Category Archives: History

The Meaning of Life or Get Down With The Randomness, Baby

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Tbe meaning of life is that great philosophical, existentialist and ethical question that mankind has preoccupied itself with since the birth of rational thought.

Once the human animal acquired conscious thought, it was going to start overthinking things. There had to be a reason for everything. Nothing was going to be left to chance from then on. This new logic thing in our brains couldn’t handle luck or randomness. Everything had to be explained step-by-step from our perspective.

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It is a combination of man’s mental acuity and self-importance to try and attach any meaning to life. Why can’t we just be an extremely fortunate life form randomly hurtling through space on an ideally-positioned rock? If life has any meaning, it is the basic biological one of passing on our genes to the next generation before we die. However sophisticated we are or imagine we are, it really doesn’t get more complicated than that.

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The first cave paintings were early man taking a step back from himself and seeing his world one step removed (we do this today with all forms of art). He was observing himself, seeing how his society operated, explaining what he could and posing new questions to himself that needed answers (some believe these paintings were the first attempts at speech by the human animal. They were also probably the first attempts at interior decorating too).

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We set out to explore the world: a thirst for knowledge backed by a lust for domination, power, land and gold. It only threw up more questions – who were these alien peoples we encountered and how could God have created them? God, of course, was the perfect explanation that man sought. This deity ticked all the boxes. With a wave of his mighty hand, the world and humanity, the beings he made in his own image, were there.

Science then came along and upended the theology apple cart. It gave us evolution and natural selection, both structured adaptations to random scenarios. The dinosaurs lost the evolutionary lottery by getting wiped out by an Act of God. It could happen to humans too but that is too difficult for us to contemplate. We need information fed to us piecemeal to formulate opinions, Doomsday is too hasty for us. It isn’t logical.

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Of course, we look for endless reasons for our existence – psychological, philosophical, theological. We even invented religions to explain our existence back to us (most of the world’s religions were founded as offshoots of another because of disagreements to the theological direction being taken. “All roads lead to God” as one quotations goes. “There are many roads in Monotheism” might be a better way of putting it).

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Albert Einstein in a random moment

Albert Einstein, the very figurehead of the concept of genius, had his say in 1935 on The Meaning of Life:

“What is the meaning of human life, or, for that matter, of the life of any creature? To know an answer to this question means to be religious. You ask: Does it make any sense, then, to pose this question? I answer: The man who regards his own life and that of his fellow creatures as meaningless is not merely unhappy but hardly fit for life.”

I’m not saying that life is meaningless but random – chaos theory, if you like (the problem is that some of us can’t see meaning without structure, the curse of that logical mind of ours). The Fractal Foundation defines Chaos Theory thus: “While most traditional science deals with supposedly predictable phenomena like gravity, electricity, or chemical reactions, Chaos Theory deals with nonlinear things that are effectively impossible to predict or control, like turbulence, weather, the stock market, our brain states, and so on.”

Talking Heads had a witty take on where we’re headed with their 1985 hit “Road to Nowhere.” It dares to suggest that we’re all just making it up as we go along and nobody really knows where we’re headed, even if they can’t or won’t admit it to themselves or others. Twist your melons around that, you overthinking homo sapiens!

© Stewart Stafford, 2018. All rights reserved.

If you’re a generous person who believes writers should be paid for their work, you may donate here.

To read more of my writing, check out my short story Nightfall and my novel The Vorbing.

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Rats Rhapsody: The Road to Live Aid and Beyond

It was Halloween night, October 31st, 1975. Two parallel and seemingly unconnected events were about to take place in music history that wouldn’t cross streams until a decade later.

Queen were about to release their magnum opus “Bohemian Rhapsody. Written by Freddie Mercury, it would enter the UK chart at number 17 on November 15th 1975, reach number one on November 29th and held the top spot for nine weeks until January 24th 1976. Bo Rhap, as Queen fans call it for short, was taken from Queen’s album A Night at the Opera, the title of a Marx Brothers comedy classic movie. Appropriately, Bo Rhap would deny Laurel and Hardy’s tune “Trail of the Lonesome Pine” the number one spot and hold them at number two for two weeks.

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Bob Geldof, Esq.

Also that October 31st, an unknown singer and former music journalist named Bob Geldof made his debut at a Dublin school Halloween dance. His group The Boomtown Rats were rookies who knew nothing about set lists and ended up doing a three-hour performance of mostly dodgy cover versions. Geldof claims a girl approached him during the interval and offered to “give me one.” He said he knew he was in the right job there and then: “You try getting laid in Dublin in the 70’s!”

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The Boomtown Rats in chin-scratching thoughtful mood

Geldof would make it big fast. Less than three years after that inauspicious debut, the Rats had their first UK top ten hit with “Like Clockwork” in the summer of 1978. Four months later in October 1978, they had their first number one single with “Rat Trap.” The Grease soundtrack had dominated the charts in 1978 and Geldof took great pleasure in hiding behind a John Travolta poster on Top of the Pops before ripping it in two to reveal his yawning face as he began to sing.

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Freddie Mercury celebrates at his $200,000 New Orleans midnight Halloween party, 1978

Queen celebrated Halloween night 1978 with one of the most infamous parties in rock history in New Orleans.

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Those two seemingly disparate events in music history at Halloween 1975 would coalesce in Geldof’s Live Aid spectacular at Wembley Stadium on July 13th, 1985 and result in the greatest live performance of all-time. Geldof announced Queen’s participation in the event before they’d fully agreed to it along with many other big name acts like The Who and David Bowie.

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He’s got the whole word in his hands – Bob Geldof welcomes the media to Wembley Stadium to announce Live Aid

Once their hand had been forced, Queen set about preparing their unforgettable set with military precision. The clocks in the orchestra pit of the theatre where they were rehearsing (put there by their roadie Ratty) were just the start. Queen’s sound designer Trip Khalaf took the limiters off the sound at Wembley Stadium meaning that Queen were automatically louder than every act who’d played before them that day. They moved the goalposts certainly but as I always say, no one remembers how you got a chance, they only remember what you did with it. Queen smacked this one out of the ballpark for the home run of home runs. Geldof reacted immediately to Queen’s sound: “I was actually upstairs in the Appeals box in Wembley Stadium, and suddenly I heard this sound. I thought, God, who’s got this sound together? and it was Queen.”

What was the first song in Queen’s set? “Bohemian Rhapsody,” from that long-forgotten Halloween night that launched Live Aid’s founder and gave the stars of his global jukebox their biggest-ever hit and opening number on the day.

Geldof was adamant in his praise of Queen and their astonishing rise to the occasion on his big day: “Queen were absolutely the best band of the day. They played the best, had the best sound, used their time to the full. They understood the idea exactly, that it was a global jukebox. They just went and smashed one hit after another. It was the perfect stage for Freddie: the whole world. And he could ponce about on stage doing ‘We Are the Champions’. How perfect could it get?”

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Freddie Mercury (left in red) and Bob Geldof (far right) at the Live Aid finale

Just over six years later, the great Freddie Mercury was taken from us by the dreaded AIDS virus. However, the band he founded with Brian May and Roger Taylor continued on in various guises without disgruntled bass player John Deacon.

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Queen Mach 2 – Paul Rodgers (foreground), Brian May (midground) and Roger Taylor (background).

In 2004, Queen began a collaboration (and released an album) with Free and Bad Company frontman Paul Rodgers to mixed results. Rodgers exited the regal vehicle in 2009 and Queen faced the prospect of never touring again until fate favourably intervened yet again.

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Bob Geldof shares a joke with Queen’s Roger Taylor and Brian May

It is here that the paths of Bob Geldof and Queen cross yet again. Queen were no longer touring and, as usual, Bob was only too happy to offer his opinion. Since the turn of the century, Geldof had been suggesting that Brian May and Roger Taylor “find a kid with Freddie’s range.” There seemed no one around who fitted the bill at the time. Whether Geldof’s prophecy became a self-fulfilling prophecy for Queen or not is anyone’s guess, but luck would be more than a lady, it would be, as Brian May dubbed him – Madam Lambert to the rescue.

This was the era of reality TV shows like X-Factor and American Idol. While most of the contestants promised great things, precious few went on to have any career let alone a long one. On American Idol, a contestant named Adam Lambert with a unique voice and vocal range unleashed his extraordinary interpretation of Bohemian Rhapsody. Word got back to May and Taylor and they played with Lambert on the semi-finals of American Idol. An invitation to perform at the MTV Europe awards and the resultant ecstatic reaction and Adam Lambert became Queen’s new lead singer and the third (and final, Taylor says) incarnation of this mighty band was underway.

The Boomtown Rats didn’t play live from 1986 until 2013 when they surprised everyone by going back on the road for a UK and Ireland tour in support of their fifth greatest hits album “Back To Boomtown: Classic Rats Hits.”

Today, July 8th, 2018, the seemingly eternally-intertwined paths of Bob Geldof and Queen cross once more as The Boomtown Rats support Queen + Adam Lambert at Dublin’s Marlay Park. There is much grey hair in evidence in both camps with Bob Geldof turning 67 in October and Roger Taylor turning 70 next year and Brian May the eldest at 71. It is probably the end of the road for these two legendary bands and the era of rock they came from.

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Castle Street, Dalkey and The Queen’s pub to the right – the exact spot where I saw Bob Geldof in ’88

I saw Bob Geldof once in the street in Dalkey in Dublin in July 1988. He was (unsuccessfully) looking for the way in to The Queen’s pub on Castle Street. He tried to gain entrance through the graveyard and then peered myopically through dusty old windows as his entourage shouted “Bob! Bob!” at him. My friend at the time, for reasons best known to himself, shouted over “Bob Marley!” to add to the confusion. Little did I know that exactly 30 years later I’d be seeing Mr Geldof perform at Marlay Park. The feeling of fate and destiny being fulfilled appears to apply to me also as well as Queen and The Rats.

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Bobby Boomtown in all his glory giving it socks

Beyonce has her Sasha Fierce alter ego, Bob Geldof has his Bobby Boomtown persona in his ubiquitous snakeskin jacket. His punky venom will get an airing later today. So let us revel in the majesty of Queen and The Boomtown Rats once more. We will never see their like again.

© Stewart Stafford, 2018. All rights reserved.

Queen crest copyright Queen Productions Ltd

If you’re a generous person who believes writers should be paid for their work, you may donate here.

To read more of my writing, check out my short story Nightfall and my novel The Vorbing.

An Immigrant State of Mind

World Refugee Day

Today is #WorldRefugeeDay. While I’ve never been a refugee, I have been an immigrant in two countries. I was born in the United States, the son of Irish immigrants. We moved back to Ireland when I was three years old and everyone called me “Yank.” So I’ve been an immigrant in both the countries that compose my nationality.

Being an immigrant is not a status but a state of mind. It doesn’t stop when you “assimiliate” or “integrate” or when you go from being an “outsider” to an “insider.” It is what you think of yourself. You only really stop being an immigrant when you reject other immigrants and try to slam the door in their faces when they try to emulate you.

People will always surprise you if you give them a chance. We’re too quick to impose limitations on ourselves and others based on age, gender, race, colour, creed or whatever. The list is endless. The potential of others is never immediately apparent to us and yet we leap to illogical conclusions repeatedly. Change is scary and immigrants and refugees are the personification of that change. It is easy for these newcomers to internalise the aggression shown towards them when it is not personal. They are not hated for who they are personally but for what they represent to the beholder, however incorrect or irrational that may be.

Irish Famine

Irish Famine refugees, reduced to disease-ridden, illiterate peasants under brutal British occupation were despised on their arrival in the United States. Not only were they feared for the Third World diseases they carried but also for the Catholicism that the White Anglo-Saxon Protestants viewed with suspicion and disdain. Now, the Irish are fully integrated into American society. Approximately 44 million Americans claim Irish ancestry. The St Patrick’s Day parades there are the biggest in the world. Irish-America has been an amazing success story and a PR bonanza. Those refugees changed America for the better and brought their traditions, music and humour and placed them at the heart of the American dream. Halloween was one of the many things that went from being an Irish tradition to an American one.

On World Refugee Day, let us remember the amazing capabilities of our fellow human beings and not the negative things that scare and divide us. Compassion must be at the heart of every decision made in their treatment. All human life originated in Africa, so we are all immigrants and refugees to everywhere else on earth really. The human animal is at its best when it helps its own kind to prosper and respects all others forms of life. For just as the immigrant and refugee has unrealised potential within them, so we, the guardians at the gate, have untapped potential for kindness and tolerance and acceptance within us too. If we’re not striving as they strive, we fail ourselves and them too. We need to come out from behind the flags and banners and start treating each other as human beings. Then, and only then, are we fulfilling the potential of those first humans who left the cradle of civilisation so very long ago.

Great leaders lead by example, not by making an example of others Stewart Stafford quotes

© Stewart Stafford, 2018. All rights reserved.

If you’re a generous person who believes this writer should be paid for his hard work, you may donate here.

To read more of this author’s work, check out his short story Nightfall and novel The Vorbing.

The Fallacy of Cultural Appropriation

The featured image above shows a quote from Picasso being “appropriated” or stolen by Banksy in an ironic demonstration of the efficacy of the quote.


NettaIsrael won the Eurovision Song Contest last weekend and there were howls of derision. The spectre of “cultural appropriation” raised its ugly head again. Israeli singer Netta Barzilai had the temerity to wear a Japanese kimono on stage during her performance of the song “Toy” and that was enough. The internet went into meltdown about it referring to it as “yellowface.” (Some would instead baulk at the idea of culture being used in association with the Eurovision but let’s park that one there for now.)

Why is wearing the national dress of another country automatically seen as negative? It is possible that the person involved is honouring the culture and traditions of that country and is not mocking or “stealing” them.

We even see cultural appropriation in the casting of movies today. It is now being demanded that only ethnically-accurate actors are cast in roles.

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Scotsman Sean Connery won his only Oscar for playing an Irish cop in “The Untouchables” and he was terrific in it. As an Irishman, I’m not offended by his performance in the slightest (even though we all know that non-Irish people attemping Irish accents can be a crime against humanity sometimes.) Connery culturally appropriated again when he played a Russian submarine commander (with a Scottish accent) in “The Hunt for Red October.” Just as well he can’t “appropriate” any longer as he’s been in retirment since 2004.

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Screenwriting guru Robert McKee said something similar about Quentin Tarantino. At the time of the release of Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” it was pointed out that he had virtually heisted the plot of Hong Kong film “City on Fire” (sometimes even shot-for-shot scenes) in his crime film. Perhaps that’s true about great artists doing that but copyright infringement, the intentional stealing of other people’s ideas for your own glorification and remuneration, is shabby behaviour. I believe in an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work and especially when it comes to writers who put so much into their work for usually very little return (don’t even get me started on those leeches who offer copyrighted works for free and take food out of the mouths of writers’ kids.)

Cultural Appropriation

“Cultural appropriation” or cultural stealing is something different. There is no copyright on culture. Those ideas have been around for hundreds if not thousands of years and the people who originated them are long gone. There are many examples of artists taking elements of other cultures and fusing them together to form something radically new. That is how culture refreshes and revitalizes itself as it brings new interest in old ideas.

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Shakespeare borrowed from all over the place. Julius Caesar and Romeo and Juliet? They’re set in Italy. Hamlet? That’s Danish. Macbeth? That’s Scottish. If Shakespeare had not culturally appropriated and only written about England, we’d have missed out on some of the greatest works in the English language. It goes even further than that…

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The BBC described David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust as “one of the most iconic creations in pop history.” Bowie based the look of Ziggy on the make-up of the Japanese Kabuki theatre.

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If Bowie was launching that character in the 21st century, he would be bombarded by negative social media posts about cultural appropriation. As many do, he would probably give in to the pressure and drop the character and we would miss out on all that amazing imagery and music.

George Lucas borrowed liberally when he wrote and directed “Star Wars” (1977). His Jedi knights were echoes of England’s Knights of the Round Table from Arthurian legend.

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Darth Vader’s helmet was meant to resemble that of a Japanese Samurai warrior (indeed, “Star Wars” apes Akira Kurosawa’s “The Hidden Fortress” by telling the story from the viewpoint of droids C3PO and R2D2, the lowest characters in the story).

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“May The Force Be With You” is very similar to “The Lord Be With You” from Christianity which began in the Holy Land. Again, would we want to miss out on a cultural phenomenon and all that has followed from it because of cultural appropriation?

Marlon Brando once described Hollywood as “a cultural boneyard.” I fear that the whole world has become a cultural boneyard of our own making now. Conformity is king. Try anything different and you’ll attacked for it by faceless, anonymous keyboard warriors out there in the dark on social media. I noticed this recently while out walking. Every gang of young girls that I passed were clones of each other. They all had the same hairdos, same clothes. They’re afraid to take chances because of peer pressure not to. That is happening in every aspect of our lives. As I’ve said before, you don’t get great art by playing it safe.

So who are these people who cry cultural appropriation at the drop of a hat? They’re a generation of “right-fighters.” FamilyResource.com defines it thus: A right-fighter is someone who gets overly emotional or angry when people do not agree with them and their opinions or beliefs. A right-fighter is someone who insists on having the last word in an argument or refuses to back down no matter what.”

TV guru Dr Phil McGraw elaborates further that a right -fighter is “one of those people who spend far too much energy convincing the rest of the world that they’re right. They’re right as parents, they’re right at work, they’re right in their relationships, they’re right about politics — and they are all too ready to fight about just how right they are. These insecure people are too fragile to ask themselves how things are working for them, because they might not like the answer one bit. It might mean making a change or admitting they’ve been (dare I say it?) wrong.” Do we really want an army of right-fighters dictating what is culturally acceptable and what isn’t for the rest of us? I think not.

It’s the “echo chamber” idea, that if you only hear opinions that concur with yours, you never have your opinions challenged or hear new ideas and so don’t grow and change.

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I saw a white girl get slapped with the “cultural appropriation” label in a tweet recently for having dreadlocks. This is the height of absurdity and it’s only getting worse.

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Would you really want to miss out on the works of Shakespeare, Star Wars, Ziggy Stardust, Harry Potter and countless other great works only to gain the pyrrhic victory of being self-righteous? I know I wouldn’t. In the final analysis, the hysteria over cultural appropriation is a politically-correct strait-jacket that is stunting our growth in ways we can’t even measure fully.

I’ll leave you on a laugh. This humourous tweet sums up the fallacy of cultural appropriation perfectly.

Cultural Appropriation Scottish Toilet Bowl Gag

© Stewart Stafford, 2018. All rights reserved.

If you’re a generous person who believes this writer should be paid for his hard work, you may donate here.

To read more of this author’s work, check out his short story Nightfall and novel The Vorbing.

Star Wars – Empire Under Construction

Narrative theory is the academic idea begun by the Russian scholars Todorov and Propp and continued later by the American Joseph Campbell, that the same archetypes and story motifs and narrative structures appear repeatedly in fairytales and folktales in every culture.

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With Star Wars everywhere in the news this week following the release of Rogue One and the tragic death of Carrie Fisher, let’s take a look at narrative theory through the example of Star Wars Episode IV – A New Hope. It was written and directed by George Lucas and released in 1977. It’s a science fiction film even though it takes from every genre; Arthurian legend (the Jedi knights are similar to King Arthur’s knights of the Round Table, Obi-Wan Kenobi is a Merlin-like figure who gives Luke a laser sword similar to Excalibur), Japanese Kurosawa movie The Hidden Fortress (1958) (Lucas said: “The one thing that really struck me about The Hidden Fortress was the fact that the story was told from the [perspective of] the two lowest characters. I decided that would be a nice way to tell the Star Wars story, which was to take the two lowest characters, as Kurosawa did, and tell the story from their point of view, which in the Star Wars case is the two droids.” Darth Vader’s helmet is also supposed to resemble a Samurai’s.)

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Gary Cooper in High Noon (1952) and Harrison Ford in Star Wars (1977)

Star Wars also evokes American Westerns (Han Solo is dressed exactly like Gary Cooper in High Noon minus the cowboy hat.The raucous, violent canteen is like a Western saloon and the destruction of Luke’s home and family is very like The Searchers) and World War II movies (Darth Vader’s helmet also resembles a Nazi helmet, the Empire’s troops are called Stormtroopers just as Hitler’s were and the dogfights in outer space are like Second World War aerial battles. Lucas even edited World War II dogfight footage into an early rough cut of Star Wars as a guide before the special effects were ready.)

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Lucas had tried and failed to secure the rights to make a Flash Gordon movie, yet he retained the opening exposition crawl from the start of the old 1930s Buster Crabbe/Flash Gordon serials for Star Wars.

Here are Propp’s archetypes in Star Wars:

Hero – Luke Skywalker

Donor – Obi-Wan Kenobi gives Luke his lightsaber.

Helper – Han Solo, Chewbacca and the droids

Princess – Leia

Her Father – Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader

False Hero – There is no obvious false hero in the Star Wars – Episode IV. It appears to be Han Solo, who selfishly refuses to take part in the crucial assault on the Death Star but he redeems himself in a last-minute twist by saving Luke’s life and neutralising the threat of Darth Vader which gives Luke time to destroy the Death Star.

Dispatcher – I believe it’s Leia; she puts the distress hologram inside R2-D2. This sends the droid on his mission which reactivates Obi-Wan who activates Luke as the hero.

For me, the structure is this;

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Act I – Hidden Fortress meets The Searchers

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Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton in Where Eagles Dare (1968)
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Han Solo and Luke Skywalker similarly dressed as the enemy in the Death Star

Act II – Where Eagles Dare (Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton disguise themselves as Nazis to infiltrate a German fortress on a mountaintop just as Han Solo and Luke Skywalker disguise themselves as the enemy to get around the Death Star)

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Act III – The Dambusters (Lucas hired British cinematographer Gil Taylor to shoot Star Wars and he had done special effects photography on the 1955 British film The Dam Busters. The assault on the Death Star at the end is a virtual shot-for-shot remake of the bombing of the German dams at the finale of The Dam Busters.)

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

Star Wars © Lucasfilm Ltd.

       

A Hobbit, Four Beatles, a Queen and a Led Zeppelin: How Tolkien Influenced British Music In The 1960s and 7os

Stew Fantasy Quote Meme

Allow me to elaborate on my quote, dear readers. In the Second World war, Britain and Germany were gleefully bombing each other’s major cities into oblivion day and night. In the myopia of war, they thought they were engaged in a conflict to strengthen themselves, but were, in fact, destroying each other as major world powers. This created a vacuum into which stepped the new superpowers – the United States and the Soviet Union.

In the aftermath of the war, Britain was devastated physically, financially and mentally. Rationing was still in force and luxuries were unheard of for a whole generation of children. The war was before their time but the impact and implications of it were a daily fact of life. Ruined areas called bomb sites still pockmarked the land and the new kids played on them, including a young David Bowie.

Bowie’s biographer Paul Trynka kicks off his excellent book Starman with this illustration of grim post-war austerity from Peter Prickett: “Everything seemed grey. We wore short grey flannel trousers of a thick and rough material, grey socks and grey shirts. The roads were grey, the prefabs were grey and the bomb sites seemed to be made of grey rubble.”

Behold the constraints of reality! Glam Rock in the 70s was going to be the antithesis of all that childhood drabness and deprivation. First though, Tolkien would unleash the beast that was The Lord of the Rings. Despite being written in stages between 1937 and 1949, three volumes were published over the course of a year between 1954 and 1955 (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and the Return of the king). There was a sudden glut of Tolkien product in the marketplace at just the right time. The books were manna from Heaven for a generation starved of good food, new ideas and hope. For the first time, they had in their hands an affordable escape and a template for a way out of their difficult situations. It was like the scene in the Wizard of Oz where the world goes from monochrome to eye-popping technicolor as Dorothy reaches Oz. John Lennon was one of many British kids who became a fan of Tolkien’s.

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The Beatles turned everything on its head when they shot to fame in 1962. As well as topping the charts with monster hits on both sides of the Atlantic, they also made some remarkable films including A Hard Day’s Night, Help and the surreal, Pythonesque Magical Mystery Tour. Kicking around for ideas for a new Fab Four flick, John Lennon suggested an adaptation of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

Peter Jackson directed both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogies. In 2014, he said “The Beatles once approached Stanley Kubrick to do The Lord Of The Rings and he said no. I actually spoke about this with Paul McCartney. He confirmed it. I’d heard rumors that it was going to be their next film after Help.”

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It wasn’t just Kubrick who rejected The Beatles: “It was something John was driving, and J.R.R. Tolkien still had the film rights at that stage, but he didn’t like the idea of the Beatles doing it. So he killed it,” Jackson added.

Beatles LOTR Poster

Lennon had published two books himself, A Spaniard In The Works and In His Own Write, his love of wordplay being evident in the titles. Lennon was fan of Lewis Carroll as well as Tolkien and his writing has been compared to Carroll’s, particularly I Am The Walrus.

 

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It is arguable that many of the prog rock concept albums of the 70s were an attempt to transfer Tolkien’s epic fantasy imagery to the album format. Rick Wakeman played piano on Bowie’s Life On Mars and was the keyboard player with Yes. Wakeman did a 70s concert at an ice rink with skaters playing knights on horseback jousting to the music he was playing. He admitted recently that he had gone too far but it was excess-all-areas in the 70s.

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Lord of the Strings

Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin was a serious Tolkien nerd, liberally sprinkling references to the books in his songs. Take these lines from Zeppelin’s Ramble On: “Twas in the darkest depths of Mordor, I met a girl so fair. But Gollum and the evil one crept up and slipped away with her.”

Freddie 1974

Queen, in turn, were big fans of Led Zeppelin. They played Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song during soundchecks and Plant turned up at The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert in 1992 to perform Innuendo and Crazy Little Thing Called Love. It’s possible that Freddie and the boys imbibed some of Zeppelin’s Tolkien imagery by osmosis. Seven Seas of Rhye was Queen’s first hit. It came out in 1974 and was written by Freddie Mercury. Rhye was a fantasy world that Freddie had created with his sister Kashmira. Freddie sings of “the mighty Titan and his troubadours” in Seven Seas of Rhye. On other Queen albums there was “Ogre Battle” and “Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke.” The imagery of Brian May’s The Prophet’s Song on A Night At The Opera is very Tolkienesque, although the images came to him in a dream. Queen would also go on to do the music for fantasy films like Highlander and Flash Gordon.

Tolkien was probably horrified by the bands and music he inspired but that would have been a typical reaction from his generation. None of it was intended for him. He was unable to foresee the consequences of publishing his books but it is interesting to see how one creative act can inspire many similar and dissimilar ones, spreading out like ripples in a pond. We pass the torch of inspiration down the generations, it is not ours to keep but ours to maintain and pass on.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

If you’re a generous person who believes this writer should be paid for his hard work, you may donate here.

To read more of this author’s work, check out his short story Nightfall and novel The Vorbing.

Muhammad Ali: The Greatest Legacy?

“I’m not just a boxer!” Muhammad Ali once said. He wasn’t. He was so much more than that. Apart from his fluid, balletic boxing skills in the ring, he was one of the first sportsmen to use psychology to wear down his opponents before a punch had been thrown. He was fighting some of the toughest, hardest-punching men in the world but he cleverly figured out that they had built up their bodies but neglected their minds. So he used words like weapons, chipping away at his rival’s psyche until they were beaten men and didn’t even know it. That tactic certainly worked with the brutish Sonny Liston in the 60s. Just watch the old black-and-white press conferences as Ali fires one verbal missile after another and world champion Liston can’t believe what he’s hearing from this cocky young pup.

Ali I Am The Greatest

Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Clay. He changed his name for this reason: “Cassius Clay is a slave name. I didn’t choose it and I don’t want it. I am Muhammad Ali, a free name – it means beloved of God – and I insist people use it when people speak to me and of me.” He grew up in a time when black Americans were third-class citizens. He won the Light Heavyweight gold medal at the Rome Olympics in 1960, came back to America, and, when they refused to serve him in a restaurant because of his colour, he went outside and threw his gold medal in the river. Even after becoming Olympic champion for America, no one believed in him. So he believed in himself. He could use words to attack but he could also use words to pump himself up. He called himself The Greatest until he and the world believed it. It gave him the confidence, like a self-fulfilling prophecy, to make his dreams a reality against the tide of begrudgers who wished him ill.

He used words to taunt but he also wrote poems, told jokes and gave speeches to inspire. Some credit Ali with being the first rapper and creating hip-hop music.

Ali Handcuffed Lightning

In 1974, Ali had perhaps his most famous fight, The Rumble in The Jungle in Zaire, Africa against George Foreman. Nobody gave the ageing Ali a chance. If you watch the Oscar-winning documentary When We Were Kings, you’ll see the extraordinary mental process Ali engaged in to psych himself up for the fight. He begins at the first press conference asking who thinks he can win the fight. Nobody does and he seems down. Then he goes on the attack against his critics. Then he starts working on himself: “Everybody’s scared…there’s nothing to be scared of!” You can see he doesn’t quite believe what he’s saying yet but he keeps going. He turned to his religion for reassurance: “All I need is a prayer because if that prayer reaches the right man, not only will George Foreman fall, mountains will fall!” Ali refused to watch Foreman training, even when they passed each other in the gym. He blocked out his fear. Then Ali tried a different form of psychology on Foreman, a similar brute to Sonny Liston. Ali was 32 then, his speed had left him and he needed a new tactic. He called it rope-a-dope in which he would go to the ropes and absorb punishment before launching a surprise counterattack when the other fighter was exhausted.

Ali Foreman

When fight night came, Ali started throwing right-hand leads at Foreman. As in any battle, doing the thing your opponent least expects usually ends favourably. A right-hand lead has to travel twice as far across the shoulder to land and it’s hugely disrespectful to any fighter especially the champion of the world to catch him with one let alone twelve as Ali did. Foreman, enraged, punched himself out in the blistering African heat and Ali shocked the world by winning back his world title at the past-it age of 32.

Ali Knocks Out Foreman

Ali was a political figure too. He became a black Muslim and changed his name, that was a political act. He was involved in the Civil Rights struggle with Malcolm X, that was a political act. And he refused to be drafted into the U.S. Army to go fight in Vietnam, there is no greater political act than that. He said: “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people while so-called negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs?” Ali was stripped of his titles, boxing licence and was out of the ring for four years in his prime. He didn’t sit around and mope but went on a tour of American colleges to get the young people on his side (and against the war) with his wit, charm and intelligence. Another political act.

Ali He who is not courageous

Those four years out of boxing cost Ali huge sums of money. Financial pressure and his enormous pride made Ali continue fighting long past his prime. His last, disgraceful fight came three months before his 39th birthday. An ailing, flabby Ali was easily outclassed and hurt by his old sparring partner Larry Holmes. It was an undignified end to an incredible career.

Then began the next great fight of his life when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome and the verbose Ali was replaced with a trembling, whispering giant. He still managed to light the Olympic flame at the 1996 games, a highlight for anyone who remembers it. His condition worsened in recent years until he was unable to speak. For the last 30 years, this has been his frail public image. If any good comes from his death, it will be that all his classic clips will get aired again so today’s youth can see what the man was like in his dazzling pomp.

joe_frazier

Ali had a dark side too. Fellow boxer Joe Frazier helped Ali out financially when he was banned from the ring. Ali later turned on Frazier, ruined his reputation by calling him an Uncle Tom and a bitter feud developed between them.

Frazier Drops Ali Bigger

It resulted in Frazier breaking Ali’s jaw and knocking him out in their epic Madison Square Garden encounter in 1971 (that resulted in Ali being out of the ring again for a good while). Despite having a white Irish great-grandfather named Abe Grady who’d married a freed slave out of love (not slave rape as Ali conveniently claimed), Ali said some nasty, racist things about white people including: “The white man is The Devil!” He even compared the white race to poisonous snakes. Pretty distasteful stuff but typical of the hardline rhetoric he was absorbing from radicals around him at the time. In 1972, Ali went to Ireland and received a rapturous reception from a then all-white country. Jose Torres, journalist and former world light-heavyweight champion who accompanied Ali to Dublin, said: “I want to tell you something now: I think that it was his experience in Ireland that reminded him of the goodness of white people and he began easing his attacks on the white man after that. It was when he began to take out of his dictionary the talk about the white devils. How could he think bad of white people when every street he walked down in Ireland, he had all these white people loving him?” In 2009, Muhammad Ali journeyed to Ennis in Ireland (below) where his great-grandfather came from and everything came full circle.

Ali Ennis Boxing Pose

Like Shakespeare’s King Lear, Ali is “a man more sinned against than sinning.” History will be kind to him.

Muhammad-Ali-quote-on-Elvis

When Elvis Presley died in 1977, the Soviet news agency Tass granted him American icon status along with Mickey Mouse and Coca Cola. Muhammad Ali has more than earned that status too. So long denied recognition, Ali forced the United States to overcome its prejudices and acknowledge him and his people. That is perhaps his greatest victory and a lasting legacy that will inspire people of every race, colour and creed for generations to come. May he rest in peace.

Ali How I Would Like To Be Remembered

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

Hollywood’s Statement of Individuality

George Carlin Quote

[SPOILER ALERT! If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie 12 Years A Slave yet, come back and read this when you have.]

The central tenet of all American movies is this: individual righteousness is more important than the group ethic. You’ll see it in everything from the Planet of the Apes series to the Jason Bourne movies to Schindler’s List. If your peers or superiors tell you to do something that you find morally wrong, then, however serious the consequences, you must do what is right by your own code of ethics. A surprising message from the United States.

12-years-a-slave Poster

That message popped up again in the superb 12 Years A Slave that I watched for the first time last night. I had avoided it as I thought it was going to beat me over the head with a message about race (as some slave dramas can do hysterically). With race playing so heavily in any slavery story, it is tempting to simplify everything into black and white with all whites portrayed as evil sadists and all blacks being innocent victims. Slavery, like all human constructs, was complex. Whites and blacks did things we would expect of them but also things we would not. By following Solomon Northup’s eyewitness testimony of the time from his 1853 book of the same name, 12 Years A Slave avoids pouring 21st century clichés and misconceptions into the script. It shows great subtlety and fairness in allowing light and shade in both the slaves and slavers and that is part of the film’s greatness.

The racial element is sometimes overstated in slavery tales, at its heart it was the rich exploiting the poor for monetary gain. That’s an ancient story in a different guise for a new time.

The script by John Ridley is superb. Using the language of the time (“until freedom is opportune!” “melancholia”) also brings realism to proceedings. Steve McQueen brings a lightness of touch to the direction of the piece.

White women come off particularly badly in the movie. They appear as manipulative, bloodthirsty Salome/Lady Macbeth types, demanding punishment of others from their men and getting it. The subtext appears to be, when supposedly caring, maternal females in a society are that cruel and malicious, what hope is there for the men? None, it would seem. Shakespeare got that spot on and the idea works well again here.

Brad Pitt With Solomon

While Solomon is tricked into slavery by unscrupulous white men, it is a white man (hello Mr Self-Conscious Liberal and producer Brad Pitt) who gets his letter out to the North and starts the process of freedom for him. Pitt’s character is a Canadian carpenter working for Fassbender’s slave-driver Epps. Even though it would be financially beneficial to go along with slavery and profit from it, Pitt chooses to sabotage it and go his own individual way despite peer pressure from Epps.

The poster has Solomon running and I assumed he was going to become a runaway slave and kept waiting for the moment when he would make his momentous break for freedom. Surprisingly, once his pre-slavery identity is established, Solomon’s release comes through legal means that the white people abide by. There is no big action scene full of suspense as Solomon flees cross-country to reach the safety of the northern states. It is strangely anticlimactic but it is the twist in the tale as the film reminds us that he was one of the few people legally freed.

Solomon Is Freed

When 12 Years A Slave swept the board at the Oscars, some might have thought that the Academy was being politically-correct but the film and those involved in it deserved every award. Lupita Nyong’o is superb as the young female slave Patsey. Raped, beaten and the victim of a bloody, Christ-like flogging from her vile master Edwin Epps (another excellent performance from Michael Fassbender), the young model-turned-actress gives an astonishing, harrowing performance. There isn’t one false note in it. Lupita is one to watch for the future.

86th Annual Academy Awards - Show
Actress Lupita Nyong’o accepts the Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role award for ’12 Years a Slave’ onstage during the Oscars at the Dolby Theatre on March 2, 2014 in Hollywood, California. Kevin Winter/Getty Images/AFP

12 Years A Slave is one of the best films I’ve seen in years, right up there with Schindler’s List. Great movies stay with you for days after seeing them. In an age of ubiquitous bubblegum superhero movies that lose their flavour as you’re watching them, that is rare. Comic book movies celebrate violence without responsibility, 12 Years A Slave shows the reality of how violence brutalises everyone involved. With school shootings so common, that’s the message we need to get out to today’s kids more than ever.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

Reinforcing The Unknown

“I’ve come to the conclusion that mythology is really a form of archaeological psychology. Mythology gives you a sense of what a people believes, what they fear.”

George Lucas

Propaganda is most effective when it enhances beliefs that already exist in a society or culture. That was the conclusion that marketing analysts came to after studying German propaganda from the 1930s and 1940s. The Nazis did a superb job of disseminating their obnoxious brand of hate. They did not create the anti-Semitism that culminated in the Holocaust. It already simmered covertly and sometimes overtly in Germany and the other countries that fell under German control. All they did was encourage it, make it legal and allow it to flourish. It was perhaps similar to the witchcraft hysteria that swept Europe in the Middle Ages and the belief that if “evil” scapegoats were exterminated, everything would return to an Eden-like Utopia. Precedents have proved important in making incidents happen throughout human history.

Even the Nazi symbol of the swastika means “hooked cross” in German. The symbol of the swastika had benignly existed in Neolithic times and in other cultures until Hitler twisted it into his genocidal logo. Even so, the Nazi swastika was surreptitiously piggybacking on the Christian iconography of the crucifix to sweeten a bitter pill and render it acceptable en masse.

“The story being told in ‘Star Wars’ is a classic one. Every few hundred years, the story is retold because we have a tendency to do the same things over and over again.”

George Lucas

Propaganda is the propagation of an idea. That goes for creativity too. George Lucas managed to collapse and rebrand many different mythological and historical archetypes, icons and structures into his Star Wars series. Take the Jedi knights for example. They were the protectors of the Old Republic. Just as King Arthur had his Knights of the Round Table, Roman Emperors had their Praetorian Guard and Hitler had his SS Liebstandarte personal bodyguard, the Jedi/Sith orders were riffs on structures that people were consciously or unconsciously aware of. Thus it leant an automatic credibility to Lucas’s ideas.

Ridley Scott did something similar with Alien. There were vague suggestions in the script as to what the creature looked like but nothing concrete. Screenwriter Dan O’Bannon gave Scott a 1978 book by conceptual artist H.R. Giger titled Necronomicon. Giger had an incredible and unique surreal style that came across as suffocating biomechanical erotica. When Scott saw one of the many creatures in Giger’s book, he knew he had found his monster.

hr_giger_alien_ii-copy

The creature collapsed many of our darkest sexual fears into one beast; its phallic head and tail, its erectile teeth and slavering mouth that recalled the vagina dentata (the folk myth of toothed female genitalia that goes back as far as Ancient Greece). So the creature was at once alien yet oddly familiar in ways that were not apparent at first.

It could be one reason why some sequels don’t work as they move too far away from what people already know and want. The best artists know how to give the public something similar in a new way.

© Stewart Stafford, 2015. All rights reserved.

Losing My Media Virginity: My First Newspaper Interview

Stewart Stafford, The Vorbing, The Vampire Creation Myth Begins, Horror

Thanks to Maurice Garvey at The Echo Newspaper.