Friday, March 11, 2011

not sulking

just busy writing stuff I'm actually being paid for

final sections follow next week, probably thursday

yeah, yeah, yeah lost manuscript of the aneied retrieved from a bonfire where i hve heard THAT one before?

Wednesday, March 09, 2011



What goes around comes around


Ten Years Ago Today

Jedi Master Am I Therefore Normal Rules of Grammar I Do Not Follow

It started on the net, it spread to the funny-pages in the papers, and then suddenly the serious columnists got hold of it. There is a space on the census form for us to specify what religion we are, so wouldn't it be a wheeze if all the Star Wars geeks wrote "Jedi" in the space. If enough filled it in, then the government would have to treat "Jedi" as a legitimate religion.

I haven't actually seen my census form yet. I understand from the Daily Telegraph that there is an entry for "race"; apparently, you are allowed to be Scottish or Irish, but not English or Welsh. (The English and Welsh have to be "White British", unless their grandparents came from abroad, in which case they are allowed to be Black British or Asian British.) Given this level of sensitive objectivity, I imagine that the "religion" section will say something like

Tick one:
1: Church of England
2: Loony fundamentalist
3: Papist
4: Godless heathen
If "1", please state whether or not you believe in God.

But it seems to me that the Jedi faction's sad devotion to this ancient form is entirely misplaced. What, pray tell, does "legally recognized religion" or "legitimate religion" or "official religion" mean? The last time I looked, we had religious freedom in this country. Since the 1839 Catholic Emancipation act, anyone can believe what they like. I understand that the French have banned Scientology, but we haven't. Small sects can claim charitable status. No religion, not even the C of E can advertise on the telly. Do the Jedi-ists want to avail themselves of Blair's stupid plan for state funded religious schools? But this would require Jedi teachers, and some parents who were prepared to put their children through the sort of abuse that Luke is subjected to by Yoda in Empire Strikes Back.

Granted, the Church of England has special status in that it is the Established Church; although this has only a very small effect in practice; if Charles became a Moslem, as he obviously would like to, then he would be disbarred from being King when the Queen becomes more powerful than we can possibly imagine because the Monarch is titular head of the church. Is the idea here that Jedi would take over Anglicanism's constitutional role? This would, at any rate, make State Openings of Parliament more interesting. "Policy of fiscal prudence my government will continue. Standards in schools my government will try to raise. Parliamentary time on fatuous legislation about fox hunting my government intends to waste."

In short, I think that the Jedi Census plan is based on a misunderstanding of the English constitution; not surprising, since, as I understand it, the original internet posting was a direct crib from one written in New Zealand where the rules are, I imagine, different. Even if the required ten thousand people did claim Jedi knighthood, I think it unlikely that the Jedi would re-establish themselves as a viable religious order. Tony Blair and Mrs Thatcher would wipe them out. Always two there are, no more, no less, a master and an apprentice. Now, if anyone wants to start a campaign to allow me to give my race as "Elvish", I may be willing to join in.

(First published 8th March 2001.)

Tuesday, March 08, 2011


Marriage has a legal significance according to the British constitution. It has a spiritual significance according to the teaching of some religions. And many ordinary people think that it has a social significance.

The legal, religious, and social meanings overlap in all kinds of ways, like chocolate eggs and the resurrection of Jesus. The Church of England believes that Vicars have the power to cast magic spells whereby perfectly ordinary bonking becomes a mystic allegory of the interrelationship of the spiritual and the physical worlds -- or, as they put it, a sacrament. The government says that if two people make a legally binding contract to stay together for life (and cede to the state the right to divvie up their possessions if they break that contract) it will give them a number of privileges with respect to taxation, access to children, pensions and so on. Ordinary People see Marriage as a great big party in which two people affirm their love in front of their friends and their family and probably gain some social status and respectability into the bargain. But that social status partly comes from being married according to the law of the land, and illegal marriages are probably not sacramental.

I guess for most people, the social aspect is the most important: when buying a cake, planning a meal and choosing a dress, they are not primarily thinking of the love that is betwixt Christ and his Church, nor of their pensions.

In a traditional Church of England wedding the Vicar reads from the book of Common Prayer, and then he and the happy couple disappear back stage to fill out the legal paperwork, while the organist plays a long, rambling voluntary and everyone shuffles awkwardly. This makes it quite clear to everyone that the Vicar is doing two things: casting an Anglican spell, but also changing the couple's status under English law. But the law has the upper hand in the arrangement. The Vicar can't confer the religious status of "marriage" on anyone who the law says can't marry. If the Leaping Order of St Beryl says that marriage between cousins is forbidden, Leaping Priests aren't obliged to marry cousins in his church; but if the Leaping Order says that the age of consent is 15, rather than 16, then he can't conduct child-marriages -- or if he does, they don't have any legal status. (I've heard of devout Dungeons and Dragons players who decide to get all their friends together, dress up as warriors and wizards, and have the 10th Level Cleric perform a ceremony according to the Melnibonean rite of Arioch. And that's very nice and very cute and very embarrassing for the in-laws, but it doesn't make them married in the eyes of the law, or in the eyes of any God apart, presumably, from Arioch.)

