Monday, January 29, 2018

Doomsday Clock #3

Ernie: Tonight, I shall perform Singin' in the Rain.
Eric:   Ah. Gene Kelly did that very well.
Ernie:  Yes. But I shall do it just that little bit better.

Doomsday Clock
On the first page of Doomsday Clock #3, we clearly see the Comedian’s badge. It has a little highlight on the edge, a little arc where the colour is slightly lighter, a simple artist's trick to indicate that this is a shiny badge which reflects the light. 

Each time we saw it in Watchmen, it was simply a yellow disc.

A trivial thing; a tiny thing. A minor difference in artistic style. 

But it irks me. Watchmen is said to have brought realism to the world of superhero comics. But the art still looked like comic book art. The characters looked like comic book characters, but they talked like real people. Kind of.

We are going to go back and redo a classic comic book. But we are going to improve on it. And the way we are going to improve on it is by making it more shiny. More realistic. We are going to show you Rorschach alongside ther Batman. We are going to show you ther Batman easily outwitting Rorschach. We are going to try to pretend that Scooby Doo Meets Watchmen is ever so slightly more realistic than the original comic.

We see the murder of Comedian, which was only shown in fragmentary flashbacks in the original comic. It has been dubbed into the new, photo-realistic style. We see it from a neutral, camera-man’s point of view; where the original comic showed it subjectively, from the point of view of the killer. As he falls, the camera focuses on the shiny, blood splattered badge. The final frame of page 2 shows us the badge by itself, on a black background. 

Realization dawns. Doomsday Clock is for people who saw the movie, but never read the comic. 

No-one attempts to sing The Times They Are a Changin’. I would have liked it better if they had.

As the Comedian falls, a set of black lines, like the slats of a horizontal window blind, block out the panel. He never hits the ground. He ends up in the sea outside Gotham City.  Doctor Manhattan, or at any rate, someone with blue legs, greets him. The person with blue legs drops the badge in the sand alongside him. (It isn't clear where he got it from.) 

Whatever Doctor Manhattan is planning, part of his purpose is to erase Watchmen the graphic novel. The dead Comedian has been teleported out of the story. No corpse to bury; no badge for Rorschach to find. 

A very large chunk of the graphic novel never happened. 

Doomsday Clock
No interesting conversation or confrontation between fake Rorschach and ther Batman is forthcoming. Rorschach gives ther Batman the original Rorschach’s journal, and ther Batman says that Doctor Manhattan is in Arkham Asylum, so they go off together to bust him out. 

But…gotcha…it was a trick, and when Rorschach goes into the cell where Doctor Manhattan is meant to be, ther Batman locks him in and leaves him there. The episode ends with Rorschach shouting “Let! Me! Out!” like a psychopathic Fred Flintstone. 

In the old Avengers / Justice League cross over, all the other superheroes have an enormous fight while Batman and Captain America go to the Batcave and sort everything out like civilized people. There is an old geek joke that the answer to the question “Who would win a fight between Batman and X” is always "Batman" because while other characters may have superhuman powers, Batman’s power is that he is a BADASS. He is more of a badass than Rorschach, at any rate. The deal appears to be that DC characters can run rings around the Watchmen characters because they are 1980s comic book characters and the DC characters are real.

Where fake Rorschach got real Rorschach’s journal from, we do not yet know. In the graphic novel, it was last seen in the possession of the two guys from the New Frontiersman, but that part of the plot may very well have been overwritten. 

We see fake Rorschach’s face: the unmasking is shown as if it is a big reveal, as if we ought to know who the young black guy is, but I certainly didn’t. Doomsday Clock is taking place 7 years after the end of Watchmen, so my first guess could still be right: Bernie from the newstand would be 19 or 20 by now. But we see fake Rorschach dreaming that he is driving away from Ozymandias’s squid, which suggests that he was old enough to drive a car in 1987.

The Comedian and Ozymandias have a five page fight scene. The Comedian throws Ozymandias out of the window but he survives. Lex Luther is badly injured. 

A surprising amount of space is given over to a fictional black and white detective movie called The Adjournment featuring a fictional detective called Nathaniel Dusk. Nathaniel Dusk is an obscure DC character; he appeared in a couple of mini-series in the 1980s. It appears that this fictional film is meant to have the same ironic connection with the action that Tales of the Black Freighter did in Watchmen itself. I am sure that remarks like “there’s a big twist where one of the dead guys turns out to be a killer, too” will turn out to be terribly ironic or prophetic in retrospect. I fimd the Black Freighter stuff much the least interesting part of Watchmen, although obviously I never, ever skip it.

One of the people watching Nathaniel Dusk on TV is a Mr Thunder. Mr Thunder is a resident in an old people's home, and is expecting that his family will come and visit; like Godot, they never show up. There is quite a lot of conversation at the old people’s home, none of which seems relevant to the main story. 

Mr Thunder is presumably Johnny Thunder. Johnny Thunder was an actual DC character actually published in the 1940s. He was also a member of the Justice Society of America, which again, was an actual comic. The Justice Society is to DC Comics very much what the Minutemen are to Watchmen: the aging heroes of a previous generation. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Justice Society was deemed to have existed in a parallel earth, Earth-Two, whereas the contemporary Justice League lived on Earth-One. Then, in the 80s, Marv Wolfman promulgated a dogma that the Justice Society and the Justice League both existed in the same continuity, the J.S.A in the 40s and 50s, the J.L.A in the 70s and 80s. I am not entirely certain what the current doctrinal position is, but I assume that the status of the J.S.A is going to be changed, again, through Doctor Manhattan’s tinkering. 

This may turn out to be very interesting if you are keeping tabs on the ins and outs of the DC universe. In the comic that we have in front of us, various senior citizens watch TV for several pages, and no answer to the question “Who are these people and why should I be interested in them?" is forthcoming. 

The Mime and Marionette walk into a bar. (Ouch. It was an iron bar.) There is a comedian (geddit?) telling very weak jokes. The bar is on the Joker’s territory; after beating up everyone in the bar, Marionette says that she is going to go and look for the Joker. The Mime seems to be actually able to kill people with his imaginary gun. Marionette implies that she was at one time pregnant with Doctor Manhattan’s child. They both wear clown make up and would fit into a Joker story fairly well. Please, flying spaghetti monster, do not let it turn out that the Mime is Doctor Manhattan's son.  

The comedian in the bar is Stewart Lee. Not a caricature or a stand-in: it’s simply a portrait of Stewart Lee. 

Stewart Lee is a British comedian. He deals in sweary, surreal, bad-taste, politically inspired riffs which often do not have punchlines. 

Here is an example of a Stewart Lee joke: 

“(An American) said ‘They should have brought Bin Laden's body here and hung it from the lamp-post. In fact, they should have roasted him here. Like a chicken. So he would have seen what it felt like.’ Hung it from the lamp post? What lamp post is that? The New York City designated corpse roasting lamppost. Who should have done that? 'They' should. Who are 'they'? The New York City dedicated corpse roasting team. They don’t do a lot of corpse roasting. Their duties mainly involve maintenance of the corpse roasting lamp-post…” 

Here is the fictitious Stewart Lee’s joke:

“How many of Gotham’s caped crusaders does it take to screw in a light bulb? None! They like the dark!”

This would have been a pretty poor scene if it had been a generic, faceless comedian. (Do stand ups, however weak they are and however scuzzy the venue, really deal in those kinds of playground riddles?) But Stewart Lee can easily be shown to be an old friend of Alan Moore’s. When Radio 4 ran a strand in which celebrities and performers got to interview their mates, Stewart Lee interviewed Alan Moore. (Alan Moore interviewed Brian Eno.) 

Someone throws a glass in Stewart Lee's face. 

It is said that in the 1970s, Marvel Comics stopped ignoring Jack Kirby and became actively hostile to him. There is a persistent oral tradition that archivists used to burn priceless pages of Kirby artwork as an initiation rite. Another story says that photostats of his work used to appear on bullpen noticeboards with puerile, disparaging lettering added. It is certainly true that the letters pages in The Eternals were filled with knocking copy; and that editorials started to appear saying that Peter Parker would never have asked for co-ownership of characters which he had co-created. The wheel turned around and the wheel turned around and now Marvel revere their co-founder as much as everyone else. Doubtless Alan Moore’s genius will be recognized after he is dead. But right now, this comic has passed beyond not being very interesting and become the literary equivalent of taking a match to Alan Moore’s legacy.

Andrew Rilstone is a writer and critic from Bristol, England. 

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 Watchmen and Doomsday Clock are copyright DC Comics. All quotes and illustrations are use for the purpose of criticism under the principle of fair dealing and fair use, and remain the property of the copyright holder.

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Monday, January 22, 2018

Doomsday Clock #2

The Comedian is alive and well and living in a parallel universe.

He tries to kill Ozymandias while Ozymandias is talking to Lex Luther.

Comedian still alive.

Ozymandias talking to Lex Luther.

Still alive. Comedian.





I remember Superman Versus The Amazing Spider-Man.

That was what it was called. Not “Superman and Spider-Man meet” or “Spider-Man vs Superman.” Superman Versus The Amazing Spider-Man. A huge over-sized thing, with a long title, costing ten times what a normal comic cost. 

I read it over and over, twenty or fifty times, the most times I have read a comic apart from Spider-Man Comics Weekly #5 or the Star Wars Treasuries.

Did I even know who Superman was? I suppose there were annuals, and second hand imports in markets, and a TV cartoon, voiced by your actual Bud Collyer, so I knew the basics. It was a smart piece of work: it knew what Superman Versus The Amazing Spider-Man had to deliver and by Rao it delivered it. Rather pointedly it started with a standard issue Spider-Man solo story of the period and followed it up with a standard issue Superman story so we could see how different the two guys were before we saw them together. Spidey sent Doctor Octopus back to prison and Superman sent Lex Luther back to prison and the two villains ended up in the same prison plotting a horrible revenge. When Peter Parker and Clark Kent both end up at the same newspaper conference there is a massive misunderstanding which results in Spider-Man punching Superman. Kryptonite becomes involved. But they make friends in time to join forces and foil their respective villains. Lois Lane and Mary Jane have a girly chat, and J. Jonah Jameson talks photographers and news reporters with Perry White in the bar. 

There is no reason why this kind of thing can’t be a lot of fun. Comic book universes thrive because we already know the characters: Spider-Man reminds us of every Spider-Man story we have ever read and Superman reminds us of every Superman story we have ever read so naturally if you put both of them in the same panel our fan-emotions run off the scale. All the writer really has to do is play up the differences between the characters — have Spider-Man behaving in as typical a Spider-Man way as possible and Superman being as much like Superman as possible and then stand back and allow the stylistic clashes to emerge. And when you are done, put everything back in the box. Spider-Man meeting Superman is a one-off for our entertainment, not a stage in his character development. Marvel didn’t have a concept of Imaginary Tales back then, but Roy Thomas shunted Superman Versus The Amazing Spider-Man off to a parallel universe in the very first issue of What If…? Superman and Spider-Man could never really meet: Spider-Man lives in a much more realistic story-world than Superman and Superman lives in a much more heroic story-world than Spider-Man. That is kind of the point of them.

I remember a 1970s cartoon in which Scooby Doo visited Batman and Robin in the Batcave. There was a whole series in which Scooby Doo met other celebrities and cartoon characters. Scooby Doo meets the Adams Family; Scooby Doo meets Laurel and Hardy; Scooby Doo vs Predator. I think even us kids could see that this was a silly idea. Scooby Doo and Batman don’t belong in the same story. Pretending that they do takes all the laughter out of Scooby Doo and all the excitement out of Batman.

The two criminals who the fake Rorschach sprung from prison last month rob a bank. One of them, the lady, Marionette, has an unspecified previous connection with Doctor Manhattan. While the bank robbery is in progress, Doctor Manhattan teleports in from the galaxy or universe where he has been staying. That is why Ozymandias needed the crooks: as bait for Doctor Manhattan. Ozymandias has retrofitted the Owl Ship into a TARDIS and worked out that when Doctor Manhattan teleports he leaves a trail of McGuffin Particles. So Ozymandias and fake Rorschach and the two crooks can follow the McGuffin Trail back to the universe and world where Doctor Manhattan has been hiding out since the end of Watchmen. The DC Universe, obviously.

There was a good TV series a while back in which a policeman from a modern cop show got sent back in time and had to work with policemen from a 1970s cop show. The methods and attitudes of modern day policemen, and the style and assumptions of modern cop shows are ironically contrasted with the methods and attitudes and styles and assumptions of 1970s cop shows. They also did a 1980s version but that was boring. Why they didn't bring Gene Hunt forward to the present day I never understood.

So it could have been fun to take the realistic, grim, dark superheroes from Watchmen and dump them inside a traditional four-colour comic book universe. Part of the point of Watchmen was that superheroes had escaped from the printed page and got into the real world -- metaphorically, at least --  so a story in which those same superheroes somehow got trapped inside a comic would have been in keeping with Alan Moore’s metaphysics. But so far as one can tell, the mainstream DC Universe is now indistinguishable from the Watchmen universe. It’s grim, it’s dark, everyone is talking about corporate take overs, there are anti-superhero riots going on and no-one trusts ther Batman. That’s also very nearly the plot of the Superman vs Batman movie, which is as far as I have got with the DC Cinematic Universe. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting if Rorschach had met the square-jawed Adam West version of Batman? Then Ozymandias could have met Lex Luther the gangster who stole forty cupcakes. Or even Gene Hackman.

There was a comic where Miles Morales met Peter Parker, wasn’t there? It didn’t do very much except establish that the Traditional Marvel Universe was now just as realistic as the More Believable Ultimate Marvel Universe and that the latter therefore had no good reason to exist. Miles and Peter both now live in regular Marvel Continuity. They get on just fine. 

So: Ozymandias and Rorschach go to look for the two smartest people on this new earth, namely Bruce Wayne and Lex Luther. Lex Luther seems to be part way between the corrupt businessman persona and the super-villain persona — he lives in a tower block and wants to buy out Wayne Industries, but he has minions who he keeps threatening to execute. I liked the Lois n’ Clark version better.

The real Ozymandias told Nite Owl that he wasn't a Republic Serial Villain. The line was changed to "I'm not a comic book villain" in the movie, presumably because most people wouldn't know what a Republic Serial was. Lex Luther actually is a comic book villain, but Doomsday Clock consistently encourages the reader to see him as the plausible figure and to see Ozymandias as a little absurd. “If you are the smartest person on your earth, I would hate to meet the dumbest” says Lex. The point of Watchmen is that Ozymandias creates a brilliant plan, but Rorschach (just possibly, we never know) spoils it by sending the confession to the conspiracy theorists. Everyone in Doomsday Clock seems to take it for granted that it was a bloody stupid plan from the beginning. (The plan is framed as “scaring everyone with an arse-faced squid”. No-one has grasped any of Alan Moore’s metaphors about fiction and reality and idea space.) This isn’t the wholesome proper traditional four coloured DC Universe fighting back against the much too dark, much too cynical Watchmen. It’s more like the DC Universe and the Watchmen Universe vying to see who can be more cynical. Watchmen is if anything the naive younger brother.

Meanwhile, Rorschach has found his way into Wayne Manner and discovered the secret entrance to the Bat Cave which rather charmingly is still hidden behind a grandfather clock. He goes down a long stone staircase rather than a bat pole. Batman still has Robin’s old costume in a tube and a gigantic American penny, but no dinosaur. Rorschach isn’t impressed by Batman’s collection of trophies. They eventually meet in the last panel.

Geoff Johns tries to imitate Alan Moore’s writing style, a little bit, sometimes. On the opening pages, Ozymandias monologues that if he succeeds in persuading Doctor Manhattan to save the world “we’ll all be heroes again” — and we cut to Marionette telling the staff in the bank not to try to be heroes. We watch the robbery on black and white CCTV while Ozymandias says that “nothing is black and white any more”. In Watchmen there was sort of a point to this kind of thing: Rorschach, Ozymandias and Doctor Manhattan all believed, in different ways, that there were connections between everything if you looked hard enough. In this context, it feels more like parroting a narrative tick.

There are several panels in which a psychiatrist tries to assess Bruce Wayne’s sanity using, you’ll like this, Rorschach blotches. The sequence very closely parallels (although, in fairness, it doesn’t directly quote) Dr Long’s interview with Rorschach in Watchmen #6. (The psychiatrist has a bow-tie like the prison guy, although his suit is plain brown rather than natty purple.) One of the blotches looks like a bat. One of them looks like the iconic “young Bruce looking at his dead parents” panel, although to be honest I didn’t spot this until Bruce has a flashback a few pages later. An one of them is possibly meant to look like the Comedian. Bruce says they all look like speedboats. This is reference for the sake of reference: a thing happens in Doomsday Clock which reminds us of a thing which happened in Watchmen. I suppose some of our memories of Watchmen are supposed to be transferred to Doomsday Clock; the one stealing the gravitas of the other. All it really does is piss us off.

The artist’s decision to stick with a 3 by 3 grid is trying to do something similar. It’s a big structural smoke signal that says “When you read Doomsday Clock, remember how good Watchmen was!” In fact, it mainly serves to remind us of how unlike Dave Gibbons’ Gary Frank’s art is. (I am prepared to concede that Brad Anderson colours a bit like John Higgins). Mercifully, Doctor Manhattan is wearing the same v-shaped thong he had on during the Vietnam sequences of Watchmen. (Marionette helpfully points this out.) Dave Gibbons slightly more cartoony art deftly sidestepped the problem of male nudity: we could see that Manhattan was stark naked without feeling that the picture was particularly indecent. I look forward to seeing how Gary Frank’s slightly more realistic art will deal with the Big Blue Penis Problem.

Everything now hangs on what Rorschach and Batman say to each other next issue.  Will we get a clever and witty scene in which both characters mutually critique one another? Or will they just endlessly quote lines from older, better comic books?

But honestly. The Comedian?

Andrew Rilstone is a writer and critic from Bristol, England. 

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider supporting Andrew on Patreon. 

if you do not want to commit to paying on a monthly basis, please consider leaving a tip via Ko-Fi.

Pledge £1 for each essay. 

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 WATCHMEN AND DOOMSDAY CLOCK ARE COPYRIGHT DC COMICS. All quotes and illustrations are use for the purpose of criticism under the principle of fair dealing and fair use, and remain the property of the copyright holder.

 Please do not feed the troll. 

Thursday, January 18, 2018

A Right Wing Racist Writes

....Richard Smith is looking forward to the Colston Hall name change - how about Hally McHallface or Star Bucks [sic]. And would you like Bristol renamed next year too, since a lot of its wealth in the past was made from the slave trade, and sugar and tobacco?

Of course neither [correspondent]mentions the significant philanthropic contributions that Colston made to Bristol...and neither acknowledges the realities of the times that Colston lived through and that his involvement with the slave trade should be seen in that light.

But then should we be surprised that the Countering Colston arguments are so one-dimensional and biased, because behind them is the sort of anti-establishment anti-capitalist slant of the Bristol Radical History Group[?] Looking at its website shows how they would like our history rewritten with conscientious objectors the only true heroes of war, Churchill the evil war-monger who incited WW2, and the renaming of the Colston Hall the first "domino" to fall.

...Colston was a significant person in the history of Bristol whose name should continue to appear, though his slave trade involvement should be highlighted in the context of the times he lived in as well as his philanthropic contributions

And before you call be a right wing racist, I am an educated liberal Bristolian with a passion for history, Bristol, education, and fairness. 

J. E Hill 

Evening Post Jan 18

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

An Ignorant Outdated Racist Writes....

I am getting totally fed up with the non-Bristolians of lower Clifton etc imposing their views on true Bristolians over historical events that happened more than 300 years ago.

Now they have finished their uni courses and settled down here, they seem to think they are the best thing since sliced bread because they are so-called educated and can impose their minority views on us!

For the non-Bristolians who want to have a rant at me because in their eyes they think I am an ignorant outdated racist (which I am not) I am actually a fairly successful career person who was born in this great city of ours but detest when the former uni students demand our history is changed because of their unrealistic left wing views. 

Bristol Evening Post 17/1/2018

Monday, January 15, 2018

Doctor Who: Twice Upon a Time

I have done my very best to like the Doctor Who Christmas Special. I truly have. But it won’t do. I’m sorry. It just won’t do.


In the 1950s, most children got smacked by their parents. I’m sorry but they did. Canon be damned, the First Doctor is Susan’s grandfather: he has been in loco parentis for a number of years. In the first episode of Dalek Invasion Earth she recklessly causes a bridge to collapse, blocking off the only route back to the TARDIS. You can see why the old boy might be a bit miffed, but we cringe when he threatens to spank her. Of course we do. We would like to believe that the remark was an unscripted interjection by William Hartnell. (All the bad lines in 60s Who were unscripted ad libs by William Hartnell, in the same way that all the bad lines in Shakespeare are interpolations by Middleton.) And it would have been better if Terry Nation had written “clip round the ear” or “thump” rather than “jolly good smacked bottom”. But the Doctor is more or less Susan’s father. When he gets cross with her, he talks like a tetchy, old-fashioned, embarrassing, late-1950s Dad. This was the kind of thing embarrassing Dads said in those days. I’m sorry, but it was.

The scene had a purpose within the overall structure of Dalek Invasion of Earth. Young people today may feel that it is not quite politically correct, or even decent, for stories to have overall narrative structures and for scenes to have points, but in those days everyone thought it was perfectly normal. The First Doctor was quite forgetful. The original series pitch used the word “senile”. He mixes up his companion's names and can’t remember how to operate the TARDIS. So at the beginning of the story, he treats Susan as if she is about twelve, even though she is seventeen. But at the end of the story, he treats her like an adult, even though she is only seventeen. You may think that shutting her out of the TARDIS at the end of the story is just as abusive as threatening to hit her at the beginning. But “How the Doctor came to see that Susan was no longer a little girl” is one of the things Dalek Invasion of Earth was about.

It is impossible to know how the First Doctor would have reacted to swearing. In one sense it's a meaningless question: no-one could possibly have said “bloody” or “arse” on 1960s TV. Mrs Whitehouse thought that even “bum” was crossing a line. But I imagine he would have said something like “Goodness gracious me! You will make me blush! I haven’t heard such words since I was on the lower decks of HMS Victory!”

To which Ian would have replied "Oh Doctor! If you had taught in a London secondary modern school, you would know that it is sometimes politic to go unaccountably deaf for a few seconds…"

And the Doctor would have gone "Hmm, hmm" and everyone would have laughed.

What I am confident that the First Doctor would not have done under those circumstances is threaten to spank a 28 year old stranger.

There is such a thing as fan lore and folk memory. Everyone knows that the Third Doctor used to say “Reverse the polarity of the neutron flow” a lot, even though in the actual scripts, he didn’t. But he did use a lot of pseudo-science and Jon Pertwee did tell a story about memorizing that particular phrase to the tune of "When I was a lad..." from H.M.S Pinafore. So although it's a myth, it’s a myth that stands in for a truth.

I struggle to think of examples of the First Doctor being particularly sexist. All the original Doctors were somewhat patronising to their companions. I recall the rebels on Dalek controlled earth asking Barbara if she could cook — but that’s not an unreasonable question for a group of male soldiers to ask a middle-aged lady. I recall the Second Doctor telling Polly to go away and make some tea but that was a plot point. I recall one of the UNIT soldiers announcing that Zoe was much prettier than a computer. But the Doctor thinking it was the job of his lady companions to dust the TARDIS? If the TARDIS got dusty I am sure there would have been an auto-cosmic-room-sanitizer-ray.

Why does Moffat wrench an admittedly terrible line out of context and somehow imply that this was the kind of thing the First Doctor said all the time? Weren’t there more interesting contrasts to be drawn between Olden Days Doctor and Current Doctor? Man of Science vs Man of Action is the one that comes immediately to mind. "Oh by the way, did you take three dimensional graph geometry at your school, hmm?"

But let's accept for the sake of argument that the First Doctor is the Sexist Doctor and the Twelfth Doctor is the Less Sexist Doctor. Who lore apart “A fairly liberal guy has to spend time with a previous, more socially conservative version of himself” is a perfectly good starting point for a story. But if that's your premise, for goodness sake, do something with it. Do the obvious thing and have the liberal guy show the conservative guy the error of his ways. Do the very slightly less obvious thing and have them both learn from each other. Ironically reveal that the chap who says “my dear” and “young lady” is deep-down a better feminist than the guy who uses the right-on language. Do something. Do anything. Don’t just point at the two characters and say “har har weren’t the olden days old fashioned."

Why does the First Doctor have such outdated social attitudes anyway? If Doctor Who made any sense -- if you were going to reboot it and start again, knowing everything we know now -- then the earlier versions of the Doctor ought logically to be much more alien and Gallifreyan and ill-at-ease with humans. The later incarnations would progressively take on the attitudes of their adopted home planet. In fact, William Hartnell's Doctor knew nothing of Gallifrey: the Time Lords were a gigantic ret-con, added to the series at the end of Patrick Troughton's tenure. But there is no reason why they couldn't have been a ret-con that made sense: Gallifrey could have been very fusty and old fashioned and patrician; a vast dusty Oxford common room full of old boys in Edwardian suits who say "school master" and "young lady" and threaten to smack people's bottoms. The kind of place where the First Doctor would have fitted right in. In fact, when we first met the Time Lords they were super advanced and godlike. Granted, the Doctor is meant to be a rebel, but how does being a rebel from their point of view equate to being a bit of an old fuddy duddy from our point of view?

This isn't news: we all know that Doctor Who, taken as a whole, makes absolutely no damn sense. But why are we drawing attention to its senselessness in this particular way. There is no in-universe reason for the First Doctor to be old fashioned compared with the Twelfth. There is no reason for the First Doctor’s Police Box to look different from the Twelfth Doctor’s Police Box. We all understand perfectly well that the BBC doesn't use the same prop in 2017 that they used in 1966. But why draw attention to this kind of  thing? You might as well say “Before The Great Time War all spaceships were made out of washing up liquid bottles and propelled through space on the ends of wires”. You might as well have someone shout out "It's only a model" and have done with it.

It is quite possible to imagine an episode of a TV series in which someone says “It’s only a model” in a genuinely striking and creative way. William Shakespeare broke the fourth wall all the time. Steven Moffat is no William Shakespeare.

A character called the Brigadier certainly appeared in about half the stories transmitted between 1970-1975 — in all but one story during Seasons 7 and 8, and a couple of times in each of Seasons 9-12. He made three further appearances between 1975 and the show’s cancellation — once in a special and twice in regular stories. He never appeared in the reboot at all although he did have a cameo in the children’s spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures. Yet on Christmas Day 2017 a Captain-Darling-style World War One officer (hammed up to perfection by Mycroft Holmes) deliberately withholds his name from the Doctor and Bill Potts specifically so he can announce in the final scene that his name is Archibald Hamish Lethbridge-Stewart.

Your reaction to this I suppose depends on how big a Doctor Who geek you are.


NOT AT ALL GEEKY:  Er…Wasn’t there someone in Doctor Who already called Lethbridge-Stewart?

JUST GEEKY ENOUGH: Oh. Okay. The Brigadier's grandpa.

TOO GEEKY: Oh joy! Oh rapture! What a Christmas Present! A Character who last appeared in 1989 has been referenced on screen!

MUCH TOO GEEKY: But…but…but…this means that the Lethbridge-Stewart novels are canonical! This is that very Hamish who slept with his brother’s wife while the latter was away at war and is thus the Grandfather of the Brigadier (although the Brigadier believes him to be his great uncle!)

For most of the Tom Baker era, Doctor Who was engaged in a Pol Pot level denial of its own history. Stories like Deadly Assassin and Destiny of the Daleks pointedly didn’t bother to check up on how the Time Lords or Regeneration had been treated in previous episodes. But every couple of seasons, someone would chuck in a reference to an old story to mollify the fans.

“The Daleks home planet is called Skaro”

“Drool, drool, they still love us, drool drool.”

Then of course John Nathan-Turner took over, there were back references in every episode, and the series went into a self-destructive spiral. New Who has consisted of nothing but internal references. I don’t need reassurance that Steven Moffat knows about Who history. I already know that Steven Moffat knows more about Who history than anyone else on the planet.

We are entitled to say that the Brigadier has greater significance in fan-lore than he ever had in the TV show. He started out as “that annoying soldier who the Doctor is sometimes allied with”; but he ended up as “the Doctor’s best friend”. And “How a Time Traveler met his former best friend’s non-canonical grandfather” is a perfectly good starting place for a story. That kind of thing happens to Time Travelers all the time. The Time Traveler usually inadvertently kills his friend's grandfather when he was supposed to live, or more problematically, saves his life when he was supposed to die. Sometimes he prevents his grandfather meeting his grandmother, becomes implicated in the curse of Fenric, or invents rock n’roll.

So why is Captain Darling Lethbridge-Stewart? So far as I can see, everything in this story, and in fact everything else in the history of the universe, proceeds exactly as it would have done if Mycroft had not been Lethbridge-Stewart but just some guy.

Are we meant to retrospectively think that when Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart turned up in the Second One With the Yeti, Doctor Patrick retrospectively thought “I had better been nice to him, he’s related to that guy I met for 20 minutes at the North Pole just before I regenerated.”

“No Luke. I am the non-canonical illegitimate grandfather of someone you once met.”

“O.K. I guess that’s quite interesting. Did we already know that the guy with the military background had family members in World War I?”

Captain Darling and the First Doctor are momentarily shocked when Bill Potts mentions that she is gay. And, once again, nothing follows. I don’t know what an actual World War I officer would have said if a young lady (a young black lady, at that) openly said that she was a hoh moh sexual. Would he have turned his back and averted his gaze in case he was morally contaminated by the sinner, or would he have said “Oh, I know all about that kind of thing m’gel, I was at Eton too don’t you know”. The First Doctor would I suppose have been Enlightened By the Standards Of His Day: “Hmmm.. Hmmm… well I dare say you are my girl I dare say you are, and it is entirely your own business but we really don’t need to mention it in mixed company, do we, hmmm hmmm?”

In fact we just establish that social attitudes used to be different and move on.

Remind me, why am I watching this thing again?

And then again again; the Christmas Truce.

The Christmas Truce seems to be something which actually happened in history. That is, for one night in 1914 and maybe again in 1915, the British and German armies stopped trying to kill each other. I think that this kind of thing was quite common in pre-modern conflicts: soldiers regarded war as a rather violent game and didn’t think it that odd to meet up in the pavilion at half-time and say “you fought awfully well today, sir.” That was one of the things which the First World War brought to an end. It wasn't an astonishing thing happening for the first time, it was a fairly normal thing happening for the last time.

But just as there is a folk memory of William Hartnell and a folk memory of the Brigadier, so there is a folk memory of the Christmas Truce. I think (like a lot of our memories of World War One) it largely comes from Oh What A Lovely War! It is basically a set of symbols: there are no characters.

Germans singing Stille Nacht! Heil'ge Nacht!

The English soldiers responding with Silent Night. Miraculously, they were all taught the same translation at school.

A few soldiers come out of the trenches, nervously, and shake hands.

More join in.

They show each other pictures of their sweethearts.

Some of them start kicking a football around.

They go back into their trenches.

One of them opens a box of Sainsbury’s Chocolate Biscuits. I may possibly have made that up.

The next morning, they carry on killing each other as if nothing had happened.

The Christmas Truce worked its way into the Christmas Special partly as a plot device: the Brigadier’s Grandfather and a German Officer are about to kill each other, but the Doctor moves them a few days forward in time so Peace breaks out before they can do so. But it’s mostly a detached, free floating image to make the audience feel vaguely warm and Christmassy.

Who was it who said that Dickens' Little Nell isn’t a character — she is simply an onion to make you cry?

It’s a scrap book approach to history. You take some cuttings — soldiers fraternizing in no-man's land, the first Doctor being embarrassingly tetchy at his granddaughter, an affectionately remembered 1970s character — and you hang them on a string like fairy lights. And that is all you do. “Christmas truce” makes you have a Christmassy emotion. “First Doctor says bottom” makes you have a superior emotion. Cameo by Wonderful Clara makes you have a sad emotion. Someone saying the Brigadier’s name makes you have a fan-squee emotion. And then you watch Strictly Come Dancing.

“Oh but Andrew I am sure if you went back and watched old Who you would probably find it had plot holes as well. If you moan every time you find a tiny little plot problem in what is after all basically just a kids show you will have to pull down ever pub in Bristol and pour salt over the ground.” 

Yes, Doctor Who frequently had plot holes. Doctor Who was frequently very silly indeed. It relied very heavily on super villains who did illogical things (hollow out the center of the earth? feed prisoners to an alien mind parasite? release dinosaurs in the middle of London?) for no better reason than it was the kind of thing a super villain would do. It relied very heavily (though not as heavily as the reboot) on heroes who could pull Special Baddie Defeating Devices out of their jolly good bottoms. We long ago admitted that this silliness was a big part of what made Doctor Who Doctor Who. But it always took place in the context of a story.

The Christmas special doesn't have plot holes. The Christmas special is a collection of holes without any plot to go round them.

I could never give up on Doctor Who. It is coded into my DNA more than anything except, I suppose, Spider-Man and Winnie-the-Pooh. (I love Star Wars, of course, but I had lived on this earth for twice seven years before Star Wars came into my life.) It is, as the fellow said, part of my personal mythology.

But I have wasted far, far too much head space searching for content in a series which has none; trying to find the story in a series which is only about surfaces; clutching at straws when it reminds me a little of the programme I used to like so much.

And it is now being handed over to a Peter Davison enthusiast who was show runner on the dreadful Torchwood.

Time for a  break, I think.

There are Big Finish CDs I haven’t listened to and New Adventures I haven’t read and Tom Baker DVDs gathering dust on my shelf.

Maybe I shall binge watch all 30 of Jodie Whittaker’s stories over Christmas 2020 and let you know if things seem any better.

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.