Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Did Jesus Have a Cat?

Last Christmas, I went to see the pantomime of Dick Whittington and His Cat at the Bristol Hippodrome. And very funny it was too: I even found myself warming to Pudsy the Dancing Dog. Panto is almost the only place you still get vaudevillian silliness in its purest form. 

"I'd like to buy a goldfish, please."
"Certainly Sir. Would you like an aquarium?"
"I don't care what star sign he is."

After the show, one of the children I was with asked me if Dick Whittington was a real person. And do you know, in best Thought For The Day style, that made me stop and think.

Was Dick Whittington a real person? It depends what you mean by "real".

And "person". And "was". 

I suppose people from Foreign do not know the story of Dick Whittington? They probably don't know what a pantomime is, either, but we're not going through that all over again. It's a rags to riches story. A poor boy walks all the way to London with only his cat for company because he thinks the streets are literally paved with gold. When this turns out not to be true, he takes a job in Mr Fitzwarren's shop and falls in love with his daughter, Alice. Alas! He is wrongly accused of stealing, beaten by the cook, and runs away. But as he sits down on Highgate milestone for a rest, he seems to hear Bow Bell chiming "Turn Again Whittington / Thou worthy citizen / Turn again Whittington / Lord Mayor of London." He runs back to the shop, and ends up traveling with the Fitzwarrens on a voyage to Morocco. The Emperor's palace is overrun by rats, which Dick's pet cat kills. The Emperor has never seen a cat before, and buys the animal for a vast sum of money. Fortune made; happily ever after. A few years later he does indeed become mayor.  

As a matter of fact, there was a Mayor of London named Richard Whittington  at the turn of the fifteenth century. He entirely fails to appear in any of Shakespeare's history plays, even though he had dealings with Richard II, both parts of Henry IV, and Henry V. (A different Mayor of London appears in Richard III, disappointingly.) And he did marry someone called Alice Fitzwarren. Londoners can point out the very milestone where he stopped for a breather; but you couldn't possibly hear Bow Bell from there. And you couldn't walk from the City of London to Highgate and back in one night. And the real Whittington was never that poor, although he was a second son and sent to London to learn a trade.

Was Dick Whittington a real person? Yes. 

Is the story of Dick Wittington true? Well, so far as we know, he was never thrashed by a cook, never traveled to Morocco, and never did a song and dance routine with the winner of Britain's Got Talent. 

But if, in two thousand years time, the fairy tale version of Dick Whittington and his cat survived, it would tell any surviving humans a surprising amount about late medieval London. It would tell them that there was such an office as Mayor, that one such Mayor was called Whittington that his wife was called Alice, that there was a church called Bow, that churches had chiming clocks, that there were such things as milestones; that people kept cats as pets. 

On the other hand, if you were working from the Pantomime and had nothing else to go on, the main thing you would take away was that there were good fairies and wicked witches in London. Or that everyone in London believed that there were. Or else you would very reasonably say that since the story was full of obvious nonsense about good fairies and talking bells, the whole idea that there was ever such a beast as a "cat" needs to be taken with a pretty huge pinch of salt.

Did Richard Whittington even own a cat? There is no historical evidence that he did. On the other hand, there is no special reason to suppose that he didn't. People in fifteenth century England sometimes did. And isn't the existence of the fairy tale a pretty massive piece of evidence in it's own right? Why would anyone attach a version of the Puss in Boots story to the Mayor unless "everyone knew" he was a cat person? But by the same argument, other things in the story could be true. Cooks were sometimes cruel to kitchen-lads. People did sometimes go on trading voyages.

But this doesn't really help. My Ladybird book had a contemporary painting of the adult Whittington on the last page. But "Dick Whittington" is the young man with the cat; his possessions on a stick on his back, sitting on Highgate Hill listening to the bells chiming. A scene they recreated rather charmingly in the panto. And that Whittington is "only a story". 

But everyone knows the story; and no-one knows the Mayor. The Mayor has become a story; the story is what is left of the Mayor. And stories are much more real than real life.

Make good art. Follow your bliss. Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream.

If I ask "Was Robin Hood a real person?" I am not asking "Were there archers?" If I ask "Was Davey Crockett a real person?" I am not asking "Were their backwoodsmen?" A philosopher could doubtless find ways of making the question harder. If one of the defining feature of a Davey Crockett is that he kilt him a b'ar when he was only three and if that is plainly impossible, then there are no such things as Davey Crocketts. And certainly, once you have defined George Washington as Cherry Tree Choppy Down Guy, then you could reasonably say that "George Washington" never existed.

If the adventures of Errol Flynn or Richard Greene are not based on the doings of any known outlaw; and if no-one has ever tracked down an outlaw called Robert or Robin anywhere near Sherwood or Huntingdon or Locksley at anything like the correct time, then I think we are allowed to say "No; Robin Hood did not really exist: he's only a story." 

On the other hand, if we were to find that there really was an American soldier whose career — backwoods man; Indian fighter; Senator; Alamo — broadly matches the career of the fellow in the ballad, then I think we would say "Yes: Davey Crockett really existed. He's a historical character." Even if he never actually wore one of those hats.


Glastonbury 2015

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Please Sir, Can I Have A Hugo Award?

What religion is the pope?

Put another way, what metaphysical creed does the pontiff subscribe to? What are the theological underpinnings of Jorge Mario Bergoglio's world view; what organized collection of beliefs and cultural systems does the Bishop of Rome use in order to relate humanity to a higher order of existence? What symbol-set does the Holy Father use to explain the origins and meaning of life?

Hold onto your hats, because I am about to say something that may shock you. 

The Pope is a Catholic. 

But obviously, you can't say that sort of thing nowadays. "The Pope is a Catholic." The self-appointed guardians of morality; the people who elected themselves to safeguard our ethical well-being — who like the President, want to repeal the Second Amendment and make marijuana compulsory — won't let you. The Pope is a Catholic. The Pope is a Catholic. When was the last time you heard someone come right out and say it? 

