Tuesday, 27 March 2012

The Trouble with Geek Culture

If you haven't read this splendid piece by the American actor Patton Oswalt, http://m.wired.com/magazine/2010/12/ff_angrynerd_geekculture/all/1
you really should, as it's the most interesting thing anyone's written on popular culture in years. Have a look, too, at these two pieces: http://www.edrants.com/review-the-green-hornet-2011/
http://sotcaa.net/blogcaa/?p=18

These three pieces focus on the same point: that the fans are becoming the creators. We can think of further examples: Kevin Smith puts a few lines of amusing dialogue about Superman in one of his screenplays, and is commissioned to write a Superman movie. Jonathan Ross's famous comic collection has recently made him a comics writer, and his wife Jane Goldman has gone from writing books on The X-Files to scripting superhero movies (she wrote Kickass, which is rightly demolished in the second of the pieces linked above). Mark Gatiss began by doing skits on his favourite horror movies in the comedy series The League of Gentlemen and indulging his love of Doctor Who in fan-produced videos and Who novels, but now he's a writer on Doctor Who itself, as well as BBC One's Sherlock and his own horror series - Crooked House - for BBC Four. A glance at the poster for Spielberg's multi-million dollar Tintin movie reveals Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish listed as screenwriters: the former began by doing cute little SF and movie pastiches when he directed the Channel 4 sitcom Spaced, while the latter would engagingly recreate movie scenes with toys on the late-night The Adam and Joe Show (the third credited writer on Tintin is one Steven Moffat, whose name rings a bell. Did I mention him on this blog?)

If the geeks (fans, nerds whatever we call ourselves) have take over, I don't think it's a cause for jubilation. Fans are consumers. They aren't necessarily creative talents. Sometimes they are, of course: Spielberg, Lucas and Tarantino are heroes in this regard (though, God knows, there are limits to those three talents), but their work delighted because of its freshness: for all the influences proudly put up there on the screen, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars and Pulp Fiction feel, from the start, like nothing else you've ever seen before. It's dangerous to start believing that you should be a filmmaker just because Tarantino too once worked In a video store, even though the chances that you could are increasing.

Just because you have an extensive knowledge of comic-books doesn't mean that you have extensive gifts for writing them. Alan Moore - one of the greatest writers in that medium, and probably the single greatest writer to do anything with superheroes - had little regard for comics except for the work of Will Eisner; his imagination was stimulated by Blake and Pynchon. Robert Holmes, the greatest of Doctor Who's writers, had little interest in the show before he started work on it: like Douglas Adams, he cheerfully set out to write what he felt would make good TV, not what he grew up with Doctor Who as.

I loved Mark Gatiss's A History of Horror on BBC 4: it was infectious and uncliched, and he adapted Wells's The First Men on the Moon pleasantly enough, but is he really the Nigel Kneale of his day? His three Lucifer Box novels and his work for Doctor Who all seem to be pure pastiche. The Who episode The Unquiet Dead was instantly proclaimed a modern classic, but isn't that because it uses all the ingredients we associate with classics? Victoriana, Christmas, snow, Dickens, gaslit romance, lavish special effects: enough to make Doctor Who Magazine's Reviewer, Rebecca Levene, declare that a generation now had their very own Talons of Weng-Chiang. Lawrence Miles probably put it best when he observed that Gatiss's Doctor Who novel Last of the Gadarene (which opens with a preface in which Gatiss remembers reading the novelisation of Planet of the Daleks when off sick from school while his mum brought him chicken soup) was acclaimed in reviews by numerous SF magazines for being "perfectly Pertwee", despite the fact that resembling an earlier work is by itself hardly a guarantee of quality (interestingly, the reviewer of Michael Moorcock's Doctor Who novel for Doctor Who Magazine, who found the book a bit difficult, commented on how much he'd rather read Last of the Gadarene). Miles points out that producer Barry Letts would never had commissioned something so banal (even though many of the stories of that period were much rougher around the edges than Gatiss's effort). Similarly, Unquiet Dead isn't half as good as Talons of Weng-Chiang (the story of the Iclelandic Alliance, the Peking Homunculus and the Butcher of Brisbane): it merely resembles a recollection of it. The Talons of Weng-Chiang was a lot more interesting than Victoriana.

