Monday, January 07, 2019

Christel & Simon Talk Doctor Who

Here's an interview with me and Christel Dee about our book, Doctor Who - The Women Who Lived, conducted at Forbidden Planet in London. It includes glimpses of the book and of some of the brilliant artists. And if you look very carefully, you can spot out loitering boss.


Sunday, December 23, 2018

The Story of Rose Tyler

Here's another video entry from our book, Doctor Who - The Women Who Lived, this time telling the story of the Doctor's friend Rose Tyler. The new artwork is by Mogamoka, Cat Zhu, Tammy Taylor, Katy Shuttleworth, Natalie Smilie, Sophie Cowdry, Jo Be and Kate Holden.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Edward Lear - Egyptian Sketches, by Jenny Gaschke

Edward Lear - Egyptian Sketches
by Jenny Gaschke
Having finished the biography of Lear, I had another look at this collection published by the National Maritime Museum in 2009, collating sketches from two trips Lear made down the Nile in 1853-4 and 1866-7.

It's a beautiful book, full of beautiful images, presented in sequence according to Lear's own numbering system so we can follow him on his journeys.

As Gaschke tells us, Lear - like many of his contemporaries - was interested in the picturesque and historical, and ignored signs of modernisation such as the new steam-powered boats. Instead, there are lots of sailed boats sitting quietly on the water, serene and bewitching. (I'm glad to see sketches of the dahabeeh he travelled on - the same kind of vessel hired by Marianne Brocklehurst in the 1870s, about which I'm making a documentary.)

Nor does he  depict his travelling companions, and few of the pictures presented here show the famous monuments. Gaschke is good at underlining what makes his images different from those of others, such as the well known lithographs of David Roberts (1796-1864).
"While closely documenting architectural and natural detail, these (published) drawings were also highly appreciated at the time as aesthetic expressions of the sublime, beautiful and picturesque. Roberts laid emphasis on the exotic, the 'oriental' aspects of everyday life in Egypt, with warm lighting and adoption of dramatic viewpoints, for example from far below, to stylise the monumental remains of ancient temples." (p. 20). 
Lear's images, by contrast, often place ruins at a distance, in outline, even partly obscured by foreground "rox" or trees. Without the low viewpoint, they are smaller, part of wider, sand-swept landscape.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Mr Lear – A Life of Art and Nonsense, by Jenny Uglow

“Lear’s great poems and songs are not about his life – they float free. But their gaiety and sadness feel even keener when set against the tensions he saw, and suffered” (Uglow, p. 380).
This exhaustive account of the life of Edward Lear (1812-88) is a great delight. I’ve been a fan of Lear since seeing his sketches on the walls of the Benaki Museum in Athens in my earliest travels with the Dr. They’re beautiful, briskly drawn things, conjuring a view, a feeling, in just a few lines and annotated with detail for when he came to paint his (to my mind less interesting) full versions in oil. When the Dr and I married in 2004 we chose “The Owl and the Pussycat” as a reading.

The most famous of Lear’s nonsense poems, was – Uglow tells us – written on 18 December 1867, for a troubled young girl called Janet Symonds whose father seemed less interested in Janet’s mother than in publishing his Problems of Greek Ethics, in which he sought to show that,
“what the Greeks called paiderastia or boy-love, was a phenomenon of one of the most brilliant periods of human culture” (quoted in Uglow, p. 377).
Lear was also gay, Uglow tells us, shrewdly sifting the evidence when nothing could quite be admitted to. It was part of his reason for constant restlessness and travel; perhaps it informed the gender of the pussycat and owl. His 30-year relationship with his servant, Giorgio, is rather moving - and ends with quite twist.

Uglow tells Lear's story through impeccable research, from his early days at Knowsley illustrating exotic animals and birds to his last, quiet days in Villa Tennyson, the house he had built in San Remo. He is a funny, kind and rather sad man and its a pleasure to accompany him throughout the world - just as his friends enjoyed his company. Despite my better judgment, I laughed at many of his old jokes, such as this one included in at letter to his friend Chichester Fortescue on 16 August 1863:
“What would Neptune say if they deprived him of the sea? I haven’t a n/otion.” (p. 265).
Lear wrote a lot - letters, diaries, even on his sketches. But where direct sources are missing Uglow quotes from others who were in the same place at around the same time, or whose comments can inform. In fact, the book is full of other people. I was drawn to Lear's friendship with Frances Waldegrave (1821-79), the "dazzling hostess" of Strawberry Hill whose various husbands Uglow dashes through on page 229, adding,
"Trollope allegedly used her as the model for Madame Max Goesler in his Palliser novels."
We learn to love her as Lear did, and her death - in a book where everyone is long dead - comes as a terrible shock.

Another extraordinary character is Charlotte Cushman (1816-76), a stage actress and contralto living in Rome "with her current lover, the sculptor Harriet 'Harry' Hosmer". Lear attended an evening she hosted on 28 January 1859, and Uglow quotes a letter from another attendee, US sculptor William Wetmore Story, to reconjure the "harem" and these "emancipated ladies":
“The Cushman sings savage ballads in a hoarsey, many voice, and requests people recitatively to forget her not. I’m sure I shall not.” (in Uglow, p. 276.)
If Lear's diary doesn't provide insight on that particular night, Uglow quotes his entry of 9 May the same year:
"Lear was astounded when the Prince of Wales commissioned one of her sculptures: ‘& one from Hosmer!!!!!!!!!!!!’” 
For all the exclamation marks, Lear returned to Cushman's for dinner in March 1860, where,
“the other guests were her new partner the sculptor Emma Stebbins, the diplomat Odo Russell … the archaeologist Charles Newton [the subject of the Dr's PhD]… and Robert Browning" (p. 281).
Or there's Gussie - Augusta Bethell Parker - the young, sweet girl who Lear kept thinking he'd marry and then thinking he would not. She might be the passive victim of his indecision and insecurities, had we not been told the first time we met her (on page 343) that Gussie was also author of Maud Latimer (1863), a novel about a naughty, adventurous heroine that suggests a more thrilling inner life.

There is plenty of name-dropping, not all of it because Lear was himself famous. On page 105, Uglow tells us that the young Lear had lodgings at 36 Great Malborough Street in London at the same time as Charles Darwin, who'd just completed his trip on the Beagle, and asks, "did they pass on the stairs?" But nor is it all celebrity encounters. Uglow notes, in brackets, a fun detail about protestant tourists attending mass at the Vatican.
"a few years later English ladies gained a reputation for whispering and eating biscuits, and the Vatican sent round a notice asking for decorum in Holy Week" (p. 114).
She is brilliant at following a thread. In noting, on page 253, Lear's horror at bigotry, she guides us through the religious debates of the day - in response only partly to Darwin. David Friedrich Strauss’s three volume The Life of Jesus, first published in the mid-1830s, set aside the supernatural to see Jesus as a historical figure, while Ludwig Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity (1841) stressed sympathy and love over vengeful justice. Both were translated into English by Mary Ann Evans (later George Elliot) - in 1846 and 1854 respectively.

She returns to this thread sometime later, in chapter 25 - titled "'Overconstrained to Folly': Nonsense, 1861". I wasn’t sure about Uglow’s earlier close reading of the first edition of Lear's book of nonsense, for all it helps explain the enduring appeal.
“The rhymes, ‘Hairy! Beary! Taky cary!’ or ‘mousey, bousey, sousey’, were the kind of nonsense words that parents speak to babies, often the first words they hear, and all the more alluring – and important – for that reason” (p. 264).
But when she returns to this close analysis for the second, revised edition of his book, the differences suggest Lear's changing character and mindset. It is brilliantly done. Then she moves straight into religion, and Darwin and the more pertinent Essays and Reviews, which caused a furore by seeing Jesus historically and doubting the truth of the miracles. It seemed a bit crass to link this to Lear's nonsense - but that's exactly what Lear does himself, addressing the debates in a letter to Lady Waldegrave on 15 March 1863:
"I begin to be vastly weary of hearing people talk nonsense, - unanswered – not because they are unanswerable but because they talk from pulpits” (p. 309). 
Who better than Lear to spot nonsense?

That's what so brilliant about this book: it doesn't bridge the nonsense books with Lear's career as a painter; there is no separation between these parts of him. Insecurties - his sexuality, his epilepsy - fed his travels and his nonsense; his travel informed his nonsense; especially in his later life, his travels were aided by the fame of and delight in his nonsense.

Friday, December 14, 2018

The Story of Susan Foreman

That splendid lot at BBC Studios have produced this lovely video telling the story of Doctor Who's granddaughter, Susan Foreman.

The text is by me and Christel Dee, from our book The Women Who Lived, but there are all new illustrations by Lara Pickle, Dani Jones, Caz Zhu, Mogamoka, Rachael Smith, Kate Holden, Sonia Leong and Gwen Burns. Hooray!

Monday, December 10, 2018

Concrete Elephant

A few weeks ago, I was being old and nostalgic about the days of Doctor Who fanzines, especially the ones handed round in the pub I used to frequent. In May 1999, I produced my own - the first issue of a stupid thing called Concrete Elephant. Last week, it raised once again its pachydermatous head...






Written by me
Cover and design by @nimbos
Contributors: Lord of Chaos, @Mogamoka2 and @SophIlesTweets

Sunday, December 02, 2018

Transcription, by Kate Atkinson

This is brilliant. In 1950, Juliet Armstrong is a BBC radio producer working in Schools (the department always has a capital S). But ten years before, she worked for the government, transcribing recordings of a group of Nazi sympathisers - as well as doing some more active spy work. We cut back and forth between the two roles as a dark secret from her past threatens to return and engulf her...

As a radio producer who still does a lot of transcribing myself, it all felt brilliantly authentic - for all Atkinson says in her afterword that she made so much of it up. In all the best ways, it has the feel of le Carre - with the language of moles and dead-letter drops. Juliet is just one of many in the book to move from MI5 to the BBC without quite leaving the former.
"There was a subtle - and perhaps not so subtle - emphasis in Schools on citizenship. Juliet wondered if it was to counter the instinct towards Communism." (p. 178)
But the spy plot and moral uncertainties are just part of the appeal. The detail of ordinary life is all perfectly conveyed and compelling. When one of Juliet's broadcast programmes includes an actor clearly saying "fuck", it has just as much drama - and awful consequence - as any of the war stuff. 

It's a wrily funny read, one constant theme Juliet's frustrated sex life. Her perspective full of pithy observations as she moves through the large cast of vividly drawn characters, many burdened with tragedy but doing their best to get on.
"How little it takes to make some people happy, Juliet thought. And how much it takes for others." (p. 231)
Amid all this activity, this life, are some deftly placed clues to what's really going on - such as one character's caual thieving - which I didn't think to put together spot until very late. It's especially clever because often we're ahead of Juliet, spotting one character's sexuality before she has to have it explained. Only in the last section do we realise what the book is actually about. In fact, the one jarring moment is when Atkinson acknowledges that with a wink at the reader:
"Come now, quite enough exposition and explanation. We're not approaching the end of a novel, Miss Armstrong." (p. 315 - 14 pages from the end)
The final revelation only makes me want to read the whole thing again straight away. It's so deceptively simple, such a pleasure to knock through, so rewarding at the end. A joy.