Monday, May 30, 2005

Revenge of the Sith (1)

How is this reason (which is their reason) to judge a scholar worth?
By casting a ball at three straight sticks and defending the same with a fourth
But this they do (which is doubtless a spell) and other matters more strange
Until, by the operation of years, the hearts of their scholars change....

Last Thursday, about a quarter of Channel 4 News was given over to one news story.

Apparently, a group of foreigners wearing red shirts had scored more goals in a football match than a group of foreigners wearing some other colour of shirt. This was particularly exciting, because at one point the second group of foreigners had had more goals than the first group. A lot of people who lived in the city after which the winning name was named were quite pleased about this. The winning team was driven around the city really, really, slowly in an open-top bus. A lot of people turned out to cheer them. They sang a rotten song from a rather sexist musical over and over again and very badly. There wasn't a riot. There wasn't a riot during the "game" either. This came as a relief to the police, because there sometimes is.

Why did the most "serious" TV news programme give such prominence to this non-story? "It's a bus. Yes, it's definitely a bus. There are lots of people. Thousands. They are very pleased. They haven't been this pleased since the last time their team won something which was quite a number of years ago now."

While they were "reporting" it, various thoughts crossed my mind. How many of the half million supporters have ever read a book? Come to that, how many of the team have? Did the team coach become a football instructor primarily because of the opportunities it provides him with to look at young men with no clothes on? Did he tell them that if they didn't try hard enough at todays match he would spank them with his plimsole; or make them train in their underwear? Or did he become a football coach because he was such a pathetic, abject failure as a geography teacher?

My apathy towards football is limitless. Last weekend was the wedding of two of my friends, and I genuinely had no idea that it was also Cup Final day until the vicar made a joke about it. (My reaction was, as it always is: "Gosh, that means it must be the Eurovision Song Contest as well. Which do I care about less?")

I find it hard enough to undersrand why anyone would, under any circumstances, want to watch to someone else playing a game of any kind. But Association Football seems pointless even by ball-game standards. I understand that what people pay to see are sort of exhibition matches, in which skilled athletes impress the audience by making balls behave in surprising and unexpected ways. And I can occasionally look at a game of Rugby Footbal or cricket and see that something clever is being done, as "You wouldn't think that such a big man could run so fast" or "That man must have a great grasp of Newtonian mechanics to make the ball bounce in that particular way." But "professional" soccer is to me no cleverer or more interesting than the kids playing in the park. Grown men passing a ball to each other in a vaguely energetic way.

I admit that I don't properly understand the rules of Cricket. Cricket exists mainly in order for people not to understand the rules of it. It's purpose within the class structure is to define an in-group of those who went to the right school and therefore know the difference between a silly-mid-on and an ablative absolute, and an out-group who didn't and don't. (This is also the reason that an irritating hard-core of pedants are at this moment composing an e-mail pointing out that I should have said "laws" rather than "rules" in the previous sentence.) But this I admit: if I understood cricket better, and had a better idea of what was going on, I might it enjoy it more. But I am rather afraid that I understand the "laws" of soccer perfectly well, and that the reason that I am missing the game's subtle points is because it hasn't got any.

Athletics I have a slightly better handle on, provided we are talking participation and the Athenian ideal. If I can go to the gym and challenge myself to run a mile in less than 20 minutes, and then gradually reduce that time over the next few years, then I can see why a sports enthusiast would want to push himself to the limits of what he is physically capable of. Run a mile in 300 seconds; run 26 miles without falling over; read the back page of the Sun without his lips moving. It makes even more sense if you are challenging yourself to do something which it might have occurred to a human being to do in any case: run a very long distance; run a short distance very quickly; jump very high; lift a very heavy weight. I'll even put up with "throwing a spear", because when the Greeks first invented P.E lessons, spear-throwing was a useful skill, and I'm a sucker for tradition. When you get into "jump very high holding a fiberglass stick" my eyes start to glaze over again. If you are an averagely good club runner, then maybe it is interesting to you to know what speed the best runner in the world achieved in last years egg-and-spoon race: but I find it hard to correlate actually watching someone else running with anything that I would call "fun" (Unless, I suppose, you are studying their technique in order to improve yours, in the way an amateur chess player might study the games of the masters to improve their own.)

I understand how you can love the city where you grew up a lot better than I understand how you can "love" your country. A city is a concrete thing which you can know; a country is too big and abstract to have many feelings about. So I can see how a religion could have emerged in which champions of particular cities battle one each other in order to ritually earn status. If the battle involves kicking a ball rather than cutting each other up with swords, so much the better. If it prevents the less well-educated citizens from getting into real fights, then it's obviously a Good Ritual. If –as very often happens-- it encourages them to get into fights, riot, and from time to time, murder each other, then it's a very Bad Ritual and Tony Blair should abolish it.

If sport was still mostly amateur, I could understand it even better. If Liverpool FC consisted of local lads who had started out duffing up softies behind the changing rooms of Liverpool Bog Standard Comprehensive, and had gradually worked their way up to playing in the city's First Team – if the people you were cheering were really "your own boys" -- then I could I see the point of it. In fact "our" team consists of people from different cities and different countries who is wearing a red shirt because a businessman is paying them a lot of money to do so. Next season, some other city will buy their loyalty for a six figure sum.

In order to appreciate something, you have to understand it, and, since one can only understand a finite number of things in a life-time, the majority of people are not going to understand the majority of things. If I decided to watch 100 hours of cricket (that's the equivalent of about two test matches, and feels longer) at the end of the process I would probably have a good idea of how the game works, and would therefore be in a position to enjoy it. (I would probably also start wearing blazers and ties in the summer and feeling nostalgic about the Empire.)

But perhaps there is really nothing to understand. Human beings invest the most unlikely things with significance. Collections of beer mats; numbers on the fronts of railway trains; ball games; twenty-eight-year-old movies; forty-two-year-old TV shows. If you have got to the point where 500,000 people regard a football match as being important, than it is important. To attempt to deconstruct the game, to understand where its importance resides, is to miss the point.

As a wise man once said: you gotta ask the question, you ain't never gonna know the answer.

NOTE: The above contains a lot of personal prejudice; several out-of-date stereotypes and caricatures; numerous over-generalisations; one or two factual inaccuracies and also a grain of truth.

Just like everything written in the mainstream media about Revenge of the Sith.

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Sunday, May 22, 2005

Revenge of the Sith (0)

Preliminary review, written after having actually watched the movie.

1: It didn't suck.
2: George Lucas has clearly gone completely insane.
If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider buying a copy of George and Joe and Jack and Bob >which contains all of  my essays on Star Wars (going right back to the opening night of the Phantom Menace!) and related subjects.
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Saturday, May 21, 2005

Revenge of the Sith (0)

For review of "Revenge of the Sith", see review of "Attack of the Clones", only more so.
If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider buying a copy of George and Joe and Jack and Bob >which contains all of  my essays on Star Wars (going right back to the opening night of the Phantom Menace!) and related subjects.
Alternatively, please consider making a donation of £1 for each essay you have enjoyed.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Suppose a man has two cows (cont.)

The intrinsic dignity of labour (as opposed to Labour)

I am not convinced by the theory which says that it is better or righter for children to be supported by wages that their parents earn from work rather than in some other way.

If I won the lottery, or discovered an oil well at the bottom of my garden, or was a member of the House of Lords, then I would stop working and spend more time with my children. I don't think that they would necessarily be worse off because they had a father was independently wealthy / one of the idle rich.

I can conceive of happy children raised in a hippy commune where no-one does much work, and unhappy ones raised by a horny handed son of toil.

Granted that there are useful jobs which need doing, the best way for them to get done is for someone to do them. Our present system, in which a person goes and exchanges his skills and labour for wages, seems to be a pretty good one, although not necessarily the best possible.

I tend to agree with Oscar that the human race would be much happier if machines became so efficient that hardly anyone would have to do any work.

Welfare dependency

As long as there are jobs which need doing, it is a Bad Thing for the state to pay someone to stay at home and do nothing.

If there are no jobs which need doing -- if supply exceeds demand in the labour market -- then I don't necessarily think that it is a Good Thing to artificially create jobs for the unemployed. You could create a million new jobs tomorrow by saying "Self-service petrol stations are henceforth banned: every petrol pump must have an attendant." But I see no advantage of that compared with paying people dole cheques.

It follows that any welfare system under which the unemployed are financially better off than the employed is a Bad Thing, since it creates a financial dis-incentive to find a job.

If, in a given system, you find that unemployment benefit pays better than some salaried work, your options are, pretty clearly, decrease unemployment benefit, or increase the pay of some salaried employment.

Unemployment benefit, would, on my system, amount to the absolute minimum you need to live and participate in society. (Well above subsidence, but not much left over for luxuries. TV, books (*) and a newspaper are, on my view, not luxuries.) Any company paying its staff less than this amount should (and, I think, probably is) be regarded as committing a criminal offence.
Welfare dependency can therefore be solved by the simple expedient of "slightly increasing the national minimum wage to a level of about 25% more than unemployment benefit."

That's that one sorted out. God, I'm good.

Benefit fraud
I am not convinced by the theory that it is easy for individuals to generate huge incomes for themselves by defrauding the unemployment benefit services. The most serious large scale benefit fraud is perpetrated by organised criminals, who have run scams where landlords manage to claim housing benefit from fictitious tenants living in fictitious property. This is a Bad Thing, but nothing to do with the poor becoming dependent on welfare. And, by the way, it won't be solved by charging me £40 for a compulsory I.D card.

The most common kind of benefit fraud that private individuals are accused of is continuing to claim benefit while they are, in fact, in work. This is only possible if you are doing casual, cash in hand type work, but it must be relatively common. It is obviously Very Naughty but doesn't quite fit into the "people who have never worked" model.

£45 is the basic benefit for a single person. You can also, by an extremely convoluted system, get your council tax paid as well. (One office in the town hall sends out cheques so that citizens can send them back to other offices in the same town hall!) You can also get your rent paid, if you are living in a reasonably sized flat, or a contribution to your mortgage interest.

