Sunday, July 03, 2022

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

"In all his time in camps and prisons, Ivan Denisovich had lost the habit of concerning himself about the next day, or the next year, or about feeding his family. The authorities did all his thinking for him, and, somehow, it was easier like that." (p. 40)

This extraordinary book, detailing the waking hours on a bitterly cold day in a Russian work camp sometime in the early 1950s, is based on the real-life experience of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who was released from such labour in 1957. 

First published in the USSR in 1962, my 1970 translation by Gillon Aitken is at least the third version in English. I can see why this book so haunted a generation. It seems to have influenced subsequent memoirs - of Soviet gulags, of the concentration camps in the war, of systems of oppression more generally.

In the USSR, the book and its implicit criticism of the regime overseen by Stalin was initially welcomed - perhaps emblematic of the new, more liberated era of Khrushchev. When Khrushchev was himself stripped of power in 1964, Solzhenitsyn fell out of favour. His books weren't exactly banned in the USSR, but life was made increasingly difficult. 

When, in 1969, Solzhenitsyn was chucked out of the Union of Writers in Russia, various bodies around the world staged protests of one kind or another. Most notably, the author was awarded the 1970 Nobel Prize for Literature. In July 1969, the Writers' Guild of Great Britain sent two delegates to the International Writers Guild conference being held in Moscow with the specific brief of making some protest about the treatment of Solzhenitsyn. One of those delegates was David Whitaker, and I've been reading his accounts of what happened there - and the fall-out from it. More of that anon.

The book is full of extraordinary moments: the men discussing the merits and techniques of Eisenstein's cinema as they get on with their weary toil in the snow; the man who is in prison because of the heinous crime of having received a note of gratitude from an English admiral after service in the war; the way a prisoner receiving a parcel of food from their family finds themselves in debt to everyone else...

In observing these details within the drudgery, Solzhenitsyn shows us the mechanics of the operation, the way the oppression works. The infighting of prisoners compels them to work, to play an active role in the system imprisoning them.

 "Who is the prisoner's worst enemy? Another prisoner. If only the prisoners didn't fight with each other, then..." (p. 114)

And while it's about the system, it's also about how an individual might survive in such conditions. Ivan Denisovich Shukhov hordes a crust of bread, does favours to earn himself an extra bit of thin soup, and squirrels away a broken bit of hacksaw blade with which he can later fashion a knife that will be useful for mending clothes. Only then the prisoners get searched and this small theft risks putting him,

"in the cells on 300 grams of bread a day and hot food once every three days. He imagined at that moment how enfeebled and hungry he would become and how difficult it would be to recover his present condition of being neither starved nor properly fed." (p. 117)

All that effort to keep going could be undone in an instant. And we're left with the horrible fact that this is just one day in 3,653 of Shukov's 10-year sentence. The last line of the book adds one further systematic cruelty.

"The three extra days were because of the leap years..." (p. 157)

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Curse of the Chosen, by Alexis Deacon

A little over four years ago, I posted about A Game Without Rules, the second volume in the Geis trilogy of graphic novels written and illustrated by Alexis Deacon. I said then that I eagerly awaited the third and final volume - but didn't anticipate having to wait quite so long.

Since then, the first two instalments of Geis have been issued in a single tome, now called Curse of the Chosen. And now, at last, comes what's called Curse of the Chosen Volume II: The Will That Shapes the World but I think of as Geis III. It's a slightly smaller size than Geis and in paperback, but the moment I opened the cover I was back in that extraordinary, strange world as if I'd never been away.

As before, we're in a weird fantasy castle where a deadly contest is taking place. Originally, 50 competitors vied with one another to become the new head of state, but that's been whittled down to a handful - and one of them is, we now realise, not at all what she seems. There's something here of Squid Game, only with magic and talking animals, perhaps mixed up with the Earthsea of Ursula le Guin. Plus the artwork is beautiful, even as the horror mounts. More than once I gasped.

One of the things that makes this story so effective, I think, is how much the odds are stacked against the kindly, heroic characters - a young girl, a small man and a cat. That strikes a chord with something TV mogul Sydney Newman says in his memoirs, having watched different audiences in front of the same movies.

“A revelation to me was discovering how to get a sure response from an audience: compassion.” (p. 99)

 That's what this: extraordinary, imaginative and compassionate fantasy.