More dubious, though, is Charlie Brooker's elevation to satirist. His Guardian columns are diverting, and his Newswipe/Screenwipe shows are informative, but when Channel 4 runs trailers announcing a series of satirical dramas from Charlie Brooker, one wonders exactly how such a thing came to be seen as an event (especially if you remember Nathan Barley, Brooker's unremarkable attempt at a sitcom, and his truly dreadful drama Dead Set for E4, which Brooker himself described as bit of nonsense about zombies but which gained a BAFTA nomination). It's not necessarily surprising that the first (I couldn't face the next two) of the Black Mirror trilogy, The National Anthem, was worthless: do any of Brooker's talents suggest he could depict human beings believably, or had a distinct satirical point to make? His fans think so, and so it got made.

The second piece I linked to mentions a more cynical motive for the ascension of geek culture: the idea that film producers, TV executives and franchise owners can use fans to test reactions to their products, and to convince their customers that the films, TV shows, games or comics are being made by one of them. Champion mentions Harry Knowles being flown to press junkets and the BoothBabes at ComicCon. I would add The Big Bang Theory as another example: a carefully marketed show made by people uninterested in SF, but smart enough to realise that fandom has become a lucrative target audience (note the presence of merchandise, the references to ComicCon, and the guest cameos from people all associated with well-known and still lucrative franchises: Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek, Terminator, Marvel).

As Oswalt's article mentions, in the age of YouTube there aren't really any niches for interesting bits of culture to hide in anymore. When Evil Dead 2 was just a cult film that the odd fan would try and persuade you was really, really hilarious, that was fine: you still didn't have to watch it. Nowadays its director, Sam Raimi, is given millions to make three Spider-Man movies, and his wretched ideas of characterisation, humour, plotting and depth are up there for all to see. George Romero's Dawn of the Dead was stimulating because of the low expectations in which one watched it: low budget, poor acting and reliance on zombies, the most deeply uninspired of all monsters. As the central characters barricade themselves in a shopping mall, and live a strangely utopian existence, and the zombies become pathetic rather than scary when a biker gang interrupt the paradise and start shooting them, at one point even pushing a custard pie into a zombie's face, the film becomes oddly affecting, and seems to play with our response to horror. Like funny videos on the Internet, this becomes less surprising and amusing when money and mainstream hype is poured into it. The witless plot of The National Anthem was taken from a few navel-gazing sentences in one of Charlie Brooker’s Guardian columns ten years previously, just as Nathan Barley was plucked from a description on a page of spoof TV listings. The best warning, though, of how something genuinely affecting in minature can be milked to death is provided by the offspring of Rob Brydon and Hugo Blick's excellent 10-minute Marion and Geoff monologues: a 50- minute special in which we had to see many of the things that had already been so brilliantly described, a second series, now of half-hour episodes, which was more self-consciously ‘dark’ and ‘sad’; and finally another full-length series that absurdly attempted to turn the character into a Mrs Merton/Dame Edna-esque spoof chat show host. Let’s hope no-one tries to turn the brilliant Downfall meme into a TV series. The magic would fade.

Another problem is that geek culture can often be quite conservative. The best episodes of Doctor Who are the ones that are nothing like Doctor Who, and these tend to alienate fans. To anyone interested in good writing, Love and Monsters is precisely the kind of innovative script that Doctor Who should be doing, but to fans it's abhorrent because it's got silly humour, a silly monster and Peter Kay in it (older Who fans will remember Doctor Who Magazine's poll of 1981 in which Kinda, one of the most extraordinary Doctor Who stories to date, came bottom, perhaps because it didn't have any Cybermen in it). If the fans become the writers, we might end up with films, books and TV shows written to strict genre guidelines (much the way Doctor Who is written now).

