Tuesday, March 24, 2015


I sometimes wonder if cultural historians have paid enough attention to breakfast cereal. [1]

We have already talked about Kellogs Pep which sponsored the Superman Radio Show about 30 years before I was born. There was nothing especially super about them: so far as I can tell, they were just fortified bran flakes. And that's why they needed a strange visitor from the planet Krypton and a wrist-mounted sun-dial to make them seem exciting. All breakfast cereal is exactly the same so it's a blank slate on which advertising men can inscribe anything they feel like inscribing. This box of toasted rice will make ladies thin, but that identical box of toasted rice will make young men leap over fences. And because it’s all the same, Mum (it is, after all, she who buys the groceries) can afford to delegate the decision about whether to have toasted rice or frosted toasted rice or chocolate frosted toasted rice to her offspring. So the advertising people shamelessly direct their patter at children, or rather KIDS. We were all brought up to believe that HEY KIDS rice and corn going soggy in milk is FUN and GOOD FOR YOU and also the HIGHLIGHT OF YOUR DAY. And being a WEETABIX PERSON as opposed to a FROSTIES PERSON defined you tribally. Possibly. 

It also comes in big flat boxes. There is a space to draw a Tiger or three little Elves on a packet of cornflakes. There really isn't on a tube of toothpaste. 

There were Magic Roundabout figurines in Ricicles (which were, it will be remembered, twicicles as nicicles). I remember getting a box with NO GIFT IN IT and writing to Kellogs and receiving a letter of apology and THREE figures to make it up to me. But not the Dougal figure I needed to finish the set. I was three years old. It taught me an important lesson about life.

There were cut out "code wheels" and badges on the backs of Shreddies packets that initiated you as a member of a Tom and Jerry fan club. Do they still make Shreddies? It is the only one I would want to eat. Mini ("spoon sized") Shredded Wheat came in the same livery, and they were disgusting. 

There were indescribable little plastic animals with scissor action middles called "Stretch O Pets" in Rice Krispies, which were the same as Ricicles only without the sugar or the elves. 

Wetabix did picture cards. Everyone remembers the two sets of Doctor Who cards, but there were also Robin Hood cards and Superman cards and Star Trek cards. 

And the Honey Monster, obviously. 

Grandad must had more conservative tastes in breakfast than us; because he sometimes collected the gifts that came in plain old common or garden Kellogs Cornflakes and presented them to me. There was a set of circus animals and a set of self assembly fair ground rides that never worked and I assume a set of vintage cars. There was always a set of vintage cars. 

One Saturday afternoon he presented me with two cardboard masks, cut from the back of the  box itself. One represented An Android. (Androids look like bald Boris Karloffs, apparently.) The other represented a comically sinister figure with huge ears. His name was Mr Spock From Star Trek. I would have been six.

There was a moment in my life when I first discovered who Spider-Man was. (Feb 1973: "The Menace of Mysterio.") There was a moment when I first heard the name "Luke Skywalker". (On page 3 or 4 of the Marvel Comics Treasury Edition.) We can divide the pre-Dungeons & Dragons Andrew from the post-Dungeons & Dragons Andrew with a fair degree of historical confidence. But there never was a point in my life when I didn’t know who Mr Spock was. I can hazard a guess as to when I first watched Star Trek: the BBC showed a series of daily repeats over the Christmas holidays in 1974; which was also the year the decanonized cartoon series occurred. But I also had one of those Viewmaster stereoscopic slide viewers (which I thought was the most fantastic toy ever – a rare example of a 3D effect that actually works) and that came with a Star Trek disc: "The Omega Glory" retold in 21 frames. I remember them going over to the other ship and finding the crew reduced to dust in their uniforms. It frightened me and unnerved me in a way that Doctor Who monsters didn't. And I remember sitting on the coach to school camp reading one of the James Blish adaptations. And when I was very small indeed I had a set of light blue PJs with a design featuring pictures of the Enterprise. I think that was also ordered off the back of a Cornflakes packet. You could also order a torch in the shape of a phaser but I never had one of those because guns are not toys.   

When did you first know about Mr Spock? You might as well ask "When did you first know about Father Christmas?" or "When did you first know about Jesus."

If you never watched Star Trek, then Spock represent the idea of aliens—the thing you fall back on if you want to show that sci-fi is silly but don't want to use little green men with antennae sticking out of their heads. When people wanted to take the piss out of ludicrous Tory wannabe John Redwood, they called him Spock. (His campaign manager said that he understood that Dr Spock said "Live a long time and be prosperous" which was a pretty could summation of Conservative Party values, but he couldn't do the salute.) Rowan Atkinson's alien is not sending up Spock but he is, I think, riffing on an idea of aliens that wouldn't have existed without him. So, obviously, was Mork From Ork. The BBC made a big deal out of Trek, putting it in prime time shot right after the Moon landings, but everyone else clearly thought that space men with funny ears were the kind of things that belonged on the backs of cereal packets. Grown ups don't wear Star Trek masks on. (At least, I assume they don't. Maybe it was different in the 70s. The Beatles had just broken up and the Internet hadn’t been invented.) 

Notice how big and exaggerated Spock’s ears are in the drawing. They were never like that on TV. Nimoy always claimed that Special Effects wanted them to be huge and exaggerated and reptilian and the unobtrusive prosthetic ones were a last minute alternative cooked up between him and Make Up. There was an advertisement which imagined the ears drooping, in order to demonstrate that a particular brand of lager refreshed the parts that other brands of lager failed to refresh. They didn’t get Nimoy’s permission; he was reportedly not amused when he came to England claiming that he was Not Spock and discovering that his face was plastered on every billboard in the country. I think the advertising standards people stomped on the adverts in the end; forced them to become cleverer and sillier but to remove any suggestion that consuming alcohol could make floppy parts of your body stand up straight. 

I once said that there are Star Trek people and there are Doctor Who people, in the way that there are cat people and dog people. It has since been pointed out to me that by no means all dog owners spend their time luring cats into cages and turning them into fur coats and sausages; and that Aunty Jemima doted equally on her poodle and her Siamese. I think that my view still sounds: Doctor Who is silly and Star Trek is sensible; Star Trek is slick (for it’s time) and Doctor Who is, er, charmingly amateurish (ever for it’s time). Star Trek is American and Doctor Who is British. (One of the characteristic things about being British is not going on and on about it, of course. You couldn’t imagine Doctor Who waxing lyrical about Magna Carter in the way that Kirk does about the Constitution.) Star Trek episodes are called How Sharper Than A Serpents Tooth and For The World Is Hollow And I Have Touched The Sky; Doctor Who episodes are called Invasion of the Dinosaurs.

I am a Doctor Who person, not a Star Trek person. But I watched Star Trek. Everyone watched Star Trek. My Mum watched Star Trek. (She correctly spotted that it was basically just a cowboy story. "Trek" is a vary cowboys and Indians kind of word. As everyone knows, it was going to be called Wagon Train To The Stars.)

There has always been Star Trek. This is why the abomination offended us so much. Abrams stole Star Trek from us and pasted on a thing which had nothing to do with Star Trek, and this means that for ten years at least, there won't be Star Trek any more. (But he is totally going to get Star Wars right, okay?) People become vehement about this stuff, as they do about all religions, but it seems to me that while more than one point of view might exist about whether or not Voyager and Enterprise were good Star Trek or bad Star Trek, they were unquestionably Star Trek.

Proper serious science fiction fans don't quite approve of Star Trek. One reason is that it was (like most cowboy stories) almost always a morality play and the solution to the moral dilemma almost always involved paying attention to both Dr McCoy and Mr Spock -- finding some kind of balance between Heart and Head. If it were proper science fiction then Spock (representing brains and intellect and science and, well, logic) would always be right and McCoy (representing emotion and feeling and intuition) would be chucked out of the nearest airlock. I'm not even sure that proper serious SF ought to admit the idea of morality in the first place. If you can't solve the problem with logic and express the answer to three significant figures then it was a silly question.

On the other hand, Asimov rather approved of it.

The main reason serious science fiction fans didn't like Star Trek was that Star Trek came to be what people who weren't really science fiction fans thought science fiction was like. It was never true that Space: 1999 and Blakes 7 were copying Trek or trying to do Trek all over again: it's just that they were "science fiction" and that’s what science fiction had become. On TV, at any rate. Three or four characters on a "bridge", with a big TV screen, travelling to a new planet each week and trying to figure out what's going on down there. And to be honest, and once all the sectarian strife calms down, that’s closer to science fiction than your Flash Gordons and your Buck Rogerses and even your Doctor Whos. It was at least to some extent most of the time quite often about ideas.

And it did have a scientist in it. 

If Star Trek was science fiction, Spock was science. Spock was logic. Spock was intelligence. Spock was sometimes incredibly irritating, but Spock was smart and superior and confident very much in the way a clever person ought to be. Particularly when surrounded by people far below our own intellectual level, as most of us feel we are. I wasn't the only kid to drive his parents crazy by using big words where a small one would have done perfectly well and trying to be all calm and condescending and being told that, no, as a matter of fact, having tea half an hour early tonight couldn’t be described as "illogical".

Spock the supporting character; Spock the science officer; Spock with his eye in a microscope: he was more fun than Spock the Alien, Spock the Mystic, Spock the Agonized Sex Symbol, Spock Messiah, of all the souls I have met in my travels his was the most (sob) human. 

If you took Hardy out of Laurel and Hardy you wouldn’t even have Laurel any more. Shatner and Nimoy were a double act. Nimoy is in the pilot episode / flashback where Shatner is still being played by an unrecognisable bit-part actor called Pike, but he’s not Spock, only Nimoy in a jumper. It was only when you put the two of them together, Shatner over acting, Nimoy rather under-doing it, that the sparks started to fly.

-- It has to do with...biology.

-- Biology as in reproduction? Dammit, Spock, that’s nothing to be embarrassed about. It happens to the birds and the bees...

-- The birds and the bees, Captain, are not Vulcans. If any creature were as proudly logical as us and then had their logic ripped from them....

Spock has always been there, is what I’m trying to say. And now he isn’t any more. 

(1) Yes, they have.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015


Star Wars: Rebels 
Spark of Rebellion

Clone Wars always felt like an apology for the Prequels. It's a cartoon, but it's a cartoon in a cinematic style. Jedi swing their lightsabers against a background of galactic diplomancy and politics. Everyone knows what is going to happen to Anakin in the next movie; and everyone knows that it can't happen until then; so we mercifully don't have to worry about story arcs. We can just have adventures. The worst episodes feel like RPG cut scenes or episodes of Thundercats. But the best ones make me exclaim "Now, that's how the prequels should have been done."

There were one or two episodes of the Star Trek animated series that made me say "I wish that had been a real episode, done with actors and special effects." Which is a different way of saying that it was a failure as a cartoon.

Now, Star Wars: Rebels. Star Wars: Rebels is a cartoon that knows it's a cartoon. 

About 20 minutes into the pilot, Ezra the street-smart artful-dodger uses his lock picking powers to get into the Kanan's cabin. Kanan is the leader of the group of rebels who Ezra has temporarily fallen in with. We're in the sort of world where stealing stuff — stealing stuff from friends — shows that you have an endearing disregard for authority, not that you are an ungrateful little toad. He finds a secret compartment under the bed, and takes out what appears to be a silver puzzle box. The audience is meant to know that it is a Holocron — a rare Jedi artifact. It is an interesting fact about the transition of Star Wars from movie to mythos to franchise that something which was only referenced in computer games and derivative novels can still be regarded as something which "everybody" knows about. But it's definitely something Really Important because the Binary Sunset leitmotif is playing in the background. The episode has been playing — not very subtly — with the fact that Ezra presents as a cool street-rat but is actually just an innocent kid. His eyes spend a lot of time literally widening; his jaw spends a lot of time literally dropping. He says "wow!" and "cool!" a lot, which is a marked improvement over "yippee". So while he is still trying to be cynical and worldly about the holocron ("it might be worth something") he discovers that Kanan also has a LIGHTSABER and all pretense drops. "Wow, cool!" 

If lightsabers were real weapons and Ezra was a real boy, then finding one in his host's bedroom would either be like finding a loaded kalashnikov, or else like finding a bona fide holy relic, the Grail or a fragment of the True Cross. But they aren't and he isn't. He reacts to the lightsaber, not as person of a particular age in a particular possible world, but as a Star Wars fan. I said last time that when Obi-Wan hands Luke the lightsaber, we all want to reach out and grab it — not only the lightsaber, but that moment. And that's what Ezra is quite clearly doing: not handling a weapon or an artefact, but playing with the best toy in the universe. Wow. Cool. (Yippee.) But just as he takes up a proper Jedi pose, "reality" intervenes. The R2 Unit has snitched on him. But Kanan is not some Wise Old Man archetype, vaguely representing The Name of the Father in Campbellian terms. He's more like your actual Dad. "Careful, you'll have your arm off.". Kanan doesn't put the lightsaber back in the box, but hangs it on his belt. This is the first time that we know that Kanan is a Jedi Knight. (Not that it's a huge surprise or anything.) Ezra reverts to his "streetwise" persono, jiggling the holocron in his hand as if to say "fooled you!". But Kanan murmurs "Now we will see..." under his breath. Aha. It's a test. 

This kind of thing either appeals to you or it doesn't. There are fans who are biting their hands in disgust: they have taken our sacred trilogy and turned it into a something for kids. It's the most blatant kind of fan-boy wish-fulfillment. By the end of the first episode, Ezra has used his latent force powers to open the Holcron, listen to secret message from Ewan McGreggor, and sign on has Kanan's padawan. Dad says you only get to play with a lightsaber if you take it seriously. But you do get to play with it.

The Phantom Menace had Anakin: but even if you could swallow the premise of a nine year old racing driver and fighter pilot who says "yippee" a lot, you still spend most of the film saying "No way does that little munchkin grow up to be Darth Vader". The Clone Wars had Ahsoka ("Snips"). But she's already a Jedi, and even though she starts out being even more reckless and irresponsible than Anakin, Clone Wars takes itself Seriously. Before long she is a sensible member of the team, teaching homesteaders to fight bandits on a weekly basis. And before any of that, there was the stroppy, sulky, farm kid. ("It's just not fair!") Even without the Toshi station sequence (chopped out of Star Wars at the very, very last moment) it's clear that Luke's job was to be a teenaged rebel who eventually acquires a cause. Which is why Star Wars succeeds and the other movies, to a greater or lessor extent, fail. They don't have an Everyman figure who is looking out at the sunset on our behalf, wishing he could get off this rock. That is why the Binary Sun theme is sometimes referred to as the Romantic Longing theme, at any rate by me..

Anakin was three years too young. Star Wars: Rebels has the sense to make it's viewpoint character a couple of years older than the target audience -- an inappropriate kid with a lightsaber, no parents, and a vein full of midichlorians. The rest of the cast are just about as generic as they could be — the sort of people you'd expect to meet in any Star Wars RPG or computer game. The strong, cynical one. The spunky, agile one. The sensible one. The Jedi one. (They are twists on Star Wars archetypes, but only in the most trivial way. Zeb is basically Han and Chewie rolled into one. Kanan is actually described by the writers as a Cowboy Jedi. Sabine is a girl who wearing Boba Fett bounty hunter armour, only she's painted flowers on it.) But this works in it's favour. If we're seeing the Star Wars universe from Ezra's point of view (wide eyes, jaw drop, wow!) we don't want any complicated dark twists. We want it to look like we expect the Star Wars universe to look. 

Which it does. I am sure the Clone Wars artists worked real hard to give Clone Wars the look and feel of the prequels. But no-one is ever going to look at an episode of Clone Wars and say "Oh wow (wide eyes, jaw drops) that spaceship which appeared for a few seconds half way through Attack of the Clones." No-one has ever loved the prequels like some of us love A New Hope. (No-one has ever loved anything like some of us love A New Hope.) The first thing we see in Rebels is a Star Destroyer. The second thing we see is a group of TIE Fighters whooshing through the sky — the first TIE Fighters we've seen in 30 years, unless you count computer games. And then we pan down into a street, that isn't Mos Eisley, but very well could be, with a Greedo-alien and one of the little dwarf people from Cloud City (okay, if you insist, a Rodian and an Ugnaught) going about their business. And within five minutes stormtroopers on speeder bikes are chasing rebels round an alien market. 

"But Andrew: a quite good kids cartoon doesn't become a major work of art just because it has stormtroopers in it."

No. No; it doesn't. And the actual story is a bit of fluff about rescuing wookie slaves; and wookie fur really doesn't work in this kind of texture based animation; and the spice mines of Kessel, which we've been building up to for forty years turns out to be a bit nothing. But, I mean: stormtroopers. Not characters which cleverly allude to stormtroopers, or new improved stormtroopers, but actual stormtroopers, with no sense of commentary, re-invention or ironical detatchment, chasing good guys down corridors which look suspiciously like the corridors of the Death Star because that's what stormtroopers do.

At a story-internal level, characters like Anakin and Ezra don't work. Ezra has been cast in the wrong movie. It is hard to imagine him in Clone Wars. Anakin would punch him. He gets away with things that no-one inexperienced street thief should be able to get away with, even in a fairy tale universe. His hair isn't Star Wars hair; it's manga hair. He's not a kid. He's specifically a cartoon kid. And he knows it. "I'm in SPACE!!!....and I'm gonna die." Yippee. 

Star Wars began, as everyone knows, with a twelve second tracking shot of a huge spaceship — what we would now call a Star Destroyer — passing over the audience's heads. Star Wars: Rebels begins with a close up reaction shot as a Star Destroyer passes over Ezra's head. Which is to say: Star Wars begins with us looking up at a Star Destroyer and collectively saying "wow!". Star Wars: Rebels begins with us looking at a cartoon kid looking up at a Star Destroyer and saying "wow!" 

And I am quite sure that the writers and artists knew exactly what they were doing. The cartoon kid is Everyfan. He's done what we wished we could do. He really is "on the inside". He really does get to play with all the cool toys. But he knows it's a movie. He's only playing. It's fun. 

That's a really cool present for all of us incredibly serious old fans. Whether it will mean anything to the actual kids remains to be seen. 

Friday, February 27, 2015

Diabolical Liberty

"The fact that devils are predominantly comic figures in the modern imagination will help you. If any faint suspicion of your existence begins to arise in his mind, suggest to a picture of something in red tights and and persuade him that since he cannot believe in that (it is an old text book method of confusing them) he cannot believe in you." 
The Screwtape Letters

The Church of England has removed Satan from the Prayer Book. They've finally given up on the dark medieval version of Christianity, in which people are all totally depraved and need to repent and replaced it with a shiny upbeat New Age version in which everyone is basically good.

This was exclusively reported in all British newspapers last week it is. It almost entirely untrue.

A lot of people apparently believe that the prayer book today is exactly the same as it was when they last attended church, in 1950, and that childhood prayer book was exactly the same as the one which Henry VIII invented in 1556. (They also believe that Radio 4 is exactly the same as the old Home Service, and run a news item about how D.C Thompson is going to introduce a new, politically correct version of Dennis the Menace every 5 years, without fail.) The Daily Mail charmingly suggested that the rite of Baptism hadn't changed in 400 years: the Church of England kindly pointed out that it had been revised 3 times in the last 40 years alone.

When new things come in, it by no means follows that old things have been ditched, scrapped, abolished or banned. Clergy persons who wish to continue to use the 1662 Book of Common Prayer are still perfectly entitled to do so. Most churches now use a book called Common Worship which replaced The Alternative Service Book in 2000. What has happened this week is not the burning of the Book of Common Prayer or the casting out of Satan from Common Worship. It's the publication of a simplified version of the Christening service which some clergy might want to use on some occasions.

It is perfectly true that this alternative alternative version of the Christening service does not mention Satan or the Devil by name. But Gilesfraseriswrong (all one word) to say that this is because the church is no longer worried about evil. Itsmorecomplicatedthanthat. 

The Book of Common Prayer (1662) asked people being baptised to renounce the Big Three - the World, the Flesh and the Devil. It added a few choice words about each of them. 

I demand therefore, dost thou, in the name of this Child, renounce the devil and all his works, the vain pomp and glory of the world, with all covetous desires of the same, and the carnal desires of the flesh, so that thou wilt not follow, nor be led by them?

The older I get the more I feel that if you are going to have a liturgy, this is what it needs to sound like: ceremonial, dramatic, one twist of the dial away from spoken English. I understand that some people are freaked out by "thou" forms, in the same way that some people switch off if a film is in black and white or has subtitles, but you could keep a lot of the sonorousness while fixing the archaic grammar. "I ask you therefore, do you, in the name of this child...." In Olde English "you" stands in for vous and "thou" stands for tu. "Thou art my friend. You are my king." Someone decided, for good and adequate theological reasons, that we ought to be on familiar terms with God, and everyone ever since has been hopelessly confused.

It was actually the 1980 Alternative Service Book that took Satan out of the Christening service. 

Therefore I ask these questions: 
Do you turn to Christ? 
Do you repent of your sins? 
Do you renounce evil?

I think I understand why "the world", "the flesh" and "the devil" are three different things that you need to disown: I am not fully sure that I understand the difference between "sins" and "evil" (or, indeed, if repenting and renouncing are different or the same) and I do wonder if the ASB means by "sins" the same thing the Christian Union meant by "sin". But still, this can hardly be said to be a watered down, hippy version of Christianity.

Twenty years later, Common Worship reinstated the Devil:

Therefore I ask: 
Do you reject the devil and all rebellion against God? 
Do you renounce the deceit and corruption of evil? 
Do you repent of the sins that separate us from God and neighbour? 
Do you turn to Christ as Saviour. 
Do you submit to Christ as Lord? 
Do you come to Christ, the way, the truth and the life?

This seems a lot to ask of a baby. He has to reject and/or renounce the Devil and Evil and he doesn't merely have to "turn to" Christ, but also "submit to him" and "come to him". Again, I don't really understand what the religious reason is for making "rebellion against God" and "evil" two different things, and quite what the difference is between turning, submitting and coming. The over all effect is to make the whole thing seem so amazingly difficult and pious that casual church-users who just want the spog Christened as a matter of good form will run a mile. Which I suspect is the point.

And that's the big question, isn't it? People who hardly ever come to church and aren't quite sure what "carnal desire" means may still think "Christenings" are important. At worst, it's a good excuse for some pretty photos and a party; at best, it's a way of marking the arrival of a baby and showing that you are taking family life seriously. What's the Vicar to do? Does he say "I don't care if you don't believe in anything; I'm just delighted that you want to not believe in it in my Church?" That's rather cheapening one of the Sacraments. Or does he say "This is a holy rite: I would no more allow a non-believer to become a Godfather than I would allow a communist to run the Conservative Women's sewing circle." That's not exactly presenting his church as a welcoming kind of place, and may not even be legal. Or does he take some middle position -- letting anyone who wants to come to the Christening service, and then haranging them with a fire and brimstone sermon and shaming them into coming to the Alpha Course? The religious wing of the Church of England have even suggested having a separate "thanking God for the birth of a new baby" service and reserving the sacrament of baptism for people who take it properly seriously.

This new "experimental" version in "accessible language" seems to be going for a perfectly sensible compromise. No making windows into men's souls; anyone who wants a baptismal service can have one; but present the service in very clear language, with as little theological jargon as possible, so everyone is quite clear that what they are taking part in is a religious ceremony. It includes a few words the Vicar might like to say at the end of the service, the point of which it would be very hard to miss: "Bringing up a child as a Christian has its challenges. They will need to learn the story of Christ‟s birth, death and resurrection, the pattern of his loving life, and the teaching that he gave....Being a Christian involves going to church, and more..."

I wonder if that's really why the Common Sense Brigade gets upset about prayer book revision? As long as the liturgy is in archaic, elevated language, it is fairly easy to treat it as a magic: a form of words which the Priest is reciting, which he believes in and which may therefore give you or your baby good ju-ju. This is particularly good if you see religion as an adopted ethnicity -- a spiritual vaccination to ensure that you stay properly English and don't catch Foreign off the Islams. Comprehensible, modern words quite literally break the spell. Someone who believes that Christianity Makes You English might well prickle at a service which says that Christians ought to go to church and Godparents ought to tell children the stories of Jesus. What the hell right does some vicar have to tell me to believe in all that mumbo jumbo? I'll believe in whatever mumbo jumbo I want, thank you very much.

If that's your approach, preferring "evil" to "devil" seems like a good idea. You are not, pace Fraser, removing the Dark Side from Christianity. But you are avoiding an unnecessary difficulty. I can imagine a perfectly sincere Godfather seeing the words "devil" in the service and saying "Hang on, does the church still believe in Satan? With horns and a tale? Like in the Dennis Wheatley? Can you really repel him with garlic?..."

Do you reject evil?
And all its many forms?
And all its empty promises?

avoids those kinds of problems. And seems pretty uncontroversial to me.

I do still have two general questions.

Why are angels so much less controversial than devils? So far as I know, all the prayer books retain the bit in Holy Communion which goes something like "Therefore with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven we proclaim your great and glorious name..." No-one is telling us to remove Gabriel from the Nativity play.

I can see why a deist or someone might object equally to angels and devils: they are multiplying hypotheses unnecessarily; it's hard enough work persuading people to believe on one big God without confusing the picture with loads and loads of little "gods"; Christians have historically wasted far too much time wondering about what language the angels speak and how many of them can dance on the head of a pin;  the modern craze for testimonies about dying children encountering angels before car accidents is rather disreputable... But how did we arrive at the consensus that angels are okay but the devil is definitely not okay? Apparently, the Church has been right to say that there are rational supernatural beings other than humans who serve God, but wrong to say that some of those beings have turned to the Dark Side. Dante and Milton were mistaken to use the idea of bad angels in their religious fictions; St John was mistaken to picture a war between Good and Bad Angels at the end of time and your man Jesus was totally wrong to spend so much of his time as an exorcist because there ain't no devils for him to exorcise.

If I was going to engage in liturgical nit-picking; I would say that there is a problem in using "evil" as a synonym for "Satan". "Evil" is really a tabloid term -- a description of things we really really disapprove of, serial killers, child molesters and war criminals. "Evil" people, people who do those terrible things, are different from us -- alien. In that sense, I don't think Christians really believe in "evil". At any rate, telling a sincere person who hasn't been instructed in the finer points of turning and submitting  to "renounce evil" is potentially as misleading as telling him to renounce "Satan". He might well take it to mean "I'm quite definitely not to going to murder any small children or engage in any genocide."

Christians see everybody as being in the same boat, all equally likely to slip up, all equally in need of God or Jesus or someone to help them out. So the problem with the new book is not that it leaves out "Satan"; but that it has very little to say about "sin". Granted "sin" is a technical term; and granted your non-church-going family may not know what it means -- but leaving it out arguably leaves out the point of the service, and arguably the point of the church. Perhaps a future prayer book could adopts Francis Spufford's brilliant translation "UHPTFTU": "the universal human propensity to fuck things up". Even the Daily Telegraph could hardly object to that.

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Monday, February 23, 2015


To put it simply: I liked Michelangelo because the obsession and extreme torsion of his figures was so obviously derived from that of Jack Kirby.
        Geoff Dyer "Comics in a Man's Life"

The Venus books were the best: honestly life-changing. Who could resist a book called Pirates of Venus? Corum is better than Elric or Hawkmoon. Venus came before Corum, but was Mars before or after Tatooine? And where did the Shire fit in? Wagner stole the idea of the broken sword from Tolkien, certainly, but did Narsil and Sting come before or after lightsabers?

Before there was Star Wars, there was Planet of the Apes. Before there was Planet of the Apes there was very probably something else. It might, god forgive us, have been the Wombles. (The Wombles were big. Really big. The Wombles were bigger than Harry Potter.)

There was a competition in the Daily Mirror to win a real Planet of the Apes mask, not available in the shops. I desperately wanted to win it. I don't know why I want to be an ape so badly. Possibly I just liked Roddy McDowell's persona? He appears as a villain in one of the Adam West Batmans. "Galen without his makeup" evoked the kind of confused awe normally reserved for Barbary Coast and T.J Hooker.

But mostly Planet of the Apes was a spectacle. Apes riding horses, leather tunics, and lots of cowboys and Indians action. It was a Western, but a Western where you were on the side of the poor humans, confined to their reservations by the oppressive colonial monkeys.

There was a comic. It was a very accurate adaptation of the movie, only they weren't allowed to use Charlton Heston's face. One of the characters said "bloody" and someone takes their clothes off and you see their bum. It was the most grown up thing I had ever read.

I went back and watched the movie again recently but they'd changed everything: added lots of stuff about Darwin and the Scopes monkey trial and a running misanthropic sub-text about anything being better than the human race. That never used to be there. It was all just monkeys with rifles.

Why did the world go Womble-mad? Someone had done something very clever with the design, of course. (Ivor Wood, his name was, who isn't nearly as famous as Oliver Postgate but was probably more popular with actual children.) Rat faces with furry manes. And the idea that that they lived in a real place but were very timid but if you were lucky you might possible spot one is very appealing at a particular age.

There was no preachy subtext. They weren't "recycling". (This was before The Environment.) They were just cuddly scavengers. You never see them but they grab things that you leave behind and make good use of them. Big furry tooth fairies.

There were Womble toys but I didn't want to have a Womble. I don't think I even wanted to be a Womble. I suppose possibly I would like to have met a Womble, or glimpsed one from a distance on Wimbledon Common. But basically, I was just excited by Wombledom. The burrow made of papier mache, the stylized "W", Bernard Cribbens' wonderful voice, the friendly folk rock theme song with the whimsical intro.

Wombles, nineteen seventy three. Planet of the Apes, nineteen seventy four. Star Wars, nineteen seventy eight.

Facts are troublesome. My friend Flash has a vivid memory of seeing the first run of Star Wars, at the Dominion Tottenham Court Road wondering how it could be "Episode IV" and if he had missed something. He knows this to be chronologically impossible: but this doesn't make the memory any less vivid. The BBC showed the whole of Flash Gordon in December 1976 (over the Christmas holiday); followed by Flash Gordon's Trip To Mars in June and Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe the following Christmas. Star Wars was released in the USA in May '77, but no-one in the UK saw it until 1978.

It premiered at Christmas, and there was still a concept of "first run" cinemas where a film ran in one prestige location in London for some weeks, and was only subsequently released to local cinemas. All through 1978, you emerged from Tottenham Court Road tube station to see a huge 3D rendition of the poster above the Dominion cinema. Ben Elton's We Will Rock You has been showing there for the past 12 years. I still walk past it and think of it as The Star Wars Cinema. I didn't see Star Wars there, but my friend Shaun has a grown up cousin who took us to see Battlestar Galactica.

So, thanks to the BBC, every little English boy who saw Star Wars in the spring of 1978, was as familiar with the thirty eight year old movie serial that Lucas was doing a homage to as their father's were. More so. Daddy pointed out it would have been a very lucky boy in 1936 who managed to go to the same cinema 15 weeks in a row.

I saw Star Wars a dozen times in the summer of 1978, and more times than I can count since — 30 or 40 more viewings, I suppose, at least one a year. There are people who don't understand why anyone would watch any film more than once. You already know how it is going to end. Most people who actually like movies think that this attitude has got it backwards. You only enjoy a film on the second viewing; you have to know "how it's going to end" before you can watch it properly. You can't pay attention to the symbolism while you are on the edge of your seat to find out who Rosebud is.

Jonathan says that the hype around big movies nowadays is so vast that he can only really watch them the second time round: the first time, you are so caught up in The Event, desperate to know which rumours were true and which rumours were not true and whether or not there's a post-cred to actually have a good time.

I hope he is wrong. If he is not wrong, then I would need to go and see Desolation of Smaug again, and I am not sure I could survive that.

But to see the same film a dozen time in one summer holiday. That takes a special kind of Crazy.

I once remarked to the editor of Sci-Fi Now that the point of Star Wars is that so much is implied and so little is said so that you seem to be seeing this vast universe out of the corner of your eye. He is kind enough to have implied that this is one of the wisest remarks ever made: at any rate one of the wisest remarks ever made about Star Wars, or at rate one of the wisest remarks ever made about Star Wars by me. But I do think this goes a long way to explain why we watched it so many times. To see the aliens in the Cantina again; to get a proper look at the lightsaber; to memorize the controls on an X-Wing. Watching it over and over to see all the stuff that wasn't actually there.

Everything else followed from that: Star Wars blueprints; attempts to construct life-sized X-Wings out of carboard boxes and lightsabers out of tomato canes. Because when Luke handles the-lightsaber-that-was-his-fathers for the first time, we wanted to reach out, through the screen, and grab it, and keep it forever. Not the lightsaber itself. That moment.

It's a feeling I've never had for anything else. I didn't want to be a Jedi Knight, necessarily; or an X-Wing pilot; or even to be friends with Luke and Han. I just wanted to be there. On the other side of the screen. Inside.

Which is why everything since 1977 has been such a let-down. Walkers and Snowspeeders and Jedi Fighters are all very well, but I want squads of X-Wings and a single blue lightsaber. We've been back to Tatooine, but it's not the Tatooine of our childhood. 

Planet of the Apes had sequels. We can chant their names: Beneath, Escape, Conquest, Battle. But it is fairly obvious that no-one actually wanted to make them. The second film was a 70s Logan's Run dystopia; they added a few grudging apes and then killed Charltan Heston and blew everything up. B movies, C movies, Z movies. The TV series I quite liked was the very last echo of something which had once been quite a good idea. That was how it worked in those days: you expected the sequel to be cheaper and less spectacular than the original. Each Star Wars movie was newer and bigger and louder and more serious than the one before, and in the end they drowned out Star Wars altogether.

Here is a scene from one of the sequels to Star Wars:

"Everything okay back there, Artoo" he called into his pickup. A cheerful beep from the stubby droid locked in position behind the cockpit assured Luke that it was. The destination was the fourth planet out from this star...."

This is from Splinter of the Minds Eye, published only a couple of months after Star Wars hit the UK, and a full two years before Empire Strikes Back. It sends shivers down my spine in a way that Empire Strikes Back never did. I like Emprie Strike Back very much. But this isn't Luke riding a snowbird in Friggia, years after the movie we loved. This is like picking up the thread, seconds or minutes after we dropped it. Luke and Artoo, where they ought to be, in an X-Wing.

So, that's my theory.

We don't want to go back to 1978 and see Star Wars again for the first time. We don't want to experience the sense of wonder we felt when the first Star Destroyer flew over our heads. We want to go back to the moment just after Star Wars finished: when the main march has played and the names of the technical crew are scolling and Grandad is making for the Gents.

A time when Luke and Leia were living in a tree house on the 4th Moon of Yavin and Han and Chewie paid them visits in the Millennium Falcon and there were many, many battles with the Empire still to come. A long time ago. A time that never was. A time we sometimes think we can see out of the corner of our eye.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Now, that's mighty interesting

The basic principle of the new education is to be that dunces and idlers must not be made to feel inferior to intelligent and industrious pupils. That would be “undemocratic.” These differences between pupils – for they are obviously and nakedly individual differences – must be disguised. ....At schools, the children who are too stupid or lazy to learn languages and mathematics and elementary science can be set to doing things that children used to do in their spare time. Let, them, for example, make mud pies and call it modelling. But all the time there must be no faintest hint that they are inferior to the children who are at work. Whatever nonsense they are engaged in must have – I believe the English already use the phrase – “parity of esteem.” An even more drastic scheme is not possible. Children who are fit to proceed to a higher class may be artificially kept back, because the others would get a trauma — Beelzebub, what a useful word! – by being left behind. The bright pupil thus remains democratically fettered to his own age group throughout his school career, and a boy who would be capable of tackling Aeschylus or Dante sits listening to his coeval’s attempts to spell out A CAT SAT ON A MAT.
Screwtape Proposes a Toast (1959)

One more thing, gentlemen, before I quit. Thomas Jefferson once said that all men are created equal, a phrase that the Yankees and the distaff side of the Executive branch in Washington are fond of hurling at us. There is a tendency in this year of grace 1935 for certain people to use this phrase out of context, to satisfy all conditions. The most ridiculous example I can think of is that the people who run public education promote the stupid and idle along with the industrious – because all men are created equal, educators will gravely tell you, the children left behind suffer terrible feelings of inferiority. We know all men are not created equal in the sense some people would have us believe – some people are smarter than others, some people have more opportunity because they’re born with it, some men make more money than others, some ladies make better cakes than others – some people are born gifted beyond the normal scope of most men.

To Kill A Mockingbird (1960)

“(Harper Lee) goes on and on each time I see her about CS Lewis. She would not miss an opportunity to impersonate CS Lewis, who gave lectures in Oxford when she was there,” said (her) agent.

Guardian, 2015

Hedge: Update

The Mail, Telegraph and Express all back tracked from the original story, stating that no-one is being exhumed and no-one asked for anyone to be exhumed. The leader of the Atheist Community has yet to comment. Mr Kahn has turned out to be "top Banker" as well as a Muslim. 

Where did the exhumation story come from in the first place? The original news item, removed by the local paper after the council published it's rebuttal, but still available on various anti-Muslim hate-sites, was substantially about the hedge. "Council asks to buy back part of gypsy grave plot to grow hedge on; gypsies say no." would probably not have made national news. The Smiths refused to allow the hedge because they didn't think it would make a difference, since Mr Kahn and Mr Smith would still be side-by-side six feet underground. This suggests that they hadn't understood that it was a religious requirement and felt they were being singled out for personal animosity because they were gypsies. ("They want to push us away and hide us.") This happens quite a bit in religious news stories. Cultural protestants just don't get that rules and laws about eating and washing and burying people are a big part of Jew's and Muslim's religion. ("It isn't antisemitic to say that Jewish children have got to eat bacon on Tuesdays or not have any lunch at all, after all, pork is much the same as any other kind of meat. I suppose Christians can say that they don't like sprouts because it's part of their religion, can they?")

When a journalist is dealing with dry, abstract issues, he very often tries to come up with a punchy opening sentence that gives a concrete example of the kind of thing he is talking about. "School kids will be sitting in detention doing extra Latin prep if Tory MP Bufton Tufton has his way..." reads better than "A Member of Parliament today remarked that modern schools should emulate the curriculum and disciplinary practices of his youth." "A Romany family are afraid they might have to exhume a recently buried relative..." might have been a fair, if overheated, opening sentence. But "Romany family face having to..." is how these things come out after being passed through the Quick Quotes Quill. The Smith family are indeed quoted as saying "We don't want any of the bodies exhuming but it looks like that is what might happen": there is no claim that anyone has directly said that this might happen. (Some people might wonder if the reporter got that quote by asking something along the lines of "What would would you say IF they said you had to dig him up".) 

The opening remark was arguably a fair spin on the story: a little over dramatic, but that's what journalism is about. How could the Hinckley Times possibly have known that the national papers would read the first sentence and treat that as the whole story? And how could those national papers possibly have guessed that racists would take them at their word and report the exhumation as if it had already taken place. 

And there is nothing that can be done. "Muslims are always digging up dead Christians" is now another of those things that "everybody knows".

Monday, February 16, 2015


Jan 14: New comic launched
This comic is called, very pointedly Star Wars #1. It is the first Star Wars comic. You may remember other Star Wars comics, but they didn't happen. For the next few weeks, you have in your hands all the Star Wars comics there have ever been. 

It is set after Star Wars but before Empire Strikes Back. There used to be hundreds of Marvel Comics set after Star Wars but before Empire Strikes Back. (Splinter of the Minds Eye is what would have happened after Star Wars if Empires Strikes Back had not happened.) Neither Roy Thomas nor Alan Dean Foster nor George Lucas knew, at that point, what was going to happen. Han Solo meeting bugs bunny and incestuous snogging was as good a guess as any. But none of that happened any more, and this new comic is written with the Benefit of Hindsight. We know big stuff that the character's don't, like who is who's sister and who is who's dad.

Are stories transparent, or opaque? Are we looking at this comic, or looking through it? Is it an attempt to imagine an artifact that never existed, but might conceivably have done: "Star Wars 2" as it might have looked in 1978? Or is it just a window into THER STAR WARS UNIVERSE, informing us of events which must, logically, have happened between the Death Star blowing up and everyone arriving on Hoth. There is quite a bit of time in between: time enough for Han Solo to have gone to a place called Ord Mantell and run into some bounty hunters there.

The thing which made me smile, the one thing that really made me smile, was the opening pages:

p 2 "A Long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..." (blue on black)

p3 "Star Wars" (yellow on black)

p4 "Book 1 - Skywalker Strikes" (yellow on black, crawl shaped.) 

p 5 A bottom-up view of a big space ship flying over the "camera".

That gets me on side straight away. The first 5 pages of the comics looking as much like the first 5 minutes of a hypothetical movie as it is possible for a comic to look.  

The olden days comics didn't try to be film-like; not in that way. They weren't icons back then; they were only movies. Neither the original comic nor the original novel included the phrase "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...". The book said "another galaxy, another time...": the comic's small print said "long ago, in a galaxy far away..." George considered having the "crawl" -- the slanty story-so-far introduction -- for Empire Strikes Back roll over the icy landscape of Hoth. This would have made it even more like Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe. If he had done that, then "scrolly text against a starry backdrop would not be one of the irreducible things which makes Star Wars Star Wars.

Then the ship flies across a big industrial landscape, and the shuttle lands, and Han Solo gets his Big Entrance. This follows, which is to say prefigures, Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi in which the characters are introduced in reverse order of importance. 

The Big Industrial Landscape is not really like anything in Star Wars, but the notion of a whole planet that consists of nothing but weapons factories (with, as it will turn out, a huge rubbish dump all around it) is the sort of thing  we feel that a Star Wars sequel ought to be offering us: desert planet, ice planet, forest planet, factory planet. John Cassaday is the artist and he has the young Harrison Ford's face roughly right. Writer Jason Aaron  has the dialogue spot-on. When Han confronts the Imperial Customs Officers, you can hear the voice he uses on Cloud City pretty much perfectly: 

"We wouldn't want negotiations to start on a sour note, would we?" 

"No...we wouldn't want that."

Later on, Leia asks Han directly why he is still working with the rebellion. It's done as a sort of homage to the Han / Leia love scenes from Empire Strikes Back (which haven't happened yet) right down to Han's facial expressions and there being an interruption just as they are coming to the point. But obviously, this kind of thing can't be developed or resolved without overwriting the movie its quoting from. It is nice to drift back to 1977 and not feel quite sure whether or not we can trust Han Solo.

"Han Shot First" has become a rallying cry for those of us who think that Lucas should have left the Star Wars text intact. But it also, I think, encodes a problem with the whole Saga: that Han is cool when we meet him, because he is dangerous, and becomes progressively less cool as the series goes on, until by Return of the Jedi he's no-one, just a pilot in a snazzy uniform. 

Lucas was, of course, quite free to incorporate the older work, Star Wars, into the newer work Star Wars Episodes I - VI. "The fix up", the novel made of short stories, is a venerable science fictional form. Doc Smith pasted unrelated science fiction stories onto his "Lensemen" canvass; Dune was several novellas before it became one huge novel. Tolkien, mighty Tolkien had to go back and change parts of the Hobbit once he realized that it was part of the huge epic known as the Silmarillion. We don't object to Star Wars being part of the new, bigger work. What we object to is his saying that we shouldn't still be able to watch Star Wars as well. 

They are doing a plan, which involves infiltrating an Imperial weapons factory. We see Han and the others (we don't know who the others are yet, but they are wearing bounty hunter masks like the one Leia and Lando wore/will wear in Return of the Jedi, so we do really) walk past rows of TIE fighters that robots are working on. This is proper fan boy stuff. It made me smile again.  

There have been any number of ships in Star Wars but they are mostly all just hardware, cool, or not so cool. Even the Millenium Falcon is mostly just cool hardware, but then I suppose the point about the Millenium Falcon is her relatively, ordinary-ness. Not looking like much but having it where it counts is the point of her. I wish there had been more Millenium Falcon. We spend, what, six minutes with her ? It's all in that funny little scene with 3PO and Chewbaca playing chess and Luke learning to use the Force, the point at which our heroes pause for breath and we see them as a family. I wish they had stayed like that forever. I wish there had been five 26 part TV series which started each week with our heroes at home on the Millennium Falcon before they were sent off on some thrilling adventure. But more than lightsabers and Alec Guiness and the Millennium Falcon and golden robots is TIE fighters, ball shaped cockpits with funny hexagonal sails, and X Wings, WWII spitfires with wings that snap into an X shape. I have never been able to explain why the moment when the wings clip from wing shape to X shapes is cool but its the coolest thing in twelve hours of cool things.

They have a plan. "I have a very good feeling about this", say 3PO, and by this point, so do I.

Luke doesn't get as good an entrance as Han. He unmasks with Leia on page 14 when Han reveals his hand; he's squeezed off to the left of the frame, squashed by the next panel. But seeing the three of them together is cool: the first moment when the audience bursts into spontaneous applause. We mentally clap again a few page later; Han and Luke and Leia hiding from the Stormtroopers, guns drawn. (Star Wars was all about Han and Luke and Leia: the sequels seemed deliberately to seperate them.) Note that when Leia punches the Imperial officer, spit and teeth come out of his mouth. That's not a movie moment; not U rated movie moment. That's comic book violence. Alec Guiness told Parky that Star Wars violence was play violence, someone said "bang" and someone else fell over. (He also told he that warned told James Dean to leave his car at home on Sep 30 1955.)

We see Luke repeating Ben Kenobi lines under his breath, and "telepathically" hearing a cry for help from a group of alien slaves. He still looks like Star Wars Luke: if anything, more boyish. Chubby, even. From comics to cereal packets, Mark Hamill's face was always the hardest to capture. He decides to free the slaves, which is the sort of thing you probably do if you are the Last of the Jedi. The partial close up of the lightsaber (page 18) is the sort of thing I would have killed for when I was a nipper.

But notice: on page 18 we see five frames of Luke confronting the slave driver; long thin frames across the page. Frame 4, the close up of Luke, has no background: it's his face on a white space saying "I won't reach for my blaster". (He is going to reach for his lightsaber, of course.) And then on the next page we have six frames, tall thin frames, of the lightsaber blade and the slave drivers whip, and the slave drivers cut-off hand: no figures at all. This is intended to evoke the Obi-Wan chopping the pirates arm off in the Cantina scene — over so quickly that we don't realize what has happened until we see the arm. And then we turn the page and there's a full frame art shot of Luke holding the lightsaber: which is why he didn't get a big build up like Han did — this is his Moment. The opening pages — title crawls and space ships and what not — were pure slight of hand. The drama comes from some (pretty basic, but very competent) panel work.

It's a comic book moment, not a movie. Well. Duh. 

I think I am correct in saying that this is the first time Luke has used the lightsaber that was his father's as a weapon, as opposed to as a toy to practice with. (Of course I am right. There are no other comics.) Should he say: "Gee, I am finally acting like a Jedi: Ben would be proud?" Or is it a mistake to even be thinking like this. Luke is using his lightsaber because Luke is meant to use his lightsaber but the a lightsaber is what the Luke Skywalker action figure comes with? 

A fairly graphic bit of hand slicing, incidentally. Jedi like to chop bits off people, which is presumably why the villains in the prequels had to be robots. Obi-Wan chopped the pirates arm off in the Cantina; Darth Vader is due to chop Luke's hand off in the next movie. 

Speaking of whom...

I like the big build up given to "the negotiator". I honestly wish there had been a caption which said "Dah dah dah - dum da-dah - dum da-dah" when we first see the Imperial Shuttle. This is the Darth Vader of Empire Strikes Back, the Vader who is followed by Stormtroopers and Imperial Marches wherever he goes, not the Vader of Star Wars who is simply Tarkin's henchman. 

Chewbacca obeys Leia when she orders him to kill Darth Vader: as if he is more loyal to the rebellion than to Solo. I like the fact that wookie growls are too big for the speech balloons

In the canonical texts, the Wookie is Han's friend and co-pilot, and that is all we know. In the midrashic commentaries, Han saved Chewie's life, and that means that he has incurred a life-debt: he regards Han as a member of his family and a member of his tribe, forever. But in the prequels, Chewie is very actively a rebel, friends with Yoda, no less. This is an example of more being less: Han and Chewie were cooler when they were a pirate who just happened to have a big furry crewman than when they are quite important cogs in the big story of the rebellion. 

There is dialogue:

Leia: We're in trouble
Han: No, not yet, we can still...
FX: Alam goes off
Han: Now we're in trouble.

Star Wars is cheeky and swashbuckling. No-one is superpowered or superconfident; there is a sense of everyone hanging on by the skin of their bottoms. (Alan Foster gives the made up line "They were in the wrong place at the wrong time; naturally they became heroes" more prominence than the one about it all happening a long time ago.) But there is very little of this in the comic. We're mostly taking it all far too seriously. 

Han plans to escape by borrowing an AT-AT from the factory. When the AT-ATs come over the horizon in Empire Strikes Back they are big and terrible and almost indestructible. You can trip them up with harpoons, which is a bit like shooting a photon torpedo through the weak spot in the dragon's breast-place, but you can't shoot them. So it sort of spoils it if they are also the sort of thing you can just hitch a ride on, which Han knows how to fly. Lightsabers started out being a more elegant weapon from a more elegant age and end up being a really useful boy Scout knife. 

On the other hand, I REALLY want to find out if Han pulls it off.

Luke walks down a corridor and confronts Vader. Ben tells Luke to run. That's the main thing that Ben tells Luke to do. This is, by my counting, at least the fourth time that Luke and Vader have met face to face for the very first time. (But none of those happened. Well, only one of them did.)

I bet it turns out to be a dream. It's a really big deal in Empire Strikes Back that we're seeing Luke meet Vader for the first time, and it's pretty courageous of George to wait two movies before the hero meets the villain. I don't think a comic would be allowed to spoil that. (Anakin is not allowed to meet General Grievous in the Clone Wars cartoon because they meet for the first time Revenge of the Sith, although this is allowed to become a bit too much of a running gag.) 

FAITHFULNESS TO MOVIES, SUPERFICIAL: Nine out of ten.  I didn't spot any howlers. There were no moments when I wanted to say "That's JUST. NOT. STAR. WARS."

FAITHFULNESS TO MOVIES, ON A DEEPER LEVEL: Six out of ten. There is a lot of talk. Some of the violence is violent. There is little banter. Everyone is taking this seriously. No-one is having any fun. The thing it needed, and probably no-one has ever said this before, was Jar Jar Binks. 

If you enjoy this kind of thing, the best way of encouraging me to write more is to buy my book.

(The second best way is to buy the Kindle version)

Saturday, February 14, 2015


If I am recruiting stock control assistants at my cherry pie factory (which, for the avoidance of doubt, I am not) and let it be known that, all other things being equal, I intend to give the job to the tallest applicant, then I am being sexist. Because most men are taller than most women.

Yes, I know that height is not a gender. And I know that you get tall women and short men. And I am sure that you can think of some particular circumstance where only employing tall people makes sense. Fact remains: if I say "I prefer to employ tall people" I am in effect saying "I prefer to employ men". Even though height is not a gender.

I am quite sure that every Mosque in England has a couple of white converts that it can bring out on special occasions. But it so happens that 90% of British Muslims are of Asian or African heritage. Most English Catholic churches are disproportionately full of people whose grandparents came over from the Emerald Isle and Anglican pews are disproportionately occupied by white English bottoms. That's just very much the way these things go. Excellent argument for not having faith schools, but that's not the subject of today's discussion.

If one spots that a particular club is being regularly singled out for criticism where other similar clubs are not, one might say: "Well, it just so happens that nearly all the members of that club have dark coloured skin but I'm sure that's just a crazy irrelevant coincidence."

Or one might say "The reason that club is being singled out is that so many of it's members have dark skins. The people who go on and on about that particular club are, consciously or unconsciously, intentionally or unintentionally, racists."


On Feb 5 the Hinkley Times ran a news story under the headline Dispute Over Grave Plot After Burial of Gypsy. It was a very sad story out of which no-one came very well. It seems to go like this.

There is a municipal cemetery in Leicestershire. Some people -- the French, for example, and some Americans -- believe that if something is run by the state it has to be non-religious, in the sense of religion being prohibited. But this was a non-religious cemetery in the English sense: anyone of any religion could be buried there, there was a chapel that would do equally well as a church or a synagogue or a humanist meeting hall, and they did their best to accommodate different funeral traditions.

If you have never had to arrange a funeral, you may not know that you have to buy a piece of land in the cemetery to bury your loved-one in. You actually generally purchase a plot that will do for several funerals. This makes it pretty expensive, one reason why cremations are more fashionable nowadays. (In the case of a cremation, you merely rent a flower bed.) This particular cemetery seems to have had the policy of always selling families the next plot that was available: there was no question of segregating it into, say, Jewish and Christian quarters.

A Romany family purchased a large piece of land, as a family plot. The first person buried in it was an elderly gentleman with a large number of children and grandchildren -- and a very large funeral, with an astonishing number of floral tributes. The family wanted this particular plot because it the patriarch could be buried facing his home, which is a gypsy tradition.

However, it transpired that there had already been a burial on the adjacent plot, by a Muslim family. Islamic tradition says that you should be buried facing Mecca, and the cemetery had arranged this. But here comes the problem. Muslim tradition also says that Muslims shouldn't be buried alongside non-Muslims. This isn't a teaching of the Koran, and practice varies, but it was what this particular family wanted. The cemetery did the sensible thing and asked the gypsy family if they would consider selling the plot back to the cemetery and buying a different one, but they said no, dug their heels in, and went ahead with the funeral.

I think we have to read between the lines slightly here, but we can probably understand the Romany family's point of view. The settled community has never been welcoming of travelers: even some of my nicest and least racist friends have been known to remark that if you see how much rubbish gets left behind these damn tinkers etc etc etc. So I imagine that just about the worst thing you could do to a gypsy family a couple of days before a funeral is to try to, er, move them on.

Now it gets really complicated. According to the account printed in the local newspaper, the Romany family were asked, a few days after the funeral, if they would consider an exhumation and reburial. They not unnaturally told the council, and I paraphrase here, to fuck off. And that would seem to be the end of the matter: you can't exhume a body without permission from the next of kin. A little distressing to receive the request in the first place, but no harm done.

However the local council categorically deny that any request for an exhumation was ever made. "An inaccurate, divisive and inflammatory article printed in The Hinckley Times appeared to indicate that Burbage Parish Council has considered the exhumation of a person recently interred at Burbage Cemetery – this is totally untrue and without foundation." 

Which ever version you choose to believe -- and someone is evidently not telling the whole truth -- a mistake has been made. You would think that people in the death business would know about Muslim funeral customs, and would have warned the Muslim family that they had no control over who would be buried next to them. If the cemetery promised to leave a space between the two plots and then didn't, it's the Muslims who have the right to be aggrieved. You could take the whole thing as a lovely metaphor for secularism: how do you fit two contrasting beliefs into one space without doing any favours to either. How much, in a very real sense "space" should you allow? The cemetery proposed the most English solution that it is possible to imagine. They asked if they might put a hedge between the two graves. 

I expect you know what happened next. The original news item didn't major on the Muslim aspect of the story. "Dispute over grave plots after burial of gypsy" is a fairly neutral description, even if, "gypsy" isn't the preferred term. But within a couple of days the national media had got their fangs into it, and it became all about the -- wholly fictional -- exhumation.

Daily Mail: "Gypsy Man's Body Could Be Exhumed Because He Was Buried Next To A Muslim".

Daily Mirror "Grieving Family Asked To Move Grandad's Grave Away From Muslim Buried Nearby Because He is Non-Believer"

And then off into the wilder shores of the internet: "You won't believe what a Muslim family want!" "Tolerant Muslims demand this Grandfather's body be moved" and my favourite "Muslims Can Have Your Body Exhumed Now."

A fairly nuanced story about a dispute between two religious traditions has transformed into one in which the poor Romany victims are going to have to fight "tooth and nail" in the "highest court in the land" to prevent a local council digging up a corpse at the behest of Muslims. The council had already issued a rebuttal: no request for an exhumation had been made. The local paper had withdrawn the story from their website. But this makes now difference: an increasingly fictional version of the story is now all over the national press. The comments attached to some of the online reports are enough to make one feel physically ill: "Enough is enough. Outlaw Islam, Nuke Mecca" "FFS I've had about enough hearing what the Muslims want.....Not their country, so they need to get over it."

What first drew my attention to the story was a comment on Twitter, which put an exceptionally nasty spin on the whole thing: 

Virtually nothing in this iteration of the story is true. It is no longer a request: the grave is quite definitely being dug up. We are not being asked to imagine "they", whoever "they" are coming down on a particular side in a rather messy dispute. We are just being asked to imagine that "they" woke up one morning and said "How can we please Muslims. I know. Let's go and disinter a Catholic." (And it's not to please one particular group of justifiably aggrieved Muslims. It's to please Muslims in general. Who are, as we all know, an undifferentiated blob.) 

Where was this posted? Where else but on the Twitter Feed of the Leader of England's Atheist Community. In case we didn't understand the point, one of his minions stepped up to the crease and explained  "So, even in death, the great leveler, Muslims expect special treatment." (*)

Some people, including the Atheist Community Leader, think that religion means something like "a theory about the origins of life on earth, now disproved". But "feelings about what happens to someone when they die; the ceremonies and rituals you perform around dead bodies" might be a much better starting point. If we were all Rational, I suppose we would leave our dead relative bodies out for the bin men, who would harvest any transplantable organs and dispose of the rest hygienically. I believe that around the turn of the 20th century there was a humanist fad for doing exactly this. But it never caught on. Fewer people want traditional Anglican funeral services, but they have invented replaced them with their own ceremonies: scattering a person's ashes in a place that they loved, or paying a great deal of money to have them shot into space in a rocket. Since, I guess, 1989 the tradition of creating a shrine close to the place where a person died has taken off: every busy road as a sad collection of flowers, cards and teddy bears somewhere near it. And lots of people have magical beliefs and practices that they couldn't, in the cold light of day, justify. The belief that a person should be buried near members of his own community and the belief that a corpse should under no circumstances be disturbed are both equally "religious" beliefs. From the Atheist point of view, worrying about whether dead people are dug up and worrying about who they are buried near are both equally mad. The Atheist Community Leader is a man who purports not to understand why anyone could possibly object to people throwing bacon at synagogues. But he appears to unqualifiedly endorse one set of beliefs (not disturbing dead bodies) while repudiating the other set (burying Muslims near Muslims.)  He doesn't even perceive that this is dispute between religions. He regards it as the arbitrary demand of one community for special treatment.

But that's what happens: even to the most rational and skeptical of us. The superstitions of our tribe are not superstitions, but the neutral, incontestable, rock-bottom values of humanity. Whereas the superstitions of your tribe are arbitrary demands that we shouldn't make any attempt to accommodate.

 "I've had about enough hearing what the Muslims want.....Not their country, so they need to get over it." Not their country. Not their country.

But this is okay and not racist at all. Because Islam is not a race.

(*) I suspect that this is what the whole thing comes down to, actually. In a neutral space like a secular cemetery, Muslim and Christian feelings get the same amount of attention paid to them. But Christians are used to have more attention paid to their feelings. So to white cultural Christians, paying any attention at all to the wishes of Muslims amounts to doing them special favours. The local council are said to have "bent over backwards" to accommodate Muslim feelings, where what they actually seem to have done is tried very hard to come up with a compromise. The expression "bending over backwards to accommodate Muslims" is almost as much of a Common Sense Brigade dog whistle as "Political Correctness Gone Mad."

If you want me to write more of this kind of thing, the best thing you can do is buy one of my books...

Monday, February 09, 2015


Yes: I remember Star Wars Trading Cards. They were very much a thing.

A very American thing. Tiny little Bazooka Joe bubblegums with tiny little cartoon strips, which weren't funny and were full of references to "principals" and "coaches" and "baseball" and "kids" who formed "gangs" in "alleys" near "fire hydrants". I suppose that an American child would have been just as puzzled by the Beano. If you collected 10,000 or 100,000 strips you could trade them in for a gift. I don't know if anyone ever did. I don't know if the offer even worked in the UK, although I did get a club membership goody bag, with a plastic ring which was already too small for my fingers. It was meant to whistle. You were meant to communicate with other members of the gang using morse code.  

American comics still had tiny small ads for novelties inside the front covers and I believed in every single one of them: the disc that would allow you to hypnotize people; the giant robot that obeyed your commands. Plans for a giant robot, I think it was. In the long decade between Turnabout Intruder and V'Ger, Star Trek was such a small thing that memorabilia was being flogged alongside sea monkeys and live (guaranteed) sea horses: a replica Tricorder (I suppose the Aurora snap together kit); cuddly Tribbles; rubber Spock ears. The tenth anniversary of the original series conveniently fell in 1976 and could therefore be referred to as the Tennial. (The US Bicentennial was very nearly as big as the Queen's Silver Jubilee.) There was a silver plated medallion to commemorate it. It must, I suppose, have been very very easy to commission silver plated medallions. One of the first pieces of merchandize I ever saw advertised was a silver plated Spider-Man medallion. If I had bought it, then by now it would be worth very little.

I could conceive of saving up a pound and somehow turning it into two dollars and somehow sending it to America and getting a life size model of the Star Ship Enterprise (with real warp drive) months later via boat-mail. There were mythical aunts with American bank accounts, and legendary documents called International Reply Coupons. (This was before Paypal.) But collecting a thousand pieces of bubble gum was too far fetched even for me.

Bubble gum was almost as prohibited as tobacco at school. Cigarettes killed you, but bubble gum made a mess under the desk, stuck to people's shows, and spread diseases. You could be slapped for possessing either, although no-one ever was. Chewing gum was somewhat different. Grown ups chewed chewing gum. It was and is sold in serious little packets as if it was headache tablets or condoms. Bubblegum came in colorful "hey-kids!" packaging. It would kill you if you swallowed it; choke you to death; stay in your stomach for the rest of your life. And there was something not quite nice about a sweet that you put in your mouth in order to spit it out again. No-one minded about the Great British Gobstopper.

I suppose that at one time, cards had been given away free with gum; and as time went by the gum got less and less important and the cards got more and more important and you ended with five picture cards that came with a small flat strip of bubblegum that turned to powder in your mouth. Football cards were different. No gum in football cards, so far as I remember, although possibly if you collected enough you could trade them in for a toasted sandwich. (*) I remember sheets of stickers as well. Dozens of tiny stamp sized stickers one, not on any particular theme, just things that might come in useful to a ten year old boy: "Top Secret"; "We Hate School";  "No Girls Allowed". Like gum, it felt thrillingly naughty even to handle one because a friend of a friend in a different class had definitely been slapped for putting one on text book.

Just before there were Star Wars cards, there were Marvel Comics cards. It sort of bothered me that people who were not Marvel Comics fans were allowed to collect them. There was one golden play time when a cool kid with a big collection challenged me to name all the characters, which I could do easily, and everyone was (for about an hour) un-ironically impressed. But then Star Wars happened. No-one had seen Star Wars, because it wasn't out yet, although I had read both the book and the comic, which put me at some advantage. I had a few cards; some of the cool kids with more money had complete sets. Someone had his collection stolen and for two days all the grown ups went completely insane. Our form teacher inspected everyone's desk and our year head -- can I be making this up? -- cancelled lessons to question everyone one at a time about the location of the cards. "It doesn't make any difference to me if it's twenty picture cards or 20 blocks of gold that had been stolen, I will not have a thief in my form." I suppose they had agreed in advance to massively over-react to the first instance of stealing so as to put across the impression that they took stealing very seriously indeed. I don't remember if the cards were found or if anyone got slapped.

Did one of those cards really have a photo of Biggs on it? But there would have been nothing very surprising about seeing a photo of Biggs on a card in 1977. He is not in the film. But "not being in the film" and "not being in Star Wars" were still two different things. Star Wars was a comic first; and then a book; and then a series of picture cards; and possibly a set of free gifts in cereal packets; and certainly a series of action figures. The Force Blade has a much greater claim to being the real lightsaber than any replica or schematic or freeze frame still from the movie. Because that's what we knew about and that's what cool kids with money owned. The film is now all we have left, which is why it hurts so much when Lucas messes with it. But Star Wars is quite unrecoverable. And Star Wars was never a movie. The picture cards and action figures are where these characters lived.


Mr Abrams decided to reveal the names of the character in the Star Wars VII trailer in the form of retro style picture cards which no one aged under 50 will really understand. This is a good thing, in that Abrams wants to play with nostalgia; and a bad thing, in the sense that he sees Star Wars as a collection of dead relics to be venerated, not a living tradition to be continued.

These are our First Glimpses of characters who please George please please we will grow to know and love like Luke and Leia and Jar-Jar and Pooh and Piglet and all of the others.

* It might have been that the robot was just a bit of hardware. But in fact she is "BB-8". (Does that mean that she is not an R2 unit, or just that her name is Artoo Beebee?)

* It have been that the face in the X-Wing was just Red 9, standing by. But in fact he is someone called Poe Dameron.

* The girl on the speeder bike is Rey.

* The scared Stormtrooper is Finn.

"Rey" and "Finn". Don't have last names. If we had been told that they were called Rey Skywalker or Finn Solo, that would give us massive, massive hints about the plot. Which is why I am going to bet that that is indeed what they are called. Poe Dameron would be an odd name for Skyalker or Solo descendant. And the guy with the funny lightsaber is Kylo Renn, which is just a name: not Darth Renn or Darth Kylo or Kylo Renn Skywalker.

Obviously, none of this tells us anything whatsoever. But we can enjoy chewing on a bit of sickly-sweet retro-nostalgia.

(*) Think about it.