Saturday, November 19, 2005

Administering Corporal Punishment to a Metabolically Challenged Quadruped Non-Human Associate

"That's all right. It's in every contract. It's what they call a sanity clause." 

This week, the Mail and the Express reported that Havant City Council has banned both Christmas lights and Santa Claus. Both stories were similarly worded – I would hazard a guess that the quotes were lifted verbatim from the Havant local paper. 

Why is this "news"? The Daily Mail makes its agenda chillingly clear: xxx "Yesterday, the decision to drop the Christmas lights was greeted with amazement in a borough where 99.1% of the population are white."

"Where 99.1% of the population are white." 

Step away from the computer. If, like me, reading that makes you feel violent: makes you actually want to start walking around the house breaking things, have a break and take a walk round the garden. 

 99.1% of the population are white. Words literally fail me. 

To start with, notice the way that they have slipped the phrase "drop the Christmas lights" into the middle of a sentence. This is typical of the way in which P.C.B stories are constructed. The front page headline in the Express (1) yells: 

"Yes, it's hard to believe, but now Santa AND Christmas lights have been banned." 

This is clearly intended to make us think that Santa Claus has been the subject of some country-wide prohibition. After all, if Tony Blair has banned fox-hunting and the cane, what might he not ban next? The upper case "AND" is quite interesting: "You knew and accepted that Christmas lights had been prohibited" it seems to say, "but can you believe that Father Christmas has now been banned as well?" (It would be more surprising if someone had banned one and allowed the other to go ahead. If I were Scrooge, I would certainly ban lights, trees, Christmas Pudding, the Wizard of Oz, and the Doctor Who Christmas Special. "Inconsistent puritan bans mistletoe but says Christmas pud can go ahead" would be a headline worth printing.) 

 If you turn to page seven, the internal headline reveals that this outrage is in fact limited to only one place: 

"Now a town bans Santa AND the Christmas lights." 

 Whew! So the rest of us can carry on celebrating as normal. It's only one town where Christmas has been prohibited. But still banning Christmas in a whole town is pretty nasty. The Daily Mail headline for the same story asks "Is this the most miserable town in England?"(2) 

Read the story itself, and you will find that something even more modest is being alleged: 

 Politically Correct commissars caused outrage in a town last night after banning the term Christmas lights. Residents were up in arms after Havant Borough Council removed the word Christmas from the turning-on-ceremony and renamed it The Festival of Light 

 So. By headlining the story "Christmas lights banned" and slipping in phrases like "the move to drop the lights", we clearly intend to give our readers (particularly those who don't bother to "turn to page 7) the impression that it is the Christmas decorations themselves which have gone away. This is what the non-analytical reader will remember about the story six months hence. But we are not in fact talking about "banning Christmas"; or "banning Christmas lights" or "banning the word Christmas" but merely "removing the word Christmas from the turning-on ceremony."

 However, let's be fair. The mere fact that the council have "removed" the word Christmas indicates that they are being a little officious. Or at least, it would do, if it were true. 

I checked on Havant Council's website. And yes, they are indeed running organising an event called the "Festival of Lights"(3) – including such delights as late night shopping, fireworks, and a ceremonial turning on of illuminations. As municipal events go, it actually sounds rather cool: 

 Younger children will be able to dress as their favorite character for a special fancy dress competition with a pantomime theme. The winner and their family will be treated like royalty and be driven around town in a shiny limousine and given the chance to flick the switch that will kick off the evening's spectacular firework display. 

 Okay, I'd rather see the Doctor and Rose turning on the lights in Cardiff, but still, it sounds like some little kids are going to have a good time. 

"This event is a first for Havant town center and we are delighted to be working with Havant Business Group and the Meridian Center to create a wonderful winter fiesta that the whole community can be part of" said Senior Retail Support Officer, Gail Grant "A torch lit procession will wend its way through the town center streets, the Christmas tree will be illuminated..." 

 Hang on, could you say that again, please? 

 "...the Christmas tree will be illuminated and everyone will be able to enjoy a family carol concert..." 

 That would be a Christmas Carol Concert, of the kind that has all but disappeared because of the P.C.B? 

 "...and a firework display....until 7PM or so visitors will be able to start their Christmas shopping..." 

