Tuesday, December 08, 2015


This book is a work of fiction. I made it up. Neither novels nor their readers benefit from attempts to divine whether any facts hide inside a story. Such efforts attack the very idea that made-up stories can matter, which is sort of the foundational assumption of our species. I appreciate your cooperation in this matter.
             The Fault in Our Stars

“Don’t get me started” said the man in Forbidden Planet “On the Star Wars books. I read hundreds of them, and now bloody Walt Disney says they are not canon any more.”

So I didn’t get him started. 

I meditated instead on Uncle Walt issuing ex cathedra commands from that block of carbonite beneath the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. I wondered how the Great One’s judgement affected my friend’s book collection.

When he heard that J.J. Abrams had been commissioned to make Star Wars VII, did he honestly believe he was simply going to take the first “extended universe” novel — Heir to the Empire — and adapt it into a movie? Or did he imagine that Abrams would create a new story, but somehow feel bound to make it consistent with that novel? With all the novels? With the literally hundreds of novels?

I can see how you might be disappointed that much-loved characters like Jacen Solo and Ben Skywalker are never going to appear on the big screen. Twenty-four years is a long time to be reading pulp novels. Picking up a shiny new Kevin J Anderson book in Borders may be a magical memory for him, just as surely as handling the first ever issue of Star Wars Weekly is a magical memory for me. 

I know people who read the 61 Virgin Doctor Who novels and the 73 BBC Doctor Who novels in the years when Doctor Who was off the air. What is for me a slightly interesting collection of spinoffery is for them the Real Thing, the thing they first fell in love with. (Don’t laugh. There are now plenty of Avengers fans who have never read a comic, and even some Lord of the Rings fans who have never read the book, or indeed any book.)

I hardly know who Mara Jade is. For some people she is almost as real as Princess Leia. Although I can’t help thinking that she must have sunk into a sort of quantum half-life the moment we saw the posters for Attack of the Clones.

But there is a sadder possibility. Perhaps our friend never really enjoyed the books very much to begin with. Perhaps he was reading them as a kind of crib sheet because they were providing him with information about what happened in the Star Wars galaxy. And now Uncle Walt has declared they aren’t even that. So he totally wasted his time reading them. 

I once heard one of those atheists saying that the reason people resist de-conversion is that they can’t face the fact that all the hours they spent reading the Bible was a waste of time. Because obviously those are the possibilities. Either a literal account of how Noah herded brontosauri onto his ark, or a waste of time. If a story isn’t true, it doesn’t have value. 

Everyone agrees on that.


I heard vintage folk hippy Donovan playing the acoustic tent at Glastonbury. He sang about Atlantis and hurdy-gurdy men. People were coming to Glastonbury to listen to music and celebrate the spring long before the modern festival, he said; since the days of King Arthur, at least. I wrote this song about Queen Guinevere, he said. 

Well, I say I wrote it, he said. I mean it came through me. Then he threw flowers into the audience.

I am not angry that Walt Disney has declared that Han Solo never went to Aduba-3 and teamed up with a giant green rabbit named Jaxxon. I never really believed he had. But I do feel sad, genuinely sad, almost bereaved that George Lucas pitched treatments of Episodes VI, VIII and IX to Walt Disney and Walt Disney turned them down. 

Some fans will not understand that. Some fans hate George Lucas, hate the prequels, hate Return of the Jedi and Clone Wars and Ewoks and Midichlorians and Han shooting first and Princess Amidala and the idea that there are only ever two Sith and the fact that the Emperor was playing both side of the Clone Wars. Those fans made a big thing, a big play, of cheering when the Sequels were announced. “Hooray!” the said “Hooray! George Lucas won’t have anything to do with it, so it might actually not suck!”

I heard an old man who used to be Bob Dylan in the Cardiff Arena. Even his most die-hard fans who long ago accepted that Blowin’ In the Wind was a waltz and you aren’t supposed to be able to hear the words of Hard Rain found it hard not to, well, shuffle a bit when he started the seventh Frank Sinatra cover of the evening.

But still. This was Bob Dylan. People have been shouting "Judas!" at him for a very long time. If he did what we expected him to do, he wouldn’t be Bob. And his rendering of The Night We Called It a Day was genuinely beautiful. 

God knows, Lucas has made some questionable decisions. But weren’t they his questionable decisions to make? Star Wars came through him.


A very long time ago, I believed in Father Christmas. 

My earliest memory, one of those memories that may only be a memory of a memory, is of a stuffed toy (a gollywog, since you asked) poking its head out of a Christmas stocking. It was hung on the end of a baby's cot, so I must have been less then two years old. In my conscious memories, the excitement of getting new toys and presents at Christmas was secondary to the slightly scary prospect that, on one day of the year, subject to special rules and conditions, while I was asleep, Father Christmas would visit my house. Letters and grottos I didn’t care about nearly as much. A Father Christmas you could talk to or draw pictures of wasn't really Father Christmas because the point of Father Christmas was that no-one ever saw him. The magic of Christmas is bound up with the fear and excitement of preparing the house for the arrival of this supernatural being.

And baby Jesus, of course. 

I don’t think I ever believed that Father Christmas existed in the same way that my baby sister, John Noakes, or Mrs Bolter from the Co-op existed. And, with all due respect to the sky fairy fraternity, believing in Father Christmas felt entirely different from believing in God. 

It's more like a game than an act of faith. Everyone in the family agrees to behave as if a magical elf is going to visit you in the night. No-one is deceiving anyone else: Mum and Dad and the big kids enjoy role-playing a world where elves from the North Pole cross North London on magic sledges just as much as the little ones do.

But the moment anyone says out loud that Mum and Dad put the presents under the tree and always have done then the game is over and Santa disappears like Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor's imaginary son. It's the saying, not the knowing, which ends the story. 

In fact — and I am going to propose this to the University of Life as the basis for a Doctorate in Made-Up-Ology — isn’t the whole reason for playing the game that you know that at some point the game is going to come to an end, in the same way that the whole point of having guinea pigs is that guinea pigs don't survive very long? The parent who tries to replace the ex-guinea pig with a new guinea pig with similar markings has missed the point of guinea pigs, and anyone who tries to convince a child that Santa Claus really exists has missed the point of Santa Claus. Pets are there to ever-so-gently introduce children to the idea of death (and the other thing, the thing which can result in cages full of baby guinea pigs). Father Christmas is a rite-of-passage: a mechanism which allows children, at their own speed, to say "I don't want you treat me as your baby any more." 

Miracle on Thirty Fourth Street and that god-awful letter miss the point entirely.

I don’t read nearly enough novels, particularly considering I am a librarian. But the ones which I do read consume me. The last one was John Williams’ Stoner, which is just as good as everyone says. 

Reading a novel is a matter of trust. When I read a book I am very consciously putting myself in the hands of the writer. I accept that the writer is going to try to fool me: try to make me care about situations while simultaneously admitting that he made them us. I am interested in how this particular writer is going to play that particular trick on me; what techniques he is going to employ. Of course, writers, even very good writers, make mistakes. I don’t really swallow an academic department splitting over such an obviously hopeless student as Walker. But I don't cast the book aside, crying "you have exploded the illusion, and moreover, raped my childhood" nor do I necessarily try to construct a different book in which the mistake makes sense. I just accept that this is a story, not real life, and that even good writers sometimes make bad calls. 

The last good book I read before Stoner definitely wasn’t The Fault in Our Stars and I definitely didn’t cry all the way through it.

For nearly forty years I have had a vivid image in my head of the elderly Luke Skywalker, years after his adventures are over, sitting on a throne as King or Emperor or President of a new, more benevolent Empire or revived Republic.

In my dream, his throne is on some sort of pedestal or plinth, picked out by a single spotlight, his old friends clustered around him, but somehow at a Shakespearian distance. The Droids have moved on; it seemed important that they had had owners before Luke and will have other owners after him. I don’t know whether in this original version Luke married the Princess and had children. I think he probably did. Marriage is the proper way for a fairy tale to end, and it is hard to see how you could swing across a chasm with a lady and not end up marrying her. Unless you nobly renounced her like Tarzan, and there wasn’t a sequel. I don't recall there being a little prince, a Luke Skywalker Jnr. But I am pretty sure that King Luke welcomed members of the East Barnet School Jedi Knights Club (chairman, A Rilstone) to his re-purposed Life-Star and gave them light-sabers and sent them off on Arthurian romances....

And now I read that someone called Abrams, the Abrams who entirely failed to understand Star Trek, has gone away and in a matter of weeks and without asking George, decided what really happened. 

Why is his version more valid than my version?

Because Walt Disney, the same Walt Disney who ruined Forbidden Planet Guy’s collection of Star Wars novels, says so. 

And why does Walt Disney have the power of binding and losing?

Because Walt Disney bought Star Wars for three billion dollars, enough money to bomb Syria for almost a fortnight. 

And where did Walt Disney get all that money from?

That is the secret mystery of fiction. To determine what happened to Luke Skywalker; to impose your image of Old Luke over George Lucas's image, and more importantly, over mine, you first have to co-create a cartoon mouse.


There is a very easy answer to the question "Why does John Williams get to decide if Bill Stoner's marriage was a success?" or "Why does John Green get to decide if Hazel's cancer goes into remission"? Because they're the ones writing the book, that's why. The characters wouldn't exist if not for them. They not merely the writer. They are the Author. The Author. It sounds even better if you say it in French.

The great ones, Luke Skywalker and Doctor Who and Captain America do not have Auteurs. Oh, someone dreamed up Captain America to begin with, but he's dead and hasn't written an episode in 40 years. Since about when Star Wars came out, come to think of it. And, of course, each episode is created by a writer. And fans do sometimes talk as if each writer, the tenth or fiftieth to write about Captain America, is unveiling or disclosing sections of a story that were conceived nearly a century ago. "In this episode" they say "It is revealed that Captain America's parents were Irish immigrants" where what they actually mean is that some writer made it up. 

I think that faith in the canon -- faith that your collection of Star Wars novels describe events which really occurred, faith that Luke Skywalker is person to whom things can happen -- is what we acolytes of the great ones have instead of an Author. We can't say "It's true because the Author says it's true". We have to say "It's true because it's true." 

If we don't have faith in the Author, we have to have faith in the text.

But that faith is the kind of faith we had in Father Christmas. It's a "let's pretend" faith, not something we really believe. Let's pretend that what we are going to see on December 18th is what really happened to Luke and Leia and Chewie and Threepio and Artoo and Landau. Let's all agree to keep the pretense going. Because the moment someone says "it's just something which Abrams wrote on a napkin", Father Christmas will stop calling on us.


That's why I have always found the prequels so easy to forgive. When Carrie Fisher said “General Kenobi, years ago you served my father in the Clone Wars...” George Lucas was (I assume) standing just out of shot, imagining General Grievous and the the Clone Army and Ahosoka being expelled from the Order. At any rate, he knew that the Clone Wars were kinds of Wars in which those kinds of stories might happen. When Peter Cushing said "the Imperial Senate will no longer be of any concern to us", George Lucas was (I am pretty sure) standing back stage imagining a dome the size of a city with little floaty platforms for planetary representatives to stand on. When Mark Hamill smiled at Sebastian Shaw and Alec Guinness, George Lucas was (we can be certain) smiling back, secretly knowing what was going to happen next, and knowing that it wasn't yet time to reveal it.

From the moment I first went into Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi’s hovel with Luke Skywalker, I wanted to hear the story of how he fought in the Clone Wars alongside Luke's father, and how his apprentice betrayed them. I do think that it should probably have been a story, not a film in its own right: Alec Guinness, speaking to Luke and Threepio, out beyond the Western Dune Sea. Some people think that Ben and Luke’s Father were contemporaries, fighting alongside each other; but that doesn't fit with Luke's Father following Ben on a damn fool idealistic crusade. And Ben is a lot older than Uncle Owen. So I think that Ben had two pupils Luke's Father and Darth Vader, one good, and one evil.. But maybe that's a comic-bookish idea; something that wandered into my personal Star Wars from Doctor Strange? 

That's okay. Until Ben starts talking, both stories exist.

Instead we got a different story, a very good story, called The Empire Strikes Back; and probably nothing in Ben's story would have been as gut wrenching as that moment on the bridge when Luke tells Darth Vader that he knows he killed his father... 

Mourning a story is probably quite silly. Mourning a story that was replaced by a story as good as The Empire Strikes Back is very silly indeed. Silliest of all is mourning stories that do exist, that you are free to re-read whenever you want, but that the Wicked Frozen Uncle has declared non-canonical. 

But still, I swear. That panel in the comic when Blue Leader (who was Red Leader in the film) turns to Luke and says "The galaxy'll be a lot better off when the sons of the original Jedi Knights are back on the scene!" If I look hard enough and long enough, maybe I can find the ghost of that other story there?

Star Wars; Journal of the Whills; The Adventures of Luke Skywalker — the twelve part generational saga that Lucas planned to tell. That was obliterated when the cameras rolled on what turned out to be called Episode V. Before that: when George Lucas met Joseph Campbell and Luke’s Father ceased to exist. But to know that Walt Disney has seen the back of Lucas’s original envelope and was offered the chance to tell that story, Lucas's story, the true story, the one about Luke’s grandchildren — and turned it down in favour of allowing J.J Abrams to makes something up.

The last remnants of the old order have been swept away...

Monday, December 07, 2015


There, still, we have magic adventures, more wonderful than any I have told you about; but now, when we wake up in the morning, they are gone before we can catch hold of them.
The House at Pooh Corner

A barely recognizable Han Solo and Chewie in a fire-fight in some ruins. The ground is yellow with some scrubs growing on it; suggesting that we are back on Tatooine. The sky is black and studied with stars, and about a quarter of the page is taken up with a small moon -- suggesting that, on the contrary, we’re far out in space, maybe on some asteroid. [*] Chewbacca is holding the body of a green humanoid with red eyes; behind them is a guy in a red uniform and vaguely fishy features. (Forty years of staring at the page gives me no clue as to what he is holding.) Someone is firing at Han and Chewie from out of shot. Han is crying “Grab a laser gun, Chewie!” to his partner.

This is the cover of Star Wars # 7 (Star Wars Weekly #14 in the UK): the first glimpse we'd had of the Star Wars universe since the lights went up at the end of what was definitely not called A New Hope. It was reproduced on the final page of the Star Wars Treasury Edition, and I longed for it as much as I longed for Star Wars 2 and a lightsaber of my very own.

Roy Thomas evidently doesn't care too much about Star Wars lore: even at this early date, he ought to have known that Han would have said blaster rather than laser gun. We could have been looking at the cover of any sci-fi comic of the previous 50 years: good guys fighting bad guys on a faraway planet. But one detail screamed “Star Wars” at me, and still does. “WANTED: Dead or Alive Han Solo and Chewbacca the Wookie” pinned to one of the walls.

There was nothing remotely original about setting a wild west story in space; and George Lucas would never have allowed something as unsubtle as a Wanted poster in the movie. (For one thing, there is no paper in the Star Wars universe.) [*]  But this, the very first image of the very first post-Star Wars Star Wars story, six months before Splinter of the Minds Eye, a year and a half before the Infamous Christmas Special, correctly identified the unique selling point. 

Star Wars is kinda like a cowboy movie in space.

Well, it is. One of the small flaws of Empire Strikes Back and the big flaws of Revenge of the Sith is that it all takes place far too close to the center of government. Not a low-life scumbag to be seen. 

Nowadays we’d call this comic a jumping on point: if you hadn’t seen what was still a relatively new movie and hadn’t read the comic book you’d have no difficulty working out what was going on. Indeed Thomas has a fairly good stab at capturing the multi-generic atmosphere of Star Wars. It's not done perfectly, but if you honestly hadn't seen the film, this comic would give you some good hints of what all the shouting was about.

So: straight after the destruction of the Death Star, Han and Chewie leave Yavin and head back to Tatooine to pay off Jabba the Hutt. Before they even made it to hyperspace, they are attacked by pirates, and only escape with their lives by handing over their reward money. 

Some bits jar. The Pirates are flying one of the Big Pointy Ships from the opening scene of Star Wars, but no-one knows to call it an Imperial Star Destroyer. When Han meets an alien priest, he momentarily forgets he is in a Galaxy Far Far Away and says that he regrets skipping Sunday School. And poor Chewbacca is still envisaged as a berserker ("as soon as he smells first blood his wookie nature manifests itself in its usual manner"). But there are also lots of quotes and call backs to the canon, all 120 minutes of it. The pirate ship positions itself about the Millennium Falcon and swallows it up, just like it swallowed the Small Square Ship at the beginning of the movie. A mob of pirates board the Falcon like the Stormtroopers boarded the rebels; their leader ("a man in black") confronts Han, who instantly recognizes him as the pirate Crimson Jack. Han has hidden his treasure in the same smuggling compartments that he and his passengers hid in on the Death Star. If there had been Space Pirates in the movie, they wouldn’t have had actual cutlasses and literal eye patches, but “pirates in space” is very much the kind of thing you ought to bump into on the way to pay off a gangster the morning after you saved the universe.

They end up on Aduba-3, a planet in all respects indistinguishable form Tatooine — sand, domed buildings, banthas (identifiable only by their curly horns); a cantina (not a saloon or a pub -- definitely a cantina) with alien customers and a curved bar. People on Tatooine were prejudiced against droids - round here it's "borgs" that they don't serve. Han helps a local priest bury a half-man half-robot spacer in the local boot hill; and then local peasants ask him to protect them from a gang of hover bike riding thugs led by a Dick Dastardly look alike called, and I promise I am not making this up, Serji X Arrogantus. In the first issue, it seems as if the peasants are going to be honolable lacial stelleyotypes, but that idea mercifully goes away by the beginning of issue #8. Han takes the mission, and assembles (stop me if you've heard this before) a group of seven mismatched heroes to help him. It could just be that Roy Thomas is taking the "space western" brief a little too literally.

It's all very perfunctory and half-hearted. But the more closely I look, the convinced I am that the fantasy world I inhabited from the afternoon I saw A New Hope to the evening three years later when Empire Strikes Back burst all my bubbles, owes more to these comics than to the movie itself. Thomas deconstructs the movie. He breaks it down into it's component parts. He doesn't care about the background or the story ark, but he is tried to work out what made Star Wars so special, and feed some of that back into his Magnificent Seven parody. And after all this time, his half-memory of the flavour reminds us what that flavour was and why we got addicted to it.

Everyone remembers the giant carnivorous Rabbit, Jaxxon.  Unlike, say, Rocket Raccoon, he’s mainly memorable for being a giant carnivorous Rabbit. There is also a giant cat like porcupine which can shoot spines at baddies. Not very much comes of him, either. But you can see what Thomas was trying to do. Star Wars is a universe where aliens are all over the place and perfectly normal. Chebacca is a giant, growling, furry creature, but he's not an alien or a monster; he's just a character. (I don’t think those of us who have seen the film 50 times and more always remember just how weird this is.)  "How can we possibly top a space ship with a furry monster as first mate?" you can hear him saying "I know: how about teaming Han up with a big green talking rabbit?"

The curious thing is that Marvel, spotting that aliens were another selling point of Star Wars, decided to create two half-arsed creatures of their own. You might have expected them to have plucked a couple of beings from the canonical Catina -- Hammerhead Guy and one of the Guys With Big Bald Heads and flesh them out. 

More interesting is “Jimm”, a local teenager who calls himself, er, The Starkiller Kid. He wears Luke's hat with Luke's goggles, and  Luke's "judo" robes; he strikes Luke-like poses, wants to get off this crummy planet, and has freckles. In one way, it's embarrassingly poorly done: more like something out of Star Wars sketch on Crackerjack than an adaptation of a high profile movie by a major publishing company. But what it's aiming for is exactly what it should be aiming for. We want more Luke Skywalker. But we don't want Luke Skywalker as he ended up; well behaved, uniformed, decorated, in a military uniform. We want farm boy Luke, Luke the dreamy teenager, Luke sulking in his garage, Luke looking out to the binary sunset. The Starkiller Kid is Luke frozen at the moment we first met him. He's a kid playing at being Luke Skywalker. Just like me.

Luke-lite has Threepio-lite, why wouldn't he. A robot who speaks (I am quite sure) with an Anthony Daniels voice and says things like “I, sir, am FE-9Q, familiarly known as Effie” and “I’m just a tractor robot, and not really programmed for this sort of thing.” A robot called 3P0 who is known as Threepio is kind of funny. A robot called FE but known as Effie is merely cute: the kind of cute you want to thump. It wouldn't be long before Lucas was creating cute characters who everyone wanted to thump of his very own. 

Most interestingly of all we have, and once again I have to reassure readers that I am not making this up, Don Wan Kihotay, an older man with a beard who believes himself to be a Jedi. Again, you can see Thomas’ working pretty clearly. One of the crucial flavour notes of Star Wars is the presence (pretty far in the background) of the Jedi Knights; one of the coolest pieces of hardware is the lightsaber, even if it only appears in two or three scenes. If the Jedi existed, they'd be nothing more than dull warriors mind-powers (Lucas spent three whole movies demonstrating this point): they are only romantic because they lived a long time ago and are all dead. Since Ben-Obi-Want-Kenobi has gone to be more powerful than we can possibly imagine, the best Thomas can offer us is someone who thinks he is a Jedi. Someone who has heard about the Jedi, and wants to be one. Like, once again, me.

For this character to work properly, we have to have known a lot of stories of the Olden Days. If we wrote him now, we could have him referencing half-remembered events from the Clone Wars with the same pedantic enthusiasm as the real Don Quixote quoted Spanish chivalric romances, but Roy Thomas didn't have that kind of information at his disposal. So he fixed on the word "Knight" and envisaged quests and honour and archaic language and round tables and dubbing ceremonies. That's how I imagined Jedi; that's how I wanted Jedi to be; and that, indeed, is how Jedi were until we actually met Yoda and discovered they were an uneasy mix between the dullest kind of Sunday School teachers and the nastiest kind of P.E coach. [***] Again, the "knights" thing is arguably taken a bit too literally. In the final episode, the Magnificent Seven storyline takes a peculiar right turn specifically so that Don Kihotay can go up against a huge reptilian beast with his lightsaber, and the audience can all think “That’s kinda like a knight fighting a dragon.”

The comics are most notable for what they do not contain. No Darth Vader. Virtually no Luke Skywalker. No Empire. No Rebellion. No Force, really: when a mystical character is called for, he’s a non-specific priest worshiping a non-specific God. But I think Thomas got something right which Lucas got wrong. Star Wars isn’t a story; it’s an ethos. We don't want to know what happens next; we want to go back there. A comic doesn't become Star Wars by having Darth Vader in it: it becomes Star Wars by tasting like Star Wars. Thomas may not have got the flavour exactly right, but he knew what flavour he was aiming at.

That's what that cover is saying, isn't it? "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far, away...they all went off and had even more adventures, for ever and ever..."

[*] I think that the artists feel they need to show actual Stars to justify the “Star Wars” title. Five out of the first six post-movie issues have starry starry night skies on the cover. 

[**] On Tatooine, they wipe their bottoms with sand. On spaceships, there is an efficient decontamination ray built into the toilet itself. 

Thursday, December 03, 2015

How Atheism Works (part 94)

Noticing some fair-haired children in the slave market one morning, Pope Gregory, the memorable Pope, said (in Latin), 'What are those ?' and on being told that they were Angels, made the memorable joke — 'Non Angli, sed Angeli' ('not Angels, but Anglicans) and commanded one of his Saints called St Augustine to go and convert the rest.
                                  1066 And All That

NOTE 1: Not all atheists.
NOTE 2: Islam is not a race.

Astonishingly, some schools ask parents for information about their children when they start school. Astonishingly, some of these forms have a space marked “religion”. Non-religious parents presumably write "none" in the space and move on. But some parents apparently think that it's more helpful to write a long sarcastic letter and post it on the internet.

On the substantial point: I tend to agree that you should be careful of festooning children with their parent's beliefs. In the spring 1974 I remember my parents taking me on a march, with banners and a brass band and everything, to try to persuade the people of East Barnet to elect Harold Wilson as Prime Minister. (It didn’t work the first time, so we had a another go in the autumn.) In a way, that made me a Labour kid. On that basis, my friend, who marched behind the local MP, the Pythonesquely named Reginald Maudling, was probably a Conservative kid although neither of us could have answered detailed questions about the Common Market or Trade Union reform.

I still think that Thomas Helwys [*] had it right and Cranmer and Wesley had it wrong. Baptism ought to be a dramatic ceremony of rebirth, undertaken by someone who has positively decided that they want to be Christian, not a magic spell which turns a baby into an Anglican whether they like it or not. You can't blame the Book of Common Prayer if some people don’t take the ceremony seriously or understand what it means. But some fans of the Established Church encourage a theory that Christianity isn’t about belief or practice but about belonging — if you were baptised, or even just born in England, then you are Church of England whether you know it or not. A theory of belonging can to easily turn into a theory of exclusion. For every Rev Smallbone who thinks that it is his duty to serve everyone in his parish regardless of their faih there is a Daily Mail reading simian who thinks that "Christian" means "white person" and "Muslim" means "foreigner".

Islam teachers that everyone is a Muslim when they are born. But since “Muslim” means someone who is in submission to God, I think that only means that they don’t believe in Original Sin. A lot of American Christians speak as if they think “the Kingdom of God” and “America” are the same thing. Only sometimes does that turn into an actual theological theory.

The piece of sarcastic rubbish that some hardworkingteacher had to waste time replying to was not remotely interested in any point, substantive or otherwise. Someone saw the opportunity to participate in the Sacrament of the Sneer, and by Dawkins they went for it.

And so, accidentally, it gives us some interesting insights into how these people's minds work:

“…I asked how she views the transubstantiation of physical matter while the accidents of its appearance are preserved. She was totally unable to express an opinion so I began to think she may be a protestant…”

Got it. It is funny to ask if a ten year old is a Catholic because what identifies you as a Catholic is particular “views” on doctrinal questions expressed in technical language. I think you could very easily say to a ten-year-old “When we go to church, do you think that the bread and the wine becomes the actual body and blood of Jesus” and get a perfectly clear answer:

1: Yes: God changes it by a miracle

2: No: we do it to remember Jesus because he asked us to

3: Neither: only silly people in the olden days believed in Jesus

Of course, in each case, the answer would actually be "I believe whatever Daddy says." That applies to the so-called-atheist child just as much as the so-called-Catholic child. I know that I support Arsenal Football Club even though I have never watched a game of football in my life, and would need to double check if the football they play is the "kicking the ball through the goal" kind or the "carrying the ball over the line" kind.

“…To determine whether or not she may be protestant I decided to begin with the Ninety-Five theses of Martin Luther. Since Aideen was unable to name a single one, I thought that I might be on the wrong track altogether with Christianity…”

Got it. It is funny to ask if a ten year old is a Protestant because what makes you Protestant is the factual historical knowledge of the history of Lutheranism.

I am going to let you in on a little secret. I couldn’t name you one of Luther’s theses. I know that he disbelieved in the miracle of the Mass and didn’t think purgatory was real and was big on something called the Priesthood of All Believers. He believed in predestination, but not as much as Calvin. Again, I think you could perfectly well ask a ten year old “How do we find out what Jesus wants us to do?” and get a perfectly good answer:

1: By reading the Bible quietly by ourselves

2: By obeying what holy men like the Pope tell us

3: Don’t be silly, only silly people in the olden days believed in Jesus.

Again, the perfectly good answer would really be "I believe whatever Mummy believes". That's just the way things are.

"...I had to explain that neither a god with blue skin and an elephant head called Ganesh, nor a god with a monkey’s head called Hanuman, were in fact cartoon characters. Aideen seemed incredulous that a billion people could believe in such deities…”

And now we come to the point. White People’s religion is about dry, obscure knowledge that you couldn’t possibly expect a child to have an opinion on. Brown People’s religion is silly and childish and a ten year old can instantly see through it without a moment’s thought. This is consistent with the dogma promulgated in the atheist's holy book which says that it is worth spending a few pages taking down monotheism, but that you should simply "gesture towards" polytheism, say "who cares?" and then move on.

“...She also seemed less than enthused about the idea that the divine might provide instructions to a husband on how he should beat his wife, thereby ruling out Islam too…”

Again: one set of Brown People have a religion which is childish and silly; and the other set have one which is violent and primitive, and there is no more to be said. You can’t positively declare that you believe in the White Man's God unless you can understand complex dogmatic points in technical language. But you only need to hear one line from the Turk Bible to know that Brown Man's God is rubbish. Someone who abstains from food during Ramadan, observes the prayer times, attends mosque on Friday, chooses traditional modes of dress but admits that he has a problem with some of the more bloodthirsty passages in the Koran is not a Muslim. A ten year old says so.

It seems to be false to say that the Koran contains instructions on how a man should beat his wife; although it does seem to be true that it says that he is permitted to strike her under certain circumstances.

One meets incredibly annoying pedants who arbitrarily assign “true” meanings to words and act with mock outrage and fake incomprehension when you use the word in a different, (i.e normal) way.

“You said that your friend Steven was gay, but he didn’t seem especially joyful to me” they say

“You said that at the end of the day we would have to accept a small pay cut, but I can’t see why we couldn’t do it first thing in the morning and get it over with.”

"There was a small mistake in your article" they say innocently "You referred to Mr Hitler as an extreme right-wing dictator, where in fact everyone knows that the Nazis were leftists."

The new Atheist has decided to define “religion” as “a set of doctrinal opinions” or “the literal belief in particular set of scriptures”: and feign surprise that anyone — a school teacher, for example — could possibly use the word in a different sense.

Protestantism isn’t the 95 Theses. It really isn’t. It’s about what kind of service you attend; what kind of hymns you are familiar with; what festivals you observe; what kind of clothes you’ve been brought up to consider modest; what community you see yourself as part of; and  — very, very probably — what part of town you live in. It is kind and neighborly to find out if someone is a Catholic or a Protestant so you know what day of the year they get presents on and whether the fourth Thursday before first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox is a special day or not. It is kind and neighborly to find out if someone is a Hindu or a Muslim so you’ll understand why they are giving strangers sweeties or skipping lunch and whether there is any kind of meat they'll be freaked out by. (No, at ten years old they probably can’t give you a degree level essay on why Hindus abstain from beef and Muslims abstain from pork. But think how you'd feel on your first day at a new school if someone gave you a plateful of roast dog.)

“But I don’t indoctrinate my child into any faith. We do not celebrate Yon Kippur or Diwali or Eid. We only celebrate the universal human non-religious festivals like Christmas and Easter. We don’t have any rules about what food we eat, apart from civilized white people’s rules about cat and dog and horse. And we aren’t part of any community, although like all normal people we mainly mix with middle-class college educated atheists. None of our best friends are Muslims."

Great. That was exactly what the form was asking you. Does your family have any special festivals, any special holidays, any days where you eat special food, which we ought to know about? If the answer is “no” then “no religion” is the answer and it tells the school exactly what it needed to know.

You don’t do any special festivals, and your kid doesn’t do any special festivals. You don’t have any special dietary rules, and your kid doesn’t have any special dietary rules. You don’t have any particular beliefs about God, and your child doesn’t have any particular beliefs about God. But that’s not because you’ve been raising them according to your beliefs. Oh, goodness gracious me no, no, no, no, no.

[*] I looked it up

Saturday, November 28, 2015


Shattered Empire gives us very few clues: not that we necessarily expected or wanted it to.

Star Wars — the new totally canon Marvel comic — felt (at least to start with) like a movie. I have described reading it as being like looking outside the frame; seeing what was going on just before or just after or just out of shot in a famous scene. 

Shattered Empire feels more like an annotation; like someone scribbling in the margins of a holy text. [*] Quite pretty scribbling, actually. But it keeps telling me things I wish I didn’t know. 

As Luke Skywalker flies the shuttle -- the shuttle bearing his father’s body -- from the Death Star to Endor, he is intercepted by an A-Wing pilot. 

The following conversation ensues: 

“…Vessel is under friendly control” 

“Commander? Not your usual ride. Always heard you were an X-Wing jockey” 

“I was kinda in a hurry” 

I was kinda in a hurry? This is the Luke Skywalker who has just acted out the world-saving drama that is at the heart of the whole ennealogy. The Luke Skeywalker who has taken off the black mask and seen his father’s face for the first time. The Luke Skywalker who has, incidentally, been zapped practically to death by the Emperor. His last words in the Trilogy are “I’m going to save you”. They should be left to stand; until after the funeral pyre, until after the Force ghosts. 

“I’m going to save you..” 

“You already have” 

“I was kinda in hurry…” 

If we must slip in behind the frame, then the question we would like an answer to is "What came of Anakin-Vader’s last command?" Did Luke tell his sister he was right him? And if so, how did she react? Can she forgive the person who blew up her planet as easily as Luke could forgive the person who killed Owen and Beru and Ben and Biggs? And how does this knowledge affect her? Leia appears in the comic, but there is no sense that anything traumatic has happened. Han seems to have forgotten all about the “he’s my brother” revelation within literally minutes. That’s a scene we’d like to have seen as well. 

Of course, we know what’s going on. Jason Aaron is in some respect strait jacketed in the Star Wars comic because he is writing about character’s in the past tense. He can’t decide that Chewie was killed in between episode IV and V; any major new character introduced has pretty much got to be vaporized before they get to Hoth. But he’s also got a certain amount of leeway: he knows where his cast have got to end up, but he is pretty free to choose the route. And he knows lots of stuff that they don't. Greg Rucka has all the limitations but none of the freedom. He can’t do anything that might contradict the Force Awakens; but he doesn’t know, any more than we do, what the Force Awakens is actually going to be about. 

If anything, the absences are the big clues. The lack of a Big Scene between Luke and Leia and another Big Scene between Luke and Han suggests that those Big Scene are going to feature in the forthcoming movie. [**]

There is a plot. The plot is that The Empire wasn’t completely defeated after Return of the Jedi. Before the last firework burns out and the last gub-gub fades away, the Rebels are defending themselves against Imperial Remnants who are bent on carrying out the Emperor’s last command — which involves flattening particular planets like Sterdic IV, the Wretch of Tayron and Naboo. Repeating the Rebel Propaganda that the Emperor is dead is treason, obviously. 

I suppose that if there is going to be a story, there have to be baddies, and I am pleased that the new film will involve the real space ships from the real movies not the made up hardware from the prequels. But does this have to be done in such a way as to wipe out Return of the Jedi? The film ends on a Great Victory. There are fireworks. George retrospectively decided that there were fireworks on Naboo and Coruscrant and Tatooine. But here is Han on the morning after telling us that "it’s not over yet” and wondering why no-one told the Empire that it lost. One of the “crawls” actually goes so far as to say that "for many rebels, the dream of laying down their arms and living in peace seems further away than the elation of victory promise". 

If the Empire is a military machine then killing off the Leader might in itself make very little difference. The loss of a huge piece of military hardware that they’ve sunk vast resources into would probably be more serious. To lose one Death Star might be regarded as misfortune; to lose two seems like carelessness. But if the Empire is the metaphorical representation of all that is Evil then killing the Dark Lord ought to be pretty final. Tolkien knew what he was doing when he said that the Dark Tower literally fell as soon as the Ring went into the furnace. 

In Lucas’s original conception, the Emperor was basically weak and corrupt: out of touch with his people, manipulated by his generals, somewhere between President Nixon and the emperor of Japan. But in the canonical version, the transition from republic to Empire and the Clone Wars are part of a Sith Masterplan. With the Sith Master dead and the Sith Apprentice both dead and returned to the Light Side, surely the Empire ought to revert to a more or less benevolent Republic more or less immediately? Indeed, if the Emperor knew he was about to lose, wouldn’t preserving the Sith bloodline be his primary concern? 

Leia goes to Naboo to warn them about that the Empire is coming. Palpatine demilitarized the planet, but Queen Soruna knows that there are ships and weapons from the Olden Days hidden deep in the the bowels of the planet. (Naboo fashion hasn't become any less ridiculous in the 30 years since we were last there, incidentally.) Down in the hangar, Leia announces that it is cold; and we see Darth Maul’s face superimposed over hers. Is this a clue that Maul is alive and well and appearing in Episode VII? He was killed in Phantom Menace, of course, but recovered from his death during the Clone Wars TV series and not definitively killed off. He'd have to be well into his 80s, but we don’t know what the expect lifespan of a red and black faced Sith would be. (It was cannon that Wookies live 200 years before The Force Awakens was a twinkle in Walt Disney’s eye.) I think it’s more likely that Leia just experiences a Force shiver because she’s in the place where Darth Vader’s predecessor met one of his deaths. 

I sometimes wondered if writer Rucka and artist Checchetto have grasped the iconic significance of the material they're dealing with. Leia and the gang fly the pointy yellow Naboo ships from Phantom Menace against a post-Imperial Star Destroyer and it launches its entire cohort of TIE fighters at them. Lando and the little mousy guy from Return of the Jedi arrive ("why show up early when you can arrive in the nick of time") with some X and Y-Wings to save the day. It ought to feel at least a little bit special to see Prequel Ships and Trilogy ships fighting against and alongside each other. At any rate the artwork ought to rise to the occasion. But it doesn't. Something in the way it's drawn makes me feel that no-one quite spotted what an important moment this should have been. Where is full page spread of a Naboo Figheter and an X-Wing alongside each other? 

Luke Skywalker suddenly becomes very worried about retrieving something which the Empire stole from the Jedi Temple on Coruscrant. He hasn't had a chance to change his clothes since the movie, so his black robe and black jumpsuit still scream "potential dark lord" at us. He's not become Yoda yet, but he is inclined to be cryptic in a way that I imagine makes people want to punch him. ("I send Artoo to find a pilot, and here you are. Interesting.") It turns out that what he is after is a tree — a tree which grew in the Jedi Temple. The Force is with it, apparently. And it is sufficiently important that the Empire have kept it heavily guarded. This is such an off the wall idea that the one thing I think we can be totally sure about is that the Jedi Tree will be an important part of The Force Awakens. 

Everything is told from the point of view of one Shara Bey and Kes Dameron, a pilot and a seargent in the Rebellion. Shara acts as Leia’s wingperson during the trip to Naboo and helps Luke retrieve the Jedi tree. The story ends with them “mustering out” of the rebellion and retiring to a foresty planet with ziggurats in the background. Although we never see him, they have a child named Poe. Luke gives them the tree to take care of. 

Of course, there may be dozens of hidden foreshadowings running through the comic which will only become apparent in December. But it looks very much as if we have a four part series to set up the fact that X-Wing Pilot Poe Dameron grew up on the planet Yavin with his aging parents, who were veterans of the Battle of Endor and custodians of the White Tree of Numenor. 

Which is nice. 

I have tried to watch Star Wars I - VI in one go, as a single movie, and give them the benefit of the doubt. It just doesn’t work. Even if you go with the retrofitted Episodes IV - VI there is a horrible gap between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope. Of course there is. Nothing introduced in I - III — gungans and Qui-Gon and Jedi Temples and midichlorians and what-not — can possibly be referenced in IV - VI because (obviously) the films were made in the wrong order. (The Naboo vignette at the end of the Return of the Jedi special edition simply made the wound more gaping.) 

For me, that’s one of the nicest things about these comics: they gently fold the hated Prequels back into the sacred Trilogy. Seeing Leia go to Naboo and hearing Luke speak of the Jedi Temple is almost like the thawing out a family feud. But people who regard Jar Jar Binks as a personal affront, and will reject these books on the grounds of Queen Soruna alone. And I am guessing that "should Abrams admit that the prequels ever happened" will be the biggest dividing line over the Force Awakens.

[*]You can tell how pious a Christian is by how many Bibles he has worn out with cross- references and marker pens. A Muslim would find the merest pencil underlying of a helpful passage blasphemous.  

[**] Walt Simonson said the only clues he had about the original trilogy he had when working on the old Marvel comics were when a plot was specifically vetoed. He had an idea to do a comic in which the Empire created a second Death Star ("and this time put some chicken wire over the exhaust port"), but George Lucas said he couldn't. "Aha..." he said.

George and Joe and Jack and Bob

Complete Star Wars Essays 


 If everyone reading this essay pledged $2, I could do this full time. 

Dear Jeremy,

Thank you for your e-mail.

I very recently joined the Labour Party because I believed that you would be driven by your conscience and convictions, rather than merely seek sympathetic headlines in far-right newspapers.

I think that war is always a very great evil. I think that civilized countries should only resort to war when there is literally no alternative. There are obviously alternatives to bombing Syria.

No-one has made it clear what such a war would be likely to achieve. And if the country is as bankrupt as we keep being told, we can't afford it anyway.

Ten years ago, those of us who opposed the war in Iraq were called cowards and traitors by the same right-wingers who want to have another war next week. Today absolutely everyone (even Mr Blair, I think) agrees that the Iraq war was a terrible mistake. Ten years from now any bombing of Syria will be regarded as a similarly catastrophic error. Whatever happens next week, you can be sure that people will be saying "Jeremy was right" for years to come.

I don't want to live in a one party state, where only one voice (the voice of the Daily Mail) is permitted, and where anyone who speaks out against a war or an economic policy is branded a traitor or a communist by both parties. The job of the opposition is to oppose -- that is, to constructively critique the government. So it is important that the Labour Party oppose this crazy war even -- especially -- if the crazy war goes ahead. If both sides of the House of Commons support the crazy war, then the millions of us who oppose it are simply denied a voice, a say, a stake in the decision.

I think that Cameron's war, like Blair's war, will turn out to be a reckless waste of money and lives that will only make matters much worse. I think that you and the other moderates who think that war is only ever a last resort should stick to your consciences. Do not let the extremists in your own party and the far-right press who think that bombs are the solution to everything derail you.

Thank you for taking the trouble to write to me; stay in touch.


Read: "Je Suis Andrew"

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Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Thought for the Day

For suspicion often creates what it expects. “Since, whatever I do, the neighbors are going to think me a witch, or a Communist agent, I might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb, and become one in reality.”

Screwtape Proposes a Toast

Sunday, November 01, 2015

This is your monthly reminder that J.C Wright is a whey faced coxcomb

If something is to hard to do, then it's not worth doing. You just stick that guitar in the closet next to your shortwave radio, your karate outfit and your unicycle and we'll go inside and watch TV.
Homer J Simpson

I don’t look at J.C Wright's page very often. It makes me cross, and not even interestingly cross, in the way Dave Sim used to. Sim writing was clever, perverse, witty and nasty in equal proportions. It made you want to engage with it. Wright just makes you say  “How can an intelligent person type that shit?” 

I suppose I justify glancing at his pages in the way that I justify glancing at Richard Dawkins’ tweets. (I mean, apart from morbid fascination, like looking at the execution tableaux on Brighton pier when when I was a kid.) I once said that that the Argument From Prof Richard Dawkins can stand alongside the Ontological Argument and the Cosmological Argument as proofs of the existence of God. I think that an occasional glance at J C Wright and Melanie Phillips and Norman Tebbit are necessary if we are going to keep on marching down the good old socialist road. If that’s what being a conservative does to you then I definitely don’t want to be one.

In his journal this month, the Finest Writer Working Today dusts off a 70 year old letter from Edgar Rice Burroughs to a schoolboy. Apparently, the schoolboy’s English teacher had told him that Burroughs was “trash can literature”.

There are a number of possible answers to that, one of which would have been to ask the teacher to pick up Tarzan and the Ant Men and have a look it. It’s a proper story, written in proper sentences, with proper grammar (except foh de bleck folks, who speaks like dis), proper dialogue and proper description. I could imagine Tarzan or the early John Carters being set for a lower school English lesson. (We read Shane, I recall, which is about on the same level.) I think that’s why Burroughs star has diminished and his disciple Bob Howard’s reputation has increased. A Princess of Mars reads like a Victorian travelogue; a pastiche of Rudyard Kipling. The Conan stories are the distilled essence of pulp.

Burroughs responds that his books may be trash, but that millions of people read them and they have made him a lot of money. Presumably, even someone who has read no philosopher more recent that Plato can see the flaw in that? “This is popular” is not a response to “This is bad”: something can be bad and popular; something can be good but unpopular.

The main part of the Burroughs letter is worth quoting in full:

“My stories will do you no harm. If they have helped to inculcate in you a love of books, they have done you much good. No fiction is worth reading except for entertainment. If it entertains and is clean, it is good literature, of its kind. If it forms the habit of reading, in people who might not read otherwise, it is the best literature.”

Now, it was kind of Burroughs to take the trouble to reply to a fan’s letter; and he didn’t imagine that something he’d dashed off in five minutes was going to be reread decades after he had died. And younger readers will find it hard to believe that the primitive word-processor he was using didn't allow you to correct or edit. You could only change a piece of text by deleting the whole document and starting again. But even taking that into account, I think we can agree that this is a very confused piece of writing. Burroughs seems to argue modestly that his writing is “good of its kind” while arrogantly assuming that his kind of writing is really the only kind. He thinks that fiction in general is just for entertainment; but then argues that encouraging children to read is a good-thing-in-itself.

You can’t have it both ways. You can say “Pantomimes are just silly knockabout, of course; but many a child has fallen in love with theater when they were taken to see Cinderella and as a result discovered the riches of Shaw and Ibsen and O’Neil when they were older — so the ‘panto’ does much good.” Or you can say “Silly entertainment is what theater is all about: Hamlet is merely panto with all the fun taken out; if it doesn’t have a custard pie routine in it, it’s not worth bothering with”. Or you can take the teacher’s point of view and say “How can you, a clever boy, possibly be wasting your time watching a man dressed as a lady throwing a custard pie and at a lady dressed as a man when Long Days Journey Into Night is playing in the same town?” But I don’t think you can say all three. 

I think that a Proper Actor would probably say “You may be surprised to know that the stage craft involved in putting on a pantomime and the stage craft involved in putting on a work by Shakespeare are very similar, and a person who truly loves theater loves both equally.” That was what Kenneth Williams said when he was asked why an actor of his caliber was wasting time on the Carry On movies.

The really astonishing thing, sitting there in ancient smudgy courier type is “No fiction is worth reading except for entertainment.” Really? No fiction contains strong manly role models for us to aspire to? No fiction teaches a moral message? No-one ever reads stories to learn about how people live in distant lands or what life was like many years ago? No-one ever studies fiction from a scholarly point of view?  I also like the bit about the only kind of literature which can harm you being pornography. That’s a moral point, not a literary one, of course. But aren't there racist books; books that glorify crime; books steeped in commie or fascist propaganda; books that promote belief in the wrong kind of god; atheist books? Is there really no sin but the sin of masturbation? 

No fiction is worth reading except for entertainment? I wonder what Prof Lewis and Prof Tolkien, teachers of English Literature both, who J.C Wright reveres and who, incidentally, both quite enjoyed Edgar Rice Burroughs, would have to say about that?

But this, indeed, seems to be the point of the letter, and what has excited Wright about it. Burroughs children were both studying English Literature at college, apparently — not elementary school, college — and the great man is shocked that their set texts are dry and difficult.

Well, yes: of course they are. That is what you are at college for. And I think we know what their lecturer would have replied. “You don’t need the my help to understand Riders of the Purple Range or Brideshead Revisited or even David Copperfield. They are written in your language by people who share the same cultural assumptions as you. So read them on your own time. But you do need my help to get to the bottom of Beowulf or the Faery Queene.”

But Burroughs suspects a conspiracy. Still smarting from having been called garbage-can literature he lashes out against all teachers at all times ever, slipping into language so pompous that you can see why it appealed to J.C Wright:

“The required reading seemed to have been selected for the sole purpose of turning the hearts of young people against books. That, however, seems to be a universal pedagogical complex: to make the acquiring of knowledge a punishment rather than a pleasure. It’s political correctness gone mad, I tell you.”

I may possibly have made the last bit up. 

Imagine if you said that about any other subject. “The Karate teacher had some funny idea that I should learn some funny style of open handed fighting, when I can give a very good account of myself in the playground with clenched fists. I suppose his sole purpose is to put young men off the whole idea of fighting”.  “I am a big fan of rock n’ roll and the music teacher wanted me to listen to something called Mozart, which I didn’t like after two minutes. What is the point of a music teacher teaching me music I don’t like? She should teach me the music I already like. It’s a con-trick to put me off music.”

Now, it’s not that interesting to discover that a bloody good pulp writer had a bit of a blind spot when it came to other kinds of writing. There are many people who think that people only become classical violinists because they are second rate musicians who can’t master jazz. Or vice versa. 

What interests me rather more is Wright’s comment. Astonishingly, it turns out that Wright also has kids — at school rather than college. And, astonishingly, it turns out that their English teachers are part of the same conspiracy that Burroughs uncovered. They keep giving them difficult ("corrosive, dreary, hellish”) books because they want to put them off literature.

NUANCE WARNING! School English lessons are, of course, a different thing from University English courses; and there are honest differences of opinion about what school English is for.  Maybe you are introducing children to wide variety of books of different kinds with the intention of forming the habit of reading for pleasure. Maybe you are making them read well-formed books so that their grammar, vocabulary and punctuation will improve and they will eventually be able to write good letters of application and get skilled clerical and middle-management jobs. Or maybe you think that everyone in England should be familiar with the canon of English literature — that if we are in any sense a Nation then all our citizens need a smattering of Shakespeare and Dickens and Milton and Hardy and other dead white guys. But at any rate, it is probably a greater sin to ask a twelve year old to read a book he finds positively boring than to ask a twenty year old to do so. 

So which books is Wright objecting to? 

“THE BEAN TREE by Barbara Kingsolver
FENCES by August Wilson
OF MICE AND MEN by Steinbeck (better written than the others, from a craftsmanship standpoint, but as the father of an autistic child, I found the sappy heavy-handed emotionalism to be terribly offensive. And the lefty portrayal of Okies was historically false, socialistic blither.)

(The lefty bits were socialist, were they? And were the socialist bits lefty? And maybe the conservative bits were on the right, and the right wing bits conservative?)  

To Burroughs rule “all books are good, except pornography” we have added three more:

All books are good, except the sentimental
All books are good, except those that offend the parents of autistic children
All books are good, except the historically inaccurate
All books are good, except those written from a socialist point of view

But couldn’t an entertaining pulp writer like Burroughs be sentimental, historically inaccurate and left wing? And couldn’t a book be historically accurate, devoid of emotion, full of sound right-wing economic theory but still dull as ditch-water?

You started with the claim “Teachers set children dull books, in order to put them off literature”. Someone asked "Give me an example of one of these dull books.” You replied “Here is an example of a sentimental, historically inaccurate, left-wing book."

J.C Wright never answers the question. J.C Wright never answer the question. 

And anyway...

How can you object to “Of Mice and Men” because you disagree with its politics? That's a moral judgement, from outside the book, that you are using to judge it. If Burroughs was right to say that all matters about a books is that it is entertaining and that it doesn't have any stark naked slave owners copping off with stark naked princesses, that's a non sequitur. But if he wasn't...  Wasn't "bringing political opinions to bear on literature" and "only liking books whose politics you agree with" the besetting sin of the Hugo awards that you so abominate? 


Thursday, October 29, 2015

A Complete Guide to New Who

Season 8

8.1: Deep Breath

8.2 Into the Dalek

8.3 Robot of Sherwood

8.4 Listen

8.5 Time Heist

8.6 The Caretaker

8.7: Kill the Moon

8.8 Mummy on the Orient Express

8.9 Flatline


8.10 In the Forests of the Night

8.11 Dark Water

8.12 Death in Heaven

8.13 Last Christmas


Available from Lulu.comAmazon.co.uk and Amazon.com


8.13: Last Christmas

As I’ve said before, children find me a cross between the Wizard of Oz and Father Christmas.
                             William Hartnell

Unlike Philip Sandifer, (whose TARDIS Eruditorum absolutely everyone should read), I don’t really believe in redemptive readings and narrative collapses and what-not. I was the target audience for a lot of old Who — a little English boy perfectly happy with his monsters and spaceships and corridors and cliffhangers — so I have a built in affection for most of the old stuff. But when an old story was genuinely bad, I don't feel the need to say. “Of course it was bad: it was meant to be bad. That’s the whole genius of it. Isn’t it wonderful that Doctor Who, unlike Star Trek, doesn’t try to do anything as old fashioned as make sense. When correctly viewed all Doctor Who stories are wonderful. Except the ones where Europeans play Chinese characters. You aren’t allowed to like those ones.” 

It is entirely possible that I am parodying his position just the tiniest little bit. 

I am tolerant of bad things. I am happy to say, about a movie for example, “Well that had a lot of what I liked about the original trilogy in it, although I could maybe have done without the kid and the alien”. Some other people are more inclined to say GEORGE LUCAS RAPED MY CHILDHOOD. 

But I am not going to defend the indefensible. 

Season 8 is much the worst Season of New Who, featuring the most pointlessly vacuous companion and the worst Doctor. (Not the worst acted. Merely the worst.) This Christmas special, which somewhat ties the previous twelve parts together, was always going to feel like a kick in the teeth. I see no point in saying that kicking the audience in the teeth is an interesting idea, something no other TV series would attempt; and a challenging commentary on the dental industry.

I’m not going to stop watching. I was ready to give up during the Tennant years, and then Matt Smith happened. But I am not going to pretend that it didn't really, really hurt. 

I’m not saying there’s not a good idea in there. The Doctor fighting aliens in an Arctic base under siege, complete with dark corridors, panicking crew, monsters and cliffhangers — proper old school Who. That’s a good idea. If Doctor Who is fighting aliens at the North Pole at Christmas, then of course Santa Claus is going to show up and help. That’s a good idea, too. And once you have the Doctor and Santa in one story you are bound to tackle the idea that they are both legends, both things that kids believe in. That's an interesting idea, albeit one that we've seen eighteen or nineteen times before. I would have liked a more out-there explanation than "if this is Father Christmas, then we must all be dreaming." (Maybe Santa is literally real in Amy's world, but differs from the fairy-tale character in some some subtle and disturbing ways? Remember the slightly scary Father Christmas in Narnia?) No matter. Nick Frost’s portrayal of the right jolly old elf is good fun; slightly more cynical than we'd expect Santa to be but not a full blown Raymond Briggs’ sdebunking. The banter with the elves ("it’s not racist, you are an elf") made me properly laugh.

This is the wrong season to be doing this kind of thing in,. This is the Season in which the human race has discovered that (depending on what you think the One With The Cybermen was about) there is either definitely no after-life or else that there literally is. And in which it’s turned out Walter Scott’s Locksely is historically real. And that the moon is an egg. That’s not the time to be telling us that Father Christmas can't be real because he's obviously silly. 

The dream-explanation kicks in far too early. I was reminded of the Next Doctor travesty from 2008, where a funny set up about a human who thinks he’s the Doctor gets sidelined after ten minutes by an uninteresting run around involving Cyberdogs and Cyberqueens and Cyber-transformers. The Dream Crabs are all very well and good as a device to get Doctor Who and Father Christmas into one story-line. They too rapidly become what the story is about. 

More Father Christmas meets Alien, please; more Doctor Who in a Christmas fairy tale. Less sentiment. Less Inception. Less True Love.


Oh, it’s all very meta-textual and clever. Shona wakes up to find that she had been intending to spend Christmas watching DVDs: Alien, the Thing From Another World and Miracle on 34th Street. Ho-ho-ho. She has taken the trouble to write the list in large letters because Moffat can't think of a less subtle way of telling us. Thing From Another World is the original Base Under Siege narrative, and it takes place at the North Pole. (The more famous remake takes place at the South.) It's already been pointed out that the Dream Crabs look a lot like the Face Huggers. Miracle on 34th Street is the definitive film about how Virginia should believe in Santa even though he doesn't exist. You aren't being derivative if someone pops up on the screen and says "Hey, look at us, we're being derivative!"

A Doctor Who take on Miracle on 34th Street isn't an intrinsically bad idea. It's become something of a Thing for Doctor Who Christmas specials to be skits on classic Christmas stories. (The Snowmen was Mary Poppins, up to a point; The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe was Narnia, obviously, Time of the Doctor had overtones of Pinocchio and a Christmas Carol was based on some Dickens story the name of which currently escapes me.) And with so many base under siege stories taking place at the North, or more usually South, pole the idea of Santa Claus wandering into the plot of Tenth Planet is quite funny.

But it all goes beyond "sly references" and "derivation" and into a Greatest Hits compilation. Crabs who can only see you when you are thinking of them (with thanks to the Silence and the Weeing Angels.) The world which might, or might not, be a dream (hats off to Amy’s Choice, and Turn Left, and the first five minutes of the One With the Cybermen, and Every. Damn. Episode. Of the Sarah Jane Adventures.) Skipping a character’s life and seeing them when they are old (with permission of Blink, the One With Agatha Christie, Sarah Jane again, and others too numerous to mention.)  The alien which sucks your mind by making you think you are experiencing a special Christmas with dead people (a special guest appearance by Star Trek: Generations). The conflation of the Doctor, Father Christmas and, er, God goes back to the very first Eleventh Doctor story, when Little Amy was discovered saying her prayers to Santa Claus. Further than that, actually, to Moffat's first New Who script, when Doctor Chris claimed in passing to have give Rose a red bike when she was a little girl. Further than that, come to think of it, to Emma's speech in the definitively seminal Curse of Fatal Death. ("You're like Father Christmas, Scooby Doo and the Wizard of Oz, and I love you very much.") And of course, every Christmas episode contains a tonally identical Magic of Christmas speech involving sappy music and someone explaining about how Christmas is totally special even though it doesn't seen to be actually celebrating anything in particular.

Nothing against secular midwinter festivals. Season Greetings, and all that that entails. Never believed that Christians own Christmas and that everyone else should get out from under our Christmas tree. No objection to Richard Dawkins and Tim Minchin claiming to like carol singing, even if I do think it's a bit like David Cameron telling us how much he likes the the Red Flag and the Interntionales. That Slade Song catches the mood perfectly well. Christmas is about having a lot to eat and drink and being silly with your family and friends and what is wrong with that?

It’s the idea that all over the universe Christmas is a special and magical which makes me want to sick up my mince pie. You never hear people talking about the magical essence of Guy Fawkes night or how in a very real sense people all over the universe get caught up in the spirit of Eid al-Fitr.


Six weeks ago, we had found a quite satisfactory means of cutting the Doctor/Clara/Danny knot. The Doctor chose to lie to Clara; Clara chose to lie to the Doctor; and the Danny chose to remain dead. Before we have even got to the end of the pre-cred sequence this week, that satisfactory ending has been chucked out of the window. Clara is back on the TARDIS. Everyone has admitted that they have lied to each other, and with a single face-slap everything is back to normal. 

Then, in the last five minutes, something uncharacteristically clever is pulled out of thin air. 

Everything in the story has been a dream within a dream. Everyone has been under the influence of the Crabs since the episode started. The Doctor didn’t go back for Clara mere seconds after leaving her behind: he only dreamed that he did. The Dream Crabs can attach themselves to different people in different time periods, but their victims all end up sharing the same dream. (Hand wave, hand wave, hand wave.) So Clara is sharing the same dream as the Doctor, but decades later. She’s a very old lady, dreaming about a person she knew when she was young. And now, in what we are supposed to infer will be her Last Christmas, he comes back to her. She’s spent her whole life believing that she did the right thing in lying to the Doctor, only to find out, when she’s 80 or more, that it was an unnecessary lie. It’s a beautiful scene, reinstating the “gift of the magi” ending but adding a bittersweet little coda. Like Sarah and Jo and Amy, Clara has filled the Doctor-shaped hole in her life by touring Europe, aeroplanes and generally having a fandabbydozey bucket-list crossing-out life. So although they are sad today, their mutual deception was all for the best, probably. There’s a lovely little moment where the Doctor helps Clara pull a cracker, just like Clara helped the Doctor pull a cracker last Christmas, when he was old. 

And then, just at the last minute, out of the blue, it turns out we’re still in the bloody dream world. In comes bloody Father Christmas and up we jolly well wake to rattle around the universe fighting monsters and saving planets, what could be more fun?

It’s an unforgivable cheat. You cheated us into having emotions about your made up characters, twice, and then wiped them away and said they didn’t matter. A story is a promise. You can’t make us care emotionally about the characters and then use “it was all a dream” to put everything back how it was before.

The death of Danny – the whole existence of Danny, come to think of it – and all the monsters under the bed and Daleks and Cyberzombies – all that was so you could return us to the exact and precise place where we started. To reset to where we were in Cold War and Hide, only with a Scottish accent? The nasty Doctor and his vacuous companion off having fun adventures. 

And that isn’t even the worst thing. 

A story is told about Colin Baker and Eric Saward. There is a scene in Trial of a Time Lord where the Doctor appears to torture Peri. Colin is said to have gone to the producer and said “I don’t understand this scene. Is the Doctor mad? Or still under the influence of the baddy’s mind control? Or is he pretending to torture Peri so the baddies will let him into their confidence? Or is the whole scene false evidence concocted by the Valeyard?” 

“I don’t know”, the producer is said to have said. “It’s a nice scene. Play it however you like.”

And somehow, that moment disseminated itself throughout space and time and became the aesthetic on which the new series was predicated. 

The worst thing about Last Christmas is this: the false ending was originally intended to be the actual ending of the story. The O Henry bargain was going to stand; Clara was really going to have lived 60 years without the Doctor. This last farewell was going to be how Wonderful Jenna bowed out of the series. But at the last minute Wonderful Jenna decided she’d like to stick around for a few more months, and the scene was given a happy ending. 

That’s where we are. The touchy feely drama about love has replaced our monsters and cliffhangers show. But the touchy feely drama about love is unable to actually tell a love story. It’s just a sequence of goodbye scenes and death scenes and breaking up scenes between people who never really break up or die or say goodbye. 

Dreams, ha-ha. They are disjointed and full of gaps and they don’t make sense, but you don’t notice. 

Perhaps it is best to assume that the Doctor and Clara have had crabs on their heads forever and will never take them off again.

And what's the tangerine in the final frame mean? Does it mean that Father Christmas really does exist in Clara's world after all? Or does it mean that the Doctor and Clara didn't really run off together and are still dreaming? Or does it not mean anything at all? Am I the only person who is bothered by this kind of thing?