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, 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."

Saturday, October 11, 2014

The point of those articles was that someone said that they like a certain thing even though they thought it was terrible and I thought "I wonder what they mean by that."

Friday, October 10, 2014

Goldilocks Was a Hipster

work in progres

No Hipsters. Don't be coming in hear with your hairy faces, your vegan diets, your tiny hands and your sawdust bedding. No, wait. Hamsters. No Hamsters.

7

Wil Self wrote a piece in the Spectator entitled "Why I Hate Hipsters." I hope they commission another piece called simply "Why I Hate". And then one from a hipster entitled "Why I Hate Wil Self." 

I got as far as the bit where he complained about people who play loud music in coffee shops and got lost. I think he is mainly cross about the existence of cappuccino. He uses the words "frothy coffee" and "dickhead" interchangeably. A Daily Telegraph sub-editor asserted that hipsters were now the world's most derided sub-group; which must come as quite a relief for all the pedophiles. 

Some people hate hipsters. They hate them even more than they hate immigrants. One of the things that makes them really really cross is that they drink orange juice out of jam jars, which is to say, one of the coffee shops on Stokes Croft has jam jar shaped glasses. I find that sort of thing quite fun, but I can't imagine getting cross about it. I suppose it's a class thing. When people say that they hate hipsters with their beards and their Oxfam clothes and their orange juice what they mean is that they don't like the way in which all the boarded up shops have been taken over by coffee shops and bakeries and forced the crack dealers and whores out of business.

It's gentrification, innit? According to Wikipedia, I myself am 60% Hipster.

I think that one of the things which make "Hipsters" so derided is their affected sense of ironic detachment. The hipster goes to the Cube and the Arnolfini but only in order to strike a superior pose and complain that they've gone awfully mainstream recently; the hipster gets a ticket for the first night of a new play but doesn't appreciate it because he was so busy appreciating how clever and sophisticated he was for appreciating it. When I get accused of being a hipster (a thing which has hardly ever happened) it's never because I re-read Judge Dredd comic books or have Superman radio episodes on my IPod. It's always because I once heard a concert by a Senegali guitarist.

Oooo you hipster! You only went cos you wanted to feel clever!

The hat possibly doesn't help.

8

I don't think that the person who says that he knows the books he likes are terrible or says that her preferred genre is "trash" has a low opinion of the things which they love. I think that they are simply signaling that they want to suspend criticism. They would rather you stopped thinking, please. They don't want to have, for the seventeenth time, the debate about whether one of the character's was a bit racist and whether there were enough female characters. (He was and there weren't but shut up about it already.) He thinks that if he lies on his back with his tale between his legs, no-one will start a fight with him.

And I was kind of expecting (and so were you) this lecture to end up with me saying "Silly people! Asking me to switch my brain off!  Telling me that I can only see Guardians of the Galaxy is I leave my critical faculties at the door! Saying that some things are immune from criticism! If I can write a long Freudian Essay about King Lear I can damn well write a long Freudian essay about Superman Brought To You By The Makers Of Kellogs Pep (the Super-delicious breakfast cereal.)

But instead I am going to wonder out loud: why does anyone think that this kind of thing is worth saying in the first place?

Isn't it because the hipsters and the critics and the fan fiction writers and the subversives and the social justice vigilantes and the people who should really have grown out of this nonsense years ago are always trying to erect a veil between you and the thing you are watching or reading. Who want to prevent you from, in Lewis's sense, ever receiving any work of art ever again. Who want your primary experience of Guardians of the Galaxy to be that it didn't have any major female characters in it. (Groot knows, the lack of major females characters in Guardians of the Galaxy was as obvious as the fact that Geoff Tracey was a puppet.)

I think that "I like this, but it's rubbish" is trying to safeguard a few tiny drops of actual, primary, artistic experience. In a moment, I'm going to use the word authenticity and everyone will be forced to leave the room.

I think "I like this even though it is terrible" means "don't look at the strings".

I think "I like this even though it is terrible" means "I want to watch this, not through a veil of hipster pretension, but actually itself"

I think "I like this even though it is terrible" means "I like this uncomplicatedly despite the fact that we live in age of irony"

I think "I like this even though it is terrible" means "I like this."

I think "I like this even though it is terrible" means "This is good."

I like Clone Wars even though it is terrible; I like Superman on the wireless even though it is terrible; I like 60s Marvel even though it is terrible. 

