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You can tell you’re British when…

In which we clear up odds and ends


… you start talking about the weather.

Some springtime might be nice. Instead, it’s been getting colder and damper and colder and damper. We’d turned the heating off to save a bit of gas; and were very reluctant to turn it back on, especially given the capricious nature of British Gas’s billing system.* It had to be done, though, otherwise the house probably would have started to sag into a mineshaft, or something along those lines. At least today things seem a bit brighter.

A web search that came in yesterday – terry williams artist bristol birch road – reminded me that I’ve been meaning to write about another recent event we attended, the Southbank Bristol Arts Trail, tramping the streets of Bedminster and Southville – in the damp, of course – visiting artists’ houses and viewing their art. As we did last year, in fact; and, like last year, we went to look at Terry Williams’ art in his home on Birch Road. His paintings aren’t the sort of artwork we’d want to buy for our own walls, but he’s clearly an accomplished artist; my favourite painting by him was a large canvas titled “Birnbeck Pier By Night”. Largely black, the spidery lines of the semi-disused pier-bridge** were marked out more by texture than by colour. I will write more about the arts trail, as soon as I go through the list of venues and can recall which one in my head matches up with which description.

* It will trundle along for a while before saying “ooh, you’re hugely in credit, we’d better cut your monthly payments.” Then, a few months later, it will change to “ooh, you’re hugely in debt, better treble your monthly payments.” You’d think they’d realise that gas usage is bound to drift up and down seasonally, and compensate for that; instead, the seasonal change in the payments seems to magnify rather than even out the changes in usage.

** It’s called a pier but I’d say it’s technically a bridge, because it goes out to an island.

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In-Flight Entertainment

In which we have a jaunt off to Birmingham to see Flight of the Concords


Off to Birmingham yesterday, to see Flight of the Conchords at the National Indoor Arena, the great hulking ostrich egg sat in a nest of redeveloped Birmingham canalside next to a clutch of restaurant chains. Despite their radio series and their sitcom, I still think that FotC have the feel of a cult hit to them, one of those acts* who nobody apart from us has heard about. It’s slightly surprising, then, to find that they can head out on an arena tour which – in the UK, at least – seemed to sell out within a morning. I wonder if the other thousands of people in the audience all entered to the same thought: “what, there really are other people who have heard of them?”

There was one big clue as to the type of people who like Flight of the Conchords. The merchandise stall. We arrived at the gig almost as soon as the doors opened, and we queued up for the merchandise stall, at the sight of their rather attractive playing-card-style tea towels. “I know this is sad, but I really want a tea towel” said a woman behind us. But when we reached the desk: nope. No tea towels. All sold out. The people who go to Flight of the Conchords gigs – or, at least, arrive early at them – are the sort of people who like an attractive tea towel in their kitchen.

Disappointment of the night: Flight of the Conchords are touring supported by other comedians who have appeared on their TV series, such as Arj Barker and Kristin Schall. Our tickets told us to expect Schall; but the support who appeared was Eugene Mirman. It’s not that he’s a dull chap, it’s just that we’d already seen most of his material, recently, on TV. We’d have liked it more if we hadn’t heard almost all the jokes before.

You could say I’m being slightly hypocritical there, given that I know Flight of the Conchords’ songs from watching their TV series. Their TV series, though, is distinctly different from their show, and their TV characters are subtlely different to their stage personas. “Where’s Murray?” shouted a heckler at one point. “Murray couldn’t make it tonight,” replied one of the duo, “because … he’s a fictional character.” The songs, though, all worked very well on stage, even ones which previously seemed to be very specific to a TV episode plot.**

In some ways I’m not a great fan of big arena shows, partly because you can end up watching the performers on-screen, because the performers themselves are too hard to see. With Flight of the Conchords, though, there was a sense of warmth between audience and performers that really isn’t something you can experience watching a DVD. We were, apparently, a very polite audience. I wasn’t very surprised that the band thought so, to tell you the truth. After all, what sort of behaviour do you expect, from an audience that likes tea towels so much?

* Do you describe them as a band, or a comedy double-act? I’m not entirely sure.