 That word again... 

 ....with their windows decked for Christmas...the town center shops will be open until 7Pm. There will also be a chance to stock up for Christmas 

 So, to summarize. 

"Local council doesn't ban the word Christmas from light switching on festivities at all." 

But mere facts aren't going to stop a lot of people in Havant telling the Daily Express that they are very angry indeed. A man who sells vegetables thinks that: 

"dropping the word Christmas is ludicrous. It will make for a miserable Christmas in Havant" 

What would have to be going on in someone's head for the wording on a council press-release to effect their joy or misery at Christmas one way or the other?

 One David Gillett (the council leader, apparently) explains: 

"I can't for the life of me see why people would be offended and to be honest I don't think that anyone is. It's just a case of" 

 Is he going to say it? Is he going to say it? 

 "political correctness gone absolutely barmy" 

 But what of Santa Claus? Is he coming to town or not? This part of the story is so exciting that readers of a nervous disposition may want to leave the room. It appears that there exists a club called the Havant Lions, which raises money for charity by engaging in such daredevil endeavors as running a Tombola at the annual Emsworth and Rowlands castle shows. In an ancient tradition stretching all the way back to 1996, they also run a Santa's Grotto at the local shopping mall. On November 2nd, Portsmouth Today ran an item under the almost unbearably witty headline "Santa Has to Find New Ho-Ho-Home". It reported that the Grotto couldn't go ahead in shopping mall this year because of fire regulations: 

 "Center manager Tim Smith said that changes to the interior of the center meant a bulky grotto could hamper the ventilation system in the event of a fire. There is no sprinkler on the ground floor, where the grotto is located. Mr Smith said that he was advised by the fire prevention officer last year that the center should not have a grotto." 

 Sensationally, Havant Lions have therefore moved their grotto from the Meridian shopping center in Havant to the Asda supermarket in Bedhampton. (Remember this is front page news or a national paper.) As ever, the Express finds out both the age and the opinion of the man in the street: 

 Shopper Steve Sackett, 43, said "I would normally take my son to the Grotto, but I'll have to take him the Portsmouth instead. Its completely daft." 

It is, indeed, completely daft: Asda is only up the road from the Meridian Center. (Here is a map for Mr Sackett's benefit.) He could drive there in five minutes and still be back in time for the fireworks. But "Town moves Santa five minutes round the corner" would somehow have lacked the sense of scandal and outrage that the festive period requires. 

 All this would be very funny and pathetic if the Express didn't have "Britian Defiant!" emblazoned across its masthead, and the Mail hadn't placed the story explicitly in a racial context. 

Yesterday, the decision drop the Christmas lights was greeted with amazement in a borough where 99.1% of the population are white. 

 The only possible inference is that "Christmas" is a festival for white people, and that black people are taking it away from "us". This is the inference drawn by readers who contribute comments to the website of the Mail . They say that Havant council is trying to eradicate "our" Christian heritage. They say that "foriegners of different religions must accept Britain's religious beliefs and respect them". They say that individuals of other faiths "would do well to remember that as nation we are Great Britian, a Christian country.". They ask us to imagine what would happen if "they" tried to "ban" other religion based festivals. 

I once saw a despicable leaflet distributed by the British National Party, arguing (if you can use the word) that by next Tuesday, "England" would be completely concreted over to provide free housing for black people who -- as everyone knows -- have more babies than white people and who would soon therefore be the racial majority. Since all black people get free houses, we'd have to put up housing estates all over the green-belt and bingo, no more green and pleasant land. 

Preaching a fantasy about one race taking away the winter traditions of another is not the same thing as preaching a fantasy about one race outbreeding another; but both lies play to the same irrational fears; both lies stoke up the same kind of hatred. And if you start to believe one lie, you are very likely to run into the arms of people who believe the other. 

"It's hard to believe, but now Santa AND Christmas lights are banned." 

 It is very hard to believe. Very hard to believe indeed. Because it's not true.

