Monday, December 14, 2015


It was in the last days of the second millennium. The gilt hadn’t quite rubbed off Tony Blair. The Dome hadn’t quite become a national joke. The only thing I knew about the World Trade Center was that King Kong had climbed up it. 

It was the last time I felt properly excited about Star Wars. 


Symbols are almost like letters of the alphabet. We know what they mean without consciously seeing them. But don’t assume. The other day a colleague asked me if the Jews had a Bible of their own. ("Is it called the First Testament or something?”) A thing that everybody knows can become a thing that nobody knows, overnight. There are people old enough to drink in pubs who have never heard of Bagpuss.

The die-hard fan sees a symbol: everyone else sees a picture.

They see sand. We see Tatooine. 

They see a dome-like Tunisian house. We see Mos Eisley.

They say “hang on, is there some kind of exposure error, there seem to be two suns” we hear the binary sunset theme in our head.

They read “Episode One” in small letters: we see Star Wars Episode I, the moment that has been implicit since the first seconds of The Empire Strikes Back. The moment that many of us thought would never come.

Yes: we can say that the prequels were a colossal disappointment. 

But we can also say that, in 1998, we went to the Bristol Odeon, very possibly to see Star Trek : Insurrection and were confronted by the Episode One teaser poster for the first time.

The long, thin version, on the big cardboard standee. 

Back view of little boy in slightly Jedi-ish clothes, walking past Luke’s house, or Ben’s house, or just a house.

Shadow of Darth Vader cast behind him.

One word on the poster: “Episode One”. 

My spine has never stopped tingling.

Nothing has ever looked as Star Warsy as the original posters. The strange, far-away ones with Luke holding his lightsaber above his head while Leia curls up at his feet; the beam throwing a cross across the poster. The montage one, painted by someone who’d seen the movie, with Luke firing directly out of the image, Leia shooting to the left, Han to the right, and Vader wielding his saber, splitting the poster into three.

The Force Awakens posters evoke, without quite quoting, those 70s images. A crowded montage is quite retro for a modern film: blockbusters nowadays prefer single motifs (like Captain America’s shield or Batman’s bat) or else a striking image from the movie itself. 

There is no single character dominating the picture. The closest to the center is actually a small figure of Threepio, possibly because the droids are the viewpoint characters of the whole saga. If anything, the fascistic military parade of stormtroopers are the focus of the poster. There's a cluster of familiar faces -- Han, Leia, Chewie, and also a fella in an orange jump suit who we know to be Dameron Poe, but who rather functions as an iconic Luke Skywalker substitute in the poster.

The biggest figure is Kylo Renn. (The face of Darth Vader presided over both the 70s Star Wars posters.) He is looking to the left, wielding his big red lightsaber. Finn has his back to Renn, wielding his blue lightsaber to the right.

The whole poster is split into red and blue, the dark side and the light: a very striking motif that has not been used before. There are ranks of stormtroopers pointing in both directions. Could this possibly mean that there is a proper civil war, with the white-armoured fellows fighting on both sides? Curiously Rey is on the red side of the poster, her pointy stick at the same angle as Kylo's lightsaber. Could this signify that she will be tempted by, or go over to, the Dark Side? Or is there some other connection between them? Mind you, there are X-Wings in the "dark" section so it may just signify that the two lightsabers are lighting up the scene.

I like the X-Wings best. Whatever else goes wrong, the presence of those original space ships -- the real space ships -- will make me happy. I like the fact that we are looking at paintings, not stills. Painted X-Wings have a dynamism that models never quite manage.

One of the trailers seemed to have X-Wings skimming the surface of a big space ship. But most interestingly and not otherwise hinted at, in the background of this poster, large and threatening, is something which is quite clearly a Death Star.

These are curious. Obviously, I want to love them, because they evoke the spirit of 1977. I don't think I saw them at the time; I don't think "Coming to your Galaxy this summer" was ever used in the UK. There was a slight whimsy to the advert; redolent of 2000AD costing 20p "earth money". We aren't sure how to market this thing; it's sci-fi, definitely, but it's not a classic space movie. ("A story of a boy, a girl, and a universe" was tried in the original cinema adverts.) "A Long time ago in a galaxy far far away..." has some of the same archness to it.

Some people have said that "galaxy" is code for "cinema". Not only is Star Wars coming to your "galaxy", but it is the kind of film you would have seen in a "galaxy" far far away when your dad was a kid and there was a newsreel with every movie. In which case the Star Wars comics are curiously tautological. "Beyond the movie. Beyond the movie house."

It was a nostalgic way of promoting a film in 1977. Now, it is meta-nostalgia, nostalgic for the nostalgia of punk and jubilee. Not many people even have grandparents who remember seeing Flash Gordon at the cinema; a few of those who were there when the credits rolled on Star Wars already have grand-children.

Do these posters declare their fidelity to the '70s vision of Star Wars? Or are they trying to usurp it -- from now on, this will be the movie you think of when you hear the 20th Century Fox trumpet blast?

 No-one but us Star Wars fans will understand the joke.

Rey's  poster is brown. She is slightly freckled. Her hair blows about in the wind. She is coded as wild, vulnerable, but determined. It isn't clear what she is holding. (From the trailers, we know that it is a pointy stick.) She has been hurt by the world. Stoical: a friend of heroes, rather than a hero herself? Androgynous: on the basis of this poster I might have thought she was a boy.

We do not know her surname. "Rey Solo" is a plausible sounding name. If Jedi are celibate, then it is hard to see where we would get a Rey Skywalker from. Assuming that Han the Leia got together after Return of the Jedi, she could be Darth Vader's grand-daughter.

Finn's poster is black. Finn is unshaven and sweaty. He looks bemused rather than grim, as if he has fallen into a plot he doesn’t understand. The lightsaber blade is the only light in the picture. A blue blade, telling us that he is one of the good guys. A smooth blade, telling us that it was properly constructed. Perhaps it was given to him: perhaps it is Luke's lost weapon? Although he is a Stormtrooper, he is definitely not the clone of Jango Fette.

Are audiences sufficiently colour-blind that Finn could be Leia's son? Or is the whole point of the racial difference to make it clear that he has a different heritage? 

It is a well-known fact that there is no paper in the Star Wars universe. Less well know is the fact that there are no razor blades.

This poster isn’t about Han Solo. It is about his gun. I remember this gun. It is one of the few guns that appears consistently through the movie. Luke has a blaster (taken from a stormtrooper) but I can’t picture what it looked like. I can picture Han's gun. There was even a toy in the second or third wave of merchandising.

So Han in the new film will have the same gun as Han in the old film. Somewhere between a ray gun and a cowboy pistol.

This is Han from the original movies; the same guy, the same clothes, the same gun. But older. His face is unreadable. 

Leia is green and black. Everyone else's face is bisected by a weapon: she is surrounded by those see-through heads-up displays from Empire Strikes Back. A serious face, authoritative but with something hidden beneath it. Grim. There is none of the inventive glamour of the old films, and certainly no earmuffs. This woman has seen a lot and lost a lot.

The hardest poster to take: would I know this was the Princess if you had not told me? Leia was the single most important thing in Star Wars. I hope that this Leia will not be a relic, or a stuffed shirt.

Kylo Renn is red and black. This tells us the least. We can hardly see that we are looking at a face. The original sketches of Vader made the mask look almost like a gas-mask: this seems a throwback to that. In the days before Phantom Menace, it was possible to believe that Darth Maul would be some kind of replacement for Darth Vader; he was actually barely more than a cameo. Abrams says that Renn is not a Sith: he has gone to the Dark Side and not taken the title Darth. His lightsaber is wobbly, jagged. Presumably he has made it himself, without Jedi training, and made it badly.

The absence of Luke is the most interesting thing about the movie until we see it. Once the reason is revealed, it will be something everybody knows, and has always known.

Sunday, December 13, 2015


But the habit of various protestant sects of plastering the landscape with religious slogans about the Blood of the Lamb is a different matter. There is no question here of doctrinal difference: we agree with the doctrines they are advertising. What we disagree with is their taste. Well, let's go on disagreeing but don't let's judge. What doesn't suit us may suit possible converts of a different type.
                  C.S Lewis

Most people think of Thought for the Day as a religious homily plonked anachronistically in the middle of a current affairs program. But it's really much more like a panel game. Contestants are challenged to give a three minute speech explaining why two randomly selected concepts are, “in a funny way” (or "a very real sense") quite like each other. Without hesitation, deviation or repetition...

“And you know, the Great British Bake Off is very like the Eucharist, because…”

“It may seem odd to be burning Guy Fawkes on the Feast Day of St Joannicus, but in fact…”

I had been rather looking forward to writing a funny take-down of Rev. Prof. Steven Wilkinson’s contribution to the genre, which showed that in a funny way Jesus is quite like Luke Skywalker. But I was careless enough to listen to the piece before writing my critique, and it turned out to be disappointingly good. The reverend professor shows every sign of both liking and understanding the Star Wars movies and, more surprisingly, of liking and understanding God.

So, waiting for a new film to come out is a bit like the Christian season of advent: well, yes, in a funny way, it is. Studying the trailers for hints about the new movie is a bit like studying the scriptures for signs of the Messiah: yes, up to a point, it is. The films are about how something intangible like the Force is more powerful than the baddies' big machines; which is like saying that the spiritual is more important than the material. Yes, definitely. Rev. Prof. even manages to work in a twenty word defense of the prequels. They are making a deep point about “How evil can develop from an obscure trade dispute to take hold of political and military structures on the largest scale. And how easy it is to be tempted and seduced by power even when trying to battle for the good.” Well, yes. Yes they are.

I particularly respect the fact that he doesn’t press his text too hard. Star Wars is not a Christian allegory. It was a good joke for Alec Guinness to reply "And also with you" to a fan who had said “May the Force be with you” precisely because blockbuster movies are, in a funny way, quite unlike the liturgy.

So. Having no excuse to talk about Thought for the Day, I had better talk about something else.

There is a long-standing tradition that the Church of England’s Christmas advertising campaign should create some sort of stir or controversy. There was the stupid “call center in heaven” one; the impenetrable “bad hair day” one and the incendiary “fetus Jesus” one. I doubt if anyone is ever persuaded to go to church by this kind of thing. “Short, interesting talk about the Nativity Story by someone you’ve vaguely heard of. Free mince pies” would do far better. 

This year, their holinesses thought it would be a wheeze to make a cinema advert and pay for it to be shown directly before The Force Awakens. The advert consists of lots of different kinds of people saying the Lord’s Prayer in lots of different contexts, ending with the message “Prayer is for everyone”. In a funny way, this is a lot like a film about a happy family mealtime which happens to mention that Mum used a particular stock cube to make the gravy; or showing lots of English pubs full of happy yokels, and just happening to mention what brand of ale they are all drinking. Present people with a lot of positive images of churches — cute school children, chirpy black people, wedding days, an evangelical baptism, remembering a loved one in a churchyard — and they’ll come out feeling well-disposed towards God, Church and Oxo cubes. Sell the sizzle, not the sausage. I see nothing wrong with the Church using the expertise of an advertising agency in this way; in the same way I see nothing wrong with a Vicar asking a public speaking expert how to put more zing into his sermons. 

It turned out – and you wonder why no-one checked this out in advance  – that the advert can't be shown because the UK cinema chains have a general policy against religious and political advertising. A general policy against all religious and political advertising. Which is to say, they do not accept advertisements from any religious group or political party. Put another way, that means that whichever church or political party had asked to place an advert in the cinemas, it would have been turned down.

Seems like quite a sensible rule to me. Religion and politics are out of place in entertainment venues. I wouldn't be quite comfortable with a Hindu prayer, because I wouldn't quite know what I was supposed to do. (Stand up? Bow my head? Cross myself?) I'd be even more uncomfortable if someone said a Christian prayer and I bowed my head but other people talked through it or heckled. Not "get out my gun and start shooting people" uncomfortable. Just "shuffle a bit and spill my popcorn" uncomfortable. Miss Manners still advises us to keep off sex, religion and politics in casual conversation, because people hold strong views abut them and you don't want people getting cross and heated at your dinner party.

Some of you may remember how, in 1997, Birmingham Council promoted a series of municipal events between November and January under the general brand-name Winterval. And some of you may remember how the extreme right invented a lie that Birmingham Council had banned Christmas and replaced it with a politically correct festival of their own invention. However many times the true story is told; and however many times you produce the original Winterval poster, with the Word “Christmas” and a Christmas tree prominently displayed, the story still circulates. Everybody knows that councils have banned Christmas so as not to offend the Islams. Poor Colin Baker was circulating the story only this week.

The story of how the Church of England had foolishly wasted its money on an advert which it could never show has transmogrified into a new myth. According to the myth, the issue wasn't that cinema chains had a policy against religious or political adverts. It wasn't that they were enforcing their policies inflexibly, or even that they'd given the Church of England the impression that they might be prepared to relax the rules and then changed their minds. The myth says that this particular advert has been singled out for prohibition, because the Lord’s Prayer is too offensive and shocking for movie audiences. Pundits queued up to condemn the fictitious ban. Boris said that the prayer shouldn’t be banned because it was very old and informed our whole culture. [*] Steven Fry said that it was “unfair” to treat the Church of England the same as everyone else. Richard Dawkins sneered that if anybody was offended by the prayer they deserved to be offended. Giles Fraser did one of his somersaults: he pretended that he thought that cinemas had said that the Lord's Prayer itself was upsetting and offensive, and then affected incredulity that anyone could find a prayer more shocking than an 18 rated movie.

Former Archbishop Rowan Williams' column in the London Evening Standard went beyond parody. He claimed that the pretend ban was part of a plot by “cloth headed persons” to avoid the terrible threat represented by mentioning the Christian origins of Christmas”. These cloth-heads were trying to “protect” the “delicate and sensitive public” from this “appalling truth”. Never mind that there are so many school Nativity plays that shops report an annual tea-towel shortage. Never mind the neon baby Jesuses spinning above every German Christmas market. Never mind rampaging mobs of carol singers and Carols From Kings live on the BBC. Or the Head of State's religious message to the nation on  Christmas day. The rejection of this one advert amounts to a general ban on mentioning Jesus in December. [**]

This kind of thing is pathetic when it’s Colin Baker moaning about “political correctness gone festive” in his local paper. When it’s an educated college lecturer writing in a national paper, it’s plain dishonest. He knows that it’s a stretch to talk about the Christian origins of Christmas. Some bits, like the nativity play, are clearly Christian; some bits, like Christmas trees, are pretty obviously pagan; some bits, like Turkish bishops flying through the air on luminous reindeer, are a bit of both. It’s even more of a stretch to say that we owe the whole idea of peace and goodwill to the story of the shepherd and the angels.

Williams is a clever man and a scholar. He knows perfectly well that the angels did not say “peace on earth and goodwill towards men”. What they said was “on earth peace to men on whom God’s favour rests” or “peace to those with whom God is pleased”. But he chooses to base his whole argument around the folk version which everyone knows. Then again, he claims that the Christmas story is “the story of a human life in which unlimited generosity and mercy were at work” and that that life is “a vision of what humans might be”, which is almost the exact opposite of what mainstream Christians believe.

I don’t, in fact, think that Rowan Williams is a pelagian. I think he believes as the Church believes, that Christmas is about God coming to earth in human form. I think he’s offering up a heresy because he thinks that his readers would recoil from the orthodoxy. I think he is, to coin a phrase, trying to protect his readers from the terrible threat of knowing the appalling truth of what Christmas is all about.

He's also weird on the actual Lord's Prayer. There is a story in the Bible about what happened when Jesus’ followers asked him how they ought to pray. Jesus tells them, in essence, to keep it simple. Don’t say long complicated prayers. Don’t pray in market places or cinemas where people can see you. Just ask God for what you need. And he gives an example. In the New International Version of the Bible it runs to some 30 words.

Hallowed be your name.

Your Kingdom come.

Give us each day our daily bread.

Forgive us our sins (for we also forgive everyone who sins against us)

And lead us not into temptation.

But this isn't complicated enough for the ex-bishop. He says that the prayer is important because it“contains the hope that there will be food and well-being for all”. Does it? I think it contains a very simple request that we should have what we need-- and a little bit more, so we don’t have to worry.

He says the prayer tells us “that we may learn not to think all the time in terms of what is owed to us but of what we might do to release others from guilt and debt”. Does it? I think it contains a very simple request to God to forgive us when we do bad things, and a promise that in return we’ll forgive other people when they do bad things to us.

The Lord's Prayer is, he concludes "a philosophy shaped by the conviction that we are most human when least obsessed with defending and promoting our self-interest and when recognizing our shared human needs.” No: no it really isn't.

It's clear enough what's going on here. Williams is trying to claim that the Lord's Prayer contains a set of ideas and an ideology that everyone can sign up to, whether or not they believe in God. Because he thinks that his readers will be shocked, embarrassed and offended if he tells them what he really believes: that we can all address God as "Father" and ask him for stuff we need.

Williams concedes that religion has done bad things, but says “We tend to forget that much the same is true of politics, capitalism, socialism, science, alcohol, sex and football. None of these seems to be a rival candidate for being excluded from the public eye.” Yes they are. Politics, capitalism, socialism and indeed sex are all on the list of things you can't advertise in cinemas. Liquor adverts are okay at the movies; but they are banned from the TV. This does not mean that the television companies have a "whiskey ban" or a "Jack Daniels ban": there's just a general policy of not accepting paid adverts for alcohol. And you never hear Jack Daniels moaning about the exclusion of whiskey from the public eye. And Jack Daniels doesn’t even get to run schools, or have 26 guaranteed seats in the House of Lords, or a ring-fenced three minute slot on the Today Programme.

Williams thinks we need religious advertising in cinemas to counterbalance the adverts and movies which promote a materialistic message. Everything else in the cinema is an advert for Mammon, so we need adverts for God as well. (He doesn’t say if he also thinks that all-you-can-eat buffets ought to carry adverts promoting fasting, or Spearmint Rhino should have stern posters warning you that if you play with it too much it will drop off.) He goes so far as to claim that when he visits the cinema he “has to sit through an assortment of adverts actively and aggressively promoting a set of values and myths that I find mostly incomprehensible or alien.”

Really? The Archbishop doesn’t understand why anyone would want pretty clothes, a smart motor car, delicious food, a big TV and possibly a bottle of posh whiskey? I get that he thinks we should suppress our desire for those things and aim at a simpler life, and maybe he’s so holy that he isn’t tempted by that stuff at all; but is he really saying he finds it weird that some people prefer the good life over the hair shirt?

He also claims that modern films are very expensive and promote myths about power. Well, some do, some don’t. There are big violent films like James Bond and little sweet ones like the Lady in the Van. You even get religious films once in a while. I watched the Hunger Games trilogy right through and was impressed by how moral (and morally complex) it was.

The Vicar/Professor on the wireless has it much more right than the Druid/Bishop in the paper. Star Wars isn’t about incomprehensible, alien values. In a funny way, and a very real sense, it’s sort of kind of vaguely a bit Christian. Whether there’s an embarrassing prayer video before it or not.

[*] What do you mean, we, kemo sabe?

[**] The fact that a particular student counselor was told not to express personal opinions to clients is also said to be evidence that some universities think that students should be protected from opinions of any kind. But he must know that non-directive counseling is a fairly standard way of helping people think through their problems?

Thursday, December 10, 2015


Darth Vader is standing on the bridge of a Star Destroyer, looking out into space. 

Boba Fett enters from behind. “I lost him” he says.

"This is most disappointing" replies Vader.

One of the great things about Darth Vader is that, while he is in some ways the personification of anger, he always speaks in calm understatements: "I find your lack of faith disturbing"; "The Emperor is not as forgiving as I am"; "No. I am your father." Not everyone writing Darth Vader after the fact gets this right.  

Vader has hired Fett to track down the boy who destroyed the Death Star. He thinks he encountered the same boy, armed with an oddly familiar lightsaber, on Cymoon 1. Fett has traced Luke to Tatooine, where Luke is trying to retrieve Jedi relics from Ben’s old home. Blinded by a flash grenade, Luke trusts to the Force (doubling all his attributes for one round) and manages to deflect Fett’s blaster fire with his lightsaber. 

Vader asks if Boba Fett got anything at all of value. “Just his name” he replies. “Skywalker.” 

This time, Vader doesn't speak at all. He just clenches his fists, and the Star Destroyer’s windows shatter. You can more or less imagine the heavy breathing sound effect and the Imperial March playing in the background.

Marvel's current Star Wars sub-imprint has a nice line in parallel plotting and intertwining narratives. Vader's discovery of Luke Skywalker identity occurs in issue #6 of Jason Aaron's Star Wars series; but the same scene is shown in #6 of Kieron Gillen's Darth Vader title. Gillen's version is somewhat decompressed: we are much more inside Vader's head. Between Boba's words and Vader's reaction are inter-cut a series of flashbacks — Amidala telling Anakin she is pregnant; the Emperor telling Vader that she is dead; her funeral; the Death Star Trench; Vader fighting Luke on Cymoon. A New Hope, Revenge of the Sith, and earlier issues of this comic are all equally canon, equally part of Darth Vader’s memories. It seems to fit together. Beneath the mask, Darth Vader is still Anakin Skywalker, with Anakin Skywalker's memories and Anakin Skywalker's feelings.

Ben wasn't even telling the truth when he said that Anakin Skywalker no longer existed.

In Kieron Gillen's version, he looks out through shattered glass. “I have a son. He will be mine. It will all be mine.” This doesn't work quite as well as "This is most disappointing". It's too ranty; too much the kind of thing a Marvel Comics Supervillain would say. ("Ha-ha. This is merely a temporary set-back. Soon the world will hear from me again.") In one of the Extended Universe novels, possibly Shadows of the Empire, Vader is seen using the Dark Side of the Force to completely heal his body so he can survive without the black armour. But he doesn't quite have the strength to do so; his love for Luke means he hasn't fully given himself over to the Dark Side. This struck me as pure Doctor Doom and not at all Darth Vader.

In A New Hope, Vader refers to Luke merely as "this one" -- an anonymous pilot who is somehow strong in the Force. By the beginning of Empire Strikes Back he is "obsessed with finding young Skywalker". We have all asked the question "what did the Dark Lord know, and when did the Dark Lord know it?" Aaron and Gillen provide an answer. Vader was completely unaware of Luke at the time of A New Hope (he could not sense his presence and it never occurred to him that anyone would hide his son on his own planet); he guessed the X-Wing pilot was someone important; he only found out what had happened when the bounty hunter discovered the pilot's name. It seems that although Uncle Owen hated the memory of Luke's father and Obi-Wan knew that secrecy was vital it never occurred to either of them to raise the orphan as Luke Lars.

There had to be one particular moment when Vader found out; the equivalent of Luke's moment on the bridge on Bespin. What we read in these two comic-books is exactly what we would have imagined that moment to be; exactly what we would like to have happened in a movie. It feels right.

And of course they made it up. Our of their heads.

It is possible for a scene, or a story, to be so well-imagined that that this doesn't matter. For a scene to achieve instant canonicity, not because a man with a mouse says so, but because we feel it can stand alongside Obi-Wan and Vader's duel, or Luke looking out at the binary sunset, or any other iconic moment. It's that level of iconic canonicity that The Force Awakens has to achieve if it is going to justify its existence.

Some texts force us to have faith in them by sheer force of imagination.

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