But when the message falls on your ears even for the very first time; if thou art truly a being of humanity and not a professor of humanities, thou wilt discern the truth in thy most very heart of hearts; like the joyous relief  thou feelest when thou divesteth thyself of thine diaphanous undergarments to facilitate thine all-too-human need to defecate: the Pope is Catholic. The Pope is Catholic. Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh mine dearest reader, how couldst it ever have been otherwise?

And what of caniform mammals of the genus ursidae? What do they do when they experience that all-too-human (or as I must eftsoons say, an all-too-ursoid) need to relieve themselves? Do they demurely turn the lock to "engaged" in a small "water closet" cubical; or trudge down the garden path to a neat, earthy outhouse; do they perchance call for the necessary women and squat coyly over a ceramic chamber-pot; have they mayhap been trained to use a strategically positioned tray replete with what shall here be referred to only as kitty-litter; or does weather permitting a human companion walk a step or two behind them gathering their stool with a pooper-scooper and placing it in a bin, thoughtfully provided by the post-modernistic anarchist socialist liberal marxist municipal authority (that fully supports the murder of countless thousands of helpless babies every week.)

No; nay; never; it shall not, nay, it will, and if I might be permitted to say so against the riding tide of relativism which denies the whole concept of truth, it cannot be so.

For most truly is it it said that bears shit in the woods. 

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

By the way -- I thought I ought to point out that little small postings (like this one for example) don't get charged for on Patreon. My working assumption that 1500 words plus is a "proper essay" but anything less is an added extra or note. Sorry if that wasn't clear, and hope it wasn't holding anyone back from throwing a dollar in the tip jar....


It is all the more remarkable that A. A. Milne, so great an admirer of this excellent book [The Wind in the Willows] should have prefaced to his dramatized version a "whimsical" opening in which a child is seen telephoning with a daffodil. Or perhaps it is not very remarkable, for a perceptive admirer (as distinct from a great admirer) of the book would never have attempted to dramatize it. 

Sometime in the 1990s I was at a party. A friend was passing round pieces of gourmet chocolate. You know the kind of thing, 85% cocoa and a dash of sea salt.

"That looks lovely" said another guest "But could I have a piece of milk chocolate instead? You see, I am trying to reduce my caffeine intake."

"Oh, is the dark chocolate stronger?" asked my host.
"No" I chipped in. "Not stronger. Quicker. Easier. More seductive."

I know for a fact this happened in the 90s, because opportunities like that only come once in a decade. At some point in the 80s I had witnessed someone throwing a piece of cooked potato across a take-away fried fish emporium, such that it struck a lady customer, who was I recall wearing rather a low cut dress, just above breast. 

"Madam" I had the opportunity to say "You have a chip on your shoulder." 

And it is one of the great disappointments of my life that when, in or about 2005, staying in a village where some cottager kept poultry in his garden, I observed a chicken attempting to cross the road there was no-one was in ear-shot when I wondered out loud about her motivation.

More pertinently, perhaps, professional joke-teller Eddie Izzard once found himself wondering on stage about all the things which are never mentioned in science fiction movies. There must, surely, be cleaners and catering staff on board the Death Star. A less funny man would have concluded that Luke Skywalker was a war criminal because he personally caused the death of all those non-player characters. A more psychotic man might have concluded that if it was okay for Luke Skywalker to kill imperial catering staff, then it must logically be okay for him to, say,  put a bomb in skyscraper. But Eddie Izzard proceeded to riff about Darth Vader ordering lunch. Izzard's routine is funny because of the clash of registers. Vader carries on talking like a space opera villain, and everyone else talks as if they're in a staff canteen. ("Why, with all the power of the Death Star, do we not have a tray that is dry?")

Shadows of the Empire (one of the few extended universe novels I have tackled) seemed to do basically the same joke without noticing that it was funny. It was mainly about plumbing. We keep being told that water is being pumped into reptilian gangster Prince Xizor's bath, at great expense. When Luke arrives at Ben's hovel to construct a lightsaber, the first thing he does is takes a shower. I don't think that mysterious gurus living alone on desert planets have modern, or indeed futuristic, sanitary equipment in their hovels. I think they probably roll naked in the sand once a year, or go down to the creek to do their necessaries.  Or maybe there is a very macho bath-house in Mos Eisley? The truth is Obi-Wan doesn't ever need a shower. He's an archetype, or at any rate an action figure. He never gets smelly. It would be like asking if Aslan ever goes to the dentist. And then our heroes gain access to the baddies base via the sewerage system. Via the sewerage system. Big rubbish dumps with hideous one eyed squid monsters hiding at the bottom I can cope with. But sewers. Implying that archetypes and action figures sometimes need a poo? 

Do you not understand how this stuff works?


Star Wars characters doing things which are out of genre. Star Wars characters placed alongside people from a different genre. Lines from Star Wars being quoted in inappropriate contexts. Imagine 60 pages of that, with, admittedly, rather charming illustrations, and you have Darth Vader and Son and it's sequel Vader's Little Princess. 

You can read both of them in the time it took you to get to this point in my essay. They are very popular. I don't get them at all.

The "idea" behind the books is that the Darth Vader of the films is also playing Dad to Luke Skywalker — which is to say, to a little boy who looks a bit like a pint-sized Luke Skywalker. (Obviously there is no point of departure in the movies at which Vader could have been Dad to Luke. As soon as he knows he exists he wants to kill him.) The sequel starts out as if it is going to do all the same jokes again only with a little girl who looks a bit like a pint-sized Princess Leia, but realizes that's scraping things a bit, and ages her into a teenager half way through. Not that Leia was much more than a teenager.

So we have basically three "jokes".
1: Darth Vader acts like a Dad and Luke or Leia act like kids. e.g Princess Leia is brushing her teeth, and Darth Vader is saying "Make sure you get the backs."

2: Darth Vader acts like Darth Vader, while Luke or Leia behave like kids. e.g Vader is about to Force strangle an admiral, while Leia tugs on his trouser leg saying "I love you, Daddy."

3: Darth Vader acts like a Dad and Luke or Leia act like kids but Vader says a famous Vader line out of context. e.g Luke is wining "you said we could go to Tosche station after nap!" and Vader responds "I am altering the deal. Pray I don't alter it any further."

