Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Incidentally, a merry Christmas to all of you at home.

Estragon: It might be better if we parted.
Vladimir: You always say that, and you always come crawling back.

So: 24 hours after he left Rose in an alien dimension, the Doctor, who used to think that Mickey Smith was an idiot, asks the cretinous Donna Noble if she would like to come with him. For the first and last time in the episode, Donna behaves like a believable human being and refuses to come. She's seen the Doctor's dark side, and couldn't live the way he does.
From the speech attributed to Doctor Bill ('Come with me, and I'll show you all that...or stay behind and regret that staying until the day you die') right through to the trailers for Eccleston's first series, the question 'Do you wanna come with me?' has always been directed to the audience rather than to the companion. On the surface, the 'Runaway Bride' is about the Doctor 'getting over' Rose, and realizing that he still needs a companion, even one who can't tell the difference between 'acting' and 'yelling'. But it's hard not to read it as being about the sado-masochistic relationship between Doctor Who and it's audience.
Last year's special, 'The Christmas Invasion', included a scene where Rose and Mickey went shopping at a Christmas market. Rose remarked that it is easy to lose track of time while traveling in the TARDIS. 'Oh yeah,' drones Mickey sarcastically. 'Because I love hearing all those TARDIS stories. Tell me another...' It would be going too far to say that Mickey and Rose are realistic characters. What would be 'realistic' behavior for a 19 year old girl who's been taken on board an alien space-ship and allowed to watch the destruction of the world? Best ask an anthropologist about the behavior of aborigines when transported to Times Square. But they are -- ahem -- semiotically coded as 'real' people. However much weirdness is going on around them, they stay within the narrative discourse of soap-opera, which is the closest TV gets to 'reality'. The scene summed up what Russel T Davies had done during the first season of Doctor Who. Here were two young people who could have stepped off the set of EastEnders talking about 'the TARDIS' without the slightest trace of irony or camp. Many of us expected – even hoped – that RTD would offer us dolly-birds and quarries, a pastiche of the Doctor Who we think we remember from the '70s. Instead, he said 'Let's pretend that Doctor Who is happening in the real world. Let's pretend it always has been.' It isn't very surprising that he convinced Doctor Who fans. Doctor Who fans will believe in anything, even Peter Davison. But to have also convinced the EastEnders audience was quite an achievement. At the end of episode 1, Davies effectively said to the mainstream 'Do you want to come with me?'. Astonishingly, eight million of them came.
There's an urban myth that everyone in England sits round the telly after Christmas Dinner and watches the Queen's Speech. It's certainly true that, on Christmas Day 1976, half the UK population – the largest TV audience of all time – saw Angela Rippon step out from behind the news desk and launch into a song and dance routine with Eric and Ernie. There were fewer channels and no I-Pods in those days, but the idea of the BBC providing a Moment of National Unity on Christmas Day remains a powerful myth. The 2005 Doctor Who Christmas Special played cleverly with this folklore. Only 8 million people watched the actual programme; but when we watched Harriet Jones make her emergency broadcast to the nation we felt – or at any rate, we could pretend we felt – that the whole country was watching with us. The papers were calling the Doctor Who special a Christmas tradition after just one year. Davies may not have achieved Morcambe and Wise viewing figures yet, but his Doctor Who is the very definition of mainstream.
Halfway through this year's Christmas special, the improbably named Lance directs a camp tirade at Donna Noble, the titular 'Runaway Bride'. 'How thick are you?' he sneers 'How can I stay with a woman who thinks the height of excitement is a new flavour of Pringles? Yak, yak, yak, Brad and Angela. Is Posh pregnant? X-Factor, Atkins diet, Feng Shui, Split ends. Text me, text me, text me.' Now, we know that RTD feels the need to insult Doctor Who fans. We're all asexual nerds with alien eyeballs in our pockets and he's not really making the series for our benefit. But aren't game shows, tabloid gossip, beauty tips and soap operas precisely the kinds of things which the mainstream audience might be supposed to take an interested in? Doesn't Doctor Who come on straight after Strictly Come Dancing, a less toxic talent show than X-Factor, to be sure, but a talent show nonetheless? We already knew that Davies had a low opinion of his audience. They are too thick to understand scientific explanations; too unimaginative to be able to deal with stories set on the Planet Zog; too ignorant to have heard of any but the most iconic historical characters; and so shallow that if there is even two minutes of exposition, they'll get bored and switch channels. Donna isn't even aware that the earth was invaded by cybermen, because she had a hangover at the time. That's about at the level of saying 'Oh, was their a terrorist attack on the Twin Towers? I must have been off sick that day' – a level of thickness that even Jade Goody would struggle to achieve. Is this how Davies sees his new mainstream audience? Is he insulting the EastEnders audience to remind Whovians that he really loves them despite it all? A sort of gift-wrapped revenge of the nerds? Or is he the kind of self-loathing artist who needs to despise his public? "Yes, eight million people watch me, but they're either nerds with wooly jumpers and no girlfriends, or else they're lower class people who like Pringles. Oh god, I'm so depressed." If he thinks that TV audiences like this kind of things then he is mistaken. When he slapped his old fandom bitch around, she put up with it because she was used to it and even quite like it. But lay a finger on your new mainstream slag and she'll show you the door. And quite right too.
RTD thinks that Little Miss Mainstream can't deal with anything heavy on Christmas night. This is simply untrue – look at the number of divorces, suicides, and switched-off life-support machines in the annual EastEnders special. That said, pantomime is a perfectly respectable Christmas tradition - (Several hon. members: 'Oh no it's not!') - and Doctor Who has always teetered on the edge of panto. Considered on it's own terms 'The Runaway Bride' was a harmless enough little romp. Donna has swallowed some Hewon particles, which are so dangerous that the Time Lords abolished them zillions of years ago. It turns out that they were administered to her deliberately by the agents of the Racknos, ancient enemies of the Time Lords from the Dark Times. (Memo to BBC: Ancient enemies of the Time Lords from the Dark Times are a lazy fall-back plot device when you can't think up a proper villain, and Russel Davies really should try harder.) The eggs of the only surviving Racknos are hidden at the center of the earth. Hewon particles are the only thing which can release them. Donna and the Doctor are chased around London by Racknos' agents, including the killer Santas from last year, and then trace them back to Donna's place of work – an office building that used to be owned by Torchwood. (P.S That's another plot device which is already getting terribly, terribly boring.) There is a big pit going right down to the center of the earth. Disappointingly, no one says 'We call it...the Pit.' After some waffle, the Racknos sends the Hewon energy down the pit; but the Doctor opens the Thames barriers and floods out the baby Racknos before they can be revived.
As the story rattles along, there are some nice stunts and special effects set-pieces. The Racknos herself, a giant red spider, is a fine creation. It appears that she is mostly a physical prop rather than a computer generated animation, and this gives her a slightly retro feel which rather suits the overall tone of the episode. The early scenes between Donna and the Doctor are quite amusing, although I find it hard to believe that even someone so thick and common that she likes X-Factor would, if she believed that she had been kidnapped on her wedding day by an alien, be primarily interested in getting to the church on time. She never changes out of her wedding dress which is, as the fellow said, a bit Arthur Dent. The whole story boils down to a McGuffin hunt in which the heroine is the McGuffin, but Doctor Who stories have been based on much sillier ideas.
The trouble is that RTD doesn't even try to make any of this make sense. He gives the impression, to coin a phrase, that he's not bovvered. He has no idea what Hewon particles are, or how they work. They are just a tool to propel the unconvincing Donna and her even less convincing groom through a series of mildly amusing set-pieces. Whenever RTD needs to propel the plot in a particular direction, he makes Tennant mutter a new piece of gobbledegook and we watch the goalposts move to some new location.
A few of the more obvious absurdities were:
1: There are no hewon particles anywhere in the universe apart from at the heart of the TARDIS; but the Racknos is able to distill them from the water in the Thames because, er...
2: Lance has been feeding the liquid particles to Donna (in her coffee) because without a living host they will be inert. He chose a person who was getting married as host because the emotional excitement of a wedding would 'cook' the ingested particles. However, Donna says that he only married her because she nagged him so much; and Lance subsequently says that he had to marry her 'to stop her running off'.
3: Donna had to be fed the particles over six months; but when the plot demands it, the Racknos announces 'Now I have studied the bride's catalysis' (what dat?) 'I can force feed it,' and infects Lance with the energy between scenes.
4: Donna is the 'key' to releasing the Racknos eggs (which is like, very ironic, because the company that she works for makes computer entry systems). When she escapes, the Racknos infects Lance, so he becomes the key. But when Donna is recaptured, the Racknos suspends both of them above The Pit, in a scene so reminiscent of 60s Batman that it hurt. Is there some reason why two keys are better than one? Did I miss it?
5: Donna is initially sucked to the TARDIS because the hewon particles in its heart attracted the particles inside her. But when RTD needs to get our heroes out of a sticky situation, the Doctor decides that breaking a test tube of (inert?) particles will make the TARDIS materialize around Donna.
6: At the very end, when the Racknos space ship is going to be destroyed by earthling tanks the Doctor announces that 'She's used up her hewon energy...she's helpless.' Nothing has suggested that the Racknos lives off or draws strength from hewon energy -- and so far as I can tell, the plot rather depends on the fact that there are only two test-tubes of the stuff in the universe.
7: And how is it that someone who has been hibernating at the edge of the universe for a gazillion years knows what Christmas is?
When the Doctor can't improvise a new plot device out of hewon particles, he just whips out his sonic screwdriver. The screwdriver was originally a perfectly valid plot device: it's boring if the Doctor can't easily gain access to secret bases and other areas behind locked doors. (Davies own addition to the canon, psychic paper, serves a similar purpose.) But in the course of this single episode, the Doctor uses his amazing magic phallus to:
1: Operate a phone box.
2: Steal money from a cash-point.
3: Make the cash-point spray out money.
4: Deactivate the robot Santas.
5: Open the door of the taxi that Donna is trapped in.
6: Deactivate the robot driving the car.
7: Soup up a borrowed mobile phone so it will tell him who owns the company Donna works for.
8: Plug it into the sound system to make all the Santas blow up.
9: Trace the signal that is controlling the Santas.
10: Control the lift.
11: Cut Donna free from the spider-web.
And when Plot-device In My Pocket doesn't work, the TARDIS itself can be used to provide a never-ending stream of pixie dust. When Donna is kidnapped by a robot disguised as Santa disguised as a taxi-driver, he makes the TARDIS fly through the air (something it has never, ever done before) match speeds with the car, and persuade Donna to jump into it. With one leap, our hero was literally free. If I have counted correctly, the TARDIS makes seven separate trips through time and space in the course of this one episode: about the same number it made in the whole of the 1963 64 series of Doctor Who! (What would the classic Doctor Who stories been like if the Doctor had been able to use the TARDIS to check out on what was happening in the cybermen's tomb, give Marco Polo a lift to Cathay, or to go the Daleks' city without all that tedious mucking about in the wilds of Skaro?) The real Doctor had to get out of dangerous situations using his wit, his ingenuity, his cleverness. This one has such a large supply of rules-busting gimmicks that nothing can really challenge him.
Davies says that the mainstream doesn't like exposition and don't really understand science-fiction. I think that what he actually means is this: the lower orders like Pringles, watch X-Factor, and don't pay very much attention to TV shows. 'The Runaway Bride' was probably switched on in the majority of English living rooms. People probably walked into those living rooms, looked at the screen for five minutes, said 'I'm not bovvered', laughed, and walked out to get a turkey sandwich. They don't expect to be able to understand 'science fiction' and so they certainly don't expect to understand what is going on in Doctor Who. Hence, if the Doctor speaks a few lines that sound like an explanation, they will assume that the story makes sense, but that only a geek could be bothered to follow it. If it did make sense, they wouldn't listen or would fast forward through the explanations. The only people who know or care if the story makes sense are the asexual Doctor Who fans -- but if it doesn't, they'll simply write a fan-fiction patch and post it to the Internet by Boxing Day. So everyone goes home happy.
Fortunately, the one thing that Davies is bovvered about is the character of the Doctor. This excuses a multitude of narrative sins. There is a fine moment when a couple dancing at the wedding reception briefly make him think of Rose – a moment so artfully subliminal that I only spotted it on the third viewing. The 'wide-eyed enthusiasm' routine is becoming a bit wearing; it sounds too much like something out of the Fast Show. ('Ain't the universe brilliant?!') But the scene where the Doctor takes Donna back in time to witness the formation of the earth can be added to canon of 'magical moments'. The guy in the geeky suit and the girl in the creased wedding dress, floating in a telephone box while Creation unfolds around them. It isn't such a long journey from 'Unearthly Child' to 'Runaway Bride' after all. The dialogue is a little too Phillip Pullman for my tastes ('No, but that's what you do, find meaning in chaos...') but at least someone is trying.
Tennant also does a lovely job with the scary, cold-blooded side of the Doctor's character; psyching the Racknos out by revealing that his home planet was named Gallifrey. (The first time the Time Lord planet has been referenced by name: Davies previously thought that Little Miss Mainstream would be freaked out by such a geeky reference to the Old Series.) And the inevitable 'good-bye' scene puts another really interesting spin on the Doctor's persona. We've just seen the Doctor's callous streak, seemingly feeling no emotion while the baby Racknos are destroyed. Donna recognizes this dark side, and says that he needs a companion 'to stop him'. There is a lot to be done with the idea that the Doctor is a potentially dangerous force as well as a force for good – but it needs something more substantial than a pantomime to hang it on.
So, maybe 'The Runaway Bride' was simply a bit of Christmas whimsy; but since Torchwood I have no faith in RTD's good taste, or, come to that, his sanity. On average Davies seems to come up with a new direction for Doctor Who about once a fortnight: is there any danger that sub-Scooby-Doo romps represent his new theory of what the programme should be about?
Doctor Who has hurt me over and over again. Bertie Bassett; Bonnie Langford; the whole of season 23. But fandom is a classic dysfunctional relationship; unlike Donna, I don't have the guts to walk away. The idea that I might someday say 'I've stopped watching Doctor Who' is about as likely as Cardinal Ratzinger saying 'I'm going to have a lie in this Sunday and not bother with Mass.'
'Jason Statham has reportedly been offered the title role in the next series of Doctor Who.
The Crank star is allegedly being lined up as the 11th Doctor in the hit BBC show amid rumors current Time Lord David Tennant is quitting the role.
A TV source tells The People, 'It will be Doctor Who meets gangland. He will do a lot more thinking with his fists and will be a sure-fire winner with the ladies.
'Doctor Who is still seen as a bit geeky but Jason will add sex appeal and give the character a more dangerous edge.' '
But it could happen.


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Monday, January 15, 2007

Those are my principles. If you don't like them, I have others. -- Groucho.

In the Olden Days private schools were all about Latin, British history, army training corps, boxing, rugby and polishing the prefects' boots. The boy's schools were almost as bad. The object was to turn out people who would know how to lord it over the muggles -- sorry, the fuzzy-wuzzies and the oiks. It was felt to be a good thing that people who were going to spend the rest of their lives being called 'Sir,' 'My Lord', or 'Your Royal Highness' knew what it felt like to wipe the fag-master's bottom. When this was the case, it was fairly hard to stomach people saying that they were Socialists and then coming into some money and sending their offspring to private school. If you belong to a political party which opposes inherited privilege, hierarchies and the class system, then it is a bit rich (in every sense) to send your child to an institution that's dedicated to promoting them. But that kind of private school hasn't existed for decades. It's more common for middle-class parents to 'go private' because the independent sector is more progressive than what Tony calls bog-standard comprehensives.

In the slightly less Olden Days, there were Socialists who thought that education and health should be state monopolies: you shouldn't be allowed to pay school fees even if you wanted to. There have always be Socialists with this Stalinist streak: if the state pays for schools and hospitals, then it follows that the state should control those schools and hospitals, to the extent of deciding how many minutes of netball Dibley Village J.M.I should play on Tuesday afternoons. The Prime Minister's default reaction to an Oribble Murder is to invent a law saying that from now on all state schools must devote at least one hour a week to Not Murdering People Studies. (He made 'Citizenship' compulsory, although since no-one knows what 'Citizenship' means, this probably hasn't made much difference.) There is some case for saying that if you as education minister use schools as an instrument of state propaganda, then you ought not to use the salary you draw from the education ministry to send your own child to a private school where the rules you made don't apply. And it certainly looks bad to say 'no-one should be allowed to send their children to a fee-paying school' and then to send your children to a fee-paying school. But, since the Blairite coup, has anyone in his party remotely suggested that Eton should be turned into a comprehensive?

So: it's hard to be very interested in the fact that a 'Labour' education minister -- let alone a former 'Labour' education minister -- chose to buy their child a place at a private school. It's almost exactly as important as the former minister for rural affairs choosing to buy his child a pony. It certainly shows that cabinet ministers are very rich. We might even wonder how well they understand what it is like to be a hardworkingfamily if they can afford to pay in school fees more than some people -- a newly qualified teacher, for example -- earn in a year. But I've never been quite clear what a cabinet minister is allowed to spend his money on. Not holidays, not expensive houses and certainly not a second Jaguar. We are happy for the man who ruins our trains to be paid several trillion pounds a year, but we want our elected representatives to earn three shillings and wear hair shirts.

What was much more interesting was the terms in which the debate was cast. Every pundit and every editor seemed to think that the question was 'Is it ever right to put the interests of your children above your principles'. Or, as some of them said: 'She is a mother first and a politician second.'

Now, a 'principle' means 'what you think is right'. If I say that looking at pornography is against my principles because I am a feminist, which I don't, then I mean that in my opinion, it is wrong to look at pornography. It's a bit of a non sequitur to say 'Should I put aside my principles when I am feeling very horny?' A principle is what I ought to do, as opposed to what I feel like doing at a particular moment. It's beside the point to ask 'Should I put aside my anti-smacking principles if my child is very naughty,' or 'Should I put aside my pacifist principles in the event of war'. If you are prepared to put them aside, then they weren't principles.