Since eighteen thirty something, it has been possible to have the "state" bit of the wedding without the "God" bit: to sign the legal documents in front of a civil servant, with minimal ceremony, and become married under the law. But those registry office wedding could be exceedingly clinical -- sometimes they really did take place in filing cabinet lined rooms in front of a council official and two witnesses -- so people who were not at all religious often chose to get married in churches -- or didn't bother to get married at all. (That is: they pretended to believe that their wedding had a spiritual significance, because a purely legal ceremony wouldn't perform the desired social function.) This wasn't an ideal arrangement, either from the point of view of the church or the state. So in two thousand and something, NuLab decided to let pubs, ships, hotels and parks accredit themselves as registry offices: the legal officials would come to you, carry out the legal formalities in a pretty room, along with whatever readings or songs you fancied. (At a stroke, this made non-religious weddings more attractive than religious ones, because you got to have the service and the party on the same premises.) There's currently a scheme to let people get hitched on the beach, although I suspect that wouldn't seem as romantic in Clacton as it would in Hawaii. Certainly not as warm. And in 2004, NuLab introduced civil partnerships which allowed same-sex relationships to have the same legal status as opposite sex ones, even though they were not actually called "marriages".

There are three wrinkles, however:

1: If you want a non-religious ceremony, then you have to have non-religious songs and non-religious readings. If you want God, head for the church of your choice. The state doesn't want it to be said that it's establishing a new religion in competition with the church of England.

2: There is no mechanism for a Vicar or Priest to officiate at a civil partnership even if the priest himself wishes to do so. That was implicit, I think, in the notion of "civil partnership". The state was saying "A relationship between two men and two women can have the legal status of a relationship between a man and a woman or a woman and man; and your family and friends may very well regard it as having the same social significance but its spiritual significance is none of the states business, thank you very much."

3: The Church of England is an established Church. The Queen is the Supreme Governor of the Church; the Prime Minister has final say on who's Archbishop; the Archbishop crowns the Queen and Richard Dawkins can't go on Thought for the Day, so there. Some Anglicans still take this to mean that if you are English you are automatically a member of the Church of England. It follows from this that everyone (regardless of church affiliation) has (in theory) the right to be married in their parish church; for their child to be christened there; and to be buried in the churchyard when they die.

This causes problems if, as sometimes still happens, the Vicar believes in God. As a Christian, he may not want to baptise a child whose parents are not serious about the ceremony: as a member of the Church of England he is legally obliged to do so. From time to time, someone suggests that the Prayer Book should contain a form of service in which a baby is given a name and prayers are said, but in which no-one sprinkles water on anybody. This is always interpreted as an attempted coup d'église by liberals and agnostics who want to stop the Church of England from going all religious on them. In fact, it's usually suggested by very hard line evangelicals who think that Baptism is so important that it shouldn't be treated as a mere social rite. (The next step would be to start immersing adults in paddling pools.)

Now, the so-called Liberal Democrats have recently proposed:

1: That the rule about religious readings at registry offices should be relaxed. Like all rules, it could be imposed rather officiously. A lot of people think that playing "I'm Loving Angels Instead" by Robin Williams (I looked it up) as the happy couple walked down the aisle would not automatically give rise to the creation of a theocracy.

2: That religious groups should be allowed to conduct civil partnership ceremonies if they want to.

3: Nothing else.

As a matter of fact, I do see a possible problem with this. Because of the established nature of the Church of England it is possible that if Civil Partnership service were permitted, church of England Vicars might find that they were obliged to carry them out, even if they themselves didn't agree with them.

Some people might say "So he damn well should: the law should make no concession to homophobia, or any other kind of phobia". But it seems to me that this is a different kind of question from the one about whether homophobic hoteliers ought to be allowed to insist that gay couples sleep in separate beds. It seems to me that regardless of how, or indeed if, you interpret Christian theology, the question about the spiritual significance of categories of bonking is one that religious groups have got to be able to decide for themselves. The state has no power to say that as of next Tuesday, sex between two men is an allegory of the mystic union which is betwixt Christ and his church, any more than it has power to say that as of next Tuesday, the powers of Darkness won't mind if you walk round stonehenge clockwise as well as widdershins, or that a ball hit to the boundary without bouncing will score 7 runs.

The Church of England itself will eventually have to form their own opinion of this question (the one about gay sex, I mean, not the one about cricket) and if all the bishops, appointed via the apostolic succession, learned in the Bible and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit decide that Male-Male and Female-Female relationships can be sacramental after all (or, much more likely, that regardless of what Mr Cranmer may have put in the Book of Common Prayer, they don't really believe all that sacramental gubbins and never have done) then the individual priest would have to accept that decision, regardless of what he or she happens to think. That's what you get for being the established church. You get more status, but less freedom of conscience. If you don't like it, bugger off to Rome and see how much freedom of conscience Ratzinger gives you.

If Quakers, Methodists and Unitarians want to have Civil Partnership ceremonies, or indeed cricket matches, in their churches, then none of this arises.

My own point of view, and please don't hit me, is that if two people love each other, then its a no-brainer that they should be allowed to affirm that love according to the religious traditions of their culture. On the other hand, I have some sympathy for the position which says "The state cares about sexual relationships only because they are likely to produce children. Two guys or two girls are quite welcome to live together, and the state doesn't care whether they call themselves 'Married', 'Flatmates', 'Confirmed Bachelors' or 'Special Friends'. We are not even neutral on the issue: it just doesn't come into the state's sphere of interest." If it had been down to me, we might have had gay church weddings, but no civil partnerships. But it wasn't.