** “Epileptic Dogs”, for example.

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Location, location, location

In which Ipswich is apparently a suburb of Bristol


Regular readers – if there are any left – might recall that back in January I spotted some TV filming going on in our neighbourhood, that turned out to be for a drama about prostitutes, drugs, etc. that wasn’t set “specifically in Bristol.”

Well, indeed. Because it turned up on the telly last weekend, and it turned out to be Five Daughters: a drama-documentary about the Ipswich prostitute murders of 2006. Apparently, the film-makers thought that Bristol’s distinctive Victorian terraces look just like Ipswich’s (former) red-light district. Or that Bristol’s highly-distinctive market, on hilly Corn St, looks just like Ipswich city centre.

Now, I know telly is all about editing, and it’s not actually real. But, even so, we were slightly amused by moments such as: a car driving past the same restaurant (“Al’s Tikka Grill”, also known as the “Hungry Bite Cafe”, on Ashton Road”) three times on the same journey, twice shot from the same angle.* Or, the way that Ipswich seems to consist solely of Ashton Road, a handful of roads off Ashton Road,** and Corn St. The way that they had used a real BBC Bristol reporter for their mocked-up news footage; and the way that the programme cut from clips of real news footage showing the real Ipswich, to shots of supposedly the same location, filmed in Bedminster and looking entirely different. I know it’s a drama, and I know their budget might have been a bit stretched, but I would have thought the crew would have put slightly more effort into suspending people’s disbelief.

* Well, he could have driven round the block

** There was also the A-One Cafe, near the junction of Duckmoor Road and Luckwell Road, and very definitely the A-One Cafe, its name visible all over the place.

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Lights And Action

In which we spot some filming going on, so talk about something completely different


On my way home, last night and the night before, I noticed something going on along Ashton Road. Big floodlights, lighting up the whole street: some sort of night filming was going on.

Being intrigued, I went to the internet to try to find out what it might be. And then I checked my website stats, and found that people have been coming to this site, already, to try to find out what was being filmed. They can’t have got an answer, at least not from me. I haven’t been able to find a complete one, either, but I have found that it’s a drama about “the lives of young women who are involved with drugs and prostitution“, and it’s not specifically set in Bedminster, Ashton Gate, or in Bristol in general. Cheerful, then.

It reminded me, though, to say: you’d be able to tell, just by looking at my website stats, that the new series of Being Human has started now, with new extra dark edginess and even dirtier vampires than before. You can tell, because of the number of people who are asking The Interweb where it was filmed. To be honest, the establishing shots in the new series make it even more obvious than previously: most of them clearly show the street name. For new readers: the Being Human house is 1, Windsor Terrace, Totterdown, Bristol.* The pub, going by the exterior shots, appears to be along Henry St. K and I had a debate about the location of the car park in Episode 1: she said Trenchard St, I said Prince St; and the gay vampire’s house in Episode 2 was on Redcliffe Parade – as anyone who’s visited Bristol probably realised. Handily just round the corner from the hospital, in fact, should you have an urgent need to pretend to be dead.**

* Not in Cardiff, as one searcher seemed to think, presumably as the series was commissioned by BBC Cymru/Wales.

** In fact, I’m slightly puzzled now, why he didn’t pop up in the first series? After all, if you’re going through a major crisis and the self-proclaimed Vampire Leader is promising to destroy you, and you have a friend who has helped you in the past and is probably On Your Side … and he lives about 2 minutes walk from where you work, you think you’d probably pop round at least once. Of course, I know the real reason is that he hadn’t been invented at that point, but never mind.

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Ubiquity

In which there’s a band you can’t avoid


If there’s one band that was ubiquitous in everyone’s best-of-2009 lists the other months, it must have been Florence And The Machine. Everyone, pretty much, loved their debut album, Lungs, and every review couldn’t stop raving about it. We got a copy; and it was, I have to say, pretty decent. I was impressed.

This post isn’t a review of the album, though. This post is a complaint that now, if you turn the telly on, you can’t get away from that album. Over and over again, tracks from that Florence And The Machine album are being used as background music on trailer after trailer. I’ve heard it used to advertise everything from Slumdog Millionaire to The Hairy Bikers to Lard Rise To Candleford,* and more than once I’ve heard successive trailers, back-to-back, with songs from that same album in the background.

