Wednesday, May 20, 2015

So long, it's been good to know you... (3)

III: Is Nick Clegg a shit?


Scenario 1:

Five years ago, Nick Clegg decided that the Liberal party should go out in a blaze of glory, his only regret being that he had but one party to lay down for his country. He could either join a Liberal / Conservative coalition, or else he could force a second General Election which the Conservatives would certainly have won outright. He chose the Coalition, reasoning that this was the least worst option for the country. He gambled everything on the idea that the Liberals would make a Conservative government less bad than it would otherwise have been.

He would have probably preferred a Labour/Liberal coalition, but that was never really on the table. Labour hates the Liberals far more than they hate the Conservatives, and they hate coalitions far more than they hate Liberals. 

Never been sure that supporting a Very Bad Thing to stop an Even Worse Thing happening is morally defensible myself. "Oh, personally speaking I'm dead set again beheading old ladies, but if they are going to behead old ladies anyway surely it's better that they do it with nice sharp cleavers from my nice sharp cleaver shop..." 

On this view, Clegg was literally a hypocrite. When he was defending coalition policy, he was taking the party line. Pretending to agree with stuff that he didn't agree with, because he'd promised to. But all politicians do that. Cabinet responsibility, it's called. Tell the Prime Minister that something is suicidally insane behind closed doors, and then go out and say it's a brilliant idea on live TV. (This is why so many of them cheat on their wives and expenses, incidentally. Lying convincingly is part of the job.) 

Lawyers also have to put forward arguments that they know are bullshit. But they don't have to pretend that they think that Mr J.T Ripper is innocent: merely to explain to the court why he thinks he is. This doesn’t make them bad people. It’s their job.

Scenario 2

Clegg formed an alliance with the Conservative Party because he honestly believed all the bollocks that Cameron was talking. He honestly believed that "austerity" was a necessary response to the economic crash, and not a pretext to do all the stuff that the Tories have wanted to do for years. He honestly believed that the economic crash was the fault of "the-mess-we-inherited-from-Labour" and nothing to do with the banks. He honestly believed that unemployment is caused by poor people being too lazy to go to work, and that reducing unemployment benefit will therefore cure unemployment. He honestly believed that people only go to food banks because they're greedy and love a freebie. 

See, if Scenario 2 is true, things aren’t too bad right now. The Conservative/Liberal coalition was doing pretty much the exact same things that the Conservatives would have done on their own. So we've got another ten years of that to look forward to. 

But if Clegg is what he appears to have been — a sincere and principled politician playing the best game he could with a rotten hand...

Well, what we've had for the last five years has been what the Conservative Party looked like with the Liberals holding them back. And now, there is nobody to restrain them. The brakes are off. They get to do what they actually want. 

In other words: Armageddon. 

IV: Armageddon

The BBC is over, of course; and the Health Service is over. The Welfare State is over as well. Oh, ten years from now there will still be something with the BBC logo on it, in the same way there is a still a Woolworths website and someone owns British Movietone News. But once the licence fee goes the idea of public service broadcasting comes to an end and Rupert Murdoch moves into the space it used to occupy. All those little things that we used to take for granted that meant that even if the very worst happened, it wouldn't be too bad — the dole; giro; the social; family allowance; housing benefit — are now lumped under the vile American term "welfare". So "welfare" is pretty much finished as well. How can we have a "welfare state" if all the parties are agreed that Welfare is a Bad Thing? 

And that's before we've got to the genuinely scary stuff. Europe is over; at any rate, Europe is going to have to manage without Britain because Britain is going to go it alone. Oh, there will be an In/Out referendum, but that will come after 18 months of foreigner-baiting; 18 months of Murdoch and Dacre printing made up stories about straight bananas and pensioners being hauled in front of Sharia courts for weighing their jam in feet and inches. Something like 1 in 10 people voted for a party with no policy apart from withdrawing from Europe.

I am sure that there is a sensible discussion to be had about the economics and politics of federations as opposed to confederacies as compared with treaties and contrasted with free-trade zones. I am equally sure that no-one is remotely interested in having it. It's not Britain Withdrawing From Europe that I fear so much as the two years of xenophobic rhetoric that precedes it and the month long xenophobic victory parade that follows it. 

V: Point of Need

Did you see that thing on the Interwebs about how much it cost to have a baby in America as compared with how much it cost to have a baby in the UK? (The medical costs of having a baby safely delivered and cared for, I mean. Actually producing the child is still relatively cheap in both countries.) They said that it could easily run to $100,000 in America, but that in England it is free.

This is not true. This has never been true. 

In England, it very expensive to have a baby, or get treated for cancer, or even have to have a chat with your doctor because you've got a bit of a hurty leg. Doctors and surgeons are highly paid professionals. Nurses and midwifes don't get paid nearly enough, but they don't work gratis. We have developed an ingenious scheme whereby everyone pays up front regardless of how many times they get ill, and then get to go to the doctor as often as they want regardless of what they've paid. Someone has done some sums and worked out what everyone can afford, and we pay it annually. The rich pay more and the poor pay less. No-one sits around saying "It's not fair. I don't have cancer, so I'm not getting to use the cancer ward I contributed it." We say "It's brilliant. Even if the very worst happens and I get cancer, I know there's a cancer ward waiting for me to go to. And in the meantime, if I get a hurty leg, I just go and get it seen to."

You could call this "pooling risk" or  "national insurance" or even "socialized medicine". A better word would be "sharing". 

Oh, yes, the rich sometimes say that they are paying more than their fair share and the poor sometimes say that the rich aren't paying enough. And there are sometimes stories (made up by people who hate the whole idea of "sharing") about someone who got something paid for out of the common pot that someone else thinks was frivolous or unnecessary or a waste of time – homeopathy or penis enlargement or gender realignment. And there are always tragic stories about some kid who had cancer and there were some magic pills that could definitely cure him but "you couldn't get them on the health service" because they were too expensive. If you are working on the sharing system, then someone does sometimes have to decide whether or not everyone can afford to pay ten million pounds for a treatment that might keep someone alive for an extra fortnight, horrible and painful though those kinds of decisions are. I think that's what made the crazy lady think that socialized medicine involved Death Panels. God knows, the National Health Service isn't perfect. But if you have appendicitis or a heart attack or a bit of a hurty leg it patches you up and sends you home without a bill.

Honestly, it does. You have to pay for pills and glasses.

Do you remember that big pageant they held before the 2012 Olympic Games? Deaf kids singing the National Anthem in their pajamas, James Bond shoving the Queen out of a helicopter, Paul McCartney making a spectacle of himself? Then you may also remember that Mr Rupert Murdoch said that he quite enjoyed the ceremony, but felt that it was "a bit too politically correct".

"A bit too politically correct." I wonder what he could possibly have meant? Did he wish that some of the hymn singing kids had shouted "Pooftahs! N*ggers! Cripples!" at the Queen? Did he find out that there were paramedics on hand in case anyone got ill, as opposed to, as he would presumably prefer "ambulance blokes"?

In the lexicon of the extreme right Political Correctness does not mean avoiding using nasty words if a nice ones are available. Political Correctness is a conspiracy by Marxists to destroy civilization. (Jewish Marxists. Weird looking Jewish Marxists who can't eat bacon sandwiches, I shouldn't wonder.) What Mr Rupert Murdoch objected to about the Olympic Games was J.K Rowling reading to sick children; thousands of dancing nurses and the letters N.H.S suspended above the arena: the tribute to the National Health Service as one of the unequivocally Good Things about Britain that we can boast about to the rest of the world. The Common Sense Brigade hates the Health Service because it is, genuinely, a Marxist idea. From each according to his ability, to each according to his need: it really doesn't get more Marxist than that. As noted, in England Marxist isn't an insult, but a description. Most of think that Marxism is quite a good way to run public health but quite a bad way to run, say, the steel industry. The Common Sense Brigade hate that the N.H.S exists; hate that it's successful; hate that it's popular. 

“The new National Health Service will provide you with all medical, dental and nursing care. Everyone, rich or poor, man, woman or child, can use it... But it is not a charity. You are all paying for it, mainly as taxpayers, and it will relieve your money worries in time of sickness.”

For 60 years, there has mostly been a consensus that sharing is quite a good idea; that people in work should help people who are out of work; that well paid people should lend a hand to the poor. Not necessarily by handing the poor huge clumps of five pound notes. Mostly by having things called "libraries" so that people who can't afford to buy books can still read and educate themselves; and by having things called "parks" so that even if your dad doesn't have his own tennis court, you can still play sport; and by having — call me old fashioned — things called Council Houses so people who can't get a mortgage can have somewhere to live; and by making the state schools so good that no-one really needs to send their kid to a private school and...

But that consensus is gone. Poor people are no longer unfortunates to be helped with a spoonful of "there but for the grace of god go I". Benefit claimants are no longer people like us, going through a bad patch and needing some help. (Most people claim benefits at some time in their lives.) Poor people have become, through some bizarre heresy of Calvinism, the enemy -- wicked folk who have done the wrong thing by choosing to be poor and require punishment. Not in their own interests, but in the interests of folk who virtuously chose to be rich.

We have Cameron in his manifesto:

"Under Labour, those who worked hard found more and more of their earnings taken away in tax to support a welfare system that allowed, and even encouraged, people to choose benefits when they could be earning a living. This sent out terrible signals: if you did the right thing, you were penalised – and if you did the wrong thing, you were rewarded, with the unfairness of it all infuriating hardworking people." 

We have Labour politicians, agreeing with him: 

"We are not the party of people on benefits. We don’t want to be seen, and we’re not, the party to represent those who are out of work. Labour are a party of working people, formed for and by working people.” 

And we have a right wing pundit in the Guardian. 

“This issue is self-interest. You have permission in this country to defend your own interests, and to vote accordingly, only if you’re poor, or otherwise disadvantaged....If the issue is tax, and it isn’t always, why should it be shameful to vote to keep more of the money you’ve earned but noble to vote to appropriate other people’s money...and award it to yourself or to the groups with which you personally sympathize.”

Granted, the Guardian, being a left wing paper, presumably picked a right wing pundit who could be relied on to say something stupid and unpleasant, but still, this kind of thing wouldn't have been said or even thought a decade ago. Over the next ten years, that rhetoric will increasingly be applied to the health service, libraries, public parks, museums, arts subsidies, child-benefit, education. Why should someone steal money from me just so that some child who has chosen to be poor can read books, play in the park, have an education, go to the doctor...

VI: How bad could things get?

The Tories are going to legalize fox-hunting, or at any rate, have a free vote in the house of commons to see if fox-hunting can be legalized.

Some things are more important than other things; and fox-hunting would be somewhere near the bottom of any sensible list of important things.

So why are the Tories pressing forward with their plans to legalize it?  Mainly, I suppose, because they know it will annoy the Left. In fairness, the Left banned fox hunting mainly because it would annoy the Tories. We are often told that fox hunting is a really popular day out for all different kinds of people, that families from estates in Birmingham regularly saddle up their horses and go and slaughter a few woodland mammals. For all I know this might be true. But people in red jackets shouting "tally ho!" is one of the first things which comes to mind when you think of the English upper classes.

Fox-hunting is a symbol. Legalizing fox-hunting sends a message. "When we say that we are going to govern for the whole country, we mean we are going to stick up for the Toffs and two fingers up to the oiks, the commies, and anyone who wears sandals." 

I mention this because David Cameron’s other top priority is to abolish the Human Rights Act, and I am very much hoping that he wants to abolish the Human Rights Act mainly in order to annoy the Left. And I am very much hoping that when he says he wants to abolish the Human Rights Act he means that he wants to abolish the Human Rights Act and not, for example, that he wants to abolish Human Rights.

The Human Rights Act is much hated by right-wing pundits, but the Human Rights Act that the pundits hate is largely a fictitious Human Rights act, a Human Rights act that tells policemen that burglars are allowed to order take-away meals during sieges and school children have to wear goggles to play conkers. (Human Rights, like Health and Safety, is a branch of the Jewish Marxist conspiracy to destroy civilization.) Tearing up the Human Rights Act (or “Labour’s Human Rights Act” as Cameron likes to call it) is mainly a way of identifying with Daily Mail and Sun Readers and kicking Guardian readers in the teeth. There isn't actually any plan to say that Human Rights don't apply in the United Kingdom.  

Is there?

A lot of Tories think that if you scratch Tony Blair and Ed Miliband, what you would find underneath would be a Clause 4 (*) believing cloth cap wearing brass band listening union belonging Old Labour Man. A lot of us Lefties fear that you would have to peel a lot less layers off David Cameron and Micahel Gove to find an old fashioned hang'em flog'em Tory underneath. (In British English, Hang’em-Flog’em-Tory is all one word, like Bleeding-Heart-Liberal in American English.)

The question we can't answer at this stage is: do Hang'em-flog'em-Tories actually still believe in hanging and flogging? 

VII: Earth Abides

The Church of England, the BBC, the National Health Service. Three things which made Britian Britain. One of them self-destructed, the other two are going to be broken by a gang of posh boys because they can. A fiercely patriotic little island, regarding the countries around it not as partners or allies but as competitors or opponents. Scotland a scary little left-wing foreign place that we're taught to dislike almost as much as we dislike the French. No health service anyone who grew up in Britain would recognise as a health service. No public service broadcaster with a remit to give us what we need as well as what we want; Murdoch stepping into the breach with topless ladies and far-right propaganda. The unemployed reliant on charity; or living on the street as hobos; or maybe working for food coupons or gathered into workhouses. (What do you do with poor people if there aren't jobs for them and you aren't prepared to give them any money?) An England tentatively hanging it's first paedophile and wondering whether free schools might be permitted to start gently and sensibly beating children again. No libraries; if you can't buy books on Amazon, what right have you to read? No parks, because why should poor people play on lawns that working people paid to have cut?  

Well, it may not come to that. But the Tory Party are steering us in that direction. And any suggestion that we might not want to go in this direction; or even that we might not want to go in this direction quite so fast; is denounced as crazily "left wing" and "communist" even by the Labour party itself. 

So what is there to stop this happening – except the innate good sense and decency of the British people.

So Long, It's Been Good To Know You (2)

II: Note, for the edification of people in the United States and other non-cricket playing nations.

In England, the liberal party is called the Labour Party and the conservative party is called the Conservative Party. However the Conservative Party is much more liberal than any American liberal party.

The Liberal Party used to be more liberal than the Conservative party but more conservative than the Labour Party, but in recent times the Labour Party and the Conservative Party have both become much more conservative. This process is known as “moving to the centre”.

When we say "liberal" we don't mean what you mean by "liberal". When British Liberals say they are liberal they mean that they believe very strongly in personal liberty and civil rights. When other people say that someone is liberal they mean that they are moderate, middle of the road or "sitting on the fence".

What Americans mean when they say "liberal" is closer to what the British mean when they say "socialist". What the Americans mean when they say "socialist" is closer to what the British mean when they say "communist". However, in British English "communist" is a description of a political point of view, as opposed to an insult.

Our Liberal Party is actually called the Liberal Democrat Party, because it merged in 1988 with the Social Democrats, who were a group of socialists who left the Labour party in 1981 because it was too socialist. Our Liberal Democrats are nothing like your liberal Democrats. (We also have Liberal republicans; as a matter of fact most of our Liberals are republicans.)

The word "Tory" is simply a nickname for the Conservative Party, although it has connotations of an aristocratic, high-church, Royalist politics that would be regarded as old-fashioned in modern party. The word originally means "brigand" or "cattle thief", obviously.

Our Private Schools are called Public Schools and we drive on the left hand side of the road.

Lady Bracknell: What are your politics?
Jack.  Well, I am afraid I really have none.  I am a Liberal..
Lady Bracknell.  Oh, they count as Tories.  They dine with us.  Or come in the evening, at any rate.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

So long, it's been good to know you...

I: In Which Everybody Eats Their Hats

And then we smashed up everything,
and this was the funniest part
we smashed some rotten old pictures
which were priceless works of art!
                               John Betjeman

A week has passed since the election. There has been a lot of hysterical defeatist talk. A lot of people have taken it personally. 

So I am going to try to take a deep breath and talk about what has really happened in as level headed and non-partisan a way as I can possibly manage. 


I went into the campaign intending not to vote. I wasn’t going to vote Labour because they're the War party. I wasn’t going to vote Tory because they're the Evil party. I wasn’t going to vote Lib Dem because they enabled the evil Party. I wasn’t going to spoil my ballot paper because that's a pointless waste of time. I wasn’t going to vote Green because that's an even bigger pointless waste of time. 

All three parties were promising to stand up for hard working families. “I am not hard working”, I said. “I am not a family. And I am not voting”. 

I don't buy the argument that the lady jumped in front of the horse in order to blackmail future generations into voting. I support the right of women to vote. I support the right of ethnic minorities to vote. I support the right of prisoners to vote, through I draw the line at lunatics and members of the House of Lords. I support the right of me to vote, fairly vigorously. I also support the right of me to own a dog. I happen to think that dogs are stupid creatures who spend two days barking at you to get out of their house, and then proceed to put their paws on you and lick you all over when you try to leave. But my decision not to have a dog doesn't remotely mean that I don't think that you right to keep a dogs is an important, hard won civil right. [*] 

Actually, I'd be prepared to make out a case for Compulsory Voting. If instead of having a big thing called election day where you positively walk to the polling station and positively queue up and positively put a cross in a positive box (remembering that if you put a tick your vote may not be counted) but instead had something more like a census, where over a period of fortnight you got a visit from a government official to whom you had by law to express a preference as to who you would like to see running the government for the next five years... Well, that might be rather an improvement. A survey about the actual state of public opinion, as opposed to a complicated game about who could be persuaded to walk down the hill in the rain. Yes, indeedly, there would have to be a "none of the above" option; and yes, indeedly, it would probably have to be a "preferential voting" system; and yes, indeedly, there would have to be a conscience clause to exempt members of the First Church of Christ Luantic and others who don't agree with voting on moral grounds; and yes indeedly there would have to be safeguards to ensure that the ballot was secret and no-one voted on behalf of their Granny. But this kind of thing can usually be sorted out with a bit of small print. 

There is always someone who says "It is impossible to look over someone's shoulder in a voting booth, and therefore any change to the election system would fatally compromise the sacred secret ballot.” They are always wrong. 

Compulsory voting would change the dynamic of elections far more radically than Proportional Representation would have done. The main political parties have spent a century evolving into efficient machines for persuading their supporters to actually walk down the hill and vote for them. Elections aren’t about persuading people to support you; they’re all about persuading your supporters to actually cast their vote. Imagine if they had to to persuade people who had to vote for someone that you were the someone they ought to vote for. 

Until we have compulsory voting "choosing not to vote because you don't like any of the candidates on offer" seems a perfectly democratic choice. But you will be massively relieved to hear that I changed my mind at the very last minute. I voted Green. 

I am not as exercised by environmental issues as you presumably think I ought to be. I entirely agree that it's a jolly bad thing and that something should be done about it. But I really don’t know what fracking is, or what precisely it has to do with badgers. Yoko Ono is against it. 

I voted Green because they fought a positive campaign. It is possible to get a little bit inspired by "Vote big; Vote brave; Vote what you believe in; Vote while we can still fix this; Vote for the common good". It is really not possible to get inspired by "Hard working families better off" even when the lump of rock it is carved on is very big indeed. 

I voted Green because it looked as if they were actually in with a chance of winning Bristol West. In fact they came second, pushing the incumbents into third place. If a few (well, a few thousand) more abstainers like me had changed our minds, they could have taken it. And I felt that the presence of two Green MPs in Parliament, as opposed to just one, would have made a small but significant difference when Ed came to construct his coalition. 


I believed in The Polls. I believed that the only remaining question was whether Lab/SNP would outnumber Con/UKIP/Lib Dem and whether a Lib/Lab pact was still on the cards and whether the one lot would vote the government down and force a second election if the other lot tried to go it alone. 

But [SPOILER WARNING] the polls were wrong; there were no coalitions and the Tories got back in with an increased majority. Maybe voting Tory is like masturbation: everyone does it, but most people are too embarassed to say so. Maybe a lots of people just genuinely changed their minds at the last minute. Maybe Ed basically blew the election when he unveiled his big rock in the same way Kinnock did when he held his victory parade. 

Or maybe the Tories won the election precisely because the polls said they wouldn’t? Remember we don’t vote for the candidate we want to win. That would be undemocratic. We try to guess how our neighbours are going to vote (having first guessed how they think we are going to vote, based on how they think we think they are going to vote) and then place our cross, or tick, in the box that we think will produce the least worst result. The Tories spent the second half of the campaign telling us we didn’t dare vote Labour because Labour might form a coalition with the Scottish Nationalists. If the Tories had any chance of winning then the question of coalitions doesn’t arise. The main argument for voting Tory only works if the polls are telling us that the Tories aren’t going to win. 

I’m not, as the fellow said, suggesting any sort of a plot. But there could very well be Darwinian pressure on the pollsters to use methodologies that tend to produce polls which result in Tory governments (as opposed to polls which predict Tory governments.) Because otherwise, the Tory press would stop commissioning opinion polls. 

In a way, this has been the least ideological election I’ve experienced. There’s so little difference between the main party’s programmes that party loyalists have been talking in apocalyptic terms about how there has never been more difference between the two parties. 

Miliband wanted to slap a £3,000 p.a tax on properties worth more than £2,000,000. He wanted to abolish a vindictive little means test which said that poor people get slightly less welfare if they have a house which is slightly bigger than they need. He wanted to increase the minimum wage to a level that a person could actually live on, but, like St Augustine, not yet. I mean, good arguments on both sides, and everything, but things have got pretty desperate when the Mayor of London is describing these kinds of cautious, gradualist measures as “commie”. 

When I was at college in the 1980s, everyone called everyone a commie and everyone else called everyone else a fascist. It was how debate was carried out. Student politics was all about boycotting Barclays Bank and This Is A Nuclear Free Toilet and refusing to leave the canteen until the Thatcherite junta ended its colonial occupations of the Malvinas islands. The Left had crazy Utopian dreams about making Nelson Mandela president of South Africa and sitting down round a negotiating table with the Sinn Fien and letting homosexuals get married. The Right was mainly interested in antagonising the Left. I remember the poster depicting the Karl Marx Memorial with the slogan “Do you really want your student union to be run by some old corpse in Highgate Cemetery.” Some of them even thought that was amusingly satirical to wear "Hang Nelson Mandela" badges. 

Who was it would said that if you are not a liberal at the age of 20 you don't have a heart but if you are still a liberal at the age of 40 you don't have a brain? The Left have got brains. Plenty of brains. But it's those same heartless Tories who are now running the country. 

We all did silly things at college. If I became Prime Minister I’d be haunted by photographs of myself in dressed as an orc for a LARP event. (And, oh dear god, they may be one of my blacked up as a voodoo priest for a pirate themed RPG.) We’ve all seen the photos of David and Boris and their friends in their weird frock coats, poised to smash up a few restaurants and burn a few £50 notes under the noses of poor people. The point is that the Left mostly grew up. The Left mostly stopped calling people “fascists”. They decided it was more constructive to carve “controls on immigration” on slabs of rock and write essays explaining that the true essence of socialism was people who went to posh supermarkets. But the Right, so far as I can tell, has never grown up. They are still here, marching into sticky-floor and plastic-cup bars and demanding a dry-sherry, doing whatever they can think of that will annoy the left, smashing everything to pieces and assuming they can get away with it because Daddy has money. Only now, they’re going to do it to the whole country. 

[*] “I don’t want to be Muslim. If it comes to it, I don’t want you to be a Muslim. But I do want you to be allowed to be a Muslim if that’s what you want.” This used to be called liberalism, but I suspect it now makes me horribly left wing.

[**] A representative sample of Labour voters — let's call her "Mum" — says that it isn't fair to vote Green on the basis of what they said during the election because they had not the remotest chance of winning it and could therefore say whatever they liked. Miliband had to give vague, non-committal, right-wing promises because there was a serious chance that he might have to deliver on them. This is a perfect valid point but tends to support my "ignoring the election altogether" strategy. 

Thursday, May 14, 2015

"And they made good laws and kept the peace and saved good trees from being unnecessarily cut down, and liberated young dwarfs and young satyrs from being sent to school, and generally stopped busybodies and interferers and encouraged ordinary people who wanted to live and let live."

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

This is a piece I wrote in 2011 about a Tory MP who wanted to strangle people but was unable to construct a coherent sentence on the subject. ("The point is as I said earlier on this is about having deterrence. If you have strong deterrence like that, capital punishment will act as a deterrent. To have capital punishment would act as a deterrent. That’s the first point here....") This MP is now a minister for work and pensions.

Note: I did indeed abstain from reading all news media for about 6 months after writing this article, and have never felt the need to switch on Question Time or Any Questions or The Politics Show since.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

This is an insurmountable opportunity.


I had intended you to be
The next Prime Minister but three
The stocks were sold, the press was squared
The middle-class was quite prepared
But as it is, my language fails.
Go out and govern New South Wales!


"On its world", said Ford "The people are people. The leaders are lizards. The people hate the lizards and the lizards rule the people."

"Odd," said Arthur, "I thought you said it was a democracy."

"I did," said Ford. "It is."

"So," said Arthur, hoping he wasn't sounding ridiculously obtuse, "why don't people get rid of the lizards?"

"It honestly doesn't occur to them," said Ford. "They've all got the vote, so they all pretty much assume that the government they've voted in more or less approximates to the government they want."

"You mean they actually vote for the lizards?"

"Oh yes," said Ford with a shrug, "of course."

"But," said Arthur, going for the big one again, "why?"

"Because if they didn't vote for a lizard," said Ford, "the wrong lizard might get in. Got any gin?"


"I said," said Ford, with an increasing air of urgency creeping into his voice, "have you got any gin? 

 Douglas Adams

I guess the first time I ever heard about a union, I wasn't more than eight years old. What I heard was the story of the two rabbits.

It was a he-rabbit and a she-rabbit that a pack of hounds was chasing all over the countryside, and finally these rabbits they holed up inside a hollow log. 

Outside the dogs was a-howling.

The he-rabbit turned to the she-rabbit and he said, "What do we do now?"

And the she-rabbit, she just give him a wink and said "We stay here til we outnumber them."

Woody Guthrie

It's 1988 now. Margaret Thatcher is entering her third term of office and talking confidently of an unbroken Conservative leadership well into the next century. My youngest daughter is seven and the tabloid press are circulating the idea of concentration camps for persons with AIDS. The new riot police wear wear black visors, as do their horses, and their vans have rotating video cameras mounted on top. The government has expressed a desire to eradicate homosexuality, even as an abstract concept, and one can only speculate as to which minority will be the next legislated against. I'm thinking of taking my family and getting out of this country soon, sometime over the next couple of years. It's cold and it's mean spirited and I don't like it here anymore. 

Alan Moore

The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult, and left untried.


Thursday, May 07, 2015

Tuesday, May 05, 2015


Lines Composed Shortly Before Reviewing The Force Awakens trailer

I quite bring myself to press "play".


Sometimes during this process I have found myself asking "Is Star Wars, in fact, something that you like? Is it not rather something you used to like?" 

And even when you used to like it, did you really like it, or did you just sign up to the "liking Star Wars club" when that was the fashionable club for deeply unfashionable people to belong to? Would it ("cosmically speaking")  matter if the seventh Star Wars film — let alone the trailer for the seventh Star Wars film — failed to fill you with the same kind of joy the first one did? It wouldn't necessarily mean that all the joy had gone out of the world. It would simply mean that joy is now to be found in different places. 

I envy people likeAdam Englebright, I really do. He says that he honestly can't see why I think that the Star Wars movies are fundamentally different beasts from the various comics, books and video-games that have sprung up around them. (And he honestly can't see why New Who is a different thing from Old Who, either.) I honestly can't see how he can't but I honestly wish I couldn't. I mean — just to take one example — Marvel Unlimited has just put 500 (500!) Star Wars comics on line. Pretty much everything from 1977 up to date. 80 hours worth of material that is more or less the same kind of thing as A New Hope. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive. And to be young was very heaven. 

Adam feels that anything with the Star Wars label on it -- certainly anything endorsed by George Lucas -- is Star Wars by definition. The Empire Strikes Back and Vader's Quest are both equally telling you about stuff that happened in the Star Wars universe. 

My friend Nick, on the other hand, regularly refers to Episodes I - III as "fan-fic" even though George Lucas actually wrote them. Which is an interesting approach. If the man who thought up the idea of Jedi Knights doesn't get to tell you what Jedi Knights were like, it isn't clear who does. One might, I suppose, say that the Aenied is Iliad fan-fic; that Frasier is Cheers fan-fic; that Star Trek Season 2 is Star Trek Season 1 fan-fic. But I am not sure how far it would get one.

This isn't one of those hair-splitty arguments about canon, although we are going to have to have one of those before too long. It's about the difference between what Adam calls Watsonianism and what he calls Doyle-ism; a very elegant distinction which I shall draw at every opportunity from now on. 

Are the Sherlock Holmes stories made up by a jobbing writer named Doyle who'd rather have been out and about snapping photographs of fairies? Or are they accounts of Sherlock Holme's life written down by his friend Dr Watson? Well, both, obviously: Watson tells the stories; but Watson is a literary device made up by Doyle to make the puzzles more puzzling. (Detective stories are easier to write if they are mediated by an unreliable narrator: the more unreliable the better. Holmes spots things that the reader misses; but Watson misses things the reader spots.) I don't know if there are people who honestly believe that Holmes was a real person. I did once meet someone who honestly thought that The Lord of the Rings was real history (it was too complicated for Tolkien to have thunk up). There are apparently lots of people who don't get that The Da Vinci Code is a story. 

But the Watson/Doyle distinction isn't about that kind of confusion. It's really about what kind of question it's appropriate to ask about books, or what kind of answer would satisfy you. Everyone knows that there is a discrepancy about Watson's war-wound: it's an arm injury in the first story, and a leg injury thereafter. It is obviously and simply true that Doyle simply forgot what he had written in the first story, and didn't bother to go back and check. And this tells us things about Doyle as a writer, if we want it to. He was slapdash, and didn't care much about details. He was a consummate story teller, and altered facts to make the world more exciting and mysterious. He was incline to suppress references to arm wounds because — I don't know — he was burned on the arm by cruel nanny when he was a baby. None of these kinds of answers are of the slightest interest to a Watsonian. The Watsonian needs answers that make sense on the assumption that Holmes and Watson were real people: Watson was never wounded: his injuries were psychosomatic; Watson was never wounded: he's lying about his injuries to make Holmes look good; Watson was was trying his shoelaces when he was shot; the bullet went through his shoulder and into his leg; Watson was, in fact, Moriarty in disguise and Moriarty never quite got his story straight. 

You might, I suppose be a sort of hyper-Watsonian. You might know perfectly well that Doyle wrote the stories, but think that he, Doyle, intended them to be read in a Watsonian way. If the inconsistency about the war wound is on the page, then it's on the page because Doyle put it there, and if he put it there, he did so for a reason — to give us the clue that Watson is delusional, or amnesiac, or an impostor. And some books certainly are presented in that way: the Lord of the Rings doesn't fully make sense without Tolkien's conceit that it's a translation of an ancient "red book" that the Hobbits themselves wrote. At one level, Watsonian criticism is hugely respectful to The Author.  No accidents; no slips of the pen -- everything the author said, the author intended to say. But at another level, they push the author out out of the picture completely. Holmes and Watson get to be real, but only if the story you read (where Watson is a lying impostor) is different from the one which Doyle actually wrote. 

The Watsonian approach finds things in the text which are not there: but it excludes things from the text which probably are. Stories do contain metaphors and subtexts and allusions and in jokes and hidden meanings; real life doesn't. After the death of Sherlock Holmes, Watson writes: "I shall ever consider him the best and the wisest man I have ever known." Everybody knows that at the end of Phaedo, Plato wrote that Socrates was "of all those whom we knew in our time the bravest and also the wisest and most just." I suppose that it is just possible that Watson read a little philosophy at medical school, but I don't think that we are supposed to think that he is consciously quoting Plato. I think that Doyle is winking at us. Watson is kind of like Holmes's Plato, the loyal disciple doggedly writing up his master's dialogues, and maybe sometimes putting his own words into his mouth. This kind of thing doesn't work if Watson is a "real" person reporting a story as best he can: it requires an awareness of a Mr Doyle, pulling at his strings. 

The Early George Lucas did intend there to be an intradiegetic level to Star Wars. There is a persistent oral tradition that he had originally wanted there to be a pre-credit sequence in which a mummy Wookie was reading a baby Wookie a bed-time story, called, presumably, Star Wars. The first couple of novels were said to be excerpts from a longer text called "The Adventures of Luke Skywalker" or "The Journal of the Whills." And, of course, the very words "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..." suggest that this story is being told by someone. 

I might have gone over the top when I argued that Star Wars needs to be thought of as a sequence of abstract images and references more than as a story. 

"I think that a lot of the "plot" of Star Wars is transparent glue which is only there to glue one part of the visual and emotional collage to another part of the visual and emotional collage. ....Leia little speech 'They let us go, its the only explanation for the ease of our escape' as a bit of noise which gets us from 'the scene which is a bit like one of those old movie serials' to 'the scene which is a bit like one of those old world war II RAF films' as quickly as possible."

But so much of the film's impact does come from the way in which it quotes other films and stories and genres that a purely in-universe reading strips the flesh off the bones. We adore the Cantina scene because it is so much like a cowboy film: it's whole meaning is "wild west saloon! filled with aliens!" Luke doesn't know what a cowboy, or indeed a film, is. 

Did you see that review of Star Wars by Samuel Delaney from 1977 that came to light on the interwebs. Fascinating stuff, and Doyle-ist to a tee. He seems to agree with me about the plot:

"Star Wars, so far as I can tell, has no story at all: or rather there are so many holes in the one it's got that you could explode a planet in some of them (about a third of the way through, one does) but it all goes so quickly that the rents and tears and creaking places in it blur out." 

I don't think that anyone has ever not noticed that the name of the hero, "Luke" and the name of the director "Lucas" sound pretty similar. But I am kicking myself for having spent the last 40 years missing the fact that director's first name, George comes from the Greek word for "farmer". So "the film is a blatant and self conscious autobiographic wish-fulfillment on the part of its ingenious director."

Well, yes. But this kind of thing takes you out of the movie; and we have said that the whole point of the movie is that it sucks you in. If, when Aunt Beru shouts "Luke! Luke!" and we hear Luke's lietmotif for the first time, we are thinking  "aha, blatant and self-conscious autobiographic wish-fulfillment" then we have stopped watching Star Wars. If that's what we thought the first time we saw it, then we have never seen Star Wars. 

I have said before that in the Year of Waiting for Star Wars, I watched Flash Gordon on English TV, and that Flash Gordon stood up perfectly well, because I believed in Flash Gordon and Flash Gordon believed in Flash Gordon. We forgave the somewhat visible strings on the fairly obviously model spaceships, partly because (I still maintain) they are rather good model spaceships on which the strings are as well hidden as possible; but mostly because our heads were full of spaceships and we positively want to believe in them. No point going to see Flash Gordon not wanting to believe in it and then complaining that you don't. But equally, no point in going to see Star Wars and straining to see strings which aren't there and being impressed that you can't see them. No-one who saw Star Wars and said "great special effects" have ever seen it, either. 

I don't think that everything I don't like is fan fiction. 

I don't think that everything which has got George Lucas's paw print on it is automatically real. 

I think that the prequels, however massively flawed they were, have a special status because they came out of the mind of George Lucas. But that doesn't stop them from being massively flawed.

I was hoping that the Force Awakens was going to tell me what George Lucas imagined happening to Luke and Leia after Return of the Jedi ended; to give me access to his magical note book. It turns out that it's just going to be what some guy thinks happened. And why is some guy's ideas more true than yours. Or, in particular, mine. 

Unless of course the new film is so great that it just sucks me in and it doesn't occur to me to ask any of these questions. 

That's what we're really talking about here, isn't it? The difference between saying "The Empire Strikes Back is a different kind of movie from Star Wars" and saying "If it says Star Wars on the tin, that's what it is" is the difference between criticism and immersion; between being inside and outside of the story. And paradoxically, the big difference between Episode (if you insist) IV and All Of The Others is that I was, on the first couple of viewings totally immersed in it. And when I say I want, or wanted, to up sticks and go and live in the Star Wars universe, I probably only meant that I would like some day to be immersed in something, anything, to that extent, again. 

So the answer, I think, is yes. For at least ninety minutes I really did love Star Wars. And when I am asking for the new movie to take me back to the closing credits I am still hoping that I might love it again. And the reason that I can't yet quite bring myself to push "play" on the trailer is that there is an overwhelming probability that I won't.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015


I have heard Bob Dylan perform on four occasions now. Every time there has been ecstatic applause and standing ovations. And every time the question is asked: are we standing up and cheering this old guy because he used to be Bob Dylan? Or are we cheering the idiosyncratic, gravelly old blues-man we've actually seen on stage?

So the thing we already knew, the thing that made the people at that American Star Wars convention cheer like they were at a Rock Concert, is that we see Han Solo and Chewie. We knew we were going to see Han Solo and Chewie, inasmuch as we knew that Harrison Ford was in it and Peter Mayhew was in it; but like, actually seeing them. Actually seeing them. That's Dylan on the stage there, playing Blowin' in the Wind on his mouth harp. He's not actually playing it very well, or even, you know, recognisably. No, didn't you hear me? That's Dylan. On the stage. Playing Blowin' in the Wind.

Tatooine. Presumably Tatooine. Crashed X-Wing in foreground. Presumably X-Wing. Slow pan through sand dunes. Realization that we are not looking at a sand dune but at a wrecked Star Destroyer. Definitely a Star Destroyer. Definitely wrecked.

Shipwrecks are cool, and Star Destroyers are cool, and the idea of wrecked Star Destroyer is definitely cool, and raises the question "what the hell wrecked it"? 

Star Wars: Rebels opened with a shot of the hero, Ezra, looking at a Star Destroyer as it passed over head; which I argued was a play on the iconic opening scene of Star Wars. Wouldn't it be interesting if the opening scene of the trailer was also the opening scene of the movie?

  • Star Wars: We are way above the surface of Tatooine. A little ship flies over head. Suddenly, a much bigger ship (which we now know, but didn't then, to call a Star Destroyer) flies over, dwarfing it.
  • Star Wars: Episode VII: We are on the surface of Tatooine. We see the wreck of a little ship. Then we see the wreck of a much bigger ship, which we recognize as a Star Destroyer.

The voice of Mark Hamill; presumably Mark Hamill: "The Force is strong in my family. My father has it I have it, my sister has it, you have it too."

Luke Skywalker, singing one of his old hits. It's what he said to Leia on Endor when he finally admitted to her that they were related. 

The trailer assumes you can identify the quote. The trailer also assumes that you can identify Han Solo, the Millennium Falcon, Star Destroyers, lightsabers.... Or maybe it doesn't. Maybe great big spaceships and portentous mythological quotes are cool whatever their sources?

We know from the prequels that Jedi Knights are celibate, and always have been. So presumably, the "you" must be one of Leia and Han's children. From which, incidentally, it would follow that Leia never became a Jedi, that Luke's prophecy that in time she would learn to use the Force never came true. 

If the Force is passed through families, does it make a great deal of sense for the Jedi to be celibate? Like the famous Irishman who said that genetics is when your parents can't have children and neither can you.

As he says "My Father has it" (as opposed to, for example, "My Father had it") we Darth Vader's melted breath mask. I think it is displayed on some kind of plinth. We hear (I think we hear) Darth Vader breathing in the background. 

Luke told Leia that he was her brother on Endor. Darth Vader was cremated on Endor; that's where his ashes and the remains of his armour presumably lie. Does that mean that part of the Force Awaken will be set on Endor? (There are trees in the X-Wing vignette.) Would that mean...

.... more Ewoks?

Actually, I don't think more Ewoks would necessarily be the worst idea in the world. What I do think would be the worst idea in the world is to bring Darth Vader back from the dead. YES, Vader is the second most iconic villain in the entire history of cinema; but he gets an absolutely brilliant death scene in Return of the Jedi. Well, I liked it. Not everyone does. But even if you are one of the people who didn't like it; even if you don't buy the notion that a death-bed repentance can wipe out a life time of Dark Sideyness; even if you are seriously p'd off that George pasted Hayden Christopher's face over Sebastian Shaw's in the "special" edition; then it is still unthinkable that Darth Vader should recover from his death and spend three more films, innumerable comics and a stand-alone movie ranting at underlings and strangling admirals. It would undo the ending of Return of the Jedi; change the trajectory of the sextology; make the prequels pointless (don't say a word). 

On the other hand, this is the guy who changed James T Kirk from Horatio Hornblower to James Dean, so there is no guarantee that he Gets It.

We see Luke ... we assume it is Luke ... touching Artoo Deetoo with his prosthetic hand.

That's dark, isn't it? The prosthetic hand is a reminder that Luke was roundly trounced the first time he met Vader; and also a symbol of Luke's potential to go over to the Dark Side. There is a sense in the scene that he's reconnecting with Artoo; touching him for reassurance; remembering the old times; reaching out to a friend?

Someone hands a lightsaber to someone...

At first I assumed it was Luke, handing a lightsaber to his nephew or niece, the "you" of the opening speech. But that arm looks awfully thin to be Mark Hamill's. (Some people think they can see an alien face. I think they are taking the whole thing a bit too seriously.) 

And isn't that Luke Skywalker's lightsaber? The Lightsaber that his father wanted him to have, when we was old enough (from a certain point of view)? But wasn't that lightsaber in Luke's hand when Darth Vader chopped it off in Empire Strikes Back? So shouldn't it, by rights, had been floating around the clouds of Bespin for the last 40 years? 

And anyway, if Clone Wars is cannon, which, rightly or wrongly it is, Jedi are not given their lightsabers; they make them, as part of a right of passage. The Jedi does not choose the lightsaber, the lightsaber chooses the Jedi.

But the semiology is irresistible. Star Wars started with a great big space battle. The Force Awakens starts in the aftermath of great big space battle. The first scenes are looking backwards. Ship wrecks. Relics. Old friends meeting.  Then, the Torch is quite literally passed and...                                                                                                                                                                                                                        ...bang, bang, bang, ten tiny small little vignettes whoosh past us, actiony bits which are, after all, what Star Wars is really about.... 

We see speeder bike girl, sad Stormtrooper and little orange droid (who we now know to call Rey, Finn and Beebee) running away from an explosion. 

We see Finn sweating and taking off his helmet. 

We see Finn near a crashed space ship and Finn helping him to his feet. Very likely their first meeting. 

We see the cross-bladed lightsaber from the first trailer being swung (in a burning building, with a stormtrooper in the background) and then a separate shot of a guy with a metal mask (Kylo Ren?) holding up his hand to do something Forcey. 

It's a different lightsaber; not the one with the crosspiece. So the dark guy from the first trailer is fighting against this guy. So either this guy is the goodie; or that guy is; or else the Dark Side are fighting among themselves. 

Or he has two lightsabers. Or it's a continuity error. It's too early to say. 

Whoever he is, he's breathing like Vader. So perhaps it was his breathing we heard over Darth Vader's mask. Holding onto the Sith Lord's breath mask as a "relic" is the kind of thing Dark Side baddies might do, isn't?

(A half formed plot starts to coalesce. It is the future. The events of Star Wars have already become legendary. Most people don't believe in the Jedi. Luke Skywalker has vanished. A secret cadre who fancy themselves Sith Lords preserve Darth Vader's mask as a holy relic. Another sect have scoured Bespin and preserved Luke Skywalker's lightsaber, legendary and precious as Excalibur. And then for some reason Luke Skywalker, long hidden, emerges.)

Final Shot of Han Solo and Chewie.

And it quite definitely is a shot of Han and Chewie, being Han and Chewie, but much older. Well, Han is much older. It is canonical that wookies live much longer than humans. (Chewie appears briefly and irrelevantly in Return of the Sith.) 

Han Solo hasn't changed his clothes in 40 years. 

I am not quite sure. I want to see Han Solo again. But I want to know what Han Solo has been doing for the last thirty years. I don't, to use an analogy I have perhaps used too much, just want to see someone put their Han Solo action figure on the table. 

What did Han do after Return of the Jedi? Did he go back to his old life — if not actually as a pirate than at any rate as professional trader and money maker and trouble maker? Or did he stay with the rebels, in the New Order? I think I would rather there were scenes in which we meet an elderly, abrasive senator (or president? Or ambassador) and to our surprise say "hey, didn't you used to be Han Solo", than seeing a very old Harrison Ford trying to strike poses that he first struck thirty eight years ago. I think I want Luke to be the new Ben, old and wise and mysterious, not a guy of 60 trying to swing across chasms. 

When Star Trek was a going concern, stupid people called it "wheelchairs in space" because it was, like, really funny that a guy of 50 could be a ship's captain. I am one of those who likes Dylan as he is now; who thinks that his new performances are quirky as hell but genuinely interesting. But Dylan plays himself as he is now, a gravelly old man in a hat. He doesn't remotely pretend that at 73 he can still be a fresh faced young spokesman for the new generation. 

Let us hope that Han Solo doesn't turn out to be an aging rocker embarrassingly wiggling his arthritic hips.

"Chewie, we're home."

What was it that the wise man said you can't ever do?

Saturday, April 25, 2015


The Fantastic Four trailer didn't make me nearly as angry as the Superman trailer. It doesn't seem to have been put together by someone who actively dislikes The Fantastic Four, merely by someone who hasn't read it. And it is certainly nice to see some footage in which The Thing looks like a 3D rendering of an early Jack Kirby Thing, as opposed to, and there is really no nice way of saying this, a poo.

But still, how could anyone get to work on an F.F movie and miss the neon lights flash above every, single issue screeching "The Fantastic Four is a story about a family. The Fantastic Four is a story about a family." (They are sometimes actually referred to as Marvel's first family, aren't they?) 

Reed Richards is a Father Figure. He is middle aged. He is grey around the the temples and smokes a pipe. He is clever and stuffy. He loves Sue. He fought in the French Resistance. (We can probably drop that bit.)

Sue Storm is a Mother Figure. Or, if you prefer, she is a Big Sister figure. She is sensible and practical and the glue that holds the group together. She loves Reed. 

Johnny is the Kid Brother. He is young and reckless. Johnny and Sue are orphans. Sue had to be a mother to her kid brother when their Dad died. That's why she's inclined to be fuddy-duddy and stuffy. 

Ben is Big Brother. Ben and Johnny act like feuding siblings; Sue and Reed act like anxious parents. But Ben is actually Reed's contemporary. He was a fighter pilot in the War. Some people think that the name Benjamen Jakob Grimm suggests that he came from a minority ethnic background. Definitely he came from the poor bit of New York. The cigar, if nothing else, shows that he's the character who Jack Kirby identified with. (We can probably lose the cigar.) 

Superman is not about a god-like alien but about a geeky little guy from the sticks who is also a god like alien. The Fantastic Four is not about four people with amazing powers, it's specifically about an American family who acquire amazing powers. 

"Your my husband, Reed...The world won't come to an end if you take time out for dinner"
"I wish wish I could be sure of that, Sue darling."

"You flamin fig-head! When I'm thru with you there won't be enough left to light a fire-cracker!"
"Ben, don't! That fire proof vault door cost a small fortune!"

I don't want to open up the whole Kirby vs Lee fissure again, but surely, surely, surely the Fantastic Four are made of dialog much more than they are made of drawings and made of cool powers? And if you create four characters who wouldn't say those kinds of things to each other, then what you have created no longer has anything to do with the Fantastic Four? 

Obviously, in the process of making a movie, you have to change stuff. Well, no, actually, that isn't completely obvious to me at all. Of all the comic books out there, the Fantastic Four is the one that permits least messing around with. It is essentially itself: a slab of Kirby pictures illuminated by a wodge of Lee dialogue which is what it is and can't be anything else. Ultimate Spider-Man massively messed around with every aspect of Spider-Man's top heavy mythos, and ended up with something that felt more like Spider-Man than Spider-Man had for years. Ultimate Fantastic Four did the same thing to the F.F and ended up being a fairly good science fiction comic about some unrelated characters in vaguely similar uniforms. My preferred Fantastic Four movie would be one which stayed as close, visually and thematically, to the comic book as the Watchmen movie did to the Watchmen comic. Imagine taking F.F 48-51 and treating them more or less as your storyboard; putting the same kind of effort into Galactus' shorts as they did into Dr Manhattan's wassissname. If that can't happen, then at least set the thing specifically in the 1960s against the background of the Cold War, the Beatles, Atomic War, the Summer of Love, incredibly sexist attitudes, very short skirts. (Surely it matters that The Fantastic Four, the first ever super-hero celebrities, happened at the exact same time as that other Fab Four?) But if even that can't happen, then we know it is possible to wrench a character out of his original context without utterly dismantling him. Mr Cumberbatch has show that you can remove Sherlock Holmes from his world of gas lights and hansom cabs and steam trains and drop him into the world of mobile phones and computers and sex and still have him remain recognizably Sherlock Holmes. Because the character remains the same. Because his relationship to Watson (and Mrs Hudson, and Moriarty, and the police, and his clients) remains recognizably Holmsian.

Of course Reed Richards doesn't need to be a resistance leader. But he does have to be old and stuffy. Of course Ben doesn't have to be a World War II veteran. But he does need to be New York Jewish wisecracker.  

I can cope with the F.F exploring an alien dimension rather than being astronauts. Particularly if the Negative Zone is going to be a thing. If some of the villains are going to come from the Negative Zone and the Fantastic Four are going to be Negative Zone explorers then it makes sense for their powers to come from the Negative Zone rather than Outer Space. 

And the Human Torch effects look cool. 

And Doctor Doom looks like Doctor Doom, and not, say, a cloud of purple gas.

But, oh, for Jack's sake....

The Fantastic Four have been "re-imagined" as a group of kids, under the tutelage of an elderly scientist named Franklin Richards who actually has to say all-I-want-to-know-is-where-are-my-children at one point. Reed is bespectacled teen-aged nerd stumbling wide eyed into great big science thing and being shy around Sue and generally trying to be Peter Parker . 

There has been much speech about how it would be a good thing if there were more characters in movies who were not white dudes.

I agree that it would be a good thing if there more characters in movies who were not white dudes. If Johnny is going to be black and his dad is going to be a black then I am really not at all sure why his sister can't be black as well. Perhaps because Sue and Reed have to be an item and you are only allowed to have movies in which a black lady in love with a white man if that's the main thing the movie is about? (In which case, why not have a black Reed Richards as well? What possible reason is there for this Fantastic Four not to be an all-black team? Why am I even talking about this when it basically doesn't matter?) 

My question was going to be: wouldn't it also be a good thing if there were characters in movies who were older white men, older black men, older women -- if every character in every movie wasn't automatically about 17? Wouldn't it also be a good thing if the great -- the greatest -- American graphic novel about the 1950s nuclear family who get amazing powers to fight commies and aliens and planet eating space gods in purple shorts didn't have to be re-imagined as the story of Wise Old Franklin Richards and how he mentored four young outsiders, helping one to reach his full potential and one to learn to be a team player and one to overcome his callous upbringing and I to open up her heart and let other people in....

Apparently, Reed is not going to be able to stretch his body. No, Reed is going to be able to warp space around himself so his body appears to stretch. 

I can hardly bear to look.

The Ant-Man one, one the other hand, I rather like, and it's pretty obvious why. 

The Fantastic Four and Superman are like geek Holy Writ. They need to be treated with respect. Preferably reverence. Ant-Man isn't even my tenth favorite character. There have been bits and bobs of fun stuff done with him over the years, like when he accidentally created the evil robot Ultron, but that job's been given to Tony Stark for the movie franchise. 

Stan Lee eventually spotted that a character whose only power is to make himself small isn't all that interesting. He reasoned that if a character can use magic pixie dust to make himself very very small then surely he could use that same pixie dust to embiggen himself. Changing his name from Ant-Man to Gi-Ant Man was actually rather inspired. I bet a very small amount of money that they're saving that for the post cred of this movie. 

So, I don't specially care if this movie is faithful to the Myth of Ant-Man and am happy to let it stand on it's own six feet. At one level, it seems to be about as generic a superhero trailer as you could imagine, from the New York skyline in the opening shot, to the sliding doors opening on the big science room that looks and awful lot like the Fantastic Four's big science room to someone saying "Are you ready to become the hero you were meant to be?" Right at the end our hero indicates that he thinks Ant-Man is a bit of a lame name and you can just hear the director saying "No...More like Robert Downey Jnr!" in the background. There is some kind of argument between the guy who invented the shrinking suit and some other guy, and our hero, wearing a Red Suit (that looks a little bit like a very olden days Ant Man costume) seems to have a fight with a baddie wearing a Yellow Suit (that makes those of us who know about these things say "Aha! Yellow Jacket".) I fully expect the argument to be between Hank Pym's bosses, who want the shrinky powers to be used for military purposes and Hank Pym who wants it only to be used for the betterment of mankind, but that's not in the trailer. It's just the kind of thing that this kind of superhero movie tends to be about. 

But if you are going to make a superhero trailer, this is how you ought to do it. I don't want to be lectured about the philosophical ramifications of people with superpowers. I don't want to be introduced to each character one by one. I don't even specially want a recap of the origin. I want to know how much fun a movie about an incredible shrinking superhero is going to be. And in this case the answer seems to be "quite a lot of fun". In two minutes we see him running alongside giant ants; bungie jumping into some teeny tiny tube; running along the barrel of a gun; running around a children's toy train track and derailing Thomas the Tank Engine. 

It is very possible that the trailer has shown us all the movie's highlights. It is very possible that this is one of those films where they put a few highlights in specifically so they've got something for the trailer.

But right now, Ant-Man is the superhero movie I'm actively looking forward to. 

Thursday, April 23, 2015


I cannot say how much I hated this trailer. I do not understand how dearly beloved characters — or, as I suppose we must learn to say, "franchises" — get into the hands of people who don't understand them. In some cases who actively dislike them.

Who is this stuff for? I have complained before that children are aware of funny pirates that go "arrrr!" long before they have had a chance to be scared of Long John Silver; that people's first exposure to Dracula is in the form of Vampires Love Underpants. Yes, I have admitted that, for me, the Real Star Wars, the Primary Star Wars is Roy Thomas's comic; but we are raising up a generation for whom Star Wars (and Harry Potter, and Spider-Man, and Doctor Who, and the Lord of the Rings) were Lego figurines first and everything else afterwards.

Apart from anything else, this stuff is out of date. Thirty years of of date, and frankly it was already a bit old hat in 1986. But it is very nearly 50 years since the live-action Batman first appeared on TV, and we still, with a terrible, tedious reflexology begin every, single essay on comic books with the words "KAPOW! SMASH!" usually followed by "COMICS AREN'T JUST FOR KIDS".

Well, no; they are not. But it would be nice if there were comics that kids were actually able, or indeed legally permitted, to read. It has been said by cleverer people than me that Stan Lee raised the target demographic of super-hero comics from aged 10 to about aged 14. I encountered Spider-Man when I was 8. Yes, there was stuff which went over my head. There is stuff in Winnie-the-Pooh which went over my head. But there was no doubt that I was reading about a kid who was slightly older than me, who got bullied at school, with a fussy "mum" and amazing powers and scary baddies and cliffhanger endings.

Alan Moore to some extent forswore "darkness" in the years after Watchmen, and tried out things like 1963 and Tom Strong and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen — re-embracing his inner KAPOW! Frank Miller, admittedly, continued to embrace his inner spartan. But the movies have never moved on. It's as if Tim Burton expected Michael Keaton to ask the chicks if they wouldn't mine jiving a cup of java juice before laying down some hep grooves and burning their draft cards because dammit, that how Spider-Man spoke and that's obviously the last word in revisionist realism. (And yes, things really have become so predictable that we are looking back on the '89 Batman movie — which was little more than a collection of scenery for Jack Nicholson to chew — if not exactly with nostalgia, then at any rate with a sense of relief.) 

So yes, by all means, the Batman - Superman team. Batman "vee" Superman if you absolutely must. The Famous Batman used to stand in for Superman in weeks when Bud Collyer needed time off to recover from all the breakfast cereal he'd been eating. It was never very interesting. They were too nice, too similar. If you absolutely have to have groups of good guys, they need to be good guys who basically don't agree with each other. And a very long time ago someone spotted that Superman and Batman could be played as good guys who didn't agree about what being a good guy meant. Who maybe didn't even agree about what was "good". 

Superman: bright, shiny, noble, law-abiding, Boy Scout, almost to the point of being naive.

Batman, dark, dark urban, dark vigilante, the dark Dark Knight, the Dark Knight Darkens. 

Dark Batman is more interesting than the silly Batman (who never quite existed outside of the KAPOW! television series). Dark Batman is more in keeping with the basic premise of a character built of rage. But just because Dark Batman is cool is does not follow that Dark Superman and Dark Spider-Man and Dark Paddington Bear would be equally cool. The darker the dark character is the more he needs a bright character character to stand next to. And the brighter the bright character is the darker and cooler the dark, cool one will look. (This is the point of Robin.)

This is one of the things the X-Men movies fumbled very badly: they were so in love with Wolverine that they allowed Cyclops to be a wimp. And Cylcops cannot be a wimp. Cyclops must be tall and moral and impressive and heroic precisely because that makes Wolverine darker and scarier in comparison. 

Superman has a very simple narrative core. And yes, I know that this narrative core did not drop fully formed from the brow of Siegel and Schuster. There was a time when Superman was not yet Superman; when he couldn't fly and dropped wife-beaters out of windows and worked for a guy called George at a paper called the Star. The myth of Superman didn't arrive in a single blinding revelation; it grew. (And yes, it continues to grow. Pa and Ma Kent used to have always been dead, but now they have always been still alive.) But if there is one thing that has been consistent in every incarnation from cornflake packet to movie serial, it has been Clark Kent, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen and Perry White. Not in any great big structuralist sense ("aha, of course, there must always be a Hero and a Hero's Love and a Hero's Friend and a Hero's Irrascible Boss Who Keeps Saying Don't Call Me Chief.") Just in the sense that that's how it has always been. That's the Tradition. There's this geeky little newspaperman, rather shy, very old fashioned; and there is this hot young newspaperlady, especially at a time when hot young newspaperladies weren't all that common, and the geeky little reporter is crazy about the lady reporter but he is outclassed, outshone, literally eclipsed by the BLOODY AMAZING GODLIKE SUPERHERO who keeps rescuing her and she doesn't suspect, not even for a moment, well, maybe she does, sometimes, just a little bit, that the geeky little man she hardly notices and the BLOODY AMAZING HERO are, get this, THE SAME PERSON.

Superman isn't about what would happen if an alien landed on earth. Superman isn't about how the human race would react to a god/God/ in their midst. Superman is about a perfectly ordinary little man who is also a god.

(And yes, once you have spotted that and told stories about bald headed supercriminals and little men in funny hats who disappear if you say their name backwards then of course you can squint your eyes and say "but in the 'language of the night' isn't the perfectly ordinary little man who no one pays much account to who is also God quite a lot like a much bigger and more special story?" Although I don't think that anything very interesting often follows from that observation.) 

So: I cannot say how much I hated this trailer.

FIRST we have dark, dark series of logos, and dark dark musical chords, and someone's voice speaking over a black screen and a dark, dark view of a New York / Metropolis skyline because all superhero trailers have to begin with a view of the New York / Metropolis skyline, because that says to people "it's okay, this is in the real world, it's not skiffy". (Nerd-trailers begin with a picture of stars or planets for the same reason.)

THEN we have dark pretentious voice-overs asking the sorts of DEEP PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTIONS that no-one would ever ask about a comic-strip character who wears blue tights. The main claim appears to be that being powerful is a Bad Thing in itself, because if you are powerful, people will want to follow you, and Lord Acton said that thing about absolute power corrupting absolutely.

I think that the thing about absolute power corrupting absolutely had to do with giving absolute political power to an individual. I think the idea is that if you or I or David Cameron were given the kind of political that Sadamm Hussien or Kim Jong-Un has, we would be tempted to use it and inevitably become as cruel and erratic as they are. The theory is not, I think, that weight-lifters are more immoral than biologists, and that Olympic weight-lifters are more immoral than those who compete at a club level and that therefore a man who could life a Soviet Space Capsule with one hand is likely to be completely immoral.

People who are better at recognizing voices than me think that it's Lex Luther speaking, so it maybe that we are supposed to listen to the pretentious voice-overs and think "what a load of obvious nonsense, I sure hope no-one falls for any of that" as opposed to "those are really interesting questions about the myth of Superman that have never occurred to anyone before, I am sure interested about how the film is going to Explore them." 

THEN we have scenes of people seeming to worship Superman in a way that no-one has ever done in the comic.

THEN we get a close up a statue of Superman, in an empty space (probably intended to recall Ground Zero) over which someone has scrawled "false god".

And we have dark shots of Batman, looking dark, thinking dark thoughts in square boxes.

And then we have lots of explosions.

And then we get him darkly confronting Superman in the dark.

(Has Batman been taken in by obviously silly propaganda by Lex Luthor? In which case is the rebooted Batman is a fool and a villains stooge? Or does Batman agree with the Big Philosophical Questions and think that the existence of Superman is a Bad Thing? In which case is the rebooted Batman a superhero who doesn't agree with the idea of superheroes?)

But anyway: that's very much where we are the moment. Big philosophical questions that no-one should ever have asked with explosions in the place where answers ought to be.  

Doctor Who fans talk about "my Doctor". My Doctor is the one with the scarf; your Doctor is the one with the stick of celery; his Doctor is the one with the plimsoles and the awful scripts. So, yes, just because my Superman is Christopher Reeve's doesn't mean that your Superman can't be Grant Morrison's or Smallville or the DC Animated Universe.

But are there really really really going to be kids for whom "my Superman" is a dark statue of dark darkness in a dark city with "false god" scrawled darkly across the darkness?

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Epiphany experienced while drinking coffee and muffins in a hipster cafe in the trendiest street in England.

I do not especially like comic books,
and never have.

I have always liked superheroes,
and still do.

I am pretty sure
this makes me
a bad person