However, what me and Steve H are interested in is not what has really happened in the real world, i.e. nothing whatsoever. What we are interested in is how this impacts on the Melosphere, where civilisation is always about to come to an end, and everything is either forbidden or compulsory.

In the Melosphere, "It is proposed that some churches may be permitted to marry gays" translates as "All church are now obliged to marry gays." Civilisation is under attack. "The attempt to stamp out Christianity in Britain is gathering pace". (She really said that. Really, really, really. I didn't make it up.)

Monday, March 07, 2011


Elves have, so far as we can tell, the same sexual organs as everybody else. Their clothes certainly cover up the same areas of the bodies. (This is quite odd, when you come to think about it, because sexual modesty implies a loss of innocence, and elves are free from original sin. But their souls and their bodies -- their fëa and their hröa -- are wired differently from those of mortal men, doomed to die.) According to custom, female elves are more likely to be healers, and male elves are more likely to be warriors, but there is no role that a female elf is prohibited from performing just because she's female. Nevertheless, there is an essential difference between the genders: if a male elf dies he always reincarnates in male form, and if a  female elf dies, she always reincarnates in female form. (This, incidentally, is true of the gods  Valar as well: although they are incorporeal and wear bodies when they have dealings with humans, some always wear male bodies and some always wear female bodies.)

The elves reproduce in the same way as all other mortals,  although it is hard to imagine a hobbit doing it, isn't it? Elf marriages are like English "common law" marriages: the act of sexual intercourse is sufficient to make two elves married. In practice, the elves do perform solemn ceremonies of marriage and betrothal but it isn't the ceremonies which make the marriage. (By tradition, the brides mother gives the bridegroom a necklace to signify betrothal, a point which was presumably not lost on Aragorn.) 

Elves marry for life. Since dead elves are reincarnated, it is pretty bad form for a widow or widower to remarry. Finwe did marry Indis after Miriel died, but that was a source of ill-feeling between Feanor and his half-brothers Fingolfin and Finarfin. 

After they have had a few children, an elvish couple lose interest in sex, and dedicate themselves instead to other elvish pursuits: sitting in idyllic woods idyllic composing harp music about idyllically sitting in woods idyllically composing harp music; idyllically baking lembas; idyllically fighting genocidal wars about the ownership of magic gems. After their children have grown up, which takes millennia, they may actually live apart. There is really no such thing as elvish lust: affection, sexual desire and the bearing children go together, almost, one might say, like a horse and carriage. You really can't have one without the other.

Daily Mail readers believe that this is also how human sexuality works. But it isn't.

Sunday, March 06, 2011


There was once a young journalist. Each morning, as he set out for work, he worried: "What will I do if I get to the office and find out that there is no news to report." He confided his concern to a more experienced reporter. "No news?" replied the old hack "Wow, what a story that would be! I can just imagine the headlines FIRST DAY IN HISTORY - ABSOLUTELY NOTHING HAPPENS"

Political nerds on both sides sometimes talk as if they would like all newspapers to be Soviet style press releases for the Ministry of Propaganda. Papers, they say, should report the facts about what a brilliant job the Prime Minister is doing, and nothing else. That's what ordinary people really want to read about. Tony Blair, the disgraced former Prime Minister, affected to believe that ordinary people were just not that interested in the intrigues and power struggles within his government, and certainly not his disagreements with Gordon Brown, of which there weren't any anyway. What they really wanted to read about was what percentage of what New Labour was rolling out year on year compared with the last seasonally adjusted Conservative Government.

But this is foolishness. Newspapers are about news; and news means stories, narratives, things which are worth repeating. Newspapers are incredibly selective about what they report: but then, so are you. You don't tell your friends if you went into Sainsbury's and saw a lady with a small child, but you do tell them if you went into Sainsbury's and saw a lady with a small rhinoceros.

Stupid people often say "I wish the papers would report more good news". But good news is not "a story". How could it be? NO-ONE IN BRISTOL HAS BUBONIC PLAGUE might be very good news, but it isn't a very good news story.  BLACK DEATH STRIKES MONTPELIER --wow! what a story that would be.

Dog bites man is not a story. Man bites dog is a story. I made that example up all by myself.

It may possibly be true that in relatively recent times, "politics" (stories about the rich and powerful), "society" (stories about the rich and famous) and "sport" (stories about the rich and stupid) have come more and more under the umbrella of "celebrity news". It may be true that current affairs and crime are increasingly reported in the language and style of a show-business gossip column. It may even be true that this is all the fault of Channel 4 and Big Brother.

It would be very surprising if murders and other sensational crimes were not reported in newspapers. You'd expect headlines that said: WOMAN DISAPPEARS, BODY FOUND, BODY IDENTIFIED, MAN ARRESTED, MAN CHARGED, MAN TRIED and MAN CONVICTED or ACQUITTED. But that's it. Everything else is sadomasochistic voyeurism. But increasingly, "murder" is treated as a sub-set of "celebrity news". Being murdered, like appearing on X-Factor, is a path to celebrity status. Along with all the pseudo-people that we have pseudo-relationships with, we need some pseudo-corpses to pseudo-blub over. When someone dead acquires a nick-name -- Little Jamie, Maddy, Lovely-Jo -- it's a safe bet that they've stopped being people and become a brand-names. They kept the Maddy brand going for a year. Tony Blair's success owed much to cynically positioning his product alongside the Little Jamie brand. The Diana-brand has come to its natural end, but the Kate-brand is even now being prepared for sacrifice.

Lovely-jo has stopped appearing in the newspapers because there is, er, no more news about her. And that's what you'd expect: things have returned to their normal state, in which a person who has passed away is remembered by, and mourned by, their family and friends -- the people who actually knew them -- and no-one else. Of course the rest of us are going to forget all about her. Why wouldn't we?

Daily Mail Woman doesn't understand that. If Lovely-jo's pictures is not appearing in newspapers, then it means Lovely-jo has been forgotten; if she has been forgotten, it means that she didn't matter, and Daily Mail Woman thinks Lovely-Jo matters an awful lot because she was pretty and liked posh pizza. Lovely-jo used to appear in the Daily Mail, like the important people. Now she is only on a police website. What can we do to promote the Lovely-jo brand?

Daily Mail Woman tries to retrace Lovely-jo's last movements. The easy way of getting from the flat where she may have died to the place where her body was found is by crossing Clifton Suspension Bridge. It is thought that the actual murderer must have taken a much longer route to avoid the security cameras on the bridge .

"Perhaps" says Daily Mail Woman, "He also wanted to avoid the 50p toll."

She has a very odd relationship with money, does Daily Mail woman. She has money for veggie burgers and pizzas, but no loose change to cross a bridge. She attempts to get across the bridge without paying her toll. She tries to put a button in the bucket, and (this is a comic master-stroke) she tells us which expensive shop the button came from. Still, they will not let her cross. The fee is, in fact, 50p.

Again, one asks: what does she imagine should have happened?

She visits the crime scene, and is surprised to find that there is no ceremony there. But how long should police stay at the scene of a murder?

She is surprised that no-one slows down outside the flat where Lovely-jo lived. How long does she think that cars should carry on slowing down for? (And do they only have to slow down outside the houses of people who have been murdered, or do they also have to slow down at houses where Mum has died tragically young of lung cancer?)

She is scandalized that the toll bridge won't let her pay 30p for a 50p fair. What does she think should happen?

That payment to cross a toll bridge should be optional, like a "pay what you can" night at the theater?

That the sign should say "50p, or 30p for people with the buttons off posh frocks"?

That the toll booth man should say "You go right ahead, you are a Daily Mail journalist"?

Or that, because there has been a murder in the town, all normal commerce should be suspended?


I think I know what is going on. Oh god, I think I know what is going on. When you are bereaved, you feel that the world has ended. This can easily turn into a feeling that the world ought to have ended: into anger against people who are carrying on as normal. How dare they just buy vegetables in the market as if nothing has happened! Most people recognize that this is just a feeling. King Lear didn't really think that the death of Cordelia was likely to make all the horses and dogs and rats drop dead in sympathy. W.H Auden didn't really think it at all likely that all the clocks and telephones would be switched off when his boyfriend died. It's a way of expressing rage: what English teachers used to call the pathetic fallacy. But the Liz Jones character is so controlled by her feelings that she effects to believe that normal life really will be suspended when a pretty white girl is killed, and that if it hasn't been, someone should damn well do something about it. It's the ultimate triumph (the ultimate caricature) of the "feelings over facts" believe system.

And finally, the master stroke. The most literally mad thing that has ever been said by anyone ever not excluding Mr Dave Sim:

"Isn't it interesting that you can snatch a young woman's life away from her in the most violent, painful, frightening way possible, take away her future children, her future Christmases, take away everything she loves, and yet there are elaborate systems in place to ensure you do not cross a bridge for only 30 pence?"

No, it isn't interesting. It isn't even a little a bit interesting. And there aren't any elaborate systems in place. There's a little gate. You pay your fare, the little gate opens, you drive through, the little gate closes. Do you imagine that little gate technology could be put to use stopping people being murdered? Or that every time someone wants to install a little gate or a little turnstile, they should be told, I'm sorry, you can't have a little gate, you can't have a little turnstile, people must be allowed to use your bridge, your road, your car park, your zoo for free because there are still sometimes murders and we don't always know how to stop them.

You want to stop rare birds becoming extinct, but Whatabout farm chickens?

You think my house-cats may get out and eat rare birds, but Whatabout the feral cats who need to be neutered?

You want me to pay 50p to cross the bridge, but Whatabout the lady who was murdered not five miles away?

In the 1950s, it fell to a particular sub-committee of Blackpool (or, it may be, Clacton or Brighton) Town Council to censor the seaside postcards: to decide whether a picture of a fat man, anxiously searching for a lost child and exclaiming "I can't find my little Willie" went beyond the realms of what could be sold in a decent holiday resort. The committee came up with the wheeze of showing all the cards to the mayor's wife. If the Lady Mayoress said that the post-card to be filthy, dirty and disgusting, it was adjudged to be a harmless bit of risque japery. But if she ever said "I don't see anything funny in that" then the card was ruled to be genuinely obscene, and banned.

Dirty jokes, sick jokes, bad taste jokes, "politically incorrect" jokes. The old Daily Mirror cartoons made it quite clear that Andy Capp regularly beat up his wife. This didn't mean that the readers were supposed to approve of domestic abuse -- any more than they were supposed to approve of drunkenness or laziness or blowing your wage packet on the dogs. Andy Capp wasn't a role-model: he represented the worst possible stereotype of a lower class Geordie.

It's people who are rather coy, not people who are completely uninhibited, who laugh at dick jokes and loo jokes. George Orwell said that the very smuttiness of the seaside postcards showed how very moral the lower orders were: if they didn't take marriage very seriously indeed then the idea of a nervous little man with an enormous fearsome wife surreptitiously glancing at a curvaceous blond in a bathing costume wouldn't be funny. But there's a line -- surely there must be a line -- that decent people don't cross. C.S Lewis -- who liked rude jokes well enough himself -- thought that some people told sex jokes because they were funny, and some people told sex jokes simply because it give them an excuse to talk about sex. The same might apply to other offensive jokes. It is possible that you really have thought of some way to make people laugh that just happens to involve taking the mickey out of some minority. But you'd better be very, very sure that you aren't merely using "it's funny" as a fig leaf to cover up a lot of bigoted rubbish that you, or your audience, really believe in. (The aforementioned Jimmy Carr seems to be to fall on one side of the line; the ghastly Jim Davidson on the other.) It's certainly inconceivable that anyone would draw, or even reprint, an Andy Capp wife-beating gag today.

So: assume I am right, and Liz Jones is a fictitious character -- a self-parody -- an Internet troll. Does that mean we can sit back and say "Well, that's all right then?"

Either someone sat in an office in London and imagined, with a terrible smirk on his face what Daily Mail Woman would do if she were asked to write about a murder.

Or else a real journalist, maybe really called Liz Jones, really walked around Bristol, really walked into Tescos, really picked up a Pizza and then, trying to be funny, or trying to give us the frisson of being shocked really wrote things like "This pizza proves that this dead woman, who I never knew, wanted to have a lovely life.

(Wanted to have a lovely life? Who doesn't, fuckwit, who doesn't? You might as well write "Finland Is A Land Of Contrasts".)

This is not reporting: this is voyeurism. Trying to get a laugh or some morbid, masturbatory sentiment out of the death of an actual human being who you, your paper, have turned into a commodity.

Am I offended? No.

Was I offended when I first read it? No.

Stunned disbelief would describe me feelings better. Horror. Not so much at the piece, but that there exists someone who would sink so low as to write such a thing.

So yes. Yes, I have very probably just wasted you time repeating at length the judgement I made when I first read the column.

"You utter shit."

Speaking of which -- Melanie Phillips:

update: I appear to have been unfair to Jim Davidson. not a phrase i ever expected to write

Thursday, March 03, 2011


The Jan 17 column about the Clifton murder becomes much more intelligible when approached from this angle. What could be more ridiculous than thinking that the bank should infinitely extend your overdraft because the cat likes organic prawns? What could be more absurdly Daily Mail than complaining that fascist bird-watchers are persecuting the indigenous hedgehog community?

I know. Let's imagine that Daily Mail Woman went to the scene of some really horrible murder. Let's pretend that even this failed to penetrate her consumerist narcissisms.  

That'll be a laff.

Imagine that Daily Mail Woman visited the pub where the murder victim is believed to have eaten her last meal. We know what a real journalist would have done. Talked to the drinkers. Talked to the staff. Got some quotes. Written a vox pop. Maybe tracked down someone who knew the deceased and got some new facts, a new angle, a minor scoop. That kind of "what local people are saying one month on" stuff isn't the highest form of reporting, but there's nothing terribly wrong with it.

But this is not a proper journalist. This is Daily Mail Woman, "Me, Me, Me, Me, Me" has replaced "Who? What? Where? When? Why?" as the reporter's mantra. Instead of trying to find out what happened on the night in question, she reviews the food. It's essentially the same joke that Drop the Dead Donkey made in 1998: the one where Sally droolingly describes the buffet at her hotel, but can only say that the conference she is meant to be covering is "very interesting." (To be fair, Daily Mail woman does get a couple of quotes from the bar staff. Since the murder of one of their customers, they have  apparently become "more nervous.")

Not that Daily Mail Woman can even review a pub meal properly. How could she? A reviewer might be highly subjective ("the violinist affected me profoundly, bringing tears to my eyes") or she might try to be objective ("the violinist played the second bar slightly flat, and took the middle section too quickly") but she has to be interested in the thing she is reviewing. That is, she has to be interested in something apart from herself. And this is something which Daily Mail Woman is, by definition, unable to do. "I ask for a veggie burger and it comes without the burger and without the bun", she tells us. Does she mean that they lost her order? Or merely that she left before it arrived? A normal person would have caught the waiter's eye or gone to the bar and said "Excuse me, is my burger on the way?" 

But this is not a normal person; this is Daily Mail Woman.

When judging a piece of writing, a good rule of thumb is to try to work out what the opposite would be. If you can't; or if the opposite would obviously be nonsense, then almost certainly the original was nonsense as well. David Cameron, like his role model Tony, routinely fails this test: "This is a moment when history turns a page: the next page is not yet written."  he said of the Libyan crisis. As opposed to the more normal kind of moment where history stays on the same page and the next page which we're not on yet is already written. (Local papers often report vicious attacks and brutal murders: I wonder why all the gentle murders and virtuous attacks are going unreported.) 

