Thursday, March 15, 2007

'The Collected Letters of C.S Lewis Volume 3 (1950 – 1963)'

A few brief comments

So. The final volume of C.S Lewis's unpublished writings. 2,000 pages; an awful lot of letters. And that's only the tip of the iceberg: Lewis is always apologising for being so brief, explaining that this is the eighth or tenth letter he has had to answer this morning.

'Had to answer.' Lewis hates Christmas because he 'has to' reply to the hundreds of letters he gets during the season. He 'has to' send detailed hand-written thank-you letters to all the Americans who send him parcels during the post-war shortages (even when they send him things that no civilised man could want, like headed note-paper.) Some people might think that the only duty a writer has to his readers is to write; that what the people who sent him fan letters and even the ones who send generous gifts really deserve in return is a new novel; a new radio-broadcast, a new volume of pithy religious essays. Instead yet he spends his time trying to act as an agony aunt to the Mary van Deusen's and Vera Gebbert's of this world. It isn't always clear exactly what personal problems they are actually experiencing; but clearly, Lewis is the only person on earth who can help with them. Lewis seems to find it a chore to write these pastoral letters, and he isn't always very good at it; so he assumes that it must be his duty.

This is a sad book. Sad, because it is the last time we will be able to read a 'new' book by C.S Lewis. Sad, because the first time he mentions that he's met up with a nice American poet called Joy Gresham, we know how the story is going to end. Sad, because, by the age of 60 Lewis already regards his life work as finished and is quite looking forward to dying. (If he had lived to be 80, then he might have told us what he thought of the hippy movement, Mrs. Thatcher, Star Wars; there might be TV footage of him speaking; he might have appeared on 'Question Time.') The world weariness of these letters seems almost paranoid. It was a good joke to say that he was a caveman or a dinosaur; maybe there really was some kind of historical continuity with classical world that was only broken by the Great War; maybe he really did feel like a man out of his time. But it isn't funny to hear him telling Tolkien that a recommendation by C.S Lewis will damage his new book; or telling Dorothy Sayers that he doesn't know enough about Dante to write a preface to her translation, and anyway, such a preface would make her look ridiculous; turning down a CBE because it would give ammunition to people who think he is turning out Tory propaganda; and over and over again, warning people that he has so many enemies that his name on a book will probably only harm it. Tolkien accepted his MBE, and was very moved by his meeting with the Queen. Lewis would have been too, but he somehow preferred the persona of the fossilised dinosaur churning out homely wisdom from a badly heated cottage.

And sad because of a sense of, well, waste. Oscar Wilde put his genius into his life, and his talent into his books. Lewis's life's work was to mark essays by bored public school boys; his spare time he devoted to answering letters from total strangers. He slogged away for 20 years at 'The Oxford History of English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama': has anyone read it? Is it even in print? Did he successfully prove that the renaissance never happened in England (or if it did, it had no importance?) The 'excluding drama' part is particularly pathetic. The one really interesting thing about sixteenth century literature is the drama; but someone other than Lewis was commissioned to do the Shakespeare volume.

And yet. Lewis's blurb for 'Till We Have Faces' says that he first thought of a novel based on Cupid and Psyche while he was an undergraduate, so he had in a way been working on it for his whole life. That's probably true of most of his work: he dashed off the 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe' in a few weeks, but only because he had been thinking about fairy tales and medieval allegory for decades. (He first read 'The Fairy Queen' as a schoolboy. He is probably unique in the whole history of literary criticism in that he wished that it had been twice as long.) So perhaps the fact that he spent every morning reading and answering letters from ordinary, and sometimes rather silly, members of the public was what enabled him to write so cleverly, and often cruelly, about ordinary human stupidities in 'The Four Loves' and 'The Great Divorce'.

Several times in the 50s, Lewis says that he wants to write a book about praying; but each time he gives up: he knows what he wants to say, but he can't find a form in which to say it. Right at the end of his life, he works out how to overcome the problem. He composes a series of letters to an imaginary correspondent.

In Letters Vol 3, Lewis mentions or alludes to a number of interesting subjects, including:

A correspondent asks Lewis if social planning by governments (rationing in time of war, free health care, and so on) is a bad idea because it 'removes the natural consequences of sin'. Lewis says that removing the natural consequences of sin is a perfectly Christian thing to do, provided 'the means by which you remove them are not in themselves another sin'.

'It is merciful and Christian to remove the natural consequences of fornication by giving the girl a bed in a maternity ward and providing for the child's upkeep and education, but wrong to remove them by abortion and infanticide.'

Since Lewis was certainly a Christian and arguably a conservative, it is curious that this is the only reference to abortion in his letters. One might almost think that he didn't regard it as the single most important issue facing Christians today.

Fifty pages of Lewis's side of a debate with Owen Barfield about 'anthroposophy' were omitted from volume 1 but are added as an appendix to volume 3. I couldn't make head nor tale of them.

In volume 1 and 2 Lewis went to see 'Snow White' (liked the animals, hated the dwarves) and 'King Kong' (liked the island, hated New York). According to Douglas Gresham, he also saw 'Fantasia' (hated the cherubs.)

In this volume, he goes to see 'Forbidden Planet' but is unimpressed:

'A post-civilisation version of 'The Tempest' with a Robot for Caliban, a bitch for Miranda, all sympathy for Alonso against Prospero. The contrast between the magnificent technical power and the deplorable level of ethics and imagination in the story was what struck me most. But the modern 'serious fiction' -- E Waugh and all that – seems to me equally deplorable.'

I think that would look pretty good on the cover of any DVD version of the movie: 'As deplorable as Evelyn Waugh' – C.S Lewis

Incidentally, the introduction to the current Penguin edition of the 'The Tempest' mentions that Hollywood produced a science fiction version of the play called 'The Silent Planet.' Lewis might have been amused.

In 1956 'The Last Battle' won an award for children's book of the year. Illustrator Pauline Baynes wrote to congratulate Lewis on his medal.