I am trying to think what else I claimed while out of work.
Cheap spectacles.
Reduced dental fees.
Free train fares to job interviews out of town (very useful)
One-off "hardship payments" if you can make out a case that you need, say, a new pair of shoes. (I never claimed that, myself.)

If I was going to do a scam, the best I can think of is getting someone to send fake job-offers from Scotland in order to get a free train ride. But they don't give you the money, just a little note that says "This person can travel free between these stations." Maybe you could somehow sell the warrants on the black-market.

I am genuinely interested to know what kind of frauds people are supposed to be doing to get very high payments out of the system.

The £45 is for a single person. If you have dependents, then you can get very much higher sums of money -- X pounds for each wife, and Y pounds for each child. You might be able to claim for imaginary children, but social services would catch up with you very quickly.

The tabloids occasionally get excited by the existence of someone (often a dark-skinned someone) who has 17 children and is therefore getting a huge amount of money out of the state. They conclude that the evil working classes are all dropping litters of babies all over the place simply in order to claim increased benefit. I have never been convinced. The alternative is to cut off the offender's benefit, whereupon his children either starve to death or get taken into state children's homes. Which sounds a lot like "Using an intercontinental ballistic missile to crack a nut."

Incidentally, did you ever see "Cathy Come Home"?

The Undeserving Poor
Ebenezer often pretends to believe that there are plenty of jobs for everyone, and the unemployed are simply lazy people who refuse to work. This is very unlikely to be true.In the 80s, when Mad Norman made his famous "on yer bike" remark, there simply were not very many jobs in some areas. Mrs. Thatcher was keeping unemployment artificially high as part of her policy to destroy the Trades Unions and therefore depower the Labour Party (a policy which largely succeeded.)

After Gordon Brown's first budgie, the Daily Mail got a massive stiffy because it thought that Brown was going to "force" lazy unemployed people to work whether they wanted to or not. But nothing appeared to come of this, presumably because most unemployed people want a job, but can't find one.

I have had periods out of work under Thatcher, Major, and Blair, and each time, you had to demonstrate that you were making a reasonable effort to look for work. Under Thatcher, you had to bring copies of job applications with you each week when you "signed on". Blair has introduced a radical new scheme called "the New Deal" where you have to bring a folder of job applications to a special interview you attend every three months. If you are unemployed long term, they hassle you (or help you, depending on your view point) in other ways. The idea that the unemployed are encouraged to remain unemployed is simply one of Ebenezer's fantasies.

But. Let us suppose we found an example of the a lazy person who really doesn't want to work. Are we saying that we would be prepared to cut off his benefit and put him on the streets selling Big Issue? Would this, in fact, be preferable to letting his rip us all off for £45 a week? More to the point, are we going to say to the genuinely poor person who is genuinely looking for a job "Sorry. You can't have any help, because there is a lazy hippy up the road?"

I agree that the best way of helping the undeserving poor is to address the conditions which made them poor and undeserving. This probably involves educating them, improving their health care, improving their standard of housing, giving them better mobility so they can look for jobs out of town. The best way of doing this is, er, through the welfare state.

(*) It makes no difference whether the unemployed have money to buy books, or access to really good free libraries.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

The Daleks are back – and this time, they've got a slightly more complicated connecting point for their antennae!

I want to dislike the new "Doctor Who". And I've tried. It would be so much funnier to be able to rip each episode to shreds as it came out.

As a devout fan, there is plenty in that I feel I ought to dislike. It's trampled on enough fannish sacred cows in seven episodes. A psychotic Doctor reveling in the suffering of his foes. A sympathetic Dalek. Fandom went into collective apoplexy in 1996 when Doctor Paul had a brief and rather chaste goodbye kiss with, er, thingy, the heart-surgeon. Here, we have monsters openly referring to the companion as "the woman you love" and police officers asking if their relationship is of a sexual nature, and and we hardly bat an eyelid.

Then there are the belch jokes and the fart jokes. Russel T Davies explained that he wouldn't consider a female Doctor because he wouldn't want parents up and down the land to have to explain to their kids "why the Doctor doesn't have a willy any more", so knob jokes can't be too far away. For some, this amounts to blasphemy of "Jerry Springer" proportions. The idea that Our Hero knows such words, much less understands the concept behind the words, is as unthinkable as ...I don't the idea that the Queen Mother goes to the lavatory. In fact, the belching and the farting are a symptom of the programmers dangerously post-modern tendencies; as if it was ill-at-ease with it's own textual status.

Suppose the TARDIS materialises in a 1960s police-station, and the Doctor gets into an amusing argument with a Constables about whose Police Box it is. This makes complete sense within the imaginary universe of the TV show. But suppose that the policemen are, in fact, being played by the cast of "Z-Cars". We've now added a meta-textual joke. The audience, looking at the story from outside, understand what is happening and enjoy an ironic smile. But the characters, who are "inside" the story don't and can't see that anything is funny. Nothing has violated the story's internal logic, and the audience's belief in the show is not undermined in any way. Whenever we watch TV we are aware of a sort of double-vision: we imagine that we are watching real people whose fates we care about; while at the same time knowing that they are only actors pretending. (This double vision is pretty much essential if drama is going to exist. If you actually thought you were witnessing real surgery, then "Casualty" would be unbearable.) But suppose that, a bit later in the same episode, the Doctor were to turn to the camera, raise a glass, and says "By the way: A merry Christmas to all of you at home!" That action makes no sense within the story: the Doctor cannot possibly know that he is a character in a TV show, let alone be aware of the presence of cameras or want to talk to the audience. (It's pretty weird that he even knows it's Christmas Day: when on earth did the series start happening in real time?) You can't get away with this kind of thing more than, oh, once every fourty-two years: it undermines the whole reality of the show. It is one thing for Daffy Duck to be able to see the animator's paint brush -- we don't need to believe that he is a real duck (in fact, it is quite important that we don't.) It would be quite another for Indiana Jones to be aware of the camera and the special effects team. The whole fun of the movie depends on us believing (up to a point) that someone is really in danger.

As we have seen, the belching wheelie bin was an example of the second kind of meta-textual joke: it happens because the story teller thinks that it would be funny and for no other reason. The flatulent aliens in "Aliens of London" / "World War III" were another instance of the same kind of problem. Granted, there was a good, funny, story-internal reason for the joke – the squidgy aliens have squashed themselves inside rubbery human-skins and gas keeps escaping through the rubber. It often happens in body-snatcher scenarios there is some unique feature which enables you to spot which humans are in fact aliens in disguise -- webbed feat, green eyes, lack of reflection -- so I had no particular problem with the identifying feature being something completely ridiculous. What I objected to was the fact that the aliens got the joke. There was no story-internal reason for them to suddenly start talking in a 1970s playground slang: it only happened because RTD thought it would be funny to have a pompous MP say "I'm shaking my botty."

Much worse were the references to the Iraq war at the end of the same episode. There is no reason why "Doctor Who" shouldn't address itself to politics, although in the past it has usually done so through allegory or morality play. If video-nasties are in the news then the Doctor might find himself on a planet where the populace watch vicious gladitorial death sports. If C.N.D is in the news, then maybe the Doctor will befriend a race of ardent pacifists and help them understand why they are wrong. Actual satire, though, is remarkably rare. Helen A in "The Happiness Patrol" is (arguably) a caricature of Mrs Thatcher; the "Sunmakers" contained some weak jokes about the British tax system. Had I been briefed to talk about Iraq in the "Doctor Who" format, I would either have sent the Doctor to the center of government on some totally fictitious world on the brink of war; or else I would have dropped him in Baghdad in 2003 and used the real war as a backdrop to an alien-invasion story. (Maybe allied bombing released a nameless alien evil from the ruins of ancient Babylon.)

RTD chose neither of these options. Instead, he put some some key-words into the mouths of the aliens knowing that the viewers would see their significance and laugh. ("The alien's spacecraft have massive weapons of destruction capable of being deployed within 45 seconds"). The aliens were not making a joke: they were genuinely trying to scare the human race into launching a nuclear strike. The humans didn't see the joke: they took it all totally seriously. Only we-the-viewer, watching the events through the square goldfish bowl, could see the similarity between a Prime Minister who was really an alien telling lies about "massive weapons of destruction" and a similar lie that was once told by a Prime Minister who is almost certainly human.

But the story was very specifically set in 2006; so we had logically to assume that everyone on planet earth would also see the joke, which they apparently didn't. It was as if there was a fairly realistic piece of science-fiction going on in one room (the sense of panic and popular reaction to the invasion was really very well done) and a rather silly comedy sketch going on in the other. I felt that this – along with the silly caricature MPs with silly jobs and silly constituencies – radically undermined my ability to believe in what was otherwise a really good earth-invasion story. The writer didn't really believe in it. The characters didn't believe in it. We are only playing.

Bottom the Weaver takes off his lion mask and says "Its all right. I'm not really frightening! Its only a play!

Another problem is the show's embarrassing fondness for deus ex machina. "Doctor Who" isn't really suited to the single-45 minute story format. In the old days, each Episode 1 established a new setting and a new supporting cast, who the Doctor would hang out with for 4 week or 6 weeks or even longer. 45 minutes is not long enough to establish a setting, establish a danger and crisis, and then resolve it. (It works fine for the type of ongoing US series where the same settings and supporting cast are used throughout an entire season.) I quite see that the 25 minute cliffhanger format doesn't work in The Modern Age. I think that for season 2, RTD should try to establish a compromise, where the Doctor stays on one planet for 2 or 3 weeks, but gets involved in 2 or 3 separate, self-contained story lines before moving on. At any rate, it is getting wearisome that each week, there is a magic button that the Doctor or one of his companions can push to end the story. (Week 1: The Doctor happens to have a cannister of "alien destroying chemical" in his pocket. Week 2: There happens to be a "defeat the baddies" button hidden on the ship. Week 3: The guest star realises that the aliens go away if your turn the gas on. Week 4/5 The Doctor has a secret code word to call in an airstrike Week 7: The alien goes away if you turn the heating up.) On rather too many occasions, the Internet turns out to be a Universal Plot Device: any character can do anything at any time by saying "Oh, I looked it up on the Internet."

Lastly, and most seriously, there is a distinctly laddish undertone to the show. This is only thing which could seriously turn me against it. The Doctor is...well...a doctor. A wise man. A scientist. An essentially non-violent character who solves things with his mind. The one thing he can't be, mustn't ever be, is a standard tough-guy hero.

I can deal with the occasional violation of the taboo which says that the Doctor doesn't carry a gun. Doctor Peter broke that rule once or twice, and Doctor Tom went around with K-9, which amounts to much the same thing. But I am uneasy when he threatens the kid who put graffiti on the TARDIS with "I'll 'ave you" and taunts the teenage genius with the words "You? Fight? That's a laugh? What are you going to do? Throw your A levels at him?" before picking up a big gun and saying"Lock and load!" A Doctor who wears normal clothes and talks with a northern accent is an "interesting new characterisation." A macho Doctor who despises learning wouldn't be the Doctor.

Having said all that, the show, at some deep and fundamental level, works. I am having a great time watching it. At the end of episodes I phone up my friends in order to says "Wow" and "Gosh" and "Best 'Doctor Who' story ever!"(I say that even when it isn't true, but in the case of "Dalek" it very possibly was.) I was on a high for twenty minutes after the "Aliens of London" cliffhanger.

There is a great sense that RTD is enjoying himself. He seems to embark on each episode saying "Given that I can do anything I like, what amazingly cool thing can I do next?" (One sometimes had a sense, in the Olden Days, of your Terrence Dicks's and Robert Holmes's saying "Which quite interesting story about yet another alien in the hold of yet another space ship can I do a perfectly workmanlike job on?")

While the sci-fi elements of the show have not, so far, been scintillatingly original, Davies is doing a brilliant job of finding new directions in which the basic "Doctor Who" premise can be pressed. Indeed, he seems a lot more interested in "Doctor, Rose, and what it is like to travel through time" than he is in the actual adventures that they encounter along the way. (This may be why the two absolutely stand-out stories so far have been the ones not penned by RTD himself.) We are invited to imagine what it feels like for Rose to know that she is in the future, or the past, or on an alien planet. Previous companions might have spent an episode or two saying "I.D.B.I" but they very rapidly came to accept the idea that a jaunt back to ancient Rome was no more surprising than, say, a business trip to Japan. It may not be subtle for Adam to faint when he realises that he is the Far Future, but at least it makes the point that Time Travel is a weird idea. Much better are the moments when Rose realises that her mother has been dead for centuries, or that she is now eight years older and says, thoughtfully, "That's so weird." We are asked to consider what it is like for the family and friends of all these "assistants" that the Doctor plucks of the face of the earth; and what it is like for the companion herself when she goes home. These may be obvious questions, but they have never been addressed before. (At any rate not outside of fan-fiction.) This week's story, "The Long Game" featured a naughty companion who broke away from the Doctor and the main storyline and started acquiring alien technology for himself. While I didn't think it was that well handled, it did at least show a companion doing the kinds of things you or I might do if we were dumped a thousand years in the future. And it showed a companion acting pro-actively. If nothing else, this gave us a sense that the world had an existence beyond the confine of the corridor where the Doctor was solving the plot.

Old "Doctor Who" was and is a powerful concept embodied by some extremely charismatic actors and also Peter Davison. But it very rapidly stopped being a " magical idea about traveling through space and time" and became "a well-known format for a TV show." 'Doctor Who' story" and " 'Doctor Who' companion" became known quantities. (Bonny Langford was the nadir of this malaise: she had no personality or back story; her whole raison d'etre was "generic 'Doctor Who' companion.") New "Doctor Who" has left these concepts and formulas virtually unchanged, but said "Suppose this was happening to real people, in the real world: what would feel like for them?" It makes the programme feel fresh and dangerous. It makes old-hands feel right at home, but unncertain about what is going to happen next. It makes people who never watched "Doctor Who" in their lives say "Now I understand what you saw in this old TV show."

Well, isn't Regeneration one of the things which "Doctor Who" is all about? At first, Ben and Polly couldn't believe that this clownish little man was the wise old Doctor that they first met. But once they got to know him, they realised that deep down, they were very much the same...

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Quote of Day

From the Indy lettercol:

Sir: In my obituary of the actress Margaretta Scott (7 May), a beguiling misprint - which she too would have enjoyed - referring to her appearance in John Kerr's convent-set piece on Saint Bernadette, gives the play the title Mistress of No Vices. While this indeed eloquently suggests the lack of conflict which was one of the problems of a ploddingly wimpled drama, it should for the sake of theatrical history perhaps be recorded that the real title of this postulant play was Mistress of Novices.


Suppose a man has two cows....

Question: What is the difference between a socialist and a Tory?

One Possible Answer: A socialist believes in Society. A Tory believes that there are only individuals and their families.

When a Tory gets his tax-bill, he says: 'Wait a minute. I worked hard and saved in order to pay for my family's education. Why should I also pay for the education of the child of some feckless lay-about who has wasted all his father’s money on riotous living?'

Or 'I have taken out private medical insurance for myself and my family. Why should I pay for the health care of wastrels who have taken no such precautions?'

Or 'I don’t have any kids, so why should I pay to educate yours?'

Or 'My daughter didn’t become pregnant before she got married: so why should I have to pay for the housing and childcare for the brazen hussies who did?'

Or 'I don’t have any dependent relatives, and I’m never sick. I don’t own a motor-car, and if I get burgled I shall shoot the burglar myself and charge it to expenses. So why oh why should I have to pay for all these schools, hospitals, roads and policemen who I never use?'

In short: the Tory thinks that the reason that the rich are rich and the poor are poor is because the rich worked hard, earned qualifications, and took risks, and the poor sat at home watching Ant and Dec. If you are going to take money away from the hard-working rich and give it to the lazy poor, why on earth will anyone ever try to better themselves? Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses? On yer bike. Bah, humbug!

I paraphrase, slightly.

Not all Tories are necessarily this mean. Some of them are christians. Some of them may even by Christians. If Oliver - a poor, penniless, uneducated orphan - is sent to a free state school, partly financed out of Ebenezer’s taxes, then Ebenezer may very well think that his money has been put to good use, especially if Oliver is one of the hard-working deserving poor, and not one of the Iranian gypsies who are swamping the country. But Ebenezer still thinks that the money has been taken from him and given to Oliver, for Oliver’s benefit. He may wonder why the government doesn't just let him keep his own money and bestow his largess on whatever paupers he felt like.

But a Socialist - one who believes in Society - doesn’t quite see it that way. He agrees, of course, that Ebenezer’s money is going to build Oliver’s school. But he doesn’t think that Ebenezer is the loser or the philanthropist in the transaction. If Oliver wasn’t at school then he would probably be wandering the streets, taking drugs and stealing handkerchiefs from police officers. If he grew up without any education at all, then he might end up as one of the unemployed, in which case Ebenezer’s taxes would go to fund his dole cheque, his housing benefit, his health care. Or if (as the most extreme Ebenenzers would like) there was no dole, housing benefit or free health care then he would presumably starve and drop dead on Ebenzer’s doorstep, making it look untidy and triggering off a cholera epidemic. Or failing that, he'd turn to crime and Ebenezer would have to pay the wages of lots more police-officers and hang-men.

But if Oliver goes to school, then, all things being equal, he will learn stuff, and end up getting some useful job. He might become a plumber, and fix Ebenezer’s boiler; or a bus-driver, and drive Ebenezer’s employees to work, or even, conceivably, a doctor who will save Ebenezer’s life.

So according to socialists, the reason that we take money from Ebenezer is mainly for Ebenezer’s benefit. Because when you have a welfare state -- free doctors, free schools, free libraries, grants for students, welfare payments for the unemployed, council housing for the poor, decent hostels for the homeless, public service broadcasting, legal aid -- you have a happy, healthier, better functioning society and everyone is better off - even those of us who never go to the doctor or travel by train.

Cue loud chorus of 'Jerusalem'.

Note: Having accepted the theory that everything which happens in society affects everything else which happens in society, it is very tempting to say 'and therefore, everything which happens in society is everyone else’s business.' If I smoke cigerattes, and drop dead at an early age, then I am not only harming myself, but harming society. You have to pick up the bill for my medical treatment or my funeral expenses; and while I am being dead, the rest of society isn't benefiting from my labour or skills. So it's the government's job to stop me from smoking. If I yell at my kid, slap it, or allow it to watch 'Doctor Who' before its eighth birthday, then it will grow up traumatized and harm society in all sorts of ways. So it's the government's job to decide how I bring up my children. The same logic which makes socialists want to fund schools and hospitals also makes them want to make laws about what kinds of drugs people can smoke and what kinds of furry animals they can kill. There is at least some truth behind the Tory charge that Socialists are a bunch of interfering busy-bodies who want to set up a Nanny State.

The problem with Tony's election campaign was that he was trying to argue for basically "socialist" ideas – state schools and the health service – on Tory grounds. Just before the election was announced, Tony published a risible "pledge card", indicating what he would do if he were returned to office.

As usual, the pledge card no verbs:

1. Your family better off

2. Your family treated better and faster (*)

3. Your child achieving more

4. Your country's borders protected

5. Your community safer

6. Your children with the best start

Your family better off. Your family treated better. Your child achieving more. Your child with the best start. We are not trying to convince Ebenezer that it would be a good thing to give money to the government to fund the schools, hospitals and social services that poor people will use, for the good of society. We are are trying to convince him that it would be a good idea to give the government money to finance the schools and hospitals that he will use himself.

The trouble with this is that it isn't true: if I want the best education for my child (not yours) then my best bet would be to take him out of the state system altogether. So my best bet is to vote for the tax-cutting party, and use my windfall to pay for a place in a private school with good resources and small classes. The best system of all for my child (not yours) would be the oft-mooted "voucher" system, why I get a piece of paper saying "I promise to be the bearer on demand the price of of fourteen years of state education" and can hand it over to any private establishment which takes my fancy. But this only works if we think that, when your child is dropped in some second rate sink school and forced to eat turkey twizzlers, then this only effects you and doesn't matter to me.

Tory-ism would work fine if the world was fair.

To believe in Tory-ism, you need to convince yourself that that the rich are rich and the poor are poor because – in the long run – the rich deserve to be rich and the poor deserve to be poor. And if the most valuable jobs were always the best paid and if hard work always resulted in wealth and laziness always resulted in poverty, this would be true. We could then dispense with the whole edifice of the welfare state. Given that resources are always finite, it would be perfectly reasonable to say that the person with the money got the health-care, and the person without the money died. If it comes to a choice, the fact that the rich man is rich proves that he has more right to be alive than the poor man.

But the world is not always fair. Some very valuable members of society – teachers, nursers, people who test mobile phone games – are paid very little. People who make no discernible contribution to society – professional footballers, Graham Norton. members of the House of Lords – are paid astronomically large sums of money. And as long as we are talking about luxury items – fast cars and meals in expensive restarunts-- then I am prepared to put up with the fact that richest person gets the best toys. But I am not prepared to accept the idea that David Beckam has more right to be alive than a hospital cleaner, or that he has more right to education and culture, or that he should have an advantage if he gets involved in some legal dispute. I conclude that there should be a very well-resourced national health service and state school system, a heavily subsidised public transport system; low rent council housing for the poor and housing benefit for the very poor; a public service broadcasting system that has a remit to show science documentaries, serious arts programmes and "Doctor Who"; reasonably generous (i.e slightly above subsidence) social-security payment for the unemployed and disabled.... I want to live in a society where everyone gets the essentials regardless of how rich they are, because that is the best kind of society to live in. To achieve this, we all pay slightly more tax. (**)

And no, I am not going send jackbooted stormtroopers out to close down the private schools and burn everyone's BUPA card: I'm sure that the rich will always have their children educated and their hemorrhoids removed in very expensive private institutions. Under my system, the state schools will be so good that they won't get much advantage from doing so. ("I understand that you are going to abolish First Class coaches, Mr. Lenin.""Oh no. I am going to abolish Third Class coaches.")

"But Andrew – that's a pretty equivocal definition of 'socialism' isn't it?"

"Yes. I guess that if one wanted to be pedantic (in the sense of 'correct') one would define socialism as 'An economic system where the state owns and manages all the industry, supposedly in the interests of the population.' (***)"

"Do you believe in that?"

"I think that gas, water, electricity and public transport should either be nationalised or heavily subsidised, but I have no interest in the securing the state ownership of the means of production, no."

"Did the Labour Party ever believe in that?"

"I don't think so. Not unless you count Tony Benn."

"So by socialism you mean 'a robust, re-distributive welfare state'."

"Yeah. And Trade Unions, which we haven't covered."

"So why not say that, instead of bandying the word "socialism" about with gay abandon."

"Er...mostly because it annoys Tony Blair, I guess."

(*) Incidentally: isn't it cool that a Labour pledge card --(cue Welsh accent) a Labour pledge card -- feels the need to 'pledge' that the NHS will "remain free at the point of need." You wonder what else Tony will feel that he has to re-assure us of on the 2009 card.

'We pledge not to bring back hanging,drawing and quartering within the life time of the next Labour Government.'

'We pledge not to drop any nuclear bombs on France, even if President Bush asks us really nicely.'

'We pledge that Tony Blair will under no circumstances discuss theology in the bath with Edwina Currie'

(**) Where, incidentally, I part company with Old Labour and drift slightly into the Howard camp is that I don't see any logical reason why, because the State pays for something, it should also have day-to-day managerial control over it. I think that state schools should be financed out of taxation; but I don't think that it follows that the minister for education should be able to decide what geography text book children read; I think that that hospitals should be funded out of taxation, but I don't think that Tony Blair should be able to arbitrarily decided that breast cancer is a higher priority than prostate cancer.

(***) Contrast with "communism" which says that we would get rid of money and ownership altogether: everyone would work for the benefit of the collective, and the collective would provide him with whatever he needed. From each according to his ability, to each, according to his need. Some cynics think that this might not work in practice.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Every cloud has a sliver lining

Howard to stand down as Tory leader

Four more years of Tony, followed by Gordon Brown, Oliver Letwin and war with Iran. And it's all our fault.

This land of such dear souls, this dear, dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leas'd out,—I die pronouncing it,—
Like to a tenement or pelting farm:
England, bound in with the triumphant sea,
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots, and rotten parchment bonds:
That England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
Ah! would the scandal vanish with my life,
How happy then were my ensuing death.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Vote hypocrite. Get Bigot. Which liar do you want to ruin the country?

How can I go forward when I don't know which way I'm facing? -- John Lennon

I suppose I should say something about the election. I haven't followed it particularly closely. What I've seen has felt like a dark exercise in self-parody. Maybe on Friday morning, I will step out of the shower and find that the last three weeks have been Rory Bremmer sketch and the actual election hasn't started.

I have fantasies of what I might have done if someone had canvassed me.

"Hello. I'm your Conservative Candidate."

"I am amazed you are prepared to show your face in public. Please crawl back into your hole and set a pack of dogs on an asylum seeker, or whatever it is you do. "New" Labour make me angry. I can't be bothered to be angry with you. You are quite literally beneath my contempt."

"Hello. I'm your Liberal Candidate."

"Well, you've got me vote. Don't look so pleased. I couldn't possibly imagine your guy as PM. (Did you see the way he shriveled up on Paxman?) I'm only voting for you because you're what's left after eliminating Big Red Bastard and Little Blue Bastard. Have you thought of changing your name to the "None of the Above" party?"

"Hello. I'm your Labour Candidate."

"Are we going to go through the motions? Where I say "You sold out socialism?" and you say "Yes, but we did re-brand "Job Club" as "the New Deal."? Where I say "Iraq" and you say "I don't think that that is the most important issue facing the electorate? I'm a Guardian-reading metropolitan airy fairly civil liberties supporting elitist. I believe that education for its own sake is the main point of civilisation, as opposed to a dodgy medieval idea. If I'm anything, I'm a socialist. So why don't you just accept that I'm The Enemy and sod off?"

Have you noticed that the political cartoonists are still depicting Michael Howard as Count Dracula? It isn't remotely funny. And it does strike me as a little insensitive to wait until we have a Jew standing for high office and then start making jokes which more or less say that he, er, drinks the blood of infants.

Howard himself started out running rather a good campaign. My first reaction when I saw the "Are you thinking what we're thinking?" poster was "That's a very shrewd piece of political advertising. If you are widely regarded as out of date and out of touch, then selling yourself as the party of common sense is a very clever move." (Well, actually that was my second reaction. My first reaction was "I think so, Brain, but where would we get that much chocolate sauce at this time of night?") But then he attempted to reduce the campaign down to five key slogans: Fewer Taxes, Fewer Criminals; Fewer Foreigners; Cleaner Matrons; More Spanking. Regardless of what question he is asked, he reels of this list of five promises.

"Mr Howard, some people would say that you are too old to be Prime Minister."

"I know they do. And let me tell you why we need cleaner hospitals, better school discipline; more police-men...."

Five campaign targets turned out to be too many to keep track of, so, in a very 1984-ish way, the whole Tory campaign got reduced to a single over-arching political doctrine: "Tony Blair is a liar."

Saying "Tony Blair is a liar" had the advantage over the other slogans of being pretty obviously true. And, uniquely for a Tory poster, it makes loony-left peaceniks like myself nod in approval ("If he lied to lead us into a war, he'll lie to win an election.") The effect is rather spoiled by the fact that Howard supported the War against Iraq, and says that he would have done so even had known then everything that he knows now. So: you can't trust Tony because he got us involved in a stupid, expensive, un-necessary, illegal war and lied about it; whereas we would have got you involved in a stupid, un-necessary, illegal war, but we would have told the truth about it. Not the most scintillating message I have ever heard.

You'd have thought that someone would have spotted posters which appeared to have been written by hand were just asking to be scrawled on? The first time I saw the poster which says "It's not racist to want to limit immigration", a helpful graffiti artist had added "Of course it is you ****ing twat" in a similar handwriting. Not subtle, but...

By the way: it's not racist to want to limit immigration. No-one ever said it was. When Michael says he supports "controlled immigration", he's cleverly suggesting that Labour think that there shouldn't be any such controls, which is pretty obviously not true. (Similarly, when he asks "What's wrong with there being some discipline in schools?" he is implying that Labour positively opposes the idea of kids behaving themselves, which is nonsense.) Most racists want to limit immigration, but not all those who want to limit immigration are racists. But Howard's real triumph is that he has succeeded in giving the word "immigration" a negative aura. Just before parliament broke up, he did a knock-about routine in which he listed all the bad things which Tony had done. "Crime – up. School truancy – up. Tax – up. Immigration – up." Once "immigration" has come to mean "bad thing" it is very hard to have a rational discussion about it. If Howard says "Under Labour, the amount of Bad Thing has increased" it's next to impossible for Tony to say "Yes, and Bad Thing is a good!" Instead, he finds himself saying "No, actually, there was less Bad Thing, and if you elect us again, there will be even less!" (A long time ago, probably during John Major's infamous "Labour Tax Bombshell" campaign, Labour accepted the principle that Income Tax was a Bad Thing, and kept assuring us that they had no intention of increasing the amount of this Bad Thing. Once you've accepted this, then it's bye-bye to silly ideas like socialism.)

I blame the journalists for the nightmarish quality of the election campaign. Jon Snow, John Humphreys, the Dimbleby brothers and Darth Paxman all got to do interviews with Michael, Tony and The Other One. In fact, they all got to do exactly the same interview.

What do you think goes on in their little heads before facing the Big Man on live TV? "I know. I'll ask Tony whether he deceived parliament about the reasons for war in Iraq. That's the last thing he'll expect. So maybe I'll catch him off guard, and he'll blurt out the truth ("Of course, I knew that the whole WMD thing was a pack of lies. George told me that if I pretended to believe it, he'd let David Blunkett have a consignment of second hand electric chairs. Gosh, it feels good to have got that off my chest.")

You'd think that one of them could have thought of a slightly off-the-wall question which would get him off his pre-written script and force him to say something slightly interesting.

"Mr Blair, Mr Howard. Supposing you knew that you were going to be in power for another 20 years, what would Britian look like at the end of it?"

"Mr Blair, given that George Bush is a pro-gun pro-hanging anti-abortion anti-gay religious fundamentalist – pretty much the incarnation of every liberals worst nightmare -- what goes through your mind when you shake hands with him? Did you vomit the first time?"

"Mr Howard, what finally convinced you to stop advocating capital punishment?".

In fact, of course, they all ask him the same questions and he responds with the same answers in precisely the same words, and we all start to wonder whether we can actually be bothered to vote for any of them.

"I have an idea, boys and girls. Let's split the audience down the middle, and when Mr Dimbleby says "Mr Blair, are you a fibber" we'll all join in the chorus and see who can shout it the loudest. Let's have a practice: all together now....

I don't dis-respect
those who take a different view
but I became Prime Minister
in order to make difficult decisions
and I happen to think
that the decision I took was the right one
and the attorney general was there in the room
he was there in the room
he was there in the room
he was there in the room
(one last time, let's try to raise the roof:)
he was there in the room"

The Tories say "vote for us, because you can't trust Tony."

The Liberals say "Vote for us, because we actually opposed the war, and have got some nice policies and a very good chance of coming third."

Labour says "Even if you agree with the Liberals, you mustn't vote for them because then the Conservatives might get in."

The main reason for supporting Michael Howard is that Tony Blair is so awful; and the main reason for supporting Tony Blair is that Michael Howard is so awful, so awful, in fact that we mustn't vote Lib Dem even if agree with them.

I would find a Michael Howard government aesthetically displeasing. But I do not accept the theory that a Conservative government would be the Worst Thing Possible. It could hardly come up with Home Secretary more right wing that Blunkett, for example. The "anything but Howard" theory amounts to a blank cheque that excuses all Labour misbehavior. We can do what we like, because the opposition is so dreadful. Vote for the party you hate, because otherwise the party you hate slightly more might get in. That's democracy, folks.

Tony made one rather clever rhetorical breakthrough during the campaign. When asked about Iraq, he effected to be irritated with the issue; to say that it was irrelevant; that it was in the past; that "people really cared" about hospitals, crime, police... As a result of this tactic, it becomes hard to say "To me, the war is the decisive issue" or "It comes down to a question of trust" without appearing to to be repeating a dreadfully hackneyed cliches.


To me, the war is the decisive issue. It comes down to a question of trust.

Howard spoilt things slightly by shouting "liar" a bit too loudly. This enabled Blair to hide behind mock outrage. It was also a mistake to lean so heavily on the dozen or so memos that leaked out in the week before the election. Only a complete political geek can understand them. Did this lawyer change that piece of advice from "maybe" to "probably" before or after this resolution? I, for one, am entirely lost.

What bothers me more is the way in which Blair's reasons for going to war keep shifting. Before the war, it was, as we all know, about weapons of mass destruction: But when it turned out that there had never been any such weapons, Tony, in effect, said "Did I say weapons of mass destruction? Oh. Sorry. What I meant was that Saddam was a wicked dictator, and it was right to liberate his people from him." But during the election, it has changed again, presumably because one of the memos specifically said that a war for "regime change" would have been illegal. So now, it's all about the War on Terror. After September 11th, Tony decided that there were lots of really bad terrorists in the world, and it was tactically necessary to "deal with" all countries that had nuclear-bioligcal-and-chemical-weapons. Saddam happened to be first on the list. In this version, "regime change" was merely a means to an end, the end being removing the weapons which didn't exist but might have done. Liberating the poor suffering Iraqis was simply a pleasant side-effect.

This confirms what everyone who isn't a New Labour partisan believes: Blair decided very early on that he wanted to go to war against Saddam, and started looking for reasons that could justify it. I used to think that the true reason he wanted the war was in order to suck up to the biggest kid in the playground: he would sooner be a junior ally of America than an equal partner in Europe. But his new "September 11th" version of events has a ring of truth to it. It's the way someone with messiah complex might actually think. ("I decided to remove Saddam". By myself. Cabinet? Americans? Generals?) But the reasons given at the time – legal, tactical, moral, intelligence-based – were only pretexts to give support to a course of action he had already decided on. Is this the same as "lying to get us into a war"?

"I am not lost: I just haven't pin-pointed my precise location on the map yet." "I did not have sexual intercourse with that woman."

I think that the fact that Tony led the country into a war without being entirely honest about the true reasons – yes, that's a good way of putting it – is itself, grounds for not voting for him, ever, ever again. Blair says that if I do this I might let Howard in. I don't for one moment believe this to be true. But even if I did, the fact would remain that honour demands that any politician who had been less than 100% honest about a war should be punished by the electorate at the next opportunity. If five years of Howard is the price for that, then we should grit out teeth and put up with it. Perhaps, in opposition, New Labour would evaporate and re-form as something more recognisable as a socialist party. Wouldn't that make the 2009 election more interesting?

Windmills of my mind

So. About three weeks ago, Miguel jumped down from the shelf and said "Andrew, you made a New Years resolution to read me. And it may only be May, but you made the resolution in 2004. So get on with it." A list of grown-up books which I am going to get around to is the only annual resolution I ever keep. I read right through the "Fairy Queen" in 2003. (C.S Lewis said he wished it had been twice as long. I didn't go quite that far.)

The trouble with coming to the end of something as big and important as "Don Quixote" is that it leaves you thinking. "Well. Now I think I have got some idea of what that monster is about. I guess I should read it again." (To quote the sainted Lewis twice in consecutive paragraphs: "There is some hope for the man who hasn't read Malory or Boswell or Shakespeare's sonnets, but what can you do with the fellow who says he has read them, and think that settles the matter?" I haven't read Boswell: maybe I should pencil him in for 2006?) I think I was probably somewhere around page 400 when I said "I get it. Don Quixote is clever but mad; Sancho Panzo is stupid but sane." So neither of them can understand the world, but they both misunderstand it in different ways. I guess the thing starts out as a joke, almost a shaggy dog story – suppose there was a lunatic who thought he was living in an heroic legend: mistaking windmills for giants and herds of cows for armies - what would he do? How many silly mistakes could he make? Somehow, the joke grows and turns into a novel. The First Novel, apart from all the ones which came before it.

What's it about? About a man who runs around imagining himself to be having adventures; and (in the second half) having fake adventures set up for him by "sane" noblemen, who, as the narrator points out, are probably madder than he is. About dreaming the impossible dream and being true to yourself even if everyone else thinks you're crazy? About whether anyone has any right to call someone else "mad" if he is obviously happy and noble?

I wonder if it's actually about anything at all. Cervantes just picks up the character of the mad knight and runs with it for as long as it carries on seeming funny. Which turns out to be "almost indefinitely." Don Quixote suddenly gets ill and dies for no good reason in the last five pages: if he hadn't done so, there would have been no reason for the book ever to finish.

It's the official Greatest Book Written On Earth By Anyone Ever. I sort of see why so many clever people think this. Somewhere around page 842, the Don and Sancho recover from another misadventure. Nothing very much happens.

The dust and weariness that Don Quixote and Sancho took away with them form their encounter with the discourteous bulls was alleviated by a clear, fresh spring that they found in a cool grove of trees, and the two of them, the fatigued master and servant, sat at its edge, leaving the gray and Rocinante free, without bridle or bit...."Eat, Sancho my friend" said Don Quixote "sustain life, which matters to you more than to me, and let me die at the hands of my thoughts and by means of my misfortunes...."

During this passage, I noticed that I wasn't so much reading the book as observing two people: that without realising that I had done so, I had come to believe in them and understand how they related and what they were feeling; and even to feel at home in the society they inhabited. Books which create a portrait of a society, or of a character's psychology seem to be the ones which are regarded as uber-classics. We are supposed to admire "Middlemarch" but regard "Tess" as something of a guilty pleasure. "Don Quixote" certainly evokes character and place as well as any book I've read. I understand that it also contains Spanish puns.

"Don Quixote" is about how insane it would be if someone started to believe that the chivalric romances really happened. But "Don Quixote" is a sort of a chivalric romance, and it fools us into thinking that it really happened, so that when we read it, we are as mad as the Don. (Bit of deconstruction, there.)

I suppose it's really about fandom, isn't it? Everyone despises Quixote for reading comic-books, but he loves them so much that he starts to dress up as his favourite characters and act out his favourite stories. So everyone thinks he's even madder. But in the end, he seems happier and saner than the rest of the world.

Anyway, it's very long. Very long indeed.

If you feel I need an excuse of having let this blog fall silent, then that will have to do.

Monday, April 11, 2005


I only just "got" the ending -- why Dickens said "There are more thing in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

Gosh. That is actually rather clever. And spooky.


Not The End of the World

"Exclusive" – Word used by tabloid newspapers to describe a story which is in all the others.
Guardian style guide.

The makers of popular domestic serial stories (or "soap-operas" as I believe they are called) like to fill their narratives with un-expected twists. Marriages, deaths, divorces, revelations, all popping up in that final five seconds before the signature tune. But it very often happens that a tabloid newspaper gets hold of the script in advance, so by the time the Surprise Twist happens, you have already read about it on the front page of the Sun. What is strange to me is that people carry on watching the soaps in any case. If you are following "Eastarchers" then, of course, the sudden return Dirty Dorris who supposedly died in a combine-harvester accident ten years ago is great fun. But how can it be fun when the Daily Lie told you in advance that it was going to happen? Maybe there is something post-modern going on. Maybe part of the pleasure of a soap is that you know what is going to happen to these characters, but they don't. Maybe it gives you a sense that someone, somewhere, might be watching over you. Everyone knew the plot of classical tragedy. The moment Oedipus walked onto the stage, the audience knew that he was going to come to a sticky end. Plays used to be called "The Tragedy of MacBeth" or "The Comedy of Errors" to ensure that the audience knew in advance whether they would have happy endings or sad ones. Perhaps tabloid spoilers, by creating a sense of fate and predestination lend soaps a mythic gravitas.

Or perhaps not.

In retrospect, it is pretty obvious that Christopher Eccleston was never going to stay in "Doctor Who" beyond the first season. I doubt that, 18 months ago, when the Dream Project landed in Russel T Davies lap, he gave much thought to Season 2. I imagine his aim was to make a stonking, self-contained series of 13 episodes. You can imagine the conversation. "Chris, you are the exact actor I want to star in my new, high profile project." "I'd love to do it, Rus, but only for one series." "Tough. If you won't promise to appear in a totally hypothetical second series, you can't play." Yes, I know that fans think that "the return of 'Doctor Who'" means "They'll be a new series every autumn for the next 27 years," but TV doesn't work like that any more.

The final episode of the season is to be called "The Parting of the Ways". The penultimate episode is called "To Be Announced." This rather suggests that R.T.D has a big surprise up his sleeve which he doesn't want to reveal too soon. The missing episode title is probably "The Daleks Murder Rose" or "The Doctor Contracts Incurable Time-lord Flu" or "Rose and the Doctor have passionate sex under the TARDIS console." (I do hope not.) Very likely,"the Parting of the Ways" concludes with an amazingly surprising last minute twist in which Eccleston leaves the series. Maybe the Doctor dies to save Rose. Maybe it was always planned that the season would end with a "re-generation." Perhaps R.T.D always intended "Doctor Who" to be a one-season-wonder with the potential for a sequel.

But of course, after episode 1, everything went completely apple-shaped. The BBC was surprised by the fact that their massively hyped revival of one of the most famous TV shows of all time, er, got very high ratings. They panicked, and announced there and then that they'd commissioned a second series. (Or, as it may turn out, a "sequel".). Whereupon the Sun discovers that Series 2 won't have Eccelston in it, and runs an "exclusive" claiming that Eccelston has "quit" after one episode. And the BBC, foolishly, instead of saying "Just wait and see" confirmed the story.

Maybe, if the Sun had kept its gob shut, Chris would have been persuaded to stay on for another season.(Presumably, if had said "Not 2006, but maybe 2007", the beeb could have talked business.) Maybe, if the Sun had kept its gob shut, we would have reached the final installment, and found that the "twist" of C..E's departure was a brilliant and appropriate way of ending New "Who" Season 1.

At first, the news depressed me. I felt as if someone had given me a box of pistachio Turkish Delight and then snatched it away before I had a chance to eat one. It felt as if instead of looking at "The New Doctor" I was looking at "The Old Doctor, the Temporary Doctor, the Doctor who Is Not Going To Be Around For Very Long."

But I calmed down, and am watching the series for what it is. Ten hours is a very long time for an actor to play one character. Longer than Mark Hamill played Luke Skywalker. Almost as long as Sean Connery played James Bond. John Clease said that he got 6 hours out of Basil Fawlty, and Shakespeare only got 4 out of Hamlet.

I could do without all the speculation about who the new Doctor should be. You would think they had learned their lesson by now. Everyone and his grand-daughter was reported as being "considered" for the part last time around. The one person whose name was never mentioned was, er, Christopher Eccleston. I fear that the doctrine of regeneration, which was the saving of the series in 1966, could be the thing which strangles it in 2005. The fact that the Doctor regenerates has become the most important thing about him, the one thing which everybody knows. "Doctor Who: oh, its that series where you have to guess who the leading man is going to be that week."

I could really, really do without all the silly discussions about whether there could be a black Doctor or a Lady Doctor, which we have had to listen to every few years since the departure of Tom Baker. Answer: a version of the Doctor based on some supposedly "trendy" version of black-british yoof culture would be too hideous to contemplate: a Doctor who happened to have dark skin ought not even to be worthy of comment. A relatively androgynous female Doctor -- like one of those actresses doing Prospero or Hamlet or Richard II -- would be no problem at all: one who was self-consciously glamorous or feminist would be unendurable. But I hate the fact that the discussion is being framed in this way – which group or category ought to have a chance of being "a" Doctor. The Doctor, for all his multi-facetedness, is a character. He should be played by a person who the director thinks can play him best.

I am trying to decide whether to do the joke about David Tennant becoming pope, or just to claim that white smoke will appear from the chimney of Television Center when the new Doctor is selected.

I said before that Tom Baker was the Doctor, where Patrick Troughton was only someone playing the Doctor. Eccleston is neither. He is a third party who is periodically possessed by the spirit of the Doctor. When he starts bickering with Rose ("You think your're so great", "I am so great") he feels as un-Doctor-ish as Peter Cushing. The character tick of calling everything "fantastic" is already fantastically irritating. But then, suddenly, he will take control of a situation, or make some speech about man's place in the universe, and he is suddenly – well, to coin a phrase, the Doctorest Doctor your ever saw.

I was about to write "As a completely new time travelling hero, I like him very much. But I am not sure if he has anything to do with the Doctor of old." But when tried to define the characteristics of Eccleston -- the glee at traveling through time, the naughtiness, the mood-swings, the occasional arrogance, the underlying Holmsian callousness -- I realised that they were all totally Doctorish characteristics.

R.T.D clearly has a meta-plot brewing. I am worried that this story-arc will become more interesting than the actual episodes. I thought part 2 "The End of the World" was rather weak as space-opera goes: but all the punch came from the slow-burn revelation about the destruction of the Time Lords. (Getting rid of the Time Lords, much the most boring thing in the Who mythos, is a good idea: but making the fact that the Time Lords have been destroyed a central plank of the Doctor's character could be a mistake.) If I said "I bet the Daleks destroyed the Time Lords" would anyone take the bet?

R.T.D said that he wanted "Doctor Who" to be character driven. Or "emotionally literate", if you insist. He is obviously taking a leaf out of the books of U.S TV shows like "Lois and Clerk" and that thing about vampires and school girls that totally passed me by. The main "fantasy" plot can be quite silly, but this doesn't matter because it is really only a peg on which to hang some character drama. "The End of the World" was not really about a lot of rich aliens on a space ship being menaced by a baddie; it was about the Doctor's relationship with Rose and with the Tree-woman. "The Unquiet Dead" was not really about welsh ghosts, but about the character of Charles Dickens and how meeting the Doctor helps him overcome his general disillusionment with life. So far so good. But the relatively short episodes don't give much space for these characters to develop. The key character in Episode 3, Gwynneth the serving girl really only developed in one 5 minute conversation with Rose. If we were going to care about her, she needed a lot more screen-time.

I have no nostalgic attachment to the format of stories made up of 4 and 6 episodes (or rather, I do, but I don't expect the BBC to pay any attention to me); but the single 45 minute episode seems ill-suited to the type of story R.T.D wants to tell.

The Doctor is making too much use of gadgets. The sonic screwdriver in particular is becoming an all purpose get out of jail free card. Please stop it.

I think that it is a shame that the Doctor has got sufficient control of the TARDIS that Rose can nip home between adventures. I think that the sense of being lost in time and space and not quite knowing when and if the Doctor will get you home was an important part of the show's magic. Have you ever felt what it must be like to be wanderers in the fourth dimension? To be exiles?

"The End of the World" didn't feel very much like "Doctor Who"...and I'm not saying this is necessarily a bad thing. A lot of aliens gather on a ship to witness a big event, and then one of them starts killing the others: this is more "Trek" than "Who". Some of the jokes felt a little familiar. (The "end of the world as an entertainment spectacle" is right out of "Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy"; the "I-Pod" joke is straight out of "Dancers at the End of Time".)

The moral messages were rammed home with a distinct lack of subtlety. It was one thing for Rose to refer to Cassandra as "Michael Jackson", but not necessary for her to follow this joke with a little speech about plastic surgery. I am not sure that the conclusion, about cherishing the world we live in because it will all be destroyed in only five billion years, really made a great deal of sense. I think that if I had not been sitting there chortelling "It's a new episode of "Doctor Who", it's a new episode of "Doctor Who", and there are eleven more to come", I would not have thought it was a particularly good story.

I guess its main point was structural: to say to the audience -- last week was set in contemporary London: this week we are five billion years in the future, next week we will be in Victorian England.

"The Unquiet Dead", on the other hand, was classic old-school "Doctor Who". I wouldn't go as far as the man in the Grauniad who said it was the best thing the BBC had produced in their entire history, but it was damned good stuff. Two ordinary characters witness a strange supernatural event in the pre-cred sequence; the Doctor turns up "just to have a look around" and gets embroiled in the plot; he takes control of the situation; he meets a historical character; there is a tragic outcome. I do hope, that the idea of a subsidiary character pulling the Doctor's fat out of the fire at the last minute doesn't become a recurrent motif.

It needed to be longer. We'd hardly met the zombies before we found out the explanation; we'd hardly had the explanation before we'd got the solution. Oh, for some old fashioned pacing – an episode of the walking dead; and episode of blue ghosts; an episode of thinking that they are "good" aliens; and a final episode fighting them as "bad aliens". And a whole month to get to know Gwynneth, so we could properly feel her sacrifice.

It wasn't "Talons of Weng Chiang", but then, what is?

The dialogue sparkled, although Mr Davies needs to watch his habit of letting story-external humour work its way into the plot. It was a mistake in episode 1 for the wheely bin to belch, not because there is anything wrong with a belch-joke, but because there was no logical reason for it to do so: it wasn't a creature and it hadn't eaten anything. There was no reason for Charles Dickens to says "What the Shakespeare was that!" because, well, he just wouldn't have. We pardon both jokes for being funny: but too much of this kind of thing and we may stop believing in the show. The Doctor's own wit, and especially, Rose's reaction to it, is much funnier. ("I don't believe you just said that.")

Note: every time I type "Rose", I almost type "Ace". Hmm....

So then. An unquestionably cool stand-alone fantasy TV show, but with enough references and reminiscences of "Doctor Who" to satisfy my inner fanboy. I still don't know where it is going; I still want to find out. I hope that R.T.D doesn't blow the emerging backstory. And I want to see the Daleks. As relatively unequivocal a thumbs up as you could have expected an old anorak like me to give, then.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Opera critic "enjoys opera," shock!

Twilight of the Gods - First night reviews - Times Online | opera | Twilight Of The Gods @ The London Coliseum

Review of Siegfried, English National Opera

Sod off, you nauseating little philistines

Guardian Unlimited Arts reviews Twilight of the Gods

Opera At War over Wagner

Observer Review: To Valhalla and Back

Guardian Unlimited | Columnists | Art gets away with murder

The End of the World

New Readers Start Here

1: The Controversial Bit

At the end of "Twilight of the Gods", Brunhilde rides Grane, her long-suffering horse, onto the funeral pyre of her lover, Siegfried. Siegfried's death seems to have restored her divine powers. She invokes Loge, the god of fire, and Wotan's magical ravens. The flames of the bonfire rush up to Valhalla. The Rhine bursts its banks. The gods are wiped out. The magic Ring is returned to its rightful owners. The old order has been swept away. A new era of humanistic love will emerge from the ashes.

Brunhilde's last words are "Siegfried! Here, husband, welcome your wife!" But are these lovers going to be re-united in the Undying Lands? With the gods incinerated and Valhalla destroyed it is doubtful that there is any after-life for them to go to. When they were in love, they kept saying that they wanted to merge together and become one person. ("I'm hardly Siegfried at all, I'm merely Brunhilde's will" "Apart yet still united, divided yet still as one.") But this can't really happen. Human souls can't become united; they can only communicate through symbols. And the same symbols with which we communicate also separate us. The Runes on Wotan's spear are the symbols of his power: but ultimately they render him powerless. The Ring, which Siegfried carelessly gives Brunhilde as a pledge of his love, is what ensures that they will be pulled apart. The only place they can be together is outside of language; outside of symbols; outside of the opera. By destroying themselves, they ensure that the idea-of-Siegfried and the idea-of-Brunhilde will always be united. Brunhilde isn't dying so she can be with Siegfried in heaven: her death, her consumption in the flames, is the consummation of her love. She is literally in love with death. And she dies by her own hand in such a way as to destroy a morally bankrupt social world.

Everyone who reads the arts pages already knows how Phyllida Lloyd interprets this scene at the climax of the English National Opera's brilliant Ring Cycle. Five hours of gripping drama has been summarized in a single phrase. "Oh, this is the one where they turn Brunhilde into a blankety-blank. Apparently, it was very controversial." You could easily think that this one "controversial" image was the most important thing about the opera.

As every review reminds us, Ms Lloyd specializes in modern-dress re-imaginings of Wagner that range from the astonishing to the impenetrable. What is less often said is that her greatest strength as a producer is that she knows when to shut-up. What I took away from Act III of "Twilight" was not any sense of shock about the Controversial Bit. (I didn't realize it was controversial until I read about it in Sunday morning's Observer.) I was far more impressed by the relative lack of stage business and "production ideas". We are, after all, dealing with most emotive music ever composed by a human being. I swear, every time I hear Siegfried's funeral march, I feel as if someone really has just died. It's Wagner at his most sadistic. Siegfried's death would do for the show-stopping final bars of any other opera; but it turns out to only be the lead-in to the funeral music, which, if I have counted correctly, has five separate climaxes. Every time you think the music is going to let you down and release you, it comes back even bigger and louder, and more painful. And when it finally subsides, Wagner starts building up to another, even bigger climax, Brunhilde's death. Very sensibly, Lloyd mainly let's the music speak for itself.

Act III mainly un-folds on an empty stage. I could have done without the Rhine-maidens being represented as pole-dancers, although I take the point that if you look at how they treated Alberich, they are more "lusty nymphs" than "innocent maids". There was no great "controlling idea" informing Siegfried's death. Hagan stabs him with a knife rather than a spear: a slight blunder because the operas have loaded "spears" with a large amount of symbolism which it would have been better not to muck about with. The mortally wounded Siegfried is lying on his back. He is lifted up by two of Hagan's vassals: first to a sitting position (as per Wagner's stage direction) but then onto his feet for his final lines. Once he is dead, the vassals crowd around him, completely hiding his body. The stage is dark. As the march proceeds, a few of the vassals emerge from the crowd with relics: -- his hat, his horn. (I can't help mentioning that I saw this on April 2nd, a little before the news-story from Rome broke...) They take his body back to Gunther's hall. After Gutrune's vigil, they again cluster around Siegfried's body. The quarrel over the Ring starts. And then the group parts as Brunhilde enters. ("I heard your feeble whimpering just like a baby who's lost his mother/ But I heard nothing, nothing befitting a mighty hero's fall"). We're already emotionally shattered by Siegfried's death and the funeral march, but this is another fantastically charged moment. Brunhilde is back in her black costume from Act II of "Valkyrie": no longer a victim of Wotan, Siegfried, Gunther and Hagan -- she's a Valkyrie again, commanding the stage. Brunhilde's simple entrance may have been the most dramatically perfect moment in the whole saga.

It's at this point we deviate slightly from the script. When Brunhilde orders the vassals to build a funeral pyre, Siegfried's body is taken off stage. This is fairly common when director's don't feel they can cope with an on-stage cremation. Brunhilde's eight sisters turn up, dressed as they were in "Valkyrie" Act III. This somewhat contradicts the narrative, states that the Valkyrie are at Wotan's feet, waiting for the world to end. But it makes dramatic sense for the choosers of the slain to be swarming around Siegfried's pyre.

Brunhilde sings her great "immolation" aria: "Send Loge to Valhalla/For the final Twilight now is at hand/So here is the fire/Valhalla, this is the end..." Waltraute, the Valkyrie who visited Brunhilde on her rock in Act II, straps some kind of waist-coat or breast-plate to her sister and hands her an object. The audience does a double-take. It's a hand-grenade. The waist-coat is explosives. Instead of exiting stage-right and throwing herself onto Siegfried's off-stage funeral pyre, as we might have expected, Brunhilde pulls the pin out of the grenade and throws herself into the crowd at the rear of the stage. Everyone mimes being destroyed in an explosion. A combination of lighting and silvery curtains indicates that the Rhine has flooded. We see Hagan and Alberich briefly embrace under the water, before being left with a more-or-less empty stage, representing the Rhine, the return to the purity of nature that existed before the Ring was stolen. The implication is that everything has been wiped out, a rather larger scale of destruction than Wagner envisaged. (His stage direction had "men and women watching the fire in the sky in great agitation" from the the ruins of Gunther's hall. The abbreviated stage direction in this translation simply says "The world is destroyed by fire and water.") But the music and the stage imagery clearly tells us that an old world has passed away and a new one will emerge from this wreak. I have no problem with Gotterdamerung being envisaged as "the end of the world" as opposed to merely "the end of the gods".

So yes. If you insist. Phylida Lloyd "made" Brunhilde into a suicide bomber. Or, rather, Phylida Lloyd observed that the psychology of the religious suicide bomber is very close to that of Brunhilde. I really don't think she is appropriating the "Ring" in order to "say something" about terrorism. But she is very cleverly using the idea of terrorism to illuminate the psychology of a character in the "Ring."

I heard no booing, jeering, cat-calling or anything else. I don't believe that this is something that British opera go-ers do, any more than they throw flowers or shout "bravissimo".

2: The Rest of the Opera

The controlling motif of this "Twilight" is cowboys and America. Siegfried has grown up a little since the last opera. In Act I, Brunhilde unceremoniously takes away his baseball cap and replaces it with a stetson. Brunhilde herself is dressed as a little wifey out of "Little House on the Prairie", all flowery pinafores and aprons. The lovers are discovered sitting at a table with a checked table-cloth and vase of flowers.

Now, backtrack and consider the plot. Wotan sentenced Brunhilde -- who we first encountered as a sort of macho biker-chick -- to be stripped of her immortality. She was to become the wife of any man who came her way. This is intended as a punishment. But it has not turned out that way because the person who found her was Siegfried, with whom she fell in love. This is brilliantly encapsulated in the stage image – Brunhilde pathetically reduced from warrior to "little woman" but happy. It also gives a sense that they have been together for some time. If you aren't careful, the opera can give you the impression that Siegfried met Brunhilde on Tuesday morning and got murdered in time for tea on Wednesday.

A sense of the passage of time was also conveyed by the clever back-projection sequence which accompanied Siegfried's Rhine Journey. While Richard Berkeley-Steele mimes walking and riding, a film of dusty roads, prairies, and rivers is projected on the backdrop. "Wild west", Marlborough country imagery slowly gives way to scenes of the big-city. This gives a good sense that Siegfried has been traveling a long time before he reaches the Gunther's hall; it also nearly sets up the fact that although he is a Great Hero he is out of his depth in Gunther's world.

I thought maybe Gunther's "hall" was over done. Some people thought that it was an executive health spa: I thought perhaps they were meant to be running a pharmaceutical company. It certainly conveyed wealth and sophistication. An anti-septic white room; Gunther and Gutrune in bath robes, on sun-beds, with lap-tops, and a big glass fronted cup-board full of drugs or medicines on the back wall – possibly recalling the Damien Hirst installation. Admittedly, a rather very unsubtle way of introducing the love-potion, but we'll let that pass...

One got a sense from the programme notes that the company was slightly embarrassed by Act II. There is no doubt that it's as close as Wagner ever got to writing straight opera. There is a chorus, who more or less sing a drinking song; there is a rousing three way climax where Gunther, Hagan and Brunhilde swear vengeance, not totally unlike Act II of "Otello". There is the magnificently declamatory section where Siegfried and Brunhilde swear oaths on the point of Hagan's spear. (Or, unfortunately in this case, dagger.) Where Siegfried's death makes me cry, the spear-swearing makes me want to cheer, and shout "encore!". I rather wished I could have watched Act II in a Glastonbury-type situation, where you could respond to the action without fear of everyone behind you going "shush"! Wagner being Wagner, he doesn't give us very much of any one of the "tune": the oath swearing is repeated twice; the vassals celebration is really only sung once. You feel anyone else would have milked them for twenty minutes.

The production pretty much dives in an enjoys itself. Gunther and Gutrune are marrying Brunhilde and Siegfried, respectively, not because they love them, but because they think that marrying a hero and an ex-goddess will confer status on them. They are trophy brides, this is a celebrity marriage. The wedding, done partly as a set-piece for benefit of their subjects falls apart when Brunhilde (Gunther's "wife") announces that she is already married to Siegfried (who, as a result of a plot device, has completely forgotten who she is.) Brunhilde faints. Everyone starts swearing oaths and vengeance. In the aftermath of the disastrous wedding, Brunhilde, Gunther and Hagan plan to murder Siegfried. It has aways seemed to me that this section of "Twilight of the Gods" represents a desecration of the last two operas. How can the dragon-slaying Siegfried have been turned into a puppet by such a silly Shakespeare-comedy device as a love-potion? How after that intense love-duet, can Brunhilde possibly believe that Siegfried has really betrayed her, let alone participate in a plot to kill him? (Why doesn't she say "Siegfried would never betray me. One of you must have enchanted him.") It's part of the genius of the opera that he completely regains his nobility in death. But it is really not very much to the point to say that the production of Act II reduced the characters status, turned them into figures in a melodrama or a soap-opera. That is pretty much what Wagner has already done to them.

After his strange dream-meeting with Alberich, Hagan calls his vassals together to announce the double wedding. It begins with a horn call, and Hagan's very dark theme, as he insinuates that he has called them together to go to war. The chorus appears in black body suits and silver helmets, looking like riot police or stormtroopers. There are even what look like nuclear missiles lined up at the back of the stage. This is slightly corny, almost a parody of modern-dress Wagner. But at the moment when they realize that they have been assembled, not for a war, but for a wedding and the the music changes the chorus all simultaneously rip off their black costumes, and reveal gaudy, modern, pastel colours underneath. The stage has gone from black to colourful in a about three seconds. (This was another moment where I wanted to applaud.) "Hollywood" style lighting and a big silver silver staircase are lowered from the ceiling, and Gunther and Brunhilde enter in a gaudy wedding dresses, followed by Siegfried in a sparkly white cowboy outfit. The whole thing has turned into the most vulgar of Las Vegas show business weddings. As Brunhilde accuses Siegfried of treachery, and the whole things threatens to degenerate into a brawl, the two sides of the "congregation" start waving their programmes and fists, for all the world like a Jerry Springer audience.

I repeat. Phylida Lloyd is not appropriating the "Ring" and using it to "say something about" show business weddings. Neither, I think, is she shoe-horning Wagner's material into inappropriate modern situations. She is asking the question "Who, in the modern world, most resembles these legendary characters". She wants us to approach "Twilight of the Gods" as human drama, not as an argument involving philosophical archetypes. A bride weeping in a dressing room while stripping off her expensive wedding dress has a pathos that is hard to achieve with animal skins and standing stones. A woman being given a hand-grenade by her own sister makes us perceive suicide as something brutal and nihilistic, rather than satisfyingly romantic.

Dramatically and in terms of production, "Twilight of the Gods" was the most successful opera in the E.N.O ring. It wasn't as gut-wrenching as "Valkryie", but that's really Wagner's fault: it only gets onto an emotional plateau in Act III. Act I is longer than most sensible operas, and with its long expository sections from the Norns and Waltraute, is always going to feel like a bit of a test of endurance.

So it's over, and there is now nothing to look forward to unless and until they do all four operas together as a proper cycle in 2006. Obviously, only a complete lunatic would sign up to a complete "Ring". 14 hours, four consecutive nights in the theater, ticket costs of around £300. I'll be right at the front of the queue.

3: By the way....

Ellen Collins e-mailed me to point out that in the E.N.O "Rhinegold" Wotan is discovered surveying Valhalla from his bath-tub. When it is agreed that the ransom for Freya will be enough gold to cover her, they put her in the bath to bury her. So the Fafner's bath, which which perplexed me in "Siegfried" is probably a symbol of the Neiblung hoard.

A letter on the website of the Wagner Society points out that the Woodbird tells Siegfried to go into Fafner's cave to get the Tarnhelm. If the helm is in the cave, Fafner is not wearing it; but if he isn't wearing it, then he isn't transformed into a dragon. So the idea that Siegfried fights and kills a giant is actually faithful to the literal sense of the libretto.

4: And finally....

I have had a number of requests... but I decided to do it anyway:

Complete Synopsis

Monday, March 28, 2005

It doesn't make an iota of difference.

Flash, who more or less converted me to the delights of single malt, notes that in my diatribe on nationalism, I contrast the symbolism of Scotch whiskey with that of English Ale. He points out that there is no such thing as "Scotch whiskey". Irish whiskey, American whiskey and even apparently Japenese whiskey. But not scotch whiskey.

Mea culpa.

What's Opera Doc

GOOD NEWS. The BBC decided to show Covent Garden's Rhinegold and Valkyrie over the Easter Weekend. Doctor Who AND Wagner. (And Earthsea, as well, but don't get me started on that.)

BAD NEWS. Bryn Teflon, who was supposed to be singing Wotan, lost his voice, so we only got Act I of Valkyrie

EVEN WORSE NEWS: Michael Portillo, who was doing the introductory talks, didn't lose his voice. At least he resisted the temptation to say "and you know, Alberich renouncing love for the ring is very like, when, as a member of John Major's cabinet, I..." which is his normal idiom.

GOOD NEWS: Bryn Teflon, whose Rhinegold was presumably recorded in advance, was as good as everyone says. He managed to put nuance into his singing and his gestures at the same time. (Sieglinde, for example, could only manage one at time. One noticed her hands wandering down to her abdomen on the high notes, and then remembering what they were supposed to be doing and reaching for a goblet.) He made you feel that "acting through music" is a natural, rather than a very strange and artificial, form of expression.

BAD NEWS: Deeply incoherent production of Rhinegold I thought. I am, as you know, very relaxed about radical and weird versions of the Ring. But. When the producer explained that the Gods were going to be Victorian but the Dwarves were going to represent a sort of industrial and scientific revolution, I started to get sinking feelings. When did you last see a production where the gods weren't Victorian? In fact, Valhalla seemed to be a random collection of unrelated items -- a telescope, a sofa -- and the Dwarfs realm was, for no reason that I could understand, a mortuary or vivisection lab. Alberich and Mime spend a lot of time moving dead bodies around the stage. The niebelungs themselves are either victims of lobotomy experiments, or corpses revived a la Doctor Frankenstien. The producer suggested that this was because the Ring represents the misuse of science and genetic modification, which it doesn't. And for some reason Donner and Froh were in dressing gowns or smoking jackets. Donner is the god of thunder. He has a hammer. The one time he is center-stage musically involves him calling the thunder down -- one of the most macho moment in the whole cycle. What is the point of making him a dandy?

GOOD NEWS: Loge was brilliant and stole the show, totally mischievous and understated and enjoying himself the whole time.

ALSO GOOD NEWS: Erda the Earth-Goddess was an old lady in a veil; possibly Queen Victoria herself. She is asleep in an armchair and wakes up for her big moment. Mr Portaloo's comments over the curtain call suggests that she was actually sitting in the armchair for the whole opera. At any rate, nice image, nice characterization.

CATASTROPHICALLY BAD NEWS: One of pundits at the beginning of Valkyrie explained that, in between the two operas, Wotan goes to Erda, learns from her, and as he later admits, seduces or even rapes her. He evidently hadn't seen last nights production. While the other gods were climbing up ladders to Valhalla, Wotan is shagging Erda in her armchair. I am trying to work out what new interpretation of the opera this was pointing us towards. I suspect it was the version which says "Our non-German speaking audience will not be following the sub-titles, so perhaps if we spell everything out in a really, really unsubtle way, they'll be able to follow the plot. (In Valkyrie, Sieglinde's line "I gave him a drug in his drink" is foreshadowed ten minutes in advance by a bit of business in which she opens what appears to be a packet of lemsip.)

GOOD NEWS: I have been told by two people who are not particularly Wagner enthusiasts that they were captivated by the production. So I am probably being over-critical.

GOOD NEWS: There was less rubbish on the stage in Valkyrie, although I still had no-idea what anything meant or was supposed to symbolize. But it gave the performers a fairly empty space to sing and act in. There were some nice little ideas. Siegmund has a big fur coat which is associated with his father, "Wolf." When Sieglinde starts to realize who he is, she unwraps a brown paper packet which contains a similar coat.

GOOD NEWS: Hunding is the unexpected scene stealer in this. Remarkable diction (I don't speak German, but I could pick out words with the sub-titles) and very charismatic action. Too often he is just the cardboard villain from the moment he comes in. Here, there seemed to be a convincing camaradarie with Siegmund in the brief moments before he realizes that they are enemies.

BAD NEWS: But the Nazi imagery of the coat was overdoing it, wasn't it?

BAD NEWS: Why oh why does that sword drive producers crazy? Siegmund is meant to pull the sword from the tree, brandish it aloft, and run into the woods with Sieglinde. As dear sweet Germain said, the symbolism is not exactly rocket science. So what is going on when Sieglinde takes the sword from Siegmund, and they go out into the woods with her holding it in front of herself?

GOOD NEWS: Singing all very good indeed, particular when the duet gets going. (I believe that Placido is going to have a go at Siegmund later in the run, if both he and Bryn can get their throats in working order simultaneously. If you want tickets for that one, Covent Garden will accept the soul of your first born in down payment.)

BAD NEWS: Got to wait til May 7th to see Acts Two and Three, at which point (you can bet) Mr Portillo will not be able to resist some political analogies.