The end-of-year lists might well be at fault. After all, the album was released back in the summer, but this wasn’t happening back in October or November. All at once, though, at some point in December, every sound-editing person across the entire TV world seems to have picked up a copy of Lungs and started plastering its tracks all over their output. All channels seem to have had the same idea, all at the same time. It was a good album, but now, you can’t get away from it. Sometimes too much is too much.

* I prefer the typo there to the actual programme.

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So bad, it’s … well

In which we consider the history of kings


Last Thursday’s post, I mentioned Gödel, Escher, Bach, the long, complex and self-referential book by Douglas Hofstadter which features a tortoise, Achilles, a crab, Alan Turing and Douglas Hofstadter trying to find the links between self-referentiality, consciousness, and the works of the three titular men.

Well, I’ve finished reading it now. This post isn’t about that, though, but about a TV documentary I watched some months ago, which was one of the worst I’ve ever managed to see. At the time, it was so bad, I thought: I should start the blog up again so I can talk about how awful it is. On the other hand, it was so, so bad, it really didn’t deserve the effort.* That programme was: Britain’s Real Monarch, by everyone’s favourite let’s-popularise-history presenter, Tony Robinson.

Towards the end of GEB, there’s an interesting segment on counterfactuality. I think it was Umberto Eco who said “anything counterfactual is true”,** but Hofstadter points out that we’re always far more likely to consider some counterfactuals than others. Some counterfactuals are intrinsically more plausible than others. I suspect, myself, that some of this is culturally determined: “but what if it had been raining?” is much more likely to occur to someone brought up in England to someone brought up in, say, Algeria. “But what would have happened if Henry V had been a woman?” isn’t likely to occur to anyone’s mind, though, even if they happen to be thinking about counterfactuals in medieval history at the time, and even though it’s almost a toss-of-the-coin event.

The premise of Robinson’s documentary, essentially, was that back in the fifteenth century there was some dodginess going on in the English line of descent, and that Edward IV was not his father’s son. Hence, he Wasn’t Royal. Henry VII also Wasn’t Properly Royal, but from an illegitimate branch of the family; so his son, Henry VIII, relied on his mother’s royal descent: from Edward IV. Ergo, all our kings and queens since haven’t really been Royal at all, but are just pretending. Our real monarch is an ordinary Australian chap, living in obscurity and unawareness in New South Wales, called Mike.

Now Mike, to be honest, came out of the whole thing rather well, as one of the most sensible people in the programme. Far from being unaware, he was well aware that he’s actually an aristocrat, knows he has a title and everything, and knows exactly who he’s descended from. He was probably also well-aware of his claim to the throne, going by his response to Tony R taking him through his family tree. Being a republican, he was probably also rather bored with the idea.

What annoyed me, though, was the whole concept of the programme: that, if things had been slightly different back in fourteen-mumble-mumble, This Man would now be Michael, By The Grace of God, King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Defender of the Faith and Head of the Commonwealth. If things had been slightly different back in fourteen-mumble-mumble, Mike wouldn’t even exist. He’d never have been born. Neither would his father, his father’s father, and so on. His 19th-century ancestor who gambled the family inheritance away? None of it, none at all, would have happened. It was perfectly possible for Tony R to contemplate that some past uprising would have pushed a Tudor off the throne and replaced them with someone else with True Royal Blood; but not possible for him to contemplate that the family tree of that branch would have changed in any way at all. Even though, of course, their circumstances would have been radically different, they would have socialised in different circles, had different obligations, this documentary relied on the theory that they would still all have married exactly the same people.