 (1) The day's main news items is actually "DIANA FUND PAYS OUT TO GYPSIES AND ASYLUM SEEKERS". This piece alleges that about £2 million of the £28 million raised by the Diana memorial fund has been given to what are described as "controversial groups", "fringe groups" and "weird minority groups". The controversial, fringe, weird, minority groups mentioned are "asylum seekers, refugees, gays and lesbians". The shout lines rather imply that if you're a Northern Irish Lesbian, you can expect to receive a cheque through the post any day now. The fair and balanced phone in poll asks "Should Diana's money be given to gypsies?" as if someone were walking around camp-sites handing out fivers. If you read down the article, you find out that what is actually being funded is a number of specific projects, so that "money for asylum seekers" translates to funding a community arts center providing courses for the children of refugees. The item as a whole is premised on various bizarre religious theories involving posthumous shame and the transmigration of souls which I frankly don't understand. "Her name will always be tarnished by controversy over these groups." "If that money is used simply to support weird minority groups, she will never rest in peace." 

 (2)The Daily Mail specialises in headlines of this kind, which have been described as "very interesting questions to which the answer is no," 

(3) Festival of Lights is, indeed, a really silly name particularly as it's about one month after Diwali. Just because we disbelieve in the existence of the P.C.B, we don't have to believe that no small-time bureaucrat has ever done or said anything A Bit Silly. I used to live in Tooting Bec, one stop on the tube from Balham. One year Balham Council decided to hold a (doubtless worthy and worthwhile) multi-cultural festival. But they promoted it under the slogan "Balham - Gateway to the South." Did someone on the council have sense of humour -- or did several people on the council have absolutely no sense of humour whatsoever?

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Hoots mon!

....from the "Scottish Heritage" website.

EVERY nation needs a symbol to express its identity. Out of Scotland's history three core symbols emerged: a plant (the thistle, commemorating Alexander III's crucial victory against the Vikings at Largs in 1263), an animal (the Lion Rampant, remembering the Royal beast kept by King William the Lion) and a saint (Andrew, chosen to root Scotland in Bible values)....

....For Scots today Saint Andrew with his cross is still a potent symbol: Andrew was a networker who brought the wider world to meet his Master; the saltire is a multiplication sign of dynamism and enlargement. This recalls Andrew's initiative in bringing the boy to Jesus at the multiplication of the loaves and fishes and is an appropriate symbol of entrepreneurial skills for Scotland in the 21st century. There are other advantages: sharing Andrew as our patron with Russia and Greece gives Scots a worldwide orientation.

thanks to Flash for drawing my attention to this

Friday, November 11, 2005

PC/BC - Appendix 2

When I was growing up, the children's TV show "Vision On" was interpreted in sign-language for the benefit of the "deaf and dumb". Christmas cards were sold in aid of the "spastics society"; and certain children were routinely described as "mongols". Newspapers openly used the word "pooftah" (in the sense of "10 ways to spot if your neigbour is a pooftah") All of that would be pretty unthinkable today.

I don't know whether the change in language reflected a change in social reality; or whether the social change was made possible because language had changed. Did our decision to start saying "paramedic" make it easier for women to enter that profession -- easier for little girls to imagine it as a profession that they could possibly aspire to? Or was it just that we started to feel silly using the term "Ambulance-Bloke" when it was obvious that the person applying the bandage was an "Ambulance-Bird"?

Similarly, the BBC used to think it acceptable to have a TV show called "The Black and White Minstrels" in which white performers put on black make-up and curly wigs and sang middle-brow pop-songs. They don't do that any more. Spike Milligan did sketches about a family of Pakistani Daleks, who said "Put them in the curry! Put them in the curry!"(*) instead of "Exterminate!"; Benny Hill did sketches about dirty old men and school girls which now look like borderline child-porn; and Jim Davidson made jokes about dis black guy called Chalkie who had de very long penis. You wouldn't get away with any of that today.

Again, it is hard to know whether we became a more racially inclusive society because we stopped insulting black people on TV, or whether we stopped insulting black people on TV because we had become more a more racially inclusive society.

So: there are certainly words that we used to use but don't use any more, and there are certainly TV programmes that we used to watch but don't watch any more; and if that's what you mean by "political correctness" then a movement towards "political correctness" certainly happened in the 1980s. And some of it may have been over-zealous. For example....let me I was at college, someone in the Student Union got very uptight about the fact that the lavatories were labeled "Ladies" and "Gentlemen" rather than "Male" and "Female." And I once heard someone refer to a wheelchair user as "differently abled". But actual examples of people saying "vertically challenged" and "chronologically superior" are embarrassingly difficult to come by.

