Adventures in Language: April Fool Day

April Fool

I hope you were agreeably fooled. The Today Prrogramme, which I wake up to in the morning, gave it all away for most of the papers. Including my beloved Guardian. As it turned out, this year’s joke is ingenius rather than so subtle you’d be scratching your to find it.

The idea of Guardian Goggles, with apps to ensure loyal Guardianistas can go through life being fed only information that embodies a liberal bias, is brilliant. Oddly enough, this tendency was demonstrated in a thread on the BBC zombie series, In the Flesh. I had been disappointed in the first episode, but heartened to find the second was better. This is my comment:

I watched the first episode and didn’t think much of it. Like Kieren, all too pallid, passive, and sensitive. Second episode is much better, with some real oomph. I like Amy for dragging him off for a day trip, and the introduction of Rick is putting the cat among the pigeons. That vicar is a bad lot.

I don’t want politically correct allegory, I want entertainment that also manages to tell the truth about human relationships, as Being Human did. In the Flesh is shaping up nicely, and I’m looking forward to watching the last episode.

A poster who’s been on cif since 2004 replied thusly:

Reference to “PC” is usually shorthand for not liking the minority under discussion. But you can read the Rotters as any marginalised community you wish.

This was irritating, since I do support most of the values espoused by the Guardian, and I fired off a couple of snippy replies:

Now that is the problem with taking a perfectly good phrase and assuming an inherent bias. Not in my case. I just don’t wish to be lectured.

Come think of it, your comment is the perfect illustration of the April Fool joke in today’s paper.

Many of the things that are correct (in my view) are also politically correct, in the sense that there’s a broad consensus in their favour. Unfortunately, some people who don’t share those views use the expression to suggest a conspiracy to hide facts from the public, or a form of indoctrination. I don’t see why my use of the expression should be curtailed simply because others abuse it. As a result of that abuse, there’s now a knee-jerk liberal reaction, which is as absurd as the original mis-use of the expression.

But enough of that. It’s not often I have a kind word for the Daily Mail, but credit where it’s due. I did like their April Fool article about a toilet roll in Fifty Shades of Grey, to tie in with the novel. A neat way of saying the novel is shit. The comments below the story are particularly amusing, not just the ones that don’t get the joke. This endearingly offf-topic reply wins the Beautiful Railway Bridge prize for providing too much information.

Whilst I appreciate that Poundshop loo roll is OK for you, I personally find that with my bowel complaint that there is such a thing as loo roll that is too cheap. For example, it may not have the softness or absorbancy, so you end up using twice as much. So it can be a false economy. I agree that Aloe Vera impregnated stuff is just a marketing gimmick though.

Of course, the whole story could be true…

A Victorian Christmas at Dingley Dell & A Christmas Carol

Dingley Dell XmasFor many people, Simon Callow has become the face and voice of Charles Dickens for our time. I first saw him play Dickens in an episode from season one of Doctor Who, where he gave a public reading of A Christmas Carol, interrupted by extra-terrestrial ghosts. Callow has also given readings, as Dickens did, and performed in theatrical adaptations of the story.

The Guardian, in another manifestation of Yuletide Spirit (see their Nutcracker), offers a reading by Callow of the Christmas episode from Pickwick Papers. I’m ashamed to say that, tasty as it is episode-by-episode, I’ve never managed to work through the entire novel. A new resolution, possibly. Here’s the podcast:

Simon Callow reads the Christmas episode from Pickwick Papers.

And here’s Alastair Sim’s 1951 take on Scrooge, one of my favourite versions of A Christmas Carol.

The Nutcracker

Here’s a treat. The full version of The Nutcracker, danced by the Royal Ballet, and made available by the Guardian for viewing from the 19th to the 26th. Get it while you can. One of the things I most keenly miss from Seattle is seeing the Pacific Northwest Ballet version, with sets by Maurice Sendak, every Christmas.

