Tuesday, January 09, 2018


Cryptic Epigram

There’s a place
Where I can go
When I feel low
When I feel blue
And it’s my mind
And there’s no time
When I’m alone
     John Lennon

Definition of Fan

To be a fan is to be a fan of your good memories of a book or a film or a TV show. The real thing can’t ever live up to those memories. Fans are by definition the audience least capable of deciding if a reboot of a cherished movie or comic book has succeeded.

Definition of Fan

To be a fan is to be preoccupied with actual texts: it is the general reader who is content with his good memories of those texts. You may warmly remember watching Wacky Races when your were six; but I can tell you who won in which episode and point out that the Compact Pussycat was miscoloured for two frames in episode 12. Because they are closely engaged with actual texts, fans can often appear pedantic and hypercritical, but this is really a way of expressing love for the material. Cherished movies or comic books are invariably rebooted by and for fans, and fans are therefore thr only audience capable of judging if a reboot has succeeded.

Definition of Academic

Academic scholarship by definition excludes “good memories” of texts. Indeed, hardly anyone has “good memories” of Paradise Lost, Beowulf or the Pardoner’s Tale in the  Wacky Races sense: our first encounter with those texts is almost always in a classroom; and it is only the texts which we engage with (even though Beowulf and The Canterbury Tales were originally popular works intended for oral performance).

Some text may be studied by both academics and enjoyed by general readers; and the same individual might be an academic in the week but a general reader at the weekend.

One can well imagine a college student excitedly telling her tutor how she laughed out loud at Pride and Prejudice when she first read it, and explaining what sort of a person she imagines Elizabeth Bennet to be; and being told that at college, we don’t care about the Pride and Prejudice you have built in your head, but only about the one which Jane Austen put on the page. But it would the be the student who had been reading Pride and Prejudice as Jane Austen meant it to be read.

One would hope that a good tutor would say: “Excellent. So what we are here to do is to try and understand what Jane Austen did to make Elzabeth Bennet seem so vivid to you.”

To be discussed another time

Does fan fiction engage with fan memory, or does it seek to extend the text? Is the Captain Kirk who is pictured in a romantic relationship with Mr Spock a consensus Kirk based on what we remember of a 50 year old TV show; or is it the closest approximation we can reach to the role William Shatner was actually paying in 1968?

If someone produced a new chapter of the Hobbit that was so textually perfect that a scholar could mistake it for a genuine lost Tolkien manuscript, would that be “fan fiction” or merely “literary fraud”?

To be discussed another time

Role-playing games are the most purely fannish of any activity because they do not have text. All that can ever exist is each participants private memory of the story. Each player independently creates the adventure in his own head. Attempts to “write up this weeks session” invariably end in tears.

Experiment in Criticism

C.S Lewis argued that the “good reader” is the one who attends to the actual text; who re-reads his favorites books and would notice if a single word had been changed. A “bad reader” is one who skim-reads very general and cliched descriptions and makes them the basis for daydreams he has really made up out of his own head. Lewis calls the former process “receiving” and the latter process “using”. If a book can be received by a good reader, it is probably a good book; if a book is merely used by the bad reader, it is probably a bad book.

So for Lewis, the fan and the scholar who engage in textual pedantry may be good readers;  but the fan who fondly remembers things that weren’t even in the book is almost certainly a bad reader.

Lewis was producing a contrarian argument because he was mad at F.R Leavis


Someone who was wrong on the internet once told me that I should think about Jesus — how the little children ran into his arms — before I dared to allege that He sometimes preached about judgment and damnation. When I pointed out that there was not a word in the New Testament about “little children running to Jesus” the Wrong Person said that the text had been changed by Organized Religion, and that if I really knew anything about Jesus it would be obvious to me that little children would have run to him and that he would never have talked about wailing and gnashing of teeth.

At some point, the Wrong Person he had presumably read the Bible; but his memory of it — what he thought ought to be there — had completely overwritten the text.

But religious texts positively demand this kind of emotional and imaginative responses. The person who has stood with the mothers of Jerusalem as they bring their children to Jesus; who has observed the disciple’s stern faces turning them away; and has seen the children’s joy when Jesus overrules them — the person who can tell you what time of year it was and can smell the flowers and the sycamore trees — is unquestionably Doing It Right.

Mark 10:14

If you never danced to All You Need Is Love in 1963 then you can’t possibly understand the point of the Beatles.

If your mother never read The House at Pooh Corner to you when you were a child you can’t ever find your way back to the Hundred Aker Wood.

Only someone who has dumped all the faux nostalgia about the 1960s and the quite disgustingly twee patina that has built up around A.A Milne can be trusted to tell us whether these stories still work as stories and whether these tunes still work as tunes.

They do things exactly the same there

We sometimes like old things just because they are old; if they were new we would think they were rubbish.

When we like an old thing, we are always liking some actual quality in the actual thing: it is impossible to like oldness per se.

Some years ago, Radio 4 transmitted the only surviving episode of Twenty Questions featuring Gilbert Harding. My reaction was “I would love to hear more of this.”

Clearly, what the BBC had transmitted was an antique and a relic: a piece of disposable wireless from a bygone age; and clearly its antiquity and its rarity and its bygone-age-ness were part of the reason I wanted to hear more of it. But I would have liked to have heard more of the thing itself: actual recordings of very posh, very over-educated people, doubtless in evening-wear, un-ironically playing a very silly parlor game. But one of the reasons that I liked the idea of very posh accents and the evening suits and the lack of irony is because they so clearly conjured up a bygone age.

Skip this bit if you have read it before

I quite unironically believe that The Adventures of Superman is the best and most enjoyable version of Superman, and I firmly believe that once the travesty of Man of Steel is forgotten someone will make a film about Superman as he really is is: a 1940s pulp hero.

Part of my enjoyment of the Adventures of Superman comes from the haiku like constraints of the form. It is told entirely in dialog. Each ten minute segment has to resolve a cliff-hanger, advance the plot, and set up a new cliff-hanger. The form emerges for very specific reasons at a very particular moment in the Olden Days: no-one is going to start making radio adventure serials for kids again tomorrow. Part of my enjoyment therefore comes from nostalgia. But I am responding to a nostalgia which is encoded in the texts themselves. The surviving episodes imply, and even depict, the world the were addressed. I was certainly never a child in 1940s America, but I can still respond to the depiction of wholesome family life and wartime spirit which old time radio evokes. I might still respond to it even if “America” and “the 1940s” were entirely fictional creations. (Indeed, I sometimes thing they are.)

Literally the first thing we are told about Star Wars is that we have to watch it through a nostalgic lens.

Some do it with a bitter look, some with a flattering word.

Someone who didn’t much care for detective fiction might still become a Sherlock Holmes fan. They might like the Victorian paraphernalia; but they might also enjoy the process of explaining away contradictions in Conan-Doyle’s text and teasing out new ones — the whole Sherlockian game.

An academic might very well embark on a study of some obscure literary work, not because he liked it, but because it presented a textual problem he wanted to solve. That same academic might very well tell a student “You can enjoy Jane Austen on your own time: what we do here is study it.”

But most people become textually obsessed with fan texts because they do have fond memories of their first encounters with them. We study them now because we loved them then. We fondly remember huddling round our steam powered black and white radios to watch the first season of Torchy the Battery Boy, and we think that closely studying every frame on our multimedia driverless 3D phones will recapture some of that joy.

And of course, it doesn’t. The close study of a text can’t recreate the joy of actually reading the text for the first time; indeed, it may kill whatever joy there ever was.

Fans are very like priests, obsessed with the form of liturgy to make up for the fact that they don’t believe in God any more.

Definition of fan

A fan is someone who is happy for his loved one to live on in his memory, even though he knows that, as the years pass, that memory becomes more and more idealized.

Definition of fan

A fan is someone who is morbidly unable to let go of his loved one, and engages in the endless mummification of the remains; the construction of vast monuments; the preservation of keepsakes and momentos. Which, as the fellow said, only serve to make the dead seem that much more dead.

Optimistic conclusion.

One thing leads to another. You took up Judo when you were 10 because you wanted to play at being a Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtle. You kept it up when you were 30 because you enjoyed the physical and intellectual challenge. If you had seen The Princess Bride you might just as well have taken up fencing.

I can’t, in fact, every be eight years old again. But the first 100 issues of Spider-Man do, in fact, exist and are easily obtainable.

Closing Epigram

Your holy hearsay is not evidence.
Give me the good news in the present tense.
What happened nineteen hundred years ago
May not have happened.
How am I to know?
So shut your Bibles up and show me how
The Christ you talk about
Is living now. 

Sydney Carter

Final Request for Money

Friday, January 05, 2018

Toby Proposes a Toast

Let us pause in life’s pleasures and take a look at what Toby Young actually said.

The prosecution alleges that Toby Young described special needs pupils as “troglodytes”, and said that giving schools wheelchair access was and example of “ghastly political correctness.”

The context here is a 2012 article in the Spectator on the subject of School Examinations. The point under discussion was whether all school children should take the same examination at the age of 16, or whether there should be two or more different kinds. 

When my Dad was at school, there was only one kind of exam: the School Certificate. When I was at school, there were two kinds: the Certificate of Secondary Education, for the pupils who were expected to leave school at 16 and get a job; and the General Certificate of Education, for those who intending to stay on at school and go to college. The C.S.E had been created for the old Secondary Modern schools, and tended to be in technical and practical subjects like photography and metalwork. The G.C.E (more commonly known as the “O Level”) was created for the old Grammar Schools and tended to be in more academic subjects like history and Latin. In 1988 these two exams were combined into a single General Certificate of Secondary Education. When Mr Young wrote the offending article, the idea of bringing back the old “O” level was being mooted. Young was very strongly in favour of this idea; he had apparently been talking to some people who were very strongly against it. 

The reason that the “two tier” exam system is controversial can be encapsulated in the fact that throughout the article, Toby Young equates “more technical and practical” with “easier, for stupid people” and “more desk based and academic” with “harder, for clever people”. Not two different kinds of exams, equal but different, with (to make up a phrase on the spur of the moment) “parity of esteem”: but a Good Exam and a Bad Exam, or at any rate Better Exam and a Worse Exam.

It was ever thus. The GCSE / CSE split was a legacy of the old “tripartite” system, where children were sent to Grammar Schools and Secondary Modern Schools on the basis of an IQ test at age 11. The question was never “Will you go to Secondary Modern and maybe learn how to be an engineer; or will you go Grammar School and maybe learn how to be a barrister?” It was always “Hooray, you’ve passed and your prize is to go to the Grammar! Boo, you’ve failed and your punishment is to go to Secondary Modern!” One of the books about education I studied for my “O” level Sociology described an infant school headmistress telling little kids that if they failed their 11+ they would be “dummies” and “dopies”

If we were actually having a discussion about exams and how best to measure the achievement of school-leavers then you could make out a case for “two kinds of exam” and you could also make out a case for “only one kind of exam”. It is not the sort of question which has a definite right or a definite wrong answer.

It doesn’t necessarily follow that an exam which everyone takes, regardless of ability, has to be easier than one which is only taken by clever people. We could easily contrive a paper full of open ended questions like “What were the causes of the First World War?” and “Why did Othello kill his wife?”, and give some marks to the candidates who state the simple facts of history or the bare bones of Shakespeare’s plot, but a lot more marks to candidates who can contrast the viewpoints of a number of different historians and scratch beneath the surface of the Bard's text. We could certainly come up with a maths paper in which the quicker student was able to answer 100 questions in the time it took the slower one to answer 50. (I suspect that this would fill some elements of The Right with horror. The Right prefer black and white to shades of grey. The point of exams is not to grade children into OK  / Good / Very Good / Excellent / Bloody Brilliant. The point of exams is to divide children into Sheep and Goats, or at any rate Artisans and Philosopher Kings.)   

My personal theory is that it is very hard to persuade an employer that the holder of a “Grade D English” has shown himself able to write correct, grammatical, well punctuated essays and would therefore be quite able to hold down an office job, even though the person with the “Grade A English” had shown he could use the language with more maturity, flair, and fronted adverbials. I think that a lot of employers leap to the conclusion that the holder of the Grade D can hardly read or write. I also think that there are people who are perfectly competent at arithmetic but hopelessly confused by calculus and geometry, and that it is better to present an employer with a “Grade I CSE Maths” than a “Grade D O Level Maths” even if both represent about the same level of numeracy. So like Toby, I would run with two different kinds of exams. 

By an astonishing coincidence, this is the system I grew up with. 


But Toby Young isn’t actually talking about exams. Toby Young is actually talking about conspiracy theories. The gist of the essay is that sinister forces called “inclusion”, “equalities”, “Harriet Harman”, “the therapy squid”, and (of course) “political correctness” have turned state schools into a dystopian nightmare.

His first bugbear is equality and specifically the 2010 Equalities Act. Young thinks that the idea of equality in the political sense — that everyone should be treated the same — necessarily leads to the belief that everyone actually is exactly the same — and then to what he calls an “all-must-have-prizes” culture. 

”All must have prizes” is a reference to the Caucus race in Alice in Wonderland: it was impossible to win, but everyone participant got a prize just for showing up. But it is also the title of a book on education by the far-right conspiracy theorist Melanie Phillips. It isn’t clear if Young literally believes that “schools” nowadays give prizes and qualifications to everyone regardless of ability, or if “all must have prizes” is just a code word for “oh, isn’t everything awful nowadays”. 

Young claims that before the government could restore O levels it would have to repeal the Equalities Act, because the Equalities Act means that any exam has to be equally accessible both to stupid people and to clever people. He has subsequently claimed that the word troglodyte was not intended as a slur against children with special educational needs: it was in fact reference to the movie One Million Years BC. I suppose it is possible that he was just trying to be funny: envisaging a grunting Neanderthal in a leopard skin trying to answer questions about the role of the nurse in Romeo and Juliet. (It is interesting, albeit completely irrelevant that when he wants to reference cavemen, the first thing which comes into his head is a 1966 dinosaur movie starring Raquel Welch, as opposed to, say, Quest For Fire or 2001: A Space Odyssey.) So let’s ignore the unfortunate word choice and look at what he actually said: 

“If Gove is serious about wanting to bring back O-levels, the government will have to repeal the Equalities Act because any exam that isn’t ‘accessible’ to a functionally illiterate [person] with a mental age of six will be judged to be ‘elitist’ and therefore forbidden by Harman’s Law.”

“Functionally illiterate” could be hyperbole. We have all heard Grammar Pedants fulminating that "young people nowadays are functionally illiterate" when what they really mean is that they've just spotted someone writing “who” when they should have written  “whom” or putting exclamation marks at the ends of sentences which don't begin with “What…!” or “How…!”  But “with a mental age of six” is pretty specific. O Levels are taken at age 16, and a person of 16 with a mental age of 6 is the very definition of special educational needs. 

So. Either this man really believes that the Equalities Act requires all school exams to be easy enough that a severely mentally handicapped person can take them; or else by “functionally illiterate with a mental age of six” he really means “the kind of person who would have gone to a Secondary Modern and done CSEs under the old system”. Which is better than calling special needs students cave-men, but not much. It takes us right back to that infant school teacher and her dummies and dopies. 

I cannot help mentioning that J.C Wright (who has by now failed to win so many Hugo Awards that I have lost count) says that anyone who went to an American state school is a “zombie” or a “moorlock” and when pressed insists that he believes this to be the literal truth. 

Does Young really believe that the Equalities act forbids anyone to do anything that could be judged to be “elitist”? In fact, it simply offers legal redress to people in nine “protected categories” if they are subjected to harassment, discrimination, or victimization. You might think that it is simply providing a legal framework for stuff that everyone thinks should happen as a matter of course. A black person shouldn’t be passed over for promotion because they are black; a Jewish person shouldn’t be bullied at work because they are Jewish; you can't fire someone just because they're over 50. Some people on the Right don’t like this: they think that “everyone should be treated fairly” means “everyone should have identical outcomes”. They think “you shouldn’t get first prize in the race just because you Dad is the PE teacher” is logically identical with “you shouldn’t get first prize in the race just because you are the fastest runner.” So when an act of parliament says “no-one should be excluded from work for an irrelevant reason like the colour of his skin or the gender of his lover” they hear “schools are only allowed to set exams if they are easy enough for cavemen to pass.”  

The Equalities Act might very well allow the mother of a 16 year old who can neither read nor write and has the cognitive ability of a 6 year old to say “My child has the same right as every other child to an education that is appropriate for him or her.” It could not possibly be interpreted to mean “My child has the same rights as every other child to a GCSE in English Literature” This is fantasy and Toby Young must know that it is fantasy. 


He gets deeper into the realms of fantasy when he starts to talk about a bogeyman he calls inclusion.

“Inclusive. It’s one of those ghastly, politically correct words that have survived the demise of New Labour. Schools have got to be ‘inclusive’ these days. That means wheelchair ramps, the complete works of Alice Walker in the school library (though no Mark Twain) and a Special Educational Needs Department that can cope with everything from dyslexia to M√ľnchausen syndrome by proxy.”

There is nothing wrong with hyperbole; I myself have used hyperbole on billions of occasions. But words do have meanings. If someone says “You never see anyone on the BBC who isn’t a one-legged black lesbian” they may not literally mean that you never see anyone on the BBC who isn’t a one-legged black lesbian. But it is reasonable to infer that they think that you would naturally expect that only white able bodied heterosexuals should appear on the BBC. If you don’t agree with them on that, the joke isn’t funny. 

So what do Young’s words mean?  

He says that the word “inclusive” is ghastly. It isn’t entirely clear whether he means “I wish we had chosen a less ghastly word to express the same idea more clearly” or “The idea itself is ghastly”.  He says that the word “inclusive” is “politically correct”. Again it isn’t clear if he means “the idea of inclusiveness is politically correct” or “I wish we had chosen a less PC word than inclusive to express the same idea more clearly.” 

And what does he mean by political correctness? Does he just mean “the idea that you shouldn’t use words which denigrate or belittle people”? (But what’s so ghastly about that?) Or is is he one of those who thinks that “PC” is part of a plot by Jewish intellectuals in Frankfurt to destroy civilization as we now know it?

I don’t imagine that Young has done a survey and discovered that all school have all 14 of Alice Walker’s novels on the shelf; and that no school has a work by Mark Twain. It seems overwhelmingly unlikely to me. I would imagine that copies of Tom Sawyer are much easier to track down than copies of The Colour Purple. But of course Young hasn't picked a random example. Mark Twain is a white guy; Alice Walker is a black lady. The implication is that schools are removing books by white males and replacing them with books by black females. He expects his readers to agree with him that this is “ghastly”. Inclusive doesn’t mean “both black writers and white writers” — it means “no white writers”. It’s about as clear an example of a racist dog whistle as you could imagine. 

Equally obviously, he doesn’t really think that all schools have an S.E.N department that are skilled in the treatment of Munchausen’s Syndrome By Proxy. He has picked on Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy because the name sounds funny. He places the obscure condition with the funny name alongside the common condition because he wants us to infer that catering for children with dyslexia and catering for children with Munchausern’s Syndrome by Proxy are both equally ghastly ideas. 

The most benign translation from the hyperbole I could manage would be:

“Schools have to accommodate to children with disabilities, both in sensible ways, like being wheelchair-accessible and giving help to dyslexic pupils, and in unreasonable ways, like trying to spot the signs of Munchhausen's syndrome and having books by both black and white writers in the library. Having a single exam for children of different abilities is one of the unreasonable demands. And its hard to talk about this because it is framed with unhelpful, jargon expressions like ‘inclusion’.”

But I think it very likely that the correct translation is:

“Having a single exam for children of different abilities is only the latest in a large number of obviously unreasonable demands that are being placed on schools. Other unreasonable demands include allowing children with wheelchairs access to the building; providing extra help for children with dyslexia; and having books by non-white authors in the library. This is all part of plot by the Frankfurt Group to destroy civilization.” 


Young maintains that the real reason that some people want a single, unified exam is that they fear that children put in for the easier one would “suffer a permanent blow to their self-esteem”, that they are “so fragile that the ‘stigma’ of not doing O-levels would cause permanent damage”.  He extends this into a wider allegation that “teachers” are no longer interested in passing on knowledge and see themselves instead in a therapeutic role (where “the therapy industry” is another Bad Thing). 

But this is a straw doll. I don’t think that the main argument against selective education is that the children put into Secondary Modern School or the lower stream will feel sad. I think that the main argument is about results. The claim is that overall, looking at both troglodytes and Spectator readers, you get better educational results if everyone goes to the same school and sits the same exam than you do if you sent the clever people through one door and the less clever people through another door. It is a claim that could theoretically be tested. It would be fairly easy to look at an area with a unified system and an area with a two-tier system and find out which population gets the best educational results over all. 

But of course Mr Young has an argument which trumps all of that. He can prove that segregated exams are better than unified ones, beyond any contradiction. He went through the old GCSE / O Level System and he turned out all rightHe did CSE’s; he failed his CSE’s; he went back to school and took some O Levels, he went to Oxford and now he writes for the Spectator. So he is living proof that the system works. Stick close to your desk and never go to see and you all may be rulers of the queens navee. 

Discussions about education always seem to founder on the rocks of the Argument From Individual Personal Experience. In another article, Young literally says that he would be okay with schools being allowed to beat students because he was beaten and it didn’t do him any harm. 


The case for the defense, then, is that Toby Young did not say that special needs children were troglodytes, or that wheelchair ramps were ghastly. Not quite. What he did say was that schools are run by softies who won’t allow children to fail in case it makes them sad; that the 2010 Equalities Act forces schools to make exams so easy that mentally retarded children can pass them; that white authors are banned from school libraries and black authors are mandated; and that all this is in some way connected with something he calls political correctness. 


Regular readers will have spotted why I found this so interesting. 

Young’s essay utilizes arguments which are remarkably similar to those in Screwtape Proposes a Toast. The Toast was published in 1959.  O Levels were still in full swing; middle-class children went to grammar schools and dummies and dopeys to secondary modern; dyslexia was much less well understood and there was no obligation to make schools wheelchair accessible. Most teachers still had a cane in their cupboard. And yet the complaints are exactly the same. 

Toby Young rails against the Equalities bill and the “all must have prizes” culture; Screwtape thinks that the belief in democracy will lead to a world where everyone is encouraged to say “I’m as good as you”. 

Young thinks that educational sages disapprove of segregated exams because less able children may suffer “an irreparable blow to their self esteem”. Screwtape says that 

“Children who are fit to proceed to a higher class may be artificially kept back, because the others would get a trauma — Beelzebub, what a useful word! – by being left behind.”

Young thinks that instead of teaching, teachers nowadays are “are essentially therapists whose job is to correct the harmful effects on children of bourgeois society.” Screwtape says that  

“ the teachers – or should I say, nurses? – (are) far too busy reassuring the dunces and patting them on the back to waste any time on real teaching.”

Why are the two essays so similar? I can think of three possibilities.

1: Toby Young is the Devil.

2: Toby Young has read Screwtape Proposes a Toast and has unconsciously repurposed some of C.S Lewis’s arguments for his own column.

3: In every decade, regardless of what is really going on in schools, social conservatives always say the same things. They always say that there is too much equality nowadays, that clever people are being held back to help the dunces; that teachers are too busy molleycoddling the kids to do any real reaching. They have always said this kind of thing. And they probably always will do. 

Thursday, January 04, 2018

I know I said I was done with this, but this one really is too good to be true.

Further to Mark Burns letter in the Post on December 22 - I'm not sure where you get your information Mark that "The Great majority want the Colston Hall to change its name." 

I assume you mean the great majority of the softly spoken set based around the Southville, Bishopston and Redland areas, etc?

I can assure you that the vast majority of Bristolians are incensed regarding the airbrushing of history  by the vocal left-wing minority (*), and for us the name changes will be irrelevant as whatever the new names are it will always be the Colston Hall and Colston Primary and there will always be a Colston Street, a Whiteladies Road and a Blackboy Hill.(**) 

Congratulations to the Colston's Girl's School for standing their ground against the tide and the scourge of political correctness.

May I suggest that the "airbrushers" all move to towns such as Stevenage and Milton Keynes where there is not as much history to tamper with? (***)

Bob Feltham, Bristol
Evening Post 4th Jan

(*) At the last election, Labour took 60% of the votes in Bristol East and Bristol South, 50% in Bristol North West and a ridiculous 66% in Bristol West.

(**) Blackboy Hill appears to have been named after a pub called The Black Boy, which was a nickname for Charles II. Whiteladies Road seems also to have been named after a pub called The White Lady. No-one is remotely suggesting changing the names of either of them.

(***) Stevenage is mentioned in the Doomsday Book.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Last Thoughts on Edward Colston

-- I have listened to you, Mr Smith, but I am none the wiser.
-- Possibly not, m'Lud. But you are, I hope, better informed?

On the 2nd December, the Daily Mail reported that Colston's Primary School, Bristol is going to change its name.

The Daily Mail explicitly frames the story in racial terms. It repeatedly uses the word “pressure” and insinuates that the name change has been forced on the school by unspecified outside forces:

The school...has been under pressure to drop the controversial name over claims it is offensive to ethnic minorities.

But after a consultation and debates, governors decided to cave into pressure and change the name of the school.

However another school in the city has refused to bow down to pressure from within the community.

The online article carries the headline English School Named After 17th Century Slave Change Becomes Latest to Change Its Name. I am afraid it is only too clear why it says "English School" rather than "Bristol School" or indeed "School". (The “latest” bit is also a little misleading: the Primary school is the first school to change its name, although a concert hall and a pub have already done so.)

Some 135 Daily Mail readers took to the keyboard to respond to this story. The responses provide a good insight into how the Colston Cult thinks.

13 of the comments engage in simple abuse, in many cases limiting themselves to single word:

Smg, Edinburgh
Joke and what's next

Talula, London
How utterly ridiculous!

Hermes, Southampton
Stuff and nonsense!

The thinking seems to be that it is self-evident that schools ought to be named after human traffickers (or that no establishment can ever change its name) and that anyone supporting a contrary position is therefore actually unhinged. The school governors were said to be: numpties, dumb, idiots, and loonies ; the decision was a joke, nonsense, outrageous and ridiculous. It will be remembered that “political correctness” is regarded as the opposite of “common sense”; and that the American Alt-right believe that liberals (i.e. anyone who is not a member of the American Alt-right) are literally insane.

23 of the comments attack the school for weakness.

Roy IoW
You mean, by the fragile fluffy-kins, dead set on having things their way, and scream 'hate speech' if you disagree with them.

Tony, Wimbledon
The new school emblem will be a white cross on a white background

Mowdiworp, Huddersfield
But is it the 'ethnic minorities' who are complaining or the mindless little 'snowflakes'?

The most common word used is pathetic (14 comments): indeed 3 comments consist of that single word and nothing else. Others use more creative language such as gutless, wimps, fluffy bunnies, fragile fluffykins, wet wipes and having no cojones. 10 comments specifically use the word snowflake, often in combination with other epithets: pathetic snowflakes, pathetic leftie snowflakes, pathetic SJW snowflakes. Three different commentators independently come up with the incredibly droll idea that the school might take the name Snowflake Primary, Snowflake Academy or Snowflake Appeasers Academy. 

The idea that the change of name is a sign of weakness seems to be falling into line with the editorial text: the people who run the school have bowed down or kowtowed to unspecified external forces who have demanded the change for equally unspecified reasons. 

The term snowflake seems initially to have been part of a backlash against some schools' and colleges' practice of  issuing "trigger warnings" before discussing possibly traumatic subjects like rape or child abuse, and of providing "safe spaces" where marginalized people could talk about their experiences without being shouted down. The very far right (who believe that there is no such thing as PTSD and that rape and abuse victims should just suck it up) saw this as an attack on freedom of speech. Professor Richard Dawkins famously felt that physical and emotional strength were essential to the study of mathematics or biology and that anyone who needed a safe space “should go home, hug their teddy and such their thumb until ready for university.” But the Colstonians do not seem to have anything this specific in mind. Snowflake is simply one more hate word meaning liberal or more specifically anyone we don’t like. But there does seem to an underlying connection between left wing political views and weakness and effeminacy in some of their minds.

No less that 30 of the comments were interested in the politics affiliation of the people who had made the decision. Some used quite creative language:

Alan in France
Another victory for the PC Stazi!

D Lareme, United States
Mao’s Red Guard is a live and well!

Johnboy, Lincoln
We are creating a land fit for mindless Corbynistas

However, the majority went with lefties (10), liberals (14), and loony left (3). No distinction is made between Tony Blair, Jeremy Corbyn and Pol Pot, or between Red China, East Germany and Bristol City Council: all are irreducibly "the left". However, the word Trot does not occur: it is only now used by members of the Labour Party to describe other members of the Labour Party. 

The British have generally used the word liberal to mean centrist or middle of the road: the Liberal Party is generally considered to be politically somewhere in between the Conservatives and the Labour Party. However the commentators without exception adopt the American usage and use Liberal and Left-Wing interchangeably.

TruffleSniffer, St.Helens,
Just shows how the liberal lefties entrenched in our education system are brainwashing our children.

Richard from Norwich manages a full house in his Slave Trader Bingo game:

Pathetic. Snowflake sandal footed lefties/liberals.

And of course, 10 commentators think that the name change is Political Correctness Gone Mad. Of these 4 use PC as a synonym for communist or left winger; 5 use it simply to mean “bad thing”.