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Head of Drama, by Sydney Newman (with Graeme Burk)

Written in 1987 and published in 2017, this memoir is subtitled "The life and times of the creator of Doctor Who" - a claim Newman was, at the time he wrote the book, battling the BBC to acknowledge. My mate Graeme Burk, who edited the book and wrote the accompanying essay, explains why this credit meant so much to him then, when so much of his extraordinary work for television had been rather forgotten. 

Burk had access to the Newman archive, and I'm beside myself with envy at some of the material he's had at his fingertips. The Ur-text of all Doctor Who archaeology is the 1972 book The Making of Doctor Who by Malcolm Hulke and Terrance Dicks. According to Burk, Hulke wrote to Newman on 6 August 1971 asking him for memories of how the programme came about. On 28 September, Newman replied:

“I don't think I'm immodest in saying that it was entirely my concept, although inevitably many changes were brought about by Verity Lambert, who was its first producer. She would be the very best source of information, better than say, David Whitaker or even Donald Wilson.” (pp. 448-449)

However, by the time Newman sent this, Hulke had spoken to Donald Wilson (on 8 September) who told him what's generally considered the fact: that Doctor Who was created by Newman and Wilson.

“It was just Sydney and I together, chatting. At an early stage we discussed it with other people, but in fact the title, as I remember, I invented…” (p. 450)

Burk digs into this, citing some counterclaims, analysing the surviving paperwork from those early days and addressing the issue that some key papers appear to be missing from the archive. I've some more to add to this in my forthcoming book on story editor David Whitaker.

Anyway, Doctor Who is just one of the many, many shows Newman worked on. Head of Drama conveys the extraordinary range and impact of his work, from documentary films to opera and everything in between. There's what he learned from double-checking ticket sales in a cinema and watching the reactions of different audiences to the same film, and what working in newsreel and sport taught him about staging drama. He delights in telling us when he got something wrong - he was against employing chat-show host Ed Sullivan, tried to cancel the Daleks and resisted Donald Wilson in commissioning The Forsyte Saga

But time and again, Newman's instincts for what would be popular and connect with a broad audience were dead right. Just one example of his many, many insights here:

“I laid down some simple notions [while at ABC]. Some people become physically ill when they see blood, and only a fool wants an audience to puke. Ergo, show blood with care. Some in the audience are daffy with hate, so don’t show them how to make a bomb. Viewers will identify with the innocent character, so being bound and helpless and tortured becomes powerfully disturbing, and that kind of reaction is a turn off. And finally, avoid common, easily available weapons such as a kitchen knife, so as not to provoke a viewer who may be feeling momentary murderous rage to act upon it in the moment.” (p. 304)

Newman gives full credit to the many writers and producers and talented people he worked with, but he's an amazing, funny and honest storyteller. There are some amazing stories here. Just before the Second World War, he was offered a job with Disney but had to head to back to Canada to sort out a visa. On the way, a fellow passenger seems to have reported him - as being an illegal immigrant from Mexico! The result was jail and some very hairy moments, but Newman tells it all with compassion and a wry smile, tying it all into a broader theme of having always been an outsider, an exile. And then he concludes that without this sorry business and the problems of a visa, had he been able to take that Disney job, he'd have ended up drafted into the US army and killed at Iwo Jima.

He shrugs that all off and is then onto the next drama.

Monday, June 27, 2022

Still Life, by Sarah Winman

Ulysses Temper is a British soldier in Italy during the Second World War. There he befriends art historian Evelyn Skinner, and helps her rescue paintings from the conflict. We follow Ulysses home to austere, post-war London, to discover that his wife Peg has had a baby with someone else and now wants to divorce him. Ulysses bonds with his ex-wife's daughter in a way Peg never has, and when he returns to Italy the girl goes with him. Around them flit and linger other lives, a cast of misfits variously longing and grieving and muddling things out. Along the way there are musings on fate and art and love, and a sense of the muddle slowly being worked out...

I loved this strange, big-hearted ramble of a book, its vivid characters, its love of life and the echoing horror of loss. The death of one kindly character late on hits extremely hard. How fitting, too, to fall into a novel all about passion for the art of Urbino and Florence as I drove to the memorial for my old A-level Art History teacher, who on Friday afternoons more than 30 years ago shared his joy at Giotto, Uccello and Massaccio.

Friday, June 24, 2022

On the Sixth Doctor Who

I've been enjoying the new Blu-ray release of the 1985 series of Doctor Who, adventures that made such an impression on me as kid. And that's prompted me to look out the introduction I wrote for The Court Jester, the now out-of-print book version of the blog in which Sue and Neil Perryman watched all the Sixth Doctor's episodes...