I supposed it is just possible that, if I were to drop dead at the age of 103 straight after watching A New Hope for the 750th time, you might say "Well, at least he died happy." But if I were blown up at the Bristol Odeon by a Gay-Communist-Muslim suicide bomber, you would hardly remark: "And what made it so much worse was that Tron is a rather lacklustre movie." Daily Mail Woman sums up her visit to the Ram thus: "I wish Jo could have spent what were probably her last hours on earth somewhere lovelier." Your daughter has been brutally murdered, but, on the plus side, but you'll be relieved to know that her veggie burger was nicely cooked and efficiently served.

Aside from that, Mrs Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?

Having established the comic structure, all that remains is to repeat the joke, over and over. Presumably, each new solecism is supposed to raise us to new raptures of horror -- like Jimmy Carr (a very clever man) progressing from a clever obesity joke to an ingenious disability joke to a brilliantly constructed rape joke. In fact, a sense of diminishing returns rapidly sets in. 

Daily Mail Woman walks past past a supermarket. The lady who was murdered might possibly have walked past the same supermarket. The supermarket is "full of young women rushing round after work, leaving with carriers bags and expectation". (Whereas supermarkets which are not connected with murders would be full of what, exactly, on a weekday evening?)

Daily Mail Woman walks into the supermarket that the lady who was murdered actually visited. At one point, it was reported that the police were interested in the fact that on the night in question, the lady who was murdered bought a pizza in this shop. They presumably thought that if they could find the pizza box, it might provide a clue to her final movements. Even in real life crime dramas, tiny details do sometimes provide clues to the identity of the killer. But Daily Mail Woman -- brilliantly -- doesn't understand what is meant by a "clue". Experts deal in facts. Daily Mail Woman believe only in feelings. So she finds a pizza of the same brand and, devastatingly, tells us how it makes her feel.

"I almost buy that upmarket Pizza; the choice tells me Jo wanted a lovely life, something above the ordinary."

It's a grotesquely brilliant image.

Woman goes into a shop.

Woman picks up a Tescos Finest Pizza (pesto and mozerella flavour).

Holds it. Caresses it

"Are you going to buy that Pizza?"

"No I merely want to look at it, in the belief that since it is the same brand of pizza that a person I never met may have purchased on the night she died I may be able to intuit some deep truth about the person I never met from the pizza."

The other night, I had pizza with olives and anchovies at Numero Uno, a modest little bistro on Blackboy Hill, maybe a mile from the place the murder happened. Does that tell you anything about my hopes and aspirations, Gypsy Rose Lee? Or merely that I quite like salty food?

She goes to the street where the murder victim lived.The residents are going to get better streets lighting put in. Quite sensible, you might think: but "people do sensible thing to make it slightly less likely that bad thing will happen again" is hardly consistent with the controlling narrative of the Daily Mail, that every day and in every way, everything is getting worse and worse. 

Can we incorporate "better street lighting" into the paper's "hell in a handcart" mythology? Yes, we can: 
"Residents are campaigning to get brighter street lamps installed. So the antique, lovely ones are to disappear to be replaced by ugly ones, because of something even uglier."

Old fashioned street lamps are "lovely". Pesto and mozzarella pizza are symbols of a "lovely" life". It's less bad to get murdered if you've just been for a drink in a "lovely" pub. Modern street lamps are not lovely enough. Murders are even less lovely. "Even uglier" is the term Daily Mail Woman uses. Even uglier. Even uglier than modern street lamps. Murder is even uglier than modern street lamps. The joke is starting to wear pretty damn thin.

That, I guess, is why posh frocks and expensive shoes are so important. If murder is ugly, then not being pretty is a crime. 

We might also note that the flowers placed outside the flat where the deceased lived are not, as you might expect, a sign of sympathy, but a sign of indifference: the person who left them "couldn't even be bothered to scrawl a note".  Someone laying a wreath can be incorporated into Daily Mail Woman's world view. Everything is horrible all the time, and even when someone does something kind, it really shows that they are horrible.

Daily Mail woman goes to the place where the murdered woman 's body was found. There is nothing to see there. 
"There was no ceremony here, no policeman, just that lovely face on a now dog-eared poster. I got the feeling the world is starting to forget Jo, that she’ll become just another thumbnail on the Avon and Somerset Police website, along with the faces of the other murder victims no one can recall."

That's the title of the piece; "Is lovely Jo becoming just another thumbanil on the police website."

Well, yes. Yes, of course she is. Of course she bloody well is...


Wednesday, March 02, 2011


Or take Liz Jones' piece from Jan 22nd.

It has all the hallmarks of a serious Daily Mail rant by a Phillips or a Littlejohn or a Hitchens. Absurd generalisations from single pieces of data. Conspiracy theory. Obsession with brands and and trade names. Paranoia. Bizarrely overblown language. Slow build up to hysterical crescendo. But the subject of the piece is, er,
Liz Jones feeding the birds in her garden. (It seems that someone has written a letter asking her to keep her cats indoors during the birds' nesting season. Written a letter! To Liz Jones! Don't they know who she is?)

A Daily Mail journalist cannot write "My local shop ran out of peanuts". She has to write "There is a world wide peanut shortage". She cannot be caught feeding breadcrumbs to the birdies: she must let it be known that she gives them "Carrot cake from Costa Coffee." It may, for all I know be true that hedgehogs are being culled. It may even be true that some farmers and some wildlife management experts are culling them over zealously or that there are two sides to the argument about whether the cull is necessary. But that's how Nature sometimes works. If there are more animals in a particular forest then that forest can sustain, or if one species is in danger of eating all the other species in the area, then you kill some animals to bring numbers down to a sustainable level. Even if they are cute. But Liz Jones cannot bring herself to say "kill". She can't bring herself to say "cull". She cannot bring herself to say "being culled in unnecessarily high numbers."

The word she uses is "persecution".
The gist of the piece is that the English are inconsistent in their attitude to animals. The Royal Family wear fur and go hunting, but are patrons of animal welfare charities; organizations like the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds campaign for the preservation of rare species but not for less common, less exotic ones -- presumably because they are in no actual danger of becoming extinct. 

It is perfectly possible to be very concerned about conservation and nevertheless go hunting. Liz Jones is confused about the difference between prolonging the lives of particular, individual birdies, and wanting to preserve entire species and entire ecosystems. Hunting's only a problem -- from a conservation point of view -- if you in danger of wiping out a whole species. You may still think it's cruel, or bad for the hunter's karma, but that's a seperate question. Poor Prince Phillip was once asked how he could be a patron of the RSPB when he hunted pheasant and he found himself saying "Pheasants are in absolutely no danger from people who shoot pheasants." But it was actually a perfectly reasonable comment.

Liz engages liberally in the rhetorical device known as Advanced Whatabouting: where any claim that "X is reprehensible" can be deflected by saying "What about Y? Isn't Y also reprehensible? Why aren't you talking about Y? " Why are the people who are concerned about her cats killing rare birds not exercising themselves about the welfare of battery chickens? You'd expect a charity set up to preserve rare bird to be worried about the welfare of farm animals, wouldn't you?  Whatabout chickens. Chickens have feathers.

So far so banal: but it eventually builds up to a pitch which is so over the top, so absurd, that it cannot possibly be meant seriously. It must be a joke at the expense of other columnists in her newspaper.

The language starts shrill:

"It (the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) fetishizes the rare while it is happy for the many to be persecuted"

But then it becomes hysterical:

"The RSPB is peopled by pure-breed fascists who think nothing of annihilating a species for their own elitist reasons" 

"For their own elitist reasons" could very well replace deus et mon droit as the motto on the Daily Mail masthead. Whether it's birdwatchers, G.Ps or local councillors you can be absolutely sure that they have "their own, elitist reasons" for keeping cats indoors, vaccinating children or putting litter bins on the high-street. 

It gets even
more hysterical:

"Like New Labour [animal charities] have become dizzy with power"

And then actually deranged:

"They have their own view of ecological harmony which the common, the photogenic, are just not part of"

This is all classic Daily Mail stuff. Of course the opinion of a sentimental fashion columnist who likes to put out crumbs of chocolate cake for the ickle birdies counts for more than that of informed environmentalists who want to prevent unique species and delicate ecosystems from become extinct.  (The RSPB have, for some secret reason "accused and convicted" a species of rat of killing lots of puffins. Liz Jones knows better. If the bird experts had asked the newspaper columnist, she could have put them straight.)   

Of course the fact that the hedgehog is "beloved by the public" overrides the view of the experts that, in some places, there are too many of them. "Expert" is one of the most damning terms of abuse in the Daily Mel lexicon. It is not too long since people were defending the anti-vaccination campaign on the grounds that it was elitist for medical professionals to say that the MMR vaccine was harmless when ordinary people felt that it was dangerous. We should be given the medicine we want, not the medicine that doctors tell us will make us well.   

Of course whatever is done is done deliberately, by a sinister brigade or elite or -ism with an ulterior motive.  

Of course an animal protection society which thinks that cats hunt birds must have an agenda. Elitism. The exercise of power for power's sake. A wish to destroy the foundations of British society. (Richard Littlejohn apparently believes that local council officials positively look for ways to stop people from having fun because they get a sexual kick out of it.)

But the Liz Jones character is applying this paranoid Daily Mel language -- persecution, orchestrated, indigenous, fascist, elitist, dizzy with power -- to someone who told her to keep her cats indoors when birds were nesting and who jolly well ought to have known that her cats are a special case. Her cats are nice cats. Her cats have never killed bird in their life. And Whatabout all the wild cats. Wouldn't it be better to neuter them than to write letters to me? Don't you know who I am? Don't you know who I AM.

My cats aren't a danger, says the headline. The Power Crazed RSPB is.

The power-crazed RSPB.

The power-crazed RSPB.





This can't be meant seriously.

It can't be meant seriously.

It can't be meant seriously.

Liz Jones is, in fact, a parody of Melanie Philips. 

Tuesday, March 01, 2011


I think that I may have been "had" by Liz Jones.

British newspapers fairly often print spoofs, and people fairly often get taken in by them. The Independent is currently running a satirical column by Talbot Church "the man the Royals trust". If Private Eye is to be believed, several of his most far-fetched spoof stories have been followed-up by serious royal reporters.  If that isn't a contradiction in terms. For years, the Guardian ran a column by one Bel Littlejohn: however outrageously right-on her views became, readers failed to realize that her columns were an exercise in self-parody, not to say self-flagellation.

