Saturday, March 24, 2018

Not long ago, I was given a whole set of Piers Anthony’s Space Tyrant books by a well-meaning friend who thought my recently-decimated library could use a boost. (He cannot have read them). Being unacquainted with Piers Anthony as a writer, and ever a sucker for space-opera, I eagerly dove into the first volume, Refugee.  

Ye Gods. . .Where do I begin?

To pilfer a passage from Roger Ebert, I hated this book. Hated, hated, hated it. It is the worst book I have read in quite some time.  Worse than The Residential Tenancies Act. It is depraved. It is despicable. It is, at times, laughably amateurish. For all this, its author is highly successful, and continues to sell books to a devoted fanbase. This to me, is astonishing.

I was actually moved to write an Amazon review for it. Here’s what I put:

“What we have here is a character who: watches his sister raped, watches his mother raped, watches his father disemboweled, and only towards the end remembers that he has a laser pistol in his possession?

This is a book in which the plot largely depends on the idiocy of its characters. Whose staggering ineptitude and incompetence, painstakingly conveyed in three hundred pages of the most clumsy, leaden prose I've ever read, has one screaming at the pages in exasperation.  The only plotting Anthony seems to care about is piling miseries upon his characters, contriving ever worse ways for them to suffer and sadistically depriving them of any agency. It becomes apparent early on there will be no pay-off, no redemption, not even sensible action.

Don't read this expecting fun space-opera: what you get rather is a kind of pulp torture porn, replete with rape, cannibalism, incest, pedophilia, bestiality and necrophilia references.”   

I’m not joking – each of those show up. Not all are portrayed as graphically as the near constant rapes, but they are alluded to, in passages so brief and so pointless, yet no less stomach-churningly nasty for it, one wonders why the author bothered with them, unless churning the reader’s stomach was exactly what Anthony wanted. Was it? To heap violence and depravity on the reader until they cry “Uncle”? I shudder to think what Anthony’s horror fiction must be like…

To be clear, the problem here is not that Anthony is sexually explicit, nor that he wants to bring up certain topics (though to no apparent purpose). For serious writers, no topic is out of bounds. But subjects like rape need to be handled with incredible sensitivity. Rape is real, and ruins who-knows how many millions of lives. It is not something to be trifled with. It is not a plot device. It is not motivation for vengeful characters. It is not a short-cut to gravitas, and it is most certainly not a subject of titillation.  It is not to be handled lightly.

Even if I grant Anthony the benefit of the doubt, and assume he wanted to write a serious book about a serious subject (albeit very misleadingly marketed by the publisher), an author who includes lines like “I’m here to keep you from getting raped – unless you want to” rather seems to lack the requisite sensitivity. Any male writer who presumes to speculate on the female reaction to the experience of rape – not just an individual character but the generalized universal experience – is taking upon himsel on an almost impossibly delicate task. Does this sound delicate to you?  The sheer ineptitude of this work keeps it from sounding anything but sleazy.

Which brings us to the laser-pistol. This is not a small detail. When fictional characters consistently, even insistently, fail to follow the most obvious course of action or even attempt the most basic solution to their problems, or when an author has them simply forget the options available to them. . .at some point you can’t suspend your disbelief anymore, you can’t believe in the characters anymore, you can’t give the author any more free passes.

In a bazaar reversal of Chekov’s law, Anthony’s protagonist is provided with a laser pistol, which, despite constant threats to him and his loved ones, it never occurs to him use. It’s not like he forgets about it either. On something like seven different occasions (I lost count) after each successive family member is raped, killed or mutilated, he laments “if only I had my pistol”. By which point the reader can only scream at the page:

“Well why the fuck don’t you???”    
Anthony provides no reason. There are any number of narrative devices he could have invoked – the charge was low, the kid was a bad shot, the pirates shot first – but he doesn’t bother. I can’t help thinking he’s just taking the piss; setting up audience expectation in a painfully obvious way, only to violate it. It’s all fine and good to violate audience expectation, except when it makes no fucking sense. It erases empathy for a character who won’t even attempt to defend his family. It’s a massive distraction. And, if it is a piss-take, then it’s not taking this most serious of subjects seriously is it?

