If Dying is Easy, What’s More Difficult Than Comedy?

23 Feb

The most difficult thing about building a galactic empire of your very own doesn’t lie in populating it, or organising it, nor is it in writing the history, predicting the future or understanding how it works. The real difficulty is in finding names for things; people and places that don’t make you cringe when you try to use them.

Obviously writers of fantasy have much the same problem and JRR Tolkien had a major advantage in as much as he was familiar to some degree with a wide variety of languages classical, modern and medieval. (Something more than 20, I think).

Doubtless this facility with languages was a major asset in creating his own languages which, in turn, allowed him to produce all manner of names for places and people which not only sounded plausible, but also had a certain coherence to them. As a matter of fact, he was very often able to produce a number of different names for any one thing. So a particular place might have a name in the Common Tongue, and another in Elvish, a third in Dwarvish and maybe another in one or other of the tongues of men.

This is an enviable ability. (Not to mention deeply exasperating for those of us who struggle with such things).

For my part I’m only really fluent in English. I can vaguely recall a bit of High School French, but not much and I know a few (a very few) words in German, mostly technical and esoteric terms. I also know a little Ancient Greek and Latin (who doesn’t) and I can be quite rude in Russian. I even know one or two words of Japanese. (None of this is desperately impressive, if you think about it, most of us know a fair number of words and phrases taken from different languages depending on the vagaries of education, interests, employment and hobbies).

Needless to say, this is not altogether sufficient to produce a series of plausible names as and when required.

Sometimes, when you can’t rely on your wide-ranging knowledge of foreign languages ancient and modern, you can fall back on typos, misreadings and other gifts of accident and error. But many of these will not only be gibberish, they will also read and sound like gibberish and therefore be pretty much useless.

Of course the problem was much less acute for a writer like Charles Dickens.

For one thing most of the places he was writing about were quite real and even where they weren’t they were, at least, in Britain. (More specifically England). There was the odd exception, but where Dickens needed a name for a place in Africa he could quite happily concoct a nonsense word like ‘Borrioboola-Gha’ because the name didn’t have to be plausible. It just had to sound exotic and comedic in a, sort-of, African kind of way, to people who would mostly know very little about Africa or African languages.

In any case Borrioboola-Gha doesn’t play a huge role in Bleak House, it’s a piece of throwaway humour used by Dickens to take a satirical swipe at what he called ‘telescopic philanthropy’. (If you want to know what he meant by that, read the book. You might find the length intimidating but it’s a pretty easy read. Once you get started you’ll fly through it, but watch out for the pathos, it’s Dickens’ biggest weakness).

But even where Dickens wanted a name for a character who was going to play a significant role in his story, he still had a great degree of latitude.

That’s because, while he often dealt with serious themes, he did so through humour which meant that, to a degree, realism was often an optional extra. That’s not to say that Dickens ever wrote pure fantasy, his work was always rooted in real life even if he chose to show it in a heightened, distorted, sometimes fabulous and often grotesque way. So he could have characters like Gradgrind, Lady Deadlock, Fezziwig and, of course, Bob Cratchit.

Typically, for Dickens a character’s name was an extension and reflection of their personality or situation. Hence Ebenezer Scrooge. The surname may well be derived from an obscure English verb ‘scrouge’, meaning ‘squeeze’ or ‘press’, but the reader doesn’t need to know that to get the point. With a name like Scrooge, you pretty well have to be a tight fisted, grasping sort of character. (At least until the end of the book).

Similarly, the relentlessly cheerful co narrator of Bleak House is called Esther Summerson. Once you know the name, you know something about the character as well.

Fans of the Harry Potter books will doubtless be aware that JK Rowling did much the same thing in naming many of her characters as did Mervyn Peake. (If you haven’t read the Gormenghast books, then maybe that’s something else to stick on your ‘to do’ list).

This is not really an option if you’re trying to write something with a bit less humour. (I was tempted to say ‘something a bit more serious’ but sometimes Dickens was quite serious, and doubtless fans of Harry Potter would make much the same claim about JK Rowling. I’m reluctant to offer a definitive opinion, however, because while I’ve seen the films, as and when they’ve been on TV, I haven’t read the books).

Of course writers of ‘serious’ science fiction ( and some may doubt there even is such a thing) do sometimes apply names that have some degree of significance to characters, places and races. The most obvious example being Gene Roddenberry using names like ‘Romulan’ or ‘Vulcan’.

These names are obviously drawn from existing human cultures. I’m not quite sure why Roddenberry chose the name ‘Vulcan’ for a race who tend to be Saturnine in appearance, although I suspect it was probably just because he thought it sounded right. (I’m sure someone will know, but I just watched the series, I’ve no claim to the esteemed title of ‘Trekker’). Having said that the significance of the name ‘Romulan’ for a race with a largely militaristic and authoritarian culture seems pretty obvious.

The term ‘Klingon’, while it’s given rise to a certain amount of scatalogical wordplay, particularly in the West of Scotland, is a little more obscure. But it kind of sounds right anyway and that’s all that really matters in the end. (Having said this, maybe the reason ‘Klingon’ seems to work so well has something to do with the fact that we’ve been hearing it for decades now. Familiarity, at least for made up names, tends to breed credibility, not contempt).

Of course this kind of thing can go horribly wrong.

Consider The Chronicles of Riddick, for example.

Here you have Riddick’s people the ‘Furyons’. Is that a reference to ‘the Furies’ from Greek mythology, perhaps? After all, Riddick does turn out to be the avenger of his race. Or maybe it’s supposed to suggest anger or violence. (Having said this Riddick seldom seems to be angry as such, although he’s frequently violent).

And then there’s the prison planet where it gets very, very hot in the daytime, ‘Crematoria’. Bit obvious, don’t you think?

Maybe a little more work was required here.

Although the truly abysmal example of this kind of thing comes from James Cameron’s Avatar.

I mean, ‘Unobtanium’?

Really?

It’s not even as though the term is used ironically.

What on earth was he thinking about?

Obviously there are plenty of people who really enjoyed Avatar (although, personally I found the plot predictable and the characters pretty unpleasant so I gave up part way through), but I think my point still stands. Giving a made up substance a name like ‘unobtanium’ is just liable to jar anyone out of their suspended disbelief.

So that brings me back to borrowings from what little I know of foreign languages, typos, misreadings and other happy(ish) accidents. Because I do need quite a few place names and nothing screws up your narrative flow quite like having to stop to make one up.

The only solution I’ve found is to take some time in advance of writing the story in order to make up a stock of names I can apply as and when I need them. Needless to say, some of them make me cringe when I try to use them, but when that happens, I can only hope that I have enough spare made up names in stock to fill the gap.

Maybe I should just write a comedy or something. Edmund Keane (or was it Donald Wolfit) said ‘dying is easy, comedy is hard’. (Which may well be true, I wouldn’t know, I haven’t died yet.) But if comedy is hard, making up sensible sounding names derived from languages that don’t exist, for places and people who don’t exist, is much harder.

Like and Share

15 Feb

Recently I posted a comment on Facebook about a government minister that caused some offence to someone.

I don’t particularly wish to rehash the ensuing exchange, but it did prompt me to think a little about why I even bother to comment about these things.

After all, it’s not as though any comment of mine is actually going to change anything, is it?

For one thing I have no idea how many people actually read anything I post on Facebook and for another, I have no idea to what extent any comment I post actually affects anyone’s thinking or behaviour. Probably not much, as a matter of fact.

So maybe all this commenting on Facebook is completely futile, or worse, a form of narcissism.

Which brings me on to a different, but related topic; i.e. online petitions.

Like almost anyone who has ever been online I have signed and shared the odd online petition and it’s possible that some of these petitions have had some kind of effect. Organisations like Change.org, Avaaz.org and 38 Degrees will obviously claim significant achievements for the petitions launched and supported by their members and I’m sure they’ll have convincing evidence to support those claims.

On the other hand, like most people who spend any amount of time online, I receive notifications about new petitions on a daily basis and I’m aware that there are far more online petitions out there than I will ever hear about and this is the bit that troubles me.

In a way it’s a good thing if anyone can start a petition if there’s something that they feel strongly about. But in another way I think there’s a problem here. With so many online petitions flying about there’s a risk that support for a cause that has general support will be divided amongst half a dozen petitions, thereby making it that much easier for the powers that be to ignore each petition in turn. Something that might be more difficult to do if there was just one petition signed by everyone who cared about that particular issue.

The other risk that follows from having so many online petitions is that any one petition, no matter how worthy, is liable to be swamped by the sheer volume of other petitions, however worthy in themselves. There is also the risk that politicians, amongst others, will find it all too easy to dismiss online petitions and the people who sign them. Already we’ve had Liberal Democrat Lord Tyler using the term ‘rent a mob’ and Simon Burns MP (a sometime Health Minister) describing members of the petition website 38 Degrees as ‘almost zombie-like’. (This is a very politician like smear since it gets across the basic ‘zombie’ insult, while the qualifier ‘almost’ allows plenty of wiggle room in the face of any challenge).

So there is a question about whether or not the sheer accessibility of online petitioning and campaigning effectively undermines the message being sent as a result of so many messages being sent.

You could avoid this problem, or at least reduce it, by having some kind of filtering process in order to avoid duplication of effort or even to weed out the cranks. (To some extent 38 Degrees, for example, does this because it will only go ahead with a campaign on a particular subject if there is a strong consensus amongst its members behind it). But the risk involved in ‘weeding’ anything out is that some perfectly justifiable point of view is suppressed simply because it’s unfashionable, or because it goes against the hang ups and prejudices of whoever’s doing the weeding.

Which brings me back to my original question. Is there really a point in making a comment, signing a petition or sending a letter or email to your MP when you can be pretty sure that it’s going to have no real effect in practice?

As an aside, it’s worth noting that on February 2nd 2003 an estimated million people turned out to protest against the American led invasion of Iraq. (This in spite of Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, instructing the Royal Parks Agency to deny permission for the use of Hyde Park for the rally. This decision was apparently taken on safety grounds and in order to protect the grass. The decision was later reversed and the rally took place with, so far as I can gather, no great risk to anyone’s safety, although there may have been some

damage to the grass).

This protest, probably the largest in UK history, achieved absolutely nothing in terms of changing government policy. We had a pretty bland comment from Toy Blair (The Prime Minister at the time) about respecting other people’s views, but then the invasion went ahead anyway. (It’s very possible that Mr Blair means something different from the rest of us when he talks about ‘respect’. I think in his lexicon to ‘respect’ means to ‘ignore’).

So was there a point to that rally?

Probably.

If nothing else it was an attempt to speak truth to power. (Something that’s probably always worth doing). And if nothing else it means that no amount of lying, spin, or history revising will ever allow supporters of the war to claim that the Blair government had the wholehearted support of the British people on this issue.

Which brings me back to my habit of commenting on various issues on Facebook. (A somewhat more modest proposition than rallying a million people against a war, I admit).

Why should I bother?

I suppose most of the reason is because it relieves, to some extent, my frustration and irritation at the behaviour of people in power. To that extent, I suppose, it’s therapeutic and therefore has some value, if only to me.

As for anyone else?

Well, of those who actually see anything I post on Facebook, I suppose some will simply scroll on until they find something more interesting. Others will at least read what I’ve posted. Of those some will agree, others will disagree and from time to time someone will take offence.

In any event the world will go on with its turning and the price of cheese (amongst other things) will remain entirely unaffected).

Except that maybe someone will be made aware of something that they might otherwise have missed and maybe someone will think about something they might not otherwise have thought about and maybe change their mind. (NB I make no claim that I will be able to change anyone’s mind, I’m deeply sceptical about my ability to do that, but I do think that people can change their own minds if presented with new facts or maybe a point of view they hadn’t encountered before).

Which brings me to a brief digression on the subject of angels.

Our word ‘angel’ is derived from a Greek word for messenger (ἄγγελος or ángelos). Angels turn up, of course in various religions and mythologies, particularly Zoroastrianism and the Abrahamic religions, and more recently in some New Age belief systems.

One, rather fetching, take on angels that I heard once, was provided by a Rabbi who said that anyone could be an angel. His view was that an angel was simply someone who said something, perhaps quite inadvertently, that changes the way you see things.

But then again, my chances of acting as an angel are probably no better than anyone else’s, and probably greatly reduced on Facebook since most people on social media are less likely to be seeking enlightenment than funny pictures of cats. (Or glamorous pictures of horses).

So again, why bother?

Well, I suppose I have a vague notion that when we come across something we think is wrong we shouldn’t just let it pass. Ideally we should do something about it, or if we can’t do anything, then we should say something. Even if no one’s paying any attention.

This is because I think if we just let things carry on as they are, even when we know that what’s happening is wrong, then we become complicit.

It could well be that if you speak out, you’re only talking to yourself, but that’s not such a bad thing even if it only serves to remind you of what’s right or wrong and how to tell the difference.

And it seems to me that the alternative is to simply acquiesce. And the risk of doing that is to allow things to become acceptable when they should be completely unacceptable.

There is also the fact that big problems don’t have to be solves all at once and sometimes the non-negotiable demand for a complete, all in one, solution ends up being an obstacle to taking any action at all.

(For example, in a city plagued by slum housing, the local authority may wish to institute a large-scale campaign of urban renewal, demolishing the slums and building new homes for all the people displaced from the slums. Obviously this campaign will cost a huge amount of money and require a great deal of careful planning and organisation. Obviously this will be a huge benefit to the community if it all goes well, and the temptation would be to stop carrying out basic repair work while the big plan is pending because the big plan will make all that repair work redundant. Or, what’s worse, to ignore the basic repair work because fixing one person’s leaky roof doesn’t address the big problem and the big plan will do just that. But what happens if there is no big plan? Do you fix the leaky roof, or do you just complain that fixing a leaky roof won’t provide a complete solution to the big problem?).

So I think we should speak up in the face of things we think are wrong. I also think we should speak plainly and speak the truth. (If we can and in this context, FactCheck.org, Snopes and Mythbusters all provide a useful, if much underused service).

It might not do any good or it may only do the least conceivable quantum of good. But if it does any good at all then that’s better than nothing and little things can accumulate until they become quite big things. A tiny effort by enough people can become an unstoppable force.

Which is not to say that the full extent of our moral obligations is to post a snarky comment on Facebook. If we can do more then we should. But registering some kind of protest is a perfectly acceptable first step and if that’s all we can do then that’s what we should do.

Where We Are Now. (Or Why We Still Need The Labour Party in Scotland – Heaven Help Us).

9 Feb

I don’t really like politics and, as a rule, I’m wary of people who do.

On the other hand, I have little patience with people who ‘don’t do politics’.

That’s because, while I don’t like politics, I do recognise that politics matters and the reason for that is because when things go wrong in politics, people get hurt and when politicians are allowed to operate without proper scrutiny, you can guarantee that things will go wrong.

So there we are.

Political engagement is necessary in the same way that locking your front door and guarding the PIN for your bankcard is necessary.

And, of course in political terms, we’re having some interesting times in Scotland at the moment. Not perhaps quite as interesting as they were during the Independence Referendum campaign, but they’re still interesting.

There’s been a lot of comment about the aftermath of the referendum and, in particular the peculiar ironies of the respective prospects for Labour and the SNP.

Put very simply, and just in case there’s someone out there who hasn’t noticed, the SNP should be in the doldrums because the Scottish electorate (in their collective wisdom) rejected independence, and Labour should be doing very well. As it is, however, all the available evidence suggests that it’s the SNP who’re doing well while Labour is in the doldrums. More than that, some polls suggest that Labour may be facing a complete disaster in the forthcoming election.

Reactions to this oddity vary from elation, on the part of some SNP supporters, to perplexed indignation on the part of a good few unionists. And not all of those perplexed indignant unionists are Labour supporters.

Now, I’d have to say that I have no great love of the Labour Party.

Having lived my whole life in West Central Scotland I think I can claim to have seen the worst of Labour. I’ve seen Labour dominated local authorities behave with callous arrogance towards the people who voted them into power and I’ve watched local democracy being reduced to petty vicious squabbles between different factions of the Labour Party. I can’t say I’ve enjoyed the spectacle and I don’t think any of it has been healthy for democracy or for the people of Scotland.

Having said that, I don’t think this malaise was due to some peculiarity of the Labour Party as opposed to any other party, I think it’s the inevitable consequence of any party staying in power for too long.

This is why I think that, in the longer term, the most significant even in Scottish politics since Devolution wasn’t the Independence Referendum, I think it was the replacement of the Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition with, firstly and SNP minority administration and then by an SNP majority.

Obviously, it was this event that allowed the referendum to take place in the first place and the general consensus seems to be that, whatever the referendum result, the campaign itself brought a huge number of people into politics who would otherwise have been disengaged and, therefore, disenfranchised.

(As an aside, I would mention that, while many of us think this was a good thing, there are some career politicians, notably Jim Murphy in a recent interview, who still like to present the referendum as being nothing more than a distraction. The theory seems to be that Scottish independence was nothing more than a vanity project on the part of the SNP in general and Alex Salmond in particular. I would have thought that the 84% turnout would have been pretty conclusive evidence against this theory, but apparently not.)

The significance of this change of administration, for m, isn’t so much about the wonders of an SNP government, although in general and with some grumbles on various issues I do think the SNP have done reasonably well in

government, it’s far more to do with removing Labour from power.

The response of the Labour Party to this loss of power has not been intelligent. Firstly we were treated to the unedifying spectacle of Wendy Alexander trailing down to the Labour Party Conference in order to, in so many words, apologise for the Scottish Electorate having failed to follow the established script by not voting Labour.

(It’s tempting to describe this behaviour as ‘sheep-like’, but whenever you’re appalled by the votes cast by the electorate; you have to consider the available alternatives. Back in the eighties the re-election of Thatcher was described by at least one American commentator in terms of an exercise in masochism, but this simply ignored that fact that for much of the eighties the Labour Party was divided and shambolic and totally incapable of inspiring any degree of confidence in anyone but their most partisan supporters. Similarly the past 70 years or so of Labour rule in Scotland has partly been due to the lack of a viable alternative. The SNP, until the advent of the Scottish Parliament, was little more than a pressure group, much like the Liberals in the rest of the UK, who could cause the odd by-election upset but not form a government).

This particular incident might not have mattered too much if Labour had shown any recognition that there was a reason why they were voted out of government. (And it’s worth noting that in the 2007 election that resulted in the SNP minority government the Lib Dem vote held up quite well, it was the Labour vote that fell away).

Of course, we’ve heard all the usual platitudes from Labour politicians about ‘listening to the Scottish people’ and addressing the ‘real’ issues. (As opposed to what? Addressing the ‘unreal’ issues, presumably those that the people who beat them in the election are addressing).

What we haven’t seen is any lessening in the Labour Party’s collective sense of ownership of Scotland. Essentially the Labour Party in Scotland still seems to see itself as the ‘natural party of government’ in Scotland (in much the same way as the Conservatives have tended to see themselves in the UK as a whole).

This is not healthy. It’s not healthy for the Labour Party and it’s not healthy for Scottish politics more generally.

The reason it’s unhealthy is very simple. It effectively denies the Scottish electorate a viable alternative to the SNP as a party of government.

Essentially the position is this.

If Labour regains power in Scotland as things stand, they will simply assume that the past few years in opposition were just some inexplicable glitch that they can now ignore. It will, in short, be back to politics as usual so far as they’re concerned.

To me, and I think to anyone who really gives a damn’ about Scotland, as opposed to blindly following the interests of any one party at the expense of Scotland and the people of Scotland, this is not acceptable.

So for me, Labour is unelectable. And they will continue to be until they accept on a profound level that they are simply one of a number of options available to the voters. And, more to the point (and here’s the really important bit) that they have to work for the Scottish people in order to earn the power they’re given. (This is something all politicians will claim to believe, but few really believe if they can only get themselves elected into a safe enough seat).

But if Labour is unelectable, then in practice the SNP is the only option as a governing party. (My natural sympathies are actually with the Green Party, but at the moment but it would be rank folly to suggest that they’re likely to form a government in the foreseeable future).

If there is no viable alternative to the SNP then they will continue to be re-elected until they become every bit as corrupt and arrogant as the Labour Party has become.

For me that would be a tragedy.

That’s because it seems to me that the worst thing that can happen to the voters in any given constituency is to become a safe seat for anyone. The only politician worth a damn’ is the politician who’s in office, but who sees a real prospect of being voted out of office. Where a politician, or party, sees no prospect of being elected, or where they’re in power and see no prospect of ever being voted out of office, they’re in a position to take the voters for granted. This inevitably leads to self indulgent navel gazing, infighting and all the other nasty habits we’ve seen in Labour (and the Conservatives) in Scotland for years.

Labour must, therefore, learn humility. (Which, in my opinion, they won’t under Jim Murphy’s leadership). For their own good and, more importantly, for the good of Scotland, and even more importantly for the good of the people of Scotland.

All the polls seem to indicate that Labour will face a disaster at the next election.

Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe that’s what they need. But, even for someone like me who has no great love of the Labour Party, it would be a disaster if Labour was wiped out in Scotland just as comprehensively and (apparently) as permanently as the Conservatives have been.

Pale Rider

31 Jan

Spoiler alert:- if you haven’t seen the following films; Pale Rider, High Plains Drifter, The Outlaw Josey Wales, High Noon, Shane or Rio Bravo, but you plan to and you don’t want to have any plot details revealed, then maybe you should stop reading now.

I don’t normally write about films I don’t like, but I’m willing to make an exception for Pale Rider.

I should also mention that I have a great respect for Clint Eastwood as a filmmaker (I don’t care to comment on his politics) and the following remarks should be read with that in mind.

Maybe Pale Rider should have worked, since it’s an example of Clint Eastwood revisiting an idea that he had used successfully before.

The origins of High Plains Drifter (as I think Clint Eastwood has said himself) lie with High Noon. High Plains Drifter starts off from considering what would have happened to the town of Hadleyville if Will Kane (Gary Cooper) had been killed by Frank Miller and his gang.

Needless to say there’s more to High Plains Drifter than that, and it can also be read as a ghost story where the drifter (Clint Eastwood) may be the ghost of Jim Duncan, the murdered sheriff of Lago. (Or possibly he’s a man who’s haunted and driven by Duncan’s ghost, it’s hard to say and to a degree this enigmatic quality is part of what makes the film so effective).

Pale Rider, on the other hand is pretty obviously a reworking of Shane. And maybe this is where the problems start because while High Noon is a complex, brilliant and highly intelligent film, that’s not a moment too long, Shane, in my opinion, is a pretty lightweight children’s novel that was adapted into an overblown, overlong, pretentious sagging mess of a film.

In fairness I should add that it’s also a film that is loved and revered by an enormous number of people whose opinion is every bit as valid as mine and it’s also worth mentioning that even I enjoyed watching Jack Palance, clearly having a whale of a time, playing the wicked gunslinger. In fact I would have found the film much more tolerable if he’d had a lot more screen time, but regrettably that’s just not the way the story was written. (Maybe an idea for another film, anyone?)

Having said that, starting from what I consider to be vastly overrated source material needn’t have been a fatal weakness. Sometimes you can create something really interesting as a response to source material that you really don’t like. For example Rio Bravo was very much John Wayne’s reaction to High Noon – a film he described as ‘un-American’ and essentially it’s his retelling of a broadly similar story in his own way, reflecting his own values and perceptions. (Personally, I think High Noon is the better film, but both are undeniably classic examples of the genre). But then again, maybe Clint Eastwood doesn’t dislike Shane as much as I do and he’s trying to emulate it, rather than reacting against it.

So in Pale Rider Clint Eastwood is revisiting a method of working that had worked form him before. Pale Rider is also similar to High Plains Drifter in having an enigmatic central character (played by Clint Eastwood himself) who may, or may not, be the ghost of a righteous man who was murdered.

The film starts with thugs riding into the camp of a group of eco-friendly(?) gold miners where they cause mayhem and shoot a small dog. The small dog belongs to Megan (wikipedia puts her age at 14, I had the vague impression that she might have been a little older than that, but I’m a poor judge of ages and I suspect that Sydney Penny, who played Megan, probably was a bit older than 14).

Megan goes off by herself to bury her little dog and prays over the grave. As I recall her prayer is not altogether Christian in some respects and her prayer seems to act as an invocation that summons the eponymous pale rider out of the haze. (And this recalls the appearance of the Drifter in High Plains Drifter).

Megan’s, would be stepfather, Hull Barret (played by the excellent Michael Moriarty) heads off into town for supplies, against the advice of all and sundry and is set upon by a gang of thugs, basically more of the same thugs who rode into the miner’s camp. He is then rescued by an enigmatic stranger (Clint Eastwood) whom he invites home for supper.

So far so good.

But then Clint Eastwood seems to start making a series of mistakes that turn a promising start into what seems to me to be a self-indulgent vanity project.

I think most of the mistakes revolve around the character of Megan. She is clearly a young girl who is hovering somewhere on the verge of sexual awakening and maybe this was dangerous territory for a man at the stage of life that Eastwood had reached when he made this film.

The first problem with Megan is that she’s under written and under developed.

From a promising beginning, where she seems to conjure the mysterious drifter, out of the ether, she then lapses into being a silly little girl who falls in love, or at least becomes infatuated, with Eastwood’s character. (Henceforth referred to as The Preacher). There is even a somewhat toe-curling scene where Megan offers The Preacher her favours (and is turned down in manly fashion). This rejection seems to prompt Megan to make the absolutely bizarre decision to visit the mining camp owned by Coy Lahood. (The truly hissable villain who not only employs the thugs who have been harassing the miners, but who is also an eco-rapist using hydraulic mining methods that are shown to be incredibly destructive and are also apparently about to be outlawed).

The camp is being run by Lahood’s son, Josh (played by the late, and sadly missed, Christopher Penn). Josh is initially hospitable and shows Megan around the camp. He is also closer to Megan’s age than The Preacher and, one suspects, the underlying reason for Megan’s visit. The implication seems to be that, having had her advances rejected by The Preacher, she is now throwing herself at Josh. (Honestly, outside of the fantasies of middle aged men; do teenage girls really behave like this?).

In any case, Josh soon shows his true (and rather despicable) colours by attempting to rape Megan amidst a cheering mob of Lahood employees. Megan is rescued by Club, (Richard Kiel) another Lahood employee, but one whose mother clearly taught him better. A shot of The Preacher looking on approvingly indicates that he would have intervened (probably with a rifle shot) had Club not done so.

In the meantime Lahood Snr hires the sinister Sheriff Stockburn (John Russell) and his posse of equally sinister deputies. (Billy Drago in particular makes a superbly sinister deputy). Stockburn’s reaction to a verbal description of The Preacher indicates that the two men have a history although Stockburn indicates that The Preacher is already dead. (As he may well be – it’s that sort of film).

From here on in we should be back on reasonably solid ground. The sinister sheriff and his sinister deputies will seek to kill The Preacher and drive the eco-friendly miners off their claims and they will, in turn, be duly despatched in various ways by The Preacher.

Unfortunately, Clint Eastwood makes another mistake at this point. One of the themes of the film has been the somewhat troubled relationship between Hull Barret and Megan’s mother, Sarah Wheeler (played by the truly excellent Carrie Snodgrass). Barret has been nothing but nice and kind and gentle towards Sarah and he has been protective and nurturing towards Megan (and not even a tiny bit sleazy, his intentions towards both women are entirely honourable and appropriate). Unfortunately Sarah has been abandoned by Megan’s father and she feels unable to commit to Hull and accept his offer of marriage due to her consequent inability to trust men.

For some reason, Sarah then has a sexual encounter with The Preacher and we are expected to believe that this, somehow, facilitates Sarah’s relationship with Barret. (As opposed to undermining it and possibly even destroying it completely, which seems much more likely to me).

Other than sheer vanity on the part of Clint Eastwood, or possibly pandering to what he assumes his fans expect of the characters he plays, I don’t see why the plot should take this turn.

Much like Megan’s infatuation with The Preacher and her subsequent visit to Lahood’s mining camp it seems to be driven by male fantasy and not by any plausible motivation on the part of the women concerned. And this is particularly curious in a Clint Eastwood film given that, generally speaking, he has a pretty good record when it comes to the female characters who appear in his films. He has even been described as the most successful feminist filmmaker in Hollywood.

All in all, I think that somewhere inside the self indulgent mess that is Pale Rider, there’s a much better film trying to get out.

So what would have made Pale Rider a better film?

Well, the first thing that could, and should, have been done would have been to give Megan a little more complexity. Not to mention a little bit of common sense.

It seems to me that having conjured The Preacher out of the ether, Megan’s attitude towards him should have been a little more ambivalent than simple-minded adolescent infatuation.

She might well have been fascinated by him, but wouldn’t she have been the least bit unsettled, and possibly even afraid of him? Shouldn’t she have been the least bit disturbed at what she had managed (albeit inadvertently) to do?

Her visit to the Lahood camp also seems like clumsy story telling. She has to know that the camp is full of people who are far from friendly neighbours and while she might not anticipate the attempted rape, surely anyone with any common sense would have expected some kind for trouble from the visit. Is she supposed to be stupid, reckless or just self-destructive? (I won’t even bother with the possibility that she’s somehow inviting rape. It would have a parallel with one of the more disturbing scenes in High Plains Drifter, but there’s a difference between an adult woman of uncertain sexual mores behaving in a provocative manner and a pubescent girl doing the same).

So it seems to me as though this scene is about placing Megan in jeopardy and in giving Josh an opportunity to demonstrate that he’s really not a very nice man. The first purpose seems to me to be redundant and the second could surely have been managed rather better.

I also think the sexual encounter between Sarah and The Preacher could also have been dropped. It seems to come out of nowhere, to serve no real purpose and to be altogether implausible.

I also think that Hull Barret is much too passive as a character.

He’s presented as being nice, reliable, decent, altogether tedious and ultimately ineffectual. I think if he had been shown to have a bit more moral authority, preferably expressed in a non-violent way, the film would have been more balanced and there would have been a greater degree of moral complexity.

In short there would have been the possibility of suggesting that there are ways of being a good man other than simply killing bad men.

As it is, however, the suggestion seems to be that good men who don’t kill are boring (and sexually unattractive) and that the only way to be truly heroic (and get laid) is to kill someone. (Even Barret ends up shooting Lahood Snr in order to prevent him from shooting The Preacher in the back. The fact that The Preacher has clearly already survived being shot in the back, given all the scars revealed when he takes his shirt off to have a wash, suggests that Barret’s gesture is an unnecessary precaution, although I suppose a welcome act of generosity nonetheless).

So there it is.

In my opinion Pale Rider is one of Clint Eastwood’s failures. He does have them from time to time. And I think the reason it’s a failure is because in this film Clint Eastwood does not follow his usual practice of allowing his female character to be fully developed and have credible motivations and because he builds his own character up at the expense of other characters.

If you want an example of where Eastwood gets it right see The Outlaw Jose Wales where Laura Lee (Sondra Locke) may be strange and certainly falls in love with Wales, but is at least an interesting character. As is Little Moonlight (Geraldine Keams) and Grandma Sarah (Paula Trueman).

In addition to this Clint Eastwood consistently gives most of the best lines to Lone Watie (Chief Dan George who delivers those lines with understated aplomb), while Fletcher (John Vernon) plays a key role as observer and commentator (almost like a one-man Greek chorus). This is Clint Eastwood at his best and most generous and it’s one of his best films.

And you’ll see similar characteristics from him in what may be an even better film, Unforgiven.

Prince Andrew and the Value of Pyrrhonism

24 Jan

Actually this isn’t very much about Prince Andrew, but the ongoing story about his alleged sexual activity with Jane Doe 3, also known as Virginia Roberts does provide a convenient example of why Pyrrho of Elis was probably right on one or two points.

At the time of writing, the situation is that Prince Andrew has been named in a lawsuit, to which he is not a party, as someone that Virginia Roberts was allegedly forced to have sex with while she was under age.

(The age of consent in Florida where this sexual contact is alleged to have happened is 18, Ms Roberts was 17 at the time. A quick search of the Internet reveals that the age of consent varies from 12 to 20, depending on where you happen to be at the time, with some countries having no specified age of consent, other than the onset of puberty. A legally defined age of consent is a pretty blunt instrument, but in the context of protecting children from sexual abuse and exploitation any instrument, however blunt, is better than none at all.)

So far as I’m aware, Prince Andrew is not, at present, the subject of a criminal investigation. Possibly, given the nature of the allegations, he should be, but in any case he has certainly not been charged, as yet, let alone convicted.

Which is pretty much the point. In the various legal systems operating in the USA, the UK and various other countries, an accused person is presumed innocent until they are proven guilty in a court of law.

So the law presumes that Prince Andrew is innocent. This is a centuries old tradition and probably a pretty sound system since the alternative, a presumption of guilt, while it might be convenient for the law enforcement community, would seem to have disturbing implications for basic human rights.

Of course, a quick glance through some of the comments on social media would indicate that not everyone is willing to assume that Prince Andrew’s innocence, but that’s their business.

What seems to be at odds with the presumption of innocence is the relatively recent practice of treating all allegations of rape and sexual abuse, at least initially, as being truthful. This new approach must be a step forward, since the long-standing practice of treating such allegations with scepticism, or even downright dismissal has allowed a number of sexual predators, notably Jimmy Saville, being allowed to go unchallenged and also added to the trauma suffered by victims/ survivors of sexual offences.

But where does that leave the person who is accused of committing these offences?

Well, nowhere really.

Or at least nowhere different from where they would have been anyway, because in reality, the way that an allegation is received by the authorities need have no impact at all on how the alleged perpetrator is treated when he (or occasionally she) is investigated by those same authorities.

So the conflict is more apparent than real when it comes to the legal system.

You could even argue that by adopting a more receptive approach to people alleging sexual offences, the presumption of innocence is not being challenged, as much as it’s being extended to the accuser as well as to the accused. All we’re really doing is assuming that the accuser is not guilty of lying any more than the accused is guilty of the offence they’ve been accused of.

On the other hand, this conflict seems to be much more real in the media and in the minds of the general public.

I think this is because of a confabulation in the minds of people unclear on the basic concepts.

The presumption of innocence is a matter of law. Not a matter of fact. The fact that, in this instance, the law presumes that Prince Andrew is not guilty has no bearing at all on the actual facts of what he did or didn’t do and whether or not he is actually guilty of some form of sexual misconduct. It is a simple recognition of the fact that we don’t yet know what those facts are because the evidence hasn’t even been collected, let alone tested in court.

In the same way, the fact that police officers are now encouraged to take a more receptive approach when dealing with allegations of sexual offences has no bearing on whether or not those allegations are actually true. And it

certainly doesn’t mean that every accusation of sexual offences must, of necessity, be true.

The plain fact is that whether or not we like it, and whether or not it happens to fit with our personal set of hang ups and prejudices, people lie. Not everyone, and not all the time, but often enough to make caution advisable.

It’s also a matter of fact that some people are guilty of offences that they are never convicted of, while others have made allegations that have turned out to be false. (Which is not the same thing as an allegation that is not proven, or even one that’s not provable).

Which brings me to another, somewhat vexed question. In the UK any alleged victim of a sexual offence is entitled to privacy in the sense that their identity cannot legally be disclosed in the media unless they explicitly waive this right.

This right seems to be justified in as much as sexual offences still appear to be woefully under reported and if anonymity will encourage victims to come forward, without significantly undermining the rights of the accused, then it seems little enough to offer.

Some, often those who have been accused of sexual offences, have supported the idea that this right to anonymity should be extended to the accused until, or unless, they have been convicted.

This idea has some justification. An allegation of sexual offences can be incredibly destructive and, while this may be no less than the perpetrator of sexual offences deserves, it can’t be deserved in the case of someone who is not, in fact, guilty.

The opposing view is that publicising the fact that someone has been accused of sexual offences can encourage others to come forward with further allegations. This has to be a good thing if those new allegations help to secure the conviction of a sexual predator, a point that seems to be particularly relevant when the accused already has a high public profile. (Jimmy Saville again provides a useful example, even if he was, regrettably, dead before the allegations could be tested in a court of law).

On the other hand, there is also the case of John Leslie.

Put briefly, Ulrika Jonsson wrote about having been raped early on in her career. She did not name the perpetrator of this alleged attack, but inevitably rumours began to circulate. John Leslie was named, albeit inadvertently, as being the subject of these rumours (although not by Ms Jonsson, who has never confirmed or denied whether or not he was the person she was referring to). And the fact that Mr Leslie was named publicly seems to have been instrumental in several other women coming forward with allegations. John Leslie was charged in relation to these new allegations, but later the charges were dropped.

Now, whatever the actual facts underlying any of these allegations, and I do not care to speculate on this subject, the fact remains that, John Leslie was never convicted of these alleged offences and remains innocent in the eyes of the law. But in spite of this, he has still paid a price simply for being accused.

And this brings me, at some length, to Pyrrho of Elis and to Pyrrhonism.

Pyrrho of Elis was initially a painter who later diverted to philosophy. He wrote nothing himself and what was recorded of his doctrines by his pupil, Timon of Phlius, has been lost.

Pyrrhonism could be summarised very briefly as the doctrine that nothing can be known for certain and therefore the only viable conclusion is that we should suspend judgement.

Pyrrho was apparently held in very high esteem, both by the Elians and the Athenians and the reason for this would seem to be the courage and integrity with which he sought to live by his doctrines. (No small feat, as a matter of fact. In the early 1600s a number of European intellectuals suffered from a ‘pyrrhonist crisis’ and although opinions differ (appropriately enough) it has been alleged that Robert Boyle, the Anglo-Irish polymath, may have been brought close to suicide over pyrrhonism).

So pyrrhonism is tricky.

Doubt is disturbing for most people and not everyone can cope with it.

Certainty is much easier for most people, even, and perhaps especially, when there is no real basis for it.

So most people will jump to conclusions and, worse still, cling tenaciously to those conclusions even in the face of solid evidence.

Sometimes that doesn’t matter. It makes very little difference on a day to day basis whether or not the average person in the street believes in ghosts or extra terrestrial life. It may not even matter too much whether someone is a creationist or believes in evolution by natural selection.

But sometimes it matters very much what people believe. And that is never more the case than when it comes to apportioning blame.

After all, there is something mean spirited, not to mention arrogant, in the presumption that we can ‘know’ someone’s guilty when they’re never had a fair hearing. Just as it is arrogant and mean spirited in assuming that someone is lying when they make accusations that we find disturbing.

In this context pyrrhonism has its place.

Not Telling Anjem Choudary to Shut Up.

18 Jan

It was recently reported that Anjem Choudary had claimed that Muslims don’t believe in freedom of expression.

My immediate response was to suggest that if Mr Choudary doesn’t believe in freedom of expression, then he should shut up.

I’d like to expand on that a little.

Essentially the argument would run as follows.

Mr Choudary is reported to have claimed that Muslim’s don’t believe in freedom of expression.

If this statement appears to be excessively cautious it is worth bearing in mind two things;

1/ Anjem Choudary is a controversial figure and there is a certain class of journalist who would not be above misrepresenting, or even inventing comments that are attributed to him.

2/ It is stock in trade for controversial figures to make controversial statements and then, when challenged about them, to deny ever having made them. Or claim that those comments were taken out of context and that they somehow didn’t mean what they appear to mean when taken in context.

Mr Choudary would doubtless identify himself as a Muslim.

Others may claim that Mr Choudary isn’t a real Muslim and doubtless there are many Muslin’s who disagree with him on various points. This is not relevant to my argument, however, because what is important for my purposes is that Anjem Choudary would claim to be a Muslim and, as a consequence, the claims he makes about Muslims apply to him.

Therefore, and assuming the above to be correct, Mr Choudary does not believe in freedom of expression.

It is inconsistent (if nothing worse) to exercise a right that one does not believe in.

Mr Choudary, assuming the above to be correct does not believe in freedom of expression.

Therefore it would be inconsistent (if nothing worse) for Mr Choudary to exercise the right to freedom of expression.

(Outside of logic, consistency is not always a virtue, but inconsistencies between stated principles and actual behaviour are seldom commendable).

This brings me back to my immediate response to Mr Choudary’s reported statement, that if he doesn’t believe in freedom of expression, then he should shut up.

Except, of course, that I am not really telling Anjem Choudary (or anyone else) to shut up.

In the first place, my statement was conditional. That is it all hangs on the word ‘if’. It is only if Anjem Choudary doesn’t believe in freedom of expression that he should shut up. If he believes in freedom of expression, then of course he has every right to exercise that freedom, even if he uses if to talk complete and utter crap.

In the second place, I do believe in freedom of expression, therefore, and as a matter of principle, I’m not generally in favour of telling anyone to shut up.

Nor am I greatly in favour of condoning violence as a response to the exercise of the right to freedom of expression, as Pope Francis seems to be.

I do not believe anyone should expect a punch, as the Pontiff apparently does, as a response to anything the say, or write, or draw. And here, the law seems to be in agreement. If I were to act on the Pope’s apparent position and punch someone because they said something offensive about my mother, then I would expect to be charged with assault.

I would also venture to suggest that if I were to punch a hypothetical creationist in response to some comment about the theory of evolution by natural selection that I happened to find exasperating, then I suspect that both Pope Francis and Anjem Choudary, amongst many others, would be incensed by my violent suppression of this hypothetical creationist’s expression of their religious faith.

And this, I think goes to the heart of the whole thing.

No one would try to suggest that I would be justified in punching anyone because they made a disparaging comment about my favourite TV programme. Nor would I expect much sympathy from the Pontiff, or anyone else, if I assaulted someone over a dispute about politics, philosophy or the price of cheese. And I doubt if even Anjem Choudary would object to the freedom to express an opinion about any subject other than religion.

It is only in matters of religion that these men of faith find that freedom of expression is problematic.

(Pope Francis was also reported to have suggested that anyone making an insulting comment about his mother should expect a punch. I would respectfully suggest that this is nothing other than a red herring, however. The Pope may well be deeply protective of his mother’s reputation, but I doubt if he would really punch someone for making a derogatory remark about her. It’s clearly freedom of expression when it comes to religion that he’s talking about).

Of course all this comes in the context of the attack on the office of Charlie Hebdo and what it all boils down to is men of faith claiming special privileges for faith. And incidentally indulging in a spot of victim blaming.

Their position can be boiled down to the following.

Faith is really terribly, terribly important.

Faith deserves a specially privileged position in the world.

Faith is so important, in fact, that if anyone questions, challenges or makes fun of faith then a violent response is not only justified, but even commendable.

The satirists at Charlie Hebdo regularly made fun of religion.

This was an attack on faith.

This is not acceptable.

Therefore it was perfectly all right to shoot them.

Of course, Pope Francis would reject any statement quite this stark, but he was, in effect, saying that the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack were asking for trouble and that, to some degree, they deserved what happened to them.

One wonders how he feels about Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for ‘insulting Islam’. Perhaps he would feel that this sentence is excessive, but it is implicit in his position on insulting faith that some degree of violence would be justified. Perhaps a punch, rather than 1,000 lashes, but the difference is one of degree, not of principle.

As for Anjem Choudary?

Well, I don’t know, and don’t care enough to find out, whether or not he has actually condoned the murder of satirists. I respect his right to say what he wants on this or any other subject, even if he does not respect mine, but I also claim the right not to pay any attention to it.

And maybe that’s the point.

I won’t punch anyone for insulting my mother, I’ll probably just ignore them. I won’t punch someone for mocking or disagreeing with my beliefs. I might argue with them, but I won’t resort to violence. I believe in freedom of expression and the price I have to pay for that belief is that I have to put up with people saying things that I disagree with or that I find offensive.

I don’t think that price is too high to pay, but it would seem that some, notably men of faith who would doubtless claim moral and spiritual superiority over an atheist like myself, either can’t, or won’t, pay that price.

Have a jolly, merry…. Whatever.

21 Dec

Some things are terribly predictable at this time of year; they just go with the season.

In particular, there’s bound to be someone who wants to talk about the ‘true’ meaning of Christmas.

Then again there’s bound to be someone who’ll point out that Christmas is a festival that was co-opted by the Christian church.

And there will doubtless be someone to point out how many of the customs and practices associated with Christmas actually have nothing to do with Christianity and everything to do with pre and non-Christian belief systems.

And there’s also liable to be someone who points out how many of our time honoured Christmas traditions are actually quite modern in their origins.

Needless to say, the scholarship behind these claims tends to be patchy in quality and this usually gives rise to all sorts of debate, often ill tempered, and usually just as patchy in the quality of its erudition.

Being a scholar much in the tradition of patchy erudition myself, I’ve formed the vague impression that most cultures that have their origins in parts of the world where the winters are cold tend to have some sort of festival, usually timed for whenever the weather can be expected to be at it’s most inclement.

These festivals usually seem to involve people getting together, often with people they never see at any other time of the year, in order to eat and drink and pretend to have a good time while all kinds of subterranean tensions seethe away under the surface.

Obviously these festivals are a product of pre-industrial societies, industrialised, urbanised societies tend to be less influenced by the changing of the seasons, but the habits of an older society do tend to persist, even if they do evolve over time. And as a result we’re stuck with the dubious pleasures of Christmas with all its mongrel inheritance.

Naturally, there are all kinds of interesting (or at least semi-interesting) common features and contrasts to be found amongst the various ways that people celebrate towards the end of December throughout Europe, and in those parts of the world influenced by European cultures. There should be no big surprise about that; most of these cultures have diverged from common roots in similar environments.

What’s much more interesting is that there should be a parallel to our Christmas in Native American cultures.

What I’m referring to, of course is the Potlatch.

Potlatch is, in fact quite a general term and covers a variety of customs that were current in a number of different cultures on the pacific coast of North America.

This environment was very rich in resources that could be harvested throughout the summer and autumn, but the winter was incredibly harsh.

As a consequence, everyone worked hard to lay in provisions while they could and then, when the weather turned nasty, there was very little to do except eat, drink, tell stories, sing songs and generally enjoy the fruits of all that hard work you’d done earlier in the year. And at the potlatch there was even an exchange of gifts.

Each potlatch was hosted by a kinship group, (sometimes called a house or numaym) or more precisely by an aristocrat of the kinship group and the whole point was to invite all the other neighbouring kinship groups partly for a celebration, but also to conduct a certain amount of practical business. There were always tensions and rivalries between the different kin groups and these rivalries and tensions had to be expressed and managed, preferably without out and out warfare.

And the way these tensions were expressed and managed at the potlatch was very largely through the giving of gifts.

So on the face of it, the potlatch seemed like quite a jolly custom

Unfortunately, there was a darker side to the potlatch. As I’ve suggested, the people who gathered together during the potlatch were not necessarily the best of friends and, as a result, the gift giving tended to have a competitive edge.

This competitive edge led to an escalation in the value of the gifts being exchanged until, according to the classic accounts, the whole thing became utterly ruinous. (Accounts differ, however, and various aspects of the potlatch may well have been exaggerated by the various people who described it, since they all had agendas of their own).

Of course, the potlatch was criminalised by the Canadian and American authorities. This was because it offended against the prevailing notions of industry, thrift and prudence prevailing amongst the uptight white eye community, but the custom persisted since it was closely linked to the religious beliefs and cultural identity of the Native American peoples who practised it.

So there we have it.

People on different continents with completely different cultural backgrounds getting together with other people they don’t like in order to munch their way through copious amounts of food while exchanging of gifts at ruinous expense. And all with the threat of criminal proceedings following closely in the aftermath.

A typical family Christmas, in fact.

So whether you’re celebrating the birth of Christ, or the winter solstice, whether it’s Yule or Noel or just a chance to take some time off work and overindulge a little, have a happy whatever, try to be nice to each other and always remember the words of the song,

Hallelujah noel be it heaven or hell,

The Christmas you get you deserve.

(I Believe in Father Christmas – Emerson, Lake and Palmer)

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