Lewis replied:

'Is it not rather 'our' medal? I'm sure the illustrations were taken into account as well as the text.'

However, when Lewis's publisher asked him how he would feel about an omnibus edition of Narnia without any pictures at all, Lewis replied:

'I am not greatly enamoured of the illustrations. (Faith, 'twould be easier to be enamoured of her that made them.)'

He tells George Sayer that Baynes is 'completely ignorant of animal anatomy' and tells his publisher 'I wish you would take an afternoon off and conduct Miss Baynes around the zoo.' But he is extremely tactful to Baynes herself about her shortcomings. He says things like 'You do each book a little better than the last' and 'If only you could take six months off and devote them to anatomy, there's no limit to your possibilities' and 'I say, you have learned something about animals in the last few months, where did you do it?'

The reason Lewis can't bring himself to criticise Baynes is that she is a 'timid, shrinking young woman' – only 27 when he first meets her.

'When criticised (she) looks as if you'd pulled (her) hair and given (her) a black eye. My resolution was exhausted by the time I'd convinced her that rowers face aft and not, as she thinks, forward.'

'Criticism could only be hinted at, and approval had, on a second shot, to be feigned. At any real reprimand she'd have thrown up the job: not in a huff but in sheer, downright, un-resenting, pusillanimous dejection.'

And anyway, he has heard that she badly needed the job because she had an ageing mother to support.

Lewis is similarly tactful to a girl named Jane Gaskell whose fantasy novel ('Strange Evil') was published when she was only fourteen years old. Lewis says that the book is 'a quite amazing achievement'; but adds 'On the other hand there is no reason why your next book should not be at least twice as good,' before gently tearing it to shreds.


A regular correspondent is sad over the death of her cat. Lewis says it's okay to love an animal.

'No person, animal, flower or even pebble has ever been loved too much – i.e more than every one of God's works deserves.'

And she shouldn't feel guilty about having had the cat put to sleep:

'Rather rejoice that God's law allows you to extend to Fanda that last mercy which (no doubt quite rightly) we are forbidden to extend to suffering humans.'

Which is an interesting take: euthanasia may be a good thing in itself, which God for some reason prohibits. In July 1963, Lewis nearly died, and said several times over the next few months that he regretted having been brought back from the point of death since he would presumably have to go through it again before too long.

If you can both kill a beloved pet and regret your own survival, would Lewis have been open to persuasion on the subject of, say, assisted suicide for the desperately ill? (Lewis is capable of surprising us on these kinds of issues: he once wrote an essay in which he argued that vivisection was only probably wrong.)


In 1948, G.E.M Anscombe and C.S Lewis had a public debate about Lewis's book 'Miracles' at the Oxford Socratic Club. Anscombe, who herself believed in God, famously tore Lewis's arguments to pieces.

A.N Wilson thinks that this encounter caused Lewis to abandon the whole idea of a rational defence of Christianity. Certainly his post-1948 religious essays are much more inclined to be devotional and even mystical than his pre-1948 writings. In this volume, he is always being asked to give religious talks, and always replies that 'the well is dry'. He does have rather an odd idea that you can't speak twice on the same subject: he even declines to re-record the 'Mere Christianity' broadcasts – which were transmitted live and never committed to vinyl -- because it would be too obvious that he was repeating himself. But even taking this into account, it is clear that he thinks that Lewis-the-apologist represented a brief period in his life, which is now over.

He is modest about his evangelistic powers. You or I might think that someone who quotes so much Aquinas and Augustine is something of an expert, but Lewis saw himself as very much an amateur: in his 40s he said that it was 'too late' to become an expert in Biblical studies. (This, from a man whose approach to writing a book on 16th century English Literature was to set down and read 16th century English literature. All of it.) Being relatively ignorant, a perfectly ordinary Anglican helping other perfectly ordinary Anglicans is the role he prefers to play. He thinks that, because he is a teacher, he has the knack of explaining things; and he thinks that there is a need to translate religious ideas into the language of ordinary people.

In 1950 writes to the secretary of the Socratic Club with a list of possible speakers for the next terms meetings. He suggests asking Miss Anscombe to give a paper on 'Why I believe in God'.

'The lady is quite right to refute what she thinks bad theistic arguments, but does this not almost oblige her as a Christian to find good ones in their place: having obliterated me as an Apologist, ought she not to succeed me?'

It is very easy to mock editor Walter Hooper for his obsession with adding footnotes to Lewis's letters. If a schoolgirl writes to Lewis to tell him how much she liked the Narnia stories, Hooper considers it vital for us to know which school she went to, what university she subsequently attended, who she married, where she is living now, and her address at the time of the letter. If Lewis alludes to the Bible or Shakespeare, Hooper is on hand to tell us that the phrase 'one flesh' comes from Genesis 2.24; that 'Miranda is a character in 'The Tempest'.

I am glad to say that he has now learned the difference between the ontological argument and the cogito.

I sometimes wonder if Hooper thinks that we will be reading the Letters of Saint Jack long after we stop reading Shakespeare and Milton. Or does he think that, with the demise of Great Western Man, Shakespeare has already been forgotten?

However, Hooper's pedantry sometimes pays off. In a letter to the Church Times, Lewis draws a donnish distinction between 'invocation' and 'devotion'. Just because the Church of England permits the 'invocation' of saints, it doesn't follow that it permits 'devotion' to them. If it did then it would also follow that you should 'approve devotions to stars, frosts and whales.'

I have always thought that Lewis simply meant that if you can pray to one of God's creations (exceptionally good humans) then what logical objection is there to praying to any other of God's creations: a fish or a snowstorm, for the sake of argument. But Hooper points out that he is in fact making a clever reference to the Book of Common Prayer, which quotes a passage from the Apocrypha: 'Oh ye stars of heaven, bless ye the Lord...Oh ye Frost and Cold, bless ye the Lord...Oh ye Whales and all that move in the water, bless ye the Lord...'


