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After Clement Attlee. Strindberg, updated to Seventy Two Years ago today.


Seventy two years ago today, The British Labour Party won an election properly for the first time.  The election result was a long drawn out affair, because the votes of the armed services in rather far flung parts of the world had to be processed.  But seventy two years ago today, the result was announced.

In 1995, fifty years after the Attlee victory, Patrick Marber re-wrote August Strindberg’s Miss Julie (though not very much) as After Miss Julie – locating it on that summer night in England when self-identifying socialists achieved a parliamentary majority.  Even back in 1888, Strindberg was convinced that Sweden (along with the rest of the Europe) stood at the cusp of profound social change.  The Jeans of this world were moving up and the Julies were sliding.  In his (very very dodgy) preface to the play, Strindberg makes it clear however, that the Jeans will not…

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The Remarkable and Continuing Adventures of Men without Penises. “Stormborn” reviewed.

varysGrey Wormtheon
It seems a little lazy to name an episode of Game of Thrones after one of  Daenerys’ middle names.  Well – “Stormborn not a middle name exactly – not in any baptismal sense – it’s one of those interminable epithets that’s designed to slow you down and intimidate you in the throne room of Meereen.   We’ve already had an episode called “Breaker of Chains”.  We might yet have an episode called “Unburnt” (who else thinks  Daenerys would excel on Bake Off?  – she wouldn’t even need oven gloves) but it would get confused with “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken”.  A more arresting title for this or some other episode would be “The  Remarkable and Continuing Adventures of Men without Penises”.

There’s a lot that can be said about men without penises in Game of Thrones.  A watertight phallogocentric imagination regards castration as an unspeakable trauma worse than death itself.  Yet Game of Throne tells the story of men without penises who continue to live interesting and productive lives, who retain hopes and fears long after the supposed transcendental signifier of Hope and Fear has been taken from them.

“Stormborn” involves other stories of course.  There is the story of Samwell Tarly, who has hitherto found his work as an assistant librarian more traumatic than his life with the Night Watch.  He’s now adding unbelievably traumatic and messy surgery to his ever swelling C.V.  There is the story of Arya, changing direction deciding to go back to Winterfell.  There is the story of Cersei, learning from Dr Frankenstein Qyburn that certain technologies are available to deal with dragons.

However, men without penises dominate the beginning, middle, and end of this episode. Daenerys begins by confronting Varys in a rather sudden and general and disturbing way.  Every so often, Varys is given a wonderful speech in Game of Thrones, and last night he was speaking for his life.  His was a speech on behalf of the conditionality of allegiance – a remarkable political statement which suggests that the seeds of Lockean contractualism have already been sewn on Westeros.  Varys still feels the trauma of his childhood castration but is determined to define his identity elsewhere – to treat a privation as a refocusing.

Then there’s the extraordinary sex scene between Grey Worm and Missandrei.  Daenerys and Missandrei have previously speculated as to the precise degree of genital mutilation suffered by the Second Sons, and Missandrei is now determined to see for herself.  The camera, however, is less generous to the viewer and (let’s be honest), we’ve all peered and craned our heads and freeze-framed to no avail.  All we know, is that Grey Worm is capable of having a version of sex.  The comportment of Grey Worm and Missandrei’s bodies suggest a bizarrely conventional missionary position for sex.  The programme makers may be missing a trick (or lots of tricks) here.  To discover that Grey Worm is more or less as other men would be far less interesting than learning that alternative sexualities and polymorphic pleasures are available if the penis is deprivileged.  In the eighteenth-century, Italian castrati were regarded as sexual threats by paranoid husbands for precisely this reason.

And then there’s Theon.   If Grey Worm was castrated in infancy and Varys in childhood, Theon’s castration as an adult is depicted as a far greater trauma.  If someone has seen Theon smile even once ever since Ramsay took his penis, I’d be delighted to know.  Yet Theon survives.  And that’s the final scene of the episode – Theon surviving and refusing to sacrifice himself (proving that he has a self without a penis).

All of which illustrates that there’s a lot you can do without a penis, and that a penis is not worth dying for.

But no… call the episode “Stromborn”.  Wouldn’t want Game of Thrones to start upsetting people eh?

Happy Birthday “Amazing Grace” Guy



John Newton was born on this day in 1725.  The most famous of all penitent slavers.  He it was, of course, who wrote most of the Olney Hymns (1779) and who befriended and supported William Cowper.  He was an important source and support for the late eighteenth-century anti-slavery movement.

He did not, of course, write the tune.  That stirring theme beloved of massed pipe bands was not Newton’s.  The exquisite melancholy of Scottie piping adieu to Spock’s coffin at the end of Wrath of Khan (1982) was not the work of the gnarly old maritime preacher.

The tune – or something like the tune – had been knocking around under the title of “New Britain”, before it was crafted into a shape that would better fit Newton’s words by one William Walker in the mid nineteenth century.

Now here’s a strange thing.  William Walker was a Baptist singing-master from South…

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“Acting as President”. Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan

It’s easy to forget, these days, that Ronald Reagan – now touted by moderately conservative US republicans as the acme of presidential dignity and authority – was regarded in his own time by many around the world as a delusional feeble minded old man who might destroy the planet in a fit of absence of mind.

Here’s a typical piece, though, from a nostalgic Reaganite who argues that Trump will never rise to Reagan’s level of greatness.

(Significantly, this article talks in terms of “moments”.  It’s the big speeches that Elmet thinks that history remembers.  Reagan was an actor.)

As someone who actually remembers the early 1980s, there seemed nothing “safe” about Ronald Reagan when he was elected (and before the Soviet Union produced a leader young enough to want to avert Armageddon).  It did not seem certain that Reagan knew what was going on around him.  He did not seem like a real politician.  His impulse control seemed, well, questionable…

Hence the 1981 “I believe song” from Not the Nine o’ Clock News.

So what was Ronald Reagan, with hindsight, now that he is posthumously lauded to the skies and has a medium-sized airport named after him?

Well, he was an ignorant and an indolent man who really didn’t care enough about the USA or the world in general to do the job he was elected (twice) to do.  Those who worked in the 1980s White House report Reagan’s inability to read anything longer than a page or two.  If his favourite old movie was on television on any given night, then Reagan would arrive completely unbriefed to a critical clock-ticking international crisis meeting the following morning.   Things sort of drifted under Reagan, with the result that many of the disasters that afflict the world in the 2010s can be traced back to his time in office.   The deregulation of the banking system, for example.  Also in the 1980s, the USA accelerated the policy of funding and training religious lunatics across the world on the basis that nobody should care what any group “really believes in” so long as they’re anti-Soviet.  As for the Iran-Contra scandal – let’s just say that if Rule of Law were a meaningful concept in the modern world, then Reagan would have stood trial for High Treason and Mass Murder – although his defense team would have offered a plausible and probably successful excuse based on obvious mental incompetence.

Reagan did not really know what was going on in the world, and did not want to?

What makes Trump even worse than Reagan?  Well, Trump is not “lazy” in quite the same way.  Trump does not work in a detailed or focused way.  He doesn’t read anything, or labour to understand anything, but he is hyper-active.  He likes shouting at people.  He likes exercising power.

Reagan was a better actor than Trump.  Indeed, the phrase “act as president” has never been more literally true of Ronald Reagan.  He wasn’t really a president, but he played one on TV – and by the 1980s, that had become a big chunk of what really mattered.  Reagan was a reliable Hollywood player who knew how to deliver scripted comments efficiently.   He would cadence a sentence plausibly.  He knew when to pause, when to slow down and when to speed up.

Reagan’s speeches, if unmemorable in the great scheme of things, evoke a sort of memory of someone being presidential.  Reagan was too lazy to want to ad lib for much of the time and if someone like Peggy Noonan gave him some good words to say, he would do those words some credit.

Trump, on the other hand, refuses to stay on script.  If some personal grievance is nagging at him, it will be expressed.  And for Trump, all grievances are personal just as all loyalties are personal.  He is a feudalist who despises all versions of constitutional loyalty and cannot think beyond the interests of his immediate family.  Many Trump speeches can never be anthologised as prose because he cannot express his gut reflexes as anything resembling sequential sentences.  A paragraph is an intellectual concept too far for Trump.  It’s not that Trump is stupid as such, it’s that he has always despised others too much to exhibit the patience required to evolve into a literate adult.

Oddly enough, Trump in Poland proved that he can benefit from setting the rhetorical bar so low for himself.  In Poland he actually read from a script in a relatively normal way.  This speech, which you’d hardly bother to applaud if delivered by a moderately intelligent eleven year old, was hailed by his supporters as a rhetorical feat to rival Lincoln and Cicero.

This scares me.  Trump has lowered the bar of presidential behaviour so far that he can now be the beneficiary of unbelievably low expectations.  Every time Trump appears in public for ten minutes at a time without soiling himself in public or punching a child will be regarded as evidence of his growing maturity and authority.

Trump is simply not laid back enough just to let things drift, lacking Reagan’s appearance of calm and impression of authority.  Trump is too lazy (or rather egocentric) to actually learn enough to govern in an informed way, but not lazy enough to permit informed people to govern.  This scares me.

If only he really did spend the rest of his Presidency just playing golf.


Fury from the Deep. Scream and Scream Again.

RIP Debbie Watling. No companion ever left The Doctor more movingly.


250px-Fury_from_the_Deep (1)

Hardly anything of this one left.  Only a tiny scrap that’s survived because of antipodean censorship.  They cut out the Oak and Quill attack and then sent the remaining reels back to Blighty to be wiped.  To enjoy this story (and enjoy it after a fashion you can) you need to rely on the reconstruction – still photos and soundtrack.

The Oak and Quill attack is the scariest thing to happen in 1960s Doctor Who.  It may have been the scariest bit of television from the 1960s.  Just looking at those faces, rendered so intent and inhuman and implacable represents a kind of pinnacle of well crafted terror.  This is what good lighting, sincere acting, make up and odd noises can do in the right hands.

As for the story?  Well, there are strange thingies living in the North Sea, but the shouty boss in charge of gas extraction won’t…

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The Adventures of Fintan the Happy Squirrel. A Preface.


I belatedly became fascinated by those little motivational notes that some parents put in their child’s lunchboxes.  “Mommy loves you!”; “Today is the first day of the rest of your life!”; “Be all that you can be!”; “Make good choices!” etc. etc. etc.

Always prone to peer pressure, I thought it was time I joined in with this competitive showcasing of parental concern.  Since, however, I despise motivational posters, and any combination of cats, beaches and sunsets juxtaposed with empowering slogans in italicized fonts makes me want to give up on life, the universe and myself, I thought my maxims should be a bit more practical.

Accordingly, I started to put yellow post-it notes on his sandwich wrappers with sententia inspired by Machiavelli and Rochefoucauld.  The boy would open his lunchbox to receive nuggets of useful advice such as “Let them hate you, so long as they fear you!” and “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer”.

Unfortunately, the boy did not take kindly to these notes, finding them (if you can believe it) weird and disturbingly.

Accordingly, the routine of Machiavellian motivational lunchbox post it notes was suspended.   (I also tried putting esoteric Shakespearean insults  in the box to stimulate rhetorical versatility as well but this too proved unpopular.)

Finally, I ended up writing my very first children’s story.  Just because it was easier than anything else, and because he found this serialisation unexceptional (the highest praise I was aiming for).

And thus, The Adventures of Fintan the Happy Squirrel were born.  Every day, the boy received a post-it note scrap of narrative that advanced the story ever so slightly.  Some days I found myself capable of thinking several post-it notes ahead.  Most days I couldn’t.

I may try to gather these post-it notes together some day.  I may even try to rearrange them into the correct order.   Having done so, I may even circulate the complete story.  It’s not what you’d call an exciting story, but I’m inclined to think that it is morally upright and unexceptional from any ethical standpoint you care to mention.

I don’t in fact know how many cherished children’s stories began life as lunchbox post-it notes, but in my current state of deluded hubris, I’m inclined to think that it’s a lot more than you’d think.

I am here… Edinburgh 2017


It’s that time of year again… when eighteenth-centuryists of the world gather in one special place and try to put the world to rights – or at least all aspects of the world to do with the furtherance of eighteenth-century scholarship – which is an important place to start.

Edinburgh feels strange in this heat.  Unfamiliar – even to its own inhabitants.  Princes Gardens is full of prone bodies.  Nowhere, of course, is air conditioned.   A city that looks magnificent in any weather looks slightly artificial in magnificent weather.   I, of course, am jet-lagged, having been in  Canada 48 hours ago with just a 26 hour break in Ireland.

Am I in a fit state to perform adequately as an elected official of the ISECS executive and spread Reason and Enlightenment across this small planet we call home?  I’ll have to be.

Today is the business day, the day of accounts and accounting and reports and correspondence.  Tomorrow the symposium, a polite little conference, this year on the idea of the city in the eighteenth-century.  We eighteenth-centuryists are slow, patient, polite and bilingual discussants – apt and experienced at conserving energy in the heat. Some of us are elected and others mandated – but all discretely confederal and diplomatic.

We are supremely reflexive here at ISECS, pondering the intellectual legacy of the long eighteenth-century and then pondering the pondering of it.

Increasingly, we feel the need to intervene in the twenty-first century, if only to try to inform debates about so-called “Western Civilisation” with the occasional nugget from someone who might know how and when this notion was first concocted.

In fact, I think, when historians write of how humanity fought back from the brink of unreason and despair in the middle decades of the twenty-first century, ISECS will have at least a footnote – not least because we really like footnotes.

And the Executive Meeting of the International Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies will feel like… an Ent-moot.



Doctor Who and the Book of Jonah

As long as I can remember, I’ve always been amused and fascinated by the story of Jonah.
Not especially by the fishy bit, but by what comes after.  I love the sense of bathos in the book.
I love the part where the hapless Jonah, having done his darndest to avoid playing the role of prophet of doom, then “goes overboard” with it – and preaches up the wickedness of Nineveh for all it’s worth.
And you know what?  It works.   Nineveh repents and so God decides not to destroy it.
And so Jonah sulks.   He can’t handle the anti-climax.  He sits outside the east side of the city and stares at it it and hates it and hates himself because, seemingly, he was all revved up for some fire and brimstone.   God causes a gourd to grow that provides Jonah with temporary shelter but then the gourd dies and Jonah despairs.  It is then intimated to Jonah that his moral compass is a bit off if he’s angry about the destruction of a gourd, but he can’t handle the annihilation of a major metropolis being called off.
I find Jonah hilarious, because I’ve always been able to empathise.
There’s part of us that has a lot invested in the incorrigibility of our enemies.  Don’t you hate it when they’re corrigible?  And there’s also part of us that wants crises to be pushed to the uttermost limit.  We invest a deal of emotion in anticipation of grandiloquent catastrophe, and so the aversion of supreme crisis is often disappointing, from an aesthetic point of view.  I’m reminded of the end of V for Vendetta.  There’s been a sort of velvet revolution, you may remember, and tyranny has peacefully tumbled without the need for any more death and destruction.  But the Palace of Westminster is still blown up, because it’s always cool to blow up an iconic building.  The momentum of the narrative demands it.
In the great scheme of things, the decision to cast Jodie Whittaker the new Doctor is a reasonably trivial historical event.  I was agreeably surprised by it though, yet part of my miserable self felt deflated.  You see, I had my own grumpy Kris Marshall blog all plotted out in my head, in some detail.  I actually have nothing against Kris Marshall really, other than he’s a sort of safe, middle-brow, mainstream, prime-time drama family favourite whose casting would seem to indicate the victory of focus groups over imagination.  I wish him well, personally.
But I like to insist upon being surprised and delighted by a new Time Lord incarnation.  And now that I am surprised and delighted, the Jonah in me is frustrated.
And the comparative paucity of hysterical masculinist reaction to Jodie Whittaker’s casting is also disappointing from a Jonah-ist point of view.  It’s true that some people have sworn off ever seeing Doctor Who ever again, but some people make such melodramatic declarations whoever is cast in the role.  You can find some people on the internet who are outraged by a woman taking the Tardis helm (not that there is a ‘helm’, really), but you actually have to go looking for such people.

Most people are cool.  Daily Mail readers are outraged, I dare say… but there can be no future for humanity that doesn’t involve outraging Daily Mail readers.  Most people are not Daily Mail readers.  Most people are cool.

Apocalypse averted.  Now to get me a gourd.

Donald Trump and Abe Lincoln.



Having  recently read  Ronald White Jn’s recent biography, I’m struck by the extent to which Donald Trump time and time again functions as a sort of anti-Lincoln.

Trump has a kind of habitual need to desecrate just about everything that is admirable about the United States and accordingly during his election campaign, Trump took the time to deliver his own version of the Gettysburg Address at that hallowed site in Pennsylvania.   While Lincoln spoke movingly about those who had given their all because they believed in something bigger than themselves, Trump trampled on the memory of selfless patriotism by choosing to focus on purely personal grievances.

More significant, is their attitude to literacy.  White’s biography confirms and extends a universal consensus among all who have studied the life of Lincoln that Abe had a lifelong passion for reading.  Abe did not think of himself as having grown up especially poor – certainly not poorer than most pioneer families in Kentucky and Indiana – but he certainly had little formal schooling and he earned his bread as a young adult with heavy physical labour.  With extraordinary determination, Abe sought after both books and reading opportunities wherever and whenever he could find them.  He became a self-taught lawyer and a brilliant rhetorician capable of extensive (if subtle) literary allusions.  He could never read enough to satisfy his literary appetites, and this passion for reading was a lifelong characteristic.

This compulsive reading was cognate with Lincoln’s qualities as a supreme listener.  To read well, it is essential to engage with someone else’s perspective for a significant period of time.  His legal and political skills were based on a readerly ability to entertain the views of others, to understand the arguments of others – where those arguments came from and where they were headed.

In short, careful reading helped forge a compassionate and conciliatory personality.

By way of contrast, Donald Trump, America’s least compassionate and conciliatory president was born with greater inherited economic opportunities than any of his predecessors.  His extreme ignorance of the world is a function of a lifelong distaste for reading.  Tony Schwartz, ghostwriter of Art of the Deal, who studied Trump closely, doubts whether Trump has had the concentration span to read a whole book in many decades.  And to see Trump at the G20 summit was to see a lonely boy, unable to participate in the adult conversations around him. Unfortunately, too many people assume a false equivalence between ignorance and innocence, as though his sheer lack of knowledge about the wider world denoted a kind of “freshness”.  Not so.  When someone with Trump’s inherited wealth is ignorant, it is a consequence not of innocence but arrogance.  To read is to learn, and you can’t learn without respecting the contributions of others.  As a lifelong school bully – Trump has to keep himself stupid if he’s to keep himself vicious.  The Trump family ethic of despising everybody outside your immediate family is incompatible with being anything other than ignorant.

We live in a wicked world in which massive inherited wealth and complete contempt for others is all you really need to become the world’s most powerful human.  Having inherited the means to insure himself against the consequences of his own decisions, Trump is devoid of any sense of responsibility whatsoever.

Lincoln was burdened by epic responsibilities.  He was vilified by journalists throughout his career, and always responded carefully and politely to the press, subordinating his own feelings to his own careful and constantly evolving sense of a national interest.  Trump on the other hand refuses to admit the idea of any distinction between personal and national loyalty.  His political thinking is essentially Feudal.   Paradoxically, the American Revolution itself was sponsored by the idea of creating a polity more admirable that Trumpish European dynasties.  The American Revolution, that Lincoln sought to understand, protect, refine, and complete, involved a nation of laws not of individuals, in which those who sought high office were subject to legally defined limits and a higher standard of national (and indeed international) obligation.

Indeed, Donald Trump’s entire rise and fall and fall and fall will strike future generations as a bizarrely deliberate attempt to despise and refute the entirety of Abraham Lincoln’s personality and career – as though the historical existence of Lincoln somehow necessitated the emergence of his opposite – something that has broken through from an ungodly dimension of anti-matter, in order to seek cosmic balance through negation.

Repo Men. Original and Best. Laurel and Hardy in “Bacon Grabbers” (1929).

bacon grabbers

I suppose everybody has their favourite bit of obsolete slang.  I believe mine is “Bacon Grabbers” – a term used in the 1920s and 30s in the United States to describe those with legal authority from the Sheriff’s Office to repossess property if monthly payments are long overdue.  “Bacon Grabbers” is a far more distinctive and memorable term than “Repo Men”.

To live a functioning life existing involves the felicitous synchronicity of a variety of skills.  Stan and Ollie are standing examples of the sheer slowness and awkwardness of life where just a few of these motor skills are out of kilter.  Found asleep in the Sheriff’s Office it takes them forever to just to get out of the office with the correct hats, the papers to be served, and the address of the place they are going to.

Imagine, incidentally, how different Laurel and Hardy films would have to be, were they produced in an era in which hat wearing was not mandatory?

Every conceivable mistake with hats and directions and papers is served before they can get out of the door, and getting the car started and out of a tight parking spot is similarly laborious, but it’s a chance to meet habitual antagonist Charley Hall.

When they finally reach the house of the radio they are to repossess, it’s owned by another habitual antagonist – Edgar Kennedy.  The first stage of their job is handing him a piece of paper.  It’s astonishing how many separate elements this superficially simple part of the job consists of.  If just one of these constituent elements fails – the job fails.  Edgar Kennedy is chased in and out of his house by Stan and/or Ollie and somehow the paper is never quite to hand.  At one point the errant radio owner is handed half a sandwich instead.  Edgar Kennedy owns a small fake dog, which somehow manages to terrorise an enormous real dog which Ollie has borrowed for the occasion.  The paper is eventually served, but actually getting the radio is another matter.

In one of the most dangerous looking stunts since “Liberty” earlier the same year, Ollie ends up holding a ladder that Stan is atop of reaching for a window while Edgar Kennedy prods first a mop and then a shotgun in Stan’s face, while a dog tugs at Ollie’s braces.  With the help of a cop (on this very very rare occasion, the law is an ally of Stan and Ollie), the radio (an enormous and awkward piece of furniture) is secured.   Unfortunately, it gets left in the middle of the road while retributive arse-kicking is meted out.

Culver City seems infested with steam-rollers.  They’re always around when you don’t want them.  The radio is of course deftly flattened by the roller leaving its former owner laughing.  Then platinum blonde bombshell Jean Harlow shows up (inexplicably married to the much older and uglier Edgar Kennedy) to say that she’s made the final payment on the radio and they own the radio outright.  It is Stan and Ollie’s turn to laugh before the steam roller continues on its inexorable path and flattens their car.

Do 1920s and 30s Culver City stream-rollers have drivers?  Is there any steering mechanism on those rollers whatsoever?  How do they turn corners?  Are steam-rollers legally exempted from any and all damage they cause in pursuance of their flattening duties?  All we know is that in the world of Laurel and Hardy, anything left in a road for even a few seconds will inevitably meet a steam roller of doom.

“Bacon Grabbers” is not quite a classic of its kind, but it has plenty of assured details to keep it going.  It is midway between the kind of film with joke after joke after joke, and the kind that commits absolutely to the same brilliant joke.  It may not make you guffaw but it will make you smile.

Little things like Stan turning the ladder 180 degrees to see if it becomes longer as a result will make you half close your eyes and go “oh bless”.

I’ve written a bit about some other Laurel and Hardy films by the way…

Double Whoopee:

Big Business:

That’s My Wife:

Wrong Again:


We Faw Down:

Habeas Corpus:

Two Tars:

Early to Bed:

Should Married Men Go Home?:

Their Purple Moment:

You’re Darn Tootin’:

From Soup to Nuts:

Leave em Laughing:

Battle of the Century:

Putting Pants on Philip:

Hats Off:

Call of the Cuckoo:

The Second Hundred Years:

Flying Elephants:

Sugar Daddies:

Do Detectives Think?

Sailors Beware!:

With Love and Hisses:

Love ‘Em and Weep:

Slipping Wives:

45 Minutes from Hollywood:

Duck Soup:

The Lucky Dog: