Monday, February 12, 2018

Last Best Hopes

Definition of Fan

A fan is one who regards, or affects to regard, a book, comic or TV series as a record or description of a real person or real historical events.

A fan is one who sees individual episodes or comic books primarily as sources of pseudo-biographical or pseudo-historical information.

A fan is one who is more interested in whether a text is consistent from a pseudo-biographical or pseudo-historical point of view than in any literary, aesthetic or artistic merits that text might have.

You're Just Not the Man I Fell In Love With

Therefore the Valar may walk, if they will, unclad, and then even the Eldar cannot clearly perceive them, though they be present. But when they desire to clothe themselves the Valar take upon them forms some as of male and some as of female; for that difference of temper they had even from their beginning, and it is but bodied forth in the choice of each, not made by the choice, even as with us male and female may be shown by the raiment but is not made thereby.
The Silmarillion

It could so easily have made sense.

We could have decided from the outset that Time Lords were incorporeal intelligences. We could have said that they take on physical bodies when they need to interact with mortals; and that the form they take resembles the race they are interacting with: a human when talking to humans; a Silurian when talking to Silurians. We could have said that most Time Lords can put these bodies on and off at a whim but a few — especially the renegades — become attached to them. Of course these temporary bodies eventually wear out and need to be replaced.

This would have explained, at a stroke, why an ancient being from a fantastically sophisticated alien civilization is also a dotty English prof who likes cricket and jelly babies. It would be consistent with the First Doctor referring to his body as if it were a possession (”this old body of mine”); with the Fourth Doctor talking about “settling in” to his new body as if it were a new house; and with Romana talking about “trying on” and “wearing” new bodies as if they were clothes. It would explain why the Time Lords allowed the Second Doctor to choose his new appearance, and why the Watcher was really the Doctor all the time.

And it would deal nicely with the issue of gender. We don't know what Time Lords have in their pants, but they have the same secondary sexual characteristics as humans — breasts and beards and hips oh my. And they seem to have a very human attitude to gender presentation. The Doctor may be a bohemian and a dandy, but he wears neck-ties and shirts and cravats — never a skirt. Unless he’s in Scotland, obviously. Romana is ostentatiously feminine and Missy is positively camp. This makes quite a lot of sense if bodies have nothing to do with Time Lord's essential nature, but are merely things they choose to take on. An incorporeal intelligence isn’t masculine or feminine, any more than it is Northern or Scottish, but a particular body may happen to be one or the other. Missy’s exaggeratedly feminine clothes and the Doctor’s liking for cricket are examples of the same phenomenon: taking on a form which is more girly than a girl and more British than a Brit.

But this is not how we decided to do things. We decided that the Time Lords would be advanced human beings, with court rooms and affairs of state and harps and extremely silly hats.

My way would have made sense, and been consistent. But consistency is a straitjacket for writers. Not making sense turned out to be much more fun.

An Unwanted Opinion

My beloved Doctor Who shone on Christmas Day with an official figure of eight million viewers. I could cry that it's the end of a wonderful era, and political correctness has now ruined it forever after such a glorious swan song. No unwanted opinions please. 
Ian Levine

Some former Doctor Who fans are very cross about the BBC’s decision to cast Jodie Whittaker as the fifteenth incarnation of the Doctor. By which I mean, as the fourteenth Doctor. By which I mean, obviously, the sixteenth actor to play the Doctor on TV. Unless you count Comic Relief, in which case I mean the twenty-first.

Some former Doctor Who fans are very cross about the BBC’s decision to cast Jodie Whittaker as the thirteenth actor to be regularly billed as the eponymous character in the canonical TV series. Let’s not worry too much about the word “eponymous”.

Some of these former Doctor Who fans are are just nasty little boys who don’t want gurls in their treehouse. Some of them have a much wilder, political objection. The idiot who got up an actual petition against Jodie Whittaker's casting uses a lot of easily identifiable far-right code-words: the idea of a female Doctor was forced on the BBC by the “SJW community”; the idea that the Doctor has to be male is “common sense”. He mentions in passing that there are “only two genders” suggesting that he failed his German ‘O’ Level. And he thinks the series started in 1957. He isn’t actually concerned about Doctor Who as such: he objects to the idea that the Doctor could change gender because he objects to the idea that anyone could change gender. His distaste for Jodie Whittaker is simply a distaste for trans people. He sees the casting of a female Doctor is part of a wider PC/SJW plot to destroy civilization. He is a very silly man and I don’t know why I am paying any attention to him.

However, quite a number of the Jodie denialist community are worried about something much more serious than the end of civilization. They are worried about Doctor Who continuity. 

Here is one Tony Ingham on Twitter:

It doesn't make sense. It would make the Doctor leaving Susan on Earth to be with David criminally irresponsible if the poor guy was likely to wake up one day and find she'd become a bloke! And what about Leela and Andred? How could family relationships on Gallifrey even work?

I think “How might family relationships on Gallifrey work?” is a perfectly good question. In the same way that I think “What happened to Doctor Watson’s dog?” and “How many children had Lady Macbeth?” and “Was Mary Magdalene the beloved disciple?” are perfectly good questions. It is the kind of perfectly good question that can’t possibly have an answer, but that doesn't stop someone writing a really interesting essay or a really terrible short story about it.

But what state of mind would you have to be in to start from the premise that family relationships could never work if Time Lords are gender-fluid, that no solution is possible, and that a male-female regeneration is a good and adequate reason to give up watching Doctor Who forever? The casting of Jodie Whittaker breaks the entire text: a male Fourteenth Doctor won’t repair the damage. Once we have admitted that the Doctor can be a woman, the show called Doctor Who no longer exists.

First, you have to take the decision to treat seven hundred and something episodes of a TV show as if it was a single text: to treat Dalek Invasion of Earth and Twice Upon a Time as somehow part of the same story. This kind of fan often talks as if there was a single divinely inspired text of Doctor Who in heaven, and that the script writers merely channel that text. They don’t say “In Spearhead from Space, some jobbing writer made some shit up, partly as a joke and partly as a plot device, and over the years some other jobbing writers have kept the same joke going.” They say “In Spearhead from Space it was revealed that the Doctor had two hearts.” Revealed is an interestingly religious choice of words. 

Second, you have to be more interested in the one great story made up of every single episode of Doctor Who even the ones which haven’t been written yet than in the actual episode that we are watching right now. If a 2018 story says something that makes it impossible to believe in that one great story then you either have to pretend that the new story never happened, or else you have to admit that the one big story never actually existed in the first place and quit watching Doctor Who altogether.

I grant that some texts are meant to be read that way. It’s fair to assume that something which is true in Season 1 of Game of Thrones is still true in Season 7. It is perfectly sensible to rewatch the early episodes of The Good Place in the light of what you have learned from the later ones. Stan and Jack may have been stuffing their comics full of whatever nonsense seemed fun at the time, but various Thomas’s and Gruenwald’s worked fairly hard in the 1970s and 1980s to turn the whole thing into a halfway consistent shared universe. Anyone might read Spider-Man and wonder if Uncle Ben ever met Captain America during World War 2. But it's a deeply odd way of watching Doctor Who.

Next, you have to come up with a series of answers to which there are no sensible questions, and convince yourself that they represent some kind of absolute truth. Yes, indeed, the First Doctor had a companion called Susan Foreman and yes she did indeed call the Doctor “Grandfather”. And in one particular story the Doctor left her on earth because she wanted to marry David Cameron. Years after Susan had left the series, the idea that the Doctor sometimes physically changes from an older man into a younger man was plucked out of thin air. Years after that, someone else made the idea that he was a Time Lord up out of their heads. 

I was about to type “No canonical origin for Susan has ever been established.” But I don’t really mean that. What I mean is “No-one involved in the actual TV program either knew or cared how the idea of the Time Lords, or the Time War, or Regeneration would affect Susan Foreman, because she was a minor supporting character who no longer had any relevance to Doctor Who.

The more you think about it, the odder it becomes. The invention of regeneration in 1966 retrospectively gives Susan the power to regenerate (even though she is no longer in the series); the invention of the Time Lords in 1969 retrospectively turns her into a Time Lord (even though she is no longer in the series); the casting of Jodie Whittaker in 2018 retrospectively gives her the power to regenerate as a man (even though she is no longer in the series). And this is so axiomatic that it is now impossible to continue to watch Doctor Who.

Even on its own terms, the argument is pretty feeble. Despite canonical statements to the contrary, the First Doctor is now firmly established to have literally been the first Doctor: there were no previous versions of him which we haven’t seen. It has been firmly established that he was at one time a baby, then a boy and an adolescent and then an undergraduate. When we first meet him he's an old man of 60 or 70. Susan is physically and psychologically a teenager, and will presumably become a middle aged woman and an old lady before her current body wears out. The Doctor eventually gives his age as 450, so unless some centuries have passed between Tenth Planet and Tomb of the Cybermen he is much older than he looks, in which case Susan’s present incarnation will outlive David by centuries. 

So the problem isn’t “Susan might turn into a man”; the problem is “Susan is immortal and David is mortal.” If this is an irresolvable problem then the Who-text was broken when Leela married Andred; when the Doctor revealed himself to have mixed parentage; or when he first had a dalliance with Madam de Pompadour.  Human / Time Lord pairings are what should be utterly verboten.

If nothing else, it’s a weird view of human relationships. We can somehow accept that David Cameron might see a very elderly Susan morph into a much younger person (with a radically different personality) and be completely okay with that provided she retains the same physiological sex. But if she changed into a similar person, but with a flat chest and man's Thingie rather than a lady's Etcetera than his marriage would be over. And the fact that this is a conceptual possibility means that you can't ever watch Doctor Who again. 

You don’t think its possible that a married Time Lord might have some kind of choice about their gender, do you?

This question was directly addressed in the very first thing Steven Moffat ever wrote for Doctor Who. You will recall that the the Doctor carelessly regenerates into Joanna Lumley while he is engaged to marry his companion, Emma. The Doctor is fine with the wedding going ahead, but Emma isn't; so the Doctor is equally fine with them just being friends.

"Well, never mind. We can still rattle around the universe, fighting monsters and saving planets. What could be more fun? My best friend by my side, my trusty old TARDIS and, of course, my sonic screwdriver."

And that would strike me a being the answer that any non-crazy person would come up with. Granted that Time Lords marry and are given in marriage and granted that Time Lords sometimes regenerate and granted that regeneration sometimes involves a change of twiddly bits it is perfectly obvious that a Gallifreyan marriage is “til regeneration do we part”. If Andred regenerates while Leela is still alive, or if Susan regenerates when David is still alive, then the marriage is over. Sad, of course, for the survivor, but every marriage includes the possibility that one partner might die while the other is still young.

That explains why the Doctor never talks about his own wife and children. After his first regeneration he is literally dead to them. There is probably a taboo against meeting your previous incarnation’s lover. Remember the symbiots on Deep Space Nine?.

The Third Age of Fan

I must tell you all that, rewatching Babylon 5, it touches depths that Dr Who could never come close to approaching. The fact that no new B5 is being made is the greatest crime to television drama. JM Straczynski is the greatest writer of intelligent science fantasy in history 
Ian Levine

Perhaps the most prominent Jodie denialist is semi-professional Doctor Who fan Ian Levine. Mr Levine has a complicated position in Who history. For being one of those who, in the 1980s, prevented BBC archivists from destroying the surviving black and white episodes of Doctor Who, he deserves our thanks and respect. For having been fan-adviser on Attack of the Cybermen, not so much. 

He is so cross that the next Doctor is going to be a lady that he has announced through the medium of Twitter that he is never going to watch Doctor Who again, ever, ever, ever, and that in any case Babylon 5 was always better than Doctor Who and in fact the best science fiction story and the best TV series that there ever was or ever could be. "Unsuppassable" was the word he used.

It isn’t quite clear whether his objection to a female Doctor is political or canonical: he says that he has no problem with strong female characters, but that the Doctors themselves can only be men; but he also describes the casting as “politically correct”. But his sudden epiphany that Babylon 5 was always better than Doctor Who, and his embracing of it as a Who substitute is both wonderfully ironic and historically inevitable. A very, very long time ago — at the time of the Paul McGann movie, I wrote:

“The post-fan aspires to the condition where the person who has read the episode guides, memorized the synopsis, and learned the character stats for the role-playing game is at no disadvantage to the person who has actually watched the programme. Content is all, execution and artistic merit is nothing. Babylon 5 is the consummation of this approach.”

If I were writing the same essay now, I would have said that the Harry Potter books do the same thing even more successfully. Doctor Who fans have to struggle to make the Who-text make sense. For many of us, the absurdity of that struggle is precisely what makes it fun. Harry Potter and Babylon 5 come with their geek-potential pre-loaded. There are no silly questions: any continuity problem which occurs to you has almost certainly occurred to J.K Rowling and J. Michael Straczynski.

Doctor Who was never a very good match to Ian Levine’s approach. Babylon 5 will suit him much better. He has his reward. And I remain thankful that he stopped that archivist from wiping the Dead Planet.

Monday, February 05, 2018

I Might Be In The Swamp

"What are your politics?"
"Well, I am afraid really I have none. I am a Liberal."
"Oh, they count as Tories. They dine with us. Or come in the evening, at any rate."
The Importance of Being Earnest

An American once asked me if Tony Benn was a liberal.

“On the contrary," I replied  "He was on the left of the Labour party.”

To which the American riposted  “Oh, I thought he supported high taxation, socialized medicine, trade unions and fairly generous welfare spending and opposed the death penalty and nuclear weapons.”

“Yes,” said I “That’s what I mean by ‘on the the left of the Labour Party’”.

“Oh,” the fictitious American retorted “But that’s what I mean by ‘liberal.”


On November 18th, the Guardian published a short essay by the former leader of the British Liberal Democrats, under the headline “Liberalism has eaten itself — it isn’t very liberal any more.” 

Any fool can type “Christ was not a Christian” or “Marx was no Marxist”. It’s just a smart-arse way of saying “I don’t think that Jesus would have agreed with some of the doctrines which the Christian church now subscribes to” or “Present day leftists haven’t properly understood Karl Marx’s political ideas.” If Tim Farron had said that the Green party was no longer green, the Conservative Party was not interested in conserving things or that the Worker’s Revolutionary Party was neither Holy, Roman nor an Empire, we would all have understood perfectly well what he meant. 

But when Tim Farron types that liberalism is no longer “very” liberal he doesn’t mean that his party, the Liberal Democrats, has drifted away from the political ideas which it was founded to promote. What he appears to be saying is that there is a thing called liberalism, which is distinct from the liberal party. When this thing called liberalism exists in conjunction with Christianity it has a desirable quality which he calls…liberalism. But when Christianity is removed from that thing called liberalism, that quality called liberalism is lost. However, Christianity and liberalism are not the same thing.

The Athanasian Creed seems positively straightforward by comparison. 

Let us try to unpack the argument as best we can.

I: The Liberal party was founded by Christians - it grew out of the eighteenth and nineteenth century Protestant Non-Conformist movement

"British liberalism is founded in the battle for religious liberty. The nonconformist, evangelical Christian groups that were persecuted by a society that favoured adherence only to the established church built a liberal movement that championed much wider liberty, for women, for other religious minorities, nonreligious minorities, for cultural and regional minorities, for the poor and vulnerable."

A lot of the great liberals of the past were definitely Church of Wales, Unitarian or Methodist. And so were a lot of the great socialists and the great Tories. Tony Benn was fond of saying that the Labour Party owed more to Methodism than to Marx; Mrs Thatcher’s dad was a Methodist local preacher. Was there a special link between the liberals and the Non-Conformists? Or would it be more accurate to say that the Non-Conformists were more inclined than the Established Church to think it their Christian duty to change the world through secular, political action?

Tim is trying to make the point that there is no necessary contradiction between being an evangelical Christian and being a liberal. I am not sure how far claiming that the movement's origins were Christian (even if that is true) supports his case. Most people have a perception that evangelical Christians want laws against blasphemy and obscenity, whereas liberals are against censorship. They think that evangelicals want abortion and euthanasia to be against the law, but that liberals think that people should be free to make their own choices. They think that evangelicals believe that God gave men and women different roles whereas the liberals support the equality of the sexes. This is why they are “surprised and confused” when a liberal such as Tim Farron says that he is also an evangelical Christian. If this is a misconception, Tim could very easily have typed “That may have been true at one time, but evangelicalism has moved on: most of us are much more progressive on those kinds of issues than we used to be.”

But he doesn’t

II: Although the Liberal Party has lost the election, a separate thing called liberalism has “comprehensively triumphed” everywhere else. 

"Liberalism has apparently won. Even members of the Conservative and Labour parties call themselves liberals today. Let’s be honest, you can’t work in the media without being a liberal. Even most of the journalists who write for the rightwing press are in truth liberals."

"Despite my best efforts, the Liberal Democrats have not won. But irrespective of my efforts, liberalism has." 

Is it true that we are all liberals now? Many people would agree with Tim that you can’t work in the media without being a liberal. Many people would agree that liberals run even the so-called right-wing press. And many people do indeed believe in something they call the Liberal Elite.

But the people who talk about the liberal elite aren’t talking about an elite made up of members of the Liberal Democrats. They certainly aren’t saying that in order to work at the Daily Telegraph you have to believe in 200% council tax surcharges on second homes. Liberal, in this sense, simply means “of the left”. And it is almost always used in a pejorative sense. Indeed, most people who think that you have to be a liberal to work in the media (hello, Richard Littlejohn! can you hear me, Kathy Hopkins?) subscribe to a conspiracy theory in which the media is controlled by a secret society known as the SJW or the Cultural Marxists.

Liberal, in this pejorative, American sense doesn’t imply beliefs which are particularly left-wing by British standards. A liberal, in this sense, believes that women should be paid the same as men, that evolution and climate change are real things, and that everyone should be allowed to go to the doctor if they get sick. The far right call this “leftie” or “PC” or “liberal” or “SJW”. The rest of us call it "what everyone believes in nowadays."

If Tim wants to adopt this usage, then he is free to do so. If we define “liberalism” as “views which are not on the extreme right” then it is certainly true that everyone except the extreme right is now a liberal. 

3: However, there is some analogy between this triumph of liberalism and the conversion of Rome to Christianity in 313 AD, which Tim takes for granted was a Bad Thing.

“Yet its triumph is hollow, just as Christianity’s apparent triumph was hollow when it became the state religion of the Roman empire.”

“My experience is that although liberalism has won, it is now behaving like the established church of the empire in the fourth and fifth centuries. It has gained ascendancy and lost itself in the process.”

This is a very odd thing for a self-proclaimed Bible believing Christian to say. I understand why a conspiracy theorist like Dan Brown might think that Jesus was just a new age hippy mystic until Nasty Constantine deified him in order to sell his new faith to the pagans. I understand why a, er, liberal theologian like Giles Fraser would think that the historical Jesus was basically a Corbynite social reformer and that the doctrines of the Atonement and the Resurrection are part of a vicious death-cult invented by Wicked Constantine in 325. But why should an evangelical think that the conversion of Rome was a disaster? Surely it was the post 313 Church that established the text and canon of the Bible they hold so dear? And surely it was the post 313 church that formalized the doctrines and creeds that they are so committed to?

Would Tim Farron rather we were all Arians?

I fear that there is a very dodgy sectarian undercurrent to this. I am very much afraid that evangelicals identify the ancient Roman church with the present day Roman Catholic church, and believe that Roman Catholics are “not Christian” or at any rate “not very Christian”. I fear that they believe that the Protestant Reformation — specifically, whatever sect they happen to belong to — restored the primitive apostolic faith. And I suppose that Tim Farron wants to wrest primitive liberalism back from these nasty fake liberals with their newspapers and their temples and their idolatry. 

IV: Because many liberals are not Christians, liberalism has lost a quality which it once had. This quality Tim calls "liberalism". 

"In discarding Christianity, we kick away the foundations of liberalism and democracy and so we cannot then be surprised when what we call liberalism stops being liberal."

"My experience is that although liberalism has won, it is now behaving like the established church of the empire in the fourth and fifth centuries. It has gained ascendancy and lost itself in the process. It isn’t very liberal any more."

I am pretty sure what Tim Farron is not saying here. He is not saying that the liberals (in the first sense, the Liberal Democrat Party) have ceased to believe in raising income tax by 1p to pay for the health service. He is not even saying that liberalism (in the second sense, the near universal progressive consensus) has ceased to believe in progressive values. He is claiming that liberalism has lost one specific defining liberal characteristic. The salt has lost its savour and Tim Farron knoweth wherewith it can be salted. 

I will accept for the sake of argument that liberalism emerged from the eighteenth and nineteenth century Non-Conformist movement; I will allow him to conflate Non-Conformism with evangelicalism, and I will even swallow the implication that the fourth century Roman Church and the nineteenth century Church of England are "establishment" Churches in a somehow analogous way. 

What I will not accept is that because liberalism was originally Christian, it follows that liberalism is irreducibly Christian. It certainly doesn’t follow that if you “discard” Christianity -- if some liberals are also catholics or atheists -- that you “kick away the foundations” of liberalism. You might as well say that because the Freemasons were originally a guild who built Cathedrals then building Cathedrals is what Freemasonry is all about and your local lodge is no longer very masonic. 

I think that what is happening here is simple metaphor-abuse. I am reminded of the pundits who argued that since marriage is the foundation of our society, allowing lesbians to get married will cause society to fall down. 

It might be that liberalism has some hidden premise that only works if you believe in sola scripture and baptism by total immersion. But Tim would need to demonstrate this. He isn't allowed to take it for granted.


So what is this quality called liberalism which is present when Christianity is present, but absent when Christianity is absent?

Ladies and gentlemen, the true definition of liberalism is…

(loud fanfare and drum roll) 

….freedom of speech. 

“What is at the heart of a liberal society? It is to uphold that we have a right to offend and a duty to tolerate offense. George Orwell said: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.””

Is that truly what he believes? Is that the one quality which makes liberalism liberal, which modern liberalism has lost? Is that the quality which disappears from liberalism when the majority of liberals stop being Methodists? And indeed, is there the slightest evidence that evangelical Christians are any more inclined than anyone else to say that they don’t agree with Jerry Springer the Opera or Monty Python’s Life of Brian but they will defend to the death those works right to be heard?

Oh, and did you spot the way that when George Orwell said "liberty" Tim Farron heard "liberalism"?

I don’t know if freedom of speech is at the heart of a liberal society, because I don’t really know what “at the heart of...” means. It is a classic preacher’s cliche. Clergymen are always telling us that improved street lighting on the Putney High Street should be right at the heart of our Christmas celebrations and that the problem of drug misuse in the under twelves is at the very heart of our Christian witness.

If free speech is at the heart of a liberal society, does that mean that it is the most important thing: that we should be prepared to sacrifice other things in order to secure it? Or does it mean that free speech is the good thing on which all other good things depend — that unless you secure free speech you will never secure any other reform?

I think that freedom of speech is one of a number of Good Things which need to be balanced against each other. I don’t think that freedom of speech is more important than universal enfranchisement. I would never have said “Well, it’s a shame that women are still not allowed to vote, but at least they are allowed to say offensively nasty things about men.” I don’t think that freedom of speech is the freedom from which all other freedoms derive. I don’t think that you have to fight for the right of offensively bigoted people to say offensively bigoted things before you can start to work towards racial equality.

Both ideas sound like nonsense to me. But perhaps they don’t sound like nonsense to Tim Farron. Perhaps that is why I am a Corbyn-supporting reformist and he is a Liberal Democrat. Perhaps the Liberal Democrats are and always have been the Freedom Of Speech Party.


In what way has this freedom to be offensive, this right to tell people things they do not want to hear, been withdrawn?

Tim cites two pieces of evidence.

First, social media. "Liberalism has eaten itself" turns out to mean “some people on Twitter can sometimes be a bit awful.”

“Five minutes on social media will give you a window into a society that condemns and judges, that leaps to take offence and pounces to cause it – liberals condemning those who don’t conform as nasty and hateful, the right condemning liberals as fragile snowflakes.”

I invite the reader to examine this claim very closely indeed. Note that Tim again adopts the American usage where liberal is the opposite of the right and the right is the opposite of liberal. Even granted this usage, you would expect him to say "the right condemns liberals and liberals condemn the right”. Instead, while we are all looking the other way, he performs his rhetorical masterstroke.  “The right condemns liberals and liberals condemn those who don’t conform.

Those who don’t conform.

It isn’t that liberals say that white supremacists and rape apologists and people who think that wheelchair users should be barred from going to school are nasty and hateful because nasty and hateful is what they in fact are. Liberals are calling them bad names because liberals don’t like people who won’t conform.

Note the subtle way he brings everything back to non-conformism, which is where we started. The true liberals, refusing to conform to the liberal consensus on the internet, are like the Anabaptists, refusing to conform to the protestant consensus in the Church of England. The liberals on the internet, shocked when someone says that secondary modern students are little different from cavemen, are like the fake Christians who made a pact with Caesar. Any one who deviates from received opinion is a non-conformist, and every non-conformist is a liberal. So the brave soul who is prepared to come right out and call a spade a nigg-nogg is the true liberal and the person who tells him that we don’t want that kind of language round here is not a liberal at all.

(There is also a sort of a pun going on around the dual meaning of "non-conformist". Non-Conformist has a specific religious meaning; but it can also just mean "anyone who won't fit in".  Not all non-conformists are Non-Conformists. And most Non-Conformists were rather conventional folk.)

Then we get an odd digression on “shared values”. 

“People talk about shared values today – I’ve done it myself. But when they do, what they mean is: “These are my values – and I am going to act as though they are also yours, and will demonstrate contempt for you if you depart from them"…..The cultural leaders of our day have made the arrogant and fatal assumption that we have these shared liberal values, and have sought to enforce them via John Stuart Mill’s hated tyranny of opinion.”

Is this true? Is this what people mean when they say “shared values”? Is this what Tim meant? Did he truthfully declare some idiosyncratic private belief of his own  to be a value that everyone shared and then try to enforce it? Are consensus progressive values merely the personal whims of a handful of individuals which have been forced on the majority by the minority? Is it really so arrogant of me to assume that everyone round the table agrees that black people and white people should have the same civil rights? Wouldn’t showing my contempt be the very mildest possible reaction if it turned out that someone at the table supported slavery or didn't think that Muslims should have freedom of worship?

But this is the claim. The people in charge -- the Establishment, the Emperor, Twitter -- have a set of rules, and if you deviate from those rules you risk of.....being disapproved of and called bad names.

And the people at risk from this terrible fate are....people who aren’t sufficiently liberal.

Don’t believe anything you may have read about Gamergate and the Puppies issuing rape and death threats to what-they-call SJWs and what-they-call feminazis. What we need to fear is the baying mob of consensus progressives.


And that, of course, is what this is all about.

There was once a  politician -- let's call him "Tim" -- who was also, confusingly and surprisingly, an evangelical Christian. And he dissented from the consensus by saying that he thought that it was a sin to be gay. And everyone in the liberal media judged the poor politician. They condemned him and demonstrated contempt for him. He was despised and rejected of Twitter, a man of sorrow and acquainted with John Humphries.

So he went home, and tried to come up with a way of defining the word liberal such that the people who said that gay sex was forbidden by God were the liberal ones, and the people who said that it was fine to be gay were not true liberals.

So he decided that judge not lest thee be judged was the whole of the law. And so it turned out if the liberals had really been liberals they would have tolerated his intolerance and not said that he was hateful and nasty for thinking that a whole section of the population were going to hell.

Because if liberalism doesn’t mean the right to call one lot of people sinners without another lot of people looking down on you then it doesn’t mean anything at all.

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.