How seriously can the author be taking things when he has the protagonist announce the death of thirty people with “there’s good news, and there’s bad news”. Could this line be anything other than a joke?

Or are we to believe that a small community of widows and orphans, having lost thirty of their adults on a dangerous alien planet, would send thirty more out after them? Really? Really???

Or when the protagonists mother goes missing on this alien world: does he really wait to refurbish his spaceship before going to search for her? (he has a skiff by this time – again, it doesn’t occur to this idiot to use the technology at his disposal).

 I could go on and on. Are there really no such things as radios in this world? Why can’t they lock their spaceship doors again? What the hell was the point of that fake but not really fake hijacking at the end? Just about nothing makes sense. Those are just the plot points – I haven’t even started on the prose style yet. I don’t to know how a hoverboard works, I only need to know if the bad guy fell off. . .

Bad plotting, bad prose and impossibly problematic subject matter form a kind of unholy trinity, feeding off and enforcing each other until it all snowballs into an avalanche of “yuck”. It’s not that good writing would have saved the book, but I can’t help thinking that a better writer might not have been quite so ham-fisted with it. The prose certainly makes it all the more cringe-worthy.  The plotting and sheer implausible idiocy of the characters makes it impossible to take anything within it seriously. And this fixation on rape and pedophilia only ever comes across as creepy.

There’s another thing too. Piers Anthony is not a nobody. He is (or was) a very big selling writer. And a significant part of his audience appear to be young people. I remember Piers Anthony’s Xanth books prominently displayed in my Grade 7 library, and eagerly devoured by the 12 and 13 year girls in my class.  So. . .an eager young reader relishes the fantasies of Xanth, spots this title in the bookstore, with an astronaut on the cover and her favourite author’s name in exciting Buck Rogers front. . . you see where I’m going here? There’s no reason writers who’ve written for children can’t cross-over into adult fiction, or vice-versa.   (Roald Dahl comes to mind). But when a book is marketed as space opera, a genre widely believed to be harmless and kid friendly, and there’s no attempt to represent the contents of this book accurately, it does feel like something sinister has gone down. A trojan horse if you will.

Perhaps Anthony can’t help how his books are marketed. But he did write the damn thing. . .

To what extent are we bound to artist intent when we adapt their work? 

I am inclined to think that our freedom here is not unlimited. It is very very broad of course, and we want to avoid slavish imitation, and of course we need to take modern sensibilities into account. But I do not think we can ignore context completely. It behooves us to understand what a work meant to it's own time and place, before we force our own tastes and values upon it. 

Context matters. Realism is all fine and good, but I'm not convinced a graphic gang-rape scene really enriched "the William Tell Overture". I think Rossini's intention here should have been more carefully considered. 

Performers of operas and plays do indeed need to try new things, and do indeed have a difficult task in making old works relevant to modern audiences, but I'm not sure they have tabula rasa. It can only be made so relateable. Let's face it: Opera, and Symphonic music, and ELizabethan drama are not immediately relateable to modern audiences. If they were, they would be filled with pop music, and spoken in modern English. At some point it needs to be acknowledged that these are older forms, created in different times for different audiences. Good art is eternal, but it is also of its time, and we ignore it at our peril. 

I suppose the issue comes up most often in adaptations of Shakespeare. Most productions these days I would wager (though it'd be a dangerous wager to make considering how often they're performed) opt for some kind of anachronistic performance, setting them in recognizably modern, or at least much more recent settings. I'm not sure exactly why - every director and set designer probably has a different idea, but I suspect it has something to do with Shakespeare's perceived universality (that, and the extreme ugliness of Elizabethan fashions). 

This raises all kind of issues. Some interpretations work, and some do not. I enjoyed Baz Lehrman's "Romeo and Juliet" but despised Julie Taymar's "Titus". I felt one respected the subject matter and the other did not.I had no trouble with the introduction of guns into a tale of gang-violence, but saw no point in the addition of arcade machines and disco balls in the latter. It would be absurd to suggest that every future production should be just like the Globe Theatre's strictly historical enactments (an argument applied by some Baroque musicians to their own art), but does that mean we can do absolutely anything we want with the text? Could Romeo and Juliet work in an age of texting? Could Henry V be set in Paschendale, Normandy, or Falujah, or the Star Wars universe? (Let's try it and find out!)

I suppose it depends. Let's look at two plays. "Hamlet" is almost always modernized. "Macbeth" far less so. (And don't be a smart alec and go on about some indie college production you just got back from. . .). I think it's because many people recognize that time and place is important to "Macbeth" in a way that it isn't for "Hamlet". Nobody cares that Hamlet is set in Medieval Denmark; it is generally understood that the core of the play lies elsewhere, in the psychology of the character. So Hamlet can be adapted to just about any setting imaginable and lose none of its power.

Macbeth though. . . I saw one updated Machbeth, (with Patrick Stewart) set in what looked like Soviet Russia. In grim bunkers and military hospitals. It looked like one of the "Hostel" movies. It didn't work. For one thing, the Soviet setting imposes on it a whole set of associations that aren't really supported by the text. I think that matters. 

Akira Kurosawa moved the action to feudal Japan in "Throne of Blood", and it was brilliant. THe Scottish play worked ideally amongst the samurai. So the "place" is clearly not what matters, but the "time" - it was still very much an ancient, historical, mysterious setting. 

Macbeth needs to take place in a world where ghosts exist, and where witch's prophesies are taken seriously. Hamlet saw ghosts as well, but Hamlet spends most of the play pretending to be insane, and is widely suspected to not have been pretending. Hamlet has been performed as a one act monologue by the schizophrenic inmate of a lunatic asylum. It's a modern interpretation, but the text does support this interpretation. Hamlet is so much about psychology and inner struggle that its ghosts can be easily brought into the modern era. But Macbeth's ghosts are actually ghosts, and need an age fit for ghosts. If psychology lay at the heart of Hamlet, superstition is the core of Macbeth, and does not lend itself to more enlightened ages. The Dark Age is the proper home for Macbeth. It could be Scotland's or Japan's, but either way should be in a time where such a tale could be believed, when the social constraints of civilization were that much weaker, and race memories of the caves and trees that much fresher. If it can be set in dark, misty forests, so much the better. You could never set Macbeth in a discotheque. Or, you shouldn't anyway.

When we we adapt a text, we submit ourselves to the will of the text, not the other way around. Hubris will not serve us well.

(Of course, the moment I post all this, no fewer than two major anachronistic Macbeths pop up in London, and I found yet a third in my local library. Well, I never said it never happened. . .)

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

I mustn’t let another post go by before I say a few words about the passing of Ursula K. LeGuin. Though, like with the passing of any great writer, or indeed any great person, there is very little I can say that somebody smarter hasn’t already said better. Nevertheless, I will try.

                It would also be impossible to overuse the adjective “wise” here, for there’s really no other way to describe her work: wisdom suffused every word, every line, every paragraph. Reading a LeGuin book was like visiting a guru – a real one, at least the ideal of one, as opposed to the hosts of self-help charlatans clogging the shelves out there. I’ve always maintained there is more to be learned from one good novel than from a whole-shelf full of self-help tomes, and no one proved it better than LeGuin. You couldn’t read a LeGuin book without feeling you’d learned something. I confess The Telling was beyond my meager powers, but the Earthsea books, the Left Hand of Darkness, The Lathe of Heaven, and innumerable short stories and novellas spoke to what it was to be human. 

                That is incredibly vague, and arguably it is no more than what great books and great art are supposed to do. But when it came to dealing with the Big Questions, be it coming to terms with death, or navigating gender/sex differences[1], or the nature of reality vs. memory, LeGuin got closer than most. She was as wise as any great philosopher or spiritual teacher. That she did it mainly within speculative or fantasy settings should blunt many a book snob’s disdain for lowly “genre” fiction; that she could no less profound writing for young people exposes Martin Amis’ idiocy concerning such things: snobs and hypocrites all, LeGuin stood them on their head and beat them at their own game. 

                Now I do have a bit of a confession to make: I did not know what to make of the Earthsea books when I first read them in grade school. They weren’t quite Dungeons and Dragons enough for my pre-teen tastes. Only later did I come to realize that the psychological adventure could be just as exciting as the physical one, and the metaphorical battle as gripping as the literal one. For LeGuin, fantasy was not an escape from reality but an embrace of it – an opportunity to explore human beings in different surroundings. This is the purpose of myth-making: human desires and anxieties writ large and given form.

                In these ever more foolish times, the loss of wise minds is felt ever more keenly. When the world is governed by buffoons who could have been villains in any one of LeGuin’s novels, one laments that it was she and not they who had to go. But it’s not like she left us unprepared: a massive bibliography that even Wikipedia only selectively covers leaves us no excuse. The student can’t cling to the teacher forever. We have to find our own way. But we’re wiser now than we might have been.



[1] She obviously had no patience for gender stereotyping, or the crushing social expectations based on them. I don’t think though she would support the notion that we’re all neuters deep down – the yin and yang model seemed more her style. Like so much, sex seemed a question of balance.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Margaret Atwood and the problematic feminists. . .

                So, I’m in the middle of a very good book by the Dutch journalist Frank Westerman, Engineers of the Soul: In the Footsteps of Stalin’s Writers. It is excellent. But I’m not done yet, so this blog will not be about that. There are two lessons – reminders really – that I can take from it:

1)      Novelists will always piss off ideologues.

2)      Revolutionaries often eat their own.

The most dedicated, idealistic and genuine Bolsheviks were the first to go in Stalin’s purges. Trotsky himself wasn’t safe. And even useful novelists were considered deadly enemies…

I thought about this while reading Margaret Atwood’s op-ed in the Globe and Mail, “Am I a Bad Feminist?” I was more than a little gobsmacked when I encountered the title. How could the author of The Handmaid’s Tale ask such a question? Well, see above. . .

Atwood you see, had the temerity to defend due process, the presumption of innocence, and her insistence on knowing the facts before making a judgement. (Specifically, in the case of UBC professor Steven Galloway, accused of a crime, exonerated by a judge, by dismissed by UBC anyway). Here’s what she says:

A couple days later the Globe carried a response co-written by Baily Reid, Erica Gee and Erica Iffil of the Bad and Bitchy podcast. Atwood is not necessarily a “bad feminist” they say, but a “problematic one”. Here’s what they wrote:

You may make up your own mind, but my personal sympathy is not with the bloggers. Atwood is a writer, and so her concern is the human condition in all it’s glorious imperfection and nuance. Reid, Gee, and Iffil are activists (bios here:, and their concern is their end-goal, which is change. Atwood’s piece is eloquent, sober, logical and thorough. Reid, Gee and Iffil’s piece is full of buzzwords and slogans. Tellingly, they don’t even try to address Atwood’s concerns (or even acknowledge what she says), and largely prove her own point for her: Galloway’s guilt is taken for granted – guilty because accused, as Atwood puts it. To Atwood's
""A fair-minded person would now withhold judgment as to guilt until the report and the evidence are available for us to see"
They dismiss:
This is the language of right-wing women who have co-opted feminist labels and fathers of accused rapists alike. 

So much for fair-mindedness then, or withholding judgement. Such concerns are only the Privilege of Power, as if Atwood inherited her influence and not earned it through a life-time of writing. But  Reid, Gee, and Iffil have no time for old books either:
"Your feminism is outdated. . .the fact that you, say, wrote dystopian feminist stories during the second wave of feminism may not still qualify you for your annual feminist membership."
In other words, "what have you done for us lately?"

You'll notice a few things implied: 
      a) Reid, Gee, and Iffil are now in charge of accepting, rejecting and revoking membership in the feminist club. 
      b) Margaret Atwood and her ilk have only been co-opting feminism all this time.  
      c) Basing one's opinion on evidence and waiting for evidence to form an opinion are now only right wing concerns. 

You will also notice the "you're with us or you're with the rapist" attitude, which does rather discourage dialogue. 

Atwood has been accused of waging “war” on less powerful women. And her piece has been bafflingly reported as a criticism of the #MeToo movement.  Here’s what she actually writes:

The #MeToo moment is a symptom of a broken legal system. All too frequently, women and other sexual-abuse complainants couldn't get a fair hearing through institutions – including corporate structures – so they used a new tool: the internet. Stars fell from the skies. This has been very effective, and has been seen as a massive wake-up call.

This doesn't sound like criticism to me. She does ask what the step might be, and does caution that there may be risks as well as rewards in the new way of doing things. I let her speak for herself:

 The legal system can be fixed, or our society could dispose of it. Institutions, corporations and workplaces can houseclean, or they can expect more stars to fall

A warning, no? Clearly, things must change – who said they shouldn’t? Certainly not Atwood. It is not wrong to ask what form this change may take, or warn of the possible pitfalls along the way. But in some circles, even asking the question is a form of treachery.
Arguably, I myself am not entitled to an opinion. If it’s any consolation, nobody reads these blogs anyway. Someone – somewhere - might ask why I never chose to address #MeToo until it was time to defend one of its critics. Well, again I maintain this piece was NOT a criticism. And I suppose I still belong to a world where supporting Margaret Atwood is not a misogynistic thing to do. I suppose my alarm bells naturally go off any time a writer is shouted down. Or when slogans are substituted for argument. Or when emotions are blackmailed. I can’t help wondering if Atwood’s most strident critics actually read her piece. Instead, there seems a whole lot of projection, and substitution of what she actually said with a whole lot of what she didn’t say (who, for instance, has been silenced by this piece? ). She did sound a note of caution, and insert a bit of nuance into the proceedings. She did insist on seeing the whole wide big complex picture of reality and the very messy -yes, “problematic” – role that people – mere humans, play in it. Which is exactly what writers are supposed to do.

Which brings me back to Westerman’s book. Ideologues don’t like novelists. They don’t see things the same way. They almost always end up clashing. If authoritarianism can creep up on us from the likes of Trump, it can also creep in from the opposite direction, from the well meaning and the good-intentioned, who, being right, quite logically assume all others to be wrong, and therefore, obstacles to be removed. A sure-fire warning sign is when they turn on writers.

I leave the last word to Atwood herself. 

“Fiction writers are particularly suspect because they write about human beings, and people are morally ambiguous. The aim of ideology is to eliminate ambiguity.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Give in to the Down Side: thoughts on Last Jedi

For a film that pays so much lip service to “hope”, Star Wars: The Last Jedi sure as hell does its best to extinguish it in its audience. For two and a half exhausting, despairing hours, evil triumphs and good is thwarted so consistently, one is left longing for a river to throw oneself into. That it comes from the franchise that used to be the very apotheosis of feel-good filmmaking is just one more steel-toed kick in the balls to take home.
            So let me get this straight: The New Republic has been completely destroyed, the entire rebel fleet wiped out, the entirety of the Rebellion – sorry, Resistance – can now fit comfortably in the Millenian Falcon, Admiral Akbar, Han Solo and Luke Skywalker are all dead, and Kylo Ren is the undisputed master of the universe. Cue the trumpets!      

            No wait – I mustn’t despair: some eight-year old stableboy found a ring. Hurrah![i]

            You will pardon me if I am somewhat muted in my optimism.

            Now, I know you’re all going to throw Empire Strikes Back at me, so yes, let’s indeed compare the two. Early on in Empire, the Rebels escape destruction on Hoth. At the end, the Reel fleet has regrouped, and is ready to strike back (ha ha ha! Sorry.). Luke Skywalker is recovering in hospital. Lando Calrissian[ii] has joined the fight. They’re going to rescue Han Solo. Things are looking up!

            By the end of Last Jedi¸ practically everyone is dead. Luke, Han, the entire Rebel Alliance. Kaput! Vamouse! The Empire – sorry First Order – control a vast fleet of planet-busting star destroyers; the resistance have at their disposal a single rust bucket spice smuggler. I think I’m with Ren on this one: the war’s over!   The good guys are done for! Empire isn’t nearly such a bummer.

            Perhaps that was the point: break ‘em down to build ‘em back up again. Send the audience to the pit of despair so the triumph will feel that much sweeter. It’s a standard narrative tactic. The trouble is, we don’t get the build-up, and I’ve lost faith in the triumph. The filmmakers so completely – almost sadistically – dash every hope they bother to suggest, to the point I no longer have any hope they will allow my heroes – those left – to triumph. I would not put it past them to make the Star Wars saga “dark” and “gritty”, critical code words for “violent” and “cynical”.

            Let me see: in “Episode VIII” we can shave the wookie and mount his head on the wall. In “Episdode IX let’s have C3PO melted into down into dental caps. For “Episode X” we’ll open up R2D2 with a can-opener and use him as a carburetor. Who’s left? I know, let’s resurrect Jabba the Hut, and that would explain where Princess Lea went. . .

            No? Well why not, if Han and Luke were fair game. . .

            Okay, maybe I’m getting carried away, but do you see what I’m getting at? If Disney really felt that the only way to prolong this infinitely profitable franchise was to utterly erase what made it appealing in the first place, why should I be happy about it? Even if it is just contaminated nostalgia, what of it? Why should I be happy about it?

            Furthermore, I don’t buy this stuff about the “first Star Wars film made by an artist”. Stuff and nonsense. No one who feeds me lines like “we are the spark that lights the flame!” or some fucking nonsense about “hope being like the sun” because you can’t see it or whatever, with a straight face will get artistic bon mots from me. Don’t get me started on the friggin’ plot holes. And no, Rian Johnson is not a “brave writer” (criticspeak for “fuck the fans”). Salman Rushdie is a brave writer. Daphne Galizia was a brave writer.  Nazimuddin Samad was a brave writer. Rian Johnson is screen hack who found a way to prolong the life of a cash cow.

            That’s uncharitable: there are good things in the film, some really good scenes (mostly involving Mark Hamill, bless ‘im). Many will forgive or forget that this is really just another Boom-Boom Blockbuster, stretched agonizingly past its natural running time. I might have done so myself, but found every great moment undermined by yet another disappointment, another let-down, another frustrated desire. It felt like a never-ending wrestling match where the guy’s constantly kicking out of pinfall; after a while, you just get tired of it. (Add to that, the guy’s your favourite, he’s getting the snot kicked out of him, and while he keeps kicking out, he never recovers, never rallies, and still loses the match). 

Two years ago, I gave The Force Awakens a higher rating than it deserved because it erased the legacy of the prequels. Now, Last Jedi has erased the legacy of the main trilogy. Say what you will about George Lucas (and I have), he had an endgame in sight: he intended the story to end. Disney wants to milk the thing forever. Now they can: returning the Rebellion – sorry, Resistance – to a state of perpetual underdog in an eternal struggle against a permanently overbearing evil, the well need never run dry. Many will argue that the artistry of the means justifies the commercialism of the ends. Maybe it does. But forgive me if I ain’t on board. 

[i] Though I know better to expect any good to come of rings. . .
[ii] Wonder what gruesome end they’ve got in store for him. . .

Saturday, November 18, 2017

What do music videos have to do with the poppy? (Relax, I did wear one)

This: the vacuousness of the former is indirectly fetishizing the latter. This is a recent development, and it is a Bad Thing.  

This is not going to be a pacifistic rant. I don’t swing that way; my understanding of history does not allow for it (that’s a Rant for another day). I have long freely participated in the rituals and displayed the symbols of Remembrance Day, because I think memory of the past and respect for the dead are important (and not because I’ve been shamed into it by some self-righteous internet meme, or blustery bumper sticker). But lately this participation has been taken for acquiescence in a narrative I don’t buy into, and this past weekend, I was sort of tricked into performing a message which I was not made aware of, and did not consent to.

It’s one thing to be a spectator, and have mild reservations about the proceedings. You can keep those to yourself for the sake of general harmony. But to be made an active part of it, under a set of false pretences is quite another thing.

Remembrance Day is an emotional topic, so I’ve got to be careful. I’ve got friends from both sides of the Atlantic who’ve served in Afghanistan. I know one mustn’t allow emotions to cloud one’s judgement, but at the same time I don’t think it hurts to pay attention to people with direct experience of things. I’m not here to talk about Afghanistan. I don’t know how I feel about Afghanistan, or if I have the right to feel anything about Afghanistan. I don’t entirely know how my friends feel about it. They’re good guys, they did what they felt they had to, and if they feel a smidgeon of pride for playing some small part in overthrowing one of the world’s most repressive regimes, I won’t fault them for that. Likewise, if I balk at the indiscriminate drone strikes which wipe out wedding parties, surely, they won’t fault me. War is complicated, messy business, and it’s never about just one thing. I can’t help thinking though, we’re only meant to remember one thing.

While I have tremendous respect for people in uniform, I have far less respect for the politicians who send them into harms way. I do not believe that honour for the former should shield the latter from criticism. I do not think that honest, open debate about the extent of our commitments constitutes disloyalty, nor should a dispassionate examination of our history[i]. Yet the increasingly affected tone of these ceremonies seems to be drowning out but the most jingoistic voices. In this environment, the politician can get away with more and demand more. So the recent tendency to lump all wars into the same ongoing crusade for Freedom strikes me more as political opportunism than respect.

I have been asked during this time to remember the “brave boys and girls away on deployment”, rather than the “reasons they were there”, which I can respect: I am content to remember in silence. But it would be easier if the various Masters of Ceremonies would stick to the deal as well, and not insist on telling me why they were there. Perhaps it does serve the emotional needs of the moment, but there is something about these sermons that strikes me as over-simplified and under-contextualized.   To allude to the slaughters of Ypres or Passchendaele without any hint of indignation seem to me incomplete at best. If it’s not the right time for such indignation, when is?

Remembrance Day may only be once a year (and arguably only one minute out of each year), but it does set the tone for to all our subsequent discussions. Perhaps unconsciously, it determines what we decide to remember, and how. So setting the scope of mourning is important.  If I choose not to forget the callousness of the First World War generals, or the colossal fuckup at Dieppe, who am I dishonouring?

I take my cues from guys like Joseph Heller, who never regretted serving as an airman in WWII[ii], but still felt obliged to satirize its idiocies in Catch 22. Or the historian/veteran Paul Fussel, who fought in France, insisted on that war’s necessity[iii], but had no patience for its sanitization or romanticization (or for John McCrae)[iv] and certainly would have cringed at the jaunty “Last Post/Old Lang Syne” mashup I had to recently sit through.

I was six years old when I first heard “the Last Post”, and thought it was the saddest song in the world. Quiet, mournful, meditative. Conducive to sober reflection. You could remember your way, and I could remember mine, and at least we could agree it was sad. But now we’ve got a happy version, pomped up by a military band, and with the strains of a drinking tune thrown in for good measure.

I have to ask: who thought this was a good idea?  

Someone probably thought the words “should auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind?  gelled nicely with the Lest we forget motto. It doesn’t. It really doesn’t. Context matters and cultural usage matters, and a New Years Eve celebration ditty does not fit with an Armistice dirge. I’m all for drinking songs, especially those of a wistful character, but would never indulge in one at a military funeral, and humbly submit that this would never be tolerated in a civilian outfit.

The tone for the evening was set: Remembrance Day is a party now. Spread the word.

On this occasion, my choir was scheduled to sing Mozart’s Requiem as part of the proceedings. It was the second time this piece was selected as a Remembrance Day commemoration: even though Requiem was intended as a component of religious worship, and has no martial overtones. It is about death however and this was connection enough.

It is one of the most magnificent pieces ever written, and probably the best venue we’ve ever had the privilege of performing in. The choir was at the top of its game, the orchestra was splendid, the audience rapt. Our voices filled the auditorium and drifted heavenward. . . It was a great experience, dare I say Godly. Yet I did nearly drop my music when I craned my neck and saw what they were displaying behind us.

The lyrics and their translation, superimposed over images borrowed from the warplane Heritage Museum.

Who thought this would be a good idea?

So behind all these “Blessed is he who cometh”, and “Lamb of God who taketh away”s  are pictures of smiling soldiers and cheering crowds and, of course, warplanes. And for “Sanctus”, which translates “Holy”, we got a Lancaster bomber. A Lancaster bomber.

What, may I ask, is so Holy about a Lancaster bomber?

Holy! Holy! Holy!

So here we get to the nub of things. I am more than happy to wear the poppy and have a moment of silence and offer my humble baritone to the ceremonies, but the one condition I insist on is we commemorate people. People! Breathing, thinking, feeling, dearly departed PEOPLE! I WILL NOT COMEMORATE MACHINES! Especially not death machines. The Lancaster bomber was designed explicitly (exclusively in Marshal Harris’ view) to incinerate non-combatants.  Whatever debates there are to be had about the efficacy, necessity or morality of the strategic bombing campaign, for God’s sake you can respect my reservations here! Remembrance Day ceremonies ought to be about people!

It did not get better from there. The lines “May eternal light shine on them, O Lord with Thy saints for ever, because Though art merciful” was superimposed over the smiling faces of some Women’s Auxiliary Brigade, with not a cemetery in sight. The words which may have justified the singing of the piece stripped entirely of their context and even their literal meaning. The one thing we could once agree on – Remembrance Day was a sad occasion to mourn the dead – finally thrown out the window without even the pretext remaining. We’re now literally singing glory and praise to military hardware. Hallelujah!

It was not an accident either. The words were painstakingly translated and typed over topped the images, which were carefully labelled and named in the program. Somebody specifically chose these images. Someone who didn’t care a fig what the words said or meant. The occasion was about war, so one image was as good as any other. This is the mentality of the music video generation: stripping music of its context and relegating it to background muzak for random imagery. Not even a shadow of deference to intention.

In cheesy pop songs this can be forgiven. In a Remembrance Day ceremony, it’s dangerous. I’m not being hyperbolic: a large crowd of people just worshipped a bombing plane. I just told an engine of death that Heaven and Earth were Filled with its Glory. If our society’s supposedly most poignant moments and our supposedly most deeply held spiritual inclinations and the talents of our civilization’s most gifted artists can only advertise engines of death, we are in trouble.

[i] Gwynne Dyer’s Canada in the Great Power Game would be a great place to start.
[iii] The Boys Crusade: The American Infantry in Northwestern Europe
[iv] The Great War and Modern Memory

Monday, November 13, 2017

In which Rockers break down barriers... Danica Roem's Cab Ride to Victory

Sometimes, there is a light in the black. . .

So, the state of Virgnia has just elected its firsttransgendered person to its House of Delegates.  Naturally, this is a major victory for the LGTB community, and for the forces of civilization in general, in the very teeth of the most reactionary, knuckle-dragging administration in living memory. Granted, the House of Representatives is a much smaller office than the Presidency, but hey! Let’s take what we can get.

But the really fun part? Danica Roem is a Metalhead. Not just a “I owned Metallica’s Black album in high school” Metalhead, but an, actual, genuine, authentic, honest-to-Magog headbangin’ thashin-mad Metalhead. She fronts a Swedish-style Death Metal band. Here it is:

Admittedly a dumb name, but hey, who’s complaining? They’re good, they rock. 

Of course I was tickled pink. But throughout the course of the day, as I continued to dwell on it, it got even better. It felt good. See, this little subculture which fate has thrown me into, is not exactly synonymous with progressive values. On the contrary, in most minds it’s the epitome of backwardness – a bulwark of misogyny, homophobia and racism. But every once in a while, we too can be on the side of righteousness. Moments like this, I get a little tingly feeling welling up inside. I felt it when Barney Greenway dukedit out with Karozia Metalla. I felt it when Bruce Dickenson stood up for multiculturalism in last summer in Toronto. And I’m feeling it now. But it’s even better this time, on a great many levels. Donica Roem is part of the government now, she’ll actually get to do things. At the very least she’s displaced a grouchy old homophobe (oh, how his supporters will wail and whine tonight!).

But that’s just the political, and the political is of course ephemeral. Any good she can do is limited
by the convoluted, messy business of governance, and she could be tossed out unceremoniously at the end of her term. But the impact isn’t going to be in office. It’s going to be in the hearts and minds of people, who as recently as ten years ago wouldn’t have dreamed of electing such a person. Even if prejudice is on the march in some places, it’s crumbling in others. Maybe, just maybe, in the minds of young headbaning Virginians, one more wall of bigotry has just fallen to dust, a lot like when Halford came out of the closet and a million macho Judas Priest fans realized it wasn’t the end of the world. Maybe. Maybe LGBT Metalheads will have one more person to look up to, and maybe, one day sooner than we think, trans Metalheads won’t need to be afraid anymore.

And if the rest of us Metalheads are just as thrilled because she’s one of us – yes, one of us! – why not? Why shouldn’t I be pleased as punch that a proud cookie-monster singer got into office? And if she happens to be  a trans trailblazer, so much the better.

In the end, it’s a human victory. We all win.