Perhaps the people who are saying 'Oh, she was quite right to put aside her principles....' are endorsing the ever-reliable Daily Mail who summed up the case with the single word: 'Hypocrite'. Perhaps they are saying 'She may have said that she didn't approve of private schools. But she didn't mean it. It wasn't a real principle, it was just something she pretended to believe in.' Are we are so used to our politicians lying to us that it no longer merits even the mildest condemnation?

The alternative, however, is rather more scary. The people who has said that 'she was quite right to put aside her principles...' may have meant that a person can have a genuine and sincere principle but act against it when matters of family are at stake. In which case 'It is right to put the interests of your children above your principles,' means 'It is okay to do something that you sincerely believe is wrong when your children are involved'; 'It is right to do what you believe is wrong'; 'It is right to do wrong'; 'It is good to behave wickedly.' This is either completely immoral or actually meaningless; either way, if it's what people now believe then it's hard to see how we can ever again have a political debate about anything at all.

Or maybe what they were trying to say is that most people have a number of different principles; that they rate them in order of importance; and that in difficult cases they apply the most important ones first. My principles might be:

1: Obey the law,
2: Safeguard your children's physical health,
3: Let your children make their own choices,
4: Make your children as materially happy as you can afford,
5: Don't glorify war and violence.

On this basis, I would let my child have the very violent Playstation game he wants (free choice and material happiness trumps opposition to war toys) but not the cigarettes (health trumps freedom of choice) and certainly not the marijuana (obeying the law trumps everything). A family of hippies might very well put things in a different order, and regard toy guns as beyond the pale but have no particular problem with smoking dope.

But this doesn't really help, because what is being proposed is that 'Do what is in the best interests of my child,' trumps everything, including, crucially, 'Do what is in the best interests of everyone else's children.' If we accept this, then morality simply doesn't apply to family life and I can do whatever I like to protect my cubs. This is particularly sticky when something which will help my child will hinder yours. The advantages I get from a private school (smaller classes, more goes on the computer, a seat in the House of Lords) or a private hospital (shorter waiting lists, not having to share a room) only exist because not everyone can afford to go there.

I think that 'Is it right to put the interests of your children above your principles,' boils down to 'Does 'The interests of society' trump 'The interests of my child' in the hierarchy of values', to which I reply 'Of course it does', or, if you prefer, 'It's a silly question: in the long term, the interests of all children and the interests of your children amount to the same thing.'

If I have my child vaccinated, then there is a small risk that the vaccination will make him seriously ill. If I focus only on the welfare of my child then the ideal state of affairs is for everyone apart from me to have their child vaccinated. My child therefore avoids the small risk that the jab itself will make him sick, while also avoiding the danger of actually catching the disease because everyone else took the risk, got immunized and there is very little chance of an epidemic. The catch is that if everyone thinks like that no-one gets the jab and everyone dies of small pox. But the idea that we should all take the risk so we will all have the protection is, by Daily Mail standards, dangerously Socialist -- which may be why it likes to spread scare stories about the dangers of the MMR vaccine.

Is life is a competition in which the object is to get advantages for your family and take them away from everyone else's? Or are there principles which should be applied to the whole of society because they benefit the whole of society in the long term -- even if they do not benefit a privileged minority in the short term? The first approach is certainly the natural one; the second approach is the artificial one; the better way that some politicians used to think that it was worth trying to build. Have we really become so cynical about politics that we accept that nature-is-red-in-tooth-and-claw and have forgotten that anyone ever believed that there was an alternative?

Sunday, January 14, 2007


Saturday, January 13, 2007

They're selling postcards of the hanging....

Killing is easy. Third and fourth fingers on your palm, first and second sticking out, point at your victim and say peow. Or peow-peow. Only little kids say 'bang'. Real guns have strips of caps which make a satisfying 'pop' when you squeeze the trigger, but they don't actually kill anyone. Two fingers and peow-peow is the rule. Killing is fun. People recover from being killed quite quickly. Some people are immune to being killed. This seems like cheating. Captain Scarlet is indestructible. One day in infants Miss Ward read to us 'The Magic Tinder Box' which ends with the soldier sentenced to be hung and every few minutes the gaoler came into his cell to remind him that tomorrow was the day he was going to he hung. They also did the story on children's TV, one of those programmes where the people spoke in French but a man's voice told you what they were saying, so far as I could tell the soldier was expected to put a rope round his own neck and jump off by himself when he was ready. All his friends turned up to watch. I can't remember what the story is about: I assume he gets off? It was clear, even in that dull French space between Wacky Races and Crackerjack, that being hung was very different from being killed. People who were hung didn't get up again afterwards. It was probably like being sent to Mr Mariot to be smacked, only worse. But it only happened in the olden days, when there were pirates and Hitler and putting people in the stocks. It was extremely horrible and unbelievable and therefore very fascinating. There was an old fashioned English book with a blue cover that pointed out that verbs could have different past tenses depending on context. 'Hang the picture; the picture was hung. Hang the murderer; the murderer was hanged.' I could never quite believe that something so nasty was being used as a grammatical example. Guy Fawkes was a hero because he didn't cry or tell on his mates when they took him to be hanged, that's why we let off fireworks to remember him. Henry the Eighth chopped off the heads of at least several of his wives. Actually, pretty much everyone in history seemed to have been executed at some time in their lives: Mary Queen of Scots; Walter Raleigh; Marie Antoinette; Thomas Moore; Joan of Arc; Anne Frank; Jesus. I assume that the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussauds was originally just effigies of infamous criminals, but by the time I went it was pretty much a museum of capital punishment, wax convicts having ropes put round their necks by wax hangmen in worryingly modern looking suits and short haired wax works being strapped into distressingly modern looking chairs. There were slot machines where you could watch dolls being executed on Brighton pier. These days the London Dungeon has franchised out the torture trade, and Terry Deary has built a career on history books where you don't need to use the index to find the gory bits. When we were asked to improvise a play on an historical subject, we made one up about a beheading. God knows what the teacher thought. Little boys can be morbid. We got over it.

How did we get this far? I'm currently doing a course at Bristol College, and therefore coming into contact with what I believe are called 'teenagers': the kinds of people who think that 'blogging' is a little bit retro, understand the point of Myspace and think that 'gay' is a term of abuse. I have overheard them in the computer room, looking at pop videos and Jackass stunts on Youtube and then saying 'Have you seen Saddam Hussein yet?' There are apparently edited versions of the footage, with the killing set to music for comical or ironic effect.

The creepiest thing about the Tony Party is the way they get together beforehand and decide not only what they are going to think but the exact words in which they are going to think it. It's been put about that when Prescott said that just possibly televised public hangings weren't a particularly good idea he was breaking ranks, speaking what we might loosely call his mind. In fact, he had clearly agreed a form of words with Tony in advance, ventriloquizing what last night's focus group had decided was the most expedient lie. 'I think the manner was quite deplorable really. I don't think one can endorse in any way that, whatever your views about capital punishment.' Not, as you or I might have said 'The way in which it was done'; the manner. This was the same phrase used by Blair's spokesman ('he does believe that the manner of execution was completely wrong') and, when the focus group decided he should break cover, by Blair himself ('the manner of the execution was completely wrong.') Members of the hivemind cannot criticize the killing itself, only the manner in which it was done. Our problem is that it was an undignified ritual strangulation; that they weren't very courteous to the man whose neck they were going to break; that they took photographs while his pants were filling up with shit. There was a way of doing it which we would not have deplored; a manner that we would have approved of; a kind of human sacrifice which would not have been completely wrong.

As the fellow said: the word you were looking for was 'obscene'. 'Deplorable' is when you fuck your secretary.

I remember when the worst we could say about Blair was that he had wasted a lot of money on putting up a big building to celebrate the fact that there was going to be a date with a lot of zeros on the end and only noticed on December 28th that he didn't have anything to put in it. I remember when we used to wonder if he should cuddle up quite so closely to Bill Clinton, whose left-wing credentials were not impeccable. We used to worry about the fact that his friend Bill had signed death warrants; including one for a mentally handicapped man who would not have been executed in a civilized country i.e one that doesn't execute mentally handicapped people. Straining at gnats.

How did we let it get this far? How did it happen that, in his eagerness to position his product alongside the Twin Towers brand, Blair nailed his colours so deeply into the backside of the unelected thanatos-worshiping simpleton who succeeded Clinton that the most he can bring himself to say is that he wishes we could have had a more polite hanging? Bush has never made any great secret out of the fact that he used the terrorist atrocity as a pretext to attack a short-list of despots who had been fleas in his father's ear. I've seen The Godfather: that's how gangsters behave. Blair, as we have seen, has that particular God complex which says that whatever comes into his head at a particular moment must be right; and that even to stop for a moment and think about the reasons is to betray of the idea of leadership. In 2003 God (i.e Tony Blair) decided that the answer was 'the invasion of Iraq' and he's been trying ever since to work out what the question was. To find non-existent nuclear weapons. To bring peace and stability to Iraq. To make a Iraq a beacon of democracy and liberal values for the whole region. To pull down a statue. I am not going to apologize for removing Saddam. I made the decision to remove Saddam. I think that the world is better off without Saddam. His prayer-partner yo-Bush is notorious for his hang-em-high mentality. ('I do not believe we've put a guilty - I mean innocent - person to death in the state of Texas.' ) How could Tony have been in any doubt that what he had got us all involved in was the War of Saddam's Neck?