4: Something happens which either is, or strongly resembles, a scene out of one of the movies, but Darth Vader acts like a Dad. e.g Luke is hanging from the bridge thing in Cloud City and Vader says "Come down from there, it's dangerous." 

Literally, that's the whole book. I don't know if it is intrinsically funny to take an ordinary American father and son and re-skin them as an archetypal Father and Son. I recall that someone did something along the same lines with God and Jesus once. I also recall that that wasn't particularly funny. I suppose it is interesting that the main thing that a non-geek audience can be expected to know about Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker is that the one is the other's father. Or else that there is no limit to what a geek audience will spend money on. A lot of Star Wars lore is taken for granted and worn lightly — when Luke goes to the zoo, we see a bantha, a dewback, a rancor and the salaac in cages, and there's a cute scene in a toyshop with Luke surrounded by toys in classic era Star Wars toy packaging. 

And in fairness, this one did very nearly make me laugh:
That actual joke was very nearly in Phantom Menace. 

A few years ago, there was a fad for Winnie-the-Pooh t-shirts and fashion items, with the various characters reduced to the minimum possible number of pencil lines. It struck me as an interesting take on the idea of ideas and memes. A real little boy has a real toy; a proper artist draws a realistic picture of that toy in a book. A cartoon artist takes the proper artists drawing, simplifies it, and colours it in. Years later, another artist takes the cartoon, reduces it to the simplest number of lines possible, and put it on a t-shirt, and it's still instantly recognizable. But no longer really a picture of anything: "Winnie-the-Pooh" is just an image, detached from Disney and Shepard and certainly from any toy actually owned by C.R Milne. So is Hello Kitty and Mickey Mouse. 

Is there a process in play where "Darth Vader" has stopped being a character in a movie and becomes simply a shape?

Jedi Academy, by the same author, I did actually find rather sweet. Roan Novachez from Tatooine wants to go to Space Pilot Academy, but he's turned down and is afraid he'll have to go to agricultural school instead. But then he gets a letter from Yoda inviting him to go to
HogwartsJedi Academy. At first, he finds it hard to cope (everyone else having started when they were little kids: this book cares quite a lot about continuity) but by playing to his strengths and making friends, he stops dreaming of being a pilot and decides he wants to be a Jedi. 

There is a heartwarming twist at the end. (Actually, honestly quite heartwarming.)

Jedi Academy turns out to be very much like an American middle-school, with a school newspaper and much rivalry about who should be president of student council. Lightsaber fencing competitions are treated a lot like baseball tournaments, or more precisely, quidditch. The whole thing is presented as Roan's diary; partly hand-written, partly comic strip, with pages from the student newspaper, Roan's report-cards and so on. (Unlike Greg Heffley, Roan can actually draw quite well, which spoils the joke. He contributes a comic strip called Ewok Pilot to the student newspaper. It's about an Ewok who is a pilot.)

The jokes are structurally the same as in Darth Vader and Son. Ordinary things happen but are given a Star Warsy twist; Star Warsy things happen but are treated as if they are quite ordinary. Roan records funny things his various teachers have said. In the case of Kitmum, the Wookie PE teacher, these include "Rwoaar!" and "Rawarr!" There is a diagram of a lightsaber, with a space for 4 AA batteries ("remember to put them in the right way"). 

At first, I thought that Yoda was going to be played straight, but by the end he's being sent up mercilessly. ("Hunger is a path to the dark side. Hunger leads to being cranky. Being cranky leads to suffering. Eat a proper breakfast you should.")

There has been a spate of middle-school observational comedy books, mostly in journal format. Children can't get enough of them, but they have zero cross-over appeal. Adults can relate to old-fashioned boarding school stories, with or without the addition of magic; but in order to laugh at jokes about changing rooms and cafeterias you have to still be a kid, Wimpy or otherwise. (British kids laugh at the American school jokes, though: I guess adolescent embarrassment is adolescent embarrassment, wherever you live.) Whether the joke still works in an imaginary school, I couldn't say. At one level, we are supposed to be treating it seriously as a sub-Star Wars story: I think we are supposed to punch the air with pleasure when Roan finally manages to use the Force to levitate five or six huge boulders. (NOTE: I didn't.) At another, it seems to be laughing at the whole idea of Star Wars. Yoda's "Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try" in Empire Strike Back is a nice enough mini-midget aphorism about the importance of self-confidence. But if you say it over and over again, it appear to be funny. The mysterious old mentor who lives in a far away swamp has morphs far too easily into the dotty old codger who spouts a lot of nonsense. The book is at its most engaging when it forgets that it's a Star Wars riff and just talks about being a kid.

--Have you ever kissed a girl?
--A couple of times
--Sure, I have
--Just last week actually
--None of us have ever actually kissed anyone, have we?
--Do grandmothers count?

When I was Roan's age, I had a record. Record's were like CD's only big and black and crackly. This one was blue. It had a booklet with pages and pages of photos. The Story of Star Wars it was called. I suppose it had about 50% of the dialogue from the film, with a spoken narration. Apparently, it was only semi-official: approved by Lucas, but royalty free. 

This was before DVDs. The comic and the novel didn't count. This was the closest you got to owning the movie. (Unless your Dad was a home movie enthusiast. You could buy one-reel silent excerpts from famous movies. You basically just got the Millennium Falcon fleeing from the Death Star.) I know I went to the Barnet Odeon ten or twenty times that summer, but who knows how many times I played that record. Dozens? Hundreds? I literally knew it by heart. And one passage in particular:

Your father's LIGHTSABER. This was the weapon of a JEDI knight. Not as clumsy or random as a blaster. An elegant weapon, from a more civilized age. For over a thousand generations the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace and justice in the old republic. Before the dark times. Before the Empire...

Over and over again.

Out of that speech was built Yoda in the Swamp, making Luke face Vader in a gnarly old tree. Our of Yoda in the swamp was built the younglings, patiently attending lightsaber class on Coruscant.  (And out of that scene to the five Younglings being taken to the planet Kiros to choose their wands, sorry, did I say wands, I meant lightsabers.) And out of that scene, somehow, this.

Jeffrey Brown is a Star Wars fan. Jeffrey Brown, I am sure, played Ben's speech  over and over again. I am sure that when Ben gives Luke the lightsaber for the first time, he also wanted to reach through the screen, grasp it, and keep it forever. 

