Saturday, February 14, 2015


If I am recruiting stock control assistants at my cherry pie factory (which, for the avoidance of doubt, I am not) and let it be known that, all other things being equal, I intend to give the job to the tallest applicant, then I am being sexist. Because most men are taller than most women.

Yes, I know that height is not a gender. And I know that you get tall women and short men. And I am sure that you can think of some particular circumstance where only employing tall people makes sense. Fact remains: if I say "I prefer to employ tall people" I am in effect saying "I prefer to employ men". Even though height is not a gender.

I am quite sure that every Mosque in England has a couple of white converts that it can bring out on special occasions. But it so happens that 90% of British Muslims are of Asian or African heritage. Most English Catholic churches are disproportionately full of people whose grandparents came over from the Emerald Isle and Anglican pews are disproportionately occupied by white English bottoms. That's just very much the way these things go. Excellent argument for not having faith schools, but that's not the subject of today's discussion.

If one spots that a particular club is being regularly singled out for criticism where other similar clubs are not, one might say: "Well, it just so happens that nearly all the members of that club have dark coloured skin but I'm sure that's just a crazy irrelevant coincidence."

Or one might say "The reason that club is being singled out is that so many of it's members have dark skins. The people who go on and on about that particular club are, consciously or unconsciously, intentionally or unintentionally, racists."


On Feb 5 the Hinkley Times ran a news story under the headline Dispute Over Grave Plot After Burial of Gypsy. It was a very sad story out of which no-one came very well. It seems to go like this.

There is a municipal cemetery in Leicestershire. Some people -- the French, for example, and some Americans -- believe that if something is run by the state it has to be non-religious, in the sense of religion being prohibited. But this was a non-religious cemetery in the English sense: anyone of any religion could be buried there, there was a chapel that would do equally well as a church or a synagogue or a humanist meeting hall, and they did their best to accommodate different funeral traditions.

If you have never had to arrange a funeral, you may not know that you have to buy a piece of land in the cemetery to bury your loved-one in. You actually generally purchase a plot that will do for several funerals. This makes it pretty expensive, one reason why cremations are more fashionable nowadays. (In the case of a cremation, you merely rent a flower bed.) This particular cemetery seems to have had the policy of always selling families the next plot that was available: there was no question of segregating it into, say, Jewish and Christian quarters.

A Romany family purchased a large piece of land, as a family plot. The first person buried in it was an elderly gentleman with a large number of children and grandchildren -- and a very large funeral, with an astonishing number of floral tributes. The family wanted this particular plot because it the patriarch could be buried facing his home, which is a gypsy tradition.

However, it transpired that there had already been a burial on the adjacent plot, by a Muslim family. Islamic tradition says that you should be buried facing Mecca, and the cemetery had arranged this. But here comes the problem. Muslim tradition also says that Muslims shouldn't be buried alongside non-Muslims. This isn't a teaching of the Koran, and practice varies, but it was what this particular family wanted. The cemetery did the sensible thing and asked the gypsy family if they would consider selling the plot back to the cemetery and buying a different one, but they said no, dug their heels in, and went ahead with the funeral.

I think we have to read between the lines slightly here, but we can probably understand the Romany family's point of view. The settled community has never been welcoming of travelers: even some of my nicest and least racist friends have been known to remark that if you see how much rubbish gets left behind these damn tinkers etc etc etc. So I imagine that just about the worst thing you could do to a gypsy family a couple of days before a funeral is to try to, er, move them on.

Now it gets really complicated. According to the account printed in the local newspaper, the Romany family were asked, a few days after the funeral, if they would consider an exhumation and reburial. They not unnaturally told the council, and I paraphrase here, to fuck off. And that would seem to be the end of the matter: you can't exhume a body without permission from the next of kin. A little distressing to receive the request in the first place, but no harm done.

However the local council categorically deny that any request for an exhumation was ever made. "An inaccurate, divisive and inflammatory article printed in The Hinckley Times appeared to indicate that Burbage Parish Council has considered the exhumation of a person recently interred at Burbage Cemetery – this is totally untrue and without foundation." 

Which ever version you choose to believe -- and someone is evidently not telling the whole truth -- a mistake has been made. You would think that people in the death business would know about Muslim funeral customs, and would have warned the Muslim family that they had no control over who would be buried next to them. If the cemetery promised to leave a space between the two plots and then didn't, it's the Muslims who have the right to be aggrieved. You could take the whole thing as a lovely metaphor for secularism: how do you fit two contrasting beliefs into one space without doing any favours to either. How much, in a very real sense "space" should you allow? The cemetery proposed the most English solution that it is possible to imagine. They asked if they might put a hedge between the two graves. 

I expect you know what happened next. The original news item didn't major on the Muslim aspect of the story. "Dispute over grave plots after burial of gypsy" is a fairly neutral description, even if, "gypsy" isn't the preferred term. But within a couple of days the national media had got their fangs into it, and it became all about the -- wholly fictional -- exhumation.

Daily Mail: "Gypsy Man's Body Could Be Exhumed Because He Was Buried Next To A Muslim".

Daily Mirror "Grieving Family Asked To Move Grandad's Grave Away From Muslim Buried Nearby Because He is Non-Believer"

And then off into the wilder shores of the internet: "You won't believe what a Muslim family want!" "Tolerant Muslims demand this Grandfather's body be moved" and my favourite "Muslims Can Have Your Body Exhumed Now."

A fairly nuanced story about a dispute between two religious traditions has transformed into one in which the poor Romany victims are going to have to fight "tooth and nail" in the "highest court in the land" to prevent a local council digging up a corpse at the behest of Muslims. The council had already issued a rebuttal: no request for an exhumation had been made. The local paper had withdrawn the story from their website. But this makes now difference: an increasingly fictional version of the story is now all over the national press. The comments attached to some of the online reports are enough to make one feel physically ill: "Enough is enough. Outlaw Islam, Nuke Mecca" "FFS I've had about enough hearing what the Muslims want.....Not their country, so they need to get over it."

What first drew my attention to the story was a comment on Twitter, which put an exceptionally nasty spin on the whole thing: 

Virtually nothing in this iteration of the story is true. It is no longer a request: the grave is quite definitely being dug up. We are not being asked to imagine "they", whoever "they" are coming down on a particular side in a rather messy dispute. We are just being asked to imagine that "they" woke up one morning and said "How can we please Muslims. I know. Let's go and disinter a Catholic." (And it's not to please one particular group of justifiably aggrieved Muslims. It's to please Muslims in general. Who are, as we all know, an undifferentiated blob.) 

Where was this posted? Where else but on the Twitter Feed of the Leader of England's Atheist Community. In case we didn't understand the point, one of his minions stepped up to the crease and explained  "So, even in death, the great leveler, Muslims expect special treatment." (*)

Some people, including the Atheist Community Leader, think that religion means something like "a theory about the origins of life on earth, now disproved". But "feelings about what happens to someone when they die; the ceremonies and rituals you perform around dead bodies" might be a much better starting point. If we were all Rational, I suppose we would leave our dead relative bodies out for the bin men, who would harvest any transplantable organs and dispose of the rest hygienically. I believe that around the turn of the 20th century there was a humanist fad for doing exactly this. But it never caught on. Fewer people want traditional Anglican funeral services, but they have invented replaced them with their own ceremonies: scattering a person's ashes in a place that they loved, or paying a great deal of money to have them shot into space in a rocket. Since, I guess, 1989 the tradition of creating a shrine close to the place where a person died has taken off: every busy road as a sad collection of flowers, cards and teddy bears somewhere near it. And lots of people have magical beliefs and practices that they couldn't, in the cold light of day, justify. The belief that a person should be buried near members of his own community and the belief that a corpse should under no circumstances be disturbed are both equally "religious" beliefs. From the Atheist point of view, worrying about whether dead people are dug up and worrying about who they are buried near are both equally mad. The Atheist Community Leader is a man who purports not to understand why anyone could possibly object to people throwing bacon at synagogues. But he appears to unqualifiedly endorse one set of beliefs (not disturbing dead bodies) while repudiating the other set (burying Muslims near Muslims.)  He doesn't even perceive that this is dispute between religions. He regards it as the arbitrary demand of one community for special treatment.