Clinton told the Labour Party conference that Mr Blair was the only person who could act as a restraining influence on Mr Bush. That is, if not for Tony, Mad President George would be even more insane. A journalist once asked Auberon Waugh how he could be such a nasty person and also a Catholic. Waugh replied 'If I wasn't a Catholic, think how much worse I'd be.' Couldn't Tony have persuaded George to hand Saddam over to a properly constituted international court which gave people proper trials and didn't practice ritual asphyxiation? Did he try?

Did you ever think it would get this bad? Did you ever think we would reach a point where members of the Tony Party were using phrases like 'whether or not you agree with capital punishment' as if it were a matter of legitimate difference of opinion, a subject for debate? You ritually slaughter criminals, we don't; but then you wear body armour to play rugby, and we don't; aren't these quaint little cultural differences fascinating? Where have the last 40 years gone? Are the 1960s still in the future?

Regular readers will remember that, as Shadow Home Secretary, Blair expressed the view that watching a (comparatively mild) 'video nasty' was likely to turn innocent children into murderers. How appropriate that his last year in office should be ushered in by a nation of cretinous ghouls drooling, like morbid eight year olds, over the nastiest video of all time.

Friday, January 12, 2007

The Emperor Nero has expressed regret at the manner in which a Christian was eaten by lions.

"I would have like Androcles to have been torn apart in a more dignified fashion," he said "Obviously, something went wrong. Whatever you think about throwing Christians to wild beasts, the shouts of encouragement from the crowd were quite deplorable."

However, Nero pointed out that a scroll, which he had temporarily mislaid, conclusively proved that Androcles and the Christians were capable of burning down the city of Rome and killing everyone in it at XLV minutes' notice.

"I have made my position very clear," explained the Emperor. "I am opposed to people being eaten alive by lions, whether they are Christians or anyone else. However, this is purely a matter for the lions. All I did was throw Androcles into the arena. What the lions choose to do with him once he was there was purely their business and nothing to do with me. It would be inappropriate for me to comment on it. Now I think that's a perfectly sensible position that most people would reasonably accept."

Thursday, January 11, 2007

“What’s that so black agin’ the sun?” said Files-on-Parade.
“It’s Danny fightin’ ’ard for life”, the Colour-Sergeant said.
“What’s that that whimpers over’ead?” said Files-on-Parade.
“It’s Danny’s soul that’s passin’ now”, the Colour-Sergeant said.

For they’re done with Danny Deever, you can ’ear the quickstep play,
The regiment’s in column, an’ they’re marchin’ us away;
Ho! the young recruits are shakin’, an’ they’ll want their beer to-day,
After hangin’ Danny Deever in the mornin’.
Nothing in his life
Became him like the leaving it; he died
As one that had been studied in his death
To throw away the dearest thing he owed,
As 'twere a careless trifle.
My prime of youth is but a frost of cares,
My feast of joy is but a dish of pain,
My crop of corn is but a field of tares,
And all my good is but vain hope of gain;
The day is past, and yet I saw no sun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

My tale was heard and yet it was not told,
My fruit is fallen, yet my leaves are green,
My youth is spent and yet I am not old,
I saw the world and yet I was not seen;
My thread is cut and yet it is not spun,
And now I live and now my life is done.

I sought my death and found it in my womb,
I looked for life and found it was a shade,
I trod the earth and knew it was my tomb,
And now I die, and now I was but made;
My glass is full, and now my glass is run,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

Chidock Tichborne, on the eve of his execution (1586)

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Private Eye Cover: Happy Noose Year
The morning wind began to moan,
But still the night went on:
Through its giant loom the web of gloom
Crept till each thread was spun:
And, as we prayed, we grew afraid
Of the Justice of the Sun.

The moaning wind went wandering round
The weeping prison-wall:
Till like a wheel of turning-steel
We felt the minutes crawl:
O moaning wind! what had we done
To have such a seneschal?

At last I saw the shadowed bars
Like a lattice wrought in lead,
Move right across the whitewashed wall
That faced my three-plank bed,
And I knew that somewhere in the world
God's dreadful dawn was red.

At six o'clock we cleaned our cells,
At seven all was still,
But the sough and swing of a mighty wing
The prison seemed to fill,
For the Lord of Death with icy breath
Had entered in to kill.

He did not pass in purple pomp,
Nor ride a moon-white steed.
Three yards of cord and a sliding board
Are all the gallows' need:
So with rope of shame the Herald came
To do the secret deed.

We were as men who through a fen
Of filthy darkness grope:
We did not dare to breathe a prayer,
Or give our anguish scope:
Something was dead in each of us,
And what was dead was Hope.

Oscar Wilde

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

'I am sorry," said Frodo, 'But I am frightened, and I do not feel any pity for Gollum'

'You have not seen him,' Gandalf broke in.

'No, and I don't want to,' said Frodo. 'I can't understand you. Do you mean to say that you, and the Elves, have let him live on after all those horrible deeds? Now at any rate he is as bad as an Orc, and just an enemy. He deserves death.'

'Deserve it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end, and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many, yours not least. In any case, we did not kill him: he is very old and very wretched. The wood-elves have him in prison, but they treat with such kindness as they can find in their wise hearts.'

Monday, January 08, 2007

As one reads history, not in the expurgated editions written for school-boys and passmen, but in the original authorities of each time, one is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted; and a community is infinitely more brutalised by the habitual employment of punishment, than it is by the occurrence of crime.
Oscar Wilde

Sunday, January 07, 2007

I believe that a sight so inconceivably awful as the wickedness and levity of the immense crowd collected at that execution this morning could be imagined by no man, and could be presented in no heathen land under the sun.

The horrors of the gibbet and of the crime which brought the wretched murderers to it faded in my mind before the atrocious bearing, looks, and language of the assembled spectators.

When the sun rose brightly-as it did-it gilded thousands upon thousands of upturned faces, so inexpressibly odious in their brutal mirth or callousness, that a man had cause to feel ashamed of the shape he wore, and to shrink from himself, as fashioned in the image of the Devil.

When the two miserable creatures who attracted all this ghastly sight about them were turned quivering into the air, there was no more emotion, no more pity, no more thought that two immortal souls had gone to judgement, no more restraint in any of the previous obscenities, than if the name of Christ had never been heard in this world, and there were no belief among men but that they perished like the beasts.

Charles Dickens, 1849

Saturday, January 06, 2007

The British government does not support the use of the death penalty, in Iraq or anywhere else. We advocate an end to the death penalty worldwide, regardless of the individual or the crime. We have made our position very clear to the Iraqi authorities. But....
Margaret Beckett

We are against the death penalty, whether it's Saddam or anybody else. However.....
Tony Blair

He does believe that the manner of execution was completely wrong, but....
Spokesman for Tony Blair

As has been very obvious from the comments of other ministers and indeed my own official spokesman, the manner of the execution of Saddam was completely wrong. But....
Tony Blair

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Really quite good fun. Bugger all to do with Doctor Who, though.

(more follows)

Thursday, December 21, 2006

And so this is Christmas....

1st Shepherd:

Hayll, kyng I the call! Hayll, most of myght!
Hayll, worthyst of all! Hayll, duke! Hayll, knight!
Of greatt and small thou at Lorde by right;
Hayll perpetuall! Hayll, faryste wyght!
Here I offer,
I prey the to take --
If thou wold, for my sake,
With this may thou lake--
This lytyll spruse cofer

2nd Shepherd:
Hayll, lytyll tyn mop, rewarder of mede!
Hayll! But oone drop of grace at my nede;
Hayll, lytyll mylke-sop! Hayll, David sede!
Of oure crede though art crop: hayll, in God-hede!
This ball
That thou wold resave --
Lytyll is that I have;
This wyll I vowche-save -
To play the with all
An go to the tenys.

3rd Shepherd:
Hayll, maker of man! Hayll, swetyng!
Hayll, so as I can! Hayll, praty mytyng!
I cowche to the than, for fayn nere getyng;
Hayll, Lord! Here I ordan, now at oure metyng,
This botell --
It is an old by-worde,
It is a good bowrde,
For to drynk of a gowrde --
It holdys a mett potell.

He that all myghtys may, the makere of heven,
That is for to say, my son that neven,
Rewarde you this day, as sett all on seven;
He graunt you for ay his blys ful even
He gyf you good grace;
Tell furth of thise case;
He spede youre pase,
And graunt you good endyng

Saturday, December 16, 2006

The US vs John Lennon

The way things are going, they're gonna crucify me.

'I suppose they tried to kill John,' says Yoko Ono in the last moments of David Leaf's documentary about John Lennon 'but they couldn't, because his message is still alive.' Yoko has made a career out of inviting people to imagine that the moon was a grapefruit, but this is a baffling remark even by her standards.

Who are 'they'? In 1998, Sean Lennon revealed that he believed his father had been murdered by the U.S government. Does Yoko also now believe this theory? In the newspaper adverts she took out on the 26th anniversary of Lennon's murder she admitted that she could not forgive 'the one who pulled the trigger' -- as if she thought there might indeed have been other people involved. But if this is what she thinks, the subject is not mentioned, or even alluded to, anywhere else in the film.