I am extremely skeptical about whether any of this can be laid at the door of an identifiable movement, let alone one that consciously identified itself as "politically correct". I think that it is more likely that "political correctness" was an invented label, applied to a number of different activities by people who disapproved of them. Even supposing a more or less cohesive Movement For Political Correctness, I find it hard to see why "campaigning about racial and sexual exclusion" should be defined as "leftist".

The "PC" that I'm conceding the existence of has almost nothing to do with the purely imaginary PC Brigade from the Daily Express, of course.

(*) Okay, I admit that one has a certain surrealistic charm


On 21st October a group of my old college-type friends met up in Portsmouth, and starting out in a plasticated chain-pub called "The Trafalgar" worked our way around half a dozen pubs, drinking a pint of Real Ale in each. We had lunch in place called the Still and West which serves some of the best Fish-and-Chips in England. It adjoined the docks, and if we strained our necks a bit, we could see the masts of the Victory with the "England Expects..." flags blowing in the wind. I even put on a Union Jack tie for the occasion. At the end of the evening, we toasted Lord Nelson. Actually, a double rum on top of all that beer and fish and chips was probably a mistake. We rounded out the night with a traditional English curry from a traditional English Indian.

So yes, I value English Culture in the same way that one values one's old armchair or one's ancient and much loved teddy-bear: it's yours, you've got used to it; you feel comfortable with it; and you wouldn't want anyone to take it away from you.

One of the bits of English Culture I find quite endearing is the tradition of Morris Dancing -- a sort of heavily stylised country dance, in peasant costume with much waving of hankerchieves, generally done by hulking great beery men in clogs. (By "find endearing" I mean "when I came upon some Morris Dancers outside the town hall a few weeks ago, I watched a dance and put 50p in their bucket.") A few Morris "sides" maintain the tradition of, er, blacking up their faces with boot-polish. (The were originally "Moorish Dancers". Possibly.) If someone were to say "That's actually highly offensive to black people" then I don't think "We've been doing this dance since before black people were invented" would necessarily be a good answer. (The town of Lewes takes bonfire night more seriously than most, with people dressing up in Puritan costume, carrying banners saying "No Popery" and burning a firework filled effigy of the present Pope. If anyone were to say "This is in questionable taste" then I don't think "It's a longstanding tradition" would settle the question.)

Do minorities or incomers have the right to tell the majorities or natives how to behave? Provided we only mean "how to behave in public" then I think possibly they do. If I wish to display a racist caricature of a Ruritanian in my own front room, then I think that I have a perfect right to do so; but if I display it on a public hoarding, I think my Ruritanian neighbour has a right to complain, even if he's the only Ruritanian in the village. "Ah, but in this village, we've been abusing Ruritanians for a very, very long time" is neither here nor there.

I don't think that the British should maintain British culture "as a default", because I don't think that there is any such thing as "British culture". There are, and have always been, a large number of different "cultures" in these islands. I don't think that an English member of the house of Lords who went to Eton, attends his parish church and tortures foxes in his spare time shares more culture with a working class Catholic from Glasgow than either of them do with a British Hindu from Tooting Bec.

If someone had told me to take off my Union Jack on Trafalgar Day, I would have been very aggrieved, just as I would have been if someone had taken away my armchair or my teddy-bear. I would have been more annoyed if they had taken away some part of my Englishness that I value more highly than my tie, say, Glastonbury Tor or the works of Shakespeare. Whether we are parts of a majority or minority culture, we should be free to practice our made-up rituals and festivals, unless and until they proven harmful to someone else's welfare. Or that of the fox. Try to stop us, and we have every right to get cross.

But no-one is. The same issue of the Daily Express which carried the "JESUS BANS CHEDDAR CAVES" headline contained an op-ed piece which spent five columns listing those aspects of British culture which have been "banned".