But he didn't see that if you could — if you actually could grasp it -- what you would be left with would not be that moment, but something like this: 

"LIGHTSABER FENCING TOURNAMENT. Tryouts next week. Five positions available for each squad. Squad A will be coached by Master Yoda. Squad B will be coached by Mr Garfield. Squad C will seit in the bleachers and cheer for everyone. Watch out for sparks though. DON'T FORGET YOUR LIGHTSABER."

And I wonder if there are younglings, even now, reading Jeffrey Brown's engaging, witty book, without having seen A New Hope or even The Phantom Menace? And how many years it will be before they realize what has been stolen from them? 

If about lightsabers in P.E lesson first you hear, to Obi-Wan Kenobi's cave go never you will.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

So Long It's Been Good To Know You (Compleat)

So Long, It's Been Good To Know You (7)

XI: Survivors

The first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things - praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts - not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.
                                C.S Lewis 

We're science fiction readers. We know how you survive in a post holocaust world. 

In Earth Abides Isherwood realizes that it is impossible to preserve civilization after a plague: there are simply too few people left to continue the old ways of living. All he can do is hand on tiny little bits of knowledge that may give the human race a slight survival edge. 

In Terry Nation's TV riff on the same idea, the remnant of humanity keep on keeping on, laying out tablecloths, singing We Plough The Fields And Scatter, wearing floral print dresses and making tea. When the tea runs out, they use toasted carrot. They carry on being BBC English people even if nine tenths of the population of BBC England has died of Lurgy. 

So: there are a few of us left who still believe in sharing and equality and fairness and politeness and kindness. We don't need to go as far as Socialism. Socialism is a word with too much baggage. Lots of people think that the unemployed should be paid an allowance but certainly don't regard themselves as Socialists.

So what are we Survivors to do in the face of the apocalypse?

Well, promote equality and fairness and sharing and kindness and politeness in the old fashioned ways, of course: demonstrations, letters to the newspapers, chaining ourselves to railings, jumping in front of race horses if it really comes to it. The Opposition won't support us: they will say that these are old fashioned approaches, not the way of the future, likely to discourage the John Lewis Pizza voting for Our Lot in 2025. If you really love the BBC, the best thing is to let the zombies destroy it, they will say. And the Government won't pay any attention. If we get a million man pro-Human Rights march together, they will say "Hooray! That means that the other 63,100,000 people agree with the Horrible Torture (Restoration) Bill." Probably, these things will progressively be banned as extremist and contrary to British values; quite likely the thing that replaces the BBC will only be able to interview us if our words are spoken by an actor.

So we will create single-issue parties, single-issue campaign groups. The next progressive coalition, I submit, will not be Our Lot and Your Lot against Their Lot. The next progressive coalition will be the Anti-Climate Change Party, the Medical Treatment For Poor People Party, the Public Service Broadcasting Party, the Humane Treatment of Prisoners Party, the Free Education Party, the We Love Badgers Party and the Free Books For Everyone Party — a huge alliance of people voted into parliament to ride particular hobby horses. They will have messy arguments and massive rows. (There will also be a Christian Party and a Muslim Party and a Jewish Party and they will be embarrassed about how much they agree on.) They will have lots of huge defeats and lots of tiny victories. The Survivors will save a small theater in Putney even as the zombies dissolve the Arts Council; the survivors will force the screws in Wandsworth Prison to provide prisoners with toilet paper even as the Zombies are restoring flogging. (As a deterrent and a last resort, of course. We don't envisage ever actually doing it to anyone, oh dear me no.) No Anti-Slavery Party ever won an election; no Homosexual Party or Anti-Caning Party and certainly no Suffragette Party. Groups of nutters with agendas gradually won reforms. 

Parliament will become increasingly irrelevant. It doesn't, in the end, matter if the NHS is abolished. What matters is that everybody, however poor and however black, gets medical treatment when they need it. So maybe all the people who believe in sharing will have to agree to pay a tithe, over and above their taxes, into a huge trust fund to pay people's medical bills. 


A few years ago, a confused man in America wrote the following. 

With regard to the idea of whether you have a right to health care, you have realize what that implies. It’s not an abstraction. I’m a physician. That means you have a right to come to my house and conscript me. It means you believe in slavery. It means that you’re going to enslave not only me, but the janitor at my hospital, the person who cleans my office, the assistants who work in my office, the nurses.

Basically, once you imply a belief in a right to someone’s services — do you have a right to plumbing? Do you have a right to water? Do you have right to food? — you’re basically saying you believe in slavery.

I’m a physician in your community and you say you have a right to health care. You have a right to beat down my door with the police, escort me away and force me to take care of you? That’s ultimately what the right to free health care would be.

Now, the confused man was telling a willful lie -- or, at best, making a pun around the word "free" in the hope that we would become as confused as he is.  In England health care is indeed "free" in the sense that I don’t have to pay the doctor any money when I get sick. (People from Abroad would hardly believe how normal we find this. Do you remember when the Avengers' butler betrayed them to Ultron because he urgently needed money to pay his old Mum’s medical bills? I literally didn’t understand what "medical bills" meant.) But that obviously doesn't mean that doctors work for free, any more than police officers or court appointed lawyers do. 

However, it's worth taking the confused man on his own terms.

If a drowning child is washed up on the beach and I can do resuscitation, then it is absolutely my duty to save that child's life. If someone bangs on my door in the middle of the night and says that there's been a shipwreck then it's absolutely my duty to run down to the beach in my pyjamas and save as many lives as I can, until I fall asleep with exhaustion. 

If I the confused man were a physician and if he lived in a Wild West town and if there were a hundred miles of injun infested badlands between him and the next doctor, then absolutely it is his moral duty to treat everyone in town, at any time of the day or night, regardless of their ability to pay, as long as he was physically able.