A correspondent wants to know how we should think about God. Lewis says that the Bible depicts a God who can be compassionate and furious, who can change his mind, and who feels things in his gut. This is clearly a mythological, imaginative picture which cannot literally be true. But the more philosophical version of God, -- absolute being, first cause, that which sustains all things in being by his love -- is an abstract concept, and that can't literally be true either. We can't imagine what God is really like; but we can't conceptualise it either.

Lewis adds, devastatingly, that if we decide that the abstract symbol for God is superior to the mythological symbol then we 'think that the symbol we have made is better than the symbol he has made.' This is a brilliantly Lewisian manoeuvre: to first accept that the Bible-God is 'only' a symbol, and then to assert the primacy of that symbol. It's what makes Lewis worth reading; it sends us back to the Bible with a slightly changed perspective.

Lewis wrote this letter only 10 days after his wife had died. It is worth pondering that in 'Grief Observed' he rejects the idea of God as a sadist because it is 'too anthropomorphic.'

One day, someone will write a short play about William Gresham, the first husband of C.S Lewis's wife. They could call it 'Penumbra' or 'Eclipse' or some other word that doesn't quite mean the same as 'shadow.' He's the almost invisible presence in the story of Lewis's last years, and it is uncomfortable to think of him too much.

William Gresham seems to have wanted his divorce from Joy to be amicable. He suggests that he and Joy should live close together so that both parents could maintain contact with their sons. But Joy takes David and Douglas to a foreign country, while she is still legally his wife, at least partly with a view to meeting a famous author to whom she has been sending fan-mail. Bill can't have been indifferent when he hears that she has cancer; and it isn't completely unreasonable for him to think he might get custody of his sons should she die. The two letters which Lewis writes border on emotional bullying:

'Your letter reached Joy after a day of agony. The effect was devastating. She felt that the only earthly hope she now has had been taken away. You have tortured one who is already on the wrack, heaped extra weights on one who is being pressed to death.'

Bill gives in. He doesn't try to get custody of his children. He hears of his ex-wife's death in a two line letter from Lewis. When he visits his sons in England they are (according to Douglas Gresham) strangers to him. He returns to America. He finds out that he too has cancer. He takes his own life.

By all accounts, he behaved very badly: he openly cheated on his wife while they were married, and was violent towards his sons. But he paid a very heavy price. And when all is said and done, he did introduce the word 'geek' into the English language.

It's very painful to watch Lewis's relationship with Joy as it emerges here in 'real time'. 'Shadowlands' has made the story uplifting: Lewis knows that he will only have a limited time with his wife but accepts that 'the pain then is part of the happiness now.' After a short grey afternoon of the soul, he gets over it, to the extent that he can teach Doug to dive, or revisit heavenly places he visited with Joy, depending on whether you run with Joss Ackland or Anthony Hopkins.

But in these letters, it seems that Lewis believed, or persuaded himself to believe, that the laying-on-of-hands by Rev. Peter Bide had facilitated a genuine miracle; that Joy, although lame, was cured; and that God had given him in later middle-age a kind of happiness that he had missed out on when he'd been younger. When he realises that, despite a three year remission, Joy still has cancer, it doesn't feel at all like Job's Sufferings. It's more like watching a small child having its only toy taken away. Letters to strangers, which always finished 'I will of course have you daily in my prayers,' start to say 'Please pray for Joy'. But we know, and Lewis must have known, that this time it isn't going to make any difference.

Lewis writes to his regular correspondents about his bereavement; and naturally, some of what he says anticipates insights from 'A Grief Observed': grief is a process, not a state; it feels like being afraid; he remembers Joy best when he misses her least. But nowhere in these letters is there any hint of the 'crisis of faith' which the book describes. He doesn't remotely suggest that he is being tempted to think that God is evil. If this was a real crisis, and not just a thought experiment, then it must have been very brief indeed.

Several years before, Lewis had tried to help Sheldon Vanauken after the death of his wife. He suggested that he re-read Dante's 'Paradiso', and directs him to the passage where 'Beatrice turns her eyes away from Dante 'to the eternal Fountain' and Dante is quite content.' This is, of course, the passage Lewis quotes at the end of 'Grief Observed': Poi si torno all eterna fontana.

The editor and provider of footnotes knew Lewis for three months and thirteen days, during most of which time, Lewis was seriously ill.

They first meet on June 7th 1963. On July 12th Lewis was taken to hospital, and on July 16th he was thought to be dying. On July 26th, Hooper moved into a spare room at Lewis's home. There was also a full time nurse in residence, but Lewis's brother Warren was being treated for alcoholism in Ireland. (At no time was there a Walter/Jack/Warnie household: so far as I can tell, Hooper didn't meet Warren until Lewis was dead.)

On July 18th, Lewis told his ex-pupil George Sayer that he had 'engaged Hooper as his secretary'. This may have meant no more than 'he is helping me out with my correspondence'. During his illness, Hooper certainly wrote several letters on Lewis's behalf, which would have been Warren's job had he been present and sober. Hooper left the Kilns at some point before September 20th.

Lewis is always very kind to his friends, but he does seem to write an unusually affectionate letter to Hooper. 'Don't ever doubt that the day of your return, whenever and on whatever condition, will be one of rejoicing to me. Your absence makes a cavity like a drawn tooth.' After an exchange of letters, it was agreed that Hooper would come back to England in the new year (1964), work full time as Lewis's secretary and receive a modest salary.

In the event, less than two months after Hooper left the Kilns, C.S Lewis was dead.

My favourite letter in the canon remains the one to the mum who's little boy is worried that he loves Aslan more than Jesus. Lewis reassures them that 'God knows quite well how hard we find it to love Him more than anyone or anything else, and He won't be angry with us as long as we are trying' and that in any case, since Aslan and Jesus are, in a sense, the same, it doesn't make much sense to worry about loving one more than the other.

He concludes:

'If I were Laurence I'd just say in my prayers something like this: 'Dear God, if the things I've been thinking and feeling about those books are things You don't like and aren't good for me, please take away those feelings and thoughts. But if they are not bad, then please stop me from worrying about them. And help me every day to love you more in the way that really matters far more than any feelings or imagination, by doing what you want and growing more like you.' That is the sort of thing that I think Laurence should say for himself; but it would be kind and Christian-like if he then added 'And if Mr Lewis has worried any other children by his books or done them any harm, then please forgive him and help him never to do it again.'....He must be a corker of a boy: I hope you are prepared for the possibility he might turn out a saint. I dare say the saints mothers have, in some ways, a rough time.'

Never fails to bring a tear to my eye.


C.S Lewis enjoys 'Winy ille Pu'.

'Could anyone but an Englishman have conceived a Latin version of a children's book in such extremely advanced Latin that only an adult could possibly read it? I like that absurdity.'

And he corresponds with an Italian priest, Don Giovanni Calabria, in Latin, even managing a pun:

'Vestri sinistrales (ut ita dicam) athiesmum suum confitentur, immo jacant, lupi sunt et lupi esse videntur.':

('Your leftists/Sinisters (to put it like that) declare their atheism. Even boast of it. Wolves they are an wolves they are seen to be.')

'We got the letter from Las Vegas all right, and thought that between gambling (the most uninteresting of all vices: wine, women and murder I can understand, but roulette – the vapidity of it!) and the glaring hideousness of the decorations and surrounding desert and its neighbouring explosions, L.V was about the nearest thing to a nightmare we'd ever heard of. Did you like it'?

Several letters to Lindskoog, (nee Stilwell) are reproduced in this volume.

Walter Hooper is not completely infallible as an editor and annotator. In the biographical appendix Hooper mentions that Lindskoog wrote two books about Lewis: 'The Lion of Judah in Never-Never Land' and 'C.S Lewis: Mere Christian' as well as 'Creative Writing: For People Who Can't Not Write', and 'A Parent's Guide to Books For Kids.' But for some mysterious reason, he omits 'The C.S Lewis Hoax', 'Light in the Shadowlands', and 'Sleuthing C.S Lewis' from the list.

These books allege that Lewis's biography was falsified, and some of his posthumous papers forged, by, er, Walter Hooper.

In 1956 an American suggested to him that 'masturbation being a very pressing concern for very many young people (if no others) should be dealt with more frankly.' (According to a footnote, the same writer thinks that it has now been dealt with a good deal too frankly.)

Lewis takes the line that what he primly calls 'the act' is not a sin, and certainly not injurious to health, but that sexual fantasies are a bad idea. This isn't simply a case of committing adultery in the heart. The point of sex is that it encourages you to get out and interact with people of the opposite gender – and, in the natural course of events, positively forces you to interact with children and grandchildren! Masturbation, on the other hand, provides 'a harem of imaginary brides' which 'works against (you) ever getting out and really uniting with a real woman.' Worse, if you misuse the imagination in this way, you will be encouraged to misuse it in other ways: for example, you'll also end up daydreaming about what you would do if you were rich 'instead of earning and saving.'

This is very good sense on the assumption that masturbation is, (like watching 'Doctor Who') an esoteric hobby practised only by a few pathetic recluses. If, on the other hand, nearly everybody does it, then it can't really cut everybody off from human society. Did Lewis think that he was unusual because he had masturbated as a teenager? Was this what he had in mind when he told Barfield that his boyhood had been unusually depraved?

Lewis is writing in 1956, when he has a close friendship with Ruth Pitter and when his relationship with Joy Gresham is about to turn into a full-blown romance. He's got much more freedom to interact with women, and indeed people, since the death of Mrs. Moore. Is he looking back regretfully on 20 years of life as Mrs. Moore's surrogate son; realising that during this time he turned in on himself sexually and imaginatively, and wishing that he had got a life much earlier?

'After all, almost the main work of life is to come out of our selves, out of the little, dark prison we were born in. Masturbation is to be avoided as all things are to be which retard this process. The danger is of coming to love the prison.'

Can anyone read this and not think of the poem, addressed simultaneously to God and Joy Gresham?

' I cannot crawl one inch out of my proper skin:
I talk of love – a scholars parrot may talk Greek –
But self-imprisoned, always end where I begin.'

Lewis's adopted mother: her son, Paddy, was a friend of Lewis who died in World War I.

In the early days, they may have been lovers, but by the time of this volume, Mrs. Moore is old and sick. In 1950 she goes into a nursing home suffering from Alzheimers. Lewis visits her every day, turning down speaking engagements so as not to disappoint her. But in 1951 he reports frankly:

'There has been a great change in my life owing to the death of the old lady I called my mother. She died, without apparent pain after many months of semi-conscious existence, and it would be hypocritical to pretend that it was a grief to us.'

A poet. Lewis once said that she was the kind of woman that he could have imagined marrying, an oddly Gilbertian way of putting it.

Lewis tells Pitter frankly that he didn't get on with a poem of hers in which an earwig conceives a sort of courtly love for a fine lady. He says this is prejudice on his part:

'a: My imagination goes easily to humanised mammals but stops dead at humanised insects. b: I can't bare the least suggestion (however sportive) of love affairs between different species or even between children. It is one of the many things which for me sinks 'Tom Sawyer' so far beneath the divine 'Huckleberry'. But as I can't give you any reason for the second – I think I could for the first -- this doesn't help you very much.'

His reason for not liking anthropomorphic insects is, presumably, the one he gives in 'Surprised by Joy': he has a phobia because as a toddler he was terrified by a picture of a giant spider in a children's book. But what could possibly be the reason for his dislike of stories of child-love; and for him thinking them as unnatural as stories about inter-species romance? Obviously, it couldn't be related to his memories of the combination of paedophilia and bullying at his boarding schools, because that had no long term effect on him whatsoever...