The other part of the concept was also, well, rather silly. To my mind, at least, but lots of people still do seriously believe it. That there is, indeed, something in your blood that makes you Magically Royal. Whatever Something it is, it’s very clever, because it disappears if you’re not properly married. I doubt that Tony Robinson seriously believes in that himself.*** It also, somehow, never dilutes, however many prince and princess siblings a king or queen has. If it didn’t, of course, we’d all be very much Royal. The people who still seriously believe in that sort of Royalty tend not to think about where it starts from in the first place: we worship the Queen because she is directly descended from our god, Woden.****

For a long time, as you probably know, there have been disputes in historiography between those who see history as a series of events created by great people and as a series of trends driven by economics, climate and technology. The truth is somewhere in between, but the two styles are as hard to marry as, in the science world, quantum physics and relativity, because they focus on entirely disparate scales. Great People theory is the quantum theory of history: it explains the world by focusing on the tiniest of scales, but at its heart you have to accept randomness as a primary cause of events. Socioeconomic history is relativity: you look at the wide scale of changes in, say, crop yields, and from that explain how society changes just as you can explain a planet’s orbit. An individual invention doesn’t even matter, because someone else would have invented it. Both of these are entirely acceptable ways of looking at history, and both are true, even though they can seem to be incompatible on the surface. Where you go wrong, though, is to base your history from a Great People perspective whilst assuming its events are as fixed and predictable as the onset of the Little Ice Age. That’s the mistake that Tony Robinson made, and all the other writers who have followed the “God Save King Mike!” line of reasoning. History doesn’t necessarily follow iron rails.***** Mike The Friendly Australian isn’t the real King of Britain, despite what his bloodline might be, because kingship in the real world is a little more complicated than that.

* Yes, it really was less well-thought-out than this chap’s documentary work.

** At least, Umberto Eco’s translator, who I think is usually William Weaver, in Foucault’s Pendulum.

*** He was a member of the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party for a few years last decade; given that political background it’s unlikely.

**** I’m not the sort of person who hangs around genealogical websites, but I do seem to remember, a few years back, seeing a Mormon-driven one that displayed family trees for everyone it knew about. Moreover, “everyone it knew about” included quite a few of the ancient pagan gods of Europe. If you looked up someone linked to the British royal family, then it would, entirely serious and deadpan, give you their family tree right back to Woden/Odin, as their ancestors had claimed was the case.

***** Bear in mind, too, that Way Back In The Mists Of Time the succession wasn’t fixed in any case. It could be willed, or a king could be chosen. William I wasn’t followed by his firstborn son, at least not as King of England; and kings before him were picked by a council from the eligible aristocrats.

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This Is Not A TV Blog

In which we discuss the passing of The Doctor


Through the last year, we’d managed to avoid watching the various Doctor Who specials that popped up around each bank holiday. The reason being, the last full series, back in 2008, really hadn’t grabbed us very hard. Despite having a few sparkling gems within it, there were too many painful moments and mystical endings. So: the one-off specials passed us by, as if they had never existed.

We did think, though: better make an effort to watch the Christmas specials. Because, after all, we knew the Doctor was going to regenerate, and we assumed that it would be done with as big a splash as possible. So: a date for the diary. We watched them, on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. And, generally, they made me think: well, I’m glad we didn’t bother with the other specials then.

K pointed out that Doctor Who isn’t, and never has, been aimed at People Like Us. It’s aimed at the people it always has been: immediately-pre-teenage children and their parents, who probably loved all the dramatic running about and look-there’s-The-Master’s-skeleton special effects. But one of the problems with new Doctor Who is that it’s been caught between several camps: trying to appeal to Camp A, the family audience; Camp B, the Doctor Who fans who can quote whole segments of tangled back-story; and Camp C, the people in-between who can vaguely remember that the old 1970s and 1980s show was pretty cool when they were in Camp A.

I used to assume, back when the resurrection first started, that Russell T Davies was a Camp B type of chap. Now I’ve watched a few series, I’ve changed my mind. Some of his writers may be Camp Bs, but now I think that RTD himself is a Camp C who wishes that he was in Camp B; not just that, but also wants the rest of Camp B to look up and adore him. To do it, he pulls in bits of random back-story and continuity whenever he wants to, but without any consistancy or pattern. Timothy Dalton’s character, for example, was described in the credits as either “Narrator” or “Lord President”; but the Doctor referred to him as Rassilon, a character from Doctor Who ages past, but not one whose past appearances fitted at all into the new story.

The story as a whole seemed awfully twisted and confused. I’m not always, I have to admit, the most perceptive of people, but I really couldn’t make much sense of the plot. What happened to the secret society trying to bring Saxon back, and why were they doing it? Who was that millionaire trying to make his daughter immortal, and why was he doing it? Was he really as plastic as he looked? Those “locked/open” cubicles in the control room – just why exactly were they there in the first place?* Why was Gallifrey “hell”? For that matter, why did it just pop into existance when the Time Lords were vaguely nearby? Why didn’t it cause massive tidal waves on Earth?** Who let the Time Lords’ soothsayer near the box of black biros? Was there meant to be a connection between the Weeping Angels, the Who monster invented by Steven Moffat, and the female Time Lords who kept sneaking messages to Bernard Cribbins? If so, what the hell was it? Was it anything more than Davies trying to derail a potentially-good monster created by his successor while he still had the chance?***

Maybe that’s the key. Certainly, the episodes might have made more sense if more time had been spent on storytelling. Instead, a good 10-15 minutes at the end was spent on the Doctor popping round to visit his previous companions for a cup of tea to lurk ominously in the background in a meaningful oh-my-painful-heart way. Not something that’s happened for any of his previous regenerations, as far as I know. K said, charitably, that maybe this was because David Tennant’s Doctor character was rather more emotionally attached to his companions and other human characters than previous Doctors.***** My interpretation is: it’s not about the Doctor regenerating and Tennant leaving at all. It’s about Davies leaving, and regretting it. That was his goodbye to his creations, not the Doctor at all. It was self-indulgent, and the programme would have been better without it. Maybe he’s not very happy about the degree of change that’s coming now he’s left: the programme now has a completely new logo, a much better one at that. That’s hopefully a sign that a lot is changing, more than just a name on the credits.****

Having said all that: there were a few good points. There were a few good scenes. Not very many at all, though. Apart from John Simm’s performance, though, there was nothing that I can put my finger on and say: “ah, that made The End Of Time worthwhile”. Give me a minute, and I’ll try to think of something that wasn’t John Simm.

(no, a bit longer than that)

Nope, nothing springs to mind. Doctor Who in general is a Good Thing, but in its specifics it’s lacking something. I have a nagging feeling, though, that back, back into the mists of time, that was always the case.

* I mean, I know why they ended up being there in plotting terms, but I didn’t at all get what their justification was. And while I’m on the topic: I was rather suspicious that the protective glass the cubicles were made from could apparently block all that dangerous radiation, but said radiation couldn’t make it through the gap around the edge of the door. It’s semi-plausible – microwaves can’t make it though the wire mesh in your oven door, for example – but really not that convincing.

** true “tidal waves”, in fact, not tsunamis.

*** If so it didn’t work, because the Blink-style Weeping Angels popped up in the trailer for the next series. I feel like adding “why did the Time Lords’ sublimation mean that the universe had to end?” to that list of questions but the key there is in the word “sublimation” for what the Time Lords wanted to do – I first came across the concept in Iain M Banks’s novels, where many races have done it, but there’s nothing to say that it has to work the same way in the Who universe.

**** I am very much hoping that the incidental music is one of the things that changes. I’m hoping that it’s possible to have an entire series of Doctor Who without the involvement of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, and, in particular, without the involvement of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales Choral Section.

***** K also said: “why are you getting worked up about such insignificant stuff?”

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Twenty percent of evil

In which we discuss The Turn Of The Screw Coupling


It being Christmastime, there’s nothing quite like a ghost story. Was it Dickens who started the Christmas ghost story tradition, or is it more down to BBC schedulers of the 1970s? Never mind. It being Christmastime, we sat down in front of the telly to watch the latest BBC version of The Turn Of The Screw, by Henry James. It seems like only the other day that it was last made for the TV; but here it is again.

I should admit, I’m not particularly a fan of The Turn Of The Screw, the book, thinking it rather dense and over-written, too wordy to be frightening or atmospheric. Partly this might be because I first read it in a less-than-ideal place: while working in a call centre, between calls. Being interrupted every few minutes by the phone chiming puts a slightly different perspective on your comprehension of mysterious horror and pernicious evil. The book itself begins with a properly seasonal framing story, which the new version ignored entirely, ripping the meat of the story out and sandwiching it within an entirely different framing story set some decades later. It’s now a 1920s tale told to some kind of doctor or detective by some sort of inmate – the narrator of the story proper.

I’m not going to delve into the whole thing; a summary is that the governess of two children becomes convinced that two evil ghosts are trying to attract her wards into their own world. These ghosts were evil when they were alive, we are told, are trying to cast the children into their moulds, and seem to be succeeding: one of the children has just been expelled from school for being unspeakably naughty. But while the governess starts to see the ghosts more and more frequently, and is convinced the children can see them too, noone else in the household thinks that anything at all is amiss. Thousands upon thousands of essays, papers and texts have been devoted to the question of: are we meant to think the ghosts are real, or meant to think they are in the narrator’s imagination. Whole critical careers have been staked on one side or the other of this argument.

For TV, though, subtlety is abandoned. The camera shows us: the children, possibly more of the household staff, know that the ghosts are there and have some idea what they are up to. The nature of Ghost One, Peter Quint’s evil, too, is much more explicit: he’s a Bad Man who has his wicked way with all the ladies. Because that’s often not thought so much of a Bad Thing these days, he’s violent to them too. The nature of the boy Miles’s evil is still left vague and mysterious. Peter Quint is trying to bring him up in Peter Quint’s image, so presumably he’s turning violent and misogynistic; but why would that get him expelled from a 1920s public school?* There’s not really a clear answer to that one, which is presumably why the film-makers left it still unexplained. It’s about the only thing that was.

Now, book and film/TV are different media, and it’s unfair to gripe purely about the fact that they are different media. Adaptations can’t be made unchanged, otherwise we’d hardly need the term “adaptation”. Anachronism, though, gets on my nerves a little bit. There were a couple of scenes in which the governess arrived or departed at their local railway station; I’m fairly sure it was filmed at the very scenic Cranmore station, on the East Somerset Railway, not too far from here.** This is the 1920s, so we should have a 1920s train turn up; at Cranmore, of course, that would be a GWR country branch train in the appropriate GWR dark maroon carriage livery.**** What train does the governess step out of? A 1950s British Rail carriage in 1950s chocolate-and-cream. It’s hardly very suitable; it’s just as anachronistic as a big diesel like this would have been. Or, indeed, as if Peter Quint had worn a James Dean jacket and shades. What’s the point of period drama if you don’t bother with a period set?

* we can presume, from his angelic tousled face, that he’s as yet too young to impregnate his house’s maid, which would be a very Peter-Quintish thing to do.

** At the Shepton Mallet end of Cranmore’s platform there’s an incomplete GWR “cash-register” signal, being slowly-but-carefully restored by the East Somerset Railway’s small signal-restoring team. You can see a picture of part of it here; it’s called a cash-register signal because, at the pull of a lever, a choice of signs will pop up from the black box. I’m fairly sure I noticed it pop up*** in the background of the station platform shots in The Turn Of The Screw, along with some platform buildings that looked rather Cranmoreish.

*** The signal itself, not the signs. Like I said, it’s not finished.

**** I forget the term for the colour; but then, most GWR fans tend to forget about it too.

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List Post Of The Week

In which we list some bands


This week’s List Post Of The Week: bands scheduled to perform at this year’s End Of The Road Festival, just completed, on the borders of Dorset and Wiltshire:*