If we can trust Little House on the Prairie, and frankly, if we can't trust Little House on the Prairie we can't trust anything, Wild West physicians did, in fact, treat everybody. Doc Baker sends bills to the very rich and treats the very poor for free. The middling people bring him eggs and apples and fruitcake, or fix his wagon for him when it needs fixing. Unadulterated communism. If it were the case that Doc Baker was being woken up every night by dying children and never got to catch his breath or go fishing, then presumably he would have sent for a doctor friend from Chicago and they would arrange things so that when one of them was having a day off the other one was on call. They would share out the money and the eggs and the apples and fruit cake between them. 

Voila: socialized medicine. It really is a very good idea. 

I understand that the confused man is going to run for U.S President next year.


If the Health Service is abolished or privatized, most doctors will continue to treat people who can't afford to pay or don't have the requisite papers. But if there are zombie doctors who won't, well, the rest of us will have to shame them. Maybe there will have to be some kind of non-violent vigilantes who stand outside doctors houses in the middle of the night banging saucepans together until they get up and save the dying child. I wouldn't go as far as planting burning crosses on the lawns of physicians who stayed in bed and left poor patients to die, myself. But I could envisage troops of Morris dancers following them round town, rattling little bells, whacking them with balloons on sticks, and singing "He let an old lady die! He let an old lady die. Hey nonny no, he let an old lady die." 

Hey: I'm brainstorming here. 

But we may have to go a stage further back. The Nasty Party won it's famous victory because people stopped believing in fairness and politeness and equality and kindness and sharing. They stopped believing in them because the Nice Party stopped telling people what brilliant ideas they were. And the Nice Party stopped telling people, I think, because they became complacent. We all started to think that paying poor people an allowance and treating everyone the same even if they looked different and not strangling criminals and not hitting children and not calling black people bad names on TV comedy shows and taking care of sick people out of a common pot and all chipping in so we could have the best television and the best radio in the whole world were simply the natural order of things.

And this allowed genuinely nasty people to come out of the closet. It turned out that behind every sensible leading articles about English speaking schools finding it hard to cope with Polish speaking pupils without extra help, there was a failed reality TV contestant wanting to exterminate immigrants like cockroaches and cancer cells. Behind every perfectly reasonable comment about small businesses finding it difficult to fund maternity leave, there was a disgruntled science fiction fan who couldn't quite see the problem with throwing acid in women's faces. While sensible people with serious faces made hard choices about cutting back on library provision in the name of austerity, children's authors came right out and said that poor people had no right to read their books without paying for them. 

We allowed nasty to become the new normal. So we may have to go back to first principles and restate the case, not for Socialism or Liberalism or Marxism but for being nice. Basic human altruism.  

For historical reasons I don't necessarily agree with, it's quite easy for Rev'd Dum and Rev'd Dee to get a platform: in their local paper, in the House of Lords, on the Today Programme. So they might agree to use that platform to promote being nice instead of banging on and on about where men put their willies. Similarly humanists could spend less time banging on and on about suicide and more time explaining why being nice would be a brilliant idea. Same goes for the Muslims. There's some nice bits in the Koran, I believe. Atheists seem very committed to utilitarianism, which is a nasty idea, but individual atheists are often much nicer than the people who claim to speak for them on television.

The important thing is that the survivors make themselves visible: don't every let the nasty people believe they are majority, and never again allow politicians to think that they have to be nasty in order to win an election. Nice people should talk about how much they like paying tax; how proud we feel if we are rich enough to pay the higher rates. Maybe we could start organizing parties at the end of the financial year, with everyone wearing badges saying "I contributed yay much to living in a civilized society." (We could invite the Morris Dancers.) If we get sick, remember to tell everyone how great our local hospital is; all the great things our kids are doing at school; what a weird and brilliant idea it is to have big parks that even unemployed people and poor people and immigrants can play in.

We need to be careful of becoming prigs, but people who make their living being Nasty need to be shunned, shamed, or at least have custard pies thrown in their faces. If someone looks at the horoscope, there is a good chance that someone else will say "you don't honestly believe in that rubbish, do you?". If someone lights up a cigarette, there is a good chance that someone will tell him he needs to give up, and he'll certainly be asked to leave the room. So why do we let nasty people get away with it? Billy Bragg tells me that it is still fairly hard to buy a copy of The Sun in Liverpool: that if you are seen reading it in some pubs, you will be asked to leave. If we see a friend reading the Daily Mail, why don't we react as if they told us they were driving home after five rum and cokes; or as if they oggling a girly magazine in public? Calling a person in receipt of JSA a "scrounger" ought to have the some effect on a room as calling a dark skinned person the n-word.

The BBC may die: but we'll still have the DVDs: let's agree to show our kids Doctor Who and Life on Earth and Bagpuss regardless of what Murdoch's tits and propaganda channels are showing. Libraries may come to an end; but we can still lend our own books to people who haven't go any. (We may have to put stickers in our windows. "Ask to borrow my books. Ask to use my toilet." I think things may get that bad.) Or, at any rate, tell anyone who will listen that stories are brilliant and there is more to studying than cutting and pasting Wikipedia pages in a different font. Cameron may start conscripting the unemployed to stack shelves and sweep floors in return for their "welfare", but we can agree to call it by it's proper name -- scab labour -- and boycott those businesses which employ scabs.

Boycott; and paint graffiti on the windows; and stand outside their offices playing annoying music all day. 

And one last thing: let's not make any of this the only, or the main thing, we do. What's ultimately nasty about the nasty parties is their gradgrindianism, their willingness to sacrifice everything to make sure that Our Lot has more votes than Their Lot. They want there to be libraries so kids can do well in their SATS and get a well paid job; they want kids to play sports because that reduces the amount of juvenile crime; they want people to be healthy because healthy people work hard and earn money; they want the BBC, if they want it at all, because it gives "us" some kind international prestige. We want people to be healthy because healthy people can go for walks in the country and play cricket; we want there to be libraries so that people can accidentally stumble on Tarzan Triumphs and Imperial Earth and the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. We want the BBC to carry on because Just A Minute is bloody brilliant. 

The zombies have deep emotional feelings about Scottish Devolution, First Past the Post Voting, Disfranchisement of Prisoners and Pork Markets In China. We must never start to love those kinds of things. Because if we do, we will have become zombies too.

Barbarism is the natural state of mankind. Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.
Robert E Howard

Saturday, May 30, 2015

So Long It's Been Good To Know You (6)

X: Mad Men

The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you've got it made.
Groucho Marx (and others)

The Tories won the election fair and square. But one of the eccentric things about our system is that you can still win a Famous Victory even if the overwhelming majority of voters vote against you.

In one sense, the Tories can claim to have a popular mandate to abolish the BBC license, privatize the NHS, repeal the Human Rights act, abolish most benefits, withdraw from Europe, etc. But the opposition parties can, in a much more intuitive sense, claim a popular mandate to block those extremist measures.

They may not win all the victories. They shouldn't expect to, or even want to. Unlike Tony Blair, I think sensible centrist government happens when there is a compromise between two extreme positions. But surely, as the Opposition, it's their job to try?

But they aren't going to.

Literally minutes after being wiped out, the Liberal Democrats were talking about "bouncing back" in 2020. The Labour Party is having a lovely time debating the ways in which it failed to connect with the voters and how they might appeal to a different demographic at the next election.

Their first thought was not "What can we do to prevent millions more children being forced to rely on food banks?" or "What can we do to make sure that, even if he abolishes the Human Rights Act, Michael Gove doesn't reintroduce torture?" Their first thought was "What can we do to get more votes in five years time?” And so, naturally, they started to think like advertising men; asking what they could do to make their product appeal to people who didn’t buy it this time round.

An advertising man doesn't really, deep down, care whether or not your shirts are clean; he only cares that you buy the brand of soap powder he is selling. It is said that a really good salesman has to really believe in his product; but if you are claiming that one brand of detergent will give you a happier family and more beautiful kids than another identical brand of detergent, you probably don't believe in it very strongly.

It's all about who you sell it to. If your washing powder has a reputation for being cheap-and-cheerful, you will probably decide to put it in a snazzy box and show pictures of posh people washing their shirts before attending the ambassador's reception. Lager still has a bit of a reputation as a bit of a girly drink compared with ale, so adverts for lager are relentlessly blokish.

From an advertising perspective, if people perceive the Labour Party as being about cloth caps and trades unions and poor people, it makes marketing sense to show pictures of Labour voters buying their pizzas and penguins at the poshest shops. The party that stands for the Bosses' interests has persuaded the Workers to vote for it, so the Workers' party needs to have a jolly good go at selling itself to the Bosses.

But surely that isn’t the only thing which matters?

Imagine two Vicars, having a discussion about getting some pious bottoms back onto their church pews. Rev'd T. Dum thinks that church is much too stuffy; and wants to spice it up with the New English Bible, experimental worship and modern hymns. Rev'd T. Dee thinks that, on the contrary, people positively want old familiar tunes and old familiar words. Dum wins the argument; the church invests in an interactive white-board and state of the art espresso machine, and starts mixing heavy rock worship songs with a hiphop liturgy. The pews remain resolutely empty. "Oh dear" says Dum, after a few months, "That didn't work. Let's try it your way, with the Authorized Version, the Book of Common Prayer, and Hymns Ancient and Even More Ancient. If Nescafe was good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for us." I don't think that anyone would call Dum a hypocrite. (Or, indeed, blame Dee for throwing himself heart and soul into the modernizing experiment while it lasted.) Because both Vicars care about something more than they care about music and liturgy: namely, getting people into Church and preaching the Christian message at them. The electric guitars and the big black books were merely tactics in that greater game.

It would be surprising if, at the end of a disastrous election, politicians were not talking about where their parties went wrong. But what I find strange and off-putting is that is that politicians who, hours ago, were working their red, white and blue socks off to get make Ed Miliband Prime Minister and Ed Miliband's policies the policies of Her Majesty's government are noq happily saying that they never thought he was much of a leader and never agreed with his policies in the first place.

It's almost as if leaders and policies were merely tactics to persuade people to buy your particular brand of washing powder.

The reason, and I genuinely hate to say this, that Farage was so good was that he was selling a brand of soap powder he honestly and truthfully believed in. He honestly does hate the European Union, he honestly does hate immigrants; and he honestly does think that the European Union is forcing us to allow more immigration than is good for us. He believes this much more than he wants to be Prime Minister. When Britain withdraws from Europe in 2017 I can well imagine him disbanding UKIP and saying "My work is done". And so he resonates with other xenophobes, and with people who are not xenophobic themselves but are impressed with his sincerity. Even I quite liked him.

And the Labour Party says "Oh, well, if that 'xenophobia' stuff is popular this month, we'd better carve 'Down with foreigners!' on a rock and sell 'Down with foreigners!' mugs, and put on our special 'sincere' faces and say 'We just happen to honestly and sincerely feel in our hearts that foreigners are horrible' and in that way we'll be as plausible and convincing and affable on TV as Nigel."

And it doesn't work. It never works.

The Green Party really and truly believe that we need to save the planet. The Scottish Nationalists really and truly believe that Scotland should be an independent nation. I suppose that some Tories at least really and truly believe that poor people are poor because they are wicked, and if poverty is made sufficiently unpleasant, they will choose to stop being poor. The Labour Party really and truly believe that, er, there should be more of Our Lot and less of Their Lot in the House of Commons. 

Being a politician is no longer about having a clever plan that you really believe in and think has a good chance of working and persuading other people that you deserve a chance to put your plan into action. It is about deciding what you think other people think would be a good plan, and then pretending that that’s the plan you really believe in.

Well, “pretending” isn’t exactly the right word. Doing a sort of mental somersault by which you convince yourself that you really believe it – working up subjective emotional states called "sincerity" and "belief" and "feeling passionate about" and "just happening to believe".

So what is required is a paradigm shift.

Tribal party loyalists think that the overwhelming question is "Can Our Lot become enough like Their Lot that Our Lot will get more votes than Their Lot in 2025."

The answer is "No, you cannot: and even if you could it would make no difference — we would still be governed by Their Lot, only under a different name." The old joke about "whoever you vote for, the government always gets elected" would become literally true.

An opposition that has sacrificed it's believe in the BBC, the NHS, Human Rights and the Welfare State in order to gain Murdoch's endorsement is no opposition at all. If Rev'd Dum had said "I reckon we can get people back into church if we dropped all that stuff about God and Jesus and the Bible", then Rev'd Dee would have very properly have kicked him out of his church, and also stopped reading his weekly column in the Guardian.

The question is not "Can a party with the label Labour or Liberal or Green win an election in 2025."

The question is about political survivalism.

There are still a few of us left who still believing in Sharing and Equality and Fairness and Kindness.

What can we humans to do preserve civilization in the face of the forthcoming zombie apocalypse?

There is much rash idealization of past ages about, and I do not wish to encourage more of it. Our ancestors were cruel, lecherous, greedy and stupid, like ourselves. But while they cared for other things more than for civilization - and they cared at different times for all sorts of things, for the will of God, for glory, for personal honour, for doctrinal purity, for justice - was civilization often in serious danger of disappearing?
              C.S Lewis - "First and Second Things"

Friday, May 29, 2015

So Long It's Been Good To Known You (5)

IX: "Values"

In an interview on Newsnight, Keir Starmer (who has sensibly decided that he doesn't want to be the one resigning on May 8th 2020) said the following: 

[People are saying] "we want an authentic debate about what Labour stands for". Really simple values, and we want to boil them down. Most people want a job that pays them properly, where they can be skilled up and get on. Most people want a house or a home where they can live with their immediate family.

Well, hang on a moment. 

Stop: think.

That's actually really sensible!

What does Labour stand for?

1: Everyone who wants a job should be able to get a job 

2: Everyone who has a job should be able to afford a house 

I'd vote for you on those two policies alone. 

And I guess, given five years, a favourable wind and no wars, a government could have a jolly good go at delivering on those two promises. Massive programme of house building, to make more houses available and to make the price of existing ones fall. (The Daily Mail would hate that, which would be another advantage.) Massive job creation scheme, especially in the house building industry, to move us towards full employment. Financial jiggery-pokery to reduce mortgage interest rates. Living wage defined as "the minimum you need to afford a mortgage on a basic house". Legal minimum wage increased to "living wage" level. Laws against landlords sitting on empty properties. New council estates with low, subsidized rents for people who can't get mortgages. Right-to-buy council houses, with a proviso that for every council house sold to a tenant, a new one is put up somewhere else. 

Dammit, Jim, it's a long shot but it just might work...

Sadly, I don't think hat this was what he meant.

I don't think he meant that a future Labour leader should pledge that if he becomes Prime Minister, everyone who wants a job can have a job and everyone who has a job can afford a house. I think he meant that Labour values should be that having a job and owning a house were good things.

Values is a slippery word. You can disbelieve in God and disagree with Jesus Christ's moral teaching, but still believe in Christian values. Her Majesty the Queen thinks that the English and the Saudi Arabians have common values: where "values" presumably means whatever is left over when trivial differences of opinion over letting ladies drive cars and stoning rape victims are disregarded. 

I don't think he meant "If I were Prime Minister, everyone would be able to afford a house of their own." I think he meant "If I were Prime Minister, I would encourage poor people to think 'Maybe one day if I'm very good I'll be be able to afford to have a house of my own, like the rich folks over there.' "

Thursday, May 28, 2015

So Long It's Been Good To Know You (4)

VIII: On Pizzas and Penguins

Tony Blair has a special relationship with the English language. He wrote a short essay in the Guardian on the morning after the election explaining what he thought had gone wrong. Most of us were left none the wiser.

"Second, the centre is not where you split the difference between progressive and conservative politics. It is where progressive politics gets the breadth of territory to allow it to own the future. The Labour project must always be one oriented to the future. We win when we understand the way the world is changing and make sense of how those changes can be shaped for the good of the people. We have to be the policy innovators, those seeking new and creative solutions to the problems our values impel us to overcome."

I take it that "progressive" politics means old fashioned Red Party stuff: "progressing" towards equality, at the expense of freedom, if necessary. I  get that the Very Red Party used to demand total equality, and was prepared to have a totalitarian state in order to bring that about; and the Very Blue Party wants total freedom even if that means orphans asking for more gruel and stealing handkerchiefs on behalf of sinister Jewish people. I get what "The Red Party should move to the Centre" means. It means "We've been asking for too much Equality. If we asked for a bit less Equality with a bit more Freedom, more people might vote for us, and that way at least we'd get a bit more Equality than we've got at the moment."

Maybe it's not that pragmatic. Maybe it's "In the olden days, we were wrong about how much Equality we wanted. We've changed our mind. We still want some Equality, but not quite so much as we thought we did."

But what does "the centre is where progressive politics gets the breadth of territory to own the future" mean?

I've tried to translate it into English:

"The centre doesn't mean that we should ask for less Equality and more Freedom; the centre means we should get exactly amount of Equality and Freedom that we were going to get anyway, which must be definition be the right amount".

I give up.

And what does it mean to "own" the future? Is he saying that everyone will one day believe in Sharing and Equality regardless of what the Labour Party does,  so we should just have to sit back and wait for it to happen? Or is he using "own" in an archaic, Shakespearean sense of "accept" or "concede".("I own that thou art an honest man"). Does he mean that the harsh reality is that Blue Party values — freedom at the expense of equality — are going to win the day, and the Red Party needs to accept that?

"We should all fight hard for the victory of the Party, because it is historically inevitable that the Party will be victorious whether we fight for it or not" - that kind of thing?

This fetishisation of "the Future" seems to be about the only thing that Blairites really believe in. Chuka Umunna (who, younger readers will remember, was at one time hotly tipped to be the next Prime Minister but three) said he wanted to reform the House of Lords, not because it was undemocratic, but because it was old-fashioned. He wanted to build some nice new modern Houses of Parliament like they have in Scotland not because the present buildings had a leaky roof and there was no internet access, but because they were "a relic". Old things bad. New things good. Bleat. Bleat.  

So "we need to seek new and creative solutions to the problems our values impel us to over come". "We need to solve problems" is so uncontroversial it's not worth saying. But what is a "new" solution or a "creative" solution? If my problem is a leaky tap, my solution is to fit a new washer, or, if I'm honest, to pay a man to fit a new washer. That's an old, uncreative solution, but it tends to work. Why look for a new one?

If my problem is that too many people are too poor, then the old, uncreative solutions are

1: Find them jobs;
2: Pay them higher wages if they have jobs
3: Pay them benefits is they don't have jobs
4: Provide them with public services so that being poor doesn't hurt so much.

Old or new, these are the only solutions which exist. Blair doesn't believe in them, because they smack of old-fashioned Red Party equality. But any new-creative solution will be the old solutions under a new name. Or, more likely, the new-creative solution will be to do nothing at all and pretend that the problem is going to go away.

But I think, as ever, it will be better to assume that Blair doesn't actually mean anything; that trying to tease meaning out of this kind of thing is a category mistake.

Fortunately, we have some of the people who have volunteered to lose to Boris Johnson in 2020 on hand to tell us what the Labour Party now believes in.

One word: aspirations.

Labour lost because Labour moved too far to the Left. Labour needs to appeal to the kinds of people who want to move out of their flat and get a nice house with a garden. Labour needs to appeal to the John Lewis couple. Labour needs to appeal to people who would like to do their shopping in Waitrose. Labour needs to be the party of aspiration.   

There is nothing wrong with aspiration. The secular saints of the Labour Party were paid six shillings a week and aspired so hard to be paid ten shillings a weak that they were exiled to Australia. Trade Unionism is full of people who aspired to be paid an extra pound a week. In the olden days Labour raised the school leaving age and introduced student grants and invented the Open University precisely for the benefit of stone masons from Wessex who aspired to learn Latin.

And there is nothing wrong with wanting to shop at Waitrose. They give you a free cup of coffee. Mind you, the idea that Waitrose is posh and Sainsbury's is common is largely a matter of branding. You can shop as cheaply as one as at the other. They do price-matching. But having a Waitrose in your village is something that people regard as moving up in the world. The deranged Daily Mail columnist Liz Jones thought that it was particularly tragic that a lady from Bristol should have been horribly murdered after buying a frozen pizza from Waitrose. Buying a frozen pizza from Waitrose shows that she was hoping for a better life.

I, on the other hand, have just bought a frozen pizza from the Co-op. So I'm presumably better off dead.

(My Mum would be sad if I didn't point out that the people who invented the Co-op are heroes of the Labour Party as well: lower middle class workers who aspired to eat flour that wasn't adulterated with chalk and indeed to be buy tea and sugar and other luxuries they simply couldn't afford at the company stores.)

NOTE: The John Lewis couple are the ones who bought their little boy a toy Penguin costing £69 for Christmas, even though the whole logic of the advert showed that a knitted one costing 50p at the Women's Institute sale of work would have done the job just as well. £69 is an interesting figure: it happens to be the exact amount of money that the government says that a person who has chosen to do the wrong thing and be poor needs to live on (food, gas and electric, TV license, bus fairs, the lot) for a whole week.

The Nasty Party regard well-off socialists as class traitors. If a doctor or an academic or a businessman, or, god forbid, a popular entertainer, says that he thinks that everyone, including him, should pay slightly more tax so there can be nicer schools, nicer hospitals, nicer libraries and nicer money for people who fall on hard times then the Nasty Party accuses her of being a champagne socialist. 

All this chatter about aspiration seems to accept this false dichotomy. Aspiration as opposed to equality. If you have nice things, you can't be in favour of sharing. If you are in favour of sharing, then you shouldn't be allowed nice things. You say that the unemployed should get a more generous allowance, and yet I notice that you yourself are wearing shoes on your feet? Hypocrite! 

You can buy a nice bottle of champagne from Sainsbury's for the price of a movie ticket.

Ed Miliband wanted to introduce a 50% rate of tax, kicking in at £150,000. Some people think that this means that he wanted to take £75,000 out of the pockets of higher earners. (People whose knowledge of British Economic history comes primarily from Beatles lyrics honestly believe that in the 1960s a person earning the average wages of £16 per week gave £15.20 to the government.) But of course the "additional" tax rate is only paid on money you earn above £150K. A person earning £170,000 under the Tories pays a total of £60505 income tax; whereas under Labour he would have paid £61505. (Rounding to the nearest pecentage point, that's 36% under the Tories, but 36% under Labour.) I don't say that he couldn't have had a nice night out on that extra thousand quid. But "I couldn't afford to live on those tax rates I would have to leave the country and become a tax exile."  

Do me a favour.

Similarly, the so called Mansion Tax proposed charging people £3,000 per year if their house was worth more than £2,000,000. Property prices are still increasing at around 6% per year so we are talking about a person hearing that he'll have to put £3,000 of the £120,000 he earns by sitting around doing nothing into the common pot and screaming  "The commies are going to make me destitute." 

Dah-ling, you can't by a SHED for two million pounds in London.

The suggestion that these very modest tax increases represented a lurch to the left; that they amounted to Marxism; that "the minute someone starts to do well, Labour comes along, takes all their money  and gives it to a welfare layabout" is obvious nonsense.

The notion that three weeks ago Labour was against "aspiration" is simply silly. (Ed Miliband carved "Higher living standards for working families" and "A country where the next generation can do better than the last" into a great big stone tablet, for goodness sake.) The idea that anyone might have said "Well, I might have gone for that promotion, but because I'll have to pay £250 more on each £1,000 over £150,000 I shan't bother" is unhinged.

The sacrificial victims are saying that Miliband veered to far to the left simply because that is what the right wing press said. The Sun and The Mail christened him Red Ed and said his daddy was a commie. But get this: they would have said that anyway. They can drop the mansion tax and the 50p tax rate and support all the means test and be horrible to prisoners and foreigners and the press will continue to denounce them as a bunch of Marxist traitors. They can demand the pillory and the ducking stool tomorrow and the press will still say they are soft on crime. The press hates the Labour Party because the press is owned by the kinds of people who are rich enough to own newspapers. The press hates the BBC because television is much more interesting and fun unbiased than print media, and because billionaire newspaper owners are also billionaire satellite TV channel owners. Yet the the sacrificial victims cling to their faith that if only they could appease the right wing press, they might get to play at being Prime Minister. Every time one of them speaks the a-word, they are dancing to Rupert Murdoch's tune.