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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:



It’s what Harold Pinter would have wanted… Spiderman – Homecoming.


I like the thought of Peter Hall writing to Harold Pinter in 1965 after a pre-production reading of Harold Pinter’s latest script and scribbling in the margin… “needs more Spiderman”.

Inspired by Pinter, Jon Watts’ movie mocks the concept of “coming home” even as he invokes it.  “Homecoming” refers most obviously to the US High School tradition, but Tom Holland’s conflicted teenager Peter Parker (like Teddy in Pinter’s play), is himself unclear as to whether or not his “home” is to be found with his intriguingly young and attractive Aunt May or with the billionaire Tony Stark who offers a shinier version of familial security.  Stark offers the warped paternity of severely conditional love and the world of Spiderman-Homecoming, like the world of Pinter’s masterpiece, is a world in which biological and familial ties are passionately invoked, yet are hopelessly fragile and contingent.  All loves are up for negotiation in this world of imperfect choices.

Seriously though, everyone is a little weary of another Spiderman reboot, but the reason is fairly obvious.  Spiderman is now established as the youngest of our most cherished vigilantes.  Batman and Ironman (whose only superpower is money by the way), can get middle aged if they want to – they have mid-life crisis compensatory budgets to die for.  Superman, meanwhile is not human.  Wonder Woman is an Amazonian and, quite frankly, better than us.   But Spiderman is young.   Forever young.  Which means – forever recast.  His is the story that has to be told over and over and over again.

Tom Holland is a joy to watch as a credible teen.  At times, watching this movie, I felt that I was watching not a superhero movie but a drama about the sheer frustration of having to be in a superhero movie.  The script crackles with ludicrous wise-cracks and the plot is propelled by ludicrous coincidences (the very best of which – the big reveal – blind-sided me delightfully) and yet – there’s a strange authenticity to the performances – especially Holland’s.  The presence of Michael Keaton helps.  Batman and Birdman, in his best speech, Keaton rails against the Starks of this world with their innate sense of privilege – dealing out justice from the top of a tall tower.   In many ways, Holland is being torn between two fathers in this film, neither of which are his – and both of whom offer him plausible but severely conditional and contingent versions of coming home.

Keaton plays a salvager whose “blue collar” resentments survive his acquisition of extreme wealth.  At the beginning of the film Lacy out of “Cagney and Lacy” shows up and tells him he’s lost the contract to pick up bits and pieces of alien debris from some Avenger’s movie which I may or may not have seen and which I don’t really care about. He and his gang of roughnecks ignore the instruction to turn everything in, and with a bit of hard work and imagination, they start to convert this junk into weaponised material to be sold to criminals.

He does all this to “provide for his family” – losing sight of all the families that are to be wrecked by fire power now in the hands of the criminals he has profited from.  If Peter Parker’s story is about trying to improvise a contingent set of familial relations where no such relations are obvious, then Adrian Toomes/Vulture (Keaton’s character) illustrates what happens when a paterfamilial nuclear family allegiance over-rides all other ethical obligations.   The suffocation of familiarity at the hands of those who privilege the defense of family values as inexorable dogma is a theme that can only be described as Pinteresque.

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jn) shows up intermittently as a deus ex machina in this film and he is insufferable.  He sets himself up as the supreme arbiter of Peter Parker’s (im)maturity, yet his own whimsical and arbitrary displays of power indicate that Iron Man is far more immature than Spiderman will ever be.  Stark/Ironman exhibits all the petulance and casual bullying you associate with massive inherited wealth.  He has never had to survive High School in the way Peter Parker has.  He has never had to grow up, in anything like the same way.  There are subtle exchanges between the two that indicate that the maturity test may be in danger of being reversed.  By the end, I like to think that Peter Parker has regained serve.

Incidentally, in between the central drama involving teenage frustration, romantic disappointment and identity confusion, there are a few inventive action sequences by way of light relief.  I did enjoy the scene at the top of the Washington Monument and most of all – a desperate and flawed attempt to try to sew together a bisected Staten Island Ferry.

Such, doubtless, are the kind of distractions that Peter Hall might have cherished in the context of the first performance of The Homecoming in 1965.


A. Lincoln. By Ronald C. White Jr. Where does the time go?


I finally got around to reading this one, first published in 2009.  Any single volume biography of Lincoln, inevitably offers an overwhelming reading experience of frenetic haste.  Before you know it, it’s done, and there’s a sense that an extraordinary life has barely been excavated.  As Abe and Mary arrive at Ford’s Theatre and you realise that only 674 pages have slipped by, there’s an deep sense of frustration as well as of loss.

The final few months of Lincoln’s life seem especially accelerated by White.  The struggle to pass get the 13th Amendment through Congress – the struggle that Spielberg made a whole film about – is permitted just two pages in this book.

I am grateful to Ronald C. White for three reasons, however,  Firstly, the book is beautifully written  A lucid work of history will always feel too short and the brevity of the experience is, I must confess, due to the simple maxim that time flies when you’re having fun.

Secondly, White is superb at analyzing rhetoric.  No politician ever used language more carefully than Lincoln.  He was always precise when he needed to be precise and vague when he needed to be vague.  It would be easy to compare Lincoln’s majestic paragraphs with the degraded squeaks of the age of twitter.  But in all honesty, if Lincoln had had access to Twitter – his would have been the best tweets ever.  He would have taken those 140 characters and composed witty and wise epigrams worthy of Martial with them.

White takes us inside the writing process, stressing the editorial labour that went into his public letters as well as his formal addresses.   Many scraps of paper were sacrificed to create a Lincoln speech.  Fortunately, in Lincoln’s day trees were plentiful (although young musclebound Lincoln was adept at splitting them).  White is equally adept at identifying the distinctive features of the product as well as the process – illustrating how and why a particular sentence is so memorable – how and why Lincoln eschews modifiers or admits digressions.

Finally, White will challenge or at least inform your view of Lincoln’s idea of religion.  It is well known that for most of his life he belonged to no church, refusing to ally himself with the doctrines of any particular church.  However, White makes clear that Lincoln was no Jeffersonian Deist, and that Lincoln’s view of Providence was not the fatalism of a blind mechanistic “First Cause”, but rather a sense of deliberate interventionist purpose.  As president, Lincoln attended Presbyterian worship and his respect for the preaching of Rev. Phineas Gurley is especially noted by White.

The faith of someone like Lincoln, according to White, emerges as something active and dialectical – forged by doubt rather than disabled by it.  Famously, Lincoln observed that if people of radically opposed view both claim divine authority then both sets may and one set must be mistaken.  Lincoln did not treat feuding true believers cynically, but instead thoughtfully.  White’s Lincoln emerges as someone who treats rational non-committal as a species of prayerful humility.  Groping towards truth, Lincoln was at all times a “work in process”.   While others appeared very confident as to the will of the Almighty, Lincoln’s very skepticism and self doubt creates its own sense of the numinous.

Lincoln had always been anti-slavery.  He was not an abolitionist until 1862, because his sense of constitutional law did not permit him to believe that he was in any position to interfere with slavery where it was already established.  He was a Free Soiler, who believed that an elected federal government had the authority to check the growth of slavery, and to enact policies that might be conducive to its eventual extinction (round about 1900).  Lincoln never imposed a creed or a manifesto upon events because he freely admitted that he was constantly being shaped by them.

The book ends very abruptly.  An overall evaluation of Lincoln needs to be extrapolated from commentaries in each of the preceding chapters.  From a rhetorical point of view, this refusal to “sum up” Lincoln only adds to the strange sense of loss that the reader experiences.  Having finished A. Lincoln, I miss Abraham Lincoln all the more – cut off – truncated – in the middle of a guffaw (“you sockdologizing old mantrap!”) and without a last word.

Kenneth Clarke and Burke

Old blog on Kenneth Clarke and Edmund Burke. Reblogging everything I have Burkean on this 220th anniversary of his death…


We’re always keen to hear Burke quoted in Ireland, the one place on Earth where it’s normal and comfortable to champion Burke and Paine at one and the same time. Indeed, ever since the eighteenth-century, Burke and Paine have helped define the cocktail of poetic nostalgia and resolute republicanism that has spurred Ireland’s ongoing development.

And over in Westminster was a bravura performance from Ken Clarke, granted the freedom of old age to say whatever the hell he truly believes in.  In the coming years, as fascistic insanity beckons, we will need to build bridges beyond traditional party barriers if any salutary “not being a completely vicious xenophobe” alliance is ever going to save our world.  And in that spirit, I felt a lot of love for old Ken,  the old Tory.

Yesterday, most UK MPs voted for something they don’t believe in, because they are in awe of “Junocracy”…

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Edmund Burke, Progressive Coalitions and – yet again – passionate pragmatism.

On the sad occasion of the 220th anniversary of Edmund Burke’death, I’m going to reblog everything I have with “Burke” in the title…



Now that I’m an Irish citizen, I’m allowed to celebrate Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke at one and the same time.

What I miss about Burke, or rather, miss about Burkeian thinking (Burke’s been dead since 1797 and I’m over it) is not a set of political positions, or even a framework of political belief.  No, I miss an ethical methodology for political decision making.  I miss passionate pragmatism, needed now more than ever.

I’m repeating myself.  I’ve said this before, and I’ve written this before, but right now the case for passionate pragmatism becomes more and more urgent.  And passionate pragmatism isn’t about being more or less radical and it certainly isn’t about being “centrist”.  I have no time for people who are instinctively “centrist”.

Burke was, even in his lifetime, accused of being a “turncoat” because he was sympathetic to the rebellious American colonists but hostile to the…

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