But that's what happens: even to the most rational and skeptical of us. The superstitions of our tribe are not superstitions, but the neutral, incontestable, rock-bottom values of humanity. Whereas the superstitions of your tribe are arbitrary demands that we shouldn't make any attempt to accommodate.

 "I've had about enough hearing what the Muslims want.....Not their country, so they need to get over it." Not their country. Not their country.

But this is okay and not racist at all. Because Islam is not a race.

(*) I suspect that this is what the whole thing comes down to, actually. In a neutral space like a secular cemetery, Muslim and Christian feelings get the same amount of attention paid to them. But Christians are used to have more attention paid to their feelings. So to white cultural Christians, paying any attention at all to the wishes of Muslims amounts to doing them special favours. The local council are said to have "bent over backwards" to accommodate Muslim feelings, where what they actually seem to have done is tried very hard to come up with a compromise. The expression "bending over backwards to accommodate Muslims" is almost as much of a Common Sense Brigade dog whistle as "Political Correctness Gone Mad."

If you want me to write more of this kind of thing, the best thing you can do is buy one of my books...

Monday, February 09, 2015


Yes: I remember Star Wars Trading Cards. They were very much a thing.

A very American thing. Tiny little Bazooka Joe bubblegums with tiny little cartoon strips, which weren't funny and were full of references to "principals" and "coaches" and "baseball" and "kids" who formed "gangs" in "alleys" near "fire hydrants". I suppose that an American child would have been just as puzzled by the Beano. If you collected 10,000 or 100,000 strips you could trade them in for a gift. I don't know if anyone ever did. I don't know if the offer even worked in the UK, although I did get a club membership goody bag, with a plastic ring which was already too small for my fingers. It was meant to whistle. You were meant to communicate with other members of the gang using morse code.  

American comics still had tiny small ads for novelties inside the front covers and I believed in every single one of them: the disc that would allow you to hypnotize people; the giant robot that obeyed your commands. Plans for a giant robot, I think it was. In the long decade between Turnabout Intruder and V'Ger, Star Trek was such a small thing that memorabilia was being flogged alongside sea monkeys and live (guaranteed) sea horses: a replica Tricorder (I suppose the Aurora snap together kit); cuddly Tribbles; rubber Spock ears. The tenth anniversary of the original series conveniently fell in 1976 and could therefore be referred to as the Tennial. (The US Bicentennial was very nearly as big as the Queen's Silver Jubilee.) There was a silver plated medallion to commemorate it. It must, I suppose, have been very very easy to commission silver plated medallions. One of the first pieces of merchandize I ever saw advertised was a silver plated Spider-Man medallion. If I had bought it, then by now it would be worth very little.

I could conceive of saving up a pound and somehow turning it into two dollars and somehow sending it to America and getting a life size model of the Star Ship Enterprise (with real warp drive) months later via boat-mail. There were mythical aunts with American bank accounts, and legendary documents called International Reply Coupons. (This was before Paypal.) But collecting a thousand pieces of bubble gum was too far fetched even for me.

Bubble gum was almost as prohibited as tobacco at school. Cigarettes killed you, but bubble gum made a mess under the desk, stuck to people's shows, and spread diseases. You could be slapped for possessing either, although no-one ever was. Chewing gum was somewhat different. Grown ups chewed chewing gum. It was and is sold in serious little packets as if it was headache tablets or condoms. Bubblegum came in colorful "hey-kids!" packaging. It would kill you if you swallowed it; choke you to death; stay in your stomach for the rest of your life. And there was something not quite nice about a sweet that you put in your mouth in order to spit it out again. No-one minded about the Great British Gobstopper.

I suppose that at one time, cards had been given away free with gum; and as time went by the gum got less and less important and the cards got more and more important and you ended with five picture cards that came with a small flat strip of bubblegum that turned to powder in your mouth. Football cards were different. No gum in football cards, so far as I remember, although possibly if you collected enough you could trade them in for a toasted sandwich. (*) I remember sheets of stickers as well. Dozens of tiny stamp sized stickers one, not on any particular theme, just things that might come in useful to a ten year old boy: "Top Secret"; "We Hate School";  "No Girls Allowed". Like gum, it felt thrillingly naughty even to handle one because a friend of a friend in a different class had definitely been slapped for putting one on text book.

Just before there were Star Wars cards, there were Marvel Comics cards. It sort of bothered me that people who were not Marvel Comics fans were allowed to collect them. There was one golden play time when a cool kid with a big collection challenged me to name all the characters, which I could do easily, and everyone was (for about an hour) un-ironically impressed. But then Star Wars happened. No-one had seen Star Wars, because it wasn't out yet, although I had read both the book and the comic, which put me at some advantage. I had a few cards; some of the cool kids with more money had complete sets. Someone had his collection stolen and for two days all the grown ups went completely insane. Our form teacher inspected everyone's desk and our year head -- can I be making this up? -- cancelled lessons to question everyone one at a time about the location of the cards. "It doesn't make any difference to me if it's twenty picture cards or 20 blocks of gold that had been stolen, I will not have a thief in my form." I suppose they had agreed in advance to massively over-react to the first instance of stealing so as to put across the impression that they took stealing very seriously indeed. I don't remember if the cards were found or if anyone got slapped.

Did one of those cards really have a photo of Biggs on it? But there would have been nothing very surprising about seeing a photo of Biggs on a card in 1977. He is not in the film. But "not being in the film" and "not being in Star Wars" were still two different things. Star Wars was a comic first; and then a book; and then a series of picture cards; and possibly a set of free gifts in cereal packets; and certainly a series of action figures. The Force Blade has a much greater claim to being the real lightsaber than any replica or schematic or freeze frame still from the movie. Because that's what we knew about and that's what cool kids with money owned. The film is now all we have left, which is why it hurts so much when Lucas messes with it. But Star Wars is quite unrecoverable. And Star Wars was never a movie. The picture cards and action figures are where these characters lived.


Mr Abrams decided to reveal the names of the character in the Star Wars VII trailer in the form of retro style picture cards which no one aged under 50 will really understand. This is a good thing, in that Abrams wants to play with nostalgia; and a bad thing, in the sense that he sees Star Wars as a collection of dead relics to be venerated, not a living tradition to be continued.

These are our First Glimpses of characters who please George please please we will grow to know and love like Luke and Leia and Jar-Jar and Pooh and Piglet and all of the others.

* It might have been that the robot was just a bit of hardware. But in fact she is "BB-8". (Does that mean that she is not an R2 unit, or just that her name is Artoo Beebee?)

* It have been that the face in the X-Wing was just Red 9, standing by. But in fact he is someone called Poe Dameron.

* The girl on the speeder bike is Rey.

* The scared Stormtrooper is Finn.

"Rey" and "Finn". Don't have last names. If we had been told that they were called Rey Skywalker or Finn Solo, that would give us massive, massive hints about the plot. Which is why I am going to bet that that is indeed what they are called. Poe Dameron would be an odd name for Skyalker or Solo descendant. And the guy with the funny lightsaber is Kylo Renn, which is just a name: not Darth Renn or Darth Kylo or Kylo Renn Skywalker.

Obviously, none of this tells us anything whatsoever. But we can enjoy chewing on a bit of sickly-sweet retro-nostalgia.

(*) Think about it.


28 Dec 2014 - Trailer for Star Wars Episode VII released.


Wombles; Little and Large; Treasury Edition; weekly comic; action figures; glow in the dark swords; all subsequent movies, and indeed all subsequent life something of an anti-climax.


I refer to Mr Abrams previous attempt to revamp a much loved science fiction franchise with the word "star" in the title only as The Abomination, and did not go and see the second one.

I thought Episode I was quite good, but a bit of a let down, when I first saw it, and have not significantly changed my mind since. I do not feel that the director made it out of personal animosity to me, as some people I believe do.

The TV cartoon series I positively like. 


0.10 Black screen, sound effects, leading to 

0.14 Desert scene. The trailer for Episode I started with an unfamiliar image of gungans walking through reeds,  but with the unmistakable "Luke Skywalker theme" telling us where we were. This one relies on the fact that Tunisian Desert says Star Wars without any aural clues. And it is not self-conscious about being Star Wars: there is not attempt to disguise itself as the Seven Samurai. 

When I saw Star Wars my head was full of Flash Gordon, or possibly I stuffed my head full of Flash Gordon because of Star Wars, and I felt that each film ought to be set on one of those mono-ecological kingdoms: the ice world, the city in the sky; the swamp world; the forest world. But more and more everything seemed to be about the desert world. (And they spoiled the desert world in Phantom Menace by making it big — huge Ben Hur arenas where it should have been bored farm boys racing each other to the canyon and back. It's a backwater. If there's a bright center to the universe etc etc etc.) Our first image confirms that It's All About The Desert World. Star Wars is about Tatooine and Tatooine is about Star Wars. 

0.20 Dark brown voice: "There has been an awakening; have you felt it." It doesn't sound like Yoda, and it isn't British enough to be Obi-Wan. I have no idea what "an awakening" could be: perhaps it means a new, powerful Jedi has come on the scene. (When Obi-Wan taught Luke to use the Force, could this have been described as an Awakening?)

0.23 Black man in stormtrooper gear pops up, looking perturbed. (This is John Boyega, an actor. There is no clue about his role, apart from the fact that he is playing a perturbed stormtrooper, or a perturbed man pretending to be a stormtrooper. Is he perturbed because he as just Awakened, or because he has just encountered someone who has Awakened?) 

In the original movies, we never saw a Stormtrooper take its helmet off, although Luke and Han spent the middle act in uniforms. In the Clone Wars period, "clone troopers", who are all clones of Jango Fett, are goodies; it is assumed (though we've never out and out been told) that the stormtroopers in the original films are clone troopers repurposed to be baddies by the Empire. This guy does not appear to be a Jango-Clone ... he doesn't look like the troopers do in the cartoon, at any rate.

0.29 A droid whizzing past some hardware. It is whistling like R2D2. The hardware isn't anything specific, although one of vehicles looks slightly like the tiny little ship that gets eaten by a Star Destroyer at the beginning of Episode I.  

The scene looks quite like Star Wars, grimy and run-down like the original films, not shiny and boring like the prequels.

0.39 Shots of Stormtroopers in a vehicle of some kind: presumably about to "parachute" down onto some alien planet. 

Sinking feelings: that technique of showing you a glimpse of what is happening before it blacks out, of everything being pressed together and claustrophobic works well in Battlestar Galactica and Alien and things which are meant to feel a bit like the real military would if it was in space, but is a poor match to A Long Time Ago In A Galaxy Far Far Away. The Abomination took something shiny and happy and 1960s and made it dark and cynical and crap. But surely if he hated Star Wars the way he hated Star Trek, Disney wouldn't have let him lose on their expensive new toys?

0.42  A young woman wearing a costume indistinguishable from Leia's in Episode VI, shooting across Tatooine in a vehicle strongly reminiscent of the speeder-bike from that movie. (This is presumably "Rachel" the 17 year old orphan who learned to make her way in a tough, dangerous town -- the role for which Lucasfilms did an open casting call in 2012.) This pretty much confirms what we guessed already: that "Rachel" is the "Leia" stand-in (and that "Tom", the other role they had open auditions for, is the surrogate Luke.)

.The TV Tropes website coins the phrase "flanderisation" to refer to the process whereby a character in a long running series becomes defined by one single characteristic. (In the first season of the Simpsons, Ned Flanders had a number of personality traits, one of which was church going. By season 6 he was The Comedy Christian.) The Clone Wars TV series shows signs of flanderisation: a small number of scenes and images from the movies are replayed over and over, as if they define the genre, which arguably they do. (The room falls silent, the music drops, we hear breathing and the swish of a light saber activating in a corridor. We see face shots of six pilots checking in with their calls signs in quick succession. I haven't seen Rebels yet, but the trailer is a close pastiche of the iconic opening seconds of Episode IV.) In my essay Little Orphan Anakin I noted that the iconography of Amidala in Episode 2 was so similar to that of Princess Leia in Episode IV as to effectively amalgamate the two characters. 

0.48 Amphibious X-Wings: and why not. Note that it only takes, what, half a second to allude to the seminal "Red 6, standing by!" sequence in Episode IV.

1.00 "The Dark Side...and the Light". The croaky voice makes one wonder if perchance it could be a revivified Emperor who is speaking the narration. 

The phrase "The Dark Side and the Light" tells us literally nothing about the movie; it's almost as if a Sherlock Holmes film had the tag-line "the detective must solve...a mystery". (I don't know if the two bits of speech are meant to run together, so it goes "There has been an awakening? Have you felt it: the dark side and the light?") 

I am not sure about the cruciform lightsabre. To me, what is and should be cool about skiffy is going back and seeing the same bits of hardware over and over again; the same phasers, the same jaunting belts; the same lightsabers. But I suppose we are committed to newer and cooler weapons in each episode and we've done the double-headed sword in Episode I. 

The lightsaber is red. In the Original Trilogy, the goody's lightsabers had blue blades and the baddy's lightsabers had red blades. So perhaps this person stumbling through the dark snowy forest is the baddie. His cloak slightly calls to mind Luke Skywalker at the beginning of Return of the Jedi, meaning that I can't quite shake the thought that the plot of the new trilogy might involve Luke having turned to the Dark Side. 

That had better not be Vader breathing we can hear in the background. 

1.10 Woot! Woot! Millennium Falcon. Woot! Woot! Proper TIE Fighters. 

Obviously the big big big problem with the prequels was that you couldn't have any of the really cool iconic stuff from the real movies; which made it harder and harder for us to grab hold of any part of the film and say "yes, that looks like Star Wars." One doesn't want to wibble too far the other way: Empire introduced AT-AT walkers and Jedi introduced those three winged shuttle craft, after all; there's no point in a series of sequels which just repeat images from Star Wars over and over again. But it's pretty sly to make a trailer which contains all of the cool stuff from the original trilogy (plus some stuff with strong Original Trilogy overtones). It's like it's saying — not quite sure about the prequels — that's fine...this one will be like coming home. 

Is that water the Falcon is flying over in the first seconds of the shot? Would that be the same lake the X-Wings are skimming? Does that mean that someone Tatooine is no longer all desert? (The latter Dune novels involved introducing water onto Arakis, didn't it?)


This doesn't tell us anything that we couldn't already have guessed, but we didn't expect it too. 

It's set partly on Tatooine; it's got X-Wings and the Millennium falcon in it; there's an evil Jedi with a cruciform sword; one of the main characters spends some of the movie in a stormtrooper uniform, and another is a dead ringer for Leia-Amidala. 