If you like conspiracy theories, here's one. The makers of the U.S vs John Lennon set out to prove that the C.I.A murdered the singer. They assembled the evidence; they recorded their interviews--, but at the last moment, the studio decided that it was too hot to handle and deleted all references to the assassination from the film -- except for that one elliptical comment from Lennon's widow.( Oh, and if you play the film backwards, you can hear President Nixon saying 'I buried John.') Completely bonkers, like all conspiracy theories, but it does account for one otherwise inexplicable fact. How did such a dull movie as this ever come to be made?

If you are a John Lennon fan then very little in the film will be new to you. If you are not, then this isn't a particularly good introduction. For one thing, it is relentlessly Yokocentric. 'When he met Yoko' we are told 'He found the other half of his voice.' If Lennon had a song-writing partner before he married Yoko, then they are never mentioned by name. Indeed, but for a few bars of 'Revolution' and 'The Ballad of John and Yoko', you would hardly be able to tell that John Lennon had ever been in a group called the Beatles. And it is a very selective account, ignoring facts which don't fit in with the story it wants to tell. Yoko may have been half of John's voice, but during the period covered by the movie, Lennon walked out on her (or perhaps she kicked him out) for two years. Since the movie celebrates a Johnandyoko who believed in non-violence and compared themselves with Ghandi, it conveniently ignores his rather embarrassing sympathy for the I.R.A. ('You Anglo pigs and Scotties / Sent to colonize the North / You wave your bloody Union Jacks / And you know what it's worth... / ....Though Stormont bans our marches / They've got a lot to learn / Internment is no answer / It's those mothers turn to burn!') Occasionally, the film is downright misleading: John is allowed to describe himself as working class without anyone pointing out that while Paul lived in a council house, John decidedly grew up in the middle-class part of town and even went to grammar school. And the song which begins 'What a waste of human power / What a waste of human life' is placed over footage of the Vietnam war, even though it is actually about a prison riot.

The film starts with a brief recap of the 'bigger than Jesus' debacle. It isn't really clear what bearing this has on the overall argument. It is certainly true that some people in the Bible Belt were inexplicably offended by Lennon's suggestion that 'Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I’m right and I will be proved right'. I wonder how extensive the ensuing antibeatlemania actually was? It's always the same Beatle records we see being put on the same bonfire: if that's the only footage anyone has, how widespread a phenomenon can it have been? Is the film trying to say that America hated Lennon from the beginning because he wasn't a Christian (except on the days when he was)? But I have never heard it claimed that his subsequent troubles with the U.S government were religiously motivated.

We then proceed to Lennon's marriage to Yoko Ono, and the story of how the couple turned their honeymoon into a publicity stunt against the Vietnam war. This is pretty familiar stuff, although the scene where he records 'Give Peace a Chance' lying in bed and surrounded by miscellaneous hangers on most of whom can't quite manage to clap in time with the music remains very funny and rather moving. At some point after this Bed-In for Peace the Beatles split up, but this isn't mentioned: what matters is that John and Yoko relocate to America and get involved in the peace movement and radical politics there.

The film argues that the pivotal event is John's appearance at a benefit concert in December 1971 to campaign for the release of one John Sinclair, a political activist who'd been given a ten year jail sentence for possessing two joints of marijuana. John wrote a protest song (possibly in his sleep) and performed it at the concert. Astonishingly, 55 hours later, Sinclair was released from prison. The following February, John and Yoko's temporary visas were withdrawn and they were told to leave America. I don't think anyone now doubts that this was not, as the immigration department claimed at the time, because John had a trivial conviction in the UK for possessing marijuana, but because the Nixon administration was frightened of him as a political activist and peace campaigner with an influence on newly enfranchised young people. J. Edgar Hoover himself wrote 'All extremists should be considered dangerous' across his F.B.I file. The film shows documents which appear to prove that President Nixon must have known about, if he didn't personally order, the campaign against the Lennons.

Lennon hired a clever lawyer and staged publicity stunts and 'happenings' to further his campaign to be allowed to stay in America. We see some very amusing footage of the press conference at which he announced that he had founded a new country, declared himself an ambassador of it, and therefore granted himself diplomatic immunity. It was not until 1976 that he was finally given indefinite leave to remain in the U.S.A by which time Nixon had resigned in disgrace.

The film ends with some unfamiliar home movies of John during his 'Househusband' phase, including an amusing recording of him interviewing Sean while changing his nappy. This sequence is cut short by the sound of five gunshots, but nothing else is said, either about Chapman or the circumstances of John's death. And it wisely avoids mentioning the appalling fact that if President Nixon had been successful in his attempts to kick him out of America, John Lennon would almost certainly be alive today.

So there is a massive gap in the film. We are being asked to draw a line between the 'bigger than Jesus' controversy; the attempts to deport John from the U.S.A; the acknowledged criminality of the president (we actually hear Mr. Bernstein himself explaining what a bad egg Richard Nixon was); and what happened outside the Dakota Building in December 1980. But so far as I can tell, no link is proven to exist. The immigration department acted legally (if in a petty and paranoid way) in trying to deport a political agitator with a drugs record. If it is true that the F.B.I bugged Lennon's phone then I believe they were within their constitutional rights to do so if they thought he was a threat to national security. His anti-Christian remarks were not (so far as I know) cited as a reason for removing his visa. And I'm sorry, but Mark Chapman was a lone nut who thought (rightly) that he could gain a kind of fame by selecting a famous person and murdering them. So what, in the end, is the film saying?

'I suppose they tried to kill John, but they couldn't, because his message is still alive.' What message? This film is possibly worth 90 minutes of your time because it gives you the opportunity to look at clips and recordings of John Lennon. His charisma jumps out of every frame: this poorly educated, pretty obviously damaged young man, shooting from the hip, saying whatever comes into his head, angry, passionate, witty, surreal. In the middle of answering questions about Vietnam when he is still a mop top, he suddenly interrupts himself to do a riff about 'show business, darling.' When asked how he feels about the people who tried to deport him he says, apparently off the cuff 'Time wounds all heels.' And his energy and commitment as a performer take your breath away. 'It ain't fair / John Sinclair / In the stir for breathing air' is a terrible, terrible song -- yet this doesn't seem to matter as Lennon uses it to channel the anger of a stadium full of people. I defy anyone not to be moved when we see Sinclair coming out of prison hours after Lennon sung this song. So the film does nothing but reinforce my admiration for Lennon the man.

But Lennon's message? The film suggests that he allowed himself to become a political tool of left wing activists like Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman (who he later described as 'Mork and Mindy'). It rather pointedly doesn't say that he was also a tool in the hands of a radical surrealist named Yoko Ono. Lennon seems to have been one of those natural forces that needed to be harnessed and pointed in a constructive direction by someone. But can he really be said to have had a 'message' of his own?

Lennon's later work consists of powerful, memorable, but ultimately meaningless phrases, endlessly repeated: 'Woman is the nigger of the world'; 'War is over, if you want it', 'Just Give Me Some Truth'; 'Power to the People, Right on!', 'Free the people, now!' There is no suggestion of what the people are going to do once they are empowered, or what feminists need to do to improve the position of women in society. He refuses point blank to make any specific critique of U.S foreign policy. When someone asks him 'What should the President do?' he replies simply 'He should declare peace.' Yoko once suggested that people should go naked for peace. (How? Why? To what end?) 'Peace' seems not to be a political concept or a state which can exist or not exist between nations: it's a magic word to be said over and over, like one of the Maharishi's T.M mantras, until it stops meaning anything at all.

Lennon may have believed that he was literally raising people's consciousness, that repeating a phrase could somehow release peace and love into the world: instant karma. One can't help thinking that much of this came from Yoko, and that the authentic voice of Lennon comes through only in the (often inaudible) intermediate stanzas. 'Everybody's talking about ministers, sinisters, banisters and canisters, bishops, fishops, rabbis and popeyes, bye bye.' There speaks the true voice of the man who used to think he was a walrus.

Above all, Lennon was a performer. Aligning himself with the 'peace' movement – on the days when he wasn't sitting in paper bags, demanding acorns at the wrong time of year, or making 45 minute films of his penis (*) -- was indeed a powerful political act. But take away the surrealism, the bottoms, the silly little drawings, the records consisting of nothing but feedback and try to present him as primarily a peace campaigner and revolutionary and it becomes painfully obvious that he didn't have a message. All he was saying was 'give peace a chance.'

What we really need at this stage in the day is a long, joyous documentary with lots of complete recordings of Lennon's music and lots of unexpurgated interviews and footage of John Lennon: swearing, angry, silly, infantile, magnificent. What we don't particularly need is to rake over this ancient quarrel.

I saw the movie on the 26th anniversary: the cinema was empty.

(*) A good joke, to be fair. He'd previously made a film called Erection which turned out to be nothing ruder than a 20 minute film of a building site, this one, called Self-Portrait was a film about a prick. Like most conceptual art, once you've heard it described, you don't actually need to see it.

I say what it occurs to me to say

Andrew, I've noticed that in the last few months you seem to have increasingly devoted your weblog to the sillier rantings of your country's right. Given, though, that the utter lack of chance that there will be a Conservative government in the near future renders these folks ineffectual buffoons, why bother? It merely raises your blood pressure.

Andrew Reeves

As a matter of fact, I would welcome the replacement of the Blairite junta by a genuinely Conservative government. (That is: I would prefer a Socialist government to a Conservative government; but I would prefer a Conservative government to a Blairite one. But neither Socialism nor Conservatism are on offer at the moment.) That said, I happen to believe that after a six-month interregnum under Gordon Brown, David Cameron will get his statutory three terms in Number Ten. Since Thatcher, we have had a Presidential system in all but name, and I don't believe that The People will elect a dour, clever, dull Scotsman as President when there is a photogenic young blair-lite toff on offer.

You assume that the right-wing press won't have any influence unless and until Cameron becomes Prime Minister. This assumes that New Labour is on the political left. And it assumes that the tabloids don't have any influence until 'their' party gets back into power. I don't think this is true. And incidentally, the Sun has said 'Vote Labour' at the last three elections.

There were four pundits on last week's Any Questions (a political talk show on BBC Radio 4.) They included the sensible ex-Tory minister Ken Clarke and the surprisingly coherent evangelical Anne Atkins. All four took it for granted that 'councils' were trying to stamp out Christmas, that it was jolly silly of them and they should jolly well stop it.

The next Prime Minister Gordon Brown made a speech in which he said:

Just this evening, I was told that some Sure Start centres are being urged this year to call their children's Christmas parties 'winter celebrations'. The fact is children of all faiths all over Britain will be looking forward to Christmas in a few weeks time, and it is right that they can celebrate Christmas.

Gordon appears to be working on the old-fashioned (pre-2005) theory that 'Christmas' is a secular festival, one that all British people should join in, and you shouldn't really try to bring God in to it. At least, I assume that's what he means: surely his mad plans for a national holiday called Britishness Day and everyone putting Union Jacks on their lawn doesn't include the idea that 'children of all faiths' should be forced to participate in specifically Christian ceremonies? But he as made a conscious decision to associate himself with the 'Christmas is canceled' mythology, knowing perfectly well how the tabloids will report it.

Gordon doesn't commit himself to saying that Sure Start Centers (or nursery schools, as they used to be called, are replacing Christmas parties with Winter parties; he only says that he has 'heard' that person or persons unknown are "urging" them to do so. This just as well: the Sure Start website contains no references to a Winter Party or Winter Celebration. The Warrington branch is holding a Christmas Card competition, though.

Minister for Veils, Jack Straw used his column in his local newspaper to say:

If I may speak on Gabriel's behalf, I'm very clear on his view for 2006. Put the tinsel in the office. Celebrate Christmas publicly and Muslim and Jewish festivals too, and those of other faiths as well. Jesus was a prophet for all of us.

Lets pass over the question of whether Muslims would be comfortable with singing 'veiled in flesh the godhead see' and 'our god contracted to a span incomprehensibly made man' or whether Christians would necessarily agree that 'Jesus was a prophet'. I actually prefer Straw's ham-fisted syncretic Christmas to Brown's secular one. I only want to note that Straw has uncritically accepted the lie that there is a movement on to stop us putting up Christmas decorations, and the even bigger lie that this is 'so as not to offend non-Christians' (i.e Muslims).

The 'tinsel' bit is particularly good value. It has been pointed out that hanging tinsel around computer monitors is a really bad idea, because it could easily cause a fire. The Mail and the Express, have, as we've seen, adopted the tactic of treating every 'health and safety' rule as an instance of 'political correctness'. Straw appears to have been fooled by this trick, and accepted uncritically that we've been banned from putting tinsel in our offices because it might offend Muslims. The Express and the Mail have dictated the terms in which he thinks: he's been sucked into Express-land without even noticing it.

The normally sane Archbishop of York preached a harmless little sermon about how in very real sense we shouldn't be like the innkeeper who said that there was no room at the inn but that in a very real sense we should all as it were invite Jesus into our hearts and our lives blah-de-blah-de-blah. Doubtless all very true and the sort of thing that any Vicar might have said at any time in the last hundred years. However this year the Bish is not saying that all the hustle and bustle of Christmas might, in a very real sense, make some of us forget what is, in a very real sense, the meaning of Christmas. This year, secularization is part of a plot. We Christians are being prevented from celebrating Christmas by people who think that 'a Christian festival is offending other faiths'. He doesn't blame the Political Correctness Brigade or the Muslim Hoard; and (for some reason) he doesn't mention whether he thinks it is particularly bad to ban Christmas from white areas. His preferred bogeymen are 'illiberal atheists and aggressive secularists.' (Has Richard Dawkins made an ex-cathedra statement about tinsel? I thought he was okay with residual religious traditions provided you didn't actually believe in them.) Yet these illiberal atheists and aggressive secularists seem to be doing very much the same things as the PCB: the statement begins:

'Responding to media enquiries over the banning of Christmas celebrations in workplaces, nativity plays which no longer include Jesus and playgroup 'winter festival' parties where Christmas has been removed, the Archbishop issued the following statement...'

So even Most Revd and Rt Hon Dr Sentamu has been dragged into the fantasy world of Daily Expressland.

Last but not least Tony Blair himself made his incoherent 'integration' speech. I have to say that I don't actually know what he was talking about: I cannot translate phrases like 'The right to be different. The duty to integrate. That is what being British means.' with any confidence.

(If he thinks that 'the right to be different' defines being British in the way that liking cheese defines being French and taking your clothes off defines being Greek, then I would say that he is simply wrong. I think the British have always had a rather endearing low-level stay-at-home xenophobia. I can remember when using garlic in cooking was thought to be dangerously European. Are we really better at dealing with people who are 'different' than, say, the United States? But I think that the whole idea of defining 'Britishness' is dangerous nonsense. 'My parents were British'; 'I have a British passport'; 'The immigration office granted me British citizenship'. That is what Britishness means. That's all Britishness can ever mean. That's all Britishness should ever mean. )

Blair concludes:

Our tolerance is part of what makes Britain, Britain. So conform to it; or don't come here. We don't want the hate-mongers, whatever their race, religion or creed.

But Tony, Tony, Tony. The July 7th bombers didn't come here from anywhere; they were British. The Admiral Duncan nail bomber didn't come here from anywhere: he was British, and, in some perverted way, even Christian. The Tory councilor who wrote 'me have hobby, it called breeding' didn't come here from anywhere (except possibly cloud-cuckoo land) she was British. And the millions of Sun readers and Mail readers and hundreds of thousands of Express readers who salivate over 'All terrorists are scrounging asylum seekers' and 'Migrants taught how to scrounge' they are British, British, British. The London bombers were British people with dark skins. Harold Shipman was a British person with a beard. They didn't cease to be British when they became murderers; they simply became British criminals. Yet Blair slips imperceptibly into saying that the forces of Intolerance are aliens which came to England from Outside and can be sent back there.

Tony Blair is not a xenophobe. But the Mail, the Express, and the Sun control the political agenda to such an extent that he slips into their way of thinking without noticing it. Or else he pretends to be a xenophobe to get positive coverage in those papers. The fantasy world of the British media is not something which may have an influence if the Continuity Conservative Party ever get back into power. It is causing the political class to inhabit a fantasy world, here and now.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Humbug (4)

I'm really, really sorry about this, but I think I may have caught the Daily Mail telling the truth. I've done an extensive survey of all the specialist greeting card shops in Bristol and I can confirm that it is very difficult to find a religious Christmas card in any of them.

Don't you find the whole concept of 'greetings card shops' a bit strange? In a healthy society, I think that greetings cards would be a sideline in a stationers or maybe an art-supplies shop. But every shopping mall in the country can support not just one, but two or three shops which sell nothing but cards. Well, cards and wrapping paper. Cards, wrapping paper and expensive Eeyore cuddly toys intended for adults. Which is quite strange in itself: if I want to send my love an amusing cuddly toy of Kanga or Piglet, then I'm also stuffed. Eeyore is the only Winnie the Pooh character you can get. I think it was Anthony Thwait who pointed out that A.A Milne has largely replaced the Bible and Homer as a source of easily identifiable character-types. If you say 'He had a Tigger personality' or 'I was having an Eeyore day' everyone knows what you mean. So what is the point of selling idols of the 'Sad' archetype in which he is represented as happy? All twelve pictures in this years 'Eeyore' calendar (you can get an Eeyore calendar, a Piglet calendar, and a Tigger calendar) show Eeyore with a smiley face.

The substance of the Daily Mail piece is quite true: if you want a picture of Littlebay Beejeezuz Clintons can't help you. But I would hesitate to conclude that Clintons must therefore be part of an anti-Christian conspiracy. They have a nice line in Christening cards, with pictures of babies, bells, churches and even crosses. The Daily Mail would presumably regard 'Christening' as a 'Christian' ceremony. The rest of us would note that, like Christmas, the Rite of Baptism is an important Christian festival, but that, like Christmas, it is often celebrated for purely secular reasons, and that, like Christmas, most of the customs associated with it -- silk shawls, silver teddy bears, depositing money in Premium Bond accounts -- have no possible 'religious' significance. We might also note that you can get First Communion and Confirmation cards of both the secular and the religious variety. A secular confirmation card depicts a stereotypically teenaged child, possibly with a church in the background, but with the clear message 'Congratulations on turning 13.' Whether or not anyone buys them, I don't know, but you can see how the marketing department came up with the idea. 'We sell a lot of Bar Mitzvah cards and its not only religious Jews who send them. So maybe be can make it the done thing for not-especially-religious Christians to send congratulations-you've-become-a-teenager cards when their friends kids are confirmed?' We might also note that the Sacrament of Marriage can be celebrated with cards which depict churches and (especially) church bells, and that Clintons have made no attempt to replace the English religious Mothering Sunday (fourth Sunday in Lent) with the secular American Mother's day (second Sunday in May)

My special friend Oliver Burkeman points out that the Mail piece is based on very questionable statistics. He notes that they claim to have looked at 5500 cards and found only 67 with images of the nativity. That could presumably mean that 96% have images of snowmen, carol singers, churches, bells and other 'traditional' images on them. Conflating 'not explicitly holy' with 'not traditional' and saying 'You can't get 'traditional' cards, therefore, Christmas is being stamped out' is another bit of sleight of hand.

What Burkeman doesn't say is that even if the Mail's statistics are valid, the piece itself is based on a lie.

Christmas cards are losing their religious message

Traditional pictures...are dying out

Scenes of the nativity has been replaced

There were fears that religious images were being scrubbed from the cards...

Hundreds of cards avoided any image linked to Christmas at all

Card manufacturers who ditched Christmas symbols...

...do-gooders sitting in offices who decide that Christmas is offensive to other religions

...so they must scrub all Christian images.

Oh: and while we are at it:

The Royal Mail has faced criticism for axing the Bible story from its festive stamps and....

Can you guess what's coming?

....councils have been ridiculed for re-naming Christmas 'Winterval'.

I was particularly pleased with the use of the plural. We now know that it's a good idea for employers to supply food at office Christmas parties to prevent staff getting too drunk. I expect that the very religious party at the offices of the Daily Mail will supply lots and lots of pork pies.

The Daily Mail aren't simply reporting a piece of data: it's hard to find a card with a picture of Our Lady on it. They are telling us that a process is happening whereby religious imagery at Christmas is declining, on the decrease, dying out -- that where there were images of Littlebay Bejeezus there are now Snowmen and Santas. But that's more than we know. How many secular cards were there in 2005, before the arrival of the Muslim hoard? In 1980 when we were ruled by the Blessed Virgin Margaret? In 1950 or 1850? Without figures from previous years, we have no basis to say that traditional pictures are 'dying out'. It is entirely possible that there were always more Father Christmases than there were Angel Gabriels.

The Mail also wants us to think that the secularization of Christmas is part of a conscious, deliberate (and fairly recent) process. But even assuming that the researchers really did find fewer B.V.Ms and more Christmas Puddings this years than they did last year, you can't infer that anyone is consciously replacing, avoiding, scrubbing, ditching, banning or outlawing anything at all. It's possible that there are so many Christians that, by the time the Mail's researcher got to the shop all the religious cards had sold out. It's quite likely that the kinds of people who want to send pictures of Littlebay Beejeezuz buy them from church bazaars, charities and religious bookshops, but not from Clintons.

As ever, it's the offhand comment, the un-noticed parenthesis, that reveals where the Daily Mail is really coming from.

Critics said card manufacturers and shops must not abandon British shoppers who wanted to celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25th.

And we have a rant from a random Tory:

Conservative MP Philip Davies said card manufacturers who ditched Christmas symbols were falling victim to....

Can he do it? Will he manage to speak to the Daily Mail for 20 words without saying it?

...'politically correct madness.....I'm sure one reason is because of do-gooders sitting in offices who decide that Christmas is offensive to other religions so they must scrub all Christian images.'

So. We start with a fact: 'Many cards have snowmen on them; some cards have silly jokes on them.' We go from this to 'Someone has decided that we must scrub all Christian images.' We then create a fantasy – literally without any evidence at all – that this has been done so as not to offend 'other religions'. And we end up saying that Clintons and Hallmark have 'abandoned' British people. The idea that there are millions of people, British or otherwise, who want to buy religious cards, but that greeting cards manufacturers have refused to sell them any for political reasons is so paranoid as to be laughable. But we are clearly meant to believe that this fictitious purge on 'all' Christian images is being done to 'British people' (i.e us) but 'other religions' (i.e Muslims). It will be remembered that twelve months ago the Mail particularly objected to the fact that Father Christmas had been banned from the town of Havant (which he hadn't) because the population there was 99.1% white. Me think England damn nice place. Much too nice for white man race.

Finally, we have a quote from our old friend Stephen Green, who the Mail introduces as

Stephen Green, of the religious group Christian Voice – which forced TV bosses to scrap plans to show the ‘blasphemous’ musical Jerry Springer: The Opera.

It might be more helpful to say 'Stephen Green, the fundamentalist fruitcake whose group Christian Voice want to ban mosques and enforce a kind of Christian sharia based on the book of Leviticus. And who still believe in the Angels of Mons. Oh and I have the video of Jerry Springer: The Opera. I taped it. Off the telly. Christian Voice didn't force anyone to scrap anything. Could I have another one of those nice looking pies please?' Green says that he wants people to go out of their way to buy religious cards. The Mail translates this as 'boycott irreligious cards', which is an interesting example of how their little brains work.

Mr Green is worried about cards with blasphemous jokes on them. The Daily Mail says that one card 'risks provoking Christians' (to do what?)

by suggesting that the shepherds only saw the angel appear on the hillside because they were hallucinating after smoking drugs.

Further down, they quote the joke verbatim. There is an angel with a trumpet in the background, and one of the the shepherds in the foreground is saying:

'I don't know about you guys, but this sheep shit is really doing my head in.'

So the actual joke is 'one of the shepherds initially mistook the angel for an hallucination because he had been smoking drugs.' Similar jokes (shepherds quarreling about whether the angelic music is a dream or not) occur in the Medieval Mystery Plays: the shepherds are drunk and vulgar until they recognize the angel, when they stop quarreling and start looking for Jesus. It doesn't particularly matter; either way, the card is in pretty poor taste. But it is interesting that the Mail's automatic reflex is to slightly distort the story. (It will be remembered that the humour free Stephen Green repeatedly said 'This opera says that Jesus Christ was a nappy fetishist' where the more boring truth was 'This opera makes a weak joke about the fact that the loincloth used in many paintings of the crucifixion looks a bit like a nappy.')

I read that Tescos have started selling ready made Shepherd Costumes and Virgin Mary Costumes for small children because they noticed that their sales of tea-towels quadruple during the nativity play season. Clintons sell Christening cards because people buy them. They don't sell Littlebay Beejeezuz cards, because no-one wants them. Happy Eeyore has replaced Gloomy Eeyore because thats what sells. It's Thatcherism gone mad, I tell you. You'd think that the Daily Mail might approve.

Saturday, December 09, 2006


"I've had enough of watching scenes of schizophrenic, ego-centric, paranoiac, prima-donnas."
NOTE 1: On "Question Time" this week, man-in-the-beige-shirt explained that global warming may by caused by the imminent onset of a new Ice Age, or by Cosmic Rays. (If the latter is correct, then I want to be the stretchy one, not the one with orange rocks.) Before they made him shut up, he referred to the "politically correct theory" that global warming was caused by carbon emissions.

NOTE 2: In "Metro" on Friday there was a puff-piece for a new book on urban myths called "That's all bollocks". It included a list of 15 "myths", including the one about Charlie Chaplin entering a Charlie Chaplin lookalike competition, and the one about the man who insured his cigars against arson. They asked us to select which were true and which were false. One of the ones labelled as "true" was the surprising fact that, when Titanic went down, the silent version of the movie the Poseidon Adventure was being shown on the ship's cinema. This is, of course, "bollocks": it is another fake urban myth invented by the Snopes website in order to demonstrate that if you say something in a sufficiently authoritative way, then people will believe you, however obviously stupid and absurd it is.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Humbug (3)

The 'Cancel Christmas' story in the December 6th Sun is a masterpiece of the genre. Like an expert conjurer, it tells no direct lies but uses a well-practiced sequence of moves to misdirect its victims into believing logical impossibilities.

We know that fir trees and tinsel are on display in every office and school in the country; we know that Christmas carols are being blared out over the tannoy in every shopping mall....but when we are told that Christmas Has Been Banned This Year we believe it.

The front page of the tabloid has a photograph of a Christmas decoration overlaid with the headline:

Now PC killjoys want to ban Christmas decorations. We fight back!

Pages 4 & 5 are a montage consisting of three separate items. The focus of the page is a colour picture of an (artificial) Christmas tree, with the headline:

Tree may seem a joyous symbol of Christmas, but to the PC brigade it's a...

'Silent nightmare'. It's a joke, you see: not quite up there with 'Super Cally Go Ballistic Celtic are Atrocious', but at least they're trying. Various items on the tree are labelled, and the right hand column, headed

What a list of 'shame' tells us: why the P.C brigade want the labelled items to be prohibited.