But truthfully; truthfully truthfully truthfully, I think that Doctor Who and Star Wars and Macbeth and the Ring Cycle are terrible too.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Goldilocks Was a Hipster

work in progress


6

I have a friend who makes a point of reading stories against the grain. If it's a comic book about a hero who catches thieves just like flies then he decides that the thieves are all heroic Jesse James types and the hero is a fascist oppressor. (OK: the idea that bankers and vigilantes are baddies may not be that much of a stretch.) If it's a story about heroic warriors fighting bug eyed monsters in space he recasts the bug-eyed monsters as oppressed colonial victims. I assume he thinks that Doctor Who is a racist: the Daleks are just misunderstood. Or possibly Doctor Who is just impossible to misread; which probably means it's not worth reading in the first place. 

I can see how this game might keep an intelligent brain occupied while it's owner was watching movies about Cowboys and Indians and Cops and Robbers. (Perhaps if you are bright and creative enough to rewrite the film in you shouldn't be watching the Lone Ranger in the first place.) I would guess that it renders (for example) Watchmen practically un-watchable. The text already undercuts itself so radically that it's hard to see what is gained by a clever reader willfully subverting it. "Let's read Watchmen as if Rorschache is the good guy." Well, yes, the text positively encourages you do that.  "Let's read it as if he's the bad guy." Yes, the text positively encourages you to do that as well.

On Lewis's terms, this sort of playful approach is the least "literary" imaginable. It is only interested in using the text as raw material for a game; anything that the actual author put onto the actual page is likely to disappear under the weight of subversion. Turning Star Wars (in your head) into a story in which Luke Skywalker is a religiously inspired terrorist is only one step up from school kids pretending there are dirty bits in Middlemarch. (Which is what they had do before the invention of the internet.) But can it really be that an active reading is worse than a passive one? Couldn't one equally make the case the kids comic annual that says "Look, space ships" and leaves the kid to do the actual imagining is one of the highest and most dynamic forms of literature. (It's also how good pornography works. So I'm told.)

If you are already taking the trouble to imagine that perfectly clean books are dirty ones; or of reading one novel and making up a different one in your head, then why not go the whole way, write your day-dream down on paper, and create completely new stories of your own? I suppose that's how Fanfic got started.

I don't think that a gay teenager, reading Legion of Superheroes and deciding that (I think it was) Bouncing Boy must be gay was consciously engaging in a subversive queer reading. I think that was a natural thing to do when there were no gay characters in comic books. The whole idea of Robin and Bucky was that you got to imagine that you were Captain America's or Batman's Very Special Friend. At one level, fan fiction writers are using popular fiction in the exact way it's always been used; in the exact way it's intended to be used. (Has any one ever read Harry Potter and not pretended that an Owl is about to drop a very important letter through their bedroom window? See also: Power Rings, Jaunting Belts, Light Sabers, Lenses...)

But it seems to be that when fan fiction becomes too much of a thing, the Legion and Harry Potter are basically reduced to a commodity: raw material to be chewed up and spat out and in new form, one where the baddie is the goodie and both of them are having kinky sex with each other. Which is fine. I mean, its fun, and its creative and its interactive and it doesn't do anyone any harm. I think it might be a pretty good working definition of the difference between a fan and a critic. A critic writes an essay about a book. A fan write three more chapters. (And then dresses up as the main character.)

But. There is Doctor Who fan fiction online before the closing credits of this weeks episode have been ruined by the continuity announcer. When Amazing Spider-Man 2 came to an end, I sat in the cinema for eight minutes to see if there was a post-cred. My fan-fic writing friends used those eight minutes to write a short story based on the premise that Aunt May was having an affair with Norman Osborne, and posted it to the internet before I left the cinema. They must literally sit through the actual movie thinking "What if this character were gay? What if I added a sex scene here? Could that background character be reimagined as the protagonist of the movie?" They have their reward. But this critic wonders if they can be said to have ever actually "seen" the movie they are writing about?


there's more

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Goldilocks Was a Hipster

a work in progress

5

Some people would say that the writer who can write a 15 minute script which ends with the hero getting captured in such a way that millions of children literally can't wait to find out if he escapes or not is just as clever -- maybe cleverer -- than the one who can write 4,000 pages about the minutiae of his childhood in such a way that the broadsheet newspapers salivate over it. But I don't think they really believe it. People also say "You have to be just as good an actor to play Widow Twanky as you do to play Hamlet" but I don't think they really believe it either."

I think that what everyone really believes is that there is a sort of league table of genres with Superman at the bottom, Middlemarch is at the top, and Agatha Christie in the billiard room with the lead piping.

Which means we have been making very heavy weather of a very easy question. "I like this even though it is bad" means "I like this despite its low position in the the hierarchy of genres"

Emotionally, I am pretty sure that this is what I believe. Middlemarch is "better" than Superman. One is about a whole community and a whole nation and asks us to redefine our whole definition of psychology and narrative, where the other sold breakfast cereal to American kids. I definitely feel that Middlemarch is better than "some text that some copy writer wrote on the back of a box of Kellogs Pep" although I also accept that advertising copy writing is a hard job and neither me nor Mary Evans could have done it. 

But I am not sure that I could rationally defend these feelings. What does "better" even mean?  I could just as well argue: 

Superman — Poked fun at the Klu Klux Klan when it was dangerous to do so; encouraged literally millions of kids to practice tolerance and clean living

Middlemarch — Approved of by F.R Leavis

Superman — Millions of kids ran home to school to listen to it 

Middlemarch — Literally no-one would read it if someone hadn't decided that an English Literature GCSE was needed to get certain kinds of job. 

Superman - Figure who literally everyone on earth has heard of; genuine 20th century myth. 

Dorothea Brooke - Who she?

6:

Mr C.S. Lewis proved that what defined a "good" book was that the reader had a "good" literary experience. One of the markers that a "good" literary experience was taking place was that once the reader had finished the book, he might go back and read it for a second or third time. The person consuming a romantic story in Woman's Realm (intending to throw it away once he's finished it) is doing a different kind of thing to the person sitting down to read Barnaby Rudge for the fourth time. 

I have never read Barnaby Rudge. I have no idea why that was the example which occurred to me.

I don't know if would be prepared to argue (except in order to annoy my Mother) that Doctor Who is "better" than Coronation Street in some objective way. I don't think that it necessarily has better actors, better writers, better directors or cleverer plots. I suppose I could say that it's cleverer to create an alien planet that people believe in than to create a Manchester kitchen that people believe in but on the other hand we've spent 50 years apologizing for the sheer unbelievableness of many of Doctor Who's planets. And some of his kitchens.

But there is no question that we Doctor Who fans do go back and watch our favourite episodes over and over again; but the the idea of anyone going back and listening to old episodes of the Archers is obviously silly. I think I am correct in saying that soap fans, if they miss a few installments, don't try to "catch up" by watching the parts that they missed: they simply start watching again from this weeks episode and take it for granted that the characters themselves will bring them up to speed on what has been happening while they've been away. A bit like real life. There are DVD collections of Inspector Morse, Grange Hill, and the Banana Splits but none of EastEnders or Coronation Street.

On Lewis's view, a "good" reading is one which "receives" the book — that looks at what is there, and only what is there, which appreciates what the writer is doing and tries to have the emotional reaction that the writer wanted you to have. A "bad" reading is one that "uses" the book: which takes some descriptions of sails billowing in the wind and jolly rogers being run up flagpoles as a jumping off point for a day dream that has nothing very much to do with what the author wrote. It's the difference between the person who listens to the classical concert in silence (because he wants to hear every single note down to the last triangle) and the person who is glad that the brass band has started playing because it gives him the excuse to sing along terribly loudly. On Lewis's terms, virtually all pop music is bad. The whole point of pop music is that you "use" it: you dance to it; you use it create ambiance for your party. If you go to a live concert you scream down the band. 

Well, yes. But a dance band is there to provide music for people to dance to; and it might do that well or badly. It might take just as much skill to get everyone in the disco bopping as to win a standing ovation from the cognoscenti in the Albert Hall. Lewis is right that sitting and listening carefully is different to singing along; but I am not sure where he gets "listening carefully to music is better than dancing to it" or "music that you listen carefully to is better than music that you dance to" from. Morally? Psychologically? Theologically?



continues....

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Goldilocks Was a Hipster

a work in progress



3

When someone claims to like bad books or bad movies, they are not using "bad" as a description of quality. They are using it as a label for the kind of book that they like. 

At some point in the past "soap opera" was simply a cuss word meaning "bad drama". "Space opera" was what clever science fiction fans called the stuff that they didn't read. We'd now happily say that Iain M Banks was writing "space opera" without even the slightest implication that he really ought to have been trying harder. "Pulp" used to be a literary slur directed at stuff written quickly and printed on cheap paper: it's now a perfectly neutral way of describing stories about detectives and barbarians and pirates. 