Mustafa Leak, Sin City
History is slowly being sanitised, by the bleeding heart liberals and the commie loving PC brigade

Clearly, some kind of code is being used here: if the words are being used in any normal sense, it is impossible to derive any meaning from the statement whatsoever. ("Moderates who are too concerned about undeserving cases and people who worry too much about using inclusive language and therefore love people who want to distribute income more equally?") 

Only one appears to actually use words as if they meant something: 

Me, Bristol,
Pathetic. They had to change the original name of the new shopping centre in Bristol from Merchants Quarter (which in no way can be linked to slavery because a merchant is a person who sells things, not necessarily slaves) it was just the politically correct brigade reading into it too deeply. It’s now called Cabot’s Circus, probably to relate to all the clowns who wanted to change in the first place.

"One who attaches too much significance too someone else's choice of words" is a perfectly feasible definition of "political correctness", although what this would have to do with the proletariat controlling the means of production and wearing sandals I couldn't say. "Me" is, however, entirely mistaken:  the new Mall has only ever been called Cabot’s Circus although other names, including “Merchants Quarter” and “All Saints” were considered. It is far-fetched to say that the word “Merchant” could in no way be linked to slavery, since the proposed name was very specifically a reference to the Merchant Venturers.

Some of the other commentators attempt to present actual reasons for leaving the schools name as it is. None of them are particularly helpful. 

26 use some version of the “slippery slope” argument: "if we allow X, we will have to allow Y; since Y is obviously silly, we must not do X”. They never establish any particular link between X and Y. (“If we allow men to marry other men, it logically follows that we will have to also allow women to marry garden furniture...”)

Of these, 10 seemed to be under the impression that the school was being closed or demolished, rather than just re-branded:

Richard, Worcester:
Pull down Bristol, it was a leading slave trade port at one time

Glynn Churchill
Better start demolishing large parts of Bristol, then.

OstrogothRome, Newport
We’d better demolish almost every building, stately home, church, castle, palace, cathedral, in Britain dating from before as it was either built with slavery derived funds or with exploited labour

Others had more creative suggestions:
  • Should we not eradicate the name Victoria?
  • Perhaps we should ban everything Italian...
  • We need to stop teaching about Henry VIII.
  • It probably won’t be long before the hymn Amazing Grace is banned.
  • Are we going to drop all references to Jesus?
Again it is very hard to discern any coherent thread in these comments. Does anyone honestly think that Bristol is in danger of being pulled down; or that anyone was going to ban the name Jesus “because he was a convicted felon”? Does anyone actually think that there is a plan to "eradicate", "ban", "stop teaching about" or "drop all references to" Edward Colston, as oppose to simply stop naming public buildings after him? My best guess is that the writers think, or affect to think, that kidnapping black people is a harmless peccadillo that the PC snowflakes have dredged up as a pretext to remove Colston's name from the building. You could equally well have found similarly trivial black marks against any other historical figure. They are like the man who politely says “Look! I’ve got mud on my shoe, I suppose I will have to leave!” when his date spills wine down her dress – a round about way of saying “It’s okay, no-one minds.” Being a slave trader is not a very serious skeleton to have in ones closet.

This brings us to the most common argument (no less than 33 occurrences): that the school is attempting to airbrush (3), rewrite (9), erase (4), sanitize (2), white wash, wipe out or trash something called history. Without exception, these comments appeared to think that the removal of Colston’s name from the school was part of a wider plot to remove all record of Colston from history, which is part of a still wider plot to deny that the slave trade happened at all. 

SensiblePerson, Oxfordshire
Please can someone tell me why these people are determined to make us forget about the slave trade and all the evil it stood for? To stop a repeat of these evils we need to know our past mistakes. This is madness.

10 comments specifically say that the school needs to be named after an enslaver so that children will know how bad slavery was, and at least 2 attempt to paraphrase George Santayana’s remark about forgetting or denying the past:

DefaultAB, Essex ,
If we look to erase history, we're doomed to repeat it. People need to know the origins of slave trading and WHY it ceased... not pretend like it never happened.

FormerPerson, Somewhere In The,
Those who deny history are condemned to repeat it

This seems an exceptionally strange reading of events: why would Commies wish to pretend that the slave trade didn’t happen – why would Lefties want to make the British Empire seem less evil than it in fact was? You can pretty much guarantee that if someone decided to put up a memorial to the 100,000 people Colston kidnapped these exact same letter writers would condemn it as Political Correctness Gone Mad. And if naming schools after criminals is a good way of avoiding the repetition of certain crimes, why are we not agitating for John Profumo Primary School or Jimmy Savile Academy – nay, for Myra Hindley Comprehensive or Peter Sutcliffe Grammar?

The best I can manage is that the Colstonians are attempting some kind of “gotcha!”: “Ha ha you say you are against slavery but if you change the name over the gate to the school no-one will know slavery ever happened and there will be more of it har har liberals are silly.” 

Some of the speakers simply think that “history” itself is somehow under attack, which they connect in a non-specific way with totalitarianism.

Tony, Bristol
This is how dictatorships start, by erasing history and brainwashing children.

Gardeb, United Kingdom,
History will soon cease to exist under the new regime.

Glynn, Churchill,
Didn't Pol Pot try to rewrite history?

There are about one hundred primary schools in Bristol: one is named after a human trafficker; one after an opponent of slavery; one after the first European to set foot on the American mainland; one after the founder of anthroposophy; one after a marine mammal; two after the Christian Messiah and a whopping twenty after Christian saints. (The rest are just named after the district or the street where they happen to be.) How do the kids at the ninety nine schools which aren’t named after slave traders find out about this stuff? By what mechanism does "not having the name of a human enslaver on your school uniform" morph into "being brainwashed"? And who on earth was Nicholas of Tolentine?

Eight commentators resort to moral relativism: slavery would be a bad thing now but it wasn’t a bad thing then, so it is okay to carry on celebrating and commemorating slavers

Ex pat, wellington,
The British Empire was built upon such practices that were perfectly acceptable at that time, why should we be ashamed of our past? The Greeks, Romans, Scandinavians and Spanish are rightfully proud of their ancestors who probably did far worse things........

And two or three seem prepared to say that the slave trade was a good thing, or at any rate, not a bad thing:

Farmer Giles, Truro,
Bristolians, be proud of your great city of seafaring history and don't let the lefties get their way!

RabD, Glasgow, United Kingdom,
We should never be ashamed of our past!

What never? Well, hardly ever. And what do you mean "we", kemosabe?

Finally a few resort to made up facts and “fake news”

Bob , Cheltenham,
Well it will always be known as Colstons school anyway and considering he set it up who cares.

No, he didn’t: it was founded in 1948 and happened to take his name.

Loosehead, Basingstoke
Since Colston paid for Colston Hall, no-one can use it and it has to be knocked down.

If Colston had indeed paid for Colston Hall, there would be no need to knock it down: it was burned to the ground in 1898 and 1945. But he had nothing to do with it. He started a school for white males who believed in the same religion as him in 1710; the street was named after the school and 160 years after he died, the hall was named after the street.

Matt, Hungerford,
As no doubt the school was built from slave trade money, perhaps it should be demolished, the site levelled & the children taught in cold drafty tents

No, it wasn’t. There slave trade had almost completely finished in 1948.

And a handful contain racist dog-whistles

A pensioner, Bristol,
When will this kowtowing to the incomers stop, I'm tired of this PC nonsense.

David Mop, London,
Can we chuck out of this country anyone whose ancestors SOLD the slaves to Colston?

The Colstonians are (I assume) sentient human beings who have made a conscious choice to type comments into their computer: so they must be sincerely concerned about what name Colston’s Primary School goes by. The e-mail comments, like the comments in the Evening Post, show a surprising consistency of language and outlook. A group of people – communists, snowflakes, liberals, or the PC Brigade – have exerted pressure to which the school governors have bowed down, kowtowed  or caved in; resulting in history being changed so that children will be brainwashed into thinking that the slave trade never occurred; which is the first move towards physically destroying large swathes of Bristol and the country at large. One Sea Eagles from the Isle of Mull is quite explicit that this is “Preparation for the take over of our country...” By whom he does not say.

It is impossible that they believe any of this. What is actually happening, right now, in the world, is that some people think that memorials to slave-traders ought to be taken down, and some people think its okay for them to be left up. I suppose it is possible that the reasons for leaving them up (“it was a long a time ago” “slavery was okay in those days” “he also gave money to charity”) are so obviously weak that the “leave them up” faction need to create complex fictions to justify their position. “Taking them down” is a Communist plot to destroy civilization because, for some on the Right, absolutely everything is a Communist plot to destroy civilization. 

But still -- why Colston? Why would anyone get so angry about one school, one pub and one concert venue that they need to make up fantasies about the end of civilization? Suppose the very worst happened and the Awful Statue were in fact moved, as in fact the equally awful statue of Brunel has already been moved. You might conceivably think that this was unnecessary. (Before the Great Kerfuffle, I broadly thought that moving the statue was unnecessary.) But why would you think it crazy and insane and a joke? Why would you create fantasies of pulling down Westminster Abbey and Communist Take Overs? What do the Colstonians really believe? What do they really believe that the rest of us believe?

Some people at the Daily Mail really believe in the Frankfurt Group and Cultural Marxism – they really believe that the media, academia, local government and …. well, everything but the Daily Mail, basically… is secretly controlled by Jewish Marxist Intellectuals. (This is not exegesis on my part, but something that they have stated explicitly in banner headlines.) If you believe in one conspiracy theory, you see conspiracy everywhere. It is obviously impossible that a group of school governors could ever decide to change a school’s name in good faith. It must be pressure from a nefarious vested interest – black people, Islams, experts. And all notorious vested interests ultimately lead to the Cultural Marxists. If the Daily Mail doesn't like it then it literally is part of a communist plot.

But the Colstonians themselves? I see only two options. 

One is simple racism. Black people forced the school to change its name. Black people moved into our town and forced us to let them work on our buses. Black people hold a festival in the summer. We have been forced to accept a black man as our Mayor and a black lady as our MP. So we want a great big statue, right in the middle of town, to remind these black people that they are not real Bristolians (born and bred! born and bred! alive alive oh!). There was a time when we bought and sold you like cattle and don’t you ever forget it. If communist and leftie is understood to mean black person or n***** lover then very many of the under the line comments start to make a frightening amount of sense. 

But the more benign possibility is this.

If you are very old and very stupid, then change, change of any kind, is threatening to you. It is a very small jump from feeling nostalgic for the Epilogue and the Potters Wheel to feeling that the Bolshevic Broadcasting Corporation took those things away to spite you personally because they hate you. I do not think that the Colstonians care about Colston or about slavery. I don’t think they think  there is a communist plot to destroy civilization. I think that they would be equally up in arms if the Daily Mail had told them that the Old Red Lion was going to become The Lionhead Bar. One of the Bristol Evening Post Colstonians literally claimed that the use of parsley in salads was part of a European plot to destroy civilization. Colston is this week’s symbol. But what we are actually raging about is the dying of the light.

See also: Brexit. 

Monday, December 18, 2017

The Last Jedi, Intertextuality and Fanishness.

Almost the first thing we know about Star Wars is that we are watching one part of a larger saga. 

Granted, when we first saw Star Wars it was just Star Wars and not Star Wars: Chapter IV - A New Hope. But the opening crawl was undoubtedly telling us The Story So Far, and the story was already well underway when we started watching. We kept hearing about things like the Spice Mines of Kessel and the Clone Wars as if we ought to know what they were but didn’t.

As more and more episodes (and comics and cartoons and games) have come out, we have learned more and more about the Star Wars universe, but we have never really felt we are in possession of the whole saga from beginning to end. Watching the hidden parts being unveiled has always been one of the pleasures of a new Star Wars movie.

Some of us went to see Empire Strikes Back honestly not knowing who Luke Skywalker’s daddy would turn out to be. Some of us can still percieve that Vader’s identity was a choice; that until the moment of revelation the story could have gone off in a quite different direction. Some of us still wish that it had. What would a sequence of sequels in which Darth Vader had literally murdered Anakin have been like? More like Star Wars, I sometimes think. 

"Gradually showing us more and more of the setting” is one of the ways in which the Star Wars saga unfolds. The more questions the saga answers, the fewer possibilities there are. If the Clone Wars are revealed to be this, they can’t also be that. The alternative is not to tell any stories at all. 

So: in A New Hope, an Emperor is mentioned. In Empire Strikes Back, we see this Emperor as a hologram. And in Return of the Jedi, we finally meet him face to face and discover that he is an evil Jedi. In the prequels, the concept of “evil Jedi” is further explicated: The Emperor is identified as a Sith master and Darth Vader as his apprentice. Some of this is problematic (I am suddenly troubled by Tarkin telling Vader that he is all that is left of the Jedi religion) but this gradual decoding is clearly a big part of the trajectory of Episodes IV-VI and I-III. 

We reasonably expect The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi to develop in a similar way: introducing new mysteries about the Star Wars universe and gradually untangling them. When The Force Awakens withholds key information about certain characters while clearly coding them as “mysterious” that expectation is reinforced.

The Force Awakens is constructed in such a way as to make us wonder about the identity of Kylo Ren. Kylo Ren’s identity isn’t a mystery or a secret inside the the Star Wars universe: Luke, Han, Leia, Dameron and some of the First Order officers all know perfectly well who he is. But it is a piece of information which has been withheld from the viewer: a puzzle, a source of tension. About half way through the film, the set-up pays off: it turns out that (SPOILERS) Kylo Ren is Ben Solo. This is a good dramatic moment in the film; it makes sense of what we already know of Kylo; it fills in a wodge of background about Han and Leia and it increases the emotional jeopardy. We now know that Han Solo has a personal stake in the action. 

The Force Awakens was also constructed in such a way as to raise the question about who or what Snoke is. Again, Leia and Han and Poe and Kylo Ren and the various First Order functionaries know who he is, but we don’t. He’s presented very much as the Emperor was in Empire Strikes Back, only more so: a gigantic hologram that we don’t get a good look at; who appears to have some kind of facial disfigurement, bespeaking some previous fight. So, we expect there to be a similar revelatory moment about Snoke, one that explains and deepens him and makes the plot more complicated. Not necessarily “I am Yoda’s sister” — the family ties thing is specifically about the Skywalker clan — but some hint about who he is and how he got there.

The original trilogy tells us that however strongly the Force may be with you, you still have to go off to Hogwarts to learn how to use it. Luke is the most powerful Jedi in the universe and he still doesn't have any Force magic until he meets Ben. Nor does Anakin, who was literally conceived by the Force. (Yes: the prequels are canon. Episodes VII and VIII reference Clone Troopers, Darth Sidious, the Jedi Temple and the idea of bringing balance to the Force.) 

So, the rules we have been taught encourage us to ask, “Why is Snoke so Forceful?” Is he another alumnus of Luke's Jedi school? Did Darth Sidious have a backup apprentice? Is there a mysterious Sith Temple churning out little Darth Mauls? "Actually, there are lots of natural Force users running around the Galaxy who don’t need to be trained" would be a permissible, if rather boring, answer, but if that's the case why does Snoke talk as if he is part of some wider conspiracy? If people can just spontaneously start levitating rocks and telling Stormtroopers which droids they are meant to be looking for, why does Luke Skywalker's Jedi school even matter? But the film doesn’t give, or imply that answer. The question doesn’t seem to have occurred to it.

Episodes I - III reconfigured Star Wars as being about the battle between the Jedi and the Sith. They hinted at some interesting stuff in which the "Dark Side" wasn't wholly dark and the "Light Side" wasn't wholly light, and suggested that there were secret teachings within the Jedi tradition that Yoda and Qui-Gon were privy to. So we reasonably want to know what happens next. Did the death of Vader bring the Sith’s thousand-year history to an end; or are they going to spring up again in some other form? Is Snoke a new Sith Lord, or is he part of some other Dark Side tradition? But if there are Dark Side traditions apart from the Sith, what was defeated when Darth Vader was defeated? If Snoke is a Sith, is Kylo Ren his apprentice? Or has Ren independently decided to revive Granddad's cult? If Ren doesn't see himself as the continuation of the Sith, in what sense does he think he's the new Darth Vader? (But why hasn't he taken on the title Darth?)

I agree that one can be too obsessed with this kind of thing. I agree that many fan theories — however ingenious they might be — are palpably not the kind of thing that would ever happen in a piece of mainstream popular culture. There were a couple of fans who were convinced that the final episode of Doctor Who Season I was going to reveal that Christopher Eccleston was not, in fact, the Doctor but a new incarnation of the Master and the real Doctor was imprisoned on an asteroid somewhere. Brilliant, but just not the kind of thing the BBC would ever do. There certainly are people who spot that the new movie contradicts something mentioned in a footnote to a backup strip in issue #6 of the new Darth Vader comic and claim that this ruins the movie for them; just as there are fans whose whole interest in the Last Jedi rests on a rumour they heard that it will award canonical status to Jaxxon the rabbit. I agree that this kind of thing is tiresome. 

On the other hand: if Disney are going to make a big song and dance about anathematizing the whole of the Extended Universe and creating a new, singular canon in which everything is “true” I think we are entitled to expect very broad consistency between the comics, the movies and the cartoons. If Clone Wars tells us that Younglings were taken off to a special cave and taught how to make Lightsabers that suited their particular abilities, I think I am entitled to be surprised if a movie says that Obi-Wan bought his in Ye Olde Lightsaber Shoppe on Diagon Alley.

And yes: if Star War IX mentions Ye Olde Lightsaber Shoppe then twelve hours later three fan sites will upload five excellent stories about how the Empire conquered Ilum and three Jedi preserved the craft of lightsaber forging under cover of a shop. No canon is so contradictory that it is impossible for exegetes to harmonize. 

There is a theory that the normal, indeed correct, way of watching a movie or a TV show is with your ears turned off, one eye on your smartphone, one eye on your popcorn, letting the big funny lights wash over you. Those of us who give multiplex movies our full attention are therefore bound to misunderstand them: we're trying to do something with them that they were never intended for.  ("But Andrew" says an elderly TV viewer of my acquaintance "Normal people don't analyze Doctor Who in the way you do. They just watch it.”) 

There is something to this. But the line between "Star Wars fan" and "casual cinema goer" is much wobblier than it used to be. The prequels were incredibly "fannish" and people still went to see them. The Clone Wars cartoon series is (among other things) a fannish exercise in redeeming the prequels, and it went out on the Disney Channel. There is a fine moment in Star Wars: Rebels where the scooby gang is sent to meet an old-wise-mysterious Rebel contact, and she turns out to be Anakin Skywalker’s estranged padawan from Clone Wars. (Who doesn't know what happened to her old master, but is aware that the Empire have an incredibly nasty Sith Lord working for them. It doesn't end well.) That seems to be supremely fannish, if by fannish you mean “asking questions about what happened to subsidiary characters after they left the stage” and “expecting characters from one series to turn up in another” and “being interested in the shape of the saga, not just the fight scenes”. But Star Wars: Rebels is quite clearly a kids’ cartoon.

Some fans are more obsessive than others. Some people would regard me as quite a lightweight: I am still inclined to think of spaceships as “pointy ones”, “big pointy ones” and “really huge pointy ones”; and couldn’t confidently tell you the difference between an A-Wing and a B-Wing. But "a person who saw the prequels" and "a person who pays attention to the dialogue" is quite a puritanical definition of "fan".

I don't think The Last Jedi is a failure. I do not think that Johnson is ten thousand parsecs from embracing Russel T Davies' theory that coherent story telling is for wimps. On one viewing, I would say that Last Jedi is better than any of the prequels, but not as good as the Force Awakens or Rogue One. I only say that some of the narrative decisions were disappointing and may turn out to be damaging to the Saga as a whole.

Here is a question. Please do not try to answer it.

1: In the Force Awakens, the identity of Rey’s parents is presented as a mystery. Which of the following is true of the eventual solution?

A: J.J Abrams knew when he wrote the Force Awakens that Rey’s parents were blah blah mumble mumble mutter mutter.

B: J.J Abrams did not know who Rey’s parents were when he wrote the Force Awakens: he presented it as an unanswered question but left it open for his successor to answer.

C: When he wrote the Force Awakens, J.J Abrams intended Rey’s parents to be, for example, yadda yadda yadda, but at some point during development, Johnson changed this to mumble mumble mutter mutter blah blah.

2: As a way of developing a film script which is part of a forty-year saga is this

A: About how you would expect things to work.

B: A bit of an odd process, frankly.

C: Completely fucking deranged.

How Andrew rates the Star Wars movies.
For amusement only. 

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Saturday, December 16, 2017

The Last Jedi: first impressions.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi was a mess. 

The atmosphere at 4AM in Screen 7 of the Cabots Circus Showcase was subdued. Not Phantom Menace subdued ("I piss on the evil of that film”) but still subdued. We had almost definitely seen something mostly very good; but there was a lingering sense of disappointment. Of having been cheated. 

I kept hearing expressions like “mad” and “crazy”. 

Some people are already comparing this film with the Empire Strikes Back. It’s the middle volume of the trilogy, don’t you know. And it’s about the Rebels, strike that, Resistance falling back and trying not to be annihilated, and an ice planet, and walkers, and the main character spends most of the film isolated from the action and learning the ways of the Force from an incredibly irritating Jedi Master. 

Sad thing is; I agree with them. The last time I felt this way was in the Leicester Square Odeon one afternoon in 1980. Yes, the walkers were great, and yes, the green muppet Jedi was great, and yes, the fight on the bridge was great, and yes, the Bounty Hunters, and yes the big reveal at the end, so why am I feeling this overwhelming sense of disappointment? 

I have always been an apologist for the Prequels. No, there is no need to list their deficits again; I know them and I largely agree with you. But I can see what Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith are doing and I think it is largely what they ought to have been doing even though I wish that they had been doing it better. 

I am not sure what The Last Jedi was trying to do. I am far from sure that whatever it was trying to do was what the eighth Star Wars movie ought to have been doing. But I am in no doubt at all that it did it very well. 

I assume that there must be someone who signs off on new Star Wars movies — if not George Lucas any more than some Franchise Runner? It cannot surely be that in a universe this size and a franchise this expensive very big decisions about which major characters live and which major characters die and who turns out to be who’s cousin are decided on a case by case basis by whoever happens to be producing this episode? 

Surely the final fate of Luke Skywalker —  and wild horses would not make me reveal what his final fate is, although irritating sparkly goats might persuade me to hint that it is not actually anything terribly interesting — surely the final fate of Luke Skywalker is decided by someone with an over-arching plan? Someone who knows where the Saga is headed? Surely after forty years and nine movies it doesn’t come down to someone called Johnson deciding, about six months ago, what might make a cool scene?

The Last Jedi doesn’t feel like a sequel to The Force Awakens: it feels like a repudiation of it: as if Rian Johnson has his own quite different vision of what a Star Wars film should be and takes on J.J Abrams’ characters only reluctantly.

The Force Awakens ends with Rey offering Anakin’s lightsaber — by now a literal holy relic — to Luke. The question left hanging is “will he take it, or not.” The Last Jedi begins with Luke taking the lightsaber.., and throwing it in the sea. (It is rescued by penguins. They are not referred to as Porgs anywhere in the film, but then, neither were the Ewoks.) This raises a laugh from the audience. It doesn’t feel to me as if Abrams set up a joke and Johnson delivered the punchline two years later. It feels to me as if Abrams left the story at a great big dramatic crux and Johnson chose to undercut it. 

There is nothing wrong with a Star Wars movie making the audience laugh. But this humour is too meta-textual: too dependent on shifts of register and gentle pushes at the fourth wall. This feels quite wrong. For Luke to have discovered a small cache of foundational Jedi texts is one thing; for him to realize that these dry old manuscripts do not contain the truth he is seeking is another; but for a character — I won’t tell you who, but they were a major supporting character in the old films and we weren’t necessarily expecting them to crop up here — to say “Page-turners they are not” is something else again. 

It’s the wrong sort of humour. Ewoks and Gungans to this undercutting of the material prefer I do. 

And, at risk of being incredibly geeky: anyone who has ever played the Star Wars RPG knows that there is no paper in the Star Wars universe. This is not, of course, a very big deal: but if you are always being reminded that bar-tenders use portable computers to tell you what your bill is and that messages are sent by hologram, not carrier pigeon, then you can’t forget that this is an alien galaxy, very different from our own. (Of course, Luke could have explained to Rey that these are strange ancient things called books made of a substance called paper. But he didn’t.) 

When Finn and a new character whose name I didn’t catch run off on what can only be described as a side quest to an alien casino we see aliens being served drinks in martini glasses and tea in cups and saucers. Is that the best we can come up with to indicate wealth and sophistication – Martini and Tea? Back in ‘76 one of the cool things about Star Wars was the blue milk. Milk just happens to be blue and no-one comments and nothing follows because we aren’t in Kansas any more. 

Does Johnson basically not get Star Wars? Did the keeper of the holocron never take him to one side and quietly explain it to him? 

The Force Awakens was criticized for being a little too safe and conservative, so it is perhaps unfair to criticize The Last Jedi for veering a little too far towards the unexpected. But we have reasonable expectations about what should happen in a Star Wars movie — obligatory scenes — and leaving those scenes out seems borderline sinful. If you’ve cast Mark Hamil and Carrie Fisher in the same movie than for George’s sake give them some screen time together. If a Major Character got killed off in the last film, then spend some time showing us how it affected his big furry companion. (Until next years ill-advised Han Solo movie comes out we aren’t going to know if the “Wookie Life Debt” thing is canon: but I would like it not to have been quite so much taken for granted that now Han is dead Chewie automatically stays with the rebel humans.) 

I suppose the original sin was committed in the opening seconds of Episode VII. What we want — what we need — is to see Luke in the Obi Wan Kenobi role: as the wise old man accompanying the kids on their adventures. But Abrams decision to make him the McGuffin of the first movie pretty much guarantees that he can’t be anything other than the Yoda of this one. He’s detached from the action, having very little dialogue with anyone apart from Rey. His major plot arc (which I don’t buy for one second) takes place in a few isolated flashbacks, which have the distinct look of having been added at quite a late stage in the proceedings. 

I know I am going to get punched for saying this: but I kept thinking of the Lone Ranger. This is not quite as rude as it may sound: I didn’t hate the Lone Ranger nearly as much as you presumably did. But both movies have the same feeling of vast, expansive splurging; of throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks; of arguments between creatives and studios that were never quite resolved; of changes of direction part way through; the absence of a singular vision of what kind of a movie this is meant to be. Several times characters are on the point of laying down their lives nobly to save their friends when they unexpectedly get rescued, or turn out to be less dead then we thought, in ways that don’t give the impression that our hero has affected a dramatic hairsbreadth cliffhanger escape, so much as the impression that one writer wanted to kill them off and another writer overruled him at the last moment. 

We know what we want from a new Star Wars movie. We want the chance to play Star Wars one more time — to pretend to pilot and X-Wing, to pretend to be in the Rebel Alliance, to see all the great big ships crash together and explode. But we also want it to be the next chapter of the Saga, the unfolding of some more of the history of the Skywalker clan, revelations about who is who’s father which raise even deeper questions. What does the title mean? Who is the last Jedi? And why? But while it’s doing those things, it also has to be a good film: a film which hangs together and makes structural sense. 

The Last Jedi unequivocally succeeds in the first area. It’s the most visually exciting Star Wars movie we’ve so far seen. Po Dameron is basically what happens when Luke Skywalker and Han Solo get smashed together: the charming rogue whose also a hot young fighter pilot. The opening scene, in which Po takes on a Star Destroyer with a single X-Wing is fun in the way that the Death Star Run was fun in 1977. (It also feels like the kind of stunt which a player character with too many Force Points might have pulled.) 

I would say that the film pretty much crashes and burns in the second department. The Force Awakens left us with a series of big, interesting questions; and fans have spent two years coming up with more or less interesting answers for them. Johnson doesn’t merely fail to answer the questions – he seems actively uninterested in them. No, madam: I do not in fact think that The Last Jedi ought to have included long disputations about the fuel to speed ratio of the Millennium Falcon. There are, indeed, some things which are of interest to fans but of no interest to the general viewer. But I do think questions like “Who is Snoke? Why is he so powerful?” would occur both to fans and to people who have never owned a single Star Wars action figure.

As to the question of whether it is a good film or not… Well, I come back to where I started. The Last Jedi is a mess. Some of the material is good (the Great Big Space Battles) some of it is rather disappointing the entire Luke/Rey plot) and some of it – the whole Casino sequence – makes you drop your jaw and ask “Did I go to sleep and wake up in an entirely different movie?” I think that there is so much action and plot movement and aliens and jokes that the non-action-figure-purchasing community will like it very much indeed. But I think that a very large number of fans – people with an element of buy-in to the Star Wars milieu – are going to say “Yes...but wait a minute… what?” 

We have asked the question “What is the difference between fan fiction and any other kind of fiction?” several times in the past. In the end, it is (I am truly sorry) a question of canon. You are quite free to imagine in your head what should have happened to Luke Skywalker after The Return of the Jedi; and I am quite free to imagine it in mine. But what the Last Jedi imagines happens to Luke Skywalker after Return of the Jedi will now effect every Star Wars film comic book and novel for as long as they carry on making Star Wars films, comic books and novels. And it doesn’t seem to realize this; or spot why it matters. 

I think that history may show that The Last Jedi has damaged the integrity of the Star Wars saga much more irrevocably than Phantom Menace ever did.

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