Oswalt's solution - killing off geek culture - is amusing but, as Champion suggests, not quite feasible. A better solution would be to improve the standard of criticism for popular culture: we need critics that can tell the difference between the quality of something and the genre tropes it wraps itself in, critics who can see Life of Mars as an empty Sweeney knock-off rather than mistaking its use of time-travel and nostalgic clips from old tv shows for cleverness or postmodernism, that Battlestar Galactica and The Dark Knight have nothing to say about Bush's America and that the Scream movies aren't any better than other dull slasher fodder just because every now and then someone says "this is just like we're a slasher movie." Why have standards of print TV criticism fallen so low that AA Gill and Caitlin Moran are somehow our most famous tv critics? Why do so many reviews of Bond films begin with the assumption that everyone hates them, unlike Paul Cornell's fabulous review of Casino Royale on his blog? Why must Lawrence Miles's blog be the only place we can find intelligent criticism and good writing on Doctor Who? Why were SOTCAA the only ones to see through Ricky Gervais?

The kind of criticism we need is not dissimilar to Clive James's concept of the "Metropolitan Critic", something we also find in the splendid writing of John Carey, using wit and personal response to texts to counter the stupidity of the academic approach to literature, but unashamedly erudite so that accusations of dumbing down won't wash. The Internet certainly seems to offer better criticism of popular culture - look at this excellent piece at The Quietus http://thequietus.com/articles/07434-ricky-gervais-mong-face on Life’s Too Short - but the web is so vast and democratic, it's difficult for it to make the same impact. These pieces need to be sought out so they can make ripples and provoke discourses. I'm not sure if geek culture needs to die, but it certainly needs to grow up.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Leave Douglas Adams Alone: A Plea

Have you ever thought how much better it would be if Jane Austen had written more than six novels? What a shame it is that more writers aren't writing books with her characters? No, me neither. So why must we endure this Douglas Adams industry, with lesser writers producing novelisations of his tv scripts and sequels to his novels, clumsy radio adaptations of his more problematic books using the cast of his brilliant radio series, and dreadful film and tv adaptations of his unique work?

The beauty of Douglas Adams' oeuvre is its deceptive size: seven novels, 3 of which are flawed, one magnificent radio series, two Doctor Who stories, one of which is the greatest in the show's history, another of which is a mixed bag, one non-fiction book and other delightful bits and pieces. It seems small, and yet its rereadable wisdom puts many prolific writers to shame. Back off, Eoin Colfer, Gareth Roberts, Dirk Maggs. You know not what you do. Don't give me "Douglas would have loved it" or "I tried to do justice to Dougie's genius" or "of course no-one can write like Douglas"... If you're that self-deprecative, how about putting down the fucking pen? Good intentions don't make books better, nor do they make up for adding book-length graffiti to such a beautiful mural. This miasma of fond remembrance, affection and goodwill is blinding us to the considerable value of Adams's work. Affection for an author is nice, but not as important as respect.

Here are some dire predictions for the next ten years.

1) some bastard will finish off Salmon of Doubt. It's happened before (Chandler's Poodle Springs, Austen's Sandition, Edwin Drood), only here the words "tried to write something Douglas would had enjoyed" will be deployed.


2) A City of Death novelisation: oh God: There is actually one writer other than Adams who could have done justice to the tv masterpiece: unfortunately PG Wodehouse isn't available either. [This is happening. Gareth "not Douglas Adams" Roberts has pulled out, and James "not PG Wodehouse" Goss is doing it instead.]


3) Pirate Planet novelisation: I can see the afterword already: "Douglas never thought it was as good but I think he was too harsh...tried to do something Douglas would have liked...I'd never presume to be able to write like Douglas Adams but..."


4)Doctor Who and the Krikketmen book or audio play: Wouldn't they just love to get Tom Baker for the latter? Probably lot of supporting actors from Adams-related productions too. The fact that Adams previously used this for his (underrated) third Hitch-Hiker novel Life, the Universe and Everything won't deter them (Shada had already been used in his first Dirk Gently novel, but that didn't deter Roberts. Maggs's Life, The Universe and Everything adaptation featured an excruciating moment when a gag had Adams had adapted - the "imagine I have a blaster In my hand" / "You do have a blaster in your hand" exchange - from radio to book was adapted straight back).