"Christmas Trees and carols are now widely banned in public places...carol concerts have all but disappeared.... displays of the Union or St George's flag are regularly challenged by officials... crackdowns on bonfires and firework displays with the result that the excitement of November 5th has all but disappeared... this month that shining symbol of London individualism, the open-backed Routemaster bus was withdrawn..."

Every word of it total fantasy (except for the bit about the London buses, which are very old and being replaced by modern, safer ones). If British culture was under attack, the Denby-Scholes of this world would be right to be angry; in the same way that if there were Vampires in London, I'd be right to get some garlic.

But there aren't.


I think that there are Christian hegemonists who would like every school lesson to open with a prayer; "Thought for the Day" to go out at prime time, and TV shows critical or disrespectful towards Christianity to be more or less banned.

And, sadly, there are also Secular hegemonists who would like all religious discourse banished from the public sphere, to the extent that they feel horribly oppressed by the existance of "Songs of Praise".

The other 99% of the universe are secular pluralists, who think that Jonathon Miller and Peter Owen-Jones can live happily together on BBC 2.

The Arch-Druids point, I think, was that some of those who say that we shouldn't dispaly Christian symbols for fear that it might offend people of Other Religions are really secular hegemonists who think that we shouldn't display any religious symbols at all.

I think that he theory may have some hypothetical merit; but he appears to have been speaking in response to a Daily Prophet journalist asking him what he thought about "some councils prohbiting traditional festive symbols" - which they aren't. It was a plausible theory about a non-existant problem.

Do non-religious folks really feel offended and excluded if someone hangs up a picture of Babyjesus in their shop-window, by the way?

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

On the Origins of the BCs

They've started called lunatic asylums "care homes". It's madness gones politically correct, I tell you.

On Friday, the Daily Express ran a headline.


Two lines of text, black on white. A sort of poetry of the apocalypse


Four words.


"In addition." "On top of everything else" "We knew things were bad, but this is really the last straw." The word drags us into the conspiracy.... we all know, it's so obvious it goes without saying, that many things have been banned recently, we can't think of any actual examples, but we're sure they have, and now this!


The person? The religion? Or just the word? I think there is a little wordplay going on here. We have just had the annual "local council abolishes Christmas" stormover. This year it is the Cromwellian Lambeth Council who have canceled the festivities – or more specifically been caught using the phrase "Winter Lights" to describe its municipal December decorations in some literature.(1) We are supposed to infer: "Yesterday, they banned Christmas, and now, Christ is banned."


The journalistic present. We are not reporting an event which has happened. We are informing you of a state which now exists. You have woken up in a bad new world where a new thing has been prohibited.


A key tabloid word. It's meaning is ambiguous – it doesn't been prohibited by law, necessarily, or censored, or abolished – but it implies that Someone is telling us what to do, and we don't like it.


Who is the evil authority figure doing the banning? The Curator of Cheddar Gorge geological museum. What has he done? Removed the letters "B.C" from the dates on some of his exhibits.




That's it. That's the whole story. Main headline, front page, inside page and leading article in a tabloid on sale in every shop in the land, predicated on "Small Museum Re-Labels It's Exhibits."

Museum bosses are trying to erase Jesus Christ from the pages of history. In the latest ludicrous attempt to tear down traditions, curators have banned the phrase BC --before Christ -- and insist on using BP -- Before Present -- to avoid offending other faiths. The astonishing decision caused national outrage last night

I like the use of the term "Museum Bosses". It implies some kind of powerful, dictatorial autocrat, a geological Fat Controller. I like the way in which, somewhere between Page 1 and Page 7, the plural "Museum Bosses" shrinks to mean the curator of one small museum. I like the idea that there was "national outrage" on Thursday night, even before the Express had broken the story. We don't do national outrage very well in this country. The French set fire to other people's motor-cars. We write mildly rude remarks in museum visitors books.

BC is used for dates leading up to the birth of Christ to help place the timing of eras throughout history and is internationally accepted. But officials at the Cheddar Caves Museum in Cheddar Gorge Somerset -- one of Britain's most popular tourist attractions (2) -- say that this is not politically correct, and have changed all exhibit dates to BP....'BP has no meaning, and if it means the present day, then it's always moving. It really is a completely nutty idea'.

