2010


Ladies and Gentlemen:

 A collection of my writing from this forum and its predecessor is now available in book format from this address.





























It reprints:


Where Dawkins Went Wrong

The Ballad of Reading Diocese

One in a Taxi, One in a Car

The Gospel According To Judas?


...and a couple of smaller pieces.



Buy a copy for your favourite biologist. Or your least favourite bishop. 



....,and don't forget that my extended review of Watchmen is still available from the same outlet.





Tuesday, December 29, 2009

5: Judas!


although, in fairness, I'd much rather he was "weird" than "boring".

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Now, Winterval Is Banned

Andrew has been out and about in Banksyville (the town formerly known as Bristol) to see how local people are marking the annual December 25th festivity.

Scrooge-like local politicians have decreed that there should be no traditional decorations in the new Cabot's Circus shopping mall.



In order to avoid offending Muslims (TM) shops have given up using the word "Christmas" in favour of neutral expressions like "Seasons Greetings", "Happy Holidays", "Happy Solstice", and "There's Probably No Father Christmas: Now Stop Worrying and Enjoy Your Life"



The German Winterval market had no traditional characters associated with it, in order to avoid offending Muslims:


and all depiction of Christian characters was forbidden by the political correctness brigade (TM).



In order not to offend Muslims (TM), it was impossible to find any traditional nativity scenes, particularly not in charity shops:


or toy shops:



and if they had appeared, they would have been regarded as purely fictitious scenes with no more religious significance than Santa Claus:


Street decorations also eschewed images from traditional Christmas Carols, and instead used strange foreign symbols in order to avoid offending Muslims (TM)



All right thinking people should rise up and resist this appalling secularisation of our traditional British cultural traditions.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

if there is anyone present with prior experience of Printing on Demand, could they please make themselves known to the management?

Monday, August 10, 2009


To download, right click on image and select "save link as".

Please set your PDF reader to View / Page Display / Two Up & View / Page Display / Show Cover Page During Two Up.

Or, for the complete 1980s fanzine experience, print it out, cho0sing Print Scaling / Booklet Printing, fold down middle, and staple with inadequate staple gun.





Sunday, March 22, 2009

Note to Headline Writers

Next time the world's greatest poet becomes involved in a dispute with his neighbours over the construction of an outisde chemical latrine on his estate, here are two dozen headlines to use in preference to Blowin' in the Wind

Gonna change my way of stinking.

House of the rising pong.

This land is not your land

You're gonna make me litigious when you go

See that my cistern is kept clean.

Buckets of disinfectant

All along the wash towel

Idiot wind

I can't wait

If you gotta go, go now.

Where have you been, my blue eyed son?

Sooner or later one of us must go

Most likely you'll go your way and I'll go mine

Knock, knock, knockin' on the bathroom door

One more cup of coffee was probably a mistake

Ballad in plain pee

Man of pees

Wee shall be released

The gates are weed on

Subterranean homesick poos

Outlaw poos

Tangled up in poo

Freight train poos

Tombstone poos

Just like Tom Thumb's poos.

If not for poo

Floater

Shit of love

Defecation Row


Sunday, March 15, 2009

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Penultimate Thoughts on Richard Dawkins

If you enjoy this essay, please consider purchasing a copy of Where Dawkins Went Wrong and Other Theological Blockbusters from this address - a collection of  some of the best and most-linked-to essays from this blog and its predecessor. It contains my five part assault critique of 'The God Delusion', along with essays on gay bishops, the 'gospel' of Judas, the 'legend' of the three wise men.






The Independent has been giving away little booklets called "A Pocket History of the World." The "Classical" section spends 1,500 words dealing with the early history of Christianity:



"...Jesus was an enlightened charismatic who made a virtue out of poverty and lectured on the benefits of non-violence. His message was simple: be peaceful, love your neighbour as yourself; if someone strikes you on one cheek, do not hit back but offer then the other; do not worship false idols such as money or material possessions: and above all be humble, for one day the meek will inherit the earth..."




You couldn't possibly write such a short synthesis of such a big subject without making a couple of debatable points. A hypothetical post-evangelical liberal - let's call him "Andy" might read this paragraph and say "There's more in the New Testament than the Sermon on the Mount, you know. Are you sure you aren't unconsciously assuming that Jesus message must have been peace, love and toleration because, dammit, that's what all great teachers teach?" But he'd probably like the "above all, be humble" part. A hypothetical sceptic - Dickie, for the sake of argument - on the other hand, might assert that Jesus didn't, in fact, teach about peace, love, humility and turning the other cheek: but was a racist who thought that only Jews could go to heaven. The Christians suppressed this Jesus because they're all racist child molesters...er...



It goes on:



"...Jesus followers saw him perform miracles and came to regard him as the earthly incarnation of God as prophesied by Isaiah and other in the Jewish Torah. One of the most deeply held Jewish beliefs was that, at the time of the covenants between God, Abraham and Moses, the Israelites were identified as God's chosen people. Yet here was a man whose followers claimed he was King of the Jews and who offered the prospect of eternal salvation to anyone who believed in him, regardless of their colour, race or creed..."




Joey: "Er....wouldn't be a good idea to delete 'colour, race or creed' from your auto-text? I mean, apart from being a cliché, isn't 'If they believed in him...regardless of creed' pretty obviously a contradiction in terms?"



Jakob: "I don't know that Isaiah did prophecy that there would be an earthly incarnation of YHWH. I think that may be after-the-fact Christian exegesis."



Andy: "The phrase 'his followers came to regard him as the earthly incarnation of God' sounds like bet-hedging to me - as if the writer thinks, but isn't quite prepared to say, that the Real Jesus was a hippy rabbi and the Son of God stuff was a ret-con by his fans."



Dickie: "I've travelled from one end of this galaxy to the other; seen a lot of strange stuff, but I've never seen anything that will make be believe in one all powerful force controlling everything. It's all a lot of simple tricks and nonsense."



"His body mysteriously disappeared three days after being incarcerated in a tomb and his disciples began to see visions of him. They wrote about these miraculous events, which they called the Resurrection, and believed it was their divine mission to spread the good news about the son of God coming down to Earth and dying on a cross so that everyone who believed in him might have everlasting life."




Davy: "That's a surprisingly credulous treatment of the Gospels. You seem to regard is as a datum that Jesus' body vanished and that the disciples honestly thought that they had seen him. But Paul knows nothing of the empty tomb, and 'the earliest and most reliable' versions of Mark don't have any Resurrection appearances. What you are doing is getting your allegory and your history muddled up. In fact the disciples came to believe that Jesus was alive, and made up the story of the empty tomb years later to explain the idea."



Rowan: "Right, it's an allegory but it has nothing to do with life after death; it's there to demonstrate that it's a bad idea to take your frustrations out on minority groups.."



Andy: "The 'visions' part is something you've brought to the stories, not something you've found in them. In the stories, Jesus goes some way to establish that he is not a vision - he goes out of his way to eat, drink and display physical injuries. (It can hardly be said too often that the disciples already believed in ghosts, and Jesus had to assure them that he was not one.)"



Dickie: "You and your allegories! It's an entirely fictitious story and has no more to do with any historical person called Jesus than the story of the Lady of the Lake has to do with an historical person called Arthur. Sky Fairy! Invisible Jewish Zombie! Leprechauns! Long white beard! Child molestors!"



"Greek thinkers who followed the idea of a universal force of nature first put forward by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle found the concept of a single universal God who was open to all people rather compelling. The biggest problem for them was how to reconcile this all-pervasive divine force with a carpenter's son from Galilee whose followers claimed he was the incarnation of God. The problem wasn't finally settled until after Christianity was legalised in the Roman Empire by the Emperor Galerius in 311 CE in a desperate bid to contain the increasing threat the new religion posed to Rome's imperial authority. In the end the idea of the Trinity provided the answer. It combined the Jewish God of the Old Testament as the Father, with the person of Jesus Christ as his Son, and the divine Platonic or nature force pervading all things as the Holy Spirit. The idea of the Trinity still marks out Christianity as distinct from other religions. This doctrine was finally ratified and codified into an official creed at the Council of Nicea in 325 CE."




Andy: "Some idea of the Trinity must go back way further than 311 - the phrase "The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost" occurs several times in the New Testament. I like the 'ratified and codified' part, though: if everyone wrote that clearly, than children would be able to grow up in a world free of the horror of Dan Brown."



Rowan: "I wouldn't like to, as it were, set up the mystery of the Trinity as a hurdle that you feel you have, as it were, to get under, in a very real sense."



Davey: "To say that the 'trinity' marks Christianity out from other religions is to say nothing at all. You might as well say that luminous noses mark jumblies out from all other dongs. "





So I guess that's my question: are Andy, Rowan and Dave talking about a null-subject, like the internal organs of unicorns? Would the opinion of a person with more knowledge (about what Jesus said, what the early Christians said about what he said, and what modern Christians say about what they say they said he said) be better placed to have a a valid opinion than someone who thought that the three persons of the Trinity were Tinky Winky, Dipsy and La-La? Are the Indy's remarks about the doctrine of the Atonement and the Trinity ('theological' subjects if every there were two) so dull, so long-winded and technical as to be impenetrable to the general reader? How much does any of this impact on the general question of whether or not there is a God? (If the answer is, as I suspect 'not at all', then why do the Dickies keep referring to it?) Can religion be coherently talked about in the secular sphere? Or is the Independent suffering from an infestation by midichlorians?

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Review


John Lennon - The Life by Philip Norman


Woman, I know you understandThe little child inside the man...

The first paragraph of Philip Norman's fat new book John Lennon: The Life is so clever that it needs to be quoted in full:

"John Lennon was born with a gift for music and comedy that would carry him further from his roots than he ever dreamed possible. As a young man, he was lured away from the British Isles by the seemingly boundless glamour and opportunity to be found across the Atlantic. He achieved that rare feat for a British performer of taking American music to the Americans and playing it as convincingly as any home grown performer, or even more so. For several years, his group toured the country, delighting audiences in city after city with their garish suits, funny hair, and contagiously happy grins.

This, of course, was not Beatle John Lennon but his namesake paternal grandfather..."

We knew, I think, that Lennon's grandfather had been a musician. (Julian was the fourth consecutive generation of the Lennon family to cut a record, wasn't he?) But Norman is, I think, the first writer to make "John's grandpa was a singer" part of the grand narrative of John Lennon's life.

Norman is very fond of these story arcs. The four sections of his biography of the Beatles (unaccountably called Shout!) were entitled 'Wishing', 'Getting', 'Having' and 'Wasting' - such a perfect summary of the story that it risked making the rest of the book redundant.

Everyone knows that John Lennon loved The Goon Show. And he referenced Lewis Carrol in at least several of his songs. One of Norman's most telling images is of teddy-boy John slumped in his suburban bedroom endlessly re-reading the Alice books. But for the controlling narrative of this biography, Norman fixes on John's liking for the Just William series. It works, up to a point. Lennon had certainly been a cheeky schoolboy, permanently outside the headmaster's study. He'd been the leader of various mildly subversive schoolboy gangs; the Beatles were arguably an extension of the same kind of playground fraternity. It's telling to compare John's return home, tail between his legs, after the first disastrous trip to Hamburg, with William coming back from yet another misadventure. When posh Brian Epstein wandered into the Cavern, it was exactly like one of those vicars or mayors who end up inadvertently sponsoring one of William's schemes. And apparently Lennon associated journalist Maureen Cleave with Richmal Crompton, causing him to speak too freely to her about the relative sizes of Jesus and the Beatles. Obviously.

Everyone knows that Yoko Ono was so profligate with John's money that she bought a genuine Egyptian Sarcophagus complete with mummy. Norman points out that buying antiquities and then lending or donating them to museums was a rather shrewd and tax-efficient form of investment at that time but when the item arrived, it turned out that the mummy was that of a "princess who came out of the East to marry a man of great power." Mrs Lennon had unwittingly bought the corpse of herself in a previous incarnation. Obviously.