5) If Colfer and Roberts don't want to do any more, other writers will join the party: Charlie Higson? Anthony Horowitz? James Moran? Neil Gaiman? Jenny Colgan? (Look at Higson's introduction for the Doctor Who Target novelisations for a textbook example of jumping in on a bandwagon he's openly not a fan of)

6) Some variation on Out of the Trees. Adams's broadcast-and-then-lost one-off collaboration with Graham Chapman - [which has now been rediscovered] -  didn't result in a further series. Imagine the behind-the-scenes feature: "Douglas never thought it was that good but I think he's being too harsh on himself. So I called up Steven Mangan..."

If you'll excuse me, I'm going to go now and reread some Douglas Adams. I don't mean the stuff coming out that's got his name on the cover: I mean the words of one of my favourite writers, whose work throws up new delights on each rereading, but which some seem to think needs adding to.

Family Guy - good or bad?

Family Guy is a popular but not hugely fashionable show. The first three seasons don't do much to dissuade one from the latter view. It does indeed feel like a Simpsons clone: the unlikeable characters seem to clash with the unironically "happy" and "sad"' family values moments, while the unremarkable animation and straightforward design work don't suggest this would become a show that would make brilliant use of the medium. The cut-away gags, at this point, seem to justify the amusing attack in the show in South Park.


In Series 4, however, the show found its voice. It embraced the fact that Peter had no heart of gold, but embodied everything vile about the American Everyman. It also embraced the fact that the cutaway gags were the show's main content, not added sprinkles. The best observation about Family Guy has come from Lawrence Miles, who notes here http://therandomnesstimes.blogspot.co.uk/ that the show differs from The Simpsons because it comes from the Warner Brothers/Merry Melodies school of animation, in which characters change identities within the same scene. We can see this everywhere in Family Guy. Brian fluctuates between being a dog and being an urbane but ineffectual liberal who hates Republicans but struggles to put up a fight against hem and can't get his novel published, Stewie fluctuates between being a baby and a snidey gay adult, Peter and Lois fluctuate between being a paradigm of normal parenthood and abusive, infanticidal monsters. The most ingenious use Family Guy makes of this effect is in the scenes between Brian and Quagmire, one of Peter's drinking buddies. Normally, Quagmire ranges from being the voice of the oversexed American male to being a sex offender, but when Brian asks why he doesn't seem to care for his company, Quagmire snaps and delivers an eloquent and heartfelt attack on him and everything he represents.

"You pretend you're this deep guy who loves women for their souls when all you do is date bimbos- yeah, I date women for their bodies but at least I'm honest about it: I don't buy them a copy of Catcher in the Rye and then lecture them with some seventh-grade interpretation how of Holden Caulfield was some profound intellectual - he wasn't, he was a spoilt brat! and that's why you like him so much: he's you! God you're pretentious And you delude yourself by thinking you're some great writer even though you're terrible [...] And I think what I hate most about you is your textbook liberal agenda - how we should 'legalise pot, man', how big business is crushing the underclass, how homelessness is the biggest tragedy in America - well, what have you done to help? I work down at the soup kitchen, Brian: never seen you down there. You wanna help - grab a ladle! And by the way, driving a Prius doesn't make you Jesus Christ - oh, wait, you don't believe in Jesus Christ, or any religion for that matter, because 'religion is for idiots' - well who the hell are you to talk down to anyone? You failed college twice, which isn't nearly as bad as your failure as a father: how's that son of yours you never see? But you know what? I could forgive all of that - all of it - if you weren't such a BORE...!

The incongruity of Quagmire taking this stance isn't a flaw here: it's a sublime stroke that makes the scene feel different to anything else on television. We can forgive the misinterpretion of Salinger: this is a lovely example of the poetry of comedy, with the viewer's expectations played with, and sincere convictions (the writers are clearly talking from experience here, painting a thoroughly convincing portrayal of a pseudo-liberal) defamiliarised for us so that we can experience them afresh.