The writers of this piece – sorry "ludicrous tabloid bosses" – apparently to want us to believe that the BP dating system is the crazy whim of an individual museum curator who is hyper-sensitive to the feelings of those of other-religions-and-none. In fact, as everyone knows (3) "BP" is actually a long established notation when dealing with extremely ancient events. I assume that, when we are talking about a geological time-frame, we can't necessarily come up with a date which is accurate even to the nearest millennium, making "BC" and "AD" fairly pointless distinctions. If a dinosaur skeleton is sixty-five million years old, you would hardly label it "Tyrannasauraus Rex: 64997995 BC". For the purposes of the BP dating system, the "present" is deemed to be 1950, because the advent of nuclear testing messes up the results of carbon dating after that point. If you were being very strict, you might use the term "Radiocarbon Years Before Present". It seems to be a fairly widely-used when talking about geology: the educational section of the Yosemite National Park website gives the history of the valley in the "BP" system.

BC is also a little unhelpful if you are talking about the early history of Christiantiy. Christ fairly obviously wasn't born 4 years before the birth of Christ, but he is generally reckoned to be born in 4BC. (If you aren't careful, you get caught up in millennial conundrums about whether it was 1 BC up to December 25th and became 1AD on Boxing day, does that mean that the year 1 only lasted until Hogmany, and how on earth did the Romans manage for so long without a zero?) Academics, of course have been using the terms "CE" and "BCE" since..well, since the year dot. You can pretend that this means "Before Common Era", "Before Christian Era", or "Before Current Era" depending on your mood.

These points bypassed Rosemary and Mark Yule (both 45, apparently) who told the Express that they were "shocked to see the BP signs when they visited the museum with their sons Greg, eight, and Robbie, seven." (Maybe this gratuitous information about the ages of their informants and their informants family is intended to make a point about the importance of dates. Or maybe it's just a way of filling up space. Incidentally, in the context of last week's "Lambeth Bans Christmas" stormover the name "Yule" looks highly suspicious).

Rosmary said "These signs are all over the walls -- every date says BP instead of BC it's...

wait for it...hold your breath... it's coming


Will she or won't she? Can she spot a cliche at 50 paces? Is there a an invisible autocue following her around? Or does she just say the kinds of things she thinks she's supposed to say when interviewed for the Daily Prophet?

....political correctness gone mad.

Just in case we've missed the point about who is to blame for all this the Express provides us with a 25p-a-go phone-in-poll in which we readers can answer "Yes" or "No" to the fair and balanced question: "Are PC fanatics right to ban Christ?"

"But Andrew -- its only the Daily Express (4). Do you really need to write a five page article about how the Express wrote a three page article about a ten line label on an exhibit in a museum that hardly anyone ever goes to?"

Actually, yes. Because while it was a very bad news item, it was a very good example of something we should all be terribly scared of.

The words "Politically Correct" used to be used to mock clumsy or redundant attempts to use inclusive language ("We've been told to stop saying "freshmen" and start saying "freshpeople" – isn't that a bit politically correct?") But the Express seems to be using it primarily to refer to a a group or organisation or movement with a political agenda. We read of "the political correctness brigade", "PC fanatics" and "fanatics of political correctness". We are told that their aim is "to tear down our traditions" "to write Jesus out of our history" "to erode the very foundations of British culture." It envisages a conflict between one group – "the political correctness brigade", and another group who have a shared culture (our tradition, our history, British culture) which the first group hates and wishes to destroy.

Who, exactly, are the "we" who are under attack? In case we are a bit slow on the uptake, elsewhere in the paper, a reader's letter spells out the answer for us.

"Ban this," rants Ms Diane Denby-Schole from Birmingham "prevent the other, change all our traditions, turn what was once the the proudest nation on Earth into some wishy-washy grey pulp where only immigrants can follow their traditions..."

Pause, breath in. "Our" traditions are being changed, but "immigrants" can follow theirs.

"Indeed, they are actively encouraged to maintain the traditions of their homelands."

Their homelands, being places other than Britain. I trust you are keeping up?

"Birmingham council is an oppressive vehicle that had already banned the flying of our national flag."