The Nutcracker, part 1
The Nutcracker, part 2

Here’s a taster of the PNB version.

Tobacco: Out of Sight, Out of Mind?

It’s quite disconcerting when a politician/party/government I despise comes up with a sensible policy. When the politician is Andrew Lansley, Secretary of State for Health, the party is the Tory Party, and the government is the Coalition, the cognitive dissonance sky rockets to head-exploding levels.

Lansley’s announcement that smoking is no longer part of life is backed up by legislation coming into force today , banning display of tobacco products in large stores and supermarkets. Small shops will be covered by the legislation in 3 year’s time. After I’d picked myself up from the floor, I had to admit that even a stopped clock is bound to be right twice a day.

I’m exaggerating my reaction a bit, but not too much. Nevertheless, as a good lefty, it was therefore incumbent on me to qualify my approbation of this thoroughly enlightened move by remembering the hatchet job Lansley has perpetrated on the NHS. A sentiment shared by many other Guardianistas, judging by the comments beneath this news article. Indeed, the Guardian felt obliged to commission an opinion piece on the legislation, pointing out that Lansley has missed the point, and it’s really socio-economic factors that drive smoking.

The point is to stop young people from starting to smoke and support those who want to give up. I hope it works. My own experience was different. I was a devout non-smoker until 16 or 17, at which point I started smoking hash and marijuana. You need tobacco to roll a joint, and by the time I stopped smoking dope in my early 20s, I was completely hooked on tobacco. In other other words, it wasn’t the dope that was addictive, but the tobacco.

So displays of tobacco did not get me started, but they certainly made it a lot more difficult to stop. True to my origins in the business of rolling joints, I stuck with roll-ups for another 20 years, during which time I made numerous attempts to quit. Some were successful for short periods. The problem was not in giving up – there’s a real high in getting your senses back, taste and smell in particular – but in resisting the lure of tobacco. Displays in shops and supermarkets really don’t help. Those blue pouches of Drum drew me like paparazzi to a sleb. And yes, I was a roll-up snob – only Douwe Egberts would do, though I would slum it with Golden Virginia when times were hard. People who roll their own have another handicap in giving up the crafting their own cigarettes out of Rizlas and tobacco. There’s pleasure in the nimbleness of fingers that in my case was a faint echo of the ritual of rolling a joint.

I gave up for good on February 7, 1988, as I moved into a rental cottage on a farm in Cumbria. I really wanted to stop, and this time it worked. Perhaps it was the idea of a fresh start in a new place. It certainly helped that I was working in a health food shop.

This ban will help, but tobacco addiction has many entry points and fewer exits. So good on Lansley for this legislation (even though it pains me to say it) and let’s look at the socio-economic factors as well.

April Fooled

The Guardian really had me going with this story – Cameron asks Shaun Ryder to advise on class and help to detox Tories. I’m not usually that credulous, but the track record of the Coalition thus far has blunted my sensibilities. Particularly in the last week or so, with the Tories blatantly trying to score political points in response to the proposed tanker drivers’ strike. Their call for motorists to keep their vehicles topped up, and stockpile jerry cans of petrol in dangerous conditions, only created panic buying and shortages before the strike. Not only that, it brought down a firestorm of criticism from the normally supine right-wing press. Well done, chaps. More seriously, a Yorkshire woman was badly burnt while trying to decant petrol in her kitchen.

And  David Cameron’s desperate scrabble to position himself as a man of the people vis-a-vis the humble Cornish pasty is such a risible spectacle that I was prepared for anything. Not knowing who this Shaun Ryder is certainly helped sustain the illusion of truth. After all, it’s not unknown for musicians to occasionally go doolally. Rick Mustaine of Megadeth, has become a born again Christian, and now supports Rick Santorum. Mustaine is also a Birther. So there are terrible precedents.

But the devil’s in the details of the Guardian story. Ryder’s recipe for transforming Call Me Dave into a man of the people involves brilliant wheezes like getting him into a Salford chippy. “Dave needs to be seen tucking into chips and gravy.”

It was the “We’re All Eating This Together!” T-shirt campaign, modeled by celebrities who I had never suspected of being closet Coalition fans, that finally alerted me to the hoax. The obviously photoshopped image of Call Me Dave eating a pasty was a big clue, but even then, I had a few minutes of appalled contemplation at having to stop watching the lovely Claudia Winkelman on The Film Programme. And David Tennant! How could the Doctor be a secret Tory? For a moment, my universe turned upside down, and I was grateful that Matt Smith wasn’t among the T-shirt models – at least I’d be able to watch the next series of Doctor Who.

A brilliant April Fools’ Day from the Guardian. Here’s a list of their pranks from 1974.

A Temple to Atheism? Dear God, No!

I have been driven to prayer by faux philosopher, Alain de Botton’s idea for a “temple to atheism” in the City of London, as outlined in this Guardian article. Why does he want this temple? Because he thinks Richard DawkinsChristopher Hitchens, and other militant atheists are a “destructive force.” In other words, he wants a kinder, gentler atheism that stresses positivity and goodness, with an awe-inspiring building to evoke the correct response.

I think most people seek positivity and goodness in their own way, atheists and believers alike. Including Dawkins, who recognizes that the lies and institutionalised power of religion are the enemies of reason, and any happiness derived from religion depends on studiously ignoring the reality of how the world works. I don’t think Dawkins et al are being overly zealous in combatting what would be insane ideas if someone had only invented them just a moment ago. With hundreds or thousands of years of tradition behind them, they have accumulated an entirely undeserved authority. We think Scientology is utter bollocks, a cynical, money-making scam, but time will turn it into an established Truth.

That said, I part company with Dawkins in not thinking that religion will eventually succumb to the forces of reason, or that believers are influenced by everything in their holy books. Institutional religion has such deep roots in human societies that digging them all up is impossible – they’re like weeds, springing up where fear and longing meet a supernatural idea.

What makes this truth palatable is that we’re only human, and only give practical credence and expression to those parts of a holy book or political dogma that accord with the manners and mores of the society we inhabit. Obviously, it’s a chicken and egg situation, but societies do evolve in response to real events and real knowledge. Bad news if you live in a theocracy, because real knowledge is in short supply. For citizens of liberal democracies, religious institutions are generally more benign, their practiced doctrines more or less compatible with civilization. Even these societies have their fundamentalists, but they’re more likely to be marginalized. A glaring exception is the US, which has a thriving Christian Taliban, currently choosing the Republican candidate for the 2012 presidential election.

So I try to respond to people as fellow human beings, and refrain from criticizing their religious beliefs unless they bring them up, or behave in a completely unacceptable way. People are interesting and generally do the decent thing – I’d rather talk and try to understand where they’re coming from. I reserve my criticism and anger for the institutional coercion of secular societies and special pleading. Nobody should be exempt from secular laws.

This is the “temple” proposed by de Botton:

The spat came as De Botton revealed details of a temple to evoke more than 300m years of life on earth. Each centimetre of the tapering tower’s interior has been designed to represent a million years and a narrow band of gold will illustrate the relatively tiny amount of time humans have walked the planet. The exterior would be inscribed with a binary code denoting the human genome sequence.

Brilliant. Sounds like a really imaginative architectural project. I’d be proud to back something like that if only he didn’t tack the silly label of “temple to atheism” on it. Ask yourself, what does this project have to do with belief or non-belief? It’s about science, evolution, the whole glorious panoply of emerging life on earth. Isn’t that enough? And we already have such buildings. They’re called the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum among many others. The only way de Botton’s project could be a temple to atheism is if he installed an altar at its centre, housing an illuminated copy of The God Delusion. Even then, it would be pure idolatry.

The fact is that being religious does not preclude either respect for the scientific method or the well-established theories derived from it. Catholics, for example, accept the Big Bang and evolution, although they insist on a God somewhere in the process. By and large, only fundamentalists reject the basic tenets of science. By calling this a temple to atheism, he is in fact shutting the door in the faces of those believers who respect science. As atheists, we can’t afford to do this. We need all the help we can get to establish and maintain secular societies where both belief and non-belief are protected and tolerated.

As it happens, de Botton has already run into trouble with his daft label.

Discussions with City authorities about a possible site stalled because “they can’t be seen to be connected to anything to do with atheism”, the project’s architect, Tom Greenall, said.

Well, d’uh!

Please read the Guardian article, which has all the meat on its bones. I hope there’s a cif article on the subject soon, so we can all pile in with comments.

The Moff Taunts His Fans, and Associated Divagations*

Steven Moffat, the evil genius behind Doctor Who and Sherlock, today revealed in a Guardian interview that we’ve all missed a vital clue showing how Sherlock escaped death in the fall from the roof of Barts. There’s a theory going round that it was Moriarty’s body in a Sherlock mask, and I have given some credence to the idea. I’ve yet to watch The Reichenbach Fall for a third time, and Moffat appears to knock the theory on the head. But who knows? He’s a cunning bastard who likes to mess with our minds, what little of them is left after trying to work out what just happened in his shows.

It takes at least a couple of viewings, usually three, to properly enjoy all the subtleties of a Moffat production. The first is to get the basic plot down and a general idea of the profligate whizzing-by of sharp dialogue and witty cultural references. Then, knowing whodunnit and why, I can watch the episode again to catch the clues and foreshadowings, while paying more attention to the dialogue. Third time is usually just for pure, unalloyed pleasure, but this time I need to work out how Sherlock dunnit.

The same goes for Doctor Who. All that time I could have been writing a novel.

The interview itself was very interesting. I didn’t know Moffat had written Joking ApartChalk, and Coupling, the first of which I haven’t seen. I spent the Nineties and Noughties in America, that televisual black hole, sporadically illuminated by BBC America. No, I’m being unfair – there’s a lot of good stuff on cable. But everything else is dire. It’s the equivalent of devaluing the currency to have so many television channels chasing too few good programmes. The crap is bound to swamp the airwaves and leak in through the television screen.

Anyway, to get back to the point, I saw the brilliant Chalk and Coupling on BBC America. I particularly enjoyed David Bamber as the headmaster in Chalk. He was also the best ever Mr Collins in the BBC’s 1995 production of Pride and Prejudice, kicking up the SQ (Smugness Quotient) dial to 11. Here he is proposing to Elizabeth Bennet.

Where was I? Yes, the Moffat interview. It was also illuminating to discover that, in order to write Sherlock, he broke a contract with Stephen Spielberg to write three scripts for the Tintin film franchise. No contest as far as I’m concerned. I saw The Adventures of Tintin, and while it has all the Hollywood production values, it doesn’t have a heart.

While we’re on the subject of Sherlock, I just discovered The Personal Blog of Dr. John H. Watson, a cleverly put together recreation of the character’s thoughts arising out of his experiences in the show. It has comments from his sister, Harry (Harriet), Mrs Hudson, Molly, and Sherlock, as well as a few others, one of whom is probably Moriarty. It starts just before meeting Sherlock in the first episode. There’s also a link to Molly’s blindingly pink blog, which has some back and forth with Jim Moriarty when he’s worming his way into her boyfriendhood.

I thoroughly recommend both the blog and the Moffat interview. Apparently the scenes that show how Sherlock escaped death have already been filmed, but there’s still plenty of scope for speculation while we wait for the 3rd series.

Or I could get a life.

My reviews on Series 2:
A Scandal in Belgravia
The Hounds of Baskerville
The Reichenbach Fall

* For divagation, see my definition here.