("What a shame we are no longer allowed to go out into the garden and admire all the homosexual flowers and listen to a homosexual tune on the wireless!")

People who like "bad" books might perfectly well draw a distinction between good "bad" books and bad "bad" books. And we could point to any number of bad "good" books. The possibility of bad good "bad" books and good bad "bad" books is left as an exercise for the reader.

Some people think that a long literary novel with a forty page digression about the smell of the protagonist's granny's nightie is basically a pulp novel done badly. "Silly man" they say "He understood so little about pacing that he honestly thought we wanted endless pages about a Russian psychopath wondering the streets thinking about predestination and existentialism when he obviously should have cut straight to the actual murder." (This condition, known as "subtext blindness", is more common than you'd think.) And some people think that a pulp adventure novel is what you are left with when someone tries and fails to write a serious literary psychological doorstep. "Why didn't the writer focus on the effect of shell-shock and PTSD rather than wasting our time with endless descriptions of medieval cavalry charging down orcs with lances?" they ask.

The blessed Germain Greer thought that the Spider-Man movie took a wrong turn when Peter Parker decided to use his powers to fight crime. Surely it should have been about the Kafkesque alienation of an insect person? (She also felt that Master and Commander was too focused on boats.) Paul Merton claimed that Lord of the Rings was the worst book he'd ever read because it didn't contain any laughs; which is a bit like John Cleese telling Malcolm Muggeridge that Chartres cathedral wasn't a very funny building.

Germain Greer didn't really say that the Aubrey-Maturin series was too much about boats. What she said was that setting a story in the Nelsonic navy is a choice: in this case, a choice to tell a story which is mainly about manly men being macho and hardly at all about womanly women being feminine. Only caricature feminists have ever said that Moby Dick, Hornblower and Master and Commander ought never to have been written or that they ought to have had alternate chapters about what the mostly female civilians were doing while the mostly male sailors were out annihilating aquatic mammals and flogging each other, or that they would have been improved by the addition of one of those folk song ladies who dressed up as a boy and went to sea. What feminists actually say is "There are great number of books of the first kind, and very few of the second kind. And only the first kind seem to get turned into movies. Why do you think that is?"

Fanny Price only gets to spend three chapters agonizing about what necklace to wear to a ball because there aren't any French people firing cannon balls at her head. 


4

My go-to example of loving and forgiving something which I believe to be bad is, of course, my MP3 collection of the 1940-51 Superman wireless serials. There are about a thousand 15 minute episodes and I adore every one. (Well, maybe not the alien cook who speaks in rhyme.) I understand that it went out 5 evenings a week, to be listened to by American kids when they got home from school. Episodes are simultaneously breathlessly fast paced and excruciatingly padded. The kids have got to be engaged; but the story has got to be drawn out for as long as possible. Copy boys run to Perry White's office with urgent messages; but it can take a whole episode for anyone to actually get around to reading them. "Message you say, can't you see that I'm too busy to read a fool message?" "Gee, chief, but there might be something important in it, we haven't heard from Lois for three days" "I can't nursemaid every girl reporter on my newspaper! And don't call me chief!" "What about the message?" GET ON WITH IT!

In this kind of format, it's essential that you can tell which character is which the minute they open their mouths. So practically everyone is a stereotype. Henchmen speak in that "de spring is sprung de grass is riz" Brooklyn accent. Policemen begin sentences with "to be sure, to be sure". Cab drivers sound like de black fella. Butler's are English cockneys. Jimmy Olsen says "swell" a lot. On one occassion the villain leaves a white rose at the scene of the crime and Clark Kent questions the florist. Sure enough, he sounds English and effeminate.

This tendency to very broadly drawn characters is part of the show's texture; part of the aesthetic; part of why I adore it. It wouldn't be improved by telling me about the florist's background; or by casting against type and making him a big tough guy with tattoos. But the line between broadly drawn characters; stereotypes; and out-and-out racism can be quite a wiggly one. There's a 1942 episode in which Clark switches two prisoners and remarks. "All Japs look much the same, after all." My attitude to the series might be rather different if most of the wartime episodes were not lost to posterity.  

But then again. In a pulp war story, all the enemy have to pretty uncomplicatedly baddies. That's part of what makes it a pulp war story. If you stop the action to wonder who the Jerry you just shot was, and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart; or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home, and if he would really rather have stayed there in peace, well, you might possibly have a better story, but you'd have a much worse pulp war story. 

So perhaps the person who says "I like this even though it is rubbish" is not talking about aesthetics or genre. Perhaps he is admitting that his pulp books are bad because they are, or sometimes are racist -- or sexist, or morally simplistic. He's not talking about literary quality, but morals. He is much more like someone saying  "I must admit that I enjoy looking at pornography, even though I know I ought not to" than someone saying "I must admit that I like this painting, even though the lady's head is out of proportion and her leg twists round in a direction it couldn't actually go."

continues in this vein for pages

Monday, October 06, 2014

Goldilocks Was a Hipster

A work in progress



dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
1


Do you remember Thunderbirds? 

That is a rhetorical question. Of course you remember Thunderbirds. 

Did you like Thunderbirds?

That is also a rhetorical question. Of course you liked Thunderbirds. 

Did you like Thunderbirds even though you could see the strings? 

Did you like Thunderbirds because you could  see the strings? 

Are you pretty sure that most of the time you couldn't actually see the strings?

Or did you just wish everyone would shut up about the bloody strings?

I mean, it would be perfectly reasonable to regard the strings as an insuperable barrier to enjoying Gerry Anderson. This is an action adventure series where the characters are obviously dolls and where no-one has gone to much trouble to conceal the fact that they are dolls, so remind me, why is anyone watching this thing to start with? 

It would be also be perfectly reasonable to watch it "ironically": to watch it because you can see the strings, because it is funny that you can see the strings, to endlessly replay sequences where the strings are see-able, and to pat yourself on the back for being so much cleverer than those silly people in the 1970s who couldn't have spotted a string if it had leapt out and bit them on the nose. 

And it would be understandable if a Gerry Anderson fan got all defensive and said that actually you can't see the strings most of the time and televisions were much smaller in those days and lots of people were watching in black and white and they were meant for children who just accept this sort of thing for what it is and just shut up about the strings, okay? 

It's a while since I last watched Thunderbirds. If I recall correctly, for the first ten minutes the strings are intrusive, but you rapidly slip into a state of mind where you are perfectly aware that what you are watching are puppets but somehow you bracket off the puppetyness and accept it as an exciting science fictiony James Bondy disaster movie. At which point the one with the aliens in the pyramids is quite claustrophobic and the one on the bridge is quite tense and Lady Penelope is always a hoot. 

Yes: of course they are puppets. Any fool can see that. Why did you think it was even worth mentioning? 

See also: Clone Wars.

2


People sometimes say that they like a particular book or movie or television programme "even though it is terrible". 

Sometimes they sat it in a self deprecating way. "Ha-ha silly me I love trashy horror novels!" 

Sometimes they put it in a defensive way "I love the Twilight series and yes I know it's rubbish." 

And sometimes they are positively aggressive: "What I like BEST is to find some RUBBISH to read and the BIGGER LOAD OF RUBBISH it is the BETTER I'll like it." 

Can you like something and consider it bad? I would have thought that "Works of art I like" and "Works of art I think are good" are pretty much synonymous. Wasn't it Plato who said that no-one considers themselves to be evil, apart from Galactus?

Everyone agrees that Moby Dick is the greatest novel ever written — certainly the greatest long American novel about whale hunting. Everyone also agrees that it is is long, uneven, repetitive, digressive, pretentious and repetitive. But no-one can quite agree what the editor should have done to improve it. The minute you say "Well, he could have ditched the 40 page sermon about Jonah for a start" someone else well say "But that's my favorite chapter."

Moby Dick is seriously flawed. But then, everything is seriously flawed. (I think Theodore Sturgeon said that.) If you are only going to read flawless books, your reading list is going to be quite short.

See also: Cerebus.

Some people do seem to read with their eyes ever vigilante for the chink in the armour that will reveal that this is not the Perfect Book and therefore does not need to be read. "Well, I started reading this book, but on on page 3 the elephant hunter used a rifle that didn't go into production until 1898 even though the book is set in 1897 so naturally I didn't read any further." "On page 54, the writer used a word I didn't know so naturally I tossed the book to one side." I forget who it was who stopped reading Lord of the Rings after Elrond said "This is the doom we must deem".  

F.R. Leavis used this method to reduce his reading list to four English novelists. You have limited time on this earth; and most great novels require several readings, so why waste your time on any book except the great ones? 

C.S.Lewis, on the other hand, felt that the correct approach to a study of sixteenth century English literature (excluding drama) was to read every surviving scrap of literature from the sixteenth century plowing through pages and pages of "drab" writing in order to track down the occasional good bit. I don't suppose Lewis would have said that he liked 16th century literature "even though it's terrible". (He would probably have said that he was a scholar, and "liking" and "not liking" were neither here nor there.)

Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James and Joseph Conrad. Of the four dead white males two were female although one of them had a boy's name. When asked if there was anything special he wanted for his fiftieth birthday, Lewis replied "I suppose the head of F.R Leavis on a platter would be rather too expensive?" 

Continues indefinitely....

Monday, September 08, 2014

What Has Gone Before

Many people think that "political correctness" means "politeness" or "inclusive language" or "avoiding words that hurt people's feelings". It follows that "political correctness gone mad" means "taking that to a crazy extreme, objecting to language that no one has ever objected to"; but that people who complain about "political correctness gone mad" are often rude people who think they should be able to say bad words if they fucking well want to. If Mrs Whitehouse came back to earth and tried to stop the television saying bum and bloody and ding-a-a-ling, the news people would almost certainly accuse her of being politically correct. And also mad, which she very probably was.

However, "political correctness" is also in use to describe a conspiracy theory in which the world is secretly run by a Marxist cabal based in Frankfurt. "Political Correctness" -- and 20th century literary theory, and human rights legislation, and health and safety at work rules, and, very especially and, the idea of man made climate change -- were created by this Marxist clique in order to destroy civilization. What they have in common is that they rationalize unreasonable behavior, and make people do obviously bad things in the name of the greater good. It is obvious that Christian civilization is based upon citizens having cars, refrigerators, and central heating, and air conditioning, so the Marxists have invented the fiction of "global warming" -- which no reasonable person could believe in, and for which there is not a shred of scientific evidence -- in order to make people feel bad about owning these things. PC is an overarching term for the whole plot: believers very often say that it is Political Correctness that says that children have to wear crash helmets to play conkers, or that there is a modern Politically Correct notion that we should reduce carbon emissions. (*)

Obviously, not everyone who has ever used the word "Political Correctness" believes in the conspiracy theory. (I myself have occasionally said things like "some of the older children's books are not very PC"). But believers in the conspiracy theory talk a lot about Political Correctness. And lots of people do believe in the conspiracy. The Daily Mail went so far as to run a headline "How the BBC fell victim to a Marxist plot to destroy civilization". I took this as rather strong evidence that the Daily Mail believed that there was a Marxist plot to destroy western civilization and that the BBC had fallen victim to it, although some people thought that I was reading a bit too much into it.

So. It is possible that when people say that something called "Political Correctness" ("the evil doctrine of Political Correctness" according to Norman Tebbit) was to blame for the Rotheram child abuse scandal, they are talking about "Political Correctness" in the sense of "not saying stuff that hurts other people's feelings, being careful about what words you use". I suppose that what they have in mind is that "you have to be so careful about what language you use about race that it's really hard to talk about race at all; so when there actually is a racial component in some specific crime; it's easier not to talk about it at all and if you can't talk about it, well, obviously, you don't see it."

It is also very possible that Flying Rodent (**) is correct and that after a shocking cock up where serious child abuse was taking place under the police's noses, someone, by way of a damage limitation exercise, said "I know! If we pretend that we can't do anything about dark skinned people molesting little kids because Political Correctness Gone Mad, the papers will swallow it because they love that kind of thing." I can just about believe that PC Copper honestly thought that dark skinned people were free to molest kids if they really wanted to because it was part of their culture and Political Correctness meant that the law couldn't touch them. I don't believe that the entire police hierarchy believed that. (It's also hard to believe that any officer would independently come up with the idea  think that "you have to let them rape kids" followed naturally from "you aren't allowed to call them Pakis" unless he had already been told that "Political Correctness" and "Human Rights" were basically the same thing.)

But I think that it is also very likely that when people say that the child abuse scandal was the result of "Political Correctness" they mean that a shadowy group of Marxists was secretly controlling the police, and forcing them to act against "Common Sense" as part of an active plot to bring down Civilization and replace it with a communist superstate. Tebbit definitely thinks that there was a plot to establish an enclave in England that functioned under Pakistani law, as if that followed on naturally from "please use inclusive language".

It seems to me that a lot of these claims -- that Isis or Rotheram or the Girl Guide Oath are "caused" by Political Correctness -- read like nonsense if "Political Correctness" means "the belief that it is nicer to say 'black person' rather than 'n----r'". But they make a kind of sense if you believe that Political Correctness and Common Sense are two dueling ideologies, the one committed to destroying "civilization" and the the other committed to preserving it.

But maybe they are simply nonsense.



(*) I grant that Political Correctness could in those contexts mean simply "Prevailing Orthodoxy."

(**) http://flyingrodent.blogspot.co.uk/2014/09/chicken.html Note that the New York Times essay that Mr Rodent links to is rather more nuanced than he give it credit for

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Fluffy Bunnies

The Rabbits of Watership Down are rabbits. They are as rabbitty as Richard Adams can make them. Everything they do is based on real rabbit behavior. However, Mr Adams asks us to imagine -- well, not imagine, but take for granted as a scholarly fact -- that these rabbits have human intelligence, culture, language, even religion. Well no, not these rabbits -- rabbits in general, and foxes, and sea gulls. How this works we can’t question for a moment. (Could a leoporine mouth even form the syllables El-ahrairah? Is a rabbit brain big enough to develop that kind of consciousness?) It’s funny, actually, how easily our mind accepts this kind of thing. It gets you into philosophical hot water if you aren’t incredibly careful. If a rabbit or a hamster had human consciousness, then obviously vivesection would be wrong. But they don't, so it's not a good argument. I think Richard Adams develops this fallacy at some length in his later books.

Peter Rabbit is also a rabbit, possibly with a fly upon his nose. And the anthropomorphicisation has gone a lot further than it has in Watership Down. He wears clothes. His daddy smokes a pipe, forsooth. But he also lives in a hole, and steals cabbages from a farmer's garden, and if I remember correctly there is an implication that the farmer has sometimes made his relatives into pies. If Watership Down asks us to imagine a world in which rabbits have human minds, the Peter Rabbit books asks us to imagine a world in which, instead of Rabbits, there are tiny, Rabbit shaped people.

Again, we don’t have any trouble getting our heads around this weird-ass parallel universe. We don’t say for goodness sake they have culture and language and you are going to put them in a pie what kind of weirdo are you? We just take it for granted that that's a normal way of writing about rabbits.

The Hare in Aesops Fable is even less animal like than either Hazel and Fiver or Peter Rabbit.  It's not really even an animal at all. I mean, we take it for granted that tortoises and hares can communicate, and place bets, and that owls can adjudicate races, and all the birds and beasts can come and cheer them on their way. But I suppose he's not really a hare because the Hare and the Tortoise isn't really a story. It's just a thought experiment or a proverb, with the Hare meaning “fast thing” and the tortoise meaning “slow thing.”. You could do it just as well with a motorbike and a Virgin train.  

Now, the only rabbity thing about Bugs Bunny is his carrot, and that carrot is pretty much only there to be a place holder for a cigar so Bugs can be a sort of cartoon version of  Groucho Marx. He isn’t even really rabbit shaped, any more than one of those child's drawings of a cat looks anything like a cat. But we still sort of accept that he's a bunny because that's what rabbits look like in cartoons. In the days when Walt Disney still made cartoons, kids used to ask “What Kind of An Animal Is Goofy?” The answer is, well, he isn’t really any kind of animal, and it wouldn’t make any difference if he was. (I suppose he's a country bumpkin?) I think there used to be a rabbit in the Disney Mythos, but it was retconned out during the Crisis. There is a famous example of false memory syndrome in which subjects are persuaded to believe that they met Bugs Bunny at Disneyland, even though Bugs Bunny isn’t owned by Disney, or wasn’t then. But cartoons are probably a different kind of thing to prose narratives and fables and anyway, I have run out of rabbits.

Bears. Paddington Bear. Except that again, he really isn't. He wears clothes, talks English and although he causes chaos wherever he goes, its the sort of chaos that a very naughty child would cause, not the sort of chaos that would occur if a large South American carnivore got loose on and English Railway station. The only bear like thing about him is that he likes marmalade, which comes in jars, and is spread on toast, like honey, which is proverbially likes by bears, at least since Pooh.

Does anyone but me remember Mary Plain? She was a sort of proto-Paddington, a two legged bear who could talk English living in a suburban home. She did mostly did human things -- entered fancy dress competitions, joined the boy scouts, and, after the series had jumped the entirely non anthropomorphic shark, solved a mystery and get shipwrecked on a desert island populated by natives that would, if it were reprinted today, cause the PC Brigade to cancel all leave.

Now Yogi Bear, he's more like Peter Rabbit. I can see in what way he's a bear. He wears clothes and talks and can interact with the human world but he lives on a nature reserve, and steals goodies from visitors picnics. He's a human being -- Yogi Naughty Petty Thief Man -- who stands in the same relationship to the Park Ranger on the one paw and the tourists on the other (in one specific respect) as an actual bear would. (On my one visit to an American national park I was warned to hang any food out of reach of the bears or put it in a metal crate, so evidently it's a thing.) The same goes for Tom and Jerry. They are really only a cat and a mouse in so far as one does the chasing and the other does the running away. 

The least bear like of all is Rupert the Bear (everyone sing his name). He is, basically, not a bear. He isn’t even a teddy bear. He is twelve year old boy with a bear’s head; whose friends are twelve year old children with elephants heads and badgers heads. I don’t recall that he even particularly likes honey. Cartoonist Alfred Bestall said that you couldn't ever send Rupert to the seaside, because putting him in a bathing costume would force you to decide to he was furry all over. 

I never quite understood why clever men like C.S Lewis and A.A Milne and Pink Floyd were quite so keen on WInd in the Willows. I’m not sure I ever got to the end of it. I think Lewis was right about why Mr Toad had to be a toad rather than and English country gentleman, even though he’s obviously an English country gentleman and not a toad. If he was a human, he would have to have servants and employees and we’d have to at least have a hint about where his money came from. As long as he’s an animal, we can sort of skate over that. (Lewis thinks he’s both a child and an adult: a child in that food sort of just turns up and no-one asks where it came from; and adult in that he gets to choose what he wants to do and there’s no-one to tell him off.) And the shape of a toad’s face is a sort of fixed caricature of a certain kind of human. 

I don’t think that there is any reason to suppose that Owls are wise, particularly; I don’t even know if they are cleverer than other birds of prey. But they are always wise in stories because the big eyes look like we imagine a wise human ought to look. So stories about animal-shaped humans lend themselves to a kind of fable where everyone has a more or less fixed personality and it can’t really develop. (A.A Milne said that you only had to look at the toy pig and the toy donkey and the toy tiger to see their personalities -- timid and gloomy and bouncy.)

It is perfectly true that if a child behaved like Paddington Bear, he would get punished or injured or given pills. (If an adult behaved that way, he’d be arrested or put in a home.) This is not to say that you can’t do stories about naughty or accident prone children in a realistic setting, but they either have to get some sort of comeuppance, like Dennis the Menace, or they have to be devious enough to avoid it, like Just William, which introduces an element of cynicism which isn’t funny in quite the same way. But I don’t suppose that Michael Bond said to himself that he wanted to write a story about the kind of child who floods the bathroom the first time he needs a wash, but then thought it wouldn’t be that funny if an actual child did that kind of thing and then thought I know I’ll make him a bear instead. I think he started to tell a story about a bear, and the rest followed naturally. And that's what's so odd. Once we start to tell stories about bears or rabbits it somehow becomes natural that they wear duffle coats and tam o shanters and like honey and marmalade. We can’t look at an animal without anthropomorphising it.

Doesn't the trailer for the Paddington movie look appalling? Like Winnie-the-Pooh reimagined by Peter Jackson.

Anyway, I hope this clears up all the confusion. I was as surprised as anybody to find out that Hello Kitty had a personality. I assumed it was just something you stamped on notepads and teeshirts. But I don't have a problem with the recent bombshell that she's not a cat. Of course it isn’t. Anymore than Bugs Bunny is a Rabbit or Pooh is a bear.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

I wrote an article. About funnybooks. Here it is: Are the "words" printed in a "comic book" actually particularly "important." I am still quite pleased with it, actually.

Two years later a man on the internet wrote a reply. 

Here's the very note. This is what he wrote. 

God almighty, this has to be the most misguided, wrong-headed, HATE-FILLED pile of nonsense I've seen online in months. Not only is it an insult to Jack Kirby, it'a slso an insult to Don Mcgregor. That's knocking TWO of the BEST writers to have worked for Marvel!!

One thing a lot of people seem completely unaware of. Jack Kirby ALWAYS wrote his own stories, from the beginning. Since the 1930s. It's only in the 1960s that he was prevented by a no-talent hack "editor" (and I used that word loosely) from writing his own dialogue.

Lee's dialogue on Kirby's stories is often like taking a beautiful, just-constructed building, and DEFACING it with spray-painted graphitti.

And you know what? When it comes to "humor", guys like Al Hartley & Ernie Hart were FUNNIER. And SO was Jack Kirby.

I was going to make a point about this, but I think I will sit in a dark room and listen to folk music instead.