Then again, Yoko's grandfather was, get this, a famous artist and musician, and, get this, he regarded his wife as an equal partner. "One day in his garden he spared a few moments to talk to a young man who was collecting funds for a workers' hostel. When Zenjiro declined to make a contribution, the young man assassinated him." Spooky. Norman says that John had wondered out loud if he could be a reincarnation of Zenjiro. (I think everyone was probably a reincarnation of everyone else in the 60s.) Yoko replied: "Don't say that, he was assassinated." Maybe she really did say that: but maybe the story has improved with 40 years of hindsight.

Or again: when John was a small boy, his father (after giving him an idyllic and extravagant holiday in Blackpool) asked him whether he wanted to stay with Daddy or go home and live with Mummy. John initially choose Dad, but then changed his mind and ran after Mum, an event which may provide a narrative key to the rest of his life. When the Judge in a perfectly above-board custody hearing asked Yoko's daughter Kyoko whether she would rather live with her mother or her father, Norman hears a "chilling echo" of this primal scene. It's also "weird" that Mark Chapman's wife was Japanese and "eerie" that when moptop John first visited New York, he was photographed quite near the Dakota building.

Finding patterns of this kind is, I suppose quite harmless: one of the ways in which we make sense of our lives, or of other people's, is to turn them into stories. (It's less safe when the structural paradigm you choose for your life-story is, say, The Catcher in the Rye or the text of 'Helter Skelter'.) One of the things which psychoanalysis arguably does is encourage patients to tell comprehensible stories about their lives. Rather disappointingly, it turns out that the "screaming" part of The Primal Scream is only a metaphor: primal therapy is actually a process of very deep psychoanalysis in which the patient confronts memories of childhood pain. (John did the literal screaming on his first solo album, of course.) During his therapy John apparently admitted to Dr Janov that he had been sexually attracted to his own mother. He had a memory of brushing his hand across her breast, and was haunted by the possibility that it might have gone further. At about the same time, he was visited by his estranged father; and melodramatically threatened to kill him. Alf Lennon took this seriously enough to melodramatically place a sworn affidavit with his lawyers in case he were subsequently found dead. Freud, of course, thought that the myth of Oedipus was the narrative key to everyone's life: remembering that you wanted to touch Mummy's tits and threatening to kill Daddy as part of the same course of therapy does seem to be taking things a little far.

Norman's book is very aware that people have been telling stories about John Lennon for a very long time. He's good at dealing with contested events which he wryly describes as "hallowed legends". He thinks there may be something in the too-bad-to-be-true theory that the undiagnosed skull fracture which may have caused the death of Stuart Sutcliffe may have been the result of a blow delivered by Lennon himself - if only because it's hard to think of anyone else who might have punched Stuart. The narrative in which John Lennon got drunk and started fooling around with a ladies sanitary towel seems to be true; but regrettably, no-one heard him asking the waitress if she knew who he was, so she can't have replied "You're some asshole with a Kotex on his head." The very important pissing-on-nuns story is scaled back to "embarrassingly sprayed some people who were on their way to church." Norman doubts that the middle-period Lennon would have been paying sufficient attention to Julian's school work to use one of his infant scrawls as the title for a song – although it isn't obvious to me why the later Lennon, (who had admitted to heroin use and wife beating) would carry on denying one coy reference to LSD.

Norman is inclined to believe Yoko's account of history's most important hand-job. Lennon certainly did go on holiday with Brian Epstein; Brian was definitely gay; John was definitely cute, and Brian definitely preferred younger men. According to Yoko, John told his friend Pete Shotton that he and Brian had briefly had sexual contact during the holiday "so that everyone would believe his power over Brian was absolute". But we know - because Norman keeps mentioning it - that Just William used to engage in utterly heterosexual group masturbation with his school mates and, indeed, contributed an incredibly witty sketch to Oh Calcutta! on the theme. ("You know the idea, the four fellows wanking....they should even really wank, that would be great".) So might he not have had a brief encounter with a slightly older man in a spirit of "all boys together"?

A John Lennon who was attracted to men, however subliminally, would provide an excellent story arc: his homophobia would be that of a straight man with unacknowledged gay feelings; his bitterness towards Paul over what was really only a business quarrel would be the baggage from an unrequited crush – hence his resentment of Linda, his possessiveness towards Yoko, and his taunting of Paul's pretty face. The theory falls due to the lack of any actual evidence. (I've never been able to hear John singing "Baby you're a rich fag Jew" and The Hours and the Times may be the dullest film I've ever seen.)

Norman is also very good at presenting smaller incidents and anecdotes. The story that when John finally met Jerry Lee Lewis he prostrated himself and kissed his boot was new to me. I knew that the working class hero grew up in a quite posh part of Liverpool; I hadn't known that Aunty Mimi had paid for a made-to-measure school uniform, or that the previous owner of their house had installed a system of bells for calling servants. I knew about John's prejudice against disabled people, but I'd never spotted that straight after telling the Queen to rattle her jewellery he makes a face which suggests he's about to do a childish impersonation of a what were still called "spastics". (It's interesting to wonder how the story of the Beatles, and, indeed, the second half of the 20th century would have developed if he'd followed through on his original plan to tell the Sovereign, on live TV, to rattle her fucking jewellery.)

Norman says that he hopes that his book will improve on Ray Coleman's by bringing John alive on the page. I have to say that I didn't feel that. John comes through with a novelistic intensity in the early chapters – school, art college, and Hamburg; but seems almost to disappear during the Beatlemania period. By the time we get to the post-Beatles section, the book almost seems to have a blank space at the centre: we don't "see" the Tittenhurst mansion in the way we saw the teenage bedroom (even though, as a matter of fact, we've seen pictures of it.) I think this is why Norman latches onto the Just William template so strongly. We can imagine what it was like to be a 1950s schoolboy and even a savage young ted going wild in Hamburg; John's life from 1963 - 1973 is almost literally unimaginable. So it helps to keep falling back on that picture of the cheeky kid in the school cap as the "real" John Lennon; the person who the story is about.