Foreword by Simon Guerrier

Thursday, 15 March 1984

My first thought is “good.” Janet Ellis on Blue Peter has just introduced Colin Baker as the new Doctor Who. My family don't buy newspapers and no one's said anything at school, so I'm pretty sure this is the first time I learn that Peter Davison is leaving. I've still not forgiven him for replacing Tom Baker.


Friday, 16 March 1984

The poisonous bat poo the Doctor touched three weeks ago finally kills him. My elder brother and sister join me and my younger brother to watch part four of The Caves of Androzani. I think it's the first time they – now serious, grown-up teenagers – have watched since The Five Doctors. They tell us, as always, that Doctor Who used to be much scarier than this sorry nonsense. I'm certain they're right and can't wait for this story to finish so we can get on to the new Doctor as he's sure to make everything better. I mean, a boy at school insists Colin is Tom Baker's brother.


Thursday. 22 March 1984

The Sixth Doctor era proper begins with part one of The Twin Dilemma. It's a very intelligent story – it must be, as I'm not always sure what's happening or what the Doctor is talking about. It's not exactly a scary story, but the Doctor attacking poor Peri and then later hiding behind her for safety means we're not sure what to make of him. “Look how clever they're being,” I'd tell my siblings if they asked my opinion. But they don't.


Saturday, 5 January 1985

A boring shopping trip to Southampton turns out to be a brilliant trick by my parents, and me and my younger brother are really off to see the stars of Doctor Who in the pantomime Cinderella. Colin Baker runs on to the stage pushing a shopping trolley with a Doctor Who number plate on it, to the most deafening cheer from the audience. People really love his Doctor! My parents' ingenious plan is to see the matinee performance so that we can be home in time for the first episode of the new series of Doctor Who on TV. But we get caught in traffic because of a football match, so I miss Part One of Attack of the Cybermen. There is much weeping.


Saturday, 12 January 1985

I sit entirely baffled by what's happening in Part Two of Attack of the Cybermen, certain it would all make sense if only I'd seen part one. (I don't get to see part one until 1993, and am still not entirely sure what's happening.)


Saturday, 26 January 1985

Part Two of Vengeance on Varos gives me nightmares. I'm really creeped out by the monstrous Sil and the story is full of horrid details, but what really gets me is when the Doctor rescues Peri from being turned into a bird. She looks human but the Doctor has to keep repeating her name to re-imprint her identity. The thought I can't shake is that she might be permanently changed, a monster on the inside...


Saturday, 16 February 1985

ITV shows The A-Team at the same time as Doctor Who. After some discussion with my brother and a friend who doesn't have a telly so is often round to watch ours, we agree to video part one of The Two Doctors and watch The A-Team live. I distinctly remember the logic involved: Doctor Who is the one we'll want to watch more than once. It's not as slick, the fights aren't as good, and it's not so loved by our schoolmates but there's more to each episode. Good thinking, eight year-old me.


Saturday, 9 March 1985

I completely love Part One of Timelash. At school the next week, I insist to a friend that of course bumbling Herbert will be the new companion.


Saturday, 23 March 1985

The scariest moment ever seen in Doctor Who – at least, I think so now. Natasha finds her father, who's being turned into a Dalek and begs her to shoot him. The writing, performance, effects and music are all perfectly horrible. These days, I show a clip of this in talks I give on Doctor Who – just to see the audience squirm. After one talk, the parents of a keen young fan make a point of apologising to me for having told their daughter that Doctor Who wasn't very good in the 1980s.


Saturday, 30 March 1985

We're still watching The A-Team live and videoing Doctor Who, each week recording over the previous episode on the one tape we're allowed to use. Part Two of Revelation of the Daleks is the final episode of this year's series so doesn't get taped over the following week. My younger brother's interest in Doctor Who is waning but my three year-old brother Tom watches that tape again and again for weeks. A moment in that episode haunts me each time I see it, even now. As the Doctor runs down a corridor on his way to battle the Daleks, he thinks he hears Peri being exterminated. There's a moment of horror, of pain, on his face, and then he rallies himself and runs on. No words, just how Colin Baker plays it, so perfectly the Doctor.


Sometime in April 1985

It's all my pocket money, but I spend the vast sum of £1 on the 100th issue of The Doctor Who Magazine. It's a massive disappointment, lacking the weird wonder and excitement the TV series kindles in me. Instead, the magazine is full of lengthy, dense articles about the minutiae of the programme's past. I cannot fathom why anyone would find this of interest. I don't buy DWM again for five years.