Nothing contradicts the default rumor, that this is basically going to go back to draft one of The Star Wars, two Jedi kids going to rescue their father from the baddies. I'd guess "Rachel" and "Tom" are the children of Leia and Han, though probably not the Jaina and Jacen of the now non-canonical Extended Universe. They are ignorant of each other's existence, and for some reason think their parents are dead. Uncle Luke has recently Gone Over To The Dark Side; but his Nephew and Niece "awaken" to the Force and set out separately to bring him back to the Light. 

It all looks quite a lot like Star Wars, and there's nothing to suggest that Abrams is going to take the piss out of whole franchise, as he arguably did in the abomination. 

Those of us who care about Star Wars can probably feel cautiously optimistic. Those who don't are going to have a tedious twelve months.

I wrote a book about Star Wars. I think it's the best thing I've done. 

Friday, February 06, 2015

How To Make The Bible Mean Whatever You Want It to Mean

In his Christmas column, the Guardian's tame religious pundit, Giles Fraser, asserts that Christianity is a radical, anti-establishment religion. Those in authority do not like it, because it involves the belief that there is a higher authority than the king. 

I think that this is probably the kind of thing you would expect a Church of England vicar writing in the Guardian to say. It's not completely true and it's not completely false. Historically, religion has been a tool in the hands of those in charge just about as often as it has been a thorn in their flesh. Fraser may think that conservative, establishment clerics are not true Christians. But they could say the same about him, and do, very frequently.

In support of his thesis, Rev. Fraser asks us to look at Jesus. As soon Jesus was born King Herod was trying to have him killed, because he could see that a divine king would be a threat to his earthly kingdom. And in the end, the Romans had the grown up baby-Jesus crucified because they saw his radical kingship as a threat to empire and emperor.

But wait a moment. How do we know that Herod tried to kill baby-Jesus? From the prologue to Matthew's Gospel. Wise Men from the East know that a king has been born because there's a new star in the sky; they head for the palace because that's a good place to look for a king; when there is no king there; they check out Bethlehem because that's where Jewish kings are usually born. Herod gets scared and orders a cull of all the babies in Bethlehem but baby-Jesus is whisked away to Egypt in the nick of time. The story isn't in Luke; it isn't anywhere else in the New Testament and it certainly isn't mentioned by any secular historian, even ones who hate Herod and would quite like to attribute a massacre to him. And it feels a bit too much like Harry Potter for comfort. The consensus is that it is not historically true. It's folklore, mythology: a story. (*)

Only the most tedious kind of pedant hears the question "How many sheep did Noah take onto the ark?"(**) and thinks that "None! Because there was no Ark and no Noah and no sheep! It's a made up story!" is a clever answer. It very probably is a story; but it's one of the stories which it is the job of Christian priests to tell and retell and explain. It is perfectly reasonable to assume that when Giles Fraser says "Herod tried to murder the child born in Royal David's city" we are supposed to hear an unstated "in the story..." at the beginning of the sentence. In the story Herod murdered the children because baby Jesus was a rival King. In the story Mary and Joseph ran away to Egypt. In the story the Romans killed Jesus because he was a subversive. 

Except that they didn't. Not in any of the four stories in the Bible. "In the story" it's the religious authorities who turn against Jesus: because he appears to be preaching sacrilege; because he appears to be threatening the Temple; because he was claiming to be Messiah without doing any of the things Messiahs are meant to do. "In the story" the the chief Priests, the teachers of the law, and the pharisees collude with Judas Iscariot to arrest Jesus. "In the story" they have to persuade the forces of occupation to have him killed. "In the story"—in one of the four stories, at any rate—the Roman Governor repeatedly says that he doesn't think Jesus has done anything wrong. 

So where does Rev. Fraser's notion that Jesus was killed by Romans for political reasons come from?

Some people are not content to just say "in the story". Some people want to read between the lines and infer what "must have" "really" happened. Some of those people think that the story in which the religious authorities had Jesus killed is an after-the-fact anti-Semitic slur. The story of Jesus being killed as an anti-Roman rebel is a bit of a hard sell if you are proselytizing in Rome. So someone (Constantine, probably: Giles Fraser blames everything on Constantine) came up with a different story, one in which the Jews are the baddies and the Romans are exonerated. Some people think it's a nasty story. It has certainly provided the pretext for a lot of anti-Semitism.

Let's reserve judgment about whether this theory is correct. Let's also hold back from wondering how you conduct an Easter service if you think the Passion story in the New Testament is a work of fiction, and nasty fiction, at that. The point which interests me right now is the ease with which a religious writer can move from talking about a story which is in the Bible, but which practically everyone thinks is folklore, to talking about a story which is not in the Bible but which some scholars think may be closer to what really happened, without giving the slightest indication that he's moved from one kind of story to another.

Perhaps Fraser himself regards the evidence for the "historical Jesus" as so overwhelming that he has long since discarded the Jesus of the Gospels in favour of the historical reconstruction. Perhaps, indeed, he has forgotten that there ever was any evidence: perhaps he has moved for so long in academic circles that to him "Jesus" means "the Jesus of historical reconstructions" and he has forgotten that it ever meant anything else. Maybe, when he looks at a passage which says "the chief priests and the teachers of the law were looking for some sly way to arrest Jesus and kill him" (Mark 14:1) he sees "the Romans realized Jesus was a threat to Imperial power." Maybe he's trying to throw some relatively benign dust in our eyes. Maybe he thinks that the story of how the Priests conspired with Judas to kill Jesus is so horrid that it can't be true. Perhaps he hopes that if he repeats the story about how the Roman's killed the revolutionary Jesus often enough, it will become the story which "everybody knows", in the same way that everybody knows that Three Kings followed the star to Bethlehem.  

Or perhaps his illustrations from the life of Jesus are really nothing more than blustering woo. Jesus is neither the character in the stories we have; nor the hypothetical figure historians think they can infer. He's just a place holder for "whatever Giles Fraser believes this week". Anti authoritarianism is good; Jesus is good; therefore Jesus is an anti authoritarian. No-one asks "what would Jesus do" unless they already know the answer.

It is this kind of thing which has caused so many of choir to which Fraser should be preaching to lose patience with the institutional church; even to the extent of muttering words like "post-evangelical" and "modernist". We have all, over the years, been told things by clergymen which couldn't possibly survive any even moderately engaged reading of the Good Book. This has made us suspect that some of them either haven't read the Bible (unlikely) or that they have read it but are relying on the fact that we haven't, and never will. This leaves us with an unpalatable choice between the crazies who have read the story and insist it all really happened, stars and whales and arks and all; and the professionals who were never very interested in the story to start with.  

(*) The Pope points out that in the first century, Bethlehem really was a Little Town. If it only had a population of a few hundred, then "all the babies" might only amount to five or six, not the thousands and thousands of later myths.
(**) Seven. Or possibly fourteen.

BUY MY BOOK or the Pope will spank you. 

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Looks Like a Dave Sim Hand

So, Andrew, when are you going to start blogging again?

Over the last few months of 2014 this blog was causing me more unhappiness than fun.  I found myself taking down an extended essay on Richard Dawkins and (for different reasons) a short piece about Star Wars because I wasn't able to deal with the criticism they came in for. Some of the things which happened made me feel physically unwell and unable to sleep. The "limits of good taste in comedy" piece never went up at all; even the epigram had people telling me I'd gone insane. Yeah, in retrospect, starting a piece on offensiveness by saying something incredibly offensive wasn't the cleverest idea I ever had. And of course, that was last year, when it was all political correctness and trigger warnings; and this is this year when words are only marks on paper and can't hurt anyone and no-one has any right not to be offended. I'm doing it again, aren't I? 

And there's the problem. I think I'm sometimes quite interesting and sometimes quite funny. More interesting than mumble-mumble-mumble but less interesting than Philip Sandifer, say. But in order to sometimes be quite interesting I have to give myself permission to free-associate wildly and see where I end up. If I feel I have to rein myself in I never get started. 

All of us struggle with the voices in our head saying "how dare you think anyone cares about anything you have to say?" "what are you wasting your time writing about that for when you could be writing about this?" "this thing isn't nearly as good as that other thing, I should give up if I were you". But nowadays the little voices appear in little boxes underneath your essay. The little voices saying you are brilliant would be just as problematic if you believed in them, but no-one sensible does. A musician I admire once thanked me for being honest about his record. That pleased me. 

That's one reason why I've enjoyed the new thing of podcasting so much; it's just off the cuff conversation and folk music doesn't have the bullshit associated with it that the other fandoms do. If you like my blogging, I wish you would listen to it. It's only "about" folk music to the degree that one my "Doctor Who" articles are "about" Doctor Who. Some people think that it isn't kosher to listen to a review of a gig you didn't go to because why would you be interested in gigs you didn't go to; and some people, in fact, some of the same people, think it isn't kosher to listen to a review of a gig you did go to because you already know what happened so why would you want to know what happened?

A vicar once told me that he was very pleased when someone told him that they didn't agree with his sermon. That probably meant that they had listened to it. 

Remember Natalie? Buddhist lady who wants everyone to write. Her advise is to just sit down and write. Not to be confused with Dorothea; Freudian lady who wants everyone to write. Her advise is to just sit down and write. Or indeed Julia, hippy lady who wants everyone to write, whose advise is to just sit down and write. I gave my copy of Brenda away. I think that she thought that the best thing was to just sit down and write, but in a terribly middle-class about it. Dorothea thought that if you just let yourself go, then your Right Brain would automatically say brilliant things through you. Natalie thought that if you just let yourself go, then your Wild Mind would automatically say brilliant things through you. Julia thinks that if you just let yourself go, then God will say automatically say brilliant things through you. (This works even if you don't believe in God.) 

There is something to be said for this kind of stuff. The Higher Power thing is as necessary for us writers as it is for you alcoholics; not as a theory about how evolution happened but as a way of not answering the question "Whats writing for?" "It's kind of like meditation" "It's kind of like psychoanalysis" and "It's kind of like praying" are the closest things to answers anyone is likely to come up with. 

But she did us all a lot of harm. She told us that it was all about sitting down and letting words flow out like endless rain into a paper cup, and that there was nowhere you could be that wasn't where you were meant to be. You don't become a swordsman by years of study and training; it's not skill and experience and technical knowledge that makes you a great pilot. It's all a matter of faith. Just switch off your conscious self and act on instinct.

It comes all comes back to that damn movie. Everything always comes back to that damn movie.

I was once at a church meeting, and someone said "shall we plan a structure for the Easter meditation, or shall we just allow God to lead us." Quick as a flash the Vicar (a different Vicar) said "Why, don't you think God can lead through planning and preparation?"

Who was it who said that the greatest impediment to a religious revival in England today is the fact that the word "Vicars" rhymes with "Knickers"?

Even Neil is in on the stunt: see him only the other day saying that either you can make the process of writing unnecessarily complicated or you can just sit down and write. But that's not the question the clueless newbie is asking. The clueless newbie is asking what this mysterious "just writing" thing involves. Does the Neil really just sit at his desk and produce words all day and eventually realize that he has pooed out a book? Well, okay, that might very well apply to Ocean at the End of the Lane, but Sandman and American Gods and the spider one show signs of him having taken some trouble over them. And that's all the clueless newbie wants to hear.

I heard Robin Hobb at Worldcon, a very good writer impressively uncontaminated by silly notion of Making Good Art. She has kids and animals and a busy life, but her characters are always in her mind, and in odd moments she writes down a few sentences about what happens to them next. At the end of the day, when she has time to herself, she types up that day's notes. Eventually she has the draft of a novel. I don't believe that I could ever write like that; for me it's about the sensation of typing, of getting lost in a huge swirly labyrinth of me and feeling that my fingers are much, much cleverer than I am: but it's the kind of thing the newbie wants to hear. What "Just write" and "Make Good Art" are really saying is "Oh, it's mysterious and ineffable and I can't put it into words."

I once read a book by John Braine. I think he was the man who wrote Room at the Top, which I have never read, and nrbrt intend to. He said that you write a novel in two stages: first draft; synopsis; final draft. First of all you sat down and batter out your novel making it all up as you go along; and then you read it, summarized it, fiddled around until the plot actually made sense, and then you rewrote it, and sent that second draft off to the publisher. I believe in that much more than I believe in all those cork boards with pins telling you what colour eyes the heroine has and the name of her second favorite citrus fruit. 

If I had spent more time with that and less time with The Way of Becoming a Wild Writer things might have turned out differently. The Internet didn't help very much, either. 

It's like we've discovered a new drug; and the only options we can think of are total abstinence or lotus eaters indulgence. We were the first, and as it happened, the last, generation of "TV natives". Our parents thought of TV as something of an impostor in the living room. Do you really need pictures on the radio? You surely can't be going to sit and watch TV all day? But we weren't "watching" TV, staring passively at it. It wasn't like that. TV was a place. It was the place we lived in. It was where everything happened. And even if what was happening that day wasn't anything you cared about, like the election or football or a documentary on barrel organs -- you had to go there because it was where all your imaginary friends hung out. 

That is why Jimmy Savile is so uniquely traumatic. Not just because he was a child molester; or because he was a prolific child molester; or even a famous prolific child molester. He was an absolutely central part of the place where we all lived called Television. It was never really clear what it was that he did, but he was almost certain to be on hand when you dropped by. The revelation that he was only in it for the under age sex has rather poisoned the whole thing retrospectively.

The next generation neither sit google eyed in front of Blue Peter and Songs of Praise; nor do they fear TV as a mind sucking alien. It's just a thing that delivers content. They still Watch Telly in the sense that we still Go To The Pictures, but telly isn't for them what it was for us any more than cinema is for us what it was for Grandpa. They can handle the Internet. We can't. Oh, there are a few old people who don't see the point of it and are pretty sure it will all blow over in a few weeks anyway and who write articles for the Guardian about how they survived a whole afternoon without their mobile phone. There were people in the Olden Days who had sworn terrible oaths that they would never allow a TV into their house. (My Uncle Bill refused to have a television, I believe for socialist reasons. My Aunty Laura, more sensibly, had one but refused to actually switch it on.) But most of us are more like middle-aged men in the first and as it turned out only age of TV, slumped in front of our screens with the Radio Times on one knee and the TV Times on the other knee. O-mi-gud we can sit here and watch movies and porn and music and porn and sport and porn and comics and porn all day long and never leave our desks again, and now Apple has invented a little baby one that we can take to bed like a hot water bottle and hug like a teddy bear. It's me who is intoxicated by Marvel Unlimited (I only bought my IPad for Marvel Unlimited started) like a junkie mainlining ecstasy because o-mi-god I can read every single issue of Captain America and I have to do that as quickly as possible so I can read every single issue of the Fantastic Four. The digital natives aren't excited by this stuff: why wouldn't you be able to read a 40 year old comic if that's what floats your bag. It must be one the internet somewhere?

I am not worried about little toddlers running their finger over the front page of the Guardian in the hope that it will make the pictures get bigger. I am not worried about bigger kids who think that "doing their homework" means cutting and pasting a paragraph from Wikipedia without reading it first. I am much more worried about the ones who have found an HTML version of Pong or Space Invader on their Dad's laptop. They are ancient games, not very good to begin with. World of Warcraft or Minecraft well; yes of course. A Dungeons & Dragons game that goes on forever with an infinite number of little metal figures that you don't have to paint; a box of Lego you literally never get to the bottom of. Who wouldn't be addicted to that. But it sometimes seems as if anything which keeps finger twitching and eyes vaguely focused on a glowy thing does the job just as well.

"Just write". And once we have just written, just publish. And a lot of our creative power is spent just writing on Twitter, just writing on Facebook, just writing on Usenet. Ha. I am the only person in the whole world who remembers what Usenet even was.. C.S Lewis left 2,000 pages of unpublished letters. T.S Eliot is up to volume 5, but he hasn't been dead quite as long. 

I could announce that I am giving up blogging and writing a book about, oh, the peritext of Jackson's Lord of the Rings or a novel about, oh, 1980s comprehensive schools, sexual repression, and the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons. I promise I won't although I am quite pleased to have finally found an excuse to use the word peritext. But even if I did start a Project I would be confronted by Page 1, Chapter 1 and suddenly start doodling away about a thing I read in the paper about Mary Magdalene and political correctness, and nothing would happen. 

Before you ask: I have precious little to say about Peter Capaldi, and will probably get around to saying it eventually. I think that the thing that Russell Davies turned Doctor Who into — a dating comedy about a series of women so preternaturally perfect that almighty god falls in love with them — while a perfectly good premise for a show is not the premise for a show which terribly interests me. Matt Smith was so luminously brilliant that for three years I was prepared to pretend that I hadn't noticed the problem. Take him away and what you are left with is nothing I care very much about.

"Oh, but Peter Capaldi is excellent."

Yes. I absolutely accept that Peter Capaldi is an excellent choice to play the romantic lead in this sci-fi dating comedy. I'm just not quite sure what the Cybermen were there for.

"Ah, but Doctor Who has been many different things over the years; you don't specially like the thing it is now; but you are bound to like the thing it is next, or the thing it will be after that."

Well, no; no, I don't think so. "Rose" set the template for what New Who is about so brilliantly and so perfectly that eight years later we are still watching a series of variations on a theme, Nothing short of cancellation and eighteen years off air is likely to erase that. Our early instincts were right. Billie Piper destroyed Doctor Who: not because she was terrible but because she was wonderful. 

So anyway.

Episodic collections of essays that might eventually get gathered into books are where it's at. For the time being. Probably. And since I've made the pact with the demon internet I suppose this is where they will continue to happen. Mostly. I have a few ideas about what collections I'm working towards. Hopefully that will become clear over the next day or three. But one thing I am doing, I'm afraid, is leaving the comments mostly switched off. This was the advise of the cleverest person I know, and I am very much afraid he was right.

"Yeah" he sighed "I don't know any writer who's happy. But what else is there to do?"
Natalie Goldberg - "Thunder and Lightening."

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Folk Buddies Episode 35: It's Cliched To Be Cynical At Christmas

Mulled wine; mulled cider; kittens; mince pies in the shape of Christmas trees; terrible, terrible Christmas records: these are a few of the Folkbuddies favourite things.

Caution: May contain me singing.

Listen Now



Playlist (naughty)

Playlist (nice)

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

If you purchase

The Viewer's Complete Tale
Do Balrogs Have Wings
George and Joe and Jack and Bob (and me)
Where Dawkins Went Wrong
Who Sent The Sentinels


and type in the the code FJE5  (new codes every day)

then you could have my complete works

for about 36 quid

or about 56 of your American "bucks"

or you could avail yourself of a 3 for 2 deal

you know it makes sense

I also co-created a game that will definitely make you a better person. 

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Folkbuddies Episode 33: Halloween II

The Folk Buddies continue their autumnal debate on Fairy Tales. They consider invisible child murderers who walk through walls and ghosts come back from out at sea to take their brides away from a house carpenters. There is an unprecedented outbreak of consensus when they turn their attention to contemporary bands like the Emily Portman Trio and Heg and the Wolf Chorus.

Listen Now

Download From ITunes

Listen to music

Monday, November 03, 2014

Folkbuddies Episode 32: Tonight It Is Good Halloween

Can't be doing with newfangled ITunes? Here's a new way to enjoy Bristol's most enthusiastic folk based podcast?

Also available on



Spotify Playlist

Friday, October 31, 2014

Folk Buddies Episode 32: Tonight it is Good Halloween

Andrew and Clarrie start out having a serious discussion about the nature of fairy tales and the myth of Tam Lin, and end up bickering about who is better, Sandy Denny, Maddy Prior, or some Scots guy from the olden days.

Listen to podcast

Listen to more versions of Tam Lin than strictly necessary.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Folk Buddies Episode 31

Should old acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind?
Will friendship and honour flourish on both sides the tweed?
What do westering winds and slaughtering guns do at this time of year?
Should you, under any circumstances, shove your granny off the bus?
Will Andrew and Clarrie get through a whole podcast about Scottish folk music without making a joke about deep fried Mars bars?

Listen Now


Playlist of songs

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Goldilocks Wasn't a Hipster

When I read on your blog "I have a friend who makes a point of reading stories against the grain" I thought: "Does he mean me?" If so, I'm rather flattered. Particularly the injunction that said friend would be better advised to write his own stuff than criticising other people's. Of course I'm usually wrong about thinking you're writing about me ("I'm so vain…"). But since said friend and I are obviously quite similar, I thought I might as well fill in some of the pieces about what said friend might think if he did happen to be me.

I'll have a go at describing the experience of people like myself. When I read or watch fiction (and non-fiction come to that) what I find frustrating is the apparent authorial ascription of morality, sides, values and so forth (I'm struggling for the word here). Perhaps it's my science background. When I read about atoms I don't expect the textbook to tell me which are the good atoms and which are the bad atoms. I expect to be able to make up my own mind as to whether the atoms in a bomb or a power station are good or not. (OK, maybe that makes me sound a bit too much like Doctor Manhattan.) I also bring that reading to current affairs and history and fiction. When I read about ISIS I expect to read information about, as far as we know, what has happened. Not a polemic on what must have happened given the fact that they are evil. The same goes for Conquistadors or for Supervillains.

That's why I enjoyed Watchmen. I wasn't being told that the Watchmen were goodies and someone else was a baddie. To me the story read like something, er, real. It felt like I was being given the raw data of events free of interpretation and told to make up my own mind. I didn't feel the usual necessity to explore contrary interpretations so as to overcome the bias of the telling and reach a level of objectivity. It felt like Moore was actually being objective.

In the case of Doctor Who, I find the show accessible to the extent that the Doctor's identity and morality are uncertain. We don't really know who he is and, from Genesis of the Daleks to Into the Dalek I feel like I'm being asked whether this god-like being represents the side I want to be on or not. It's tempting to be his assistant, but is it really desirable or even moral? He'd make as good a devil as a saviour. This feels far more believable to me than a Captain Kirk figure. And that's the reason that I have less desire to re-interpret Who than I do Star Trek. 

Which doesn't mean I can use this technique to enjoy everything, however bad or pulpy. It doesn't simply pad out dull fiction. For instance, I found Voyager almost un-watchably bad. I used to muse on how the premise of each episode could have been turned into a workable script while still watching it. That's a different thing altogether from creating a new interpretation. With Voyager there didn't really seem to be a work of fiction to interact with and I was idly trying to create one. With, say, Spider-Man there's a good enough story that it's worth trying to get to the bottom of it by understanding what's "really" going on. How good or bad is Spider-Man? Why isn't he motivated to make lots of money out of his situation? Why isn't he a Fascist? Why doesn't he have other spider characteristics, such as injecting acid into people and sucking out their insides? In the "real" world all this stuff would be discussed and explained. J. Jonah Jameson is a wonderful idea that goes part of the way to providing a real-feeling sense of "balance". Or rather, he would do if he weren't himself just presented as a disingenuous rogue. Superhero worlds are interesting enough to me that I'd like to be able to suspend disbelief in them. And that means filling in what seem to me like blanks created by the black-and-white internal values of the story.

I don't know how unusual I am in my "wilful misinterpretation". I don't generally think of it as wilful. Nor as misinterpretation. On the other hand I do know that I have a certain naïvety which means I often come up with readings that others tell me are wrong from beginning to end. It's one of the reasons I gave up English at school. I would have found it easy to regurgitate the teacher's interpretation of a novel. But I always found it difficult to be told that I was supposed to interpret a novel for myself and then be told my interpretation was "wrong". No-one else in the class seemed to suffer from this. My teacher seemed to be a post-modernist for whom all interpretations were valid except (apparently) for mine. "There are no wrong ideas here. Except that one, obviously." Perhaps it was a result of my book-of-the-decade poor reading background. I've noticed from all the novels I've read more recently that there are cues given by authors telling you who you're supposed to think is good or bad. They're not cues I would have spotted when I was at school.

I also have a possibly unusual habit of connecting one story with another in what I conceive of as the same setting. It's a bit like the fan thing of wanting all of Doctor Who to be consistent. I have the same reaction to, say, all cowboy stories. So once I've read a story in which Native Americans are good guys, they remain good for me the next time I read a cowboy story in which they're supposed to be bad. To me it's the same setting. Equally all modern-day bank robber stories are the same setting, whether the robbers are heroes (heist stories) or villains (superheroes etc). It's how I understand context in order to read any genre story. Without some sort of setting-transference I wouldn't be able to pick up the conventions that most stories require in order to be able to read them. Of course I may be totally unsubtle, picking up the wrong elements to take into the next story.

I wonder if this means that I'm actually incapable of authentically reading a story. I've often observed that for me everything includes its opposite. Cowboys so good at horse riding that they never fall off make me think about cowboys who do fall off. Maybe that's what the comic relief is for, to satisfy people like me that this is a realistic world? If cowboys can't fall off their horses, where's the peril? I used to love the 60s movie spoofs (Carry On etc) for explicitly raising the questions that the real movies implicitly raised in my mind. Strangely there are some writers who I find can fool me on this point. Tolkien is a good example. He manages to convince me that elves are nice without my wondering what their dirty secrets are. George Orwell famously manages to get his often absurd politics across in a highly convincing way. But these are rare experiences for me. Most fiction sets alarm bells ringing in my head. It could be that my reading is a way of preventing the cessation of suspension of disbelief. Perhaps I rationalise that good and evil are not as presented rather than finding the fictional world itself untenable.

Whatever the reason, I have to say that I really can't tell the difference between using the text for some sort of game and accessing something genuinely on the page. Take, for example, an idea I had recently for an alternative Superman plagued by self-doubt. The contrast of his virtual invincibility and his feelings of inadequacy nicely reflects emotional issues common in our own society. Now, the reason I had the idea was that Superman in some versions (Christopher Reeve, perhaps? I'm not sure) is absurdly smug. It just doesn't seem realistic to me that anyone could be that smug. All the time. I can't connect with the character. I want to access some interpretation which I can believe in. So maybe he's not smug in private. Such an idea could be the basis for a piece of fan fiction, but for me it's just a way of watching Superman. It doesn't feel wrong to me to wonder if the Man of Steel has secret private doubts, even if the text doesn't hint at it. It feels just as real as the famously invisible Captain's toilet in Star Trek. My alternative interpretations are things I imagine to be present in the universe. So in my reading of Star Wars there are people who consider the Rebel Alliance to be group of terrorist bandits. Because they are. They are also revolutionary heroes. I cannot imagine a world where you could be one without being the other.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The point of this article was that some people have said that they are not watching Doctor Who any more, and this annoyed me, and I am not sure why.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Those Who Walk Away

Q:  How do you know when someone doesn't own a television set?

A: They tell you.

Some time ago I achieved a point of serenity. Doctor Who exists. Doctor Who will carry on existing. I will carry on watching it. I will quite possibly carry on having opinions about it. But I am opting out of the continual existential crisis which Doctor Who fans seem to revel in. 

(Noises off: "Not all fans".) 

I have never been made to feel physically sick by a film or a TV programme. Well, unless you include that J.J Abrams film that we will not refer to by name. Or the first Mummy. And that Goodness Gracious Me Holy Communion skit. And things which are actually intended to make you feel sick, I suppose, in which case we are back to Dekalog. I have hardly ever been made to feel physically sick by a film or a TV programme. Online discussions about Doctor Who get overheated, is what I'm saying.

I like Star Trek: both the real series and the follow up; liked it enough that the abomination did genuinely make feel quite angry. But I have never got around to seeing Voyager. I probably will, one of these days. I liked Enterprise quite a lot, although I thought it missed a trick. (I wish it had been a prequel, back in the days when men were real Kirks and the universe was being explored for the first time, instead of a retread of the previous four iterations with slightly different scenery.)

I like Star Wars and I have watched Clone Wars right through. My friend Jon was appalled by it in much the same way I was appalled by the abomination. He thought it was children's TV characters in Star War costumes. I think that it's probably the closest we've had to what George Lucas really wanted Star Wars to be all along. Wars and adventures and galactic politics. The prequels (which, it is to be remembered, were Not That Good but Not Nearly As Bad As People Say) got hijacked by the Joseph Campbell back story and the need to seed it with Easter Eggs for hyperfans. And a slight intoxication about being almost the first person to be able to use CGI special effects, resulting in a screen that was much too full of stuff. And Jar Jar Binks. In the cartoon series, no-one is forcing Anakin to be the Monomyth or pulling his strings to get him to the big scene where he turns into Darth Vader. He just hangs around being a cynical good guy, which is what he always should have been. I admit that some episodes feel like rejected scripts for Thundercats; but quite often you you find yourself thinking "Yes; if they used more or less that script for the movie prequels, we'd all be much better disposed towards them." (This wouldn't alter my belief that the prequels were an inherently bad idea, mind you.)

I still need to watch the final season of Battlestar Galactica. I liked Serenity but never watched Firefly, or possibly vice versa — the TV series but not the movie. Saw all of the Marvel Comics movies, but never got around to SHIELD. Missed Green Lantern. Loved Buffy, Angel passed me by. Expect to give Gotham a look. Have an unopened Smallville boxed set which I feel vaguely guilty about. 

It's not that big a deal, is it. No-one can watch everything. 

Doctor Who has become a religion, and not in a good sense. It is, certainly, a story which is important to lots of people, which binds them together as a group, and around which they have created a network of rituals, anniversaries, icons, symbols and relics. But it also seems to generate schisms and factions and excommunications and list of proscribed texts. Not watching, Doctor Who is a complicated existential statement, on a level with Not Voting or Not Going To Mass. [*] Everything is a complicated existential statement nowadays. The big question before going to see a movie is not "does it look fun" but "is this director the kind of person that I would want to give my money to?" (Answer: He doesn't care.) 

You may remember that a little while ago I was taken aback by a comment that someone made on a little article I wrote some time ago on comic books. My little suggestion (which I don't think anybody had made before) was that while Jack Kirby unquestionably drew the pictures, Stan Lee certainly wrote the words, and writing words was certainly one of things which Stan Lee did really well. This was taken by the commentator as being a deeply personal attack on Jack Kirby, on artists in general, and on the commentator himself. My essay was hateful and full bile. A defense of Lee -- however limited -- is automatically percieved as a personal attack on everyone who admires Kirby's artwork.

Some years ago, when Salman Rushdie was still in immediate physical danger due to having said some arguably intemperate things in an arguably not-very-good-novel (which, I am existentially proud to say, I have read, although I have still never existentially seen Life of Brian) a moderate commentator in, I think, the Times Literary supplement said that when someone insults the Prophet, many Muslims genuinely do feel that they have personally been insulted, in the same way that you would feel personally insulted if I insulted your mother. I think that this probably true and probably understandable with respect to a religious figure, but way out of proportion when what we are talking about is a dead comic book artist, even a good one. No-one has so far been sentenced to death for taking sides in the Kirby Kontroversy.

The other day, someone made a comment about my collection of Whovian essays, The Viewer's Tale, still available from all the usual suppliers. It claimed that I was one of those embittered, hate-filled Doctor Who fans who despised the new show on general principles. I thought that the point of my book was that I had an up-and-down relationship with the new series, liking some parts quite a lot and others not so much. But for people who have over-invested in the series, to insufficiently praise any aspect of it is to irrationally hate the whole. I do not claim to be a free speech martyr of the same order of Salman Rusdie, although I like to think that my prose style is sometimes almost as impenetrable.

We're all equally to blame over this; overqualified Who bloggers more than most. We've all taken a moderately entertaining TV show and turned it into a colossal waste of time. 


An article on an Australian news website called "Junkee" argues that 

A: For most people, there comes a point, often around their 17th birthday, when Doctor Who stopped being the series they grew up with. 

B: What this really means is that the series has changed — it's different from the what it was when they were kids.  

C: But Doctor Who has always changed. Things we now take for granted — regeneration, Time Lords, UNIT, etc — were at one time radical new departures. 

D: Who commentators on the internet are unaware of this, or else they have forgotten about it. 

E:  So all negative criticism of Who is really just people moaning about change, and can therefore be disregarded.

I am not saying that there is nothing to this. I think that it is a problem that fans of Doctor Who (and the programme itself, if the truth be know) are constantly measuring New Who against the Original Series. It only took half a series for Star Trek: The Next Generation to become a thing in itself. We stopped saying that the bald guy was a substitute for Kirk and a the white faced guy was a stand-in for Spock and accepted that this was what Star Trek was from now on. Strikingly, it was only when the new series was very secure and self-confident that it started directly referencing the old one. 

So, some people have been existentially offended because the new title sequence with the watches doesn't reflect the strangeness that the original one had in 1963. Well, no, I don't suppose it does. (Nothing in 2014 feels as strange as everything felt in 1963. Doctor Who played constantly with what a strange new thing television is; but then, so did Blue Peter.) I am far from convinced that eight years into a new series and 24 years since the old one was canceled that the title sequence of the old series is the metric by which we should be addressing the new one. It's an animation which reflects something of what Doctor Who is about. I think it's a shame that the most interesting thing in the fan animation that it was based on (the camera zooming into the Doctor's pocket watch) is the one thing that Moffat's version has left out. But ho, hum. If you don't like it, they'll be another one along in a minute. 

Junkee's facts are a bit confused. He is correct to say that Doctor Who has always been making changes to the canon. But here is his example: 

"Or how about when the Second Doctor revealed he was a Time Lord, and was put on trial for stealing the TARDIS? That nugget was revealed at the end of the show’s sixth season. We think of it as something that’s always been — but imagine if Buffy had suddenly revealed at the end of season six that she was from the planet Slayos"

Well, hang on a moment. What actually happened was something like this: 

Unearthly Child: Susan says that she comes from "another world, another time":

Dead Planet: Doctor talks about "his own people" 

Sensorites: Susan describes her home world.

Meddling Monk:  Doctor meets another member of his race, who has his own TARDIS.

Massacre:  Doctor talks of going back to his own people ("but I can't")

Tenth Planet: Doctor changes his physical form

Tomb of the Cybermen:  Doctors claims to be 450 years old

War Games:  Doctor's own people revealed to be called Time Lords. 

Spearhead From Space: Doctor said to have two hearts

Time Warrior: Doctor's home planet said to be called Gallifrey

Planet of the Spiders: Doctor's Change in physical form said to be called Regeneration

So what we had was an incremental change, over a decade, from "The Doctor may be from the far future, or he may be an alien, or maybe he has lost his memory and doesn't know" to "The Doctor comes from a planet called Gallifrey." It is simply false to say that the War Games was a radical change on a par with Buffy suddenly becoming an alien. It only introduced two new pieces of information: the Doctor's people were called Time Lords, and the Doctor ran away from home because he was bored.

Oh, and it is possible to exaggerate the state of flux that the old series was in. For the last 19 years of the series, there were only 4 producers (Letts, Hinchcliffe, Williams, and Turner); although it managed to go through 5 between 1963 and 1970. But that's still only 9, not the "dozens" that Junkee alleges. 

Some of us think that some of the "changes" that are going on in Doctor Who right now are not incremental changes in the spirit of the "tradition". Some of us think that they are radical changes which are not in the spirit of what has gradually emerged over half a century.

It's like being the custodian of an ancient cathedral. The cathedral has always been growing and changing. The Dean can point you to the Anglo Saxon bit, the Medieval bit, the Victorian bit and the bit that was bombed in the war. When a storm or a vandal destroys the stained glass window representing St Barbara, patron saint of coal miners, you might very well decide to replace it with a new one (in the Modern style) representing St Isidore, patron saint of computer programmers. Otherwise what you have is not a cathedral, but a pastiche of a cathedral. But pulling down the whole north transept and replacing it with a media center is a different proposition. A lot of people might say that you have changed the cathedral beyond recognition; that it is no longer a cathedral.

I am not saying that the revelation that the Doctor became a superhero because Mary Poppins (an English teacher with no apparent interest in English) skipped back in time and gave him a pep talk when he was having a Time Sulk changes Doctor Who beyond all recognition. I don't really think I understand what that scene, or that episode, was about well enough to formulate an opinion. But merely showing us Kid Doctor appears to me to represent a diminution of the character. At various times the Doctor has been Special just because he's the one Time Lord who wonders around in space and time (no-one special in his own people, but very special from the point of view of anyone else) and Special because he is something significant in Time Lord history, the reincarnation of a legendary Super Time Lord; or (when Paul Cornell had been reading too much Neil Gaiman, Times Champion.) The idea that he is "special" because someone put their hand on his shoulders and talked motivational poster shit at him seems...less interesting. Conversely, the decision back in series 1 to blow up Gallifrey seemed to be a distinct improvement. A Doctor who is "last of the Time Lords" is arguably more interesting than one who is "One of a number of renegade Time Lords". No one is objecting to change: but some of us don't think that all change is automatically improvement.

Junkee's most egregious error is his implication that people who are critical of New Who aren't aware that there is a nostalgic element to our enjoyment of the show; that if you didn't love Doctor Who when you were a child you probably will never love it at all; that for everyone there is a period called "my Doctor Who" and "my Doctor"; that the Golden Age of Doctor Who was "about fourteen". Of course we are aware of this. Sometimes it feels as if it's the only thing we are aware of.

"Listen" annoyed me. I wasn't clever enough to spot all the problems with "Kill the Moon" that everyone else spotted. But it really is still just a TV programme. Nothing in it could possibly make me physically sick. And nothing in it could possibly be bad enough to make me stop watching in. On the other hand, if you stopped watching it for a bit, that's not a big deal either. I am not sure why you are telling me. But then again, since you have told me, I am not sure why you think I care.

But I do. Obviously. It really does feel as if you've announced that you are getting a divorce, or disfellowshipping yourself, or supporting a different football club.

Which is a problem.

[*] I resisted the temptation to make that a Bryson List, as "Not Voting, Not Going To Mass or Switching Off The Great British Bake Off."