Monday, June 04, 2012

Are the "words" printed in a comic "book" actually particularly "important"?

The Lee / Kirby wars over on the Kirby Dynamic blog seem to be degenerating into actual madness. It’s only a few weeks since Kirby expert Greg Theakston was arguing that Stan Lee must have created the Fantastic Four single handed because Jack Kirby could never have come up with anything as bad as F.F #1; now Robert Stiebel is arguing:

a: that the text on Kirby’s post 1970 work wasn’t that bad

b: that even if  it was that bad, Kirby was old and embittered and badly treated so it wasn’t surprising that he turned in substandard work

c: but even if Kirby's text was pretty bad, he is such a genius that it would be impolite to say so

d: and anyway it doesn't matter how bad the text was because it's the pictures, not the words, that are important in funnybooks. 

The latest twist is a "challenge" to come up with any examples (any examples at all) of good dialogue by Stan Lee. Sure enough someone contributes a nasty little e-mail saying "Here is an example of Stan Lee's best dialogue." The e-mail, if of course, blank. 

I suppose it's like any religious argument. You start with a difference of opinion and end with a turf-war. You start out saying "It's not fair for Stan Lee to claim that he's sole creator of characters that Kirby had a hand in as well"; then you say "A big hand, a bigger hand than Lee, in fact"; and then "Actually, Kirby was sole creator, all Stan did was add the captions" and finally "And Stan's captions were either irrelevant, or actually bad." Then you just start calling each other names. Someone has to take a step back and say "Hang on -- we're both attacking parodies of the other guys position. Let's calm down and try to work out what we actually agree about, and then we'll be better able to see where we actually differ."

If there is one thing that everybody agrees about the Stan Lee / Jack Kirby dynamic, and there isn't, it's that Jack drew the pictures and Stan wrote the words. Nearly everybody agrees that Kirby’s copy-writing skills were just not as good as Lee’s, and that this severely harmed his later solo books like the Fourth World and the Eternals.

I think that it is Possibly Slightly More Complicated Than That.

Here is an example of Stan Lee’s writing, chosen more or less at random and because it supports the argument that I’m going to make. 

Amazing Spider-Man 10  Lee and Ditko (Marvel Comics)

It’s from Spider-Man #10. Deep breath:

“Am I always to be thwarted, embarrassed, frustrated by Spider-Man. I hate that costumed freak more than I have ever hated anyone before. I’ll never be contented while he’s free. All my life I’ve been interested in only one thing — making money. And yet Spider-Man risks his life day after day, with no thought of reward. If a man like him his good…is a hero…what am I? I can never respect myself while he lives. Spider-Man represents everything that I’m not. He’s brave, powerful and unselfish. The truth is I envy him. I, J.Jonah Jameson, millionaire, man of the world, civic leader. I’d give everything I own to be the man that he is. But I can never climb to his level. So all that remains for me is to tear him down because, heaven help me, I’m jealous of him.”

I think we can agree that this is

a: massively overwritten

b: pretty good psychology for a funny book

c: pretty dramatic and well constructed

It was also, I think, pretty daring to put something like this into Spider-Man in the first place. After 20 pages of the hero beating up the villain, we are left alone with the least sympathetic supporting character who is having a desperate moment of insight in the aftermath of the fight. Lee and Ditko really were tying to push the envelope of what funny books were about. We're a long, long way from Krypto the Superdog.

Here is another bit of Stan Lee dialogue.

Ben: So you finally picked a monicker for the kid huh? Well hows about klewin a fella in?

Reed: We decided to call him Franklin, after his grandfather.

Sue: Dad would be so proud, if only he were alive to be here.

Johnny: “Franklin B Richards”…well, its better than match-head or stretcho.

Crystal: Why do you not pick him up Ben? See how he reaches out to you.

Ben: Aww…I ain’t much for kiddin’ around with kids.

Johnny: Something wrong, Ben? You sound kinda disappointed?

Ben: Heck no. What’s ta be wrong? So you finally name the kid. So okay. You want I should hand out medals?

Reed: By the way, Sue. Did you mention what his middle initial stands for?

Sue: How silly of me. It must have slipped my mind. His middle name is, of course, Benjamin.

Ben: Benjamin! That’s me! C’mon, hand him over to his uncle Benjy. Kitcee kitchee coo!

Sue: I thought you didn’t like to kid around with kids, Ben?

Ben: Heck! That wuz before I knowed his name! Nobody ever named nothin after me before! Now all of a sudden I feel like part of a family ‘stead of a freak show.

Fantastic Four 94, Lee and Kirby (Marvel Comics)

Lee has said on several occasions that what he really likes to watch is a big Broadway musical. And this is far more like the lyrics of a song then it is like a movie screenplay. All five characters are discovered together in a single tableau; each of them gets to speak a single line articulating what they are thinking. It would be almost impossible to act it out as a play: they aren't really talking to anyone. They are speaking at the audience. You could imagine it as a chorus in an operetta: 

You have named him?
We have named him!
You have named after his grandfather?
We have named him Franklin because it was my father’s name!
His name is Franklin!
His name is Franklin!
His name is Franklin Ben!

This is equally true of the Spider-Man panels. For all his claims that he brought realism to comics, Lee is using a very unrealistic, theatrical device here. Lee the story-teller is telling us things about Jonah Jameson which Jonah Jameson couldn't possibly know about himself. Journalists are such Bad People. Because they are Bad People, they are freaked out by Good People. So journalists always want to bring Good People down. (Remember Earl Spencer's speech at his sister's funeral?) It isn’t a new or subtle insight: Jameson is basically just a exaggerated representation of a “type”. But this is an era when Lex Luthor hated Superman because Superman caused him to go bald: Lee is at least trying to treat Jameson as if he were a person. But Jameson can't possibly know that Spider-Man is a better man than he is at any conscious level; and anyway, no-one really talks out loud in that way. Stan Lee is a speaking about Jameson, but he is putting the words into Jameson's mouth because that's a vivid way of telling the audience what he wants them to know. Shakespeare did this kind of thing all the time.

But that's true of the F.F sequence as well. The Thing is actually admitting something awful about himself: he refused to hold is best friend’s baby because it was named after his best friends wife’s recently deceased father. If he were really that petty, the last thing he would do would be admit it. And it's pretty mean of him to say out loud that this is the first time he’s ever felt part of the group, considering what the F.F have been through together. It just doesn't make sense as something someone would say. Again, Stan Lee is telling us that the Thing feels left out, and then telling us that he feels included again, but is doing this by putting the words "I feel left out" "I feel included" into the character's mouth. It isn't something a human being would ever say, even a bright orange one.

Note that this is happening only in Lee’s captions, and not in Kirby’s pictures. Kirby draws Ben with the other three members of the team, but Crystal separate from them — they are a family and she is only a temporary fill-in member of the FF. If he'd meant to show that Ben felt left out, he'd have drawn it the other way round. Crystal says that Ben should hold the baby and that the baby is reaching out to him, but that isn't what is happening in the picture. (Sue is holding the baby and not offering him to anyone else; if anything, Franklin is reaching out to his uncle, Johnny.) In panels 2 and 3, Ben’s words come from outside the panel: a very unusual and clumsy device. There is no hint of Ben's jealousy in any of the pictures. They've been overlaid on them by the words. It is clear enough what has happened: Kirby has turned in pencils in which Reed and Sue announce the baby’s name and Ben is pleasantly surprised when he finds out it’s named after him. That would give us a 2 pages in which nothing happens. Lee has superimposed a different story onto the pictures: a tiny little narrative in which Ben sulks and then cheers up. There are two layers of storytelling and the second layer clashes, very slightly, with the first. 

Lee does this all the time. Later in the story Mr Fantastic and the Thing are flying to a mysterious house where Sue and Reed hope to bring up their child in secret. Lee adds a tiny little character moment, in which the two heroes talk with their very distinct verbal mannerisms and personalities:

Reed: For a man who was one of the top fighter pilots of World War II you’re mighty jittery these days.

Ben: Me, I ain’t got a jittery bone in my whole lovable little body. I’m just plain scared.

If you are going to write choric dialogue, this is the kind of sparky prose it has to be. Ben saying “How pleased I am that you named the baby for me” would be unbearable. The big tough monster saying “kitchee, kitcchee coo” makes us smile. (Well, it makes me smile, anyway.)

Lee can be corny and over-write, and as his career progressed he became all-too-fond of giving characters agonised soliloquies, which could go on for pages at a time. But he is rarely boring and always keeps you reading. Ben Grimm's personality comes from the words Stan Lee gives him to say. The idea that the Fantastic Four would be a better comic (or the same comic) if you took Ben out of it and replaced him with a big strong orange guy who said "Bah. You puny humans do not understand me" is simply silly. 

It’s easy to pick out examples of Lee doing what Lee does. Just open any 1960s Marvel Comics and pick a panel at random. But it’s rather harder to find examples of Kirby doing what Kirby is said to do. We all know that Kirby Can’t Write Dialogue, but when I open one of his books at random, this is the kind of thing I find: 

--See, it’s truly Moon Boy. He’s sought us out.

--Perhaps to feed us to his devil beast. Be wary.

--But he comes alone. How can this mean danger?

--The evil spirits have left you, brother. You’ve come back without that lizard.

--No. He’s here. But do not be alarmed…

This from the universally derided Devil Dinosaur. (When Warren Ellis wrote his poisonous “Kirby was shit” obituary he took it for granted that merely saying the words “Devil Dinosaur” closed the argument.) But it doesn't seem nearly bad enough to deserve the approbation that’s been piled on it. It seems to be straightforward exposition. Moon Boy (a caveman) is returning to his tribe; some of them are willing to have him back, others, not so much. It’s his pet tyrannosaur they are worried about. It doesn't make me smile in the way that the good bits of Lee do, but it doesn't make me cringe in the way that Kirby’s terrible writing is supposed to.

Here’s a speech bubble from Black Panther, when T’Challa has just got into a high tech aircraft:

“Don’t crowd me, Mister Little. I don’t know what this thing can do. If I push the wrong button I could possibly blow us and this wagon to kingdom come. However, time is short, here we go.”

It is a little bit stilted, certainly. ("However, time is short": people may write "however" but they rarely say it.) It lacks the humour of Stan’s little scene between Ben and Reed. But it by no means makes me want to tear the comic to shreds in disgust.

The Panther is actually a rather complicated kettle of wombats compared with the other books Kirby wrote on his return to Marvel in the mid-70s. The Eternals and 2001: A Space Odyssey were brand new books, and no-one really cared a great deal about Captain America -- but the Black Panther was a fan favourite, having been written for three years by Don McGreggor. I can see that at the time it was a big deal that Marvel were publishing a comic about a black character with an all-black supporting cast (albeit written by a white guy) but it now looks like a frightful period piece. A lot of people at the time thought that Kirby's functional, unadorned prose suffered by comparison with McGreggor's Proper Writing -- in fact they said, in so many words, that Kirby's Black Panther amounted to a desecration. But in retrospect, if we are looking for examples of bad writing, McGreggor is the person we ought to be hurling the rotten tomatoes at.

“War cannot be contained within boundaries. Nor can it be easily directed. War not only affects its perpetrators and its participants. It ravages all it touches and scars much past that. Innocents die alongside warriors and some warriors are as innocent as the civilians whose fates await the outcome of the conflict. In war there is no use crying "I want nothing to do with your feud" "I do not want to die." Words unfortunately cannot save you in the midst of combat and combat also unfortunately has little respect for age or race or sex or shoe size. War at times is very cosmopolitan.”

Come on, Mr McGreggor, don't sit on the fence: come right out and tell us if you are in favour of wars or not? I like the idea that war does have some respect for shoe size; and wonder if anyone has ever written “also unfortunately” with a straight face before. This is a series of captions placed over a two page spread of a battle; I suppose the equivalent of one of those movie scenes where sad music is played over a fight scene, or where the explosion goes off in silence. But T’Challa can’t confront a charging rhino without McGreggor going off on one:

“The panther does not utter any savage oaths. He knows this is a moment of death charging towards him for his flesh and bone will burst and break before this onslaught! The swamp air is a palpable, pungent smell of mold and decay, each twisting vine is a realist etched under his sweeping visions each thunderous hoof shaking the muck in its wake is a signal and he replies to all those sense instantaneously.”

It may be that a school creative writing teacher would give McGreggor higher marks than either Lee or Kirby: the sentences are more complex, the vocabulary more adult, and there are lots of describing words. But as a comic book caption, it is simply appalling. At the point when your eye should be quickly scanning the nine panels in which T’Challa avoids the charging rhino (done in decent cinematic style by Gil Kane) the text holds you in one place. Instead of the illusion of movement, you get something like 500 words of dense text with illustrations. And nothing has been said except “The rhino charges" which the picture had already said perfectly well. You can see why the kinds of people who liked this kind of thing  might have been shocked when it was replaced with :

“Then, with cobra speed, the Black Panther strikes back.”

But I suspect that they were the kind of people who were rather ashamed to be reading comic books in the first place. And Kirby was a comic book creator, not a frustrated novelist. 

At the same time he was filling Black Panther with text that  we are assured — was an embarrassment to even his biggest fans, Kirby was working on The Eternals, which we may have mentioned once or twice before here. The Eternals was clearly the one comic which he did in his return-to-Marvel period which he really cared about. Did he ruin it wit his terrible prose? It is full of this kind of thing: 

Eternals 2, Jack Kirby (Marvel Comics)

Ajak turns to his limit and barks the orders that would bring the gods to earth.

"Prepare to raise the ceremonial pylans beneath the Celestials spacecraft. Even now, the first of the gods descends!"

On the great field outside a huge pylon rises from the ground. A pillar of blazing energy leaps form its top, and within that bright flames the first signs of the celestial are seen. Arishem, leader of the fourth host lands firmly upon the pylon. He will stand upon it for fifty earth yea towering like the surrounding mountains above all life below. And on the last day of the fiftieth year, he will step from the pylon, and on that day earth will live, or die.

Nowadays, an artist would be more likely to draw the pylon coming up from the ground and Arishem landing on it, over a series of panels, possibly taking five pages to show us what Kirby tells us in one. From that point of view, the Eternals certainly seems dense and un-cinematic; but then, its impact depends on that density. Kirby packs an exhilarating range of ideas into each issue; part of the price of that is that he sometimes chooses to tell rather than show. But “and on that day earth will live, or die” does not sound like an embittered man who is not really trying. It’s a line which has stayed with me ever since I first read it; a line which perfectly compliments the picture it accompanies. Each of the first half-dozen issues of Eternals builds up to massive, Wagnerian climax, and the words contribute as much to the effect as the pictures do.

What these lines lack, compared with what Stan Lee would have brought to the table is, I think, illumination, embellishment, decoration. If Kirby is asked to draw a space ship, he doesn't just draw a phallic shaped missile with fins and a port hole, even though that would do the job perfectly well. He draws a two page spread, an abstract piece of "Kirby-tech" drawn for the sheer love of drawing it. Similarly, if Stan Lee is required to show Ben Grimm on the phone to his girlfriend, he can’t limit himself to “I’ll phone Alicia. Wait, she isn’t in.” It grows into “Since you two don’t exactly need a chaperon, I’m cutting out fer a while. Wait’ll Alicia hears that her lumpy lover boy’s back in town…” Because he loves the sound of Ben Grimm's voice, and so do we. So Lee would probably not have been content to say that the alien was landing on a pylon or that he was surrounded by strange energy: he’d have come up with some goofy names for the pylon and the energy, because he liked goofy words and so did we. Lee, just because he is embellishing someone else's story, weaves his own narratives around the pictures. Kirby, just because it’s his own story, simply provides a running commentary to help you on your way. We're listening to a single voice; melody without harmony.

But for some really bad prose, the kind of thing which made Kirby kaptions and industry wide joke, we may have to wind back a few years to the New Gods saga. This is not Kirby past his peak, but Kirby at the height of his powers, drawing the best superhero comic the industry ever produced and introducing one of its definitive villains. The subsequent history of the DC Universe has been a series of commentaries on the New Gods saga.

And everyone agrees that it had terrible dialogue.

Well, the writing of the Fourth World is certainly odd: in fact, everything about the Fourth World is odd. You feel that you are being shouted at the whole time; not just by the characters, but by the plot itself. Exhibit A for people who think that Kirby Could Not Write is issue 4. Four human characters tell each other things they already know for the benefit of the reader:

New Gods 4 Jack Kirby (Marvel Comics)

-- But I am Victor Lanza! An insurance executive! A family man! My wife makes me carry an umbrella in case it rains! And now this!…

-- What about it, Lincoln? I’m Claudia Shane simple but worried secretary. What am I involved in this time?

-- And me, young but cool Harvey Lockman.

Well, yes, that sounds weird. But the difficulty isn't the rather clumsy way in which each character reminds us what is name his: that's the same kind of choral writing that Lee uses all the time. It's not even that they are telling each other things they already know: we didn't mind at all when Reed reminded Ben that he was a fighter pilot. The problem is that they don't actually have anything very interesting to tell us. They say “We are ordinary, and we have been captured by Darkseid, and Orion rescued us”. Which is all they need to say. But it's clunky. It's like we can see the construction lines on the sketch or the strings on the puppet. No-one talks like this: but no-one talks like Ben Grimm talks, either. But Stan Lee manages to hide his workings. While you are reading a page of the F.F or Spider-Man you believe that it is possible to deliver a wise-crack while throwing a punch; or that characters speak their innermost thoughts out loud in empty rooms. In the Kirby scene you are just reading comic-book captions. Nothing happens. Had Lee scripted it, he'd have added some microplot that isn't in the pictures. While singing their little chorus “We are ordinary, we are ordinary; we have been captured; he have been captured” there would have been a tiny little verbal conflict. Maybe the insurance man would say he was about to leave and the young but cool guy would tell him that they owe it to Orion to hear him out. Something like that.

But it is awfully unfair to cite this passage as evidence that Kirby Couldn’t Write, because it comes directly after one of the best sequences Kirby ever produced. Seagrin, a goody, has been killed in a previous episode. Orion gets out his Motherbox (a sort of divine I-Phone) and creates a funeral pyre for him. “Ride the tempest Seagrin! Enter the Cosmic Fire! The Source will take you as a warrior who has given all!” he sings, which is, I think you will agree, just the sort of thing a god of war ought to sing at the funeral of a fallen comrade. But hiding in the alley is Darkseid (a baddie) , who is also in the middle of an aria.

“How these heroes love to flaunt their nobility in the face of death! Yet they know better than most that war is but the cold game of the butcher...”

Which is probably one of the single most memorable pages in the entire history of comic books. Would Stan Lee have given Darksied more elaborate lyrics to sing? Probably. Would it have improved the overall effect of the scene? It is hard to see how. 

So. Where have we got to?

Kirby’s writing is nowhere near as bad as people sometimes say. It’s not as twiddly as Lee’s but the rip-up-the-comic-book-awful passages are suspiciously hard to come by.

Lee and Kirby both thought that comic book writing had an essentially choric function: characters telling the audience what is happening, or how they are feeling. If there was a picture of one man hitting another man, Man A would sing “I am punching him, I am punching him” while Man B sang “I am being punched, I am being punched” and a person off stage said “They are punching each other, they are punching each other.”

Stan Lee took this choral writing and made it progressively elaborate, like the knotwork on a Celtic manuscript, or the doodling in the margins of the minutes of a meeting. If Kirby would have written: 

“I’m gonna punch you!”

“Aargh! You punched me…well now I’m gonna punch you”

Lee would write something more like

"Wait for it sucker. The Union Rulebook for superheroes says you have to let me punch you, and you wouldn’t want to wind those people up.”

“Punch me, will you, you overrated windbag, I who have studied punching with punch masters of Hoggarth; very well, I shall punch you now as you have never been punched before.”

On the whole, and when he was trying, Lee’s dialogue remained snappy and funny enough to keep you reading; the flow of words from bubble to bubble pulled you through the comic. Kirby, though he uses dialogue in the same way as Lee has no interest in embellishing it. The characters say what they need to say to clarify the pictures. Most of the time, the pictures are so good that this is all you need. But when Kirby is telling a story which he is not really that interested in — which seems to have been the case with Captain America and Black Panther — you have functional captions explaining self explanatory pictures. It's then that we miss the Lee commentary; we feel that if Black Panther had had a second layer of narrative it would have felt less flat.

Hardly anyone thinks that Ernie Wise was a comic genius. But do we really have to dedicate whole websites to pretending that he really sucked as a straight man?

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

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Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four and Black Panther are copyright Marvel Comics. The New Gods is 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 copywriter holder.

 Please do not feed the troll. 

Thursday, May 24, 2012

New of Momentous Importance

Where Dawkins Went Wrong

The Viewer's Tale

Fish Custard

Do Balrogs Have Wings?

with other e-book formats to follow shortly.


*"real time" reviews of Episodes 1 - 3

*that thing I wrote about the Hero's Journey

*parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 of "Little Orphan Anakin", though not necessarily in that order

*other bits and bobs

Only available on Kindle; other e-book formats and dead-tree edition to follow shortly.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Entirely possible that I'll write something in the next month. In the meantime, here are a few songs to listen to on the 14th May.


Playlist of Songs About, Er, Intercourse

Monday, May 07, 2012

It Takes All Sorts

Bristol Folk Festival
5- 7 May
Colston Hall

Bath Ales have ludicrously re-branded “Barnstormer” as “Barnsy”. I would no more order a pint of Barnsy than I would eat a Snickers bar. The organizers of the second Bristol Folk Festival had evidently taken to heart some of the complaints about last year's refreshments: the addition of a “beer tent” on the ground floor and some festival friendly snacks at the caff were a great help, although the Mexican frajita place over the road did very good business.

On Monday evening the compère does the Folks Men joke again. Everything is folk music, he says, because everything is written by and performed by folk, not by, say, plants or animals. So the Anglo Celt Sound System is totally folk.

They play a sort of young people's night club dance music; with that drum rhythm dominating everything, while a front man in a turban does his thang on one of those huge drums and another one plays Irish whistle or Northumbrian Pipes. I could recognise it has as having some connection to instrumental folk – several musicians all doing their own thing on their own instruments in such a way that it all comes together into a single thing that you dance to. In that sense it was quite similar to what the people in the bar were doing with fiddles and squeeze boxes. (Folk-buddy #1 claims that they even went into Cuckoo's Nest -- a Morris tune with filthy words that no-one ever sings -- but I had evidently stopped paying attention by that point.) The band definitely had a following: people were forming a queue an hour before they were due to come on stage. But I couldn't help noticing that other people were also leaving before the end.

Doubtless if you liked this kind of thing this would be the kind of thing that you liked. But it was a bit niche to finish the festival on. Last year we had Bellowhead and glitter coming from the ceiling. Everyone likes Bellowhead. This year we had a very good night club band; and a sense that the actual folk festival finished with Sam Sweeney and Hannah James doing their delicate traditional tunes and clog dancing (how can a form of dance based on having blocks of wood on your feet be so damn graceful?) before we let the Young People do their thing for a couple of hours before bed time.

Did I not once tell you to avoid anything with the words "Celtic" or "Fusion" in the main job description?

There was a big stand on the bridge outside the main hall selling "old fashioned" sweets – white chocolate things with hundreds and thousands on them, rice paper sherbet flying saucers, Hershey bars, multi flavoured pretzels. I liked the Finnish liquorice best; soft like a truffle, sugary on the outside, salted on the inside, a very strong liquorice taste without the chewiness I like the taste of salty licquice, by usually find that much salt is a little nauseous. I think that liquorice like porridge, should taste of itself rather than being used as a sugar delivery mechanism. I think the same thing about Krispy Kreme Donuts, but wouldn't go as far as putting salt on a donut.

When I said that I didn't like “Celtic” music, some people affected to believe that that meant that I didn't like Celtic music. Which would obviously be ridiculous. Sunday's headliner, for example, was the slightly too ethereal for my taste Cara Dillon, backed up with what (I am assured) was a who's who of famous Irish instrumentalists. I am no expert in what is technically known as the diddly-diddly-dee sub-genre (sub-sub-genre “look how fast I can play this damn whistle”) but that doesn't mean that I can't enjoy it. Ms Dillon, of course, didn't use the c-word. She called it “Irish music” or more specifically “this is a tune from County Tyrone.”

Ewan McLennan was by some distance the best thing I heard over the entire weekend. He came on to the stage and practically whispered "A Mans and Man For A'That". And then, in case we'd missed the point, played "Auld Land Syne" on his guitar. You forget that these tunes, belted out at so many drunken parties, have a real proper melodic beauty if you trust them. But the soft, feathery delivery could wrong-foot you: before long he's bringing the same style to protest songs; turning "Banks of Marble" from a rabble rousing soap box thumper into a meditation on injustice and then topping it with an almost too painful to listen to version of Old Man’s Song.

We're living on the Pension now and it doesn't go too far 
 Not much to show for a life that seems like one long bloody war
When you think of all the wasted lives it makes you want to cry 
 I don't know how to change things but by Christ we'll have tae try

Oh, and an audacious reworking of Bob Dylan’s Blues from the Radio 2 Freewheelin' project. Take a silly, filler song. Slow it down. Deliver the lines as if they mean something even if you don't have the faintest idea what. Someone said that he sang it better than Bob Dylan's version. I don't think that's true. I think that this sort of cover is always sort of kind of engaging in an inter-textual debate with the original. If we didn’t know how Almighty Bob sung it, we wouldn’t we gasping with amazement at Ewan’s reworking.

Celtic indeed.

I think that I shall become the kind of person who likes liquorice I shall make a big thing of it. It's the sort of thing you might right on a character sheet in an RPG to show that you have an interesting personality.

Luke Jackson was by some distance the best thing I heard over the entire weekend. I wish I hadn't raved about him quite so much after Frome, because the set he did in the more intimate Colston Hall 2 was on a whole different level. Five years from now, he will be the biggest thing in folk, unless they steal him from us an make him into a pop star. The photos on his Facebook page show signs that someone is trying to brand him, which would be a shame. There's an honesty, even a naivety to his performance; telling us that a particular song is the one that been in his act for the longest (he's not yet 18) or introducing a traditional number with “I'm not quite sure who wrote this.” He has a deep, mellow voice which lets him pull off an old spiritual like Poor Wayfarin' Stranger with an intensity that I can hardly believe. There's absolutely no sense that he's mimicking a more experienced singer: you feel he's felt it himself. But its the self-written songs which crystallize his own experience: climbing trees, riding his bike in the park, realising he's going to lose track of his three best friends, hearing people on the bus running down teenagers. They are so perfectly done that listening to them almost seems voyeuristic. He encores with Oakham Poachers ("Steve Knightley asked me to do something traditional”) and while its clearly a cover of the Show of Hands arrangement, it suddenly, startling goes into his own bluesy riff on the final line. Astonishing.

"You may now cross off "dead children" on your O'Hooley and Tidow bingo card" tweeted Folk-buddy #1. This was immediately retweeted by O'Hooley and Tidow. Twitter is a powerful friend and a dangerous enemy. At one level, live tweeting events like this is great fun; and occasionally helpful, when other twits tell you what is going on somewhere else. At another, it tempts you to spend the event in the twittersphere, not in the moment (which is always a problem for a writer, even without the 140 character limit). And the acts themselves are reading your tweets. Since Folk Buddies #1 - #4 refused to eat the Hershey bars I purchased from the liquorice shop I idly tweeted "I wonder if the band like American chocolate" "Yes please" tweeted back Mawkin "Enjoy the set..."Which is sweet: but it makes one immediately reluctant to tweet “this band sucked”. Actually, my general rule, being one who does not know anything about music but knows what he likes is to only review acts I've enjoyed. When I hear someone I don't think much of, I generally leave well alone.

(Which is not, by the way to be construed as meaning that if I don't review something I thought it was awful. I had a great time listening to Andy Irving at the the Folk House in May. He's one of my favourite singers. Specially liked his straight down the middle version of the It Was Sad When the Great Ship Went Down to mark the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the wassisname, and his very traditional Stewball. I just didn't get around to putting pen to paper. I also failed to say anything about the very wonderful Monty Award Winning Chris Rickets at the same venue. His version of Leaving of Liverpool reduced the entire audience to tears, and I was impressed as hell that he finished up with What Shall We Do With a Drunken Sailor. Not ironically or post- modernly; he just seemed to trust the song. Neither Andy Irvine nor Chris Rickets were at the folk festival. Now I've confused everybody.)

Instrumental folk is not always my most favourite thing, but Mawkin do it better than anyone I've ever heard. That was precisely 140 characters, that was.

O'Hooley and Tidow were by some distance the best thing I heard over the weekend. The last time I reviewed them, I described them as "depressing" (a fact they apparently remember). Actually, this isn't entirely fair. I would now be more inclined to say "haunting". Some of their songs pass almost unnoticed at the gig and then come back and kick you in the teeth three days later. The musical setting of a sentimental Victorian poem called Little Boy Blue, for example. They hold it, as so many of their lyrics, at arms length; there is something detached, and therefore chilling, about their performance. The verse is pure sentiment; it could almost be an Edwardian parlour ballad. But in the middle of the song, something altogether more contemporary cuts in; with percussive piano and declarative singing, it's an unsettling ultimately very moving shift in direction. (Clever, too: the line "but as he was sleeping an angel song awakened our little boy blue" would have been cloying.) But the tune is deceptive; I suddenly found the melody (“what has become of our little boy blue”) drifting to the top of my consciousness a week later and making me feel sad for no reason at all. There own lyrics love to hold up the ordinary for observation: the astonishing song about the old couple's coach trip to Blackpool piles trivial detail on trivial detail ("and the handbag with the fiddly catch that sometimes nipped her finger / but it matched her coat and sunday shoes so it really didn't matter") with an urgent, driving rhythm. It ends "'Have you enjoyed your day trip?' Vera says 'It were real'." Lancashire people do use "It were real" to mean "I had a good time"; but the line is taken up and repeated over and over until it becomes a sort of Samuel Beckett existential yell at the universe. Or something.

I have also previously raved about Solarferance. Folkbuddies #1, #2 and #3 all bought their album, which proves that I was right. They are the ones who stand on the stage with Macbooks, making strange noises with mortars and pestles and musical saws and live looping them, while singing very detailed close harmony versions of traditional songs. I think Folk-buddy #1 is probably correct that they need to work on their stage personae; Nick in particular has a slight tendency to look like someone doing a send up of disc jockey; but it's early days and what they are doing is fantastically difficult. "I never had but one true love" is awfully clever, The multi lingual Cutty Wren is still the best thing they do; the point, at which, I think, they passed beyond being awfully clever to actually making music. 

Every folk festival, I assume, involves a young woman singing "I'm Being Followed by a Moon Shadow", "Streets of London" and "Leaving on a Jet Plane." I have no problem with this. I would be sorry if it didn't happen. The sense of being at folk festival is an important part of being at folk festival. I have more than once been in a not very pleasant venue drinking not very nice beer when a not very talented young man with a hat, beard and guitar sits on a chair and sings a not very good song about the banking collapse and how it relates to the young lady who is no longer dating him and thought "this is exactly what I signed on for". I described her on twitter as "charming". Folk-buddy #1 wanted to know if my liquorice had been drugged.

Show of Hands did a fairly restrained set. By their standards. Regular readers will be aware that last year's performances was the best set ever done by anyone anywhere and they made no particular attempt to top it. They are never less than very good. We had a Cousin Jack and an AIG, Phil got to do Jamestown and Innocents Song, Steve Got to Home of a Million Dreams (which I don't think is as good as he obviously does) everyone did Keys of Canterbury, and we wound up with Now You Know Will You Come Back To Me. There was a hen night. A group of young ladies with a big banner that read "Getting married but still in love with Steve and Phil". (There are some folk performers, such as Seth Lakeman for example, who you can easily imagine young ladies adoring for their boyish good looks. Phil Beer and Steve Knightley, not so much.) This rather boosted the party atmosphere. I don't think Steve did as much banter as he usually does, since he spent most of the period between the songs engaging in call and response with the girls. Which was fine. In fact it rather underlines what a showman he is; quite able to fool around with the hen party, and then dedicate his last song to them, and say "good luck for the big day" in a stage whisper before quitting the stage. Wanting to postpone the debate about whether objecting to the common fisheries policy -- or indeed listen to a song about a character who objects to the common fisheries policy -- makes one a Nazi, I hung around in the hall and had a chat with the ladies. They'd were serious Show of Hands fans. They'd been calling out for him to sing Poppy Day, which is an incredibly depressing song about a drug dealer and had been at the Albert Hall concert the previous month. They said Now You Know was their favourite song; I said that Cousin Jack always makes me cry because my Daddy was Cornish. We left feeling that we were the best of friends.

That's the kind of band they are: not necessarily my favourite song writers (1) or my favourite live act (2), but never failing to catch the mood of the hall (angry last year, festive this year) and create a corporate experience. Godlike, in other words.

Lucy Ward is beautiful and lovely and funny and clever and I think I am probably in love. She drew a little heart on my CD and was just as lovely meeting the fans off stage as talking to them on stage. The picture of her on her album makes her look like a fey Monroe-ish starlet In real life she has bright blue hair and says that the best thing about Shrewsbury is that every third shop sells cakes. (She lived on macaroni pie during the folk week, apparently.) She has a sense of humour and comic timing which makes you think that she could probably hack it as a stand up comedienne if she wanted to; but in between the bubbling are some very dark songs. Alice in the Bacon Box is about a lady who ends up in the workhouse because someone takes her cardboard box away. Its based on a true story. She's good at making unexpected turns, as with her “traditional English song by Jarvis Cocker” which she does so well and, er, audibly that it made me go back and listen to the original. The recording which catches her stage act the best is Maids When Your Young, which is sung with an absolutely conspiratorial level of filth which is a joy to behold. She was by some distance the best thing I heard over the weekend.

Many people thought that Lady Maisery was the best thing over the whole weekend. There was a squeeze box, clog dancing and a strange Norwegian thing which may really be called "diddling" in which you sort of sing instrumental numbers. And there was a song about a fairy.

Dan Walsh plays the banjo and Will Pound plays the harmonica. Half way through, Dan did his banjo solo. You know that thing where the music gets so quick that's its obviously the climax, and everyone claps, and then he gets even faster? He did that three or four times. Brilliant (and he was properly playing a tune as well, not just showing off.) It was obviously the best bit of musicianship anyone did over the whole weekend the whole weekend (seriously).

"Hmm...8 out of ten" said Will when he returned to the stage.

Some years ago I was involved in the design of a computer game about pirates. There were different kinds of pirate ships, each with different attributes. (It was, as I may have mentioned before, described by the Daily Telegraph as "adequate".) In several years of writing documents and setting up auto-correct functions, I still discovered new ways of miss-spelling "manoeuvrability".

I feel very much the same way about liquorice

I didn't get very near the free stage this year because there was so much going on in other place, but would award several points to an Irish student Celidah band, quite possibly called Really Potcheen, who did things like Galway Girl very nicely and honestly. They described New York Girls as a Bellowhead cover, which says something about the nature of the Tradition.

And the Appliejacks who did appallachian clog dancing. At one point, the nature of the venue meant that the music from upstairs and the music from downstairs was in competition. English Morris dancing and American clog dancing. On Sunday, the man with the big Indian drum taught some of the morris dancers how to dance. 

Now, that's what I call fusion.

(1) Chris Wood
 (2) Chumbawamaba

Thursday, May 03, 2012

speaking of national anthems: that Nobel Peace Prize would make a nice birthday present, wouldn't it?


Sunday, April 15, 2012

I wish I’d kept the Private Eye cartoon of the publisher holding a large manuscript with the title “Bugger All.”

“Actually, Mr Frobeshire”, he is saying “when we said ‘write what you know’…”

Of course, we know what “write what you know” means: it means “write what you know and not what you read in some book”. You don’t have to be a vampire to write a teenaged vampire novel (though it probably helps) but for god-sake don’t set it in a trendy high school in California if you went to a bog-standard comp in the north of England. You’ll end up looking like a wally. (See also under Rowling, J.K.)

I mention this, because regular readers may have spotted that I am terribly reluctant to write about what I know: the interesting stuff is what I don’t know. On an average day, I work out what I think about DC’s opportunistic piece of shit Watchmen knock offs in the act of writing essays about them (essay = trial run). On a good one, I catch the eureka moment of consciousness on paper. I still think that the “What I really think about Matt Smith” piece is the best I’ve ever written.

At some point, I’m afraid I am going to have to come back and have another go at the marriage thing, which ought to be interesting, because I’d like to figure out what I think. I’m a bit reluctant to do so because I don’t know where I will end up; and I’m fearful of colliding with the brick wall of people who already know, and who, indeed, have declared in advance that no other viewpoint is conceivable. Go one way, and I’m actively working towards the downfall of western civilisation; go the other, and I’m simply a Nazi. A while back, I wrote a few lines on one of those forums about what I understood Clause 29 to have been, and why I think it came about. “A small-minded over-reaction to the use of some arguably age inappropriate sex-ed material in junior schools”, I think I said. Whereupon I was roundly accused of supporting genocide, or at any rate, supporting people who supported genocide.

You can see my reluctance.

But here is one thing I'd have to sort out before I started. I'm asking the question, you understand, because I don't know the answer, not because I do.

What does the Church of England think about voluntary celibacy in marriage? 

And come to that, what does the Church of England think about the voluntary separation of married couples?

See, if I’ve got this right, the Church of England thinks that God invented marriage for three purposes - Procreation, Sex and Companionship. There was also a sort of big meta-reason: he intended the relationship between a married couple to be a sort of icon of the relationship between Jesus and the Church. 

This iconography does not, incidentally, make marriage a sacrament in the way that solemnly re-enacting the Last Supper is a sacrament: note that the prayer book has a Sacrament of Holy Communion, a Sacrament of Baptism, but a service for the Solemnization of Marriage. Very clever people who say that the Church of England regards marriage as a sacrament may be making an honest mistake; people who talk about marriage “having a sacramental dimension” (very probably “in a very real sense”) are deliberately trying to throw dust in your eye.

Not sure where they got the “first, marriage was ordained for the procreation of children”, part from, either. The Bible seems pretty clear that God made Eve because Adam needed a helper, and that they only “knew” each other after they’d been kicked out of the garden. But going to the Bible to find out about Christian marriage will tie you up in knots: the Old Testament seems to regard polygamy as permissible but inadvisable; the New to regard marriage as a necessary evil.

So anyway: what’s the Church’s position on non-consummation: if two consenting adults get married, is sex compulsory? And what happens if a married couple lives apart for some reason: say if a woman chooses to marry a sailor who is only allowed to come ashore for one day every seven years; or even if a prison visitor chooses to marry a convict who he will never live with or possibly even touch? Unusual set ups, certainly: uncommon, inadvisable, but does the church forbid them or say that the couples in question are not really married?

Come to that, what happens if a couple who don’t really like each other marry — say, because their parents really want grandchildren, or because the future King of England has pretty much got to have a beautiful Queen, or because one or both parties is pregnant, or even to secure a dowry or an inheritance? I mean, these may all be really, really bad ideas, and the Church might counsel against them, but are the couples in question Not Really Married? And suppose, while continuing to dislike each other, they stick to their vows, stay together, and make the best of it. Married, or not married? You tell me.

You see where I am going with this. Marriage was ordained for three purposes: babies, sex, and companionship. Certain Christian factions appear to be arguing that a proposed new kind of marriage is a contradiction in terms; an impossibility; a sin and (in some cases) the harbinger of the end of western civilisation -- because it can’t possibly produce babies. Logically, they must mean either that if you remove any one of three elements from the prayer book then what you are left with is not marriage; or that you can have marriage without sex, or marriage without companionship, but you cannot have marriage without babies. (Which is a problem in itself, because the church does, I believe, permit very old people to get married if they want to.) Or else they are working from some source of ecclesiastical authority other than the Book of Common Prayer. (Johnthelutheran helpfully points out that the prayer book definition is taken for granted in actual English law.)

I am not terribly interested, for the moment, in finding out what the Church of England ought to think; or hearing arguments for an against disestablishment; or hearing from people who think that what the Church of England thinks is bronze age savage sky fairy sky fairy sky fairy wobbly sets wobbly sets wobbly sets. I’m interested, for the moment, as a point of information, in finding out:

a: what the church of England does in fact teach about voluntary celibacy and voluntary separation in marriage and

b: when, or on what basis it was decided that Cranmer made a Mistake and that marriage was ordained, not for three reasons, but only for one.

I’m sure this stuff must be written down somewhere. In a book.

Thursday, April 05, 2012