Melanie Phillips, on the other hand, is a real person.

People can also become conscious parodies of themselves. Auberon Waugh's personal values were undoubtedly consonant with the ones he expressed in his newspaper columns: nostalgic, Catholic, aristocratic. But his print persona took these views to such bizarre extremes that they couldn't possibly have been what he really believed. (The problems with the health service stem from greedy nurses who expect to be paid for work any decent human being would undertake for nothing; corporal punishment ought to be retained because teachers have a difficult job and deserve some fun from time to time). They were clever and witty columns, although it wasn't always easy to work out where the joke lay. Jeremy Clarkson uses much the same technique today, only without the "clever" and "witty" part.

It's a dangerous game to play, though. You always risk being taken seriously. People would sometimes come up to Warren Mitchell (who played the appalling Alf Garnett for 30 years) and say "I loved the way you were having a go at all those nig-nogs on TV last night.".

"I wasn't having a go at the nig-nogs" he would reply. "I was having a go at ignorant arseholes like you." 

Now, after reading her Daily Mail column about the Clifton murder, I naturally assumed that Liz Jones was a vacuous middle class snob, whose column was intended to appeal to other vacuous middle class snobs. I think I erred. I think her column is a parody of a column by a vacuous middle-class snob: a joke at the expense of vacuous middle-class Daily Mail readers in the same way that Bel Littlejohn was a joke at the expense of leftier-than-thou Guardian readers.

Melanie Phillips, on the other hand,  is probably a real person.

It was her new year column that alerted me to the fact that Liz Jones cannot possibly intend us to take her seriously.

It was full of this kind of stuff:

"My moan of the year has to be reserved for NatWest, the unhelpful bank that refused to let me withdraw £20 to buy pet food. At the end of this year, I received a letter from another costumer to say that he had been refused a £400 loan to bury his son, who had been killed in a hit and run. Shame on you, you evil money-grubbers."

Modern life is full of minor inconveniences. When I shout at the automatic till in Sainsburies ("It's a pint of effing milk! It can't be that unexpected! People must come in here and buy milk all the time!") I'm not really expecting it to answer. I am expressing frustration. If anything I'm making a joke against myself, for being so pointlessly annoyed by a bit of machinery which doesn't work. Most of us sometimes feel frustrated in the face of machines, rules and bureaucracy. We always feel that there is a special reason why the rules should not apply to us, and are annoyed that bureaucrats won't treat us as a special case. Of course the aerial repair man is going to come out more urgently, and charge less money to fix my TV if I explain to him that my Doctor Who reviews are read by literally dozens of people. If I explain my employment circumstances to a minimum wage bank teller, then of course he will allow me withdraw money beyond my agreed overdraft limit. Of course Mr Branson will delay his train by an extra five minute to give me a chance to retrieve the wallet I dropped at the ticket office.

Lots of people have spotted that bureaucracy can be particularly heartless when dealing with bereavement. The are lots of stories about recent widows getting letters addressed to "Mr John Smith, deceased". On the other hand, the process of probate is quite complicated: if I walk into the bank and say "I want a £1,000 out of my Mum's account so I can bury her" the bank is very likely to reply "We'd like some evidence that she's really dead, and that you are really her son, please." This is why insurance companies offer cheap life assurance for the over 50s, payable upon death, along with an attractive carriage clock yours to keep however you decide.

The bit about needing £400 "to bury his son" is pretty obviously a terminological inexactitude. Funeral directors don't refuse to bury you if you don't pay upfront. They do the work, and then, several weeks later, they send you the bill. They are quite good at treating bereaved people in a sensitive way. They've had a lot of practice.

And if you can't afford £400, that doesn't mean your son goes unburied. It means social service help you out. There is no such thing as a pauper's funeral.  

If you aren't eligible for a loan, then you aren't eligible for a loan. You aren't more eligible for a loan because your loved one was the victim of a hit and run than you would have been if he had been the victim of a responsible driver who had pulled over, called 999, and waited for the police.

But the really weird thing is the way that Liz leaps from her correspondent's sad story to her own, ludicrously trivial one. Did she really need £20 to feed a cat? Couldn't Tiddles have had some Happy Shopper food from the corner shop for one night? Couldn't she have mashed up some human food in the mincer, or borrowed something from next door? Did she really think the bank would open specially, or let her go overdrawn just because Tiddles is one of the nine out of ten cats who prefer Whiskers? If you are so stupid as to be left with no food and no cash no and money in the bank, does that really make the bank "evil" (a word more commonly associated with war criminals and serial killers).

And do you really think that there some comparison between "feeding the cat" and "arranging my son's funeral"?

It's in poor taste. It's not very funny. But it is surely intended as a joke -- a parody of the me, me, me mindset of certain columnists, diarists and, admittedly,  bloggers.

It is, on the other hand,  just possible that Melanie Philips is a real person.

UPDATE: Oh god, it's more complicated than that. At the point at which the evil moneygrubbing bank wouldn't give her £20, she apparently reached the end of a £15,000 overdraft. She was so deeply in debt that her readers started to send her money. Old ladies send her tenners out of their pensions. (What do you reckon a key brand-name columnist workign for the second best selling paper in the country takes home in a year? £80K?)  And she feeds her cats Marks and Spencers organic prawns. All of which tends to confirm the "Bel Littlejohn" theory. Doesn't it?