The cutaway gags have become a way of exploring comedy as an artform in itself. Consider three gag here: after Lois derides someone as a "dumb beaver," we cut to a comedy beaver protesting he didn't say anything. A straightforward gag, but when the beaver is granted another line later on. Peter remarks "he was in our house earlier." In a relatively early episode, Peter is rescued from a fall by Spider-Man, who tells him "Everybody gets one" before web-slinging away. When the same thing happens to one of Peter's friends in a later season, Spider-Man proclaims "Everybody gets one. Tell them, Peter,"' "Apparently everybody gets one," confirms Peter vaguely. For a final example, another episode sees Peter declaring that Meg needs "serious parenting" and heading off to get his Bill Cosby sweater. Lois and Meg continue their conversation, but the moment of the expected payoff comes and goes. Eventually Peter appears and says "I can't find the sweater." All three of these moments are poetic in the sense that Roman Jakobson defined it: the entire aesthetic is turned back upon itself. Jakobson noted that only in poetry is language able to reflect back upon, play with and subvert itself, but it seems to me that the astonishing (yet critically under-explored) effects that pure comedy can create are comparable.

The magnificent chicken-fight scenes and those with Conway Twitty take this style to a crescendo. In the former, a giant chicken with nothing to do with the episode's plot attacks Peter mid-sentence, and the two engage in a fistfght that minutely recreates every action movie cliche, until Peter defeats his opponent and carries on with this week's story. The Conway Twitty gag consists of Peter wondering how he can create a distraction following an awkward moment. He turns to camera: "Ladies and gentlemen, Mr Conway Twitty..." we then cut to genuine live-action footage of Conway Twitty singing, which just won't stop. Like Sideshow Bob stepping on rakes, or many of Stewart Lee's funniest routines, it raises audacity to an artform. The viewer's belief that the programme-makers can't let this footage go on for much longer, and their delight in seeing how much further they are willing to push it, is not merely tested but played with, until the aesthetic sense is tingling.

This "step back and savour the comedy" technique can also be used for something more affecting. In one episode, in which Jesus has teamed up with Peter, they pay a visit to George W Bush. In a nod to Marshall McLuhan's cameo in Annie Hall, Jesus denounces him in public and denies any sanctioning of his actions in Iraq, and Peter turns to camera and says "Wouldn't it be great if life were like this?" Only comedy can create this glorious sense of the author turning to one side and giving a flash of insight in a single quick sentence, like a Shakespearean fool.

Peter, Stewie and Brian are useful because they can be put into any situation the writers wish to satirise: Peter can represent the worst kind of pro-lifers and the pro-choice voice of reason within the same episode. Take this beautiful exchange between Peter and Brian about 9-11:


"So Saddam Hussein did this?"
"No."
"The Iraqi army?"
"no."
"Some guys from Iraq?"
"no."
"that one lady who visited Iraq that one time?"
"Peter, Iraq had nothing to do with this, it was a bunch of Saudi Arabians, Lebanese and Egyptians financed by a Saudi Arabian guy, living in Afghanistan and sheltered by Pakistanis."
"So you're saying we need to invade Iran?"



It's a similar combination of populist entertainment and sophisticated social, political and historical commentary to that which the Elizabethan stage was able to achieve. This is cultural response at its best.


Family Guy still has a couple of lessons to learn, though. Firstly, it's not clear if the production team themselves have realised that the strength of the show lies in the fact that it is now a sketch-show rather than a sitcom, closer to The Onion than The Simpsons. The least successful episodes of recent seasons have been those that resembled episodes from the earlier days, with plots and character motivations that are not ridiculed or subverted. Listening to cast and crew on the behind-the-scenes feature for the largely cutaway-free episode And Then There Were None, one gets the impression that they think the decision to kill off some minor supporting characters is significant. The show needs to embrace the fact that it isn't character-based.

Secondly, there's the question of black humour. The inescapable truth about this is that if something's funny, there's no point pretending it isn't, even if it is based around an appalling subject. The "You've got Aids" song is funny: there's no way round that. If something's genuinely funny, then there must be something sincere, something moving, something worth having at its kernel. Because the AIDs song makes one laugh, it surely must be beautiful in some way, giving us a bearable way of seeing something painful. (Compare it with this brilliant piece in The Onion: http://www.theonion.com/articles/man-dies-after-secret-4year-battle-with-gorilla,2836/
Yes, the subject is troubling, but by the time we've finished laughing don't we feel oddly moved by it, as if we have seen a painful experience that will affect all of us in a fresh and yet truthful way?) Black humour fails when the writers are more interested in shocking than in being funny, hence the worst bits of Family Guy (the vile song about Teri Schiavo, the gag about Humphrey Bogart's cancer in a deleted scene that sadly made it to the DVD, the line about a woman with cervical cancer being "just a boob on a leg", the relentlessly one-note untempered ableism in the treatment of Joe, the sneer about how when it comes to kids with cerebral palsy "you never see an old one" ), in which, just for a second, our aesthetic sense is not being stimulated or challenged, and we find ourselves sitting there disliking the writers. Admittedly, everyone has their own threshold (I love South Park at its most offensive, but can't bear to watch the one about Christopher Reeve: although I'm quite looking forward to the Asperger's episode despite having the condition myself), so the odd gag you genuinely wish they hadn't done is the price to pay for black comedy, but one still hopes the Family Guy team will allow their intelligence rather than willfullness to guide them.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Melanie Phillips's 15 Tips for Journalism


1) Your aim is not to provoke debate, but to state the truth. There can be no room for ambiguity in your articles - never weigh things up, don’t write a single sentence that challenges one of your beliefs, don‘t waste time considering what the opposite side of your argument might be, or any other points of view. Truth beats diplomacy, to cite the heading from a recent article of mine. If you must, insert a phrase like “Individual Palestinians may deserve compassion” (on no account leave out the word “may”), but make sure the rest of the sentence reads “but their cause amounts to Holocaust denial as a national project”. Notice how I was able to consider the alternative viewpoint in five words, and return to my core beliefs within the same sentence, without causing any cracks in my certainty.

2) Remember your audience should be people who feel the exact same way, not people who are undecided, have mixed views, or enough lingering sympathy for your politics to find your arguments stimulating even if they don’t entirely agree with them. You must discard such people. Your pieces should be instantly recognisable, and not designed to be readable to those with a different perspective. For that reason, it’s useful to begin with a reminder of what you hate, such as “I really can’t bring myself to wade into those sewers known as the Guardian and Independent, but”…

3) Never use a word like wrong, flawed or bad when perfidious will do.


4) Remember the word is made of absolutes. Your writing should be about the good and the bad, the light and the dark, The West and the East, Judaeo-Christian values and Muslim values, family values and anarchy. Only the morally bankrupt take the middle ground.

5) Never criticise someone on your side, unless their comments make it clear they’ve defected. Make sure your sources are right-wing, and avoid any sources with a different take on the issue.


6) Get in there first - don’t waste time waiting for more details to emerge. When a story broke about a 13-year old who had fathered a child, I published an article proclaiming it “a fable for our tragically degraded times”. Although I was careful to acknowledge that he may not actually be the father - it hardly weakened my point, because as I pointed out there were plenty of other pregnant teenagers - my article would have been robbed of its forcefulness had I written it after it was confirmed that he wasn’t. The MMR case also demanded swift action: it was imperative that I warned everyone that it represented the hubris of scientists and had all the signs of an ever-present yet hard-to-pin-down conspiracy squatting like a giant spider at the heart of Britain, unseen yet all-knowing, everywhere and nowhere - “there’s something they’re not telling us about the MMR”, as Allison Pearson put it - something, not something that can be proved by facts and logic alone, much as science can’t prove a complete explanation for the universe itself. However, had I not got in there before Andrew Wakefield’s paper for the Lancet had been discredited let alone before the time Andrew Wakefield had been stuck off, and video footage of him joking about bribing children for blood samples at a birthday party emerged, my argument would have lost some of its potency, as everyone foolishly believed that science’s findings of no link of between MMR and autism was proof enough.

7) Every strong word needs another strong word emphasising it: "cultural immolation", "morally decent", "genocidal aggression", "morally obnoxious", "pernicious fallacy", "liberal fascism", "moral inversion", "morally inverted hegemony of ideas", "malevolent moral inversion", "pagan prejudices", "cultural suicide", "monolithic intelligentsia", "viscerally prejudiced", "liberal derangement", "stomach-churning hypocrisy". After all, “cowardice and paralysis of the British Legal system” is far superior to “paralysis of the British legal system”, and “morally and intellectually dubious” conveys depths that “morally dubious” can barely hint at. “The countless distortions, errors and absurdities in this travesty of a report” gains power by my technique of adding phrases with the same meaning - “travesty of a report” may seem to add little, as a report with countless distortions, errors and absurdities could hardly be anything else, but it is imperative that you convey your rage to the reader regardless of bordering on tautology (which is why I found “delusional fantasy” so effective as a turn of phrase). “The true intolerant, illiberal, unjust face of the ‘human rights’ industry” is another favourite of mine, where I feel I really got the hang of that technique - every word adds to the combined effect. Note the alliteration of intolerant and illiberal. If you’ve condemned something, try adding more pejoratives. “Preposterous” worked much better for me once it became “Preposterous and absurd”, and “Demonising” truly shone once I extended it into “Demonising and delegitimising.” I’m also very fond of the quadruple effect I achieved here: “Yet it is to his belligerency and bigotry that America is in the process of delivering up Israel, to be sacrificed on the altar of presidential vanity and hubris”. Sheer poetry.

8) Don’t forget your core beliefs. Don’t write a sentence that suggests that cultural norms and hierarchy should sometimes be challenged, that Judaeo-Christian values aren’t always stronger than Muslim ones, that family values should ever be subverted or undermined, that the West’s influence is sometimes dubious. Ambivalence and depth are your enemy.

9) You can’t overuse the phrase “Orwellian”. Such a phrase is a godsend because you can use it for far more than just the ideas and topics that Orwell concerned himself with. The phase “morally bankrupt” is versatile too.

10) Lighten your tone by expressing irritation before or after quoting someone you oppose with phrases such as “quelle surprise”, “yup”, “whoops”, “Well waddya know”, “eh?” “mmmm”, “of course”, “oh puh-leease!!!”, “fancy!”, “go figure”, “Well that seems clear enough to me”, “Wow”, “way to go” or “You don’t say”. After quoting someone attacking me, I wrong-footed him by quipping “such fame! It could turn a girl’s head”. He might have expected me to bite back, but I doubt he expected me to be so funny with it. People will enjoy an article that makes them laugh along the way. When I make a point of referring to Obama as “the One” (a reference to The Matrix) I can amuse the reader while making a serious point about the overhype surrounding the Obama camp. Satire is the most dangerous weapon a columnist has at their disposal.

11) Create your own phrases like “Jews for genocide”, “dhimmocracy”, “Pallywood” “the Axis of Appeasement” "Iraq War Inquiry Derangement Syndrome (ctd)", "Anti-Israel Bigotry Week", "the Ha’aretz blood libel", the Savonarola of scientism", "The human wrongs industry", "The Hamas Broadcasting Corporation (ctd)", "Iraq War Inquiry Derangement Syndrome (ctd)", "The Intergovernmental Perjury over Climate Catastrophe (ctd)". Many of these are actually based on real phrases. The “ctd” phrase is particularly useful for adding an extra tinge of irony, that enforces your satirical point. It’s a technique, often called “world-building”, borrowed from the great imaginative writers, from Tolkien to Dickens, Ursula Le Guin to PG Wodehouse, which allows you to create a secondary world out of language, in which these weird and wonderful creations exist, as a frightening mirror image of our own world.

12) The times we live in are so terrible, it is entirely appropriate to use Nazi Germany, the Holocaust and Stalinist Russia as comparisons.


13) Whatever you do, don’t understate your case. Calling the Guardian “an evil newspaper” is so much better than any more moderate phrase. Avoid sugar-coating your enemies.

14) Remember everything - Al Qaeda, Global Warming, Hamas, Obama, Drug Legalisation, sexual permissiveness, education, feral children, immigration, political correctness, the Guardian and the Independent, Health and safety, the Gay Rights Lobby - is connected. Try and see them all as part of an epic war rather than a series of separate complex issues with differentiating factors: that said, if you come across as merely trying, you have failed. And that brings us to our final point…

15) Certainty above all.

(Everything in quotation marks is a genuine quote from Phillips's columns and blog. She actually wrote those things.)