9 Lessons and 8 Carols for Godless People: Quantity Is Not Always a Substitute for Quality

It’s like the rattle on a rattlesnake. If people have to tell you, “I’ve got a great sense of humour”, then they don’t. Ditto, “I’m firm but fair” really translates as, “I have unswervable confidence in my own opinions and inflict them on other people with no regard and in what seems to them as a completely arbitrary manner”. Robin Ince refers to 9 Lessons and 8 Carols for Godless People as his “folly”. It is always a bit worrying when people start off with an explanation that is intended to forestall and preclude any criticism of the quality of an event. Any such concerns were amply justified by the uneven quality of the acts.

Robin Ince was a good MC but it seemed as if his guest-list included everyone who had made the effort to turn up for an Open Mic Night – which must have attracted the friends of second-cousins of grand-parents’ next-door neighbours.

For a group of artists who had supposedly determined to treat us as a science-savvy, sophisticated audience, there were numerous factual errors in the sets and the usual amount of hilarious swearing and knob gags. The biggest disappointment was that alternative comedy has existed for 30 years or so yet has made remarkably little progress. (Seriously, there are people who still think that jokes about periods and tampons will have audiences rolling in the aisles, clutching their sides, choking out, “Stop, stop. You’re killing me”? Ditto, no, Mark Thomas. Making jokes about oral sex to his 8 year-old son doesn’t make your father the “rudest man in Britain”, it makes him sound like a father who had a very poor sense of age-appropriate boundaries.)

The little that I’d seen of Phil Jupitus, I’d liked. However, my opinion of him accompanied my heartsink after he shuffled on stage in an overcoat, flat cap and muffler and read us a couple of lists. Hearing Schott’s Miscellany would have been rather more entertaining. If any of the performers had been that strapped for material, they might have consulted previous Christmas issues of BMJ for seasonal myths or science.

I’ve always considered Ricky Gervais to be over-rated but suspended judgment on the assumption that he must be better when live – well, no, he wasn’t. Surprisingly, it was possible for my opinion of him to tank. And even the presence of his own claque of admirers who attempted to give him a standing ovation, just for walking on stage, was insufficient to change my mind. But then, that’s me – strangly humourless when the humour involves jokes about raping women with Alzheimer’s Disease or some father-son bonding over the wisdom of raping women who had previously been raped because neither would have any credibility in the legal system. Mix that in with his ribtickler about a little girl being accosted by someone more sinister than a flasher in a park, and being encouraged by her dad to make up a story about an assault and you pretty much had something to meet the needs of everyone in the family. (NB, Po-Mo doesn’t always work and Gervais is no adept at faux political incorrectness.)

Jack of Kent and Crispian Jago have mentioned some of the acts that I did enjoy (and we disagree about some of those but audience homogeneity isn’t desirable). I can only second that Tim Minchin was outstanding and well worth going to see on the basis of his performance of Storm. He takes the part of a dinner-party guest who cracks under the pressure of being engulfed in a tide of credulity by an over-opinionated, under-educated, tanned and tattooed young lovely, who rejoices in the belisha-warning-flashing name of Storm. He responds to the upwards-inflecting, cataracts of woo from his fellow guest who gushes the wonders of homeopathy and is awed by the fact that science can’t explain everything so reasons that even the implausible must be true if one is only willing to ‘keep an open mind’. You will get a flavour of it from: If you open your mind too much…. Storm is a classic that should be made available on DVD just so that you can pop it in and let it respond for you at the next available opportunity. Among many fine lines, Minchin’s most memorable delivery was when he was arguing that we don’t need the supernatural to have a sense of wonder: “Isn’t this enough, this beautiful, complex, unfathomable, natural world?”

Aside from Minchin, the scientists provided the best turns of the evening albeit Simon Singh’s affectation that we might have confused his Big Bang book with a sex manual of the same name that was released at the same time was less comedic than he might have hoped. Singh’s account of his interaction with Mike Batts and Katie Melua when he criticised some lyrics of theirs was enlivened when he played the scientifically-accurate version of 9 Million Bicycles that Melua had sportingly recorded for him.

Richard Dawkins read his essay on Gerin Oil and extracts from Unweaving the Rainbow: for my taste, the first was rather heavy-handed although the latter was successful. Gerin Oil was disturbed by Dawkin’s intervention to enquire whether we had cracked the anagram yet after he had already spelled it out for us (it seems unlikely that anyone who would have attended that sort of event wouldn’t already be familiar with the essay).

Ben Goldacre’s lesson on the classic counter-example of Matthias Rath and the actual harm that CAM can do, in response to the usual, “Oh, so’s there’s no evidence. But what harm can it do” was a classic angry rant. (For anyone who wants further study for social arguments, Skepdic briskly rebuts Where’s the harm? and Skeptico examines the argument: What’s The Harm?.) Chris Addison did well to pick up the mood after Goldacre’s set and was an excellent lead-in to Minchin.

Book-ending the event with Carl Sagan was a good decision.

Despite Robin Ince’s thematic guidance to his artists, there wasn’t enough science in the whole event nor enough seasonality. For people who are not sympathetic to the idea that there should be a communal celebration for godless people, there was little to disabuse them of the notion that secular people and scientists are nit-picking, foul-mouthed, joyless, child-loathing, smug, self-loving contrarians. Despite the Sagan, the audience did not have an uplifting take-away message. Maybe it would have felt presumptuous to suggest one but it did feel as if something important were missing.

On balance, the whole needed some ruthless pruning – it might have seemed that 3.5 hours for £20 would seem like extraordinary value, no matter how poor some of the acts, but it just meant that there were some horrendously long downtimes. Despite the fact that we had seen both Jupitus and Gervais, I deeply regretted the absence of Dara O’Briain – one of the few stand-up comedians who never disappoints when live.

It’s good that it happened and parts of it were very fine and I hope that it is the beginning of a high-quality tradition.

Update: 27 December, Tim Minchin’s Storm

Update: 29 Jan – Tim Minchin has gallantly bowed to piracy and uploaded his own version of Storm as performed at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in December. The musical accompaniment is excellent. We are leaving up the pirate version because the captions might be useful to some people. ETA: For those who need them, Podblack has the lyrics to Storm.

A scholar and a gentleman. Anyone who wants to see Tim Minchin perform should consult his Tour Dates and Gigs page to see if there is one scheduled near to you.



Filed under Ben Goldacre

21 responses to “9 Lessons and 8 Carols for Godless People: Quantity Is Not Always a Substitute for Quality

  1. Nice review of a great evening. Both this review and Jack of Kent’s review identify variation in quality and excess quantity that could be improved by a little pruning. However, I thoroughly enjoyed the whole show and will stick with my more sycophantic summary. I’m sure we agree on much, but it would be scary if we completely agreed on everything.

    Yes, Dawkins read something that I’m sure many of us were familiar with. But I still enjoyed hearing it from the horse’s mouth, and can we really expect unique wisdom at each of his numerous public appearances.

    Yes, Many of the big name comics did not have routines as strong as the likes of Tim Minchin and many of the scientists. But nonetheless, I never found myself looking at my watch, wishing for the next act.

    Most importantly though, I think there are two things that everyone seems to be in agreement with.
    1. Tim Minchin’s beat poem “Storm” was truly masterfully conceived, written and delivered.
    2. We all want this to be the start of an annual event.

    One piece of your criticism however that I would like the organisers to take on board, is that it could indeed have been a bit more festive. Even a grumpy old atheist like me doesn’t actually object to singing Christian Carols at this time of the year. I’m perfectly capable of singing things I don’t agree with if it gets me in the festive mood.

  2. Hi Crispian,

    I had no objections to Dawkins performing a piece with which most of the audience were probably familiar. I enjoyed Dawkin’s reading of Gerin Oil but felt that he unnecessarily fractured the flow of his performance by his clunky enquiries as to whether or not we had cracked the anagram that he had already spelt out for us. If it really hadn’t worked the previous evening and it bothered him then a PowerPoint slide might have been a more elegant solution.

    I wouldn’t have been too put out if some of the more dire sets had been pruned or if the artists involved had been subjected to compulsory cheer by some Christmas Elves or other implausibilities. Oddly, even Harlan Ellison’s classic anti-Christmas rant would have been more seasonal.

    If the organisers had really wanted to avoid carols then Spaff has some excellent parodies or seasonal alternatives that would have provided a good sing-a-long with a bouncing ball video of the lyrics.

    A community sing-along might have been heartening and sent more people away with a warm glow. I felt the lack of an uplifting message quite strongly. I was very conscious of this on the way home because of an incident that it wouldn’t be fair to discuss but involved a very distressed person. After an evening like that, lacking a portable DVD player and a recording by Sagan, the comfort one could offer would be the rather bleak, somewhat existentialist, “Look you, the stars shine still” which really didn’t seem appropriate (although, that possibly says more about my personal resources than the content of the evening).

  3. Steve Jones

    I was at the Apollo last night and Dara O’Briain was on the bill (no Phil Jupitus, but I’ve never been a huge fan and this went some way to compensate for the £10 higher ticket price). Dara, along with Tim Minchin’s beat monologue, were the highlights for me, even if I’d seen most of the former’s stuff on the TV coverage of Live at the Apollo just a few days ago). Ricky Gervais’s annoyingly over-knowingly ambiguous ironic political incorrectness thing was, fortunately as brief as it was weak. Mark Thomas tends to have me come over all Ian Hislop.

    It was interesting seeing Richard Dawkins in person, although for me, he lacks a bit of charisma for a cheerleader for atheism.

    Ben Goldacre was exactly as I imagined him, impassioned and angry. His stuff on Aids reminded me of a very nice lady from the home counties who I came across on a holiday in Ethiopia. I had this encounter whilst exploring the ruined, mocked-up, European-style medieval castles jerry-built by Albanian kings in Gondar. She explained to me in a her charming way, that she was taking a few days off from educating the Ethiopians about homeopathy, and that she’d visited some Aids clinics and thought it was all dreadful.

    Simon Singh’s bit about the Big Bang and Katie Melua and the Womble king was quite fun, but no mention of his own legal wrangles for what I assume are obvious reasons.

    Most of the music was forgettable, although there was a duo who performed an nice little song about how a god and godlessness drove apart an otherwise perfect pairing. We did get Jarvis Cocker, complete with a Robert Powell biblical beard and a cover of Greg Lake’s “I Believe In Father Christmas”, chosen because of its mean spiritedness.

    Topping and tailing the evening with images and words from Carl Sagan is, I suppose, fine. However, for me if you want a figure that celebrates the nature of humans, the progress of rationalism and a melding of arts, science and history, then Jacob Bronowski is the man. I’m of an age where I recall his unmatched and disgracefully neglected “Ascent of Man” series. Perhaps Lisa Jardine could be invited to talk about here father if there is to be another of these events.

    In many ways a comforting evening, being among my fellow unbelievers, but of course making jokes about nutritionists, psychics, intelligent designers, homoeopathists and the like was a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. It was quite good fun, but not exactly a fulfilling meal.

    Nb. no relation to the genetecist of the same name…

  4. Oh hang on, I’ve worked it out. What you need to do is take all of the letters that appear in the phrase “Gerin Oil” and re-arrange them in a different order and you can make the word. “Religion”. It turns out he wasn’t talking about some oily drug after all but was having a go at Religion. Brilliant. He is an awfully clever chap though.

    By the way, did you attend Sunday nights performance at the Hammersmith Apollo, I was keen to hear how Dara went down?

    Merry Christmas

  5. I wen to last nights 33% more expensive but similarly patchy show and agree with much of your analysis although there had been some change of artists. We benefited from the presence of Dara O’Briain, who was as good as he ever is – I’ve been a fan since seeing him at the Fringe many years ago but there were certain sub-par big name acts who generate applause by entering the ro0m without having to be funny (like those awful Bruce Willis appearances in Friends) and some of the musical numbers were abysmal. Half as many acts with twice as long to perform would have suited it better. Also I felt there was a little too much laughing at the idiots (homeopaths, nutrionisits, et al) without enough recognition that we are all susceptible to such stupidity even though it might manifest in different ways. Like laughing at rape jokes.
    I did appreciate Ben Goldacre’s indignation and anger against Rath, more of that kind of stuff might have improved it, as well as more inspirational tales. Contrary to you I quite enjoyed Dawkins reading passages from his books, perhaps because he was more straightforward and less interactive than he appeared on your night, when he writes about his wonder at the natural world I find him quite moving and inspirational (although even Dawkins stoops to sex jokes).
    However, with a little redesign and perhaps more focus on the traditional Christmas message of hope and goodwill (worthy senttiments whether from the mouths of priests or secularists) it could be a long running success.

    If you are interested in a largely secular attempt to make Christmas music then I recommend Phil Spector’s ‘A Christmas Gift For You’ album which is the work of a genius at the height of his powers, long before he descended into madness and tragedy.

  6. The should be peace and goodwill….

  7. Gimpy, maybe Dawkins got it right 3rd time and was a lot more comfortable performing the reading but his enquiries about the anagram very much interrupted the flow for me.

    Crispian – I wasn’t at Hammersmith but a couple of other people were and there may be a separate review of that later.

    Eight lessons and carols for godless people gives a good account of some of the sets for anyone who wants a memory refresher.

    @(not that) Steve Jones. I envy Gimpy and you for seeing Dara O’Briain. I think that the song you have in mind is about Anna Curtain/Kirtin and was performed by Izzy Isy Suttie and Gavin Osborn.

    Agreed on Jacob Bronowski. Good piece on video and perhaps Lisa Jardine reading the discourse on knowledge in the final episode of Ascent of Man:

    Knowledge is not a loose-leaf notebook of facts. Above all, it is a responsibility for the integrity of what we are, primarily of what we are as ethical creatures. You cannot possibly maintain that informed integrity if you let other people run the world for you while you yourself continue to live out of a ragbag of morals that come from past beliefs. That is really crucial today. You can see it is pointless to advise people to learn differential equations, or to do a course in electronics or in computer programming. And yet, fifty years from now, if an understanding of man’s origins, his evolution, his history, his progress is not the commonplace of the schoolbooks, we shall not exist. The commonplace of the schoolbooks of tomorrow is the adventure of today, and that is what we are engaged in.
    And I am infinitely saddened to find myself suddenly surrounded in the west by a sense of terrible loss of nerve, a retreat from knowledge into — into what? Into Zen buddhism; into falsely profound questions about, Are we not really just animals at bottom; into extra-sensory perception and mystery. They do not lie along the line of what we are now able to know if we devote ourselves to it: an understanding of man himself. We are nature’s unique experiment to make the rational intelligence prove itself sounder than the reflex. Knowledge is our destiny. Self-knowledge, at last bringing together the experience of the arts and the explanations of science, waits ahead of us.

    ETA correct attribution of name in guitar duo.

  8. I agree that some of the performers were a bit iffy. The music, apart from Jarvis Cocker was quite similar and variations on a “man with a guitar so doesn’t need long to set up” theme. I also found Josie Long a bit dull and obvious-maybe she was thrown by the heckler who told her David Hume wasn’t an atheist?
    Pan’s Person might have worked better at the smaller shows but was hard to decipher from up in the circle.

    I was familiar with Dawkin’s passages but I still enjoyed hearing him read. He has such a soporific voice. Ben Goldcare got a good response when he told of Matthias Rath now owing him £500k in legal fees.(My wife liked his tank-top too!)

    Ricky Gervais did offend a few people but that’s obviously what he intends to do. His material was extreme but his logic on the best people to rape did seem without flaw. Dara O’Briain went down very well- Surely his Euler’s Formula (e^(i pi) = -1, moment would not have worked quite so well with his normal BBC audience.

    We had a great night. I would have preferred less music, more science and fewer of Robin’s comedian friends. It’s not very often one gets to see such a wide selection of people performing. It’s also not very often I feel at home in a crowd. So many nerds, so much semi-asperger’s behaviour, so many beards. I’m hoping that it becomes a regular event.

  9. This review amplifies my response (see Blog), and Crispian’s summary is spot on.

    This should be an annual event and Storm is an instant classic.

  10. Steve Jones

    Where on earth did Albanian come from? I meant Abyssinian…

    Oh yes – and the Bronowski clip is the one everybody remembers and his final words of the series would, of course, be highly appropriate.

  11. Dara O’Briain (amongst others) had a good shout-out for his performance in a Telegraph blog.

    Dara O’Briain is spot on when he slates journalists for treating science like politics, giving both “sides” of the “argument” equal weight (so a homeopath gets to compete on equal terms with a doctor talking about randomised control trials, or an Exxon spokesman is brought in to debate climate change with a member of the IPCC).

    One of O’Briain’s points goes straight to the heart of the evening. “People go on about Chinese medicine, because it’s been around for millennia”, he says. “But in the last century the life expectancy of the Chinese has gone up from 30 to 73. That’s nothing to do with tiger penises.”

    The Josie Long piece was odd. It is difficult to know how to style Hume as many people would assume that an empiricist and sceptic is, per force, an atheist. There are some (not well-documented) claims that he defended a charge of heresy against him by arguing that atheists are outside the Church’s remit. So, I’m not entirely sure that the heckler could be confident in his/her assertion (but maybe it was the author of one of the papers that argues that Hume wasn’t – so, who knows).

    On Friday Long told us that Samuel Johnson was a Catholic – I know that she had received a light reprimand for that but this may be a misunderstanding over nomenclature. The UK is unusual in distinguishing Roman Catholics as such – there are some people who refer to High Church Anglicans as Catholics.

    Similarly, the criticism that it was more likely to have been Johnson’s friend, James Boswell, who visited Hume on his deathbed rather than Adam Smith as she claimed. She did preface the piece by saying something to the effect that it was an anecdote, and such a good one that she didn’t care to enquire into the validation of the details for fear that they weren’t true (or words to that effect).

    None of which addresses the issue of whether or not it was worth including in the programme – my feeling is that it was not.

    Overall – as Friday was being video-taped, I feel that they could edit it down to a nicely tight 1 hour show.

  12. Boswell’s account of his encounter with Hume on his deathbed is well worth reading in the original:


  13. Sure – Long’s piece wasn’t good, it is more likely than not to be wrong, but we have the habit here at HolfordWatch of trying to extend the belief that somebody does actually know more than their writings/public speaking might indicate.

    In this case, I’m trying, without much conviction to say that it is possible that:
    i) the heckler was either very well-informed in saying that Hume was not an atheist (being a scholar of the topic) or mistaken but it is an area of some controversy (no guarantee that Long is aware of this and the controversy may be contrived). It’s also possible the heckler was just heckling.
    ii) Long was using the term Catholic in a way that would tend only to be recognised by some people as distinct from Roman Catholic and eschewing the more familiar (High) Anglican.
    iii) despite the account of James Boswell on his visit to Hume near his death, it is possible (although not markedly plausible) that Long might have heard an anecdote in which someone (other than she) had mistaken Adam Smith for Boswell. And, in her desire not to verify any of the story for fear it would fall apart, this mistake has been retained in her set despite the number of people who have told her otherwise.

    However, in my preferred final cut of the video, this will be irrelevant as this piece will not be included.

    Any suggestions for what should be included in the video cut? Everyone seems unanimous on Tim Minchin. I loathed it, but I suppose that Gervais will be included because he is Gervais, ditto Jupitus.

    Was there any recording at Sunday’s performance so that those of us who missed Dara O’Briain might have an opportunity to see him.

  14. Pingback: Dara Ó Briain: a dietitian is to a nutritionist as a dentist is to a toothiologist « Holford Watch: Patrick Holford, nutritionism and bad science

  15. I didn’t see any obvious video cameras and equipment. There were a lot of signs outside saying “No recording equipment, including mobile phone cameras allowed.” This gave me the impression that it was being recorded for later release.

    Hopefully any DVD will stick to the scientists and comedians and not the musicians! I think it is being released by Gofasterstripe who release Robin Ince’s DVDs. Nothing on the website yet, though.

    Dara O Briain got a good reception but his nutritionist/alternative medicine section was the same material he used on his last tour. So, if you saw him then you willprobably have heard it already.

  16. Ah, OK. And yes, a DVD that contains just the scientists and some of the comedians would be a lot more enjoyable.

    In that case, I have seen the Dara O’Briain material.

    I see that Susan Blackmore is pondering the issue of whether humanists should sing carols.

    But I still love singing carols. Some are fairly harmless (The Holly and the Ivy perhaps?); some incomprehensible (“Veiled in flesh the Godhead see”, “That which his mother Mary, did nothing take in scorn”) but can I honestly bear to open my mouth and sing “I love thee Lord Jesus”, or…ask him to “Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today”? I don’t want someone else to be born in me today.

    Yet many of these words are beautiful; they bring tears to my eyes; they make me want to be better, to reach out to others, to share in something special and rare.

  17. I feared as much. Perhaps that’s why I was slow off the mark and didn’t get tickets.

    It sounds like a good try, but perhaps next year there’d be a market for a grown up version.

    Humour is the way to deal with it, but there must be someone who can be a bit more sophisticated than what you describe here. And how about some real music (but with godless words for the occasion),

  18. Pingback: Tim Minchin’s Storm « Holford Watch: Patrick Holford, nutritionism and bad science

  19. Pingback: Tim Minchin’s Storm from 9 Lessons and Carols for Godless People « Holford Watch: Patrick Holford, nutritionism and bad science

  20. Svetlana

    Dear Holfordwatch!
    Happy New Year! :)
    Don’t be surprised ;) Today is Old New Year in Russia. It is old folk feast – New Year according old calendar.
    I wish you to knock out all nutritionists in new 2009 year!

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