Summer 1985, Winter 1985, Spring 1986

Then there's a gap. It came as a complete surprise to me, many years later, to learn that Doctor Who had been on hiatus for 18 months, that there'd been criticism of the violence in the programme, that it was even discussed on the news. At the time, I don't spare the absence a thought – of course Doctor Who will be on again at some point. I don't know there's been a new Doctor Who story, Slipback, on the radio until its released on cassette years later. But I've begun producing my own Doctor Who stories in which my brothers are horribly killed by various monsters.


Tuesday, 24 June 1986

I'm pretty sure I get the novelisation of Timelash for my 10th birthday. The TV version is my favourite of the Sixth Doctor's stories to date, and I read the book over and over. One big appeal is the references to the Third Doctor who, thanks to the Target books I've been picking up second hand and from the library, is my all-time favourite Doctor. But the story also really grabs me, and I spend the summer leaping over the garden sprinkler to be banished back in time.


Saturday, 6 September 1986

Doctor Who returns in a story called The Trial of a Time Lord. I'm especially pleased because we had a school trip to the “ancient” farm at Butser Hill used as a location. But otherwise the first four episodes seem to leave little impression. My memories of the Doctor Who I watched in the 1980s are usually vivid, but when I watch Part One of Trial again on video years later, I'm amazed to discover I can't recall any of what happens next. Perhaps Doctor Who wasn't affecting me as deeply as it once did – no longer the terrifying experience I couldn't bear to miss. Or perhaps these first episodes of the story were completely blotted out of my memory by the ones that followed.


Saturday, 4 October 1986

I am properly terrified by the return of Sil from last year's Vengeance on Varos. This section of the Doctor's trial is the last time Doctor Who ever really scares me. Part of the reason I've stuck with the series all these years on is the morbid hope it will scare me like that again.


Saturday, 1 November 1986

Bonnie Langford makes her d├ębut as Mel. My wife says this is when she made the decision to stop watching Doctor Who, which means she still doesn't know the outcome of the Doctor's trial. (Don't tell her.)


Saturday, 6 December 1986

The final episode of The Trial of a Time Lord – and of the year's Doctor Who


Saturday, 13 December 1986

I sit through hours of programmes on BBC One before the dismal truth sets in that one 14-episode story is all we're getting.


Thursday, 18 December 1986

Colin Baker, in his Doctor Who costume but not quite in character, appears as a team captain on the Tomorrow's World Christmas special. I take this as irrefutable evidence that he's busy filming the new series which must surely start on TV early in the new year. I can't wait!


Monday, 2 March 1987

Janet Ellis on Blue Peter has news about the next series of Doctor Who – and chats to her mate Sylvester McCoy who is going to be the new Doctor. I am flabbergasted. Sylvester McCoy is from children's programmes! 


Monday, 7 September 1987

The unceremonious end of the Sixth Doctor, who dies by falling over in the TARDIS before the opening titles of Time and the Rani Part One. I sharply recall my embarrassment at how silly the rest of the episode is, sure Doctor Who has lost its way. I've also just started secondary school, and realise that Doctor Who is no longer a programme to be fiercely discussed in the playground over the next week. I mention this to a friend who's gone to a different secondary school and he's astonished. “Are you still watching Doctor Who?”

But I am. It becomes a guilty pleasure. I know – because people keep telling me – that Doctor Who is not as good as it used to be. It was once something everybody watched but now I know hardly anyone who'll admit to having seen the latest episodes. 

Today, I know there were problems behind the scenes of the programme: disagreements between those making it, a lack of interest high up at the BBC, a dozen other things. I avidly read – and contribute to – articles in DWM poring over exactly what was to blame. But I also know it was as much to do with the age me and my friends were at the time, and the other pressures and interests affecting us. They simply outgrew this children's programme while I couldn't let it go.

The upshot is that the Sixth Doctor's era marks a fundamental change in my relationship to Doctor Who. Whatever anyone else thinks of this period of the show – and Neil and Sue are about to share their own strong opinions on it – it holds a special place in my heart.

Because at the start of Colin Baker's time as the Doctor, the programme was something I shared with pretty much everyone I knew. By the end, it was mine.

Simon Guerrier

24 April 2017

Thursday, June 23, 2022

Doctor Who Magazine #579

There's a lot going on in the world(s) of Doctor Who at the minute. Production is under way on next year's 60th anniversary episode(s?), with David Tennant and other stars spotted out filming. The 1985 series of Doctor Who has just been released on Blu-ray (including the extras me and brother Tom made for Vengeance on Varos). And the 10-part podcast drