Category: Culture

  1. Transmission #2

    Transmission #2: The empire is in decline.
    Even at its height the veterans insisted the best was behind them.
    It has always been in decline. It has always been the End Times.

    The End Times are good news for some of the business folk in the cities of the Empire. Good news for the brewers, the distillers, the weed growers and the backstreet pharmacists. Good news for the cellar bars that turn the labour of millions into hard cash.

    There’s one particular cellar bar in one particular city. Somewhere near the middle of the Empire, but not close enough to the action to ever be a destination. This particular cellar bar does steady, if not roaring, trade. Nobody does a roaring trade any more. At least, nobody we know. But some cellar bars do better than others. This one has regulars; enough so it doesn’t have to meet the expectations of anyone else. But not so much as to make the place actually popular. At that point you may as well go the whole hog and take the “cellar” out of the name and put up a sign.

    Hire a Norm and find yourself a Cliff.

    In this place the air still drips with beer, sweat and the confused infusions of a hundred vapes. Just like any other cellar bar. And it’s dark, just like the others.

    Here, the only lights are behind the bar and in the toilets. For the rest, illumination comes from projectors. Old movies loop and fade to black. Rich, dark, film, the flicker. Apocalypse Now, The Maltese Falcon, Transmission #2, something from the Marx Brothers, Dust Devil, Until The End of The World, Metropolis… of course there’s Metropolis. All of them wide-angled and out of focus, soundtracks barely audible, overlapping, engaged in whispered conversation of explosions, screams and urgent double-cross. Buried below.

    Peter Lorre and Martin Sheen stare wide-eyed at one another while you order a beer. And a vodka-redbull. Make it a double.

    Transmission #2

    Why the hell not?

    Behind you an argument in Polish ends with a bitter laugh and a vile insult. You don’t speak Polish but there’s no mistaking the tone and the sharp intake of breath it provokes.

    You’ve been ordering vodka redbulls with every second pint for a while now. The bar stools aren’t all that comfortable, and the movie illumination only works in fits and starts. But the beer is cold and it’s good. They sell little packets of mini-poppadoms, each with a sealed sachet of mango chutney, and nobody cares if you slip some pot into your vape alongside the vanilla.

    But mostly, it’s the sound of the place. That’s what keeps you there. The sound of the place.

  2. The reasons for Brexit


    This is my favourite of today’s reasons for Brexit. Tomorrow we may be back to blue passports for all I know. Or bendy bananas. Yes, I know you — dear “sensible” Brexiteer — may find such notions risible or patronising. But the great thing about democracy is the bendy-banana woman on Question Time had exactly as much say in the referendum as you did. There were doubtless people on the other side who voted “Remain” for reasons you would find silly.

    But I doubt there’s as many of them. And I doubt they’re as silly.

    Truly, the reasons for Brexit are many and varied. But I’ve yet to hear a single one that rang true for me.

    Anyway; it appears from the above tweet that the UK is leaving the EU — a massive policy shift and one that, even if you’re a fan of Brexit, clearly has the potential to wreak havoc if carried out badly (both on the UK and its neighbours) — and it’s doing it because they think some of the people working in the EU aren’t very nice to them.

    “Arrogant” and “unelected” it seems. And it’s hard not to read that and immediately think of The Citizen in Ulysses… sure, sure he’s the butt of many a joke, but there’s plenty of insight amid the bombast and rhetoric…

    – That’s your glorious British navy, says the citizen, that bosses the earth. The fellows that never will be slaves, with the only hereditary chamber on the face of God’s earth and their land in the hands of a dozen gamehogs and cottonball barons. That’s the great empire they boast about of drudges and whipped serfs.

    – On which the sun never rises, says Joe.

    – And the tragedy of it is, says the citizen, they believe it. The unfortunate yahoos believe it.

    The navy is still there, albeit less fearsome than it once was… but so is the hereditary chamber, the royalty and the belief that Empire was something to take pride in. So is the sense that 52% of the population can make a massive, long-term decision without even considering the impact it might have on a close neighbour (one who has been treated quite shabbily enough already) and then start trumpeting about The Will of The People.

    “Arrogant”? “Unelected”? Is it possible, just possible, that there’s some projection going on here?

  3. A brief question to the BBC regarding “balance”

    Dear BBC News,

    While thankfully you don’t do it as often as you once did, you do still give air time to Climate Change Skeptics / Deniers ostensibly in the interests of “balance”. What’s more, these skeptics / deniers are rarely climatologists but instead tend to be politicians, ex-politicians or business people with no recognised qualification in the field; though often with ideological positions or personal agendas that are fundamentally opposed to industrial regulation.

    However, I have noticed that — when discussing the Holocaust — you fail to provide air time to David Irving so that we may hear both sides of that story (or better yet, perhaps a non-historian, ex-politician with overt antisemitic views… perhaps give Jean-Marie Le Pen a prominent slot next Holocaust Remembrance Day?) In the interests of “balance” of course.

    For the sake of clarity, let me point out that I’m not actually suggesting you give air time to Holocaust-deniers. You have quite correctly accepted that the evidence for the Holocaust is strong enough that it doesn’t merit a contradictory voice.

    What I would like to know, therefore, is precisely what standards of evidence are applied by the BBC that are passed by the Holocaust, but failed by Climate Change? Why does the BBC feel the evidence for Climate Change is lacking? What aspects of the scientific consensus does the BBC find unconvincing or doubtful? If there is doubt about the science, why doesn’t the BBC interview a climatologist on the matter rather than a politician and industrial lobbyist? And — importantly — precisely what further evidence does the BBC require before they stop giving air time to Climate Change Deniers?

    Yours, very etc.

  4. The British Empire Strikes Back

    This right here. This is why Brexit will be a godalmighty disaster. That’s a Conservative Party MEP saying that. Not some random commenter below a Daily Mail article lamenting the end of the British Empire. Check out the banner image on the guy’s profile

    British Empire 2: The Hannansphere

    No, I assure you, that’s not a joke. That’s the flag beneath which a tory Member of the European Parliament chooses to speak to the public. It’s the kind of detail that makes you wonder whether Hannan might not be a character created by Peter Cook, somehow escaped from the pages of an uncommissioned script. But it’s tough to be whimsical for too long when it’s clear from his tweets that this Tory MEP genuinely thinks of Ireland as “belonging” under that flag. And he’s a little put out, quite frankly, that everyone else doesn’t think so too.

    It’s not just Hannan. A 2014 YouGov opinion poll has recently resurfaced — given fresh new relevance by the brexiteering lurch towards isolationism. In this poll, a significant majority of respondents believed Britain should be more proud than ashamed of its imperial past.

    And this is why we find ourselves in a peculiar farce. The British unilaterally* took a course of action that at the very least is causing a lot of concern here in Ireland; and at worst could potentially be catastrophic for our country. And yet a significant portion of the British Establishment and commentariat seem vaguely affronted by the notion that we’re not falling meekly into line behind them. The referendum campaign on the British mainland barely mentioned Ireland. And the subsequent General Election campaign featured Ireland mostly as a 1980s-era prop with which the tories could beat Corbyn.

    I love the UK. I lived there for many years. Went to university there. Worked there. Met many great friends there. Here in Ireland, if I was ever idiotic enough to enter politics, I would be immediately tarred with the term “West Brit” and it’d be a tough label for me to shake. By a great many yardsticks, I would be considered an anglophile for an Irishman**.

    Point being… given the mess of a situation we find ourselves in, and accepting that we can’t change the past… if the argument for Ireland to leave the EU and join some kind of federation with the UK was likely to find any sort of traction here in Ireland, then I’d be exactly the sort of person who would give it some consideration.

    But I’m not. When Irish people are polled on EU membership, you get numbers that would appear baffling to a lot of British people. Even after the frankly unjust and unjustifiable way in which the Irish citizenry were treated during the banking crisis… even then we never polled less than 80% in favour. Right now… it’s creeping closer to 90. At some level we didn’t fully appreciate until quite recently, we Irish are European. And if we leave the EU, it’ll be because the entire thing collapses, or we get dragged out kicking-and-screaming for some other reason. It won’t be because we feel an attachment to the Union Jack, or because it makes logistical sense for us to climb into the boat with the British, even as they blow holes in the hull with an antique blunderbus inherited from their Great Grandad.

    Brexit is a psychotic pitbull the UK brought into the neighbourhood. It’s up to them to make sure it doesn’t hurt anyone else. It’s not up to us to accommodate their delusions that the thing is a harmless poodle.

    The British have seriously screwed up with Brexit. Whatever they have done to themselves (and it may be very damaging indeed), they have likely inflicted a great deal of harm here in Ireland too, risking both political and economic upheaval in a region that might still have a bit of Semtex knocking about in it. And yet the Tories are exasperated when, far from backing them up, the Irish are infuriated. After literally centuries of utterly shameful behaviour in Ireland (Empire-nostalgia notwithstanding), I don’t think it’s unreasonable for us to expect Britain to start acting like half-decent neighbours for once.

    Fat fucking chance.

    * Let’s be clear… I am in no way questioning the legal — or even the moral — right of the British people to choose their own path (within reason — you’re not allowed randomly nuke countries even if you vote for it 52-48). However, if something is to be described as truly “democratic” then I’d argue everyone significantly affected by it should be given an equal vote. The Irish were not allowed to vote on Brexit. Again, let me stress, I’m not saying we should have been. I’m just saying you need a different word than “democratic”.

    ** Though it’s a good deal more complicated than that. There are aspects of British culture (the monarchy, the militarism, a huge chunk of the national character surrounding class, self-image and nostalgia for empire) where I would be far more extreme in my dislike than even the most fervent Republican. So yeah, as ever, do be careful with those broad strokes.

  5. Why a female Doctor Who is like burning the Union Jack

    I got three and a half episodes into Season 2 of Game of Thrones. It was only sheer bloody-mindedness that kept me going that long. Even now I find it remarkable that a show doing so much to overload the senses and demand the attention of the viewer should so completely fail to engage me. Don’t get me wrong… I’m not saying it’s an Emperor’s New Suit thing. Enough people, whose opinions I value, are enjoying Game of Thrones for me to assume there’s something worthwhile there… it’s just not for me.

    It’s not quite the same with Doctor Who. As a kid it was one of a handful of shows I watched (the TV was rarely on in our house) and I enjoyed the way the Christopher Ecclestone reboot played with that nostalgia, nodded to it, but didn’t wallow in it. It brought a fresh perspective, and something that could have gone terribly wrong turned out surprisingly well.

    Sadly — for me — that fresh perspective ended up being something of a one-trick pony. Unlike Game of Thrones I didn’t actively resent Doctor Who for taking up time that could be more enjoyably spent watching paint dry; but even by the end of Ecclestone’s run I was finding it all a wee bit empty. Over the passing years I dropped in and out; paying vague attention, following for a few episodes then losing interest. Peter Capaldi was good and I probably saw most of his run… but I can’t say I retained much of it. It’s all a bit “enjoy the eccentricity but otherwise just let the silliness wash over you”. The silliness, sadly, generally meant the plot and a good 70% of the dialogue.

    The other 30% — a lot of which involved Capaldi and Matt Lucas complaining at one another — was a lot of fun though.

    Again, I’m not calling out the show… plenty of people love it. Just because it doesn’t hit the mark with me personally does not, by itself, make something an artistic failure. Much as I might have believed that when I was 17. Besides, it is — at its core — a kids show. That I get anything from it at all is pretty good going for something whose target demo. is 35 years younger than me.

    In summary then… I’m vaguely disappointed Capaldi is leaving, but only in the sense I’d be vaguely disappointed if my local Chinese Takeaway stopped doing their spiced plum sauce — it’s lovely and all, but I’ve probably only actually ordered it twice in the past couple of years. Hell, for all I know, they stopped doing it months ago.

    But a Timelady? What gives!?

    Yes, I’m aware “Timelord” is a gender-neutral term… I’ve been watching the argument rage on twitter. I’m also aware there’s nothing in Doctor Who canon to suggest Timelords cannot switch sex. In fact, the regeneration of The Doctor’s nemesis (The Master) into a female body a few seasons back clearly sets a precedent (I wasn’t watching at that point, but it’s been a semi-regular plot point during Capaldi’s shenanigans).

    That said, The Master’s transformation was recent enough that it could be viewed purely as a foreshadowing device for The Doctor’s transformation. So it doesn’t itself set precedent so much as pave the ground for precedent to be set. It’s part of the same plot-arc. Or so one could argue.

    I mention all this because there are people out there upset at the notion of a female Doctor Who, and I would view that upset quite differently if the internal logic of the show was undermined by this plot development. If previous seasons had established beyond doubt, as a plot device, that male Timelords always regenerated in male bodies… then… well, I still wouldn’t be outraged by the decision to go against canon, but I could completely understand hardcore fans feeling quite miffed.

    The fact that most hardcore fans seem pleased (or at worst nonplussed — “who is she?”) while most of the criticism seems to come from people who open their tweets with “haven’t watched in years, but…” tells me — a dabbler — that a female Doctor is not contravening some vital aspect of Whovian lore. It’s not like Walter White suddenly shows up as Jimmy McGill’s best friend in Better Call Saul (obviously there’s few direct analogies for a Doctor Who regeneration in television… I’m just illustrating how jarring an actual plot contradiction could be… the point being; that’s not what’s happening here).

    No Ordinary Casting Decision

    Let’s be honest though, this is clearly going against form, even if not against canon. One might certainly be forgiven for thinking male Timelords always come back in male bodies… 12 male Doctors before the first female? If that’s anywhere close to Timelord average, then it’s probably not a recipe for success as a species (though arguably a half-decent mechanism for population control within an advanced and extremely long-lived species… so who knows? It could certainly be phrased so as to make more sense than half the dialogue fans accept from the writers every week). That’s not my point though… there’s clearly a bit more to all this than the internal narrative consistency of a Saturday-teatime show for kids.

    For the avoidance of doubt, I’m totally on-board with a female Doctor Who (I can think of few actors — male or female — who’d be better in the role than Tilda Swinton). And I’ll certainly watch the first few episodes and see if Jodie Whittaker retains my attention more than Tennant or Smith. I can’t say whether I think she’d be good in the role as I don’t really know her. I did see Attack The Block but it was years ago. I recall a central female character, but the movie as a whole didn’t leave a lasting impression… “alien fur-balls attack a London council flat where Nick Frost is growing some weed” is just about all I remember. Maybe she’ll be a fun Doctor, but she’s got a hard act to follow in Capaldi and I fully expect to return to dipping in and out, as I did with Tennant and Smith.

    So what’s the issue?

    I saw a tweet earlier but I won’t be linking to it. I’m not engaging directly with any individual on this — just with the general issues — but if you search twitter using appropriate keywords, you will find plenty of tweets expressing this opinion. Anyway, this one had a screen-capture of a number of very silly comments on the Daily Mail website objecting to a female Doctor Who. The tweet mocked and lampooned them, suggesting it was absurd for grown adults to get worked up about who was going to play a character on an evening TV show for children.

    The same person then re-tweeted a video in which a young girl reacts to hearing the news of a female Doctor Who. The girl is obviously delighted. They added a message to the re-tweet… “This is why it’s important”.

    And that irritated me. I’m sorry, but it did. Not the second tweet / re-tweet. That’s not what I’m saying. And not the first one either. It was the two combined… the intellectual inconsistency made the first seem like a lousy cheap shot and added a layer of cynicism to the second. Either this is a trivial casting decision on some kids show, and people should be mocked for taking it seriously… or it’s important at some cultural level and worthy of celebration. But it’s not both.

    There’s a nice Bill Hicks routine about flag-burning…

    – “hey buddy! My Daddy died for that flag!”

    – “Well, I bought mine. Sorry. They sell ’em at K-Mart. 3 bucks… you’re in, you’re out. No violence necessary…”

    It’s a good bit. The Hicks backlash is well underway — with carefully edited compilations from routines now almost 3 decades old, highlighting his most culturally insensitive material — but I still love the guy. And that’s a funny flag-burning bit. Which is why I feel bad deconstructing it…

    … but while it’s possible to coherently argue that a flag is just a piece of cloth with a coloured pattern on it; or that a flag is a physical symbol of a set of shared values; you can’t argue both simultaneously. And let’s be honest, if you’re out there burning a flag it’s not because you’re engaged in an aesthetic critique of the palette. You’re doing it precisely because it’s a physical symbol of a set of shared values. You’re doing it because somebody’s Daddy died for the damn thing.

    And no, of course I’m not bloody saying flag-burning should be illegal. Christ people!

    I’m just saying the “3 bucks in K-Mart” line is funny, but doesn’t actually constitute a legitimate argument if someone gets upset when you burn a flag.

    I thought this post was about Doctor Who…?

    It’s the same bloody thing with a female Doctor Who, right?

    OK. So it’s not the same thing — but even you have to admit there’s a solid analogy in there. The casting of Jodie Whittaker was met with a great deal of celebration by people who are not young girls in twitter videos. Within hours of the announcement every mainstream media website in the UK, and a few here in Ireland, had opinion columns and think-pieces about “the female Doctor Who“. Some heralded it as a significant cultural milestone — others suggesting, “nah, not so much”. And the usual tabloid suspects screamed bloody murder. In that context, it is a lousy cheap shot to dismiss the objections of others as “silly” or as placing too much importance on a kids’ show.

    Especially when you yourself acknowledge how important that particular show might be in shaping the cultural landscape of children (and adults).

    That’s not to say we shouldn’t dismiss the objections of Daily Mail commenters when they’re ridiculous. And they are. In fact, if someone is objecting to something and using the Daily Mail website to do it…

    … OK, so on a cosmic level, mocking them probably isn’t a lousy cheap shot.

    But you do see the basic internal inconsistency, right?

    And do you also see the downside of a female Doctor Who? Because there is one.

    Whether it outweighs the upsides is another discussion entirely, but it is there and I honestly don’t think it requires a subscription to The Mail or the donning of a fedora to make it.

    It’s very much linked to the video of the young girl. Because it struck me that it’s totally possible the mirror of that reaction took place somewhere, with a young boy suddenly feeling let-down by something he loved. And before you start in with the “but boys have so many iconic cultural characters to identify with…” let me politely ask you to slam on the brakes for a goddamn second and think carefully about something. Head back to the start of this post and recall the bit about me watching Doctor Who as a kid. And while the cultural landscape has changed significantly for young boys since the dark days of the late 1970s, I bet one thing has stayed roughly the same… damn near every fictional character for us to identify with, as witty and smart as they might be, damn near all of them were handy with a sword, or a gun, or their fists.

    Doctor Who may not be entirely unique among iconic male leading characters within “action fiction” for his evangelical anti-violence position and unwavering confidence that either diplomacy or ingenuity is the best route. But I’m betting if you took a ratio of both male and female characters who espouse that philosophy versus a “hit it til it’s fixed” alternative, you’ll find that far from having a galaxy of stars to choose from, you may well be robbing many shy, quiet, nerdy 9 year old boys of literally their only heroic figure who doesn’t leave blood on the floor every time you meet them.

    Again. Not saying that’s a valid reason to be outraged at a female Doctor Who. And I very much doubt many of the outraged people are outraged because of it. I’ll be tuning in and giving Whittaker’s run a chance. I really hope I enjoy it. But I do feel a little bit sad for that hypothetical 9 year old boy. Can’t help it. And if it had been up to me… I’m not at all sure I would have made that decision.

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