There's an article called 'Delinquents in the Snow' in which Lewis regrets the fact that he isn't allowed to thrash the boys who vandalized his shed, in the course of which rant he remarks that, of course, he has less to complain about than Mr. Pilgrim. In 'Reflections on the Psalms', he tries to mitigate the terrible cursing passages by asking us to imagine what had been done to the Psalmists by their oppressors.

'Take from a man his freedom or his goods and you may have taken his innocence, almost his humanity, as well. Not all the victims go and hang themselves like Mr. Pilgrim; they may live and hate.'

I think I had assumed that 'Mr. Pilgrim' was a character in Bunyan. In fact, in one of his really quite helpful footnotes, Hooper explains that Lewis is talking about one Edward Pilgrim. In 1954 Romford Council slapped a compulsory purchase order on this Mr. Pilgrim's garden, basing the price on its value to a farmer (nil) rather than to a property developer (lots and lots). Mr. Pilgrim didn't know about the plans until the deadline for lodging an appeal against them had already passed. He was so miffed that he hanged himself, and was turned into a symbol of resistance to socialist tyranny by, er, the 'Daily Express'.

When Lewis's publisher said that the reference in 'Psalms' might be a bit obscure, Lewis replied: 'If my book dies soon the memory of Pilgrim will outlive it and no note will be needed: if, on t'other hand, it prove aere perennius , school editions will explain him and we shall have done our bit towards eternising the infamy of his persecutors.'

Today, this text is fulfilled in your hearing.

Lewis was a professional pedant about language, so it is surprising to find him opposing spelling reform, not because it is newfangled, but because there is no particular reason why we should all spell words the same way.

'Who would be a penny the worse if though and tho, existence and existence, sieze, seize and seeze were all equally tolerated....This would save children and teachers thousand of hours' work. It would also force those to whom applications for jobs are made to exercise their critical faculties on the logic and vocabulary of the candidate instead of tossing his letter aside with the words 'can't even spell.'

Lewis calls it scientifiction, which was already very anachronistic by the 50s.

He doesn't like science fiction stories which turn out to simply be spy stories or gangster stories set in space. He is very much a purist on this point. He objects to story by one Kris Neville set in a brothel on Mars because:

'In a work of art all the material must be used; if you write a historical novel, the period must be essential to the effect; what's the excuse for locating one's story on Mars unless Martianity is through and through used?'

He goes so far as to say that 'human interest' is only permissible if it arises from the emotional reaction of the characters to their strange situation: he tells Arthur C Clarke off for introducing a sub-plot about a hoax and a theft into a story about an alien marooned on earth. I guess he has a point: lots of 50s sci-fi was basically just cowboy stories with ray guns instead of six shooters. But Lewis he is surely wrong to say:

'Bigness itself is of no imaginative value: the defence of a 'galactic' empire is less interesting than the defence of a little walled town like Troy.'

E.E Smith is probably not such a good writer as Homer. But don't the Lensmen stories depend on their scale for their dramatic effect? Kim Kinnison's adventures would feel quite different if he chased enemies across America instead of across The Universe.

Still, Lewis is pretty good at spotting a winner. In one of the few extant letters to his wife, he raves about Arthur C Clarke's 'Childhood's End'.

'It is quite out of the range of the common space-and-time writers, away up near Lindsay's 'Voyage to Arcturus' and Wells 'First Men in the Moon'. It is better than any of Stapleton's... It is rather like the effect of the 'Ring' – a self-riching work, harmony piling up on harmony, grandeur on grandeur, pity on pity...'

Which some people might think was overdoing it a bit.

He also likes 'The Silver Locusts', although there is a sense of damning with faint praise:

'Most of the genre is abysmally bad...But Bradbury has real invention and even knows something about prose.'

Lewis declines an invitation from Clarke to speak at the Interplanetary Society.

'Probably the whole thing is only a plan for kidnapping me and marooning me on an asteroid. I know the sort of thing.'

C.S Lewis published the diary he wrote in the weeks after the death of his wife as 'A Grief Observed'. He submitted it to Faber (not his usual publishers) under the pseudonym 'Dimidius'. Anyone at all familiar with Lewis's writing could have spotted the style at 20 paces, and Faber director T.S Eliot deserves some kind of award for his letter to Lewis's agent:

'We are of the opinion that we have guessed the name of the author. If, as you intimate, and as I should expect from the man I think it is, he does sincerely want anonymity, we agree that a plausible English name would hold off enquirers better than Dimidius. The latter is sure to arouse curiosity and there must be plenty of people amongst those who know him, and perhaps even among the readers of his work who do not know him, who may be able to penetrate the disguise once they set their minds working.'

The book was eventually published under the name N.W Clerk (N.W = Nat whilk, 'I know not whom.') Lewis didn't try very hard to keep his identity a secret: when his publishers forward a letter addressed to Mr. Clerk, Lewis signed his reply C.S Clerk before crossing out the C.S and changing it to N.W.

Since I started this last April Fools, I should probably note that Lewis complains that an elvish flying contraption in Jane Gaskell's fantasy book feels too modern because it contains, among other things 'restaurants' and 'lavatories'. Since what Gaskell wrote was 'a sort of stall where food could be purchased' and 'bath-houses' I think this confirms that Lewis used 'lavatory' in a non-euphemistic sense – a place for washing, not a latrine.

In recalling a walking holiday with Barfield, Lewis refers to having used a 'quirinal'; and when Joy is bedridden, they refer to her 'invalid female urinal' and her bedpan as 'Ariel' and 'Caliban' respectively (which is actually quite funny).

It has sometimes been said that Lewis was not interested in politics. ('Jack was about as apolitical as it is possible to be...his politics were Christianity' – Douglas Gresham, on the Lewis usenet group.) In these letters, Lewis takes a consistently party-political stance about the post-war Attlee government and the welfare state. He is inclined to think that the Labour Party kept food rationing going after the war, not because of any actual shortages but because they wanted to control what people ate 'for their own good'. Although he is bored by the '51 election campaign ('everything possible seems to have been said by every possible candidate, and the reiteration becomes wearisome') he takes an unashamedly pro-Tory line:

'There seem to be good prospects of putting Labour out, in spite of the fact that they are promising the earth, whereas Churchill, with his usual good sense, is promising nothing but hard times.'

That Christmas, he thanks an American friend for a food parcel, which is particularly welcome:

'coming as it does at a moment when the new government – very properly, by the way – has refused to woo the electorate by playing Father Christmas with a food bonus.'

When another American tells him that she may come and live in the UK, he warns her that she won't like the weather, and adds:

'And we live under the constant threat of a socialist government, which would finish us off completely.'

However, in 1959 – when both he and his wife have been seriously ill – he comments to an American who has been struggling with medical bills:

'What you have gone through begins to reconcile me to our Welfare State of which I have said so many hard things. 'National Health Service' with free treatment for all has its drawbacks ...but it is better than leaving people to sink or swim on their own resources.'

This is a curious turn-around. Lewis has never disputed that the Welfare State genuinely alleviated poverty. But he thought that the a fear of poverty, and a state solution, had made people too willing to hand over their liberties to the government: if everyone's educated by the state and nearly everyone works for the state, who will dare to criticise the state? And in any case isn't power of that kind always abused? It isn't obvious why these arguments are trumped by the realisation that health care free at the point of need is a really, really good idea.

If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book. And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.

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Thursday, March 08, 2007

Cap died the day Jack stopped drawing him. I give it two months at maximum.

Oh, for crying out loud....

...either show us Harry Potter's prick or don't show us Harry Potter's prick, but for goodness sake stop this infantile media streaptease. Even bloody "Newsnight" is at it ("showing off his dramatic range on the westend stage, fnar fnar.)


"It is unfair that foriegners come to this country illegitimately and steal our benefits."

Where did this quote come from?

a: A leading article in the Daily Express

b: A campaign leaflet by the British National Party

c: A campaign leaflet by the English Nazi Party

d: A leading article in the Daily Mail

e: My paranoid imagination

f: A speech made by the Labour home secretary and deputy prime ministerial hopeful, John Reid.


Jack Straw: "One of the things we should be looking at is the subject of Asian women speaking English and whether we need to engage them and require them to speak English before they are given a settlement visa.”

Daily Express; "Muslims Must Learn English"

"I'm thinking of taking my family and getting out of this country soon, sometime over the next couple of years. It's cold and it's mean spirited and I don't like it here anymore." Alan Moore

Thursday, March 01, 2007

A Completely Unfunny Posting

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

Phil Masters writes: Andrew recognises that the question of "Who is going to decide what's a reasonable compromise?" is difficult, but (being British) gets around this by making jokes about it.

So, three clergymen of different faiths are discussing the problem of evangelism. They agree that converting human beings to their respective credo is far too easy, and, by way of a challenge, they are going to preach to the animals, after the fashion of St Francis of Assisi. First, the Catholic goes out into the forest. He comes back terrible claw-marks on his face. "Sure, and that was a mighty difficult thing," he says."The first animal I met was a wild bear, to be sure, to be sure, and when I started to talk to it about the true faith, it jumped on me and started to maul me, so he did, to be sure." Did I mention that he was an Italian? "So I prayed to the blessed Virgin and all the saints not excluding Saint Theresa, and sure, the bear came and laid his head in my lap. We had a little talk, and he made an oral confession of his sin, and he has asked for instruction in the catholic faith." Next, it is the turn of the Baptist. He too goes into the forest, and he comes back with claw marks on his face, blood on his shirt, and tooth marks on his right arm. "Hallelujah!" he explains "Praise the Lord! He led me also unto a wild bear, and when I started to explain the doctrine of total depravity and the need for repentance unto the Lord, it leapt on me and started to maul me. But I laid my hands on its head, and ordered the spirit of disobedience to leave it. And the bear was convicted of sin there and then, and when it had finished speaking in tongues, we had an all night prayer meeting, and it is going to be baptised at the gospel meeting next Sunday." So finally the Rabbi goes out into the forest, only he doesn't come back at all. The other two wait and wait, and eventually they get a call from the hospital. They rush right over, and find the Rabbi with his leg in a cast, claw marks all over his face, plugged into a drip and a heart monitor. When he sees the Pastor and the Priest he opens one eye and murmurs "Have you ever tried circumcising one of those beasties?"

Which is as much as to say, being interpreted, sorry for attempting to inject levity into the subject of multi-cultural education in a post nine one one world. Because obviously, the readers of this website, all seventeen of them (well, eighteen if you count Eric; but I always feel he looketh and looketh and undestandeth not) come here primarily because of the value of my gnomic wisdom and not at all because they find it amusing. God knows, there are few enough places to read about religion and politics on the web.

Is gnomic wisdom the sort of wisdom that spends all day in the garden with a fishing rod in its hand, do you think? Or is it just very small wisdom? I may be straying from the point. The Archdruid thinks that there should be more laughter during Lent, apparently.

At any rate, I shall try to be as unfunny as possible.

"Andrew also slips into the complacent assumption that children have religions and beliefs of their own. I'm not sure that this is true, for practical purposes; at the risk of sounding D*wk*ns**n, parents have religions and beliefs, which they tend to want schools to inculcate. And there has to come a point where schools, being run primarily for the good of the children and partly for the good of society, may have to say "No, we won't help you brainwash your offspring, and we won't help you shield your offspring from contrary opinions to yours".

I am seriously – and not at all jokingly or complacently – considering announcing that if anyone uses the D-word, I shall consider all threads in this forum to have been Godwinned. Unless and until I get around to actually writing a review of his ruddy book, but I guess in fairness I'd have to read it first. (It's on my Amazon wish-list if anyone thinks this would add to measurably to the sum of human merriment.)

I also wonder, in an unfunny and not at all complacent way, whether the otherwise inexplicable lack of outrage that the fascist Daily Express engenders is a case of the enemy of my enemy is my friend. (Have I got that right? "My father's son" is me, so if "That man's father" is "my father's son" then that man's father is me so that man is my son. But it doesn't work if the barber is a woman. I'm wandering again.) So, for example, members of the Blairite junta may say "We can't help feeling a little sympathy for the the fascist Daily Express. After all, they are stirring up hatred towards and fear of Muslims, and the more people hate and fear Muslims, the easier it will be for us to bring in identity cards, increase surveillance, go to war with Iran, abolish Magna Carta, etc." And equally, members of the Dawkinsite cabal may say "We can't help feeling a little sympathy for the fascist Daily Express. After all, they are slagging off god botherers."

If I've understood this properly, then I have a large number of tiny little midichlorians in my head; and when I think I'm expressing an opinion or a point of view, what is actually happening is the little midichlorians are telling me what to think. (Or maybe there is no actual "me" at all; just a sort of sock puppet that the midichlorians live in. I seem to think that Descartes addressed this kind of problem as well, but presumably, what I mistook for the cogito is actually the midichlorians whispering sweet nothings to me.) I realise it's nothing personal: everyone is controlled by their midichlorians. Except Richard Dawkins, oddly.

I wasn't going to mention this -- the suspicion that some people may tolerate anti-Muslim writing because Islam is a religion and they don't like religions -- but I felt that Phil's use of the term "brainwashing" implies that we aren't using the Queensbury rules any more. "You gave yourself away very carelessly just then," as Frodo said to Gollum. Come to think of it, the "Noldor" were originally called "Gnomes", so perhaps it means "Elvish wisdom"?

Some people – the Archbishop of York, for example – have suspected for a while that people who are reluctant to accommodate Muslims in state schools have a hidden agenda: they would really like to use the state education system to further their agenda of suppressing the open expression of religion of any kind, which is presumably the first part of pincer movement with a view to suppressing religion altogether. I don't say that Phil has gone this far. I merely point out that there is an interesting slippage from "I would like my child to be excused from cross-country runs, because cross-country runs are taboo in my religion" to "Parents want schools to inculcate their beliefs" and from "We will not necessarily accommodate your religious prohibitions under all circumstances: it depends on on how important the "no cross-country" taboo is to members of the First Church of Christ, Smoker, and how essential cross-country runs are to our educational objectives" to "Schools are run for the good of society and won't help parents brainwash their children."

Oh, and the buried assumption that "run for the benefit of the child" and "inculcating their parents religious beliefs" are necessarily in conflict.

We could, at this point, discuss whether "sport" is in fact an essential part of "education"; and even if it is, whether "sport" necessarily involves taking group showers; and even if it does, whether gym teachers have to be recruited only from among the paedophile community. But we aren't going to.

Dawkins major fallacy – one of Dawkins major fallacies – one of Dawkins many major fallacies – is his belief that "religion" is primarily an opinion; indeed, that it is primarily an opinion about the process by which different species arose on earth. If this were correct, then it would follow that no-one under the age of, say, nine and three-quarters could have an informed and valid opinion, and therefore that it is meaningless to talk about a "Christian Child", a "Darwinist Child" or a "Jewish Child." A child isn't quite a person in the required sense, but more a sort of squidgy pool of potential personhood: an hommlette as Lacan so memorably put it. (That's a French joke, and not funny, so it doesn't count.) The specifics I am unclear about: do we give children no information about life on earth, or indeed Life on Earth before their tenth birthdays, and then give them unbiased accounts of Darwinism and Young Earth Creationism, let them make up their own minds, and then ship them off to the Granny Goodness Home For Philosopher Kings? Or is the idea that if you meticulously shield them from the midichlorians they will spontaneously become Darwinists without anyone needing to teach them? (Come to think of it Pascal worked out Euclid from first principles in his bedroom, having been been banned from studying geometry by his father for presumably good reasons, but then Pascal was infested with the mind virus and doesn't count.) I mean, I'm taking it as red that teaching young children about Darwinism --or indeed anything else-- would be a form of child abuse? I think I've wandered off the point again.

Five minutes of actual thought would demonstrate that we use terms like "Christian", and "Jewish" in a variety of different ways. "Jewish cooking" doesn't mean cooking which is descended from Abraham down the maternal line. "A Christian action" isn't necessarily one in accordance with the idea that the Son is of the same substance as the Father. Christian art isn't necessarily art which has a tendency to facilitate the feeding of the sick, the clothing of the naked, the visiting of those in prison and which ever one I've forgotten. If I say "I think you should arrange your time table so that Muslim children can pray at Muslim prayer times", and "I think you should arrange your canteen so that there is something that Jewish children are allowed to eat"; then "Jewish child" is a shorter way of spelling "child who is being raised in accordance with Jewish traditions."

We could ask interesting philosophical questions about what it means for a small child to have "beliefs" of any kind. A child might say that she believed in Santa, and be very, very sad if she were not allowed to hang her stocking up (to the extent that taking the stocking away would constitute mental cruelty); but if you pressed her, she would probably not think that Santa has the same ontological qualities that Mummy and Daddy do. She might also have a belief that there is such a place as New York, even though her reasons for believing it may be philosophically weak. Road to Larissa and all that.

Even in an adult "being Jewish" or "being C of E" may be very important, but not actually imply the existence of a philosophical or theological opinion. One quite often meets people who say "No, I don't really believe that there is such a person as YHWH; but that doesn't mean that I'm going to allow any son of mine to have a foreskin." The archbishop of Canterbury appears to be in this category. (About God, I mean, not foreskins.)

We could have an interesting discussion about whether doctors ought to perform irreversible cosmetic surgery on young children even if their parents think it is very important. But we aren't going to.

In practical terms, we don't need to bring Nobdaddy or Galactus into the equation at all. I am, by conviction, a vegetarian. My five year old, by hypothesis, has no convictions one way or the other, although he has habits and expectations, and might be very, very sad if he though he was eating baa-lambs and moo-cows. I hand my child over to The State for part of each day: is it reasonable of me to say "I require that my son be given no meat, because that is my conviction and it will make him very very sad." I used to naively think that everyone thought the answer was "Yes, provided it isn't actually harming the kid or making it impossible for us to educate him." It appears that a reasonable body of opinion now thinks: "If you are going to live in England, you must live exclusively according to a English customs, which have always included the consumption of large ammounts of roast beef." (Well, they have.) And just possibly a less reasonable body which says "Provided you dislike meat in a secular way, then we are prepared to give your baby lentil stew; but if you think that a Supreme Being agrees with your opinions, then we are giving the brat turkey twizzlers."

Granted, some people think that any kind of religious belief whatsoever is "harming" children; and any kind of religious belief whatsoever makes education impossible. I don't propose to have the argument all over again. I merely point out that actively using schools as tool to suppress religious belief is just as much an ideological decision as using them to promote a particular religion and, in my view, wrong for the same reasons. Perhaps ideologically neutral schools are, in fact, impossible and "state education" necessarily implies "the abolition of the church." But I haven't heard anyone making this case.

(NOTE: To say that "suppressing religious" and "promoting religious" are both ideological positions is not the same as saying "atheism is a faith position". The latter is a rhetorical device sometimes used by Christians; very entertaining if you like watching secularists foam at the mouth with rage, but not actually true.)

Actually, the difficult question isn't "What if the children don't have opinions and beliefs?" but "What if they do?" What if the parent wants the child to be given veggie food, but the kid wants beefburgers? What if the parents have a philosophical objection to corporal punishment but the kid would just as soon be slapped and get it over with? How does a child with a relatively limited vocabularly put his ideological opinion across to adults in authority? Would we pay any attention to him if he did? Should we?

"There's also the problem that accommodating one group's rules and beliefs could be offensive or harmful to another, in a very practical way. For example, we're lucky in Britain in that - I think - most people recognise that creationism is a bit silly, and would say that Young Earth creationism is goofy to the point of justifying vulgar abuse. However, there are places in the rest of the world where people take these things seriously, and not only claim the right to withdraw their sprogs from lessons in which Darwin is mentioned (which is close enough to abuse in my book), but want creationism taught in schools. Whereas, if I had children, I'd regard any school which so much as mentioned the bloody idea in science classes as flatly unacceptable for them. That makes it impossible for any school to act in a way that's acceptable to both sets of people; one lot regards science lessons without creationism as immoral, and one lot has the exact opposite position. And merely permitting parents to withdraw their offspring from specific science lessons isn't going to work, because (a) it generates problems about the nature of truth, and more importantly (b) it generates problems when exams come around with questions about what was taught during the previous term."

I don't see what you've done here except demonstrate that as well as hard cases, there are very easy ones. "On non-essential matters, parents have a right to have their religious beliefs respected. It is impossible to teach biology without teaching evolution. Therefore, the teaching of evolution is not a non-essential matter. Therefore, the religious opinions of parents are in this case irrelevant."

To summarize.

I have a position which involves the belief in non-subjective morality, a personal God, and the mythology of the Incarnation. I wish to encourage people to believe in that position, because I happen to think – oh dear I am beginning to sound like Tony – because I happen to think that it is true. But I have -- what many people seem to lack and some even find hard to conceive of -- a meta-position. My meta-position says says "Not everyone agrees with me; and I would sooner find ways of accommodating the people who don't agree with me than go for some kind of Hegelian absolutism where the person with the biggest stick decides what is true that week."

I also note that a lot of what we are talking about are not so much ideologies or beliefs but taboos, cultural practices, customs; traditions. I know that it can be very painful when someone makes me break one of my taboos. So I think we should be very, very careful about forcing other people to break theirs.

And the most important point is this. If we excuse religious kids from P.E lessons and let them keep their knickers on in the shower, it will really piss off all the P.E teachers. Which is surely the most important test for any educational policy?

But, of course, I'm infected with midichlorians so there is no reason to listen to anything I say.

You've been a wonderful audience. Thank you and good night.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

I think that what absolutely clinches it for me is the way that Josh and Madge called their kid "Judas". Because, like, that name had such positive associations for them.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Stephen Green, National Director of Christian Voice, commented....

'It is undeniable that all those who set up paedophile groups in the 1970s were leading homosexual activists, which makes sense, as paedophilia is really only a logical extension of homosexuality.'

Friday, February 23, 2007

First they came for the Jews...


Schools Should Accomodate Muslim Needs

State schools should avoid sex education classes and swimming lessons during Ramadan to cater for the needs of Muslim pupils, says the Muslim Council of Britain. The recommendations, issued today, are included in a 72-page document of Muslim-friendly guidelines on topics such as uniform, halal meals, issues relating to Ramadan, physical education and sex education....The MCB claims Muslim pupils may consider it too risky to swim during Ramadan as 'the potential for swallowing water is very high' and they may break their fast....Another suggestion is to avoid teaching sex and relationship education, including aspects that are part of the science curriculum, because Muslims are not permitted to engage in sexual activity during the month of fasting and they are also expected to avoid sexual thoughts and conversation.


Muslims Tell Us How To Run Our Schools

DEMANDS for a ban on “un-Islamic” activities in schools will be set out by the Muslim Council of Britain today. Targets include playground games, swimming lessons, school plays, parents’ evenings and even vaccinations. And the calls for all children to be taught in Taliban-style conditions will be launched with the help of a senior Government education adviser.

HAVE YOUR SAY: SHOULD MUSLIMS TELL US HOW TO RUN OUR SCHOOLS? "If they want to live in our country I firmly believe they should follow our laws and culture. Bringing thier own culture and laws over is an invasion on britain which I believe should be stopped at all costs." "Who are you to dictate to us in our western Christian country.If you don't like know where you can go....." "I cannot believe that the MCB are stupid enough to think that they can take over this country and bend it to Muslim culture."

Monday, February 12, 2007

"I suppose the head of F.R Leavis in a charger would be rather too costly?"
C.S Lewis, on being asked if he would like Magdalene college to organise a dinner for his 65th birthday.

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