There are hundreds of hours of extant footage of Lennon, and millions of words of contemporary writing by and about him. One could wish for one of those English-establishment biographies that Private Eye delights in lampooning: one that doesn't search for patterns or narrative keys but which chronicles Lennon's life on a day-to-day basis. "On Wednesday, he had tea with Yoko, who remembers that he said X; and then appeared on Y's chat-show during which he said Z." The footage of the Dick Cavett shows, say, or the moptop press conferences allow us some level of direct access to Mr. J. W Lennon, the charismatic, witty Englishman in New York, who, incidentally, wrote quite a number of rather good songs. Is there a future Lennon Anthology or Lost Lennon Tapes which will give us un-mediated access to this material? But in the meantime, Norman's book has "definitive" written all over it.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Normal Service Will Be Resumed As Soon As I Cease To Be a Talktalk Customer

you are...YES you are...YES you are..."Your call is important to us".. you are YES...you are YES...you are YES...you are YES..."Your call is important to us"...you are YES...you are YES....you are YES....peace, love, bananas, nice things...you are YES...you are YES "Your call is moving up the queue"...you are YES!..."Your call is important to us"...you are YES! "Your call is moving up the queue."

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

An Immodest Proposal

Little boys have willies. Little boys with willies sometimes get erections. Little boys with erections will sometimes feel like having sex with little girls. Little girls who have had sex with little boys will sometimes have babies. Little girls with babies are probably not going to make terribly good mummies.

Clearly, something must be done.

Someone could help the little-girl take care of her baby. It could, for example, be adopted by its grandparents, provided they can show themselves to be suitable people to raise a child. Unfortunately, the question "Have you allowed your 15 year old daughter to get pregnant by a 13 year old boy" tends to feature quite prominently in most "Are you a fit person to raise a child?" examinations. Alternatively, then, the baby could be taken into care by her local authority: initially placed in some idyllic care-home; then looked after by loving foster-parents; finally adopted by one of the many childless couples who are desperate to give happy homes to motherless infants.

The trouble with this is that the very same people who are wringing their hands about the thirteen-year-old-dad have a deeply held fear of the state, and of social workers in particular. They doubt that governments should ever decide what is in the best interests of a child; and they doubt that social workers ever really have those interests at heart. They suspect that their actions are really motivated by politics or ideology or social engineering. (Apparently, social workers get a cash bounty every time they take a child away from its natural parents and place it with hoh-moh-sexuals. Would Richard Littlejohn lie to me?)

So, then: the little-girl who foolishly allowed the little-boy to make her pregnant could be prevented from actually having the baby. Medical science can manage such things, I am told.

But the very same people who are wringing their hands about the thirteen-year-old-dad think it very wrong that pharmacists should give morning after pills to little-girls, or indeed teenagers. Many of them think that it is wrong that doctors should give free, confidential, honest advise about terminations to little-girls: or, indeed, anyone else. Many of them have an a priori belief that abortion is wrong even in these messy circumstances: some of them have been honest enough to say so. (The Pro-Life Alliance praised the little-girl for having been brave enough to have her baby rather than getting rid of it.)
So, then: steps should be taken to stop little-girls becoming pregnant in the first place. Little boys should be taught (straightforwardly, honestly) about the likely results of having sex with little-girls, and what to do about it. If this little boy had been taught how to put a condom on a banana before he put it anywhere near a girl (or, indeed, a boy, but for different reasons) then we wouldn't be having this conversation.

But the very same people who are wringing their hands about the thirteen-year-old-dad think it wrong that teenagers should be given access to contraception; or even given information about contraception. Contraception causes pregnancy, don't you know? (Would Melanie Phillips lie to me?)

So. The little boy who didn't know anything about contraception shouldn't have put his banana anywhere near a girl, but dealt with it in the way that little boys always used to in the olden days when there were no teenage pregnancies at all. [Check this - Ed.] But the very same people who are wringing their hands about the thirteen year old dad think that it is outrageous that the subject of, er, you know, Thing, should be broached in sex education lessons. Sex education should be all about the human reproductive cycle and not at all about feelings, emotions, or strange movements in the trousers. And (of course) no-one of any age should have access to pornography and the internet should be banned.

So. We'll probably have to re-organize our society in such a way that little boys are not allowed to go anywhere near little girls until they are old enough to know about and cope with the consequences of their stiffies. Let them be raised in all-male prep schools; socialize in all male sports clubs and Scout troops; educated at all-male boarding schools and all-male universities; and spend a few years in a presumably all-male armed forces. If it is absolutely essential for them to interact with females, let them be accompanied by parents, chaperones, maiden aunts, burkhas etc. (Of course, the very same people who would probably find this a perfectly sensible suggestion also think that sodomy is a very great evil, but let's not go there.)

Or, if that's not possible, then at least let's implement a regime of Rugby Football, Scout Camps, Look and Learn, cold showers and Mecanno to deal with the problem at source. No-one in the olden days ever got an erection - they were all far too tired.

But even this wouldn't really address the basic question, which is: why do boys insist on having willies in the first place? They didn't have them in the 1950s. Look at an Action Man, or any boys comic book. Crime only began in 1945 (would Tony Blair lie to me?). I'm guessing that people started to have willies at about the same time. Probably TV, or the internet, or coca-cola, or feminism caused them. If we could only go back to the sensible world where everyone was neuter, then this sort of thing simply wouldn't happen.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Even if it were true that the Russian Orthodox Church, the Trinitarian Bible Society and a previously unknown group called "The Christian Party" had taken out advertisements on the sides of London buses, nothing, I repeat, NOTHING, would possess me to say that I'd been waiting ages for a religious advert....

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

For those who are interested, the archive of my old webpage is now at

http://www.rilstone-beta.talktalk.net/Archive/

Should anyone want to link to the particular articles, I would sooner they linked to the relevant part of :

http://www.rilstone-beta.talktalk.net/writing.html

(if you need to know where / whether an article is on the portfolio site, just drop me an e-mail.)

Supplied "as is". I am not responsible for the opinions I may have held during the last millennium.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A serious treatise on the English mythological interactive folk drama tradition

Oh no it isn't.



If Colin Baker is singing “Let's Do The Time Warp Again” (*), in green make-up, accompanied by a large amount of white smoke, a dozen pre-teen dancing girls (dressed as devils) and two adult ballet dancers, then it follows that either

a: You are reading a more than usually dubious piece of slash fiction or

b: You are attending Bath Theater Royal's annual production of “Jack and the Beanstalk.”


Poor Colin. We're half way through the second act before there's any hint that he might have once appeared in a TV show which the kids would have heard of. Eventually, when he needs to bash down the door to the giant's castle, he whips out his sonic screwdriver. When that doesn't work, he hands someone his sonic mallet. (“When I nod my head, you hit it.”) Time was he wouldn't have been allowed on the stage until someone had gone through the “Knock knock?” “Who''s there?” “Doctor...” routine.


He is playing the giant's evil henchdemon, and therefore has to exchange rhyming couplets with the good fairy. His performance is every bit as subtle and nuanced as the the one gave in "Doctor Who" i.e not. But he relishes every corny line. “Did you find the gypsies' camp?” “No: as a matter of fact I found them rather butch.” Before the inevitable, luvvie-ish appeal on behalf of the Variety Club of Great Britain, he assures us that we've been “the best Saturday night audience we've had all week!”


How to describe a pantomime to a person who has never seen one? You know the sophisticated Italian commedia d'ell arte, where skilled mimes wittily improvise stock characters in traditional situations? We'll, it's nothing like that. A Christmas entertainment for children “of all ages” they must, at some time in pre-history, have been lavish dramatizations of fairy tales. But a Dawkinsian process of copying and re-copying means that you can no longer quite see the shape of the original story. Does the fairy tale lack a stock character? Then one can be invented: Jack the giant killer has acquired an idiot brother called Simple Simon, and is followed up the beanstalk by a pompous king who has fallen in love with his mother, Dame Trott. (Chris Harris has been playing dames in Bristol and Bath pantos for as long as anyone can remember. It's him, not the minor show business personalities, who's the evening's main draw.) The Dame is so poor that she must sell the cow. Cue a slapstick routine in which the cow refuses to be milked, tries to sit on the milking stool, apparently makes rude smells and finally provides a litre of semi-skimmed in a plastic carton. (“Why are you waving that milk in front of your face?” “It's past your eyes milk.”) Jack takes the cow to market; no-one will buy it. Cue several credit crunch jokes. The cow is too dirty to sell. Cue a song and dance cow-washing routine.


Lewis Bradley – Jack – came third on a reality / talent show called “Any Dream Will Do”: I suppose this makes him minor royalty. He's actually rather good. But it's a safe bet that when he was ritually intoning “I want this...I want this so badly” to Andrew Lloyd Weber, singing “I am a moo-cow cleaner” to the tune of “I Yam A Zider Drinker” wasn't precisely what had in mind.

But still, the general structure of the tale can't be deviated from. A peddler must swap Daisy for some magic beans. (The peddler is Colin, which would make no sense in terms of the story if anyone were actually following it.) As surely as night follows day, Jack's mum must throw the beans in the garden, and Jack must climb the beanstalk.
The castle at the top of the stalk turns out to be inhabited, not only by a giant but also by various ghosties and ghoulies. Jack doesn't want to be caught by the ghosties. His brother doesn't want to be caught by the....“We try that joke every single year” says the Dame.

I don't think pantos were quite so scatological when I was small. ("There's a stool coming" says Simon, before fetching something to sit on while milking the cow.) I don't think that a Dame, while dressed as a Viking (you had to be there) would have done quite such filthy things with her horn.
But the topical references are perennial. In the end, the giant falls from the beanstalk and is killed, and everyone celebrates. “And even better news – he's fallen on Trowbridge!”

I am not saying I would like to go every night. As a matter of fact, I am not saying that I would like to go every year. But there is something unquestionably joyful about watching adults behaving like silly kids for two hours. (Also watching the actual kids: the little ones who think that yelling “behind you!” at the ghosties is actually going to make some kind of difference; the slightly bigger ones who are too cool for this kind of thing but still laugh at the poo jokes.) I'd forgotten how genuinely funny a perfectly timed pie-in-the-face routine can be.


(*)It's the hippy shake that really drives you insane. Apparently.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

In the grand canyon at sundown...



So, is it strictly necessary for me to emigrate before I can apply to become an American?

Thursday, January 15, 2009

New edition of Church of England communion rite to read: "Christ has probably died! Christ is probably risen! Christ will probably come again!"

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Now relax and enjoy your life.

Unless what you enjoy is fairy tales, Harry Potter, or the X-Files, which may make your head explode or lead to dancing.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The argument about god goes round and round
Round and round
Round and round
The argument about god goes round and round
All
Day
Long

The bishop on the bus goes waffle, waffle, waffle
Waffle, waffle, waffle
Waffle, waffle, waffle
The bishop on the bus goes waffle, waffle, waffle
All
Day
Long

The biologist on the bus goes rant, rant, rant
Rant, rant, rant
Rant, rant, rant
The biologist on the bus goes rant, rant, rant
All
Day
Long

The argument about god goes round and round
Round and round
Round and round
The argument about god goes round and round
All
Day
Long

Monday, January 12, 2009

Labeling buses as "atheist" is even worse than bus-abuse.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The idea of a triple decker bus needs to be demytholgized.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Typical, you wait ages for a deity and then three-in-one come at once.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

One In a Taxi, One in a Car

If you enjoy this essay, please consider purchasing a copy of Where Dawkins Went Wrong and Other Theological Blockbusters from this address - a collection of  some of the best and most-linked-to essays from this blog and its predecessor. It contains my five part assault critique of 'The God Delusion', along with essays on gay bishops, the 'gospel' of Judas, the 'legend' of the three wise men.






Last year, the War on Christmas took a very sinister turn.


Not content with re-branding the festivities as "Winterval", banning fairy lights and insisting that all mince pies be kosher, the Political Correctness Brigade abolished the Nativity Story itself.


According to the Times our old friend Rowan Williams had declared that the birth of Jesus was:


ALL A CHRISTMAS TALL STORY


When the Daily Telegraph reported the story, it made use of quotation marks, a device that papers use to alert readers to the fact that they are being lied to:


ARCHBISHIP SAYS NATIVITY "A LEGEND"


The Daily Mail had no such scruples:


THREE WISE MEN ARE JUST A LEGEND, SAYS ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURY


According to The Times:


"The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, dismissed the Christmas story of the Three Wise Men yesterday as nothing but 'legend'...."


According to the Telegraph:


"The Archbishop of Canterbury said yesterday that the Christmas story of the Three Wise Men was nothing but a 'legend'....The Archbishop went on to dispel other details of the Christmas story, adding that there were probably no asses or oxen in the stable."


And according to the Daily Mail:


"Jesus was born in December, in a snow-covered stable, where he was visited by three wise men bearing gifts, and was wrapped in swaddling clothes by his mother. Or rather he wasn't - according to the leader of the Church of England. Dr Rowan Williams yesterday debunked a large part of the Christmas story as a myth..."


Columnists and pundits rose to the theme. The Archdruid had denounced the whole Christmas narrative. Here is Gerard Baker in The Times:


"The retreat continues, despite the best efforts of the Anglicans to keep making concessions to disbelieving modernity, as the Archbishop of Canterbury did again this week with his observation that we were obliged to treat the Christmas Story really as just a legend. Like Alfred and the burnt cakes, I suppose."


And Simon Heffer in the Telegraph:



"But when the country's most senior prelate tells me that aspects of Christianity are simply 'legend', I wonder what that faith - and, of course, Christmas itself - must be about. After all, if the Christmas story is legend, then what is to be said about the rest of Christ's life? Are the miracles legend, too? I am no theologian, but it would seem to me that, if they are, then one of the main bases of Christian faith sustains something of a blow."


And someone called Rush Limbaugh, in Cloud Cuckoo Land:


"By the way, the Archbishop of Canterbury also said the nativity scene is a 'legend.' Not real, just a legend. So for those of you out there who feel compelled to take some of your Christian beliefs, discard the miracles, and replace them with modern science and thereby invent a new religion, go right ahead - and if this is what Dr. Rowan Williams wants to do, if he wants to throw out the things in Christianity that he just can't explain in his 'superior mind,' go ahead, Dr. Williams. But just don't call it Christianity... "



I am sorry to have to debunk such a much-loved fable, but this old traditional story of the Bishop who thinks the nativity story is only a legend is, itself, a legend....a myth....a conflation.... a work of pious fiction... a lie.


If we go back to the original text, we will discover that the story goes more like this:


On Dec 19 2007 well known theologian Simon Mayo conducted an interview with the Archdruid on Radio 5. He asked him what I take to have been honest questions about which parts of the Christmas story are "true and crucial to believing in Christmas" and which parts aren't. He made a list of items such as "the stable and the manger" and asked the Druid if they were "historically and factually true".


Quite uncharacteristically, the Druid gave straight answers to these straight questions. No, the Bible doesn't actually use the word "stable" but it does very strongly imply that Jesus was born in an outbuilding of some kind. It certainly says that he was laid in a manger. It doesn't specifically mention an ox, an ass, or any other kind of animal, although there might very well have been livestock in an outbuilding that contained a feeding trough. It doesn't snow in the Middle East, as any fule kno.


Interestingly enough, someone had fed Mayo the old lie about the story of the virgin birth being based on a mistranslation, but the Druid set him straight. Matthew and Luke definitely say that Jesus had no human father, but Matthew may have wrongly understood a passage in the Old Testament as foretelling that this is how the Messiah would be born. When asked whether the story of the Virgin Birth was essential or inessential, the Archdruid waffled a bit :


"....I don't want to set it as a kind of hurdle that people have to get over before they, you know, be signed up; but I think quite a few people that as time goes on, they get a sense, a deeper sense of what the virgin birth is about. I would say that of myself. About thirty years ago I might have said I wasn't too fussed about it - now I see it much more as dovetailing with the rest of what I believe about the story and yes..."

But, translated from the gobbledegook, it's clear enough what he was saying: "Yes, this is what Christians believe; and yes, this is what I personally believe, but no, if you are seriously looking into the claims of Jesus Christ for the first time, that's not the best place to start."

But what everyone focussed on is the bit about the Three Kings. Mayo asked if they were historically real, and if so, why one of them is usually depicted as a black man. The Archdruid told him what anyone in possession of a Bible could have found out in 30 seconds flat:

"Well Mathew's gospel doesn't tell us that there were three of them, doesn't tell us they were kings, doesn't tell us where they came from, it says they're astrologers, wise men, priests from somewhere outside the Roman Empire. That's all we're really told so, yes, 'the three kings with the one from Africa' - that's legend; it works quite well as legend."


And there you have it. From "The Bible says that there were wise men from the East, but not necessarily three of them, and certainly not kings" to "Three wise men a legend" and thence to "Nativity story a legend" in one easy step.


See also under "lipstick, nylons and invitations."



As everyone knows, the New Testament contains two different and incompatible stories of the birth of Jesus. In Luke's Gospel, his birth takes place in secret: only Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, some shepherds, and two holy people in the Temple realise what has happened. Matthew, on the other hand, presents it as a big, spectacular, cosmic event. (He always does: even hard-core fundamentalist have problems with his suggestion that the death of Jesus was marked, not only by a thunderstorm, an earthquake and an eclipse, but also by an invasion of zombies.) Jesus is born, like King David, in Bethlehem and there is a divine firework display, just as you'd expect when a new King is born. But the villain of the piece, Bad King Herod, the Royal Quizzling who sold out the Chosen People to the invading pagans, doesn't notice the light-show. A deputation of foreign wizards have to come and point it out to him. His own Rabbis – his own wise men, if you will – find that their Scriptures agree with the wizards' astrology: if a King is what you are after, Bethlehem's the place to look. Bad King Herod sees this new King is a potential usurper, so while the Pagan holy men are taking fantastically precious gifts to the prince, the Jewish King is arranging to have him murdered.


The visit of the indeterminate number of wise men is commemorated in churches on January 6th, the last of the Twelve Days of Christmas. There's no reason to suppose that the magi really did turn up in Bethlehem on 6/01/0002. The star is said to have appeared when Jesus was born, and it must have taken the Wise Men at least several weeks to get from The East to Herod: and more time for them to get from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Christmas cards always show the Magi finding Mary and Joseph in the Stable, with baby-Jesus still in the Manger; but presumably after twelve days, the crowds would have thinned out and they could have got a room inside the Inn. Miss Muir explained that it was OK for our class nativity play to have both shepherds and wise-men in it, because the shepherds would naturally have come back every few days to see how mother and child were getting on. But Matthew says that the Wise Men came to a house and found a child there: not a newborn in a stable. Herod orders the cull of ever child under two, which gives some idea of the time frame.


What has actually happened is that churches have decided that the story of the wise men is a good example of God being interested in the whole world, and therefore an appropriate passage to read out at "epiphany". The story of the wedding at Cana (arguably the first event in Jesus public ministry) was also occasionally used: no-one ever suggested that that happened on Twelfth Night. Another good January 6th passage is Psalm 72, attributed to King Solomon. The poem imagines a future time when Israel is Top Nation and people from all over the world will pay homage to one of Solomon's illustrious descendants:


The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall bring presents

The kings of Sheba and Seba will offer gifts

Yea, all kings shall bow down to him

and all nations shall serve him


So: is what the Archdruid calls a legend actually a misunderstanding? Simple folks heard the two passages being read out on Twelfth Night, and assumed that Matthew's magi and Solomon's kings were one and the same?


Solomon seems to be hoping for we-four-kings, unless Tarshish-and-the-Isles share a monarchy, like Great-Britain-and-Northern-Island. "Tarshish" seems to be used in the Old Testament to represent anywhere that's an awfully long way away. When Jonah wants to get as far from God as possible, its Tarshish he heads for. Father Mapple in Moby Dick says that learned men have discovered that it's in Spain; a quick trawl of the interweb reveals that many loopy fundamentalists are taught that it's in Britain. Seba may be somewhere in Arabia. Sheba (as in "the arrival of the Queen of") is usually identified with Ethiopia. So that gives us three kings: an Arab, an African and a European. Medieval geography tended to regard the world as being divided into three continents: Europe, Asia, and Africa. So, very possibly, the Magi mutated into the kings of Tarshish, Sheba and Seba and then into three symbolic monarchs: one European, one Asian and one African. The symbolism is clear enough: the whole world recognises that Jesus is King - only the King of the of the Jews can't.


Matthew's original version of the story draws a contrast between the Jewish wise men, hunched over their dusty scrolls but failing to notice the great big shiny thing in the sky; and the pagan wise men who've followed it for thousands of miles. In the traditional version the contrast is between the false King of the Jews who wants to kill the prince, and the pagan Kings who want to worship him. There is a certain comedy to the Biblical version; but if you are painting a Christmas card or producing a nativity play, the King-centered version has a pleasing thematic unity; and the contrast between the poor king in the stable and the rich kings who visit him is irresistible. This is presumably what the archbishop meant when he said that the story of the Kings "worked as a legend".



In 1930, people on T.S Eliot's Christmas card list received the text of a new Christmas poem, which was carefully not called The Journey of the Kings. It has since acquired an almost canonical status: a Carol Service that didn't include "A cold coming we had of it..." would be as unthinkable as one which omitted "The bells of waiting advent ring...". (Last year's Carols from Kings College also included a poem by Alan Titchmarsh, but I'm guessing they won't make that mistake again. Ever.)


Mr. Eliot set his imagination to work on Matthew's story of the Magi:


A cold coming we had of it

Just the worst time of the year

For a journey, and such a journey:

The ways deep and the weather sharp,

The very dead of winter.

And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,

Lying down in the melting snow...


Camels? Well, there are plenty of camels in the Bible: they spend their time going through eyes of needles, being accidentally swallowed by Pharisees, and embarrassingly herded by Abraham several centuries before they'd actually been introduced into the middle-east. So Eliot and the Christmas card artists are simply making an informed deduction: if you were coming all the way from the Orient, let alone from Tarshish and the Isles, camels are the kind of vehicle you might be using.


Or not. Another good Epiphany reading is Isaiah 60 which specifically deals with the Jewish God revealing himself to the gentiles.


Arise, shine, for thy light has come
And the glory of the lord is risen upon thee
For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth,
and gross darkness the people:
but the LORD shall arise upon thee,
and his glory shall be seen upon thee.
And the Gentiles shall come to thy light,
and kings to the brightness of thy rising.
Lift up thine eyes round about, and see:
all they gather themselves together, they come to thee:
thy sons shall come from far,
and thy daughters shall be nursed at thy side. ...
The multitude of
camels shall cover thee,
the
dromedaries of Midian and Ephah;
all they from Sheba shall come:
they shall bring gold and incense;
and they shall shew forth the praises of the LORD.

So again: someone has put an Old Testament passage in which gentile kings bring Gold and Incense to God's Top King alongside a New Testament story in which Magi bring gold, incense and myrrh to Jesus. The camels have leapt from one text to the other.



The staff of Starbucks think that it is very important that, during December, I should listen to loud, poppy versions of Christmas songs with my coffee. (Has anyone in the world ever felt their life enhanced by hearing "Frosty the Snowman"?) As I write, a ludicrous, rappy version of the "Carol of the Drum" is blaring through the loudspeaker at me. The final stanza runs:


Mary nodded...

The Ox and Lamb kept time...

I played my drum for him...

I played my best for him...

Then he smiled at me...me and my drum.


This is of, course, a piece of 20th century fiction in which Matthew's Magi are accompanied to Luke's stable by a purely apocryphal little drummer-boy. (Did he bring eleven mates along, seeings as how it was the twelfth day of Christmas?) There's no particular reason why he wouldn't have found a lamb there. If we follow Miss Muir's reconstruction, the Magi arrived a few days after the Shepherds, and if we agree with Christina Rossetti, one of the shepherds may well have left a lamb as a present. (In the Mystery Plays, the shepherds are much less generous: they bring things like a bob of cherries, a caged bird, and a tennis ball.) But the version of the song I grew up with said "the ox and ass kept time". The lyrics have presumably been changed to stop the Bart Simpsons of this world giggling.


Christmas Carols are positively heaving with this kind of livestock: "why lies he in such mean estate, where ox and ass are feeding?"; "ox and ass before him bow, and he is in the manger now";"saint and angel, ox and ass, kept a watch together". The Archdruid, curiously, said that he could live without the ox and the ass because "they don't figure very strongly in the gospels". So far as I can see, they don't figure in them at all: but they do figure in Isaiah's prophecy - on the very first page of it, in fact:


"Hear, oh heaven

and give ear, oh earth:

For the Lord hath spoken

I have nourished and brought up children

And they have rebelled against me

The Ox knoweth his owner,

and the Ass his master's crib

but Israel doth not know,

my people doth not consider."


The New International version goes so far as translate "crib" as "manger", just in case we missed the point.


So: the Ox and the, er, Donkey, turn out to be an iconographic representation of the same theological point which the stories of the Wise Men and the Kings are making: when God comes to earth, pagans and foreigners and even farm animals recognise him - only the Chosen People can't. Which is, of course, exactly the point which John makes in the poem which opens his Gospel: "he came unto his own, and his own received him not."



The question about which parts of the nativity story are "historically and factually true" turns out not to be a particularly helpful one. The Camel isn't there to inform us of the historical facts about the Wise Men's mode of transportation: it's a sort of sacred hyperlink which says "When you read about Jesus, I want you to keep Isaiah's vision in mind: that the gentiles would one day acknowledge the lordship of YHWH." The artists and poets who turned the Magi into Monarchs weren't revealing a previously neglected bit of history: they were saying "When you hear the story of the gentiles spotting Jesus and the Jews missing him, remember the poem about how kings from all over the world came to worship the Messiah." The Ox and the Ass are there, not because we care particularly what kind of a barn the inn-keeper put Mary and Joseph up in, but to refer us to the Old Testament passage which says "God's chosen people have totally lost track of what God is like."


And yes: one might very well wish to go a lot further. Perhaps Matthew only put the gold and the incense into the story because he was familiar with the Old Testament passage about people on camels bringing gifts to the Messiah; perhaps he made the Magi tell Herod that they had observed the rising of the new King's star because he wanted a concrete illustration of the idea that Jesus was the "light" that Isaiah was writing about; perhaps Luke added a manger because he wanted to invoke the poem about farm animals being better at spotting God than holy people are.



This year, the big Christmas Is Cancelled story was about a survey commissioned by a trendy evangelical church in London: it transpired that 70% of the Great British Public did not "believe" in the traditional nativity story.


Well, a great deal depends on what you mean by "believe" and "nativity story". If by "nativity story" you mean the one that the Daily Mail is waxing nostaligic over -- the one in which Jesus was born in a snow covered stable, between an ox and an ass, surrounded by camel and lambs - and if by "believe" you mean "think that it is historically and factually true"; then the really surprising thing about be is 70% of people did believe in it. If you mean "believe in the message that the traditional iconography is putting across - that God came in secret and wasn't spotted by any of the professional God-spotters - then it's a lot stickier. St Helen's Church seemed to think that the doubting majority regarded the story is simply mythical, a fairy tale set in some never-never land, and have put out a little a video pointing out that Augustus, Quirinius and Herod are verifiable historical characters and that at least some classicists find the story of the census not implausible.


But the more interesting thing in the survey is that 22% of church-goers, and 28% of the general population don't believe that Jesus is both human and divine. The first figure isn't terribly surprising: any church must have a certain number of doubters, enquirers and hangers-on - they aren't meant to be members-only holy clubs, after all. But the second one - that nearly 7 out of 10 people believe in the central supernatural claim of Christianity, is astonishing.


At any rate "Is Jesus both God and Man" has much more to do with what's "true and crucial to believing in Christmas" than what kind of camel the wise men were riding on or how much snow there was on the stable. The Torygraph reported with glee that, in the last twelve months, the Archdruid has changed his mind on the Wise Men: he now thinks that the story is basically true, because there might well have been Jewish astrologers just outside the Roman Empire getting involved in the politics of Herod's last days in Jerusalem. Now, for all I know, he may be right: just as, for all I know, the annual article by an astronomer pointing out that a conjunction, a solar flare, or a comet might provide a rational basis for the Star of Bethlehem may be on to something. But I am actually much more scandalized by the Archdruid's attempt to rationalize the story as history than I was by his suggestion that it's a legend. Because political astrologers and stellar conjunctions tell us precisely nothing about what Matthew and Luke were trying to say.


If I submitted a film script about 21st century America in which a young George W Bush is chastised by his father for chopping down a cherry tree on the White House lawn, would anyone think to ask if that was historically and factually true? Wouldn't they all spot that I was saying, pictorially: "Dubya was as famous for his mendacity as George Washington was for his honesty?" If they started to write learned essays about whether cherries grow in Washington and whether the security men would have let him get his hands on a hatchet, wouldn't we think that they had just possibly missed the point?