Has it, Ms Denby-Scholes? Has it really? Banned it from where? Under what legislation? (I very much doubt that the flying of any flag is banned under English law, and that I would be perfectly within my rights to run the swastika up the flagpole if I so desired.) Are you sure that "banned" doesn't mean "isn't flying it from the town hall at the moment."

"Come on Britons. Stand up for your traditions." (5)

I think that is pretty unequivical. "We" are Britians, non-immigrants, true-blue Brits: they are immigrants, with different traditions, from different homelands. Or, not to beat about the bush, black people.

And so we come to the point. Every day, I read a news story about how someone called "the political correctness lobby" has done something faintly ridiculous, and how some ordinary person has been shocked and outraged by it. Without needing to remember, or even believe, the details of any specific story, I acquire a general sense of paranoia. I start to believe that a "politically correct" minority is out to get me; and I gradually and insidiously associate them with the non-white Other who is still an immigrant after two or three generations. And so my white middle class neighbour and me start to think of ourselves as an oppressed minority. If you keep winding us up, we are apt to do something crazy like vote in for a far right Conservative government, or even the BNP. Which is (I assume) what the people who write this kind of drivel are hoping for.

On Monday, the Express reported on the front page that British Legion collectors had been banned from pinning poppies on people in case they injured them.

(1)In Tate Modern there is a glass of water. It is a very ordinary glass of water, but it has special significance because it was poured in 1973 by surrealist artist Michael Craig-Martin. Mr Martin said that the the glass of water was, in fact, an oak tree. "Craig-Martin’s assertion addresses fundamental questions about what we understand to be art and our faith in the power of the artist," apparently. Or possibly it's about Catholicism: if the Priest can say that a wafer is Jesus, why can't I say that a glass of water is a tree? Given that it was created in 1973, it isn't clear how the curator's stop the work from evaporating; or whether they are allowed to top it up from time to time. But this is probably part of the joke. I assume that the Daily Express is up to date with the idea of a conceptual art, and thinks that, as bed or a pile of bricks can become a work of art if an artist intends it, so a row of fairy lights turn from "religious" fairy lights to "secular" fairy light depending on the intentions of a local politician.

(2) According the Office of National Statistics, the most popular tourist attractions in the UK are

1: Blackpool Pleasure Beach
2: British Museum
3: National Gallery
4: Alton Towers
5: Tower of London
6: Tate Gallery
7: Pleasureland
8: Natural History Museum
9: Chessington World of Adventures
10: Science Museum
11: Legoland
12: Windsor Castle
13: Edinburgh Castle
14: London Zoo
15: Roman Baths
16: Chester Zoo
17: Stonehenge
18: London Aquarium
19: Knowsley Safari Park
20: Edinburgh Zoo

(3) Everyone who took the trouble to look it up on Google, at any rate.

(4)PAXMAN: They also publish Horny Housewives, Mega Boobs, Posh Wives, Skinny & Wriggly. Do you know what these magazines are like?
BLAIR: No, I don't....

(5) To be fair, the sub-editor who composed Ms Denby-Scholes letter also points out that, and I quote "true-Blue-brits" have no problem with participating in, say, a Diwali celebration, and that Pakistani and Sikh shopkeepers sometimes fly the Union Jack (despite the fact that it has been banned...I give up.)

Friday, November 04, 2005

Not all Conservatives are fools, but...

On the basis of "Question Time", Cameron is an every bigger, smugger git than Blair, whose manerisms he imitates so much its spooky. Whereas the Other One shows some signs of being an actual human being. He talked in a normal human voice, and used something I recognised as English, rather than all that "vast majority / the reality is" un-speak that political clones think makes them sound clever. Although what he said was equally barking: most of the people in lunatic asylums are there because they smoke cannibis, apparently, and Ian Duncan Smith was quite clever. Cameron had the guts to come right out and say that he admired Mrs Thatcher in front of an invited audience of Conservative supporters.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

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

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

Thursday, September 15, 2005

What I did on my summer holiday (2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"We should", said I.

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

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

Moments later, Louise returned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

What I did on my summer holiday (1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thunderous applause.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 15, 2005

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Off to Birmingham...

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

Goodness me, "Keys of Marinus" sucks.

Monday, August 08, 2005

This is completely unfair....

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

His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, Condensed