The left side of the page contains the substantive news story a number of supposed incidents of anti-Christmas legislation, and some quotes by the usual right-wing nutters. At the bottom of the page is a picture of a woman in a veil, alongside a story about Channel 4s Alternative Christmas Message. (The station has a childish tradition of putting something silly up against the Queen: last year, it was Homer Simpson, this year, it will be a Muslim lady.) For balance, the right hand column of the spread is written by the Sun's tame Muslim, Amla Baig, and is headed Tinsel isn't offensive, claims like these are. Finally, the op-ed page is headed Save Christmas and has a bullet point list of things which it thinks Christmas might need to be saved from. And today's editorial cartoon is a picture of -- stop me if you've heard this before -- a woman in a veil. She is saying 'Merry Christmas from Channel 4'. There may be a joke in this, but I can't find it. Anyone scanning the paper will pick up the message 'There is a widespread move to prohibit Christmas decorations because they are not considered politically correct and this is bound up in some way with Muslims, especially Muslims in veils.' Each element of the story contributes something to this impression:

1: The front page

This is a classic example of the self-reflexive headline, something which is quite unique to the Sun. It does not refer to anything which has happened in the real world; it's a headline about a headline. Today's front page news story in the Sun is a story about the story which the Sun has run on it's front page today. The headline is a smutty pun that doesn't work ('baubles' and 'balls' don't really sound the same) but the text is incredibly pompous; the language of the infants' school playground alongside the language of the political press-release. 'The Sun today makes no apology for printing pictures deemed deeply offensive by the PC brigade – of Christmas trees and baubles.' Of course, at no point does anyone remotely suggest that anyone has claimed to find photos of Christmas trees 'deeply offensive'.

2: The Half-Truth

It seems that our old friends the Political Correctness Brigade want to ban Christmas decorations. This is stated about six times in the piece:

Now PC killjoys want to ban Christmas decorations.
Bah humbug to killjoys who try to ruin yuletide.
A survey revealed that three out of four firms have banned festive decorations.
A survey of 2300 employers reveal red yesterday showed an astonishing 74% have banned Christmas decorations for fear of upsetting followers of minority faiths.
Firms are banning Christmas decorations in case they offend other faiths

A survey says that sensitive employers have decided that putting up a Christmas tree and sparkly adornments might cause some non-Christians...to take legal action.

The source of this figure is a press release from a firm of employment lawyers called Peninsula. They seem to issue a press release along these lines every December, presumably in the hope of drumming up business from companies who get involved in January litigation. No information is supplied about how the information was collected or what question was asked; I leave it to Ben Goldacre to tell us whether 2300 firms amounts to a statistically significant survey. All that matters at this stage is that 'One law firm says that some companies say they are not putting up decorations' is not synonymous with 'Decorations have been banned.'

Last week, the Daily Mail got its union jack knickers in a twist about an ACAS press release. ACAS is a government run employment, mediation and arbitration service. The press release was intended to inform employers about their responsibilities under the law during the Christmas party season: For example, they pointed out that if you supply infinite free booze to your employees, it's partly your responsibility to see that they get home safely. This document includes the following passage:

Q: My recently-recruited manager has issued an e-mail to staff telling them that Christmas decorations breach health and safety rules. She also said they are outlawed by the religion and belief regulations. Is she correct?
A: As long as a proper risk assessment is carried out looking at where and how decorations are sited, particularly if they could pose potential fire hazards, health and safety rules will not normally be breached. Regulations on religion and belief do not outlaw traditional customs. As most Christmas decorations such as tinsel, lights and trees are secular and not inherently religious, it could be difficult to argue that they cause offence to non-Christians.

So: the official advice by the official agency which deals with official employment laws specifically refers to tinsel and trees and specifically says that there is no objection to them. 'P.C Brigade Want To Ban Tinsel' translates as 'Some employers have decided not to put up any tinsel, even though the official advisory body says that there could be no possible objection to it.'

3: The incremental lie

According to the op-ed column "Mince pies are outlawed as a health risk." But on page 4, this story comes out rather less dramatically: "Villagers planning a festive party were told by council chiefs that it would be cancelled unless the carried out a risk assessment on the mince pies made by the Women's Institute." And if you read right through to the end of the story, we get to the even-less dramatic truth. The mince pie row erupted in Embsay North Yorkshire. Council chiefs say that the WI pies must be accompanied by posters warning that they contain nuts and suet pastry. But we still haven't quite got to the bottom of things. The Sun omits to point out that the W.I were only compelled to follow council health and safety rules if they wanted to hold the event on council property. No-one was threatening to raid their party if it was held on private land. Clearly 'Please put up a sign saying "contains nuts" if you are giving those pies away in a council hall' does not amount to 'outlawing pies', and even if it did, it would have nothing to do with political correctness or offending minority groups.

4: The Factoid

"The Sun Says Save Christmas" column also warns us that 'Christmas has been re-branded as Winterval'. Well, up to a point, Lord Murdoch. It is perfectly true that Birmingham City Council re-named Christmas 'Winterval', insofar as they used that made-up word on leaflets advertising the turning-on of the Christmas lights, the arrival of Father Christmas and other events related to Christmas, Hanukkah and Diwali. The problem is that they did this in 1998. The lie that 'Birmingham wants to replace Christmas with 'Winterval' ' is taken down from the loft and hung up every year at this time -- along with the old saw that 'Luton has re-named Christmas 'luminos' '. That council did indeed (and rather cleverly in my opinion,) name their turning-on-the-lights ceremony after one of Harry Potter's spells. In, er, 2001.

For the record, from this year's websites:

Luton council: 'Christmas all wrapped up'
Birmingham council: 'Christmas market'; 'Visit Father Christmas'
Havant council 'Christmas in Havant' 'Carols in Meridian Centre'
Portsmouth Council: 'Christmas sounds', 'Christmas pantomime', 'Civic Carol service'

5: The In Your Face Bare Faced Total and Utter We Made This Up and We Admit We Made This Up Load Of Twaddle Taking Up a Page and a Half.

The centrepiece for the spread is the Politically Correct Christmas tree, which consists of a series of comments at the level of:

Fairy lights – Could be construed as homophobic by some
Fake snow – Clearly this may be unsettling and cause distress to people from warmer climates.

This is, of course, completely made up, and the Sun admits that it is completely made up: it clearly describes it as 'The Sun's tongue-in-cheek guide to the shocking and provocative items found on your Christmas tree.'

What can be said about this kind of stunt?

1: It is not even slightly funny

2: Some of the jokes are fairly offensive. (Have you ever heard a gay man referred to as a 'twinkle'?)

3: It mixes up truth and lies in a ways calculated to cause maximum confusion. The piece about Rudolf (' In future we may have to substitute faithful Rudolph with a shiny amoeba') is prefaced by a bit of copy about how Robert L May wrote the song in 1939; which appears to be accurate.. On the other hand, we are told that 'Satanists complain that baubles are a mis-use of witch balls from the 1700' – which is, so far as I can tell, complete gibberish. Some time ago, the Snopes website demonstrated how easy it is to invent an urban myth by presenting a publishing a theory, clearly marked as a joke, that 'Sing a Song of Sixpence' was a recruiting song first writing by the pirate Blackbeard. Within two years, this piece of made up folk lore was being quoted as the gospel truth. Bill Bryson points out that nearly all of the extreme cases of politically correct language ('gravitationally challenged' for 'fat') come out of a satirical 'politically correct' handbook, and were never, ever used seriously. It's a safe bet that some Sun readers will read this load of old baubles and run away with the idea that someone really does think that the term 'crackers' is prejudiced against mentally handicapped people – and that this is precisely what the editor wants them to think.

6: Conflation of different stories. The majority of the stories which the Sun cites are about health and safety: trivial instances of officials making the lives of small organisations slightly inconvenient. But the joke Christmas Tree piece is all about 'political correctness' in the more normally understood sense -- people being hyper sensitive to things which could offend minorities. The tactic is quite brilliant. The Sun like the Mail, the Express and to a lesser extent the Telegraph and the Times have committed themselves to believing that the Political Correctness Brigade are trying to stamp out Christmas. The problem is that the Political Correctness Brigade are doing nothing of the kind, for the very good reason that they don't exist. So the Sun's 'Christmas correspondent' (no, really) has convinced himself that 'health and safety' and 'political correctness' are interchangeable, and, furthermore that any attempt to make a Christmas celebration conform to regulations is a direct attack on the festival itself. Once you've believed these three impossible things, it becomes possible to say 'someone has pointed out that the Santa Claus carnival float is unsafe and asked the owner to add a seat belt...so obviously, they think that Rudolf toys should be banned because they are prejudiced against homosexuals.'

The Sun is, it must be said, less nakedly racist than the Express. The political correctness tree is directed at homosexuals, people from hot countries and the mentally handicapped as well as at Muslims; the opinion piece by Anila Baig contains some valid points. But both campaigns are rooted in the same paranoia. Either the Sun reflects what its readers think; or it reflects what Tony's boss Rupert thinks that they think; or it reflects what Tony's boss Rupert wants them to think. Either millions of my fellow countrymen are paranoid; or else someone is trying very hard to make them paranoid. Either way paranoid people are scary. They elect scary governments.

You can't really fool children: they go on believing in Father Christmas for as long as they want to believe in Father Christmas. Any conjurer will tell you that you can only fool an audience that, at some level, wants to be fooled.