Wednesday, October 02, 2019

A Black Day

Trying to work out how old I must have been at the time.

Primary school age. Before Star Wars but after Spider-Man.

Let us say that it was All Saints Day and that the Sunday School put on a pageant in which each child represented a real-life Saint.

Actually it was more elaborate than that. A full-length play in which both adults and children took part. Possibly it involved a man, possibly played by my Boys' Brigade captain, being questioned by Saint Peter at the Pearly Gates. Saint Peter had a big red book like Eamonn Andrews. I suppose he was played by the Minister. But it certainly involved children from the Sunday School proceeding around the church in the personas of various saints.

Someone recited The Son of God Goes Forth To War as we walked in. (*) I didn't know that "matron" just meant "an older woman" and "maid" simply "a younger woman". I took it that "the matron and the maid" meant "the woman in overall charge of a hospital, and also the woman who does the menial cleaning tasks." Childhood is full of those kinds of confusions.

"Which saint was Andrew selected to play?", you are all asking

I dressed up in a white shirt and a grown-up tie; and presumably some kind of jacket; and for reasons I do not quite understand, a false pair of glasses. This was before I had been prescribed glasses of my own. My "saint" was Martin Luther King, who I had never heard of. So naturally, I wore make-up on my face and my hands. Another girl in my class also wore make up. Of the same colour. I have literally no idea who she was pretending to be. Surely not Rosa Parkes? Mary Seacole was not much known-about in those days.

That narrows it down. I know that I did not wear glasses in Miss Beale's class and did wear them in Miss Griffiths's class. So I must have been eight years old, which takes us 1971 or 1972. Had it really only taken three years for M.L.K to become such a safe, uncontroversial figure that he could be represented in a children's Sunday School pageant? In England? A few years later the Minister mentioned in the course of a sermon that men like Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy, however flawed as human beings, could, in a very real sense, be seen as pictures of Jesus in our own age. I remember my father blustering that if they hadn't had "the extreme good fortune to be assassinated" he would still regard them both as far too "political" to mention from the pulpit.

Fast forward a couple of decades.

It is the middle 1980s. I am at college doing my second degree and playing more Dungeons & Dragons than is good for me. This was the period when I single-handedly and without precedent created the genre of "theater style" live action role-playing games out of my head.

I read it on the internet so it must be true.

A LARP is a game where you dress up in costume and fight monsters with rubber swords. A free-form game is a LARP where you dress up in costume and mostly talk to other people dressed up in costumes. Game guru Paul Mason once said that he couldn't take free form games seriously because they called to mind an image of Andrew Rilstone dressed in a blanket.

One of the freeform LARPs we ran was pirate themed. I think it was set in a dockside tavern. There were people with hooks who said "arr" and other people with hooks who also said "arr" and ladies disguised as cabin boys and kings' custom men disguised as beggars and a treasure map and a black spot and a cannibal witch doctor.

Dressed in leopard skin.

With a plastic bone though his nose.

And black make up.

I believe photographs exist. I would be mortified if anyone saw them.

It is a mistake to say that a racist thing is a thing done by a racist person and that it is therefore impossible for a non-racist person to do a racist thing. This was the circle which the editor of Doctor Who Monthly got into last year when the conversation turned back to Talons of Weng Chiang. Some people thought that the story, which involved a white actor in yellow make up playing a villain who was to all intents and purposes Fu Manchu, was racist. If the story was racist, then Robert Holmes and Phillip Hinchcliff were racists. But the editor had met Bob and Phil and there was no one in the world less racist than they were. Therefore Talons of Weng Chiang cannot possibly have been racist. So it follows that anyone perceiving racism in a story about a Chinese villain who says things like "I understand we all rook arrike?" had been infected with porritical collectness.

I imagine that there were people in my church in 1972 who I would now consider to be racists. There were certainly no black people in the congregation, or indeed the town. We were four years out from "rivers of blood", in a parliamentary constituency which had not returned a Labour MP since 1945. From time to time we had a lady come to talk to us about Home Missions, which meant "children less well off than ourselves" and another to talk to us about Overseas Missions which meant "children in far away lands". There is nothing wrong with sending charity to foreign countries and I doubt if Methodist missionaries at that time were much given to marching into native villages and burning their religious shrines. But there was an undercurrent of grass huts and primitivism about the whole thing. Poor benighted heathens who needed our pennies if they were ever going to learn to read or write.

You can see it in Blue Peter as well: poor strange dark skinned children who won't have anything to eat unless we send them our old teddy bears. Do they know its Christmastime at all? People still told us without irony that we had to eat the burned scrambled egg because they were starving in Africa.

I do not think that there was the slightest racist intention in the first of my two forays into blackface, which is not the same as saying that it wasn't racist. No-one was consciously making fun of black people. Certainly no-one was consciously making fun of Martin Luther King. One little white boy in a collection of twenty little white boys had put black boot polish on his face. Others presumably had swords and dragon-heads and collections of injured animals. Someone's mum had to produce a John Wesley costume.

I would have to place it in exactly the same category as my much-loved and now disintegrating gollywog. The lady who made the toy and put into the sale-of-work was not a racist. My granny, who bought the thing and put it in my Christmas stocking was not a racist. My parents, who let me play with it, were not racists. I was certainly not a racist toddler. And yet there it was: my favourite toy, a Jim Crow caricature of a black man.

We couldn't see the wood for the trees. Which is to say we couldn't see the racism because of all the racism. Lenny Henry was a regular guest star on the Black and White Minstrels. Jim Davidson told Chalkie White jokes in front of the Queen. Robertson's Jam had a gollywog on the label. (He finally retired as recently as 2002.) "Maybe you could think of a contemporary Christian hero which didn't involve blacking up a nine-year-old?" was not a question which had occurred to anyone.

Once someone asked the question, everyone knew the right answer. Nearly everyone. The world split neatly into the majority who said "Dear God in heaven what were we thinking of?" and those who said "We didn't mean anything by it then we don't mean anything by it now so we are going to damn well buy MORE gollywogs to stick it to the liberals."

The live action role playing incident is completely inexcusable, although I hope everyone see the difference between "inexcusable" and "unforgivable". I can hardly believe it happened. The most I can say in my defense is that everyone did stupid things while they were students. A friend of mine immersed himself in a bath of green poster paint in order to play the role of a goblin, and found the next morning that the stuff was almost impossible to remove. Another friend found that he was the only boy who had signed on to a course about feminist literature. He attended the final seminar of term in full drag. And I am told that some of the more sporty students, who were not on speaking terms with us D&D nerds, would occasionally take the bet to run out of the changing room showers and do a lap of the sports center with nothing on.

We didn't think we were doing something awful. I don't think we even thought that we were doing something a little bit naughty, like the streakers and the drag. It was just the kind of thing that people did. RPGs deal in broad, over the top caricatures. There had to be pirates who said "Ahh, bejabbers, me hearties, belay and belike" and admirals who said "I say, blast the bally blighters, what?" and Frenchmen who said "Sacre bleu, oh la-la." So naturally there had to be witch doctor who said "Dis um some powerful magic man."

There are lots of things in my life which I am acutely embarrassed about. Embarrassing memories creep up on me in the street for no reason and make me literally cry out, or bite my own fingers to distract myself. They are nearly all examples of social gaffs and being a show-off. There was one Boys Brigade camp when a different boy was invited to lead prayers each night. This generally ran to "Thank you God for a lovely day, and thank you for the ladies who cooked the sausage stew." When it was my turn I took it upon myself to explain to the assembled multitudes, including the vicar, what I understood by the doctrine of the Trinity. I would like to say that I am acutely embarrassed about having blacked-up for a role-playing game; that I come out in a cold-sweat whenever I think about it. But I don't. I ought to, but I don't. In fact, the only feeling I have about that long-ago evening is a vague sense of pride because I improvised a passably decent one-liner on the spur of the moment.

Cannibal Witch Doctor: To work magic, put powder in mouth, go to bad man, and spit in face.
Governor's Beautiful Daughter: In his face, or in my own face?
Cannibal Witch Doctor: You know how spit in own face, you got more powerful magic than me!

I am offering this up as a piece of data. I ought to be embarrassed, but as a matter of fact, I am not.

In 1972, I didn't know any better. In 1985, I damn well should have done. But apparently I didn't. Neither did anyone else. Not the person who scripted the game (one of the most right-on guys I've ever met). Not the other players, at least one of whom I believe to have been a left-wing student union rep. Not the astonishingly humourless joke-shop man who sold me the plastic bone. ("I can also do you a bone through the neck, if you'd like one.")

"Would you have done it if there had been any black people in your RPG group?"

Of course not. But there weren't. Which is probably the point.

"What would you say if someone asked you do it now?"

I would say dear god have you entirely taken leave of your senses fucking hell of course not. And if Present Day me could walk in on Past Me, preferably before he put the damn make up on, I would say for goodness sake Rilstone what the hell are you thinking of?

I don't know if bad words or bad costumes or bad make up or bad jokes are less bad in some context than others. I don't know if "Yes, I did say the n-word, but I was rehearsing a play" is ever an excuse, or a partial excuse, or a mitigating factor. I am disinclined to believe that some words and concepts exist as free-floating signifiers, obscene or racist regardless of where you say them and who you say them to. Mrs Mary Whitehouse believed that merely pronouncing the f-word caused concrete social harm. Anne Widdicombe MEP claimed to be physically unable to watch even one minute of In The Thick of It, even after she had agreed to appear on a talk show in which people try out things they don't think they will like. I think they would both have struggled to see any difference between the rugby club prank and a pervert displaying himself to young children in the park.

Jonathan Miller thinks that theater is a special space where anything goes. Could I argue that a live-action role-playing game is a highly stylized piece of improvised theater, so what is permissable for the RSC to do at Stratford is acceptable for the SF&F Soc to do in meeting room L049? Is the stage so sacred so that words and actions which would be unacceptable anywhere else become magically sanctified? I suppose the arch represents an invisible barrier: you aren't in the same room as a naked dude or being sworn at by someone, you are looking at them or listening to them through a mirror or across a wall. I wouldn't take my clothes off on stage for any money. And some sort of subversive racism for a high artistic purpose is a lot different from me playing a stereotype in what was basically a pantomime.

I suppose that they still do Aladdin as panto, and I suppose that it is still set in China and I can't believe they cast exclusively Asian actors. Dear dear Sir Ian once played Widow Twanky, but he conceptualized her as an English lady who had once married a Chinese sailor. Has the D'Oyley Cart quietly dropped the Mikado from its repertoire?

The past is a foreign country. I was an asshole when I was in my twenties and when I am in my eighties I will think that I was an asshole when I was in my fifties. You shouldn't judge someone on the basis of one stupid thing they did a long time ago. I am not a racist: I once did a racist thing. I once did a racist thing: therefore I am a racist. If your society permits gollywogs and minstrel shows and Jim Davidson and what-not then even people who are not racists feel some how permitted to put bones through their noses. People who are racists feel permitted to do very much worse. White people can't see racism when it is literally painted on their faces. "Check your privilege" is not just a cliche. There is stuff which you and me and everyone else are doing now which twenty years down the time line is going to make everyone say "What the hell were we thinking?" So think about what you are doing before you do it. I never wanted to be president of Canada in the first place.

(*)A noble army, men and boys
The matron and the maid
Around the Saviour's throne rejoice
In robes of light arrayed
They climbed the steep ascent of heaven
Through peril, toil and pain
O God to use may grace be given
To follow in their train.

I'm Andrew. I write about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn.

Or consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)

Friday, September 27, 2019

You have to remember that the alt-right truly and sincerely hate us.

They think that the only thing which "liberals" have in common is that they we lie about everything, all the time.

They sincerely believe that those of us who went to state schools are sub-human zombies.

They honestly believe that there is secret organization (the Cultural Marxists, the Political Correctness Brigade, the S.J.W) working towards the downfall of civilization, and they honestly believe that this organisation controls schools and media and universities and have invented lies about climate change and vaccination and media studies and evolution and the world being round.

The Daily Mail literally ran a headline: "How the BBC fell victim to a plot to destroy civilization as we know it."

For these people "goodness" and "decency" are not real.

The worst thing they can call someone is "do-gooder" and "goody-goody".

Anyone who wants to make the world nicer is "virtue signalling" or "politically correct", that is to say, insincere.

Instead of goodness, they have a vestigial belief in "purity" which some of them associate with the Christian church. But their purity rules, like their schools, only exist to separate the world into "us" and "them", people who know the rules and people who do not. The rules of sex and the rules of grammar are about equally important. Dudes can't marry dudes or wear frocks. Children have to use the subjunctive and fronted adverbials. Everyone has to salute the flag or sing the national anthem in exactly the right way. If those rules were ever broken -- if we let gay people get married and started ending sentences with "by", "with", or "from" -- it would mean the end of civilization. They literally say this.

These people are not shocked when Johnson speaks ill of Jo Cox. In their mind Jo Cox was an SJW and a traitor and a virtue signaler and a snowflake and a liar and a LIBERAL. They are not horrified when politicians seem to incite violence against remainer MPs, because in their minds remainers are consciously working against the common good; pretending to support the common market, insincere, traitors, virtue signalers, snowflakes -- LIBERALS.

The majority of the Conservative Party are not part of this alt-right apocalypse cult, but the architects of Brexit and the press barons clearly are -- or at any rate, they are prepared to dance to their tune.

Witness the odious Quentin Letts in today's Times sneering about all the "halos" on display in the Commons. The voices raised against Johnson were not merely mistaken: they were insincere; because liberals always lie about everything; because goodness does not exist.

Witness the odious  Farage's positioning of himself along side alt-right poster boy Donald Trump.

The alt-right fooled America, and game-played the constitution, and inserted their guy into the White House.

I do not think that it is a foregone conclusion that, if there is ever another election, the British would do the same thing. I don't think that the majority of Brits are socialists or liberals or Liberals, and I don't think that we are any wiser or cleverer than Americans, on the whole. But I think that we have been brought up to believe in Fair Play and Sportsmanship and to dislike Bullies and and be skeptical of Con-Men and to think that Lord Snooty and Bertie Wooster need to fall on their arses, spelt with an R, from time to time.

Also queuing and tea.

But there is no point in appealing to the decency of the alt-right. There ain't no such animal.

I'm Andrew. I write about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn.

Or consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Tolkien -- The Movie

Young people. Bright young things. Public school. Rugger. Oxford. First love.

The horror of the First World War.

Survivors, in the days after the war, nursing injuries and remembering fallen comrades.

A whole lost generation, the waste, the waste, the waste.

Empty chairs at empty tables.

Middle aged family men, years later, raising children doing mundane jobs, smoking pipes, the horror locked inside, never spoken off.

We've seen it. Over and over. And yes of course it bears repeating.

But what does this particular First World War film have to say about the particular Tommy who would grow up to create Middle-earth?

Absolutely fuck-all.

Pardon my Sindarin.

Tolkien had a boring life. Which is to say, he had the best possible life any writer could possibly have: he stayed at home and wrote. After 1918, says Humphrey Carpenter, nothing much happened. He taught undergraduates about Anglo-Saxon vowels and was the first person to spot that Beowulf is a good story. He drank beer with C.S Lewis and entirely missed the point of the Narnia stories. And he wrote some books which were in his lifetime modestly popular but attracted a cult following. He never finished his Great Work, but that's because his Great Work was pretty much un-finishable.

Compare and contrast with the life of his friend C.S. Lewis who kept getting himself into the most complicated and dramatic psychological scrapes. The story of his life is in grave danger of becoming more famous than his actual books.

Priscilla and Christopher Tolkien are both alive although approaching their one hundredth birthdays, and they have very sensibly deemed that their father's personal papers -- those not related to Middle-earth -- are not to be published in their life-times. I don't think that there are any Dark Secrets waiting to be revealed, but clearly sometime in the next decade it is going to be possible to publish a much more detailed and intimate biography of Tolkien than has been possible up to now.

In the mean time, there is this. It is hard to say much more than "Son; you are no Shadowlands."

Any Tolkien bio-pic was always going to fall into a fairly predictable shape, based on two inescapable biographical facts. In his rambling introduction to Lord of the Rings, Tolkien complains that everyone assumes that the story was inspired by the 1939-45 war, even though the Great War was a more significant event in his own life. And then he suddenly blurts out "By 1918, all but one of my close friends were dead." And in Wolvercote cemetery in Oxford, anyone can find a grave bearing the real names John Ronald Reul Tolkien and Edith Mary Tolkien, along side the fictional names Beren and Luthien.

So there is your story. While he was at school, Tolkien used to go and drink tea and eat cake with three other young men, and talk about the novels, poems and music they were going to write. They jokingly called it the Tea Club and Barovian Society. (Their tea shop was in a department store called Barrows.) As they got older and moved apart, they started to mythologise the TCBS. It is hard to know if Geoffrey Smith would really have been a great poet and Robert Gilson would really have been a great artist if they had survived the Great War. You would hardly have known from his juvenilia that young John Ronald was going to write the Best Loved Book of the Twentieth Century. Young people always think that their friendships are the greatest and most important friendships that there have ever been, just as they always feel that no-one before them has ever been truly in love.

People of Tolkien's age and class seem to have been more than usually prone to carry childhood jokes and nicknames into middle-age. C.S Lewis's letters to his brother are dense with private jokes about piggiebothams and pdaddybirds. I wonder if this is a product of the public school ethos which teaches that you are an Etonian or a Harrovian first and everything else a very poor second. Nothing of any real importance happens after you are done with Hogwarts.

Geoffrey and Robert died in the trenches, and the fourth member of the group, Christopher Wiseman, gave up his ambitions to be a classical composer. Before he died, Geoffrey Smith wrote a letter asking Tolkien to "say the things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them."

So there is one half of the story: four young men set out to change the world through their art. Two die; one comes home damaged and never fulfills his dreams; but the last makes good on the promise and really does change the world.

When he was only sixteen, Tolkien fell in love with a slightly older teenager named Edith Bratt. He was a catholic and she was a protestant and his legal guardian, a Jesuit, told him to stop seeing her or lose his inheritance and any chance of going up to Oxford. He wrote an proposed to her when he became a legal adult on his twenty first birthday. The whole thing sounds so much like an operetta that we should be relieved he wasn't born on the twenty ninth of February. They got married and lived happily ever after, for certain values of "happy". The story of Beren (who can't marry Luthien unless and until he steals one of the holy Silmarils from the Crown of Morgoth) and Aragorn (who can't marry Arwen unless and until he becomes king of the reunited kingdoms of Gondor and Arnor) are to some extent inspired by Tolkien's own circuitous love story.

And it is at this point that the film collides with a very large and very immovable object. The basic facts of Tolkien's life are in the public domain. His stories and poems are very much protected by the Berne convention. So we are faced with a film about the origins of Middle-earth which cannot quote from any Middle-earth related story and which is barely permitted to actually use the term Middle-earth. At one point we see Tolkien looking at the nigh sky and muttering a verse about "bright Earendel", but no-one gets around to telling the, actually rather fascinating, story about how the Anglo-Saxon name for the planet Venus got incorporated into Tolkien's private mythology as the name of Elrond's legendary father. Although we see Edith dancing in some woods by moonlight, we can't be told directly that this is awfully like the moment when human superhero Beren meets elvish demi-goddess Luthien. Similarly, when the sick JRRT is blundering around the trenches in the company of his loyal batman, we are left to draw our own conclusions from the fact that the batman's first name is, er, Sam. 

It is beautifully filmed and impeccably acted -- there is even a funny turn by Dear Dear Sir Derek as Tolkien's tutor Prof Wright. It takes place in that movie version of the Olden Days where the sun always comes through the trees at exactly the right angle and everyone's motor car is shiny and new.

But it is probably the silliest film you will see all year. Ludicrous, overwrought scenes tumble off the screen. The script is a dead cert for the "Most Bio-Pic Cliches In a Single Movie" Oscar. The high production values and decent cast make the unintentional comedy seem even funnier.

It is hard to select a favorite moment. Perhaps it is Tolkien's departure for The Front. He and Edith say goodbye in a restrained, stiff upper lip kind of way, and he marches off….and then suddenly turns around, runs back, puts his tongue down her throat and proclaims undying love. ("Stay alive!" she suggests, not entirely constructively.) One wonders why they didn't just play Rachmaninov in the background and have done with it.

FACT: Tolkien and Edith were already married when Tolkien left for France.

Or is it the scene when Tolkien, having been sent down from Oxford for failing his exams and holding a rather drunk TCBS meeting on a bus, receives a letter to the effect that his True Love is Betrothed To Another and starts proclaiming Elvish poetry to the heavens, waking up everyone in college. But -- how ironic! -- Prof Wright is one of those he wakes up, and he wants to know what language Tolkien was speaking. Tolkien follows the old man around Cambridge for some time until he agrees to let him join the philology department. On condition he writes a 5,000 word essay on Norse Survivals in Gawain. That afternoon.

FACT: Tolkien started out studying Classics, but did disappointingly in his first year exams. He was allowed to switch to English because he had scored 100% on his philology paper.

I adore the scene in which the relatively uneducated Edith puts brilliant Tollers to rights on the True Nature of Language. He only cares about the sounds of words, and goes off on one about why Cellar Door is the most beautiful sound combination in English. She shares with him the original insight that the beauty of language consists in both sounds and meanings. This gives him the idea of creating imaginary people to speak his imaginary languages. So it's all her fault. 

Another moment of comic genius occurs when Edith has a falling out with Tolkien. Tolkien takes her to meet his tea shop friends, but becomes jealous because she shares an interest in Wagner with Christopher Wiseman. Tolkien doesn't particularly like Wagner. "It shouldn't take six hours to tell a story about a magic ring" says Gilson, at which point several members of the audience cut their own throats in desperation. To make it up to her, Tolkien takes her to hear Rhinegold at the Birmingham opera. Only they don't have tickets and aren't dressed for the opera and can't get in. So, and you'll like this, they climb over a wall and sneak into a costume store from which they can over hear the music...and dress up in the costumes and mime the story as the music plays.

FACT: Edith never attended a TCBS meeting: Tolkien's friends didn't know about her until after they were at college. 

But the greatest moment; the moment which will live in cinematic infamy, comes in the final seconds. It is just the most perfect mixture of historical inaccuracy and cliche you ever saw in your life. Some years after the war, Tolkien is sad because he doesn't know where his Great Work is going. Edith counsels him to decide what he really wants to write and write that or to write what he knows or something of that sort. Out for a walk in the Shire with their children, Tolkien starts to promise a new story, which the kids will help him with -- and which, he promises, will be about love, loyalty, quests, dragons, small people who are big on the inside, skateboarding elves....

Alone in his study, we see him take a beautiful clean sheet of manuscript paper. We see an extreme close up of a fountain pen nib. We see the pen dipped in ink. We see it start to write on the pristine page, in beautiful hand writing.










And then bugger me if he doesn't stop and think and we go into extreme close up on his lips and hear him whisper the word "hobbit" just before the screen blacks out.

FACT: Tolkien wrote "in a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit" on the back of an old exam paper on the spur of the moment. He didn't at that point know what the story was about, and had no idea that it would eventually connect with his long germinating mythology.

There may come a day when someone will make a worthwhile movie about the life of Tolkien. But it is not this day.

I'm Andrew. I write about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn.

Or consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)

You remember that old Bernard Manning gag?

"I know I tell off-colour jokes. But I don't mean it. Deep in my heart I want the Roman Catholics and the Church of Ireland  -- along with all the Jews and the Atheists, the Muslims and the Hindus and the Sikhs -- to come together in one great brotherhood...and beat up the bloody Methodists."

I think of that every time a politician talks about "delivering Brexit" and then "bringing the country together."


Is it at this point too late to consider all the benefits of a Conservative / Labour alliance? 

The Liberals want to Revoke Article 50, but stand no chance of forming a government on their own, and will not form an coalition with Labour under any circumstances. Even though Labour want a fresh referendum with Revoke Article 50 as one of the options. 

The Tories say they want to Leave with a Better Deal than they one we have already agreed, but aren't seriously trying to negotiate one. Labour really does want a Better Deal, although they would really prefer to Remain. 

So: the best solution is to send Boris and Jeremy to Brussels together, as PM and deputy PM and come back with a deal that all the parties will have to accept. So Boris doesn't get his beloved No Deal, but at least he avoids the humiliation of revocation. Jeremy doesn't get to Remain, but at least he avoids the disaster of No Deal. And the Liberals get to spend the next twenty years saying "I told you so" and "I blame Jeremy Corbyn". 

So as in all the best compromises, everyone is equally unhappy.

The time is right. It will work. And no-one will have to get nailed to anything.

Except the common people.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

I didn't hate Disney's Christopher Robin nearly as much as I intended to. It was funny when it was trying to be funny and charming when it was trying to be charming. It is hard not be charmed when the adult Christopher Robin walks across the Pooh Sticks Bridge and finds that Eeyore's stick house is still standing and accidentally falls down one of Pooh's heffalump traps. It seems to understand -- or at least have a passing interest in -- A.A Milne's original short stories.

I believe scientists have to write up failed experiments as well as successful ones, so honour demands a review. I am sorry it will not be as funny as it would have been if I had hated it. I promise to get around to the Tolkien biopic in due course. 

Christopher Robin is all growed up. He has a very boring office job working for a company which makes suitcases. His boss, played by Mark Gatiss, needs him to work right through the weekend, even though he had promised to spend it with his wife and little girl. While he is struggling through his sales figures, his old friend Winnie-the-Pooh pops up in the park outside his London home. With, as they say, hilarious consequences.

Almost the best part of the film was the opening credits, in which simplified versions of E.H Shepard's illustrations are gently animated to re-acquaint us with the stories of the boy and his famous bear. These tiny vignettes caught a very large amount of what is entrancing about the original tales. A little boy and his toy animals pull a fat teddy bear out of a rabbit hole. The bear gets stuck up a tree, floating improbably on the end of a toy balloon; the little boy rescues him by bursting the balloon with a toy gun. These animations lead directly into a "live action" version of the final story, "in which" Christopher Robin says goodbye to his childhood friends and leaves the Forest. 

Christopher Robin is played by a child actor and the forest is a real landscape, but the stuffed animals are 3D animations. The toys are part way between "classic Pooh" and "Disney Pooh": Piglet and Eeyore look very like Shepard's pictures but Tigger is pure Disney. Pooh is fuzzy and teddy-like and avoids being too bright a shade of orange, but he retains his red waistcoat. Christopher has a mercifully English accent; no gophers are in evidence. 

The scene starts out by following the book pretty closely, with Rabbit making his pompous "goodbye" speech and Eeyore reading out his awful poem; but it rapidly degenerates into CGI animals throwing bits of cake at each other. I suppose Corporate Pooh can only think in terms of slapstick and farce. Pooh and Christopher go to their enchanted place and say goodbye and deliver most of the lines from the book. The line "I am not going to do nothing any more. They don't let you" has been changed to "I am not going to do nothing any more. They don't let you in boarding school." We zoom through Christopher Robin's post Forest life -- school, army, death of parents, marriage, baby, job -- in a few moments, and then the story proper gets under way.

I remember when we were surprised by Roger Rabbit and Jar-Jar Binks and Gollum: but now we all accept that a stuffed kangaroo can be part of the cast of a movie. The day is not infinitely remote when the idea that human actors had to go into a studio and perform their lines will seem outdated and quaint. Fortunately that day hasn't come quite yet: Ewan McGregor carries the film almost single-handedly. The whole of the second act consists of him interacting with a CGI bear; the bear is joined by an entire CGI menagerie, but no humans, in act three. Ewan only gets to talk to actual actors in the finale. I never once doubted him.

The film has essentially the same plot as Hook -- the distant work-obsessed father remembers his own childhood and reconnects with his family -- but McGregor never allows the adult Christopher Robin to come across as a monster. We entirely believe that he is unwillingly forgoing his holiday because Mycroft Holmes has forced him to; that he deeply loves his daughter but honestly thinks that making her cram to get into a prestigious boarding school is the right thing to do. He doesn't embarrassingly revert to childhood, but there's a light in his eyes when he meets his old friends and starts to remember the olden days. He pitches the thing entirely right; treating Pooh partly as a naughty child and partly as an embarrassing old college mate.

And he never once calls him "my young apprentice".

The "iconic" theme song only troubles the score a couple of times, and even I can't begrudge the brief reprise of The Wonderful Thing About Tiggers. ("He does that a lot," says Eeyore, gloomily.) But I have always found the Disney version of the willy-billy-silly-old Bear incredibly charmless. Slow and lugubrious, it is very hard to imagine this Pooh composing a pome or inventing a honey pot shaped boat. Almost his only personality trait is that he sometimes says the kinds of things that you can put on greetings cards and motivational posters. When Christopher Robin said that he liked to do nothing, he did, in fact mean something. He meant that he liked doing the kinds of things which are important to children but which adults don't understand. Playing with toy bears. Having wars with toy soldiers. Making up stories. But Disney-Pooh uses "nothing" simply as a play on words: "People say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing every day." It sounds vaguely wise; it goes nicely on a greeting card. But it doesn't actually mean anything at all. (How does the old Irish riddle go? "I am greater than God; I am worse than the devil; dead men eat me; if you eat me, you'll die. What am I?")

When he first visits Christopher Robin's house Pooh knocks over a cup which rolls along the shelf causing everything in the kitchen to crash to the floor. Someone has him confused with Paddington. The other characters come across very much as a rabble of badly behaved toddlers; only Eeyore feels like a character. Never having seen a grown-up before, the animals all assume that Christopher Robin is a heffalump. Which is rather cute.

The film has taken some trouble to think about the metaphysical status of Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends. It would have been tempting to make Pooh function like Hobbes in Calvin and Hobbes: a living being to Christopher Robin, but a stuffed toy to everyone else. But this Pooh definitely has agency and individual life and literal existence -- when people in the real world encounter the crying talking sleeping walking living teddy bear, they are freaked out. Although the film doesn't put it in these terms the Hundred Aker Wood seems to be a separate magical universe connected to our world via a magical tree. The magical tree is situated near Christopher's childhood home, but when Pooh travels back through the, as it were, wardrobe to 1950s England, he emerges in a park near Christopher's Bloomsbury home. "I suppose it is where ever it needs to be," he explains. He may be a bear of very little brain, but he knows a Plot Device when he sees one.

The trouble with this is that it removes any of the symbolism and poignancy which Winnie-the-Pooh could have had. This Pooh is not an imaginary friend: he's just a friend. 

You could make a good story around the question of what happens to imaginary friends when their children grow up. Perhaps they go and find new children to befriend. Perhaps they Cease To Be. Perhaps they wait around like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, hoping that their erstwhile playmate will appear again? Peter Yarrow sanctioned a picture book in which a little girl arrives in Puff's cave shortly after Jackie Paper deserts him. Father Christmas told young Christopher Tolkien that he wouldn't be writing for a few years, but would catch up with him when he had children of his own. A cartoon did the rounds on the internet a while back in which a grown up Calvin found an old stuffed tiger when his own little girl was being menaced by monsters under the bed. And there are some people who would say that "where does the delusion go once you are cured of it?" is a silly question, like "where does eighty miles an hour go when the car stops?".

The ending of the House at Pooh Corner is about a boy reaching a point in his life where he no longer plays with stuffed toys. The prologue to Christopher Robin is simply about a boy going off to school. Boarding school at that. It is taken for granted that the fall of man would have been averted if children never had to sleep away from home. Christopher Robin has become so busy with unimportant things like getting married, raising children and defeating the Nazis that he has lost touch with some of the friends he had when he was six years old. Once he gets back in touch with them, he's much happier.

I believe I remember the name of one (non imaginary) friend from when I was six. I haven't spoken to him in twenty five years. I still have some of my cuddly toys, though. The New York Library wasn't interested in taking them off my hands. 

The denouement of the film is quite clever. Christopher Robin applies Pooh's philosophy of "nothing" to the problem of suitcase manufacture and everyone lives happily ever after. Although the luggage company which Christopher Robin works for is very small, it is run by a mega-capitalist who owns nearly all the companies in England. Christopher points out that if he allowed his millions of employees time off to do "nothing"; they would be able to go on holiday and the company would sell millions more suitcases. 

You may think that trades unions had to fight tooth and nail for paid leave: it turns out it was actually gifted by a magic bear. Or perhaps that is the message. A world where mega-capitalists facilitate work-life balance of their own free will is about as likely as a talking teddy?

If this is the 1950s, why do Christopher Robin's "very important papers" appear to have come off a laser printer?

The more I think about the message of the movie, the more puzzled I am. Winnie-the-Pooh, who literally does nothing all day, is happy. When Christopher Robin hung out in the Hundred Acre Woods, throwing sticks in rivers and chasing non-existent heffalumps, he was happy. Now Christopher Robin has a job and a nice house in town and a nice cottage in the country, he is sad. Madeline Robin studies hard all day because her dad wants her to go to a prestigious boarding school: this makes her sad. When she stops studying and starts playing imaginary tennis matches with a balloon, she is happy. Play is good. Work is bad. School is bad: forests and teddy bears are good. Doing stuff is bad. Doing nothing is good. Quit your job. Lower your ambition. Spend more time with your friends and your family. Play instead of studying. Money doesn't buy happiness.

What was it Walt Disney paid to buy Winnie the Pooh from A.A Milne's descendants? Three hundred and fifty million dollars, wasn't it? The real life Christopher Milne's real life daughter got a cheque for forty four million. Which is nice.

There is nothing wrong with giving a child a book which says "be kind and generous and prayerful" when you yourself are cruel and mean and irreligious. That's just perfectly normal hypocrisy. And there is nothing surprising about grown-ups telling children actual deliberate lies. Of course an elephant can't fly if it wants to fly badly enough. But put the idea about and all the other elephants will start to believe that its their own fault they can't fly, that they would have been able to fly if they'd wanted to badly enough, and they will be content with their lot and go and work in luggage factories and not form trade unions like those nasty circus clowns.

But why on earth would anyone feed children with a morality that they themselves don't believe and which they definitely don't want the child to believe? If we all took on board the message of Christopher Robin, then it is certain that movies like Christopher Robin would never get made.

I'm Andrew. I write about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn.

Or consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)

A Little Bit of Bread And No Cheese

we are totally totally fucked

the liberals who want a second referendum with remain as one of the options and the labour party, who want a second referendum with remain as one of the option are going to spend the next election fighting each other

so whatever happens the next government will be a coalition between johnson's reimagined alt-right tories and farage's fascist tribute act 

the most likely ballot box result to the extent that ballots actually matter any more is still tories largest single party but unable to form a government with the liberals and labour having enough mps to form a working majority between them 

but it seems that any lib/lab coalition is ruled out from the start

so we are totally fucked

yellowhammer is the least of our worries 

some of us may die 

remember statistically it is not likely to be you 

but most of us will presumably not die 

there will be food shortages and medicine shortages and riots and martial law nation will rise again nation and there will be earthquakes and famines in various parts of the earth but  probably more fascists will get shot than non fascists and more old people will die than young people and it will all be over long before jodie whitaker regenerates 

assuming there is a still a BBC

is the whole point of the excercise to provide a pretext for martial law i wonder? the right love martial law. it's just like dad's army and the venture scouts 

but afterwards 

afterwards boris... 

aftewards the people operating boris will get what they have always wanted and the damage will take centuries to undo 

no more trades unions no more health and safety laws very low tax and therefore presumably no more of what we used to mean by state education and certainly no more free health care at the point of need

the NHS will continue to exist as a branding concept 

remember that pageant before the olympic games in twenty twelve? 

one of the tableaux insinuated that the national health service was something to be proud of and that nurses were quite a good thing and the right wing press said that this was propaganda and political correctness gone mad

buccaneering britain a northern singapore complete presumably with hanging and flogging but without noodles or cocktails

in that world there will be no place for people like me 

in fairness in that world there will be no place for people like boris johnson either but he is too stupid to see that 

no trendy colleges where we learn critical theory and play dungeons and dragons but no posh schools where we play rugger and learn about homer either just just grandgristic utilitarianism institutes preparing us to be buccaneering tiger sixteen hours a day flexible high skills low pay employment at will zero hours gourmet pork pie factory

that's assuming they don't really hang us from lampposts

i don't know if mine interlocutor is correct that boris is at heart in the american sense a liberal.

but i am quite sure that none of the sacred liberal cows like multiculturalism and hospitals will survive in buccaneering brexit boris britain 

liberal tears 

smash corbyn

still not tired of winning 

we are fucked

tony doesn't want labour to win if jeremy is in charge

tony doesn't want labour to win if jeremy is in charge even if that were possible 

tony thinks jeremy's ideas are wrong ideas

well tony doesn't put it in those terms because tony doesn't think in terms of right and wrong 

tony thinks in terms of new and old and he thinks that jeremy's ideas are old

workers rights and trades unions and trains which people can afford to ride on and hospitals which are not mortgaged to fast food companies are old fashioned ideas 

i get that 

tony doesn't like jeremy because jeremy is a socialist and tony never was 

i understand why my local MP who i have an awful lot of time for doesn't like jeremy

she doesn't like jeremy because she does't think he is a particularly good leader 

not in the sense of rah! rah! rah! leader! leader! leader! but in the sense of managing people and organizing stuff and running departments and running the country 

she doesn't think he is very good at that 

but so far as i can see the jeremy who jo has ruled out having an alliance with labour ever ever ever even though it means boris and the end of the world is the jeremy of faith 

the jeremy of the right wing papers the jeremy who was created by the people who operate boris 

it turned out to be anti-semitism it could just as well have turned out to be a bacon sandwiches or the national anthem 

it doesn't matter 

there cannot be an anti brexit alliance because jeremy 

therefore we are all fucked 

and yes maybe if the socialists had never voted for the socialist we wouldn't be in this mess 

and yet my own oath holds and thus we are all ensnared

what am i going to do

i have a bucket under the sink which catches water from a slightly dripping pipe. i have one in the corner of the bathroom with a mop in it. i think there is a metal bucket in the shed which was already there when I bought the flat, and somewhere I have one of those purple plastic buckets that I used to make sandcastles with when I was a kid 

i am going to do what i always said i would do in the face of the zombie apocalypse

call up old friends

listen to penguin eggs one last time. 

reread moby dick

set up a large and complex star wars role playing game for as long as the internet holds out 

if we are going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things 

praying working, teaching reading listening to music bathing the children playing tennis chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts

not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs 

i am going to live as much like a narnian as i can even though we are definitely leaving narnia come all hallows eve

we are totally fucked 

I'm Andrew. I write about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn.

Or consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)

Monday, September 16, 2019


Richard points out that I have mixed up two different plays. The peril in the play by Ibsen was not a shark, but a complete different kind of marine creature. This is why it was called Anemone of the People.

Richard also points out Ibsen sets up a very Norwegian moral dilemma in the Hall of the Mountain King sequence in Pier Gynt, This is why it is always referred to as a Troll-ey problem.

Finally, Lawrence Miles points out that during his run for Mayor, Boris Johnson literally said that the Mayor in Jaws was in the right.

Hulk through with political analogy. Hulk want cookie.