Saturday, March 31, 2007

I know it's out of fashion, and a trifle uncool

In fact, that could almost be the title for this site. Or, translated into Latin, it could go under my coat of arms. Um ... "Cogito non trendus et poco non frigidarius est"?

Anyway, we'll be off for a few days, so to ease the withdrawal symptoms from Ben's Words of Wisdom, here (shamelessly pinched from elsewhere in the blogosphere) is the great opening lines quiz. You can even make up your own. Get your iPod (or whatever; in my case, Windows Media Player), set it to shuffle and note down the opening lines of an arbitrary number of tracks. In this case, 40. Exclude the ones that are too obvious (i.e. have the name of the track in the first line) and, well duh, the instrumentals. And don't be afraid to admit that some of these tracks, okay, you're a little embarrassed to have them in downloaded, easily erasable form.

And no sneaky Googling answers, right?

Here we go ...

  1. I get high on a buzz then a rush when I'm plugged in you
  2. See the little nuclei, bursting full of information / There's a need to regulate / bring it down to cells and plasma
  3. Stuck inside these four walls, sent inside forever
  4. I love the colourful clothes she wears
  5. Well she got her daddy's car and she drove through the hamburger stands now
  6. Psychic spies from China try to steal your mind's elation / Little girls from Sweden dream of silver screen quotations
  7. What's up with my heart when it skips a beat? (skips a beat)
  8. I've been waiting for so long to come here now and sing this song (One of the ones I'll admit to being a bit embarrassed by ...)
  9. Where it began, I can't begin to knowin'
  10. Life isn't always easy / This we know my friends / I thought you knew where to go / But you were following me
  11. All I wanna do when I wake up in the morning is see your eyes
  12. Hot town, summer in the city / back of my neck getting dirty and gritty
  13. Well did I tell you before, when I was up, anxiety was bringing me down
  14. When are you going to come down? When are you going to land?
  15. Every day I recognise what's deceased and what's alive
  16. Sleep like a baby / my little lady / dream till the sunrise / creeps into your eyes
  17. Winters cityside / Crystal bits of snowflakes all around my head and in the wind / I had no illusions that I'd ever find a glimpse of summers heatwaves in your eyes
  18. Oh, the night is my world / city light painted girl / in the day nothing matters / it's the night time that flatters
  19. In the beginning was the word, man said: Let there be more light. Electric scenes and laser beams, neon lights to light the boring nights
  20. I never used to cry 'cos I was all alone / For me, myself and I is all I've ever known / I never felt the need to have a hand to hold / In everything I do I take complete control
  21. I am the one who guided you this far / All you know and all you feel (just to confuse, the 'first line' comes 10 minutes into the song)
  22. Out on the street I was talking to a man / He said "there's so much of this life of mine that I don't understand"
  23. Here comes Johnny Yen again / With the liquor and drugs and the flesh machine
  24. I'm your only friend / I'm not your only friend / But I'm a little glowing friend / But really I'm not actually your friend / But I am
  25. Love is a burnin' thing and it makes a fiery ring
  26. What's the matter with the clothes I'm wearing? Can't you tell that your tie's too wide? Maybe I should buy some old tab collars? Welcome back to the age of jive.
  27. Vodka intimate, an affair with isolation in a blackheath cell
  28. My daddy had a 68 Camero / When I was sixteen he went out of town (and another)
  29. Are you really going out with Adolf? Ooh yeah!
  30. I pictured a rainbow / You held it in your hands / I had flashes / But you saw the plan
  31. When I was a little girl I had a ragdoll / only doll I've ever owned
  32. You'll say that we've got nothing in common / No common ground to start from and we're falling apart
  33. I once met a man with a sense of adventure / He was dressed to thrill wherever he went
  34. Marie has set up home with a man who's half my age / A halfwit in a leotard stands on my stage
  35. When I die and they lay me to rest / gonna go to the place that's the best
  36. It was a slow day and the sun was beating on the soldiers by the side of the road
  37. I'll protect you from the hooded claw / Keep the vampires from your door
  38. I've got sunshine in my stomach, like I just rocked my baby to sleep
  39. Your cruel device / Your blood, like ice / One look could kill / My pain, your thrill
  40. That's great, it starts with an earthquake, birds and snakes, an aeroplane ...
And a bonus point for anyone who gets the title of this post.

Friday, March 30, 2007

G and S and G and S

To the Abingdon Operatic Society last night for what the Boy (who stayed at home) charmingly calls 'old people's music' and we call an evening of Gershwin and Sondheim and Gilbert and Sullivan. First half a collection of songs from across the pond, second half the songs with linking narration of HMS Pinafore. Who could ask better?

I'm not that familiar with the works of Stephen Sondheim and it must be said he is not ... light. I suppose if you're trying to write an opera about a murderous cannibal barber, lightness is a positive disadvantage. Apparently he had to write 'Comedy Tonight' as an intro to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum after test audiences failed to twig it was meant to be funny. But lack of lightness can be a good thing, and 'Send in the clowns' can bring me close to tears, so replete is it with self-loathing and self-knowledge that has been acquired at great cost and far too late.

And then Pinafore! I amaze myself that after 30 years of loving G&S I have still never seen an actual stage performance of this, all the way through. Many years ago there was a TV version with Frankie Howerd as the First Lord, and the role didn't quite play to his talents. But I've never seen the whole stage show.

And I suppose, technically, I still haven't, this being a recital more than a performance. But what the heck, it had all the songs.

There is something about Sullivan's songs that makes them old friends. You just hear a few bars, and you smile because you know you're back in good company. And Gilbert's lyrics I could listen to over and over again. The way different singers intercut to finish off each other's lines and rhymes (which are frequently effortlessly convoluted); the reductio ad absurdam logic; the sheer mastery of language make them priceless. I love any clever wordsmith - Tom Lehrer, Flanders & Swann - but Gilbert is top of the roost.

And I was astonished that there was a song I didn't know. Honestly. I could swear I've not heard this song before. And it's not one of the soulful solos, it's a key duet. Maybe I was out of the room when the Frankie Howerd version did it. So, courtesy of the world wide web and the Gilbert & Sullivan Archive, here are the lyrics. It's classic Gilbert. Little Buttercup knows something she wishes to communicate obliquely to Captain Corcoran, and she speaks so elliptically that he hasn't the faintest idea what she's on about.

BUT. Things are seldom what they seem,
Skim milk masquerades as cream;
Highlows pass as patent leathers;
Jackdaws strut in peacock's feathers.

CAPT. (puzzled). Very true,
So they do.

BUT. Black sheep dwell in every fold;
All that glitters is not gold;
Storks turn out to be but logs;
Bulls are but inflated frogs.