The Acorn; Alela Dian; Iain Archer; Sam Baker; Archie Bronson Outfit; Au; Emily Barker and the Red Clay Halo; Bear Driver; Blitzen Trapper; The Boy Least Likely To; Brakes; Peter Broderick; Broken Family Band; David Thomas Broughton; Neko Case; Dirty Projectors; The Dodos; The Duke & The King; Steve Earle; Efterklang; Jess Elva; Esben and the Witch; Explosions In The Sky; First Aid Kit; Fleet Foxes; Get The Blessing; Laura Gibson; Joe Gideon and The Shark; The Hand; The Heavy; Darren Hayman; Herman Dune**; The Hold Steady; The Horrors; Beth Jeans Houghton; Huw M; Lay Low; The Leisure Society; Bob Lind; Bob Log III; Loney Dear; The Low Anthem; Magic Arm; Magnolia Electric Co; Dent May & His Magnificent Ukelele; Dan Michaelson and the Coastguards; Malcolm Middleton; Motel Motel; Mumford & Sons; The Mummers; Ohbiju; Okkervil River; The Pack AD; Charlie Parr; Josh T Pearson; Quack Quack; Richmond Fontaine; Alasdair Roberts; Dan Sartain; She Keeps Bees; Shearwater; The Sliding Rule; Soy Un Caballo; Sparrow & The Workshop; Spokes; Stardeath and White Dwarfs; Stars Of Sunday League; T-Model Ford; The Tallest Man On Earth; The Tenebrous Liar; This Frontier Needs Heroes; Holly Throsby; J Tillman; Tiny Vipers; The Travelling Band; Treecreeper; Twi The Humble Feather; Vetiver; The Week That Was; Whispertown 2000; William Elliot Whitmore; Wildbirds & Peacedrums; Wye Oak; Zun Zun Egui

* Literally so: the gardens and main stage were in Wiltshire, the camp site and other stages in Dorset.

** Formerly “Herman Düne”, of course.

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Apologia

In which we try to justify a one-line description


Talking of Robespierre, I recently said that he was, well, one of the villains of the French Revolution. And – well, he is and he isn’t. He’s also someone who, in many ways, I admire: that’s not really a way you can describe a villain. But, having thought of the handy “for some people he’s a hero, for others he’s a villain” line, I couldn’t bring myself to call him a hero.

“Apologia”, incidentally, doesn’t mean the same as “apology”. It’s something more like “justification”. It’s possible to justify almost anything, of course;* but I think there are good reasons to say that Robespierre couldn’t really be called anyone’s hero.

Admirable, he was. For people who don’t know much about him: he was a fairly dull provincial lawyer who suddenly had a chance to thrust at power. When the King of France decided to call the Estates-General – the closest thing ancien regime France had to a parliament, but lucky to get convened once a century – he strained to get himself elected, then strained to get closer and closer to power on a platform of radical equality and socialism. He wasn’t a typical-looking revolutionary, though: always carefully-dressed, never a sans culotte and refusing to wear the red cap of liberty, he set up a new Deist state religion at the same time as trying to introduce state education. Identifying himself as the revolution personified, he became obsessed with purging France of anyone he considered counter-revolutionary: people could be executed on a rumour that they’d told a joke, with no right to defence. After one final blood-soaked month,** he was purged himself, by the other members of the National Convention, ostensibly on the grounds that he was too lenient to his friends. He was never a dictator, despite his enemies’ claims: if he had been, his death would hardly have happened in the way it did.

So why is he admirable? He started off from a point of principle – particularly, the works of Rousseau – and he never, ever compromised. It caused him problems: he refused to ever admit his mistakes, even when executing someone who had earlier been an ally. But he was the sort of politician who it’s impossible to imagine nowadays: one who said what he believed, who stood by what he believed, and could never consider compromising a policy to further his personal career. His nickname was “the Incorruptible”, and it was used as both a compliment and almost as an insult.

I could never call him a hero, though. Admirable, but not a hero, and for precisely the same reason. Although he was perfectly willing to sacrifice himself for France, he was all too willing to sacrifice other people too. If a friend disagreed with him, however close a friend, then they would end up purged for the good of the country. For the Incorruptible Robespierre, being pure and incorruptible was more important than any personal loyalty; and any form of dissent was seen as treasonable behaviour. Dissent against himself, that is, meaning the same as dissent against the Revolution itself.

Heros, I’d say, should be people you want to adore close-up. Robespierre might be admirable, but he is somebody I’d always want to stay at arms’ length from. He’s not, never could be, a black-and-white person; but if it comes down to hero or villain, then he could never ever be my hero.

* especially if you have access to a word processor.

** during which the guillotine had to be moved further and further from the centre of Paris, as the bloodflow was contaminating the water supply

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