Friday, April 28, 2017

Hally MacHallface

Near my old school there is a block of flats called Feline Court. The developers gave the flats that name because they are situated on Cat Hill. The Hill acquired its name because, as late as 1955, there was a pub called The Cat at the bottom of it. And the pub was called The Cat, not because of some association with Dick Whittington or even the Royal Navy, but because there had been a bridge called Katebrygge there in medieval ties.

From Katebrygge to Feline Court in barely half a millennium.

There was once a school teacher who, when asked by a pupil “Why is that flower called a daffodil?” always replied “Well, it had to be called something, and hippopotamus had already been used.” 


Edward Colston was a London based businessman. He was born in Bristol during the reign of the ill-fated Charles I and died in London during the time of George I. (He therefore lived through the English Revolution, the Restoration and the Glorious Revolution, and lived to see our first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole.) So far as we know, he never went to sea or worked in the merchant navy; but he served and invested in a number of companies who traded in slaves, and in products like sugar which were produced by slave labour. 

You could say that any seventeenth century grocer who sold jam was implicated in the slave trade, as was any housewife or tea shop that bought a jar. Jam is made with sugar and sugar comes from Jamaica and the Jamaican plantations rely on slave labour. John Wesley told his Cornish flock to use less sugar as a protest against the slave industry, but not to stop using the stuff altogether. They stopped putting sugar in their tea (except with pasties) but still used it in their saffron buns.

Or you could say that by slave trader you mean someone who has personally put a manacle on a slave's wrist or personally wielded a whip — which Edward Colston certainly did not. Conceivably, he didn’t even quite understand the awful reality that lay behind the pounds, shillings and pence on his ledger sheets. 

What is incontestable is that Colston made a lot of money out of buying and selling black people; and what is equally incontestable is that he donated a lot of that money to charitable concerns in his home city. But it is possible to exaggerate and romanticize this. Edward Colston was not personally the founder of the girls' school which bares his name: it was founded in 1891 (170 years after he died) with money that he bequeathed to the Society Of Merchant Venturers. The statue of Colston which stands in the center of Bristol dates only from 1895.

Colston did personally set up a boys' school in 1708, using a building which had previously been a sugar warehouse. In 1867, the school was pulled down and a concert venue built in its place. The new building was given the name Colston Hall, presumably because it was on the site of Colston Boys School; not because the proprietors particularly wanted to honour the memory of Edward Colston. This theater burned to the ground in 1898, and again in 1945. The present building was put up for the Festival of Britain in 1951. It was not founded by Edward Colston himself, and not built with his money.

It is not at all uncommon for buildings to change their names. The Westminster Clock Tower is now the Queen Elizabeth Tower; Covent Garden’s Floral Hall is now known as the Paul Hamlyn Hall. This is particularly the case when a particular person falls out of favour: a number of buildings named in honour of Jimmy Savile were hastily relabeled after he was exposed as a child molester. This is not at all the same thing as expunging someone from history. It is fair to say that Adolf Hitler is still very well remembered in Germany, but I imagine that relatively few public buildings are named after him. 

It isn’t clear when it was first suggested that it would be better if Bristol’s main music venue were named after someone who didn’t make his fortune buying and selling black people. Since at least 2003 a popular pop band named Massive Attack have declined to play in Colston Hall because of its name. On the other hand, Billy Bragg, Steve Earle, Martyn Joseph, Reginald G Hunter and the JC4PM road show seem to have had no particular problem with it.

I used to be broadly against the scheme to rename the building. I tend to think that each generation bequeaths its memorials to the next generation and the fact that one century’s heroes are the next century’s villains is a lesson worth learning. There would be no argument for removing the statue of Charles Napier from Trafalgar square, whether he really made that joke or not. On the other hand, much of the Bristol Colston cult was not the creation of grateful townspeople in the 1700s, but of a Victorian revival dating only to the turn of the 20th century. And Colston is not a particularly important historical figure. How many other Georgian businessmen can you name? Who was the founder of your nearest private girls' school? 

Pointless symbolic gestures are sometimes necessary, providing they are pointlessly gesturing in the right direction. There was in my opinion no practical purpose in granting a posthumous pardon to Alan Turing. He was already nearly universally regarded as a national hero, and it was already nearly universally acknowledged that the law under which he was convicted was a stupid law. The only thing that could have been done to rectify that stupidity had already been done: the stupid law had been repealed. However, once the question of a posthumous pardon had been raised, the debate inevitably divided along partisan lines. Those who didn’t think he should be pardoned were almost entirely of the “I’m not homophobic, but…” persuasion; moderates and liberals all thought he should be. At which point the government had no choice but to issue the pardon to indicate which side of the line they came down on. 

For the past six months, the Bristol Post has been publishing letters about the Colston Hall question; and those arguing that the name should remain unchanged have been, almost without exception, racists and lunatics. Only last week someone asserted that if Bristol Music Trust changed the name of Colston Hall it would logically follow that the Egyptian Government would have to demolish the pyramids, since they were constructed by slaves. Someone went so far as to say that we would also have to ban Alice in Wonderland because they seemed to remember reading somewhere that Charles Dodgson had once met someone who was a slave trader. A steady stream of writers, presumably entirely unfamiliar with the writing of George Orwell, have queued up to say that changing the name of the building would be exactly like Winston Smith editing history at the Ministry of Truth, or else like Stalin airbrushing enemies from Soviet-era photographs, or else Hitler, or else political correctness gone mad. More worryingly, many of the letter-writers have said that we should keep the name because slavery wasn't really all that bad, and certainly nothing to be ashamed of. After all, "we" built railways and established hospitals in Africa as well. And “we” weren’t as beastly to our slaves as the Belgians were to their's. And "we" weren't the only country that did horrible things, and some Africans sometimes sold other Africans to slavers and in some parts of the world at some times in history white people have been slaves.

The most frequently made argument is that the evil men do lives after them while the good is oft interred with their bones and it should be possible to memorialize Colston as a philanthropist while deploring him as a slaver. The crime of kidnapping black people and taking them to places where they will be literally used like cattle is mitigated if you use some of your profits to set up schools and buy cottages for white people. This reminds one of the story of the man who murdered his mother and father and asked for mercy on the grounds that he was an orphan. 

If the question had never been raised, I would have said “leave the name as it is”. But the question has been raised, and if Colston Hall had remained Colston Hall, we would be coming down on the side of racist lunatics and people who being sentences "slavery was horrible, but..." 

And I don’t think we want to do that.


So: what should the new name be? 

Clearly it should be named after some respectable Bristol Citizen. Maybe it could simply become Colstons’ Hall in memory of the apostrophizer? Perhaps it could be called Banksy Hall, on the grounds that Banksy is almost as divisive a figure as Colston himself. Realistically, it could be named after an anti-slavery campaigner with some Bristol connection: the Hannah More Hall or the Thomas Clarkson Hall, perhaps. My preferred options would be to name it after a revered, beloved and treasured local member of parliament. The Tony Benn Hall has a certain ring to it. 

It never ceases to amuse me that if you were a York based Jehovah’s Witness you would have to give your address as:

Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses
Trinity Road…

There is a doubtless apocryphal tale about a place of higher education that was forced to write at the top of its correspondence:

Thames University
Polytechnic Road

After all this kerfuffle dies down, we are likely to end up with:  

The William Wilberforce Hall
Op Colston Tower
Colston Ave

And so history will be well and truly expunged.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

10.1 The Pilot

The Pilot. The first proper episode in nearly 18 months. Partial reboot. New companion. Dalek

In some ways I liked it. I cheered a couple of times: the Movellans, the sonic screwdrivers, and (retrospectively) when it dawned on me what Bill’s girlfriend was called. I gurgled appreciatively at the Mary Celeste name plate; and at the two pictures on the desk; and at some of the banter, because, if there’s two things that Moffat can really do, one of them is banter; and at the Dalek. 

I went to the Doctor Who Experience a few years back with a couple of kids and we were beamed onto the bridge of a Dalek spaceship. When you went, you probably saw a very well constructed animatronic tableau but I promise you we were taken onto a real Dalek ship. I've wanted to go on a Dalek ship my whole life. So of course I loved the Dalek.

And that’s the problem, isn’t it. Daleks and sonic screwdrivers and supporting characters who appeared for one and a bit seasons half and century ago and jokes about the names of dead actors. All very frothy for us fans, but where's the, so to speak, beef?

Imagine if this were almost anything other than Doctor Who. The hero’s friend’s lover has become possessed by a shape shifting alien puddle and the hero pronounces that the only way to free her is with a special “remove alien puddle” ray, which one particular evil alien robot happens to have. So the hero and his new friend jump into the middle of a war and set up a situation where the alien robot zaps the alien puddle. And, so far as I can see, this doesn’t do any good whatsoever: the friend’s love isn’t freed, the puddle monster isn’t destroyed. It’s defeated a few minutes later by the power of love. 

No-one would write this kind of thing voluntarily; no-one would think that “deliberately getting caught in the cross fire of a war” was a sensible way of getting rid of an alien water demon; and (incidentally) no-one has ever remotely suggested that the Daleks gun is the hottest fire in the universe before. The scene is an exercise in shoehorning the Daleks into the wrong story; either so people like me can have a fangasm; or because nominal Whovians associate the show with Daleks and not much else, or (very probably) because if the BBC don’t use the Daleks every year they lose the rights to them. The Movellans were rubbish in 1979, part of a terrible script by a Terry Nation who had long since ceased to bother, But seeing them for 8 seconds forty years later is like, the coolest thing ever. 

This is dysfunctional television. Or else I am dysfunctional fan.

A very long time ago when the universe was black and white the Sonic Screwdriver was just a gadget. Then, in the 70s, it became the Doctor preeminent gadget. Then, in the reboot, it became the Doctor’s iconic gadget: as much a part of who he is as the TARDIS. Now, the fact that it’s the Doctor’s iconic accessory is the subject of a visual gag: it may be his magic wand, but he treats it like I treat my old biros. 

When Bill is introduced to the Doctor, she demands to know his True Name. "Doctor what?" This is funny because...well, for very obvious reasons. When she first goes inside the TARDIS she says everything apart from “It’s bigger on the inside than the outside” which is funny, because we know that is what companions normally say. When she finally does say it, the Doctor and Matt Lucas sort of high-five, because they know it, too. When the Doctor makes a weak joke and the Bill responds in kind, Matt Lucas points out that they are now bantering.

We’re not only laughing at the cliches but laughing at the fact that we’re laughing at them. 

I have completely forgotten who the Matt Lucas character is and what he is for. (Did he just pop up as a fait accompli, like Madam Vastra?) 

Every time there is a vacancy, I speculate about all the interesting things that a new Companion might be. Maybe a young boy, or a much older woman (as worked so well in the audio stories) or an alien or something historical — a Victorian governess, say, or an ancient Egyptian princess? The last six companions in the original series were, what — a delinquent biker chick with mother issues who liked exploding things; an annoying vegetarian dancer who thought she was in a panto; a shouty American; a naughty alien schoolboy who nearly betrayed the Doctor; a posh alien whose planet had been exploded by the Master; and a naughty maths nerd who can’t dance... But in the new series, it always turns out that the new companion is going to be a spunky twenty-something woman who the Doctor banters with. That’s the new definition: companions are spunky twenty-something women who the Doctor banters with. Granted, Bill is a Daily Mail baiting black lesbian spunky twenty-something woman and the first person to say “why didn’t they make her an amputee as well so they could have the set?” will be politely asked to leave the room.

If I were the sort of person who complained about this kind of thing, I would complain that race and sexuality are just being used as signifiers of difference, like a funny hat: the new companion is just like the old companion except with the twist, get this, that she fancies women. But other people complain about that kind of thing much better and at much greater length than I can. 

It would have been much more interesting if Bill’s sexuality hadn’t been trailed in advance as a selling point: look at us, we’re so clever, we’re introducing the first ever GAY companion, unless you count Captain Jack, who was probably not entirely straight, and Wonderful Clara who was strongly implied to swing both ways. It would have been much more interesting to introduce a spunky twenty something girl who dated other spunky twenty something girls and resolutely refused to mention it.

I liked the way her jacket was yellow and stripy like the chips she serves in the canteen, and that she uses “fat” as a verb. 

The Doctor has stopped traveling. Because of that bad thing which happened before. He has taken on a new role, which he quite likes, and hung about for what to us would be a life-time and sworn he would never take another companion. But then this spunky young thing with a tragic entanglement comes along, and he picks her out as special, but never intends to travel with her, but in the end he does. But then he has to part with her again, which leaves him sad, so he quits travelling again. But then...

That’s not the plot of this story or this season. That’s the plot of every story and every season.

There is nothing particularly wrong with formulas. A sonnet always has 14 lines and a haiku always as 17 syllables; Captain Kirk always falls in love with a pretty lady solves a moral dilemma which demonstrates why communism is wrong. But formula is the hook on which you hang the content. And what is now the content of Doctor Who? What are we watching for? Self-referential banter; references to old stories; and an endlessly recycled stream of autolacrymose sentiment?

What we have this week is one more possession-and-exorcism story, based around a Mills-and-Boon notion that you can be in LOVE with someone you don’t really know and have never really had a conversation with. Bill has a crush on Heather but Heather has a crush on a mysterious pool of water. Heather looks into the pool for too long, and the kelpie drags her inside. So from now on, whenever Bill looks into puddle of water, she will always see her lover’s reflection looking back at her from it.

No: that isn’t quite right. What actually happens is that Heather looks into the mysterious puddle of water for too long and the water somehow makes an exact copy of her. It, the puddle, can now follow Bill around, flowing under doors, through taps and shower fixtures, and then take on Heather’s form. A sort of wet, leaking Heather, a bit like the zombies in Waters of Mars. Liquid Heather is heavily coded as scary, although never does anything particularly frightening. 

But this isn’t quite right either. When the TARDIS travels instantaneously to Australia the puddle travels equally instantaneously after it, and when it travel instantaneously to a planet millions of years in the past, there seems to be a puddle waiting for it, and when it materializes in the middle of Destiny of the Daleks, there’s a Heather shaped pool of water waiting there as well. So all the flowing and dripping was just for show. It hardly flowed through a crack and along a pipe until it ended up on an alien planet eighty six million years in the past. It can just be wherever it wants to be. Which makes it far more powerful than the TARDIS. 

Clearly, we are engaged with what Freud would call primary and secondary dreamwork — an image, and an after-the-fact rationalizing of that image. Heather can spring up out of a pool on an alien planet because the primary idea is that Heather has been subsumed by a water elemental — wherever there is water, there she is too. The sciencey hand wave is that one little pool of water is somehow outrunning the TARDIS through time and space. 

Because the Puddle is actually a pool of super-intelligent oil from an alien space ship, and when Heather remarks that she would like to go run away, this somehow imprints on the Space Oil, so she gets whisked away through time and space, except that Bill told Heather “don’t ever leave me”, and that imprints on the space oil as well, so wherever Bill goes Heather goeth too. The Doctor’s first idea of getting Heather zapped with a Dalek death-ray doesn’t have any noticeable affect. Bill has to cast a spell of banishing: when Bill releases Heather, that is to say the replica Heather, from her promise, she goes away.

I get that the title, Pilot, is a double entendre, and I get that this episode is sort of kind of reintroducing Doctor Who after a long break, reselling the formula to people who may have forgotten what it is. So I get that it is in one way consciously revisiting Rose — note the alarm clock, the exaggerated rush through the day at work, and the fact that the new companion is called Billie. The episode coyly pretends that we might not have any more idea about who the Doctor is than Bill does, and has quite a fun time unravelling it. The best kinds of mysteries are the ones to which you already know the solution: they make you feel clever. Moffat makes us do some of the work ourselves. Bill says that she doesn’t have any pictures of her real Mum, and then finds a box of old photos in her wardrobe, and then notices that the Doctor’s reflection can be seen in one of them, and then realizes that the Police Box in the Doctor’s room has moved… But when we get to the big reveal — Capaldi standing in an exaggeratedly large TARDIS interior, looking positively regal, making his speech about “the gateway to everything which ever was or ever could be” Moffat feels the need to immediately under-cut it with some unfunny toilet humour. 

Pearl Mackie delivers the line about “You mean it can go anywhere…anywhere in the university?” as if she doesn’t quite get it. 

I also get that if you are reintroducing the Doctor, you might want to sell the idea of the show by having as much time and space travel as possible: from the university, to Australia, to the alien planet, to the Dalek war. (The only thing missing is a meeting with, say, Queen Elizabeth I or Christopher Columbus.) A surprisingly large chunk of the episode involves the Doctor explaining the concept of Time Travel, as if some people might not know what a time machine is, or might not think the idea was that exciting. This week, time is not a ball of wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff so much as a city made up of all the different moments of your life; or possibly just a strip of movie film made up of thousands of still images. Moffat likes the idea of the simultaneity of time: one of his first contributions to Who, The Girl in the Fireplace, involved a spaceship which contained a number of “time windows” so Rienette’s life seemed to be laid out in a series of frames. Several times in Pilot, the camera appeared to pull back and show us Bill’s life as a grid of frozen moments, which is nothing is not audacious. And several times we get little flash back sequences showing Bill’s life and her relationship with heather in the little non-sequential moments.

In very, very old Who, we are asked to think of the TARDIS as being a bit like a television set; a little box that could potentially contain anything in the universe. Are we now being asked to think of the TARDIS as being a metaphor for memory? What we can all do in our heads — zoom backwards and forwards following interconnections and patterns to find the shape — the Doctor can do in the actual universe? Which is a not uninteresting idea.

The Doctor concludes his lecture about time being like a city by exclaiming “Time and relative dimension in space!” exactly like a vicar desperately hoping you’ll believe his sermon had something to do with his text when it patently didn't.

Look, we don’t know where we are going with this season yet. It might be that after the terminally impenetrable conclusion to Season 9, we have to sort of regress to the norm (Doctor, travelling, companion, banter, Daleks) before we can even consider telling any more stories. It might be that the pictures of Susan and River are just there so fans can stroke their beards and say “Ah, photos of Susan and River…” but it might also be that there is a plot brewing in which Susan turns out to River’s time-sister. There may be something really interesting locked in the vault, or at may turn out to be another monster which wants to destroy the universe for no adequately explored reason.

The idea that the Doctor has gone into semi-retirement and become an academic is really interesting (and not the worse for being a bit like Human Nature and a bit like School Reunion) but it isn’t clear if this is a recurrent sub-plot or a give away line in the first episode. Surely there is a whole season to be got out of the Doctor as a college lecturer? 

As so often, the best thing about the episode was the Doctor himself. How many terrible stories and seasons have we continued watching because Tom Baker or Sylvester McCoy were so compelling? There are too many long speeches about how brilliant the universe is and what a wonderful idea time travel is; but Capaldi does a very good job despite the overwritten material. I like the little flashes of Tom Baker when he grins. I like the way he looks at Susan’s photo when he first talks to Bill. I like his macho pride in the TARDIS. The scripts keep telling us that he is magnetic and charismatic and fascinating; but Capaldi manages to make him magnetic and charismatic and fascinating even when there isn’t dramatic music playing in the background. 

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

damn this country

damn this country’s constitution, where tiny majorities equate to landslide victories

damn this country’s constitution where leaders can have elections whenever the hell they like

damn this country’s constitutions where leaders can have elections whenever the hell they like, after specifically introducing laws which say they can’t

damn the whole archaic idea of monarchy, which allows party leaders to act like queens
even though i quite like the pageantry

damn the whole idea of the established church which lends spurious divine authority to politicians while paying stipends to priests who reject even the most basic christian teachings

damn anyone who cares what easter eggs are called

damn the teachers who belittled us, lied to us, hit us, and stared at us in the showers and the judges who sentenced mentally handicapped teenagers to be hanged and the mad nostalgia merchants who want it all to happen again

damn anyone who thinks that 63360 is a sensible number of centimeters for there to be in a kilometer

damn the hooray henries and public school boys and vicar's daughters and grocer's daughters who think that politics is a series of funny japes

damn the amoral careerists who vow to work every day to undermine their own leader

damn the followers of the middle way who sold their birth right and never even got the pottage.

damn the national anthem, the cenotaph, the donkey jacket and the bacon sandwich

damn everyone who is not a racist themselves but thinks we have to pay attention to the very real racism of the working class

damn the daily mail and all those who have ever read it
we do renounce them

damn the daily express and all those who have ever read it
we do renounce them

damn rupert murdoch and the god-father of his baby
we do renounce them

damn nigel farage who did all this single-handedly.
(although, in a certain light, fair play to the canny bastard as well)

damn tony blair and his dossier
damn neil kinoock and his rally
damn thatcher and her milk
damn thatcher and her war
damn thatcher and her strike
may her grave be licensed for dancing forever 

i sometimes think that the big war the grown ups promised us did come after all and the extra forty years we spent inventing new types of coffee and looking at kittens and pornography was a radiation dream and soon the cloud will pass and we will emerge from our inner refuge into nuclear winter and resume normal activities

we finally really did it.

NOTE: For the benefit of my mother, one of the words in this piece has been changed to a different word. An unexpurgated version is available on request. 

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Stand Down

I guess that in the olden days most savings banks and mortgage lending companies were local concerns — you had a Manchester Building Society and a Liverpool Building Society, didn't you. The bank I use must have decided to put its Unique Selling Point in its name: the Nationwide Building Society. But when I get a letter from the bank, I don’t particularly hear the word “nationwide”and think "gosh, that must be happening all over the country" — it’s just what the company is called. Similarly, I don’t hear the sounds of hammers and anvils when I talk to my friend Mr Smith, or feel particularly surprised if Mrs Green is wearing a blue dress today. In fact, it was  actually a little funny when it first occurred to me that my friend Clifford’s name could be understood to mean “a ford by a cliff”.

I contend that this is what has happened with times and seasons and festivals. There is a thing we do in December called Chris Muss. If we stop to think, we can see where the name came from. Douglas Gresham insists on referring to it as “the Christ Mass” which frankly just sounds weird. Most of us. even if we keep up the religious parts of the festival, don't specially hear the "Christ" part. "Chrissmuss" is just what it happens to be called. When a church puts up a poster saying "Christmas begins with Christ" they are making a pun, on a level with "ASSUME makes an ASS of U and ME".

Now, fairly obviously, this is what has happened with the Easter festivals. Maybe, just maybe, the druids did have a goddess called Easter who they worshiped in the spring, and maybe, just maybe the Christians came over and said “We’re ‘aving that, we are.” But Estre was probably the goddess of the sunrise or the dawn, and Sunrise or Dawn are perfectly good names for the day of the Resurrection, so Christians might perfectly well have come up with the name independently. But no-one, Christian, atheist or Archbishop of York connects the word Easter with "dawn" or "East" or pagan bunny goddesses. It’s just what the time of year is called.

So, somewhere along the line the Friday before the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox got labeled “Good Friday”. The most likely reasons are:

1: It’s a corruption of Gud Friday i.e Holy Friday

2: It’s a corruption of God’s Friday.

3: In a very real sense, things which look very bad to us can look very good to God and the only true goodness is in the badness.

4: We don’t know.

But Guffriday is what the day happens to be called.

So for a supermarket to put out an advertisement for cheap beer, only on sale over the holiday, under the slogan “Good Friday just got better” is another pun. The reaction of most people, including most Christians, is not “OMG Tescos think cheap cider is better than Jesus’s free gift of eternal life made once for all upon the cross”. They are more likely to think "Oh yes. Guffriday, Good Friday, got better. Very good. Very satirical."

No, we don’t mark times and seasons as much as we used to. I myself drank a pint of beer yesterday evening. Yes, I can remember when no shops, and definitely no pubs or off-licenses opened on Guffriday — apart from bakers who were allowed to sell hot cross buns provided they didn’t also sell any bread. (Can anyone tell me why we eat spicy buns on Good Friday if Good Friday is a fast day?) And yes, it is a pity that many people do not realize that Good Friday is a sad an solemn day. But the sight of otherwise sane clergymen queuing up to describe the advert as crass, offensive, insensitive, sacrilegious, ignorant and illogical made me think that someone was jumping, rather late, onto a rather ludicrous egg-shaped bandwagon.


I think that it is an Easter "Egg Hunt", not an "Easter-egg Hunt". I might say to you in September "Will you come to my home for Christmas Dinner" and you would understand that I was inviting you to eat turkey with me on the 25th of December. But I would not necessarily say to my guests while they were drinking their sherry and eating their nuts on the big day "Will you come through to the dining room for Christmas Dinner, and then we can pull a Christmas Cracker and eat some Christmas Cake and have a Christmas Mince Pie" although I grant that the steamed pudding you eat with brandy butter is called Christmas-Pudding and would be called Christmas-pudding even if for some reason you had some in July. So I think that if the parish council were planning its events in January, they might say "And then Mrs Wren will organize the Easter 'Egg Hunt'". But on Easter morning after church, Mrs Wren might say "All children who want to join the Egg Hunt meet me outside". No-one would stand up and ask why Mrs Wren had removed all reference to Christianity from the egg hunt and whether she was going to go and spit on the grave of Farine Nestle. (I looked it up.) She doesn't need to say Easter "Egg Hunt" because everyone already knows it is Easter.

I also don't think that it matters.

Friday, April 07, 2017

Flake News

A perfectly ordinary member of the Church of England moves from the former United Kingdom to Another Country. I forget whether he had to get out in a hurry because they were threatening to intern Remain votes, or whether he was just looking for work. 

Anyway, he’s been there about six months, when his neighbor says “Would you like to come to dinner tomorrow. It’s a big holiday in this country. Bound up with one of our Holy Religious Festivals, of course, but tomorrow night is just a family get together, followed by a silly treasure hunt where the kids win Turkish Delight.”

Well, the Perfectly Ordinary Fellow thinks this is very kind, and he goes, and has a nice time, and come December asks his neighbors round for mulled wine and mince pies and crackers. He stays in Another Country for the rest of his life, treats it as his home, and has kids who just sort of take it for granted that the second Wednesday after the first snowfall of February is Turkish Delight Day. (In fact, he hears that some people in the Old Country are taking up the tradition as well, because it’s fun.) 

But then the Maharajah of Another Country makes a speech. 

“We must all start eating Turkish Delight in February, like we did in the old days,” she says. 

“It is shameful the way Turkish Delight has been banned to appease Anglicans” she continues. 

“Turkish Delight is a very important Holy Religious Festival which shows we believe in the One God (which, by the way, I don’t, but my Dad did) and are definitely not like these crazy Anglicans who think there are Three.” 

Well, I don’t know if the Perfectly Ordinary Anglican buys his kids Turkish Delight (which you can get in all the shops, despite it being banned) that February; but he feels much less comfortable accepting his friend's dinner invitation that year. We can still be friends, he thinks, but as an Anglican I clearly shouldn’t be part of one of these people’s Holy Religious Festivals. Holy Religious Festivals remind me that I can never really be part of this country however long I stay here. I guess that’s the point of them. 

That night, hardly anyone goes to the Temple of the Definitely Only One God, but everyone eats far too much Turkish Delight and gets sick. 

A few years later, one of the Perfectly Ordinary Anglican's kids is beaten up by a group of thugs shouting "Another Country Above All The Other Countries!" and the Perfectly Ordinary Anglican, fearing he has no home in this world any more, jumps off a bridge. 

“How do such terrible things ever happen?”says the Maharajah. And they all live happily ever after.

If we can believe the Guardian, and I am increasingly unsure if we can, the National Trust has “axed Easter”, “omitted the word Easter from its annual children’s egg hunt” “airbrushed Christianity out of its annual chocolate egg hunt” “scrapped any mention of the Christian festival” and (again) “omitted Easter from the egg hunt.”

The Prime Minister — the actual Prime Minister — was reportedly Very Angry about this. “Easter is very important. It is a very important festival for the Christian faith for millions across the world. So I think what the National Trust is doing is frankly just ridiculous.” The reliably nutty Archbishop of York did his best to diffuse the situation, saying that the decision to not use the word Easter was “tantamount to spitting on the grave of John Cadbury.” (*)

Interesting choice of words, I should say. "Axing" implies premature cancellation, as when a TV station cancels a show because of poor ratings. "Axing an Easter Egg hunt" I could understand — it would mean that the event used to happen but wasn't happening any more. "Axing the word Easter” not so much. The same goes for “scrapping”: you can scrap a Royal Yacht or a library, but not usually a piece of vocabulary. Even “omitting the word Easter from it's egg hunt" I have a problem with. I don't think children ever did scramble around Leigh Woods chanting "Easter, Easter, Easter, Easter." And “airbrushing” is incredibly loaded. “Airbrushing” means “changing or ignoring an historical fact” — like never mentioning that there were black soldiers in the first world war, or saying that Stan Lee created Spider-Man.  It's a word, significantly, which is most often used in the context of communist Russia.

The allegation is not really that the the National Trust has axed, scrapped, omitted, removed, banned, airbrushed or abolished Easter, the Easter bunny, Easter Egg hunts or the Christian religion. The allegation is simply that they have removed the word "Easter" from the advertising and branding of this year's Egg hunt.

And it's just not true.

It a brilliant publicity stunt on the part of Cadbury and the National Trust, actually. I was vaguely aware of Easter Egg hunts as one of those mostly American things that has taken off here a little bit: people with big enough gardens hiding little chocolate eggs for the kids to find. Maybe some churches and schools do it too. I am quite sure that somewhere in the Derbyshire, in between the village which does the Pancake Race and a the village which does the Black Pudding Two Hundred Meter Hurdles you can find a village where an ancient tradition of beating the parish bounds with hard boiled eggs painted with colours of the Duke of Argyle is still observed. But did you know that the National Trust ran official hunts for Cadbury’s chocolate eggs on their properties, and have done so for some years? I certainly didn’t.

Last week's egg story was a little bit more nuanced. Most eggs don’t have the word “Easter” on them, but then, they never did; most eggs are halal, but then they always were. But this weeks is complete fiction. You can prove this by a simple experiment: go to the Cadbury's National Trust website at

I will say that again:

The first thing you will see is a headline saying "Enjoy Easter fun at the National Trust..." You will also see links to “Easter Range” and “Easter Events”. The first takes you to a Cadbury's chocolate catalog, which tells you that "Our eggstensive (ho-ho) range is packed with treats for the Easter period..." including "The Cadbury Easter bundle..." and  "Our Easter favourites...."

If you follow the link to "Easter Events" your will find the dates and times at which the “Easter Egg Hunt" takes place (from 10 -3 on Good Friday and again from 10 - 3 on Easter Saturday.)

It is true that there is a logo that says "Join the Cadbury Egg Hunt". But that seems a small thing to make a moral panic about.  

“But what have chocolate eggs got to do with the death and resurrection of Jesus in the first place?"
you are probably going to ask me. Well, some people say that there was a pagan goddess called Easter who rode around Narnia on a sledge pulled by magic egg-laying rabbits. Others point to a suppressed gnostic gospel in which Jesus hatched out of a giant crocodile egg like Isis. Rather desperate clergymen say that when the Very Early Christians wanted something to remind them of the stone that was laid in front of Jesus' tomb, what naturally occurred to them was an egg (as opposed to, say, a stone). The story that is most likely to be true is the most boring one: Christians give up rich food and treats after Pancake Day and start eating them again after taking Holy Communion on Easter Sunday. So naturally, Easter afternoon involves chocolate, eggs, cakes, bonnets, and Morris dancing.

The period of abstinence is called Lent; it is supposed to remind us of Jesus forty day fast in the wilderness. The last and holiest days of Lent are Good Friday (the day Jesus was killed) and Easter Saturday (the day he lay in the tomb). 

I don’t want to come across as very pious here. This Good Friday I shall probably go to Bristol Cathedral in morning and Bristol Folk House in the evening and one of Bristol's many fine coffee shops in the afternoon and I haven't give up anything at all. But you really can't have it both ways. You can't claim that chocolate eggs are mainly a symbol of resurrection and new life and then start eating them on Good Friday. You can't claim that eating chocolate eggs is mainly part of the Christian feast of Easter and then recommend that people do it on one of the fast days.

A lot of people are seeing this story as a bit of a joke; as our Prime Minister focusing on chocolate eggs when she should be concentrating on starting a war with Spain. I think it is much more sinister than that.

The story that Theresa May has put on all the front pages is not that, (interestingly enough), the word Easter is being used less and less nowadays. The story that Theresa May has put on all the front pages is that THEY have stopped YOU from celebrating, sorry, saying the word, Easter -- where "they" ARE commies, Europeans and, especially Muslims. Making up stories about how the National Trust have banned Easter, Birmingham has banned Christmas, London is a caliphate and Tescos have straightened all their bananas is a tactic which the racist right uses to radicalize white people. The more we can pretend that Easter and Christmas and Valentines and Bonfire night and the Eurovision Song Contest are Christian events, the less Muslims and Sikhs and Jews and Richard Dawkins can participate in our local culture.

I think there may be an even nastier side to it.

I think that the banning of Easter and Christmas and the Sharia regime in Birmingham are objects of faith for the very far right. Winston Smith had not only to say that two plus two equaled five, but actually believe that it did. I think that when someone -- a Prime Minister or a Bishop -- looks steadily and full on at an Easter Egg and says "There is no Easter Egg here" they are signalling very clearly which side they are on.

(*) John Cadbury was a Quaker and would probably not have celebrated Easter in the first place. Quakers don’t really keep holy days, because they think that all days are holy, in the same way that they don’t celebrate the sacraments because they think that everything is sacramental. In the past, they preferred to say First Day, Second Day, Third Day, so "Easter Monday" is unlikely to have been a big thing. Chocolate eggs were invented by Bristol's Joseph Fry in 1873 but John Cadbury had started making them within a couple of years. A price list from John Cadbury’s lifetime is headed “Easter Eggs”, although the individual products are just called “eggs”. (Some of them seem to have been ordinary chocolates in elaborate egg-shaped packaging, incidentally.)  But a flier from a few years after John Cadbury himself died is already calling them “chocolate eggs” (for the milk chocolate ones) and “Bournville eggs” (for the more expensive dark chocolate ones). They are decorated with secular spring flowers made of icing sugar and marzipan. Quakers are sometimes thought of as puritans, but I don’t think Cadbury would have had any objection to children’s treasure hunts. He clearly didn't have any objection to chocolate! He would have had a very simple grave, but I don't think he would be turning in it over what people called his eggs. 

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Cadburys Ban Easter (April Fool!)

We are all familiar with the War on Christmas, when (according to an ancient tradition going back to pagan times) a journalist stands in front of a Christmas tree next to a man dressed as Father Christmas in a Christmas market and says “Christmas has been banned again.”

This year, we have an excellent War on Easter as well. 

It takes two forms. The first, and more benign, goes something like this:

My kids have just asked me why the word Easter no longer appears on Cadburys Easter Egg boxes. What should I tell them, please?

I'm not saying a Cadbury Easter Egg has much to do with Easter or Jesus but have they really banned the word Easter to avoid offendin people?

The more malignant version goes more like this:

Just seen a pic of a halal certificate being proudly held aloft by Cadbury. You don't seem to realise this is offensive to many.

Cadbury Accused of Anti-Christian Conspiracy Over Rumours of 'Halal' Creme Eggs 

Muslim Easter Eggs with the word "Easter" taken off!  Almost as good as the terribly funny "Kosher Mince Pies" which comes up every year. Because everyone knows that only observant Christians eat chocolate in the spring time and little fruit pies in the winter and that fine old hymn Easter Bonnet was definitely not composed by a religious Jew. 

Cadburys bans Easter contains at least 5 factoids (*):

1: Up to now, all Cadburys chocolate eggs have had the word “Easter” printed on them.

2:This year, no Cadburys chocolate egg has the word "Easter" printed on it. 

3:The word Easter is offensive to Muslims.

4: Someone  Muslims, government censors, "the PC brigade", Big Brother — has the power to make companies change the design of products which offend people. 

5: Changing something because it offends people is a wrong and crazy to thing to do. 
I don't think that you can pass on the "Cadburys no longer labels its chocolate eggs as Easter eggs" message without passing on the other 5 claims with it. That is why this sort of thing is so pernicious.

In fact:

1: By no means all chocolate eggs have ever had the word “Easter” printed on them. Cadburys Creme Eggs were always Cadburys Creme Eggs, and branded eggs seem always to have taken the name of their brand — Maltesers Eggs or Smarties Eggs or Quality Street Eggs.

2: Many chocolate eggs still have the word Easter prominently displayed on the packaging. My impression is that very elaborate, decorated products are likely to be called “Easter Eggs” but cheap branded ones are likely not to be. If fewer eggs have the Easter branding than was the case 50 years ago, that would be an interesting (and not particularly surprising) piece of information. 

It is certainly the case that Creme Eggs used to be sold only at Easter, but are now available all year round, because people are prepared to buy them all year round. It might be that Cadburys want to encourage the idea that a 99p “Cadburys Flake Egg” is an acceptable treat at any time between January and May, while you would probably only buy the £10 Easter Egg with elaborate ribbons and flowers as a gift for Easter itself. I used to quite like it when you could literally only get Hot Cross Buns on Good Friday (and the baker shop opened specially to sell them, and wasn’t allowed to sell anything else). But companies want to sell as many of their products as they possibly can.
The supernatural leporine being who delivers the eggs is universally referred to as the Easter Bunny (and hidden features in computer games are always called Easter eggs).

3: There is not the slightest evidence that the word Easter does offend Muslims, just as there is not the slightest evidence that Muslims turn into pillars of salt if you throw pork sausages at them. The racist right is again creating an evil mirror image of itself. Because racists are freaked out by anything even slightly Muslim — by the word Ramadan, by the presence of a Mosque in the same city as them, by the existence of halal options in cafes — they assume that Muslims are freaked out by anything even slightly Christian. 

I swear to Buddha that there is a travel agent in Bristol offering package trips to Mecca as part of an Easter special. Because "Easter" is a time of year as well as a religious festival. 

4: So, obviously, there is no reason to think that Cadburys have taken the word Easter off their chocolate, which they haven’t, because it offends Muslim, because it doesn’t.

5: If Cadburys had in fact made Easter Eggs without the word Easter on them available so that people who don't like the word Easter could still enjoy overpriced chocolate wrapped in foil during the spring equinox, this would not actually be a wrong or crazy thing to do. It would be both kind and good business sense. If there were people with a deep religious conviction that they were only allowed to eat chocolate in the springtime if the word "Easter" appeared somewhere on the packaging, and if that Christian-friendly chocolate had somehow ceased to be available, then Christians might have the right to feel aggrieved. But there aren't and it hasn't and they don't.

It's like our old friend who still moans about the BBC cancelling the Black and White Minstrel show "because it wasn't PC". It's true that the BBC used to show blackface minstrel shows, and it's true that they don't any more. But the "PC" part smuggles in the idea that no-one sensible could possibly object to blackface entertainments, and that some mysterious but unidentified force (usually known simply as "they") forced the BBC to stop showing them, in the teeth of Common Sense and the Will of the People. Which is why no fair-minded person should ever use the term "PC" in any context: there is always a less evil way of expressing the same thought. ("The text of some of Enid Blyton's stories have been slightly changed to make them more inclusive" or "Some old comic books contain words that nice people wouldn't use any more" or "This comedian tells racist jokes".)

The halal thing, is even more tricksy. When someone starts telling you that Cadburys Creme Eggs are halal they are conflating:

1:Halal = permissible for an observant Muslim to eat
2: Halal certified = Some expert in the Muslim law has issued a certificate saying that it is permissible for an observant Muslim to eat them
3: Halal slaughter = a method of killing animals which some people consider to be cruel
The trick is that you can assert, truly, that Cadburys Creme eggs are halal (Muslims are allowed to eat them); while smuggling in the idea that Cadburys are being nice to brown-skinned people (by making chocolate that they are allowed to eat) and even that a civilised person wouldn’t eat one of these heathen eggs which you have to torture a poor moo-cow to make (even though they don't contain any meat products). As Cadburys indefatigable social media team have been saying all week: all their chocolate is halal, because all chocolate is halal, in the same way that all water is halal and all bread is halal; but none of their products is halal certified; they haven't changed the recipe in order to make it halal; and certainly no ritual slaughter is involved in the manufacture of chocolate.

But again, the trick works: the idea is smuggled in that some kinds of chocolate have been Muslimified, and the racist right starts to assert that if you buy Cadburys products you are obviously no Christian; extremely unpleasant tweets start to circulate asking shopkeepers to please stack their Creme Eggs near their Pork Scratchings so that Muslims won't be able to eat them.

I wonder how many of the people passing on these messages will be taking Holy Communion on Easter Sunday? Come to that, what are they doing eating Creme Eggs in Lent in the first place?

(*) Factoid — Widely believed lie; a thing which everyone thinks is true but ain't. NOT "a trivial fact".

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Why should I trust anything the Rev. Giles Fraser says about the Bible when he can’t even understand the text of Winnie-the-Pooh? 

Christopher Robin is not one of those evil bottom-thwacking evangelicals who thinks that prayer is about asking God for favours. He practices the kind of prayer which Fraser approves of: taking a few silent moments to contemplate the events of the day (”oh, wasn’t it fun in the bath tonight!”); to think non-specifically warm thoughts about the people close to you (”God bless mummy, God bless Daddy") and even to become more aware of the things around you (”it’s a beautiful blue but it hasn’t a hood”.) One might even think that the idea of shutting my eyes and curling up small (”so nobody knows I am there at all”) is a juvenile attempt at mindfulness. 

The real-life Christopher Milne didn’t believe in God (although he did believe in The Force). His Nanny was called Olive rather than Alice, which doesn’t rhyme with so many things, but her dressing gown really was blue. As a grown up, he correctly spotted that Vespers is not a mawkish poem about a good little boy saying his prayers, but a rather cynical poem about a naughty little boy not saying his prayers. The grown up thinks he looks cute and pious but he’s actually thinking about everything except God. A.A Milne felt that was what went on during most so-called prayer.

Fraser may be right that the true Christian view of prayer is that it’s “just a jolly good excuse to shut up for a while and think.” Some people have run away with the idea that it makes some kind of difference. I couldn’t say where this idea comes from; but I really don’t think we ought to blame Christopher Robin. 

Friday, January 27, 2017


I am in favor of using words correctly. I don’t think that you should say “depressed” if what you mean is “sad”; I don’t think you should say “bipolar” if what you mean is “moody”; and I definitely don’t think you should say “autistic” if what you mean is “shy.” It’s insulting and patronizing to people who are actually depressed or bipolar; and it’s also a kind of linguistic inflation. (If you say “depression” when you mean “sadness” you have to make up a new word for when “depression” is what you actually do mean.) It would have been better if we’d never started using “poxy” to mean “small” or “lame” to mean “inadequate” or “psychotic” to mean cross. In fact, you probably shouldn’t say “surreal” if what you mean “silly” or “existential” if what you mean is “gloomy” or “random” if what you mean is…whatever kids mean by “random” nowadays. 

But I don’t want to go too far in that direction. Otherwise I’ll turn into one of those boring people who says that “decimate” only ever means “divide by ten” and that “gay” only ever means “brightly colored” and that “literally” can never mean “figuratively”. And that’s literally the thin end of the wedge. 

I believe I am correct in saying that “mad” no longer has any medical meaning, but does retain a legal meaning. And it definitely has a lot of colloquial meanings. I’ll get mad if you are rude about Star Wars because I’m on mad on Star Wars. The original meaning of “crazy” was “cracked”: if I say that my garden has crazy paving, I’m using it in the older sense. It was applied to people by analogy. (I remember the original Star Wars craze: people went crazy about it.) 

If my friend tells me that he has met and spoken with a fairy (which, as previously mentioned, at least three of my friends have in fact done) there are basically three possibilities

1: There really are fairies, and I need to expand my view of reality to encompass such creatures or 

2: My friend is lying, or telling fairy stories, with or without the encouragement of Mr Conan Doyle. 

3: My friend is mad, crazy, delusional or hallucinating. 

If I went with 3, I don't think I would be providing an amateur diagnosis, or patronizing my other friends who have to cope with mental conditions every day. I think that mad, cracked, crazy, or two land cards short of a Magic deck is a word we use to describe people who see stuff which isn't actually there. 

"What do you think about the people you say claim to have really met fairies, Andrew?” 

“I think that one of them was describing a spiritual experience — ‘In a particular location, I felt something I cannot explain, and “fairies” is the name I am going to give to that experience’ If he’d come from a different background, he might have said that he’d encountered the Blessed Virgin. I think that one of them was talking about faith: I think that fairies form part of his neo-pagan belief system. I think the other one had done a lot of drugs.” 

It seems to me that there comes a point at which a person — a politician, say — denies facts — about vaccination, say, or climate change, or the number of people who attended an inauguration ceremony — to such an extend that the rest of us are entitled to say “Either you are lying, or your are crazy.” 


The famously sane Tony Blair used to claim that it didn’t matter whether a particular policy was “left wing”, “right wing”, “conservative” or “liberal”; as Prime Minister he would do “whatever worked”. 

This is, of course, bullshit.

You can only tell if something has "worked" if you know what result you wanted; and the result you want depends greatly on whether you are left wing, right wing, conservative or liberal.  Someone might think that a law and order policy worked because it resulted in lots of criminals being punished; someone else might think that it was a failure because there was no overall reduction in the amount of crime. You might think that schools sports policy worked because Team Little Britain won lots of medals in the Tokyo Olympics; I might think it was a failure because hardly any non-elite athletes were still taking exercise ten years after they left school.

But “whatever works” does admit the possibility that something might not work. In theory, we can look at what did happen, and say "I don't think that what you did worked".


The new American dictator said yesterday that he was in favour of torturing people because "torture works". It isn’t immediately clear what “works” means. Does it mean that if someone knows a secret they will definitely and automatically tell it to you provided you hurt them badly enough? Or does it just mean that if the goodies are doing some torturing, the baddies will stop doing so much terroristing? "If only we had been torturing people in the 1990s, the Twin Towers attack wouldn't have happened; once we started torturing people after 2001, the London bombing didn't happen. Or if it did, it would have been worse without the torture. Or it only happened because we weren't doing enough torturing. Or something."

Someone is said to have asked Auberon Waugh how a horrible person like him could possibly claim to be a Christian. "But if I wasn't a Christian" he replied "Think how much worse I would be."

A man who tells jokes for a living cited the famous “ticking bomb” thought experiment on twitter, in the following terms: 

Your baby is tied to a timebomb. 

You have the terrorist. 

He tells you you have 1 hour. 

Do you torture him to find your baby or let it die?

He got extremely cross when anyone suggested that this was a silly scenario: you wouldn’t have a single terrorist, there wouldn’t be a single piece of information that would save the victim, and you have no way of knowing if the person you are torturing is a coward (who will blurt out anything to avoid being hurt) or, a fanatic who positively wants to be hurt in order to be martyr.

I proposed a couple of alternative scenarios:

Your baby is tied to a bomb. 

The terrorist is a colossal pervert. 

Do you let him spend 1 hour with your 12 year old son or let the baby die?

Your baby is tied to a bomb. 

You have 99 innocent people and 1 terrorist.

Do you torture all 100 of them or let the baby die?

Your baby was tied to a bomb by a Jehovah's Witness. 

Do you arrest and torture all 226,000 Jehovah's Witnesses or let the baby die?

Of the 226,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses 1% give in and scream, "I'll tell you where the baby is." 

Which of the 2260 confessions do you follow up?

There is nothing wrong with asking purely hypothetical questions; there is nothing wrong with thought experiments. "Don't be silly, I'm not on the moon" is not a very good answer to the question "If you dropped a feather and a one kilogram weight on the moon, which would hit the ground first? I suppose the ticking bomb fantasy establishes whether your objection to torture is a moral one, or a practical one: do you say "No, I wouldn't torture the guy, even if it totally would save the little'un life?" or "Yes, if in some magic way, torturing the guy would get my baby back, then I would torture him.".

But it occurred to me that the scenario we really needed to consider would be something like:

Your baby is tied to a bomb. 

Would you sacrifice a white goat to Aphrodite in order to bring your baby home in a golden chariot pulled by winged horses?

To which the answer is: yes, if sacrificing the goat would summons up the magic chariot, yes I would. But it wouldn’t. So it’s a silly question. 

In these scenarios, it's always a Really Bad Guy who is getting tortured; not a basically pretty harmless guy who happens to know the codes. And one cannot escape the suspicion that when someone says "torture works" they are adding, under their breath "and even if it doesn't, the really bad guy had it coming to them." Torquemada, Matthew Hopkins and Donald Trump all know in advance that Jews, women and Muslims are "baddies", and the search for heretics, witches and terrorists provides a pretext to hurt bad people.

If your baby really was tied to a time bomb, and if you really did torture a terrorist, or a suspected terrorist, or a Brazilian electrician who looked as if he might be a terrorist, and if the guy holds out under torture; or tells you that they’re on Dantooine when they’re really on Yavin… and one way or another the bomb goes off and the baby dies…

Everyone who believed in torture would continue to believe that torture worked. 

Because the baby would quite definitely still be alive. The photos of the pathetic little corpse being taken out of the burning building is FAKE NEWS produced my MAINSTREAM MEDIA which is run BY cultural Marxists who yes want the terrorists TO win.

If I saw some very powerful people actually looking at the dead baby, and saying "the baby is still alive", I would say that they were either mad or liars, and you would say that things weren't always as black and white as we Trotskyites like to pretend. You would write long think pieces in the Guardian about the interesting controversy of the exploding baby.

And years later, the story about the baby chained to the time bomb who saved by the torturing would be one of those things which everybody knows, like Alfred and the Cakes and the school that sang baa baa green street and weapons of mass destruction. Everyone would say that horrible as torture is and obviously we’re not in favour of it and it’s a great shame that we inadvertently castrated that kid whose dad had a name quite similar to the person who almost definitely knew something about an outrage that hadn’t actually happened yet...but you have to admit, torture stopped the baby from exploding.

And I'll point to the pathetic little gravestone and the autopsy report, and you'll say “Ah, still  going on about the dead baby. It’s political correctness gone mad. Fake news, fake news. Social Justice Warriors always lie.” 


Fortunately, no-one has attached any bombs to any babies. But my country is about to sacrifice its place in the world on a Quixotic whim. And it will be impossible ever to ask the question "Did Brexit work? Did it do what it was supposed to do?" 

If as expected, Theresa May lights the blue touch paper next month, then for decades to come, every media outlet but one will contain nothing but stories about how everything is rosy and wonderful: stories about factories opening, stories about people with new jobs, stories about nasty Polish restaurants being replaced with proper 1950s English cafes that sell burned steak and blue nun wine. 

And if anyone says that this isn’t true — that inflation is high, the pound is sinking, people don’t have jobs, every media outlet but one will say That’s what you would expect the remoaners to say. Why do they run this country down? Why do they feel it necessary? Don’t quote statistics at me. You can prove anything you want with statistics. Anyone can SEE the country is doing brilliantly. Except Social Justice Warriors, who always lie.” 

And if, by some chance, sanity prevails, we will have another 50 years in which people stare at big, yellow, curved bananas and say “of course, you aren’t allowed to buy curved bananas any more. It’s political correctness gone mad."

(It is just about possible to imagine the Remain camp, ten years down the line saying "well, that wasn't nearly as bad as we feared." It is impossible to imagine the Leave camp, even in the face of Armageddon, saying "We're afraid that didn't work as well as we'd hoped.")

Which, in a sense, makes life a bit easier. 

We don’t, in fact, know whether the September 11th attacks would have been averted if some CIA officers had put some black guys balls in a vice in a camp in Cuba. To know what would have happened, child? No-one is ever told that. But we still know what is moral; what is right; what is wrong.

We don't know what works, because the crazy people will see whatever they choose to see. But we know what is moral. What is right and wrong. Big people don’t hit little people. You can’t have sex with anyone without their consent. The rich help the poor. You don’t hurt other people, however much you might sometimes want to.

In a “post truth” world, that may be all there is to hold on to. 


I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Donald Trump: I may not like his policies, but he’s no different from any other right wing politician. 

But a man who said the sorts of things that Donald Trump has said would not be merely a right-wing politician. He would either be a lunatic -- on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg -- or else he would be the Devil of Hell. 

You must make your choice. Either this man is genetically superior to the rest of the human race, or else he is a madman or something worse. 

You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can believe everything he says because he’s such a smart guy. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being merely a right-wing politician. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. 

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Sherlock, redux

Sherlock Holmes is about the idea that you can start with an absurd set of data and work backwards, through a series of logical steps, to a completely reasonable starting place. (Many people have spotted that Sigmund Freud had roughly the same idea at roughly the same time.) Neither Freudian nor Holmsian methods would work in real life: Sherlock admits as much, though Sigmund never does. The cases that Holmes solves (or at any rates the cases that Watson bothers to write up) are exclusively those cases which Holmes methodology happens to work for. Which generally means closed-systems with something weird — or as Holmes always says, singular — about them. Give him a guy whose been killed in a remote country house after swearing he saw the ghost of a hell hound, and Holmes has a fair chance of sorting things out. Pull John Doe’s body out of the Thames three months after it got there, and boring old forensics are a better bet. 

Deduction is where you start from a premise and work out what the conclusion will be. Starting from a conclusion and working back to the starting point is induction. You would have thought Holmes, or at any rate Watson, or at any rate Doyle, would have known that. 

Not all the stories work: but in the ones that do, there is a real joy in seeing Holmes impose order on chaos; in saying “Of course: the club which you can only join if you have a particular kind of hair; or the bedside drawer with the hair of two previous occupants in it now makes complete sense. Clever Sherlock.” There is a similar joy in reading Freud’s case histories. Who cares if he never actually cured anyone. 

Holmes is a remarkable chap, obviously; Watson calls him the best and wisest man he ever met, which is not insignificantly what Plato said about Socrates. But he isn’t a superhero. Part of the point of the stories is that his deductions are plausible; anyone could do it if they kept their wits about them. We are inclined to think that Watson is a bit of a twit for not keeping up. A detective story wouldn’t be worth reading if the detective were that good. Ideally, Gentle Reader should get to the conclusion just after Holmes and just before Watson.

Holmes often has information that we and Watson don’t have, which a classical Whodunnit writer would regard as cheating.

The Moffat / Gatiss  Sherlock TV series has always been a slightly odd confection. It uses the now-superhuman inductive skills of Holmes in much the same way that the now-infallible navigation of the TARDIS is used in Doctor Who: as a pretext for (on a good day) brilliant, non-linear narratives and (on a bad day) for just abandoning cause-and-effect storytelling as a lost cause. Cumberbatch plays a kind of parody or race-memory of Jeremy Brett’s Holmes, which was itself a parody of Holmes as he is in Study in Scarlet and hardly anywhere else: crazy, misanthropic and not yet humanized by the arrival of Robin the Boy Wonder. It correctly spots that the real fun in Sherlock was not the bobbies and the fog and the hansom cabs; or the funny pipe and the funny hat and the slippers. It was all about the logic and the mysteries. 

But convincing, Doylish mysteries — crazy end-points to which Holmes can provide convincing back-stories — are hard to write. Not impossible: the sub-plot about the dead son in the car in the Six Thatchers is the sort of thing I would like to have seen more of. But Moffat and Gatiss increasingly fall back on the lazy writers' worst cliche: the clever guy solving bizarre riddles which an even cleverer guy is consciously setting for him. 

Doyle’s Moriarty is a brilliant man turned into a brilliant criminal. Moffat's Moriarty is simply a lunatic. From Don Quixote to Hannibal Lecter, fictional lunatics can be the subjects of interesting stories. But they are a very lazy plot device. Why is he is doing this? Why is he going to all that trouble? How did he escape from the escape proof prison? He doesn’t have to have a reason. He’s a lunatic. Moffat’s Moriarty could very easily be imagined painting clown make up on his face and releasing poisoned balloons over Gotham City. 

The Final Problem (TV episode) produced newspaper headlines about “How the TV phenomenon became an annoying self parody” and “Missing persons inquiry launched as Sherlock vanishes up own arse”. But it seemed to me to have very much the same strengths and weaknesses as all the other episodes. It sets up a very interesting villain whose only function turns out to be to set up problems for and experiment on Sherlock Holmes. In a proper story, some believable chain of events would lead to a situation where Holmes has to choose between killing his brother Mycroft and killing his best friend Watson. Having a super-villain put them in a room and say “You must now choose between killing your brother Mycroft and killing your best friend Watson” is barely a story at all. It’s more like a Dungeons & Dragons puzzle. (The solution is straight out of the Hunger Games.) The deductive power of Holmes and Moriarty and Mycroft and the Mysterious and Unexpected Villain Who is Even Cleverer Than Any Of Them is not something that any normal person could keep up with.

The cleverness of Holmes has become another manifestation of our old friend The Plot. Anything that the writers want to happen can happen because Holmes can make it happen because he is so clever. Add a non-player character who is as clever as he is, and then another one, and then a third one, and what you are watching is no longer detective fiction; it's a competition to see who has the biggest Sonic Screwdriver.

"Annoying self-parody" isn't a bad description of the whole project actually: maybe I'd have gone for "clever, engaging but annoying self-parody."

Most of us now expect a TV series to have some sort of forward momentum. Gone are the days when the BBC could put all three seasons of Star Trek tapes in box, shuffle them up, pick one out at random, show it on a Monday night and no-one would notice the difference. We now expect characters to die and get married and have babies (not necessarily in that order), partly because soap opera has replaced the novel as the dominant genre, and partly because verisimilitude. If our hero doesn't have the scars from the end of last week's thrilling adventure at the beginning of this week's thrilling adventure we won't be able to suspend our disbelief.   

Sherlock Holmes had a brother. He had an arch-enemy and a landlady. These characters are so peripheral to the canon that we could very nearly say that they don’t exist. Moffat and Gatiss create entirely new characters with similar names, and present us with something that superficially feels a good deal like classic Holmes: Mycroft is clever and mysterious, Moriarty is evil, Watson misses the point and writes it up on his blog, and Mrs Hudson makes them all a cup of tea. But once you have shouted “go” and allowed events to start happening they stop being clever 21st century takes on 19th century ciphers and end up as the sum total of the last thirteen episodes. Which gets us very quickly to a Sherlock which has nothing much to do with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. You may or may not have a problem with that. 

A similar process killed off the Marvel Comics “Ultimates” line. Issue #1 of Ultimate Spider-Man re-imagines Peter Parker as a 15 year old computer nerd from 2001; and we all said “wow, you’ve come up with a precise 21st century analogy for what made Spider-Man so great in the 1960s”. By issue #75, New York has been destroyed, J. Jonah Jameson is a goodie and Spider-Man is member of the X-Men, dating Kitty Pryde, on the run from SHIELD and dead. You can barely recognize him as Spider-Man any more; and the comic is just as hard to "jump aboard" as the fatally compromised Marvel Universe version. But the alternative is a 1950s sit-com where nothing ever happens and no-one ever gets any older.

I suppose that Sherlock was always going to be the kind of series that some people would over-love, and, therefore, when it started to disappoint, the kind of series that some people would over-hate. I never loved it that much (apart from the Victorian special, which was genuinely clever) but I never hated it that much, either. It is clear that Stephen Moffat can only write one character: you could swap the Cumberbatch Sherlock with the equally interchangeable Smith and Capaldi Doctors and no-one would really notice. But that one character is a lot off fun. Matt Smith was my favorite non-canonical Doctor Who, after all. The clash of Cumberbatch’s over-the-top theatricality with Martin Freeman’s toned down naturalism (so underdone it’s practically not there at all) makes for consistently good scenes. The two of them would be riveting in any context: apart, obviously, from the Hobbit. 

Kudos to Gatiss and Moffat for realizing that Holmes could be taken out of Victorian London and still be Holmes. But how typical that when the smog and the urchins and the rats were cleared away, what was found to be left was not a man who cleverly worked backwards from the end of the story to its beginning; nor even a man eschewing emotion but guided by rationality. No: what Sherlock Holmes turned out to really be about was the friendship between Sherlock and John.

It’s like one of those trailers where some Hollywood luvvie has been persuaded to appear in a low budget docudrama about William Ramsay and the discovery of the nobel gasses.

“Oh,  but it’s not about chemistry” they always say “It’s really about love.”

There is a thing which Moffat and Gatiss do: and Sherlock Season 4 is Moffat and Gatiss continuing to do that thing. Disappointment, or even anger, seems curiously misplaced. It is what it is.