CAPT. (puzzled). So they be,

BUT. Drops the wind and stops the mill;
Turbot is ambitious brill;
Gild the farthing if you will,
Yet it is a farthing still.

CAPT. (puzzled). Yes, I know.
That is so.
Though to catch your drift I'm striving,
It is shady -- it is shady;
I don't see at what you're driving,
Mystic lady -- mystic lady.
(Aside.) Stern conviction's o'er me stealing,
That the mystic lady's dealing
In oracular revealing.

BUT. (aside). Stern conviction's o'er him stealing,
That the mystic lady's dealing
In oracular revealing.
Yes, I know--
That is so!

CAPT. Though I'm anything but clever,
I could talk like that for ever:
Once a cat was killed by care;
Only brave deserve the fair.

BUT. Very true,
So they do.

CAPT. Wink is often good as nod;
Spoils the child who spares the rod;
Thirsty lambs run foxy dangers;
Dogs are found in many mangers.

BUT. Frequentlee,
I agree.

CAPT. Paw of cat the chestnut snatches;
Worn-out garments show new patches;
Only count the chick that hatches;
Men are grown-up catchy-catchies.

BUT. Yes, I know,
That is so.
(Aside.) Though to catch my drift he's striving,
I'll dissemble -- I'll dissemble;
When he sees at what I'm driving,
Let him tremble -- let him tremble!


Though a mystic tone I/you borrow,
You will/I shall learn the truth with sorrow,
Here to-day and gone to-morrow;
Yes, I know--
That is so!

Thursday, March 29, 2007


What Be Your Nerd Type?
Your Result: Literature Nerd

Does sitting by a nice cozy fire, with a cup of hot tea/chocolate, and a book you can read for hours even when your eyes grow red and dry and you look sort of scary sitting there with your insomniac appearance? Then you fit this category perfectly! You love the power of the written word and it's eloquence; and you may like to read/write poetry or novels. You contribute to the smart people of today's society, however you can probably be overly-critical of works.

It's okay. I understand.

Social Nerd
Drama Nerd
Science/Math Nerd
Gamer/Computer Nerd
Artistic Nerd
Anime Nerd
What Be Your Nerd Type?
Quizzes for MySpace

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

It's probably pronounced 'Coe'

Under the headline 'WHO agrees HIV circumcision plan', the BBC reports that 'International experts have backed the use of male circumcision in the prevention of HIV.'

They are a little hazy on the detail of exactly how this happens, but the World Health Organisation seems very definite. According to their director of HIV/AIDS. One Kevin De Cock.

Delusion conclusion

Herewith my concluding thoughts on Dawkins, so it seems only right to end with something that we can both agree on.

But first, let’s summarise. The entirety of The God Delusion is given over to showing, in Dawkins's opinion, (a) the supreme unlikeliness of God and (b) the harm that religion does. Even moderate, non-fanatical religion. A sweet, kindly imam who wouldn’t hurt a fly can still teach the kiddies to recite the Koran blindly off the top of their heads and they end up flying planes into skyscrapers. He says. If art arises from religion, it’s accidental; artists have to live and will take commissions from who they can. If morality comes from religion, its accidental; it can come equally from no religion, therefore the religion bit is dispensable.

We get a grim catalogue, and not just of the stuff we can all point at – the excesses of the past. He concentrates on the present. The mental and physical abuses wreaked by religious institutions. The sheer abuses of power. Dawkins uses the phrase ‘American Taliban’ several times for aspects of the Christian Right in the US and it certainly seems appropriate for, say, the guy with the website that charmingly calculates the number of days particular people have been burning in hell. Oral Roberts. The quoted general who chillingly declares that George W. Bush wasn’t elected, he was appointed by God.

Let’s not feel too smug in the UK; we have Christian Voice.

And so on.

He points at religion’s ability to set man against man. The Dawkins take is that good people do good things, bad people do bad things, but only religion leads good people to do bad things.

At this point I stop agreeing (surprise). I do agree that religion can lead good people to do bad things, but not on its own. I can think of two forces that cause just as much evil whether attached to religion or not.

One is tribalism. Even Dawkins accepts that religion is often just used as an excuse: if a Northern Ireland Protestant beats up a Northern Ireland Catholic, he’s not muttering ‘take that, you transubstantiationist heathen’ under his breath (the actual quote in the book is much funnier but sadly I didn’t note the page number and can’t find it now). The evil and hatred of the Northern Ireland conflict is based on tribalism, and if religion was removed from the equation ... it would be just the same.

Tribalism can work on its own without any religious trappings. The genocide of Rwanda? The BNP? And yet, Dawkins only pays lip service to our species’s ability to form groups that are capable of the most astonishing hatred. It would probably be inconvenient to his argument.

The other force is dogma, with its satellite of blind faith. ‘Thou shalt!’ Or equally, ‘thou shalt not!’ Dawkins provides evidence that some of the crimes of Nazism were hidden beneath a cloak of religion (I felt physically sick, reading speeches by A. Hitler describing himself as Christian), but it was dogma that drove them. And the crimes of Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot had nothing to do with religion in any shape or form.

It’s when you bring these forces together that the evil starts.

Dawkins tells the heartbreaking story of a little Jewish boy called Edgardo Mortara, who had the misfortune to live in Italy in 1858 and to be given an ad hoc baptism by a Catholic maid to the family who thought the sickly child might die. She had been taught the rubbish that unbaptised children go to hell. The Inquisition got to hear of this. Officially, a baptism – any kind of baptism – meant he was legally a Catholic, and so at the age of six Edgardo was forcibly taken away from his devastated parents to be raised by the church. The church made it perfectly plain that it thought it was doing him a favour; and from all accounts, Edgardo grew up to share its view. He became a priest himself.

How. Utterly. Hideous.

Two things combined to make this happen. One was unchallenged dogma: the teaching that unbaptised children go to hell; the maid’s unthinking acceptance of what she had been taught; the church’s insistence that it’s better to be raised a Catholic without parents than a Jew with them. And the other was the fact that the church had the political and temporal power to make this happen, and get away with it.

Said it before, will say it again; religion should have no political power. None. Ever. And what privileges it has should be stripped away. Dawkins says, and I agree, that the problems of Northern Ireland would have vanished in a generation if the children of both sides had been allowed to be educated together. I’ll got a step further and say made to be educated together, like black and white children in the US in the sixties. And when they’re at school, let them be taught. Nothing should be withheld from them because it offends the religion of their parents. A fact is a fact is a fact. Every fact in the world is true. Let’s teach children truth. Novel concept, eh?

Yes, religion can create a framework which lets someone like Torquemada, who might never have been more than an obnoxious little prick of a cleric, come to dominate a nation. It’s a force multiplier and it works both ways. It also elevates people like Oscar Romero or Desmond Tutu and gives them a base to fight back from. On its own, religion isn’t a problem.

So there you have it – the unholy trinity. Religion + dogma + tribalism. Put the three of them together and truly terrible things have happened in history. Even just two of them together – any two – can still lead to evil. On their own, in descending order, I would say tribalism is the least acceptable of all and most likely to cause harm on its own; dogma is regrettable and annoying but not necessarily evil; and religion is the least likely of all to do harm.

So, the point where Dawkins and I agree? This time I can give the page number because I was so struck by reading it that I got out of bed and wrote it down. Page 308:
‘If children were taught to question and think through their beliefs, instead of being taught the superior virtue of faith without question, it is a good bet that there would be no suicide bombers.’
Amen, brother!

Of course, in Dawkins’s head, children who are taught to think will give up all that religious nonsense. He doesn’t know some of the kids I do.

He would make such a wonderful preacher.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Join ... us ...

We got a nice piece of junk mail today exhorting us to join the Arts & Heritage Club, which apparently offers coach trips to West End shows and the like. It's signed by, and accompanied by a nice photo of, Sheridan Morley.

Who died last month. Honestly, people, get with the programme.

Unless it's a cunning way of implying it was Morley's dying wish for us to join the Arts & Heritage Club? A tad heavy on the moral pressure, perhaps.

The pixies done good

Okay, we're five hours into our occupancy of the new building. What have we learnt?

Well, I was quick to spot the potential health and safety hazard in the men's toilets; if you're using them in the standing position, you run the risk of being thwacked in the back and splatted against the wall by someone opening the cubicle behind you. Which I believe has since happened, though not to me. Some kind of alarm system might be in order.

But otherwise, so far it's been reasonably painless. On Friday we packed all our stuff into crates; over the weekend the pixies moved it for us and set it all up in our new positions; and here we are. We're all already having to adjust to slightly less space to put things in (one desk and a couple of cupboards each, as opposed to an entire room) but I'm sure we'll get there. The new coffee machine is better than the old, and its drinks are hotter, but still not as good as coffee bags.

The new IP phone system takes a little getting used to. You have to login to use your phone? I mean, come on. I'm glad we've moved beyond "press button A, press button B" but you can overshoot.

The drawers in our desks have been specially provided by Sirius Cybernetics, so they can't wait to shut to fulfil the drawerness of your experience of using them. Thus, lots of loud bangs until we all get used to just giving them a very tiny shove. My monitor has lost its ability to tilt and hopefully I'll manage not to kick out the cables that go into the floor right between my feet.

I've heard more conversation in the customer service department in one morning than I've heard in the last four years, so the open plan thing seems to be working. Part of that conversation was "he's the lovechild of Lionel Richie and Bruce Forsyth." What a shame I was only passing through.

So, feeling seems to be positive on Day 1, by and large and generally speaking. And the downstairs Mens is out of order. Someone must have thwacked too hard. (UPDATE at 3.30pm: in fact, we've now been asked not to pull the chains in the upstairs Mens either. Good grief, what are my co-genderists doing??)

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Dawkins 4 the Holy Spirit

I’ll confess to changing my mind about Dawkins a little as I’ve read The God Delusion. See what being exposed to the facts will do to you? If only he’d reciprocate ...

Anyway, I haven’t thrown the book across the room out of irritation, as I was expecting I might; he’s successfully convinced me he has a sense of humour and might be quite fun to talk to; and many of the points he makes are good ones that Christians should consider.

In fact there’s only been one point where I almost did throw the book across the room, because he talks from so far up his bottom that he needs to stand up to be heard clearly (assuming he hasn’t had a full meal). He makes the ludicrous, absurd, utterly preposterous claim that Jesus intended his ministry only for Jews. Rubbish, rubbish, rubbish, rubbish, rubbish.

How does he get there? By stages. First, the claim that the Ten Commandments – and indeed the entire load of OT law – were taken as just applying to Israelites; thus, ‘thou shalt not kill’ becomes ‘thou shalt not kill your fellow Israelites,’ which isn’t quite as universal. Well, fair enough; there certainly seem to have been times when the followers of the law took it that way. Then, he points out that the disciples were all Jews. Well, fancy; Jesus lived in a land that was 99.9% of one ethnicity; he never travelled on anything more advanced or faster than a donkey for short distances; and his closest followers were all local men? Astonishing. And anyway – from there, Dawkins goes on to make his claim. Jesus, the man who preached the parable of the Good Samaritan, who incurred the wrath of the establishment by his frequent mixing with gentiles ... no, I can’t even finish the sentence.

It’s a regrettable lapse, because Dawkins is actually quite complimentary about (most of) Jesus’s ministry, if only because it’s a nice contrast to the God of Wrath in the OT about whom Dawkins is not complimentary at all. Dawkins’s God of the OT isn’t – to put it mildly – very nice.

It’s another telling argument; Dawkins points out that the OT seems to tell one long story of relentless genocide in the name of a God who just loves the smell of burning blood sacrifices. How can this God possibly be a good one? Again, fair enough. Some of the OT is just horrible. No other word for it.

And I can’t explain it. No one can ever really convince me that entire nations had to be slaughtered, down to the last woman and child. It apparently happened and I’ll believe there was a purpose, but I won’t even try to explain it and I’ll look seriously askance at anyone who feels they can. But I’ll take a different path from Dawkins, who goes on from this to write off the Bible as a moral source, and God as any kind of power for good. Dawkins has cleverly indicated why we need the Holy Spirit so much.

He does, rightly, say that many Christians point at various passages as symbolic, many as factual ... but how (he rightly asks) do you pick and choose? How do you know which is which? And even while the story of Noah might be mythical and deliberately written as such, something like the fall of Jericho and subsequent extermination of the inhabitants is plainly written as history. (That last sentence was me, not Dawkins, but I think he would agree.)

So, imagine I wanted to compile a book about you. I follow you around every day of your life, with a notebook in hand, writing down what you did. Ultimately all I’d end up with would be a list of details, subject to endless interpretation. I might chuck in some correspondence with you, relate a couple of anecdotes I had heard others say ... but even so, anyone who wanted to get to know you based solely on my book would probably get it wrong. And it would probably be full of apparent glaring contradictions – ‘how could the person who did this, do this?’

And that’s a book about one human being from a specific culture at a specific point in history. Now imagine a book about an entity vastly more than just a human being who transcends human conceptions of time, space and culture. How complicated will that book be? And how baffling to those who weren’t around at the time of writing? You’ll never understand it, so don’t pretend to yourself, or insult my intelligence by claiming, that you do.

The only way to really get to know someone is to meet them. Chat to them. Strike up an acquaintance. A friendship, even. That is why, as someone I recently read commented, it’s not Father, Son and Holy Scripture. It’s Father, Son and Holy Spirit – and then the Bible.

Dawkins makes the point that what was so distinctive in Jesus was that his teaching didn’t come from just blindly following the scriptures. Jesus appeared to apply a bit of thought. Dawkins is very close to the truth there. In fact, Jesus got it right where so many of the religious leaders were getting it wrong because he knew the Father first. He knew what the book was likely to be saying.

I don’t know why those horrible passages are there. I find them repellent and can hardly bear to read them. But I know that like everything else in the Bible, they have to be taken in the context of everything else in the Bible. And you cannot base a morality on the Bible alone, because then you end up with the Inquisition and slavery and holy wars and ... so on. Spirit first, then Scripture – it’s the only way to go.

Concluding thoughts will come in another post, because this is already long enough.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Moral musing

I’m not sure what it is that makes Richard Dawkins a moral man.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m sure that he is ... I just don’t see how from The God Delusion.

An oft-heard criticism that he seeks to deal with is ‘atheists must be immoral because they reject the supernatural yardstick of morality, so how do we know right and wrong?’ It becomes a flawed argument just by looking at atheists who do somehow manage to be moral: not stealing, not murdering, not raping, not lying ... etc. But Dawkins of course goes a step further and seeks a Darwinian explanation for morality, which frankly never really convinces.

I’m sure he doesn’t believe Hitler was evil only because he failed to meet one of the four Darwinian explanations of morality that Dawkins offers, and he doesn’t believe good things are only good because they can lead to great art like Romeo & Juliet (which he says they do). But I wish I understood what he does base his own morality on; because while most of us, including I expect him, can get by on the gut feeling of knowing it when we see it, that’s not always the most reliable guide and it certainly isn’t scientific.

Uncle Ben’s take: we by and large know what’s moral because that’s how the universe is made in order to function best.

In the last part of the book, Dawkins moves on to the decidedly iffy bits of the Bible that deal with mass genocide etc. in the name of the God of Love. For which, I think, a separate post is needed.

Anything could happen in the next half hour

Today we move.

My employer has been in existence since 1994, and both it and its predecessors were all based in the Atlas Centre. This started as a computing laboratory - in the picture on the other site, it was originally just the big block and the wing that makes the lefthand side of the courtyard. Over the years the other wings were added and bit by bit it became mostly offices and mostly us.

It has a certain ... charm, for a given value of "charm". The courtyard created by building two more wings around it has a distinctly mid-1950s Moscow feel - there are concrete benches out there but I've never seen anyone use them (and my desk overlooks it). My Russian colleague used to have this desk, maybe out of nostalgia. The newest wing, sticking out to the left, is the nicest bit. But of course it all sticks to the 60s and 70s ethos of offices and corridors, and we can't help noticing that it's slowly decaying. Not to mention having a landlord who likes to put up brand new residence hostels six inches away from us, fix our heating once the weather starts to warm up, etc etc etc.

So we are moving. Our new home is five minutes walk down the road (= further from the canteen). It has been purpose built for us. It is environmentally friendly, with lights that only come on if they sense your presence and louvres that open or close automatically in accordance with heat and humidity. It is (whisper who dares) open plan. And in the event of attack, it retreats into the ground and a loud voice blares "Stand by for action! We are about to launch Stingray."

Actually that last bit isn't true but I'm feeling desperate for something to write. So let's analyse the opening credits of Stingray instead. Marineville is obviously preparing for an air attack, so I'm not quite sure why launching a submarine is expected to help. Nor am I impressed by Commander Shore's announcement that "anything could happen in the next half hour." This is not the kind of wishiwashiness I want from a leader of men. (And women.) (And two women.) (And one woman and a kind of human-aquaphibian hybrid who can't talk.) (And women.) If my commander had just called battle stations, missiles were popping out of their silos and aircraft screeching overhead, I would want to know what the &*!£ is going on? Otherwise it really is a bit of an overreaction.

And if you've still no idea what I'm on about, watch it on YouTube.

To mark the occasion, three of us decided to come in early and have a fry-up breakfast at the soon to be slightly more distant canteen. Well, we had to do something! Actually only two of us had the fry-up as the third is a Buddhist so just came to watch. She has two sons so probably didn't learn anything about male eating habits she didn't already know.

I seem to have changed subject. In fifteen minutes I'm due over at the new building to help with the relocation of our document store. I may wander over now. Or not. Oh, the agony of choice.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

We'll always be together however far it seems

So, hands up if you had slightly longer than usual non-electric dreams this morning, due to living in south Oxfordshire and your electric alarm or clock radio not working because you had a power cut?

There were upsides. We actually had breakfast as a family on a weekday; we have a gas cooker so hot drinks were still in order (and there was hot water in the tank); and it was fun listening to BBC Oxford, for whom this was the most exciting thing to happen since the last thing happened that was really exciting.
  • "So, we're over to Debbie in Didcot. How has the power cut affected you?"
  • "Well, there's no electricity so it's cold and dark."
  • "That's amazing, because we were just talking to Wendy in Wantage and she says it's cold and dark too. Okay, over to Mike in Milton."
  • "Well, our power's just got back on."
  • "Get off the line and stop wasting our time. Over to Lyall in Littlemore. Lyall, no electricity then?"
  • "No, it's basically cold and dark ..."
At this point my powers of alliteration and satire fail, so I'd better get off to work.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Bottomless excellence

There's a Spitting Image sketch that for some reason has stayed with me over the years. In the real world, the Queen and Prince Philip had toured New Zealand and been mooned by some Maori protestors. In the sketch, the Queen is marvelling at all the bottoms she saw, and thinking that everyone should have one. It goes something like:
  • Philip: But everyone does have one!
  • Queen: I don't have a bottom. I'm the Queen.
  • Philip: But what do you sit on?
  • Queen: Cushions.
  • Philip: But what do you sit on when you go to the loo?
  • Queen: I don't go to the loo. I'm the Queen.
And so on. Anyway, we just got back from watching Helen Mirren's performance in the same role, and I can say she does it perfectly. She has the Queen's voice, her mannerisms, her paint-peeling stare, and above all you can believe this is a woman who doesn't have a bottom.

The excellent film centres on the week between Diana's death and her funeral. I was lucky enough to avoid most of this as I was on holiday in Cornwall, in a house with no TV. We got the gist of it, we read the occasional paper, and when we drove back on funeral day the roads were empty. I remember wishing this kind of thing could happen more often.

The film has laughter and tragedy; it has all the charged emotion of the time; it has the squirming at the first inklings of just how ghastly the funeral is going to be. And it backs up what I felt back then. We have no idea what was going through the heads and hearts of the royals as they spent most of the week up in Balmoral. And how dare anyone suggest otherwise? I mean - how dare anyone lecture another, who has suffered a personal bereavement (when the lecturer has never even met the dead person, or at best parasited off her existence) ... how DARE that person lecture the bereaved one on how she should be acting? It should have been exactly what the first instinct and (apparently) the Spencers said it should be - a private, non-state affair.

But no. It sickened me then and it sickens me now. Boo-bloody-hoo, our fairytale princess has died so come and show us you care. Face it, it was not the British people's finest hour. But, the Queen got the public mood wrong, Blair got it right and the result was Goodbye England's Rose.

(Another Spitting Image sketch I remember has Diana choosing a name for her recently born second child. "I thought of Henry because that's what all my friends are called, yah, right?" Exactly.)

Technically, the Queen was correct in every decision. Diana wasn't a royal, she certainly didn't deserve a state funeral, and the Royal Standard doesn't get flown at half mast for anyone (not even the Queen's father when he died) because that's not what it's for. But enough people shouted loudly enough to get their way anyway. In one respect, the Queen did what she was told by the people, which is good; but in another, it was basically a more-or-less benevolent form of mob rule and that is bad.

The film has a nice dig at the end about the ease with which one can fall from grace in the media, in the form of advice from the battle-chastened Queen to her new Prime Minister who during the affair was voted more popular than Churchill. Of course, Churchill's war had a point to it. And he won.

Dawkins vs Jacob

I’ve not blogged on Brother Dawkins for a while so here’s the next instalment. Sorry, it’s a long one.

The God Delusion continues to be a fun read, if only because his tone is much lighter than in the other works I’ve read (The Selfish Gene; The Blind Watchmaker; Climbing Mount Improbable). He even cracks the odd joke.

I think I’m coming to see his weakness, though. Well, two weaknesses. One is that occasionally, as previously said, he’s just not as well informed as he thinks he is. His take on the accuracy of the Bible, given the antiquity of the manuscripts, alleged unreliability of copying etc. is old, old, old. They’re reasonable questions to ask, and they have reasonable answers which no one ever told him. Thus what he’s sure is firm ground in fact stands up to informed critique like grass in a gale and I won’t go further into it here. Nowadays we teach this stuff in Sunday School. They probably didn’t in his day, and should have.

The other is his reliance on Darwinian evolution for everything. Fine as far as it goes – if you’re talking scientifically about how life has developed on planet Earth, at present Darwinian evolution is the only meaningful model. Just like for 250 years, Newtonian physics were the only meaningful way of talking about how the solar system worked ... until Einstein came along and showed that Newton was in fact completely wrong, he just accidentally used words that accurately described the situation in most observable cases.

(If you just heard a loud OW, that’s because my colleague Tim who sits five feet away from me has a degree in space science, has just read this and has thrown something at me for making uninformed generalisations. I sit with my back to him so I’ll have to hope I catch his reflection in the monitor.)

So, Darwinian evolution is now but may not always be the sacred mantra of life scientists ... which Dawkins should realise. And he goes even further than the origins of life – he goes on to seek Darwinian reasons for why religion should exist at all. And morality. And a passel of other stuff too. That is when you want to say, come on Richard, give it a break already.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. It’s testimony time.

Dawkins graciously accepts the existence of otherwise sane individuals, reputable scientists even, who are still inexplicably religious. He has skilfully dissected the roots of religion and shown it all to be a load of hooey, so he is patently baffled why such a thing should happen.

It doesn’t occur to him that his premises are incorrect. He took a wrong turn early on. Dawkins assumes believers believe because they are told to. In the Dawkinsian model of religious belief, children are indoctrinated and either continue to believe, growing up into credulous adults, or be clever like him and drop it. It’s a simple little model which totally fails to explain, say, the Alister McGraths of this world who start atheist and go the other way ... via the medium of science.

Nor does it occur to him that people can , yes, be taught religion as children ... and then discard it, and then rebuild it piece by piece, bit by bit, hanging on to those bits that make sense, discarding those that don’t. Religion to Dawkins is a homogenous mass of credulity. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Yes, I was brought up as a Christian believer but in such a way that if I hadn’t gone through the reconstruction process myself I would have given it all up long ago. I will also admit that I might have done likewise if raised a Muslim or a Hindu. It’s unknowable, what I would have done. I can only say what I did.

Now, that testimony thing.

In December 1991 I moved into my flat. I was in a brand new town, I knew no one, the job wasn’t half as good as I had hoped, I was flat broke ... life was not good. In the midst of all that I prayed. A lot. Sometimes it’s all you can do.

I awoke the next morning to find that my incompetent boss had died, an anonymous philanthropist had deposited £100,000 in my bank account and ...

Actually, absolutely nothing noticeable happened, except that a word popped into my forebrain. Jacob.

But it was more than just the word – it came with a parcel of meaning attached. I’m not sure what you could call it. A meme? An engram? Whatever. The meaning attached it to was the Old Testament patriarch of that name, who – as I knew from my David Kossof Bible Stories many years earlier – laboured hard for seven years, married the wrong girl, laboured for seven more, married the right one.

I’m not the kind of person who regularly gets visions, or messages, or images, or apposite Bible verses to quote. I write science fiction, for goodness sake, and weird stuff pops into my head all the time. Yet, for some reason, this seemed different. How? No idea. You might as well ask, how is the woman I married any different to any other woman that I didn’t? Biologically they’re the same. But she is different and I can see it. So there. Same thing here.

Mind you, I wasn’t particularly interested in anything happening in seven years time, let alone fourteen. I wanted it now. And if it was some kind of prophecy, I doubted it was a literal one, if only because the two women Jacob married were sisters and he ended up married to both of them at once. So, encoded in the word that I received was [in seven years time you’ll think you’ve got it made but won’t and in another seven years you really will have].

And there was of course the implication that I would still be there in seven, or fourteen, years time, so therefore I would get through my current difficulties. Which I did. Wasn’t easy, but got easier. Job improved, incompetent boss left + got a much better one, made friends. Occasionally I thought a little about Jacob over the following years, but not often. Certainly not often enough to have the effect that I’m sure someone will suggest to me, that this was all subconscious positive thinking. I certainly didn’t tell it to my publisher, yet seven years later, December 1998, my first book was published. And I thought I had it made.

Except that I didn’t. Yes, I was a published author. No, I wasn’t rich enough to retire. His Majesty’s Starship got reasonable reviews, did reasonably well, but it certainly didn’t take the world by storm. In short, it was a bog standard first time novelist experience. So, back to the grind stone.

Jobs and solvency came and went; another seven years passed quite quickly. I met Best Beloved and knew before too long that I wanted to marry her. Couldn’t see how, given various circumstances that I won’t go into. Jacob began to loom in my mind as the fourteenth anniversary approached, and it did occur to me that maybe this was what God had in mind – but I couldn’t see how. And I never told her about Jacob, yet she was the one who finally came out with the breakthrough suggestion that let us go ahead. We got engaged in December 2005. Do the maths.

This kind of thing shouldn’t happen, according to Dawkins. Yet it does. How strange.

I’m now moving on to the chapters where he talks about morality. Expect more soon.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

But still no pyramids

Caves on Mars! That's what it's all about. Come on, what skifianado's heart doesn't beat a little faster at the thought?

In a nutshell, Nasa spacecraft in orbit around Mars have spotted the likely entrances of seven caves. And if that doesn't excite you, you'll never understand.

But honestly, the names ... researchers have dubbed the caves Dena, Chloe, Wendy, Annie, Abbey, Nicki and Jeanne. Who are they? The mission controller's teenage son's girlfriends? For pity's sake! The first ever known example of a particular geological feature on another planet -- which already boasts the mighty Mons Olympus, the Valles Marineris, the Hellas basis, the Tharsis plateau -- and we call it ... Nicki.

I hope these people aren't the first to discover a whole new planet.

Friday, March 16, 2007

In which Ben is happy

This morning I was mugged for my spare change by a trio of women whose figures were really not flattered by the superhero cozzies they were wearing ... but even that can't dent my good mood.

A few years ago, when Big Engine was still up and running, I had an email exchange with a complete and utter twit whose novel was sublimely awful and who had an interesting perspective on the ideal author/publisher relationship. I chronicled the exchange but omitted his identity, as I'm a nice guy, it was the professional thing to do, and it was so much more than he deserved that I could feel immeasurably smug. The fact that I wasn't publishing him caused me several sleepless nights, because it's so hard to get comfortable when you're giggling uncontrollably.

And I still don't intend to name him, because the fool has gone public with Miss Snark and I'm off the hook. Miss Snark is a New York literary agent - or possibly a collection of the same who blog as a corporate identity - and her blog is invaluable for insights into the harsh reality of commercial fiction. And the snarklings who use the comments column are much less nice than me. Vindication!

I'm not giving the URL of his site because I don't want his logfiles to show that people came to his site from mine. It's there in the Miss Snark post, however. Go there and you will find such gems as:
  • A rejection from the the Austin Wahl Agency / Thomas Wahl. This has a "Charges fee. Not recommended" against it from Preditors & Editors: or in other words, even the scammers don't want to touch him.
  • My favourite ever fanmail: "Received autographed copies of your book and already sold all of them here in the Ear Nose Throat Clinic."
  • And possibly my favourite ever opening line, in the excerpt that he publishes: "Oceana's triplicate synthetic recreation from the Space Ark's registry of binary data was the first Being to be regenerated from the Terrestrial Ark's deep well of androgynous doubles and carnal genetic ancestors."
And now I feel myself becoming nasty, so will stop.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Surreal moments in my career # 927

Doing a photoshoot for a jack-in-the-box.

It was destined for an advertising postcard to be handed out at conferences etc with the message "avoid unwanted pop-ups". Do you see what we did there? But as neither of our regular image repositories (Getty and Shutterstock) have a decent jack-in-the-box image - the ones we found were cartoons - we had to arrange it ourselves.

Where it got surreal was the details. As supplied (literally, I suppose, in his out of the box configuration), Jack just stands straight upright. First we thought we might have him leaning back, staring up at the camera, which meant using combinations of unseen safety pins and bulldog clips to pull him back.

But it looked too like him wanting to give us a hug, so he had to be made to lean forward - again with posture altering devices like a rubber (UK meaning) and a highlighter shoved down his back, with who knows what implications for chiropractors later in his career. None of this was run past his agent - a two-year-old named Harry - in advance, so I won't tell if you don't.

When we found ourselves saying things like "Come on, darling, exude, exude, make love to the camera, that's it" then we knew it was getting silly. When Jack threw a tantrum and went to sulk in his dressing room (he assures us the white powder is just talc) we definitely knew it was time to call it a day. But we got our picture.

Professionalism, sweetie, professionalism.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Thank you Paul Gambaccini

- for introducing me to Explosions in the Sky. Nothing to do with how Japan lost WW2, this is a four-part instrumental group from Texas and Mr G played their "The Birth and Death of the Day" on Radio 2 on Sunday afternoon.

It is very, very rare that I hear a bit of music and think "wow". But in this case it seemed appropriate. It spoke to the unreconstructed stadium rocker buried deep within me - not that I have ever rocked a stadium, or in one, or am likely to. It's prog rock without all the embarrassing silly hair and costumes and inability to sing. It's Mike Oldfield joins Sky and goes heavy. It's just bloody good guitar music.

Sadly Youtube doesn't have "The Birth and Death of the Day", so here's "Six Days at the Bottom of the Ocean" (I gather all their titles have a similar verbosity). How nice to be reminded, in this day and age, that something good can come out of Texas.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Whisper a little prayer for me my baby

At the invitation of m’colleague Tim (who lent it to me) I’ve started reading Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion. I suspect I will have a lot to say ...

I won’t do one big review as it would take too long and life is too short. I’ll just drop in comments here when and as I feel, as I go. Like now.

First impressions. Like all his books, it’s a joy to read. It’s witty, lucid, very well written, and invaluably informative in those areas where Dawkins is well informed. (He’s not always as well informed as he thinks he is but I’ll probably come back to that in another post.) His one page analysis of the excesses of Catholicism shows exactly why the Reformation was such a good, and long overdue, idea. His dissection of Creationism and Intelligent Design (amusingly described as ‘Creationism in a cheap tuxedo’) are all I need to point at if anyone ever asks me why I’m not a Creationist. And as for the prayer experiment ...

This, too, rightly gets the Dawkins treatment. This was an experiment set up to test via scientific means whether praying specific things for a specific group of people had the slightest effect. It was all done with the proper system of double blinds – the prayees (all hospital patients) didn’t know they were being prayed for, the prayerers didn’t know exactly who they were praying for (they knew first name and initial of surname, but had never met the people in question) and so on. Rather unsurprisingly, the experiment revealed that prayer had exactly no effect at all.

I take this with a pinch of caveats because I’ve heard a similar story in which prayer did work. I have no direct way of knowing which account is correct, but I strongly suspect it’s Dawkins. I won’t lean over backwards to give Deep Faith reasons for why it didn’t work, like some theologians he gleefully goes on to quote – I’ll just say that if you want to prove the existence of a thinking, reasoning intelligence then you don’t reduce it to the status of a lab rat; and if that intelligence is in the habit of handing out favours when and as he feels like, you don't treat them as a mechanical process that is there on demand. That’s the logical flaw of the experiment, never mind the moral and ethical ones.

Here is Ben’s take on prayer.

I was running low on petrol so I decided to divert from my ordinary route home from work, and go via Tesco to fill up. This means coming off the A34, driving up to the Tesco roundabout and turning right. With no traffic around, you can do this in 30 seconds. When Abingdon is having a Bad Traffic Day, like this day in question, it can take 40 minutes.

Forty minutes later, having finally crawled up to the Tesco roundabout, my schedule for the evening was already way off. So I just did a full 180 (UPDATE: I meant 360, gaah!) round the roundabout, back to the A34 in 30 seconds, and took an alternative route home that took a further 10 minutes. Then I had my dinner, went out to a meeting scheduled for later that evening, and filled up en route to that instead. At the garage, I met a lady from out of town who was badly lost and wanted directions to a particular road. Which I was able to give her.


I don’t know if she was religious; I don’t know if she had prayed for help in finding her way about town. It’s still entirely possible that as she drove away she sent up a quick thanks for meeting someone who could help her. I certainly sent up a quick thanks that I was able to help. Neither of us would imagine for a second that God had inflicted a Bad Traffic Day on Abingdon, inconveniencing hundreds of drivers with a knock on to thousands if you include family members, just so I could help the lady find Appleford Drive. (It's hard to imagine a loving God inflicting one of Abingdon’s Bad Traffic Days on anyone. Sodom and Gomorrah got off more lightly.)

My mental image is of a grid stretching out ahead of me. A grid of events, or non events, that affect everyone. My life, and the lives of everyone else, rattle through the grid randomly like pinballs. We bump into the events, we bump into each other. It's a chaotic, non-predictable process. Prayer is a way of bringing a bit more order into it. It puts you in a state of mind and being that gravitates more towards, or away from, certain events and lives than others. It makes you able to find some good wherever you find yourself. It puts yourself second and others first. It helps good spread out to encompass other people, not just yourself. And quite possibly – a bit like Dawkins’s Climbing Mount Improbable – it will bring you via a series of smaller events to a big event that, had you jumped straight there, would have seemed to be in violation of the laws of the universe.

Drat. I feel the need to give a particular key testimony in my life coming on. But not here. Maybe tomorrow.

[I thought of heading this post with another anagram, but "Richard Dawkins The God Delusion" is an anagram of "Swindled and rigorous thickhead". Which would be unkind, so I went with the Mamas & the Papas instead.]

Friday, March 09, 2007

Grim, stirring foolery (anagram)

Someone came to this blog today following a search for a review of Farah Mendlesohn's edited collection Glorifying Terrorism. The sharp eyed among you will have seen from the reading/read list (over on the left somewhere, page down quite a bit) that this is what I have been mostly reading this month. Well, I guess I'd better review it then.

The purpose of this collection was, quite simply, to show up the utter absurdity of the knee-jerk Terrorism Act 2006, specifically, the bit that forbids "the glorification of terrorism". Quite why this is so silly is best shown by a glimpse at the book's recommended reading/viewing list at the end. The Act could be used to outlaw Star Wars. The Act could be used to outlaw - and this really brings it home - C.S. Lewis's Prince Caspian. Say what you like about the latter, it's about a campaign of armed resistance against the brutal yet legitimate rulers of - um - Narnia.

Of course, we all cry, no one's ever going to be arrested for reading Prince Caspian. But what's to stop it? There isn't a copper on the face of the planet who, if he's made his mind up to exercise the rights of enforcement granted to him by law, will stay his hand because "that's not what the legislation was meant for." No, but that's how it can be taken. Any blunt instrument, sledgehammer law is a bad law. Like this one.

So, after all that, is the collection any good? Well, yeah, here and there. Some are good stories in their own right and needed publishing anyway (let's call them category A). Some probably never would have been without this collection but still justify their own existence (category B). And some frankly left me cold (category C) or actively didn't do the book any favours (category D). I enjoyed Charles Stross's "Minutes of the Labour Party Conference, 2016" in which the chickens come home to roost for Labour; H.H. Loyche's "The Rural Kitchen", in which an innocent recipe book falls foul of over restrictive legislation; Lucy Kemnitzer's "John Brown's Body", exploring an alternative fate of the nineteenth century emancipator. These were category A above. In category B, I didn't enjoy but was glad to have read (for example) Rachel Swirsky's "The Debt of the Innocent" and Una McCormack's "Torch Song". I'll be kind and not identify the category Cs and Ds.

Let's just say the level of copy editing shows that Farah is a busy lady. Which she is. The multiple use of "annoint", far too often and with far too many 'n's in the first story sets the tone ...

I'm glad the book was published; I'm glad I've read it; and I'll probably put it on Amazon.

School's in

When I blogged about last year's parent-teacher evening it drew a lot of Google searches for something completely different, due to my use of the word "threesome" and a word that almost rhymes with "thespian" in the same sentence.

No sign of them this year, though - or at least, the third person who made me wonder didn't seem to be around. It was obviously a year for shedding partners because for various reasons our own household's turnout was just me and, wonder of wonders, the actual Boy in question, the point of the whole thing, deigning to turn up so the teachers could deliver their opinions directly to him. Which may have slightly more effect than having their opinions filtered through the medium of me. I did get to see one lone father trailing round, all on his own and minus child, and it's a very forlorn sight.

This time the teachers were all sitting where they were meant to be and we actually mostly stuck to the timetable - it only began to slip about three teachers before the end.

Mrs A (maths, but doesn't teach him) is still multiply pierced, though her dress sense has toned down a little. Mr K (business studies), I finally decided about two hours later, reminds me of Jim's dad from American Pie but without the witty, dynamic sense of humour. Mr E (maths) thinks the Boy is the entire bee's anatomy and can't believe his colleagues in other subjects don't do likewise. Quite touching, really. Mrs K (English) couldn't believe she was sitting at the same table as a published novelist. Miss W (RE) looks about five minutes older than the Year 10s she teaches.

So, a good evening; maybe scope for future improvement but isn't there always; useful pointers for how this can be achieved. We celebrated with dinner from Domino's Pizza, which for some reason is considered a treat, probably because a pair of pizzas and a garlic mushroom starter costs half our average weekly shopping bill. Maybe he could consider that in his next Business Studies project.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Dense bodies and objects in space

I was always extremely unlikely to watch the new series of Castaway. Looking at the BBC page I now see that contestants can't even bring reading or writing material with them, and at this point my already zero-point interest spins into a black hole and becomes even less accessible. There is no way I could ever be interested in someone who is prepared to go without reading or writing for 13 months.

Except possibly on a dissecting slab so that future anatomists can learn from the mistakes of the past.

What is interesting, and completely unrelated but it saves me having to do two blog posts where one will do, is the Astronomy Picture of the Day site, which does what it says on the tin: every day you get a brand new and usually quite astonishing astronomical picture. I just add it to my regular first-thing-in-the-morning blog and cartoon round-up and there you are.

Makes that small island in the Pacific seem even less important than it already is.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Bad luck Mr Gorsky

There's no excuse for it.

Neil Armstrong allegedly uttered two famous lines on the moon, and the second was "Good luck Mr Gorsky" as he climbed back into the lander. Apparently, as a child he had overheard his neighbours the Gorskys arguing, with the wife promising the husband sex "when the kid next door walks on the moon."

This was presented to us with the assurance "this is a true story" at a meeting at church last night, and padded out with lots of supplementary detail: NASA assumed he was talking about a Soviet cosmonaut and checked their files but couldn't trace the man; Armstrong refused to expand on his comment until 1995 when Mr Gorsky died.

What a shame that it's just a joke made up by comedian Buddy Hackett – in, curiously, 1995. As a very quick and easy Internet search discovers.

In some versions it's apparently the oral variety that Mrs Gorsky is trying not to promise, but I don't think last night's speaker was ready to go there. It was still a good talk, good points ... just a little undermined.

I like to think I can detect an urban legend quite easily. There's something about them – the tone, the very faint stretch marks it leaves in your disbelief – that makes my antennae twitch. Some are just funny to tell as jokes. Did an Asian family in Weston-Super-Mare really think the miles of low-tide mudflat meant there was a tsunami coming? I don't know and frankly can't be bothered to check. But then, I don't intend to use this as an illustration in a talk.

With the internet, there's absolutely no excuse for not checking any anecdote you intend to repeat to reinforce whatever you're saying. And yet, up they come, time and time again, and the ones I hear most often are shoehorned into sermons or church talks. Christians do have a distressing tendency to believe anything told to them by another Christian without questioning. The first time, it might amuse, even if already the antennae are twitching. The second time, especially if one or more of the key features varies slightly ... well, that's when I tend to shut down.

What does it say? It says your talk is so flawed it has to be backed up with lies. It says you're so clueless you can't do a simple Google search, yet apparently people should believe you. Or maybe you're just a very nice guy without the slightest idea of how the world works ... so still not really worth listening to, sorry.

Another one that pops up frequently tends to be on talks about sin or guilt, in the format of:
[Arthur Conan Doyle / Mark Twain / A.N. Other] sent a letter to every man in town saying "Leave town at once – all is found out." [A quarter / half / three quarters / all] of the people who received it immediately left.
Unlike the Gorsky one, I can't find this at all on the web ... which itself makes me suspicious as to whether it happened to Conan Doyle or Twain or anyone at all.

For pity's sake, people, get it right or shut up.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Lazing on a square-eyed afternoon

A nasty wet afternoon yesterday, so no walk and far too much TV.

The Shawshank Redemption. One of the greats and something I’ve been determined Best Beloved should see for a long time. One of those movies that is excellent the first time you see it and improves with repeated viewing, because every time we are drip-fed one of the threads that come so gloriously together at the end there is a nice warm fuzzy glow as you realise what is happening. Tiny flashes of humanity show up through the sea of dehumanising misery like poppies on Flanders field – tiny, but all you really need to keep going one more day.

Then the ‘Making of’ feature on the DVD. Not something I usually watch, but interesting to see. Not least for the group of Christian film critics who like to shoehorn as much meaning as they can into – well, just about anything, really. You can take it too far. The Shawshank Redemption is undoubtedly a film about redemption – there’s a clue in the title – but drawing parallels between Andy and Christ starts to get silly. Andy’s redemption comes through his own hard work – which many would say is the only kind of redemption available, but I wouldn’t and they shouldn’t either.

Also amused to see actor Clancy Brown, who plays the utterly bastardly Captain Hadley, explain that he politely declined the offer to mix with some real prison guards, since if they saw the movie then they would really really really really rather he didn’t say he based his performance on any of them.

The West Wing. The Prime Minister of the UK is a glorified MP who gets to meet the Queen a bit more than usual. It's a position worthy of respect, but this fact should always be at the back of his or her mind. On t'other hand, the Office of President of the United States of America should be worth so much more honour and dignity. It should belong to someone like Bartlet; not a sabre rattling pea brain, not a Southern slimeball, not a ... fill in your own unworthy candidate here. Always priceless.

And finally Lewis. I like this show. Lewis has moved on since Morse. He’s older, more cynical and also slightly better at his job than his old boss. I really get the feeling Oxford is his manor. Of course, it’s still a dream Oxford linked by a mysterious network of wormholes enabling characters to move seamlessly between locations miles apart while still having the same conversation. It’s more fine tuned than in the old days, when Morse couldn’t drive between any two locations in Oxfordshire without heading the wrong way down the High. Lewis doesn’t drive so much – his car isn’t so photogenic – so the wormhole network now mostly covers tourist attractions and college quads.

I’m still not quite sure where Lewis works. Morse, in the books and on TV, was undoubtedly based in Kidlington, HQ of Thames Valley Police. Lewis's office is obviously somewhere more central but we’re never quite sure where. I suppose it could be St Aldates. I’ve never been beyond the front desk there but even so, it looks a bit too modern. Anyway.

And please can we not wait another twenty years for Hathaway to get his own series.

So, far too much TV, and a headache and a couple of hours insomnia as a result. But every now and then, just once in a while, that’s what Sundays are for.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Not Angels but Anglicans

The BBC news site changes its headlines on a fairly frequent basis. Earlier today, under Entertainment, was Church confirms she is pregnant. Scope for all kinds of theological extrapolation along the lines of the church being the bride of Christ ... except that it is of course Charlotte Church who is expecting.

A couple of hours later, also under Entertainment, the headline has changed to Church condemns 'humiliation TV'. Knowing that Charlotte is shortly to host her own chat show I wonder if this is a promise for quality, comfy sofa entertainment - more Michael Parkinson than Graham Norton.

No, this time it really is The Church (of England) warning that TV shows like Big Brother and Little Britain can "exploit the humiliation of human beings for public entertainment". Ah well. CofE's finger still firmly on the pulse, then.

The latter makes for quite entertaining reading. Bath's Reverend Stephen Lynas is evidently a cup-half-full kind of man: "For every Jade Goody there is a Sister Wendy" and "Big Brother is pretty awful but nobody has died yet."

Little Britain is singled out for criticism because the Vicky Pollard character makes fun of the way some teenage girls speak. Well yeah but no but yeah but no but that's because they do, you fool. And prize for Clergyman Most Likely to Live on Another Planet has to go to Reverend Richard Moy: "My only complaint with Channel 4 is that they did not think to have our Archbishop of York on Celebrity Big Brother."

Though Big Brother rules would be one way of managing the Synod. And I would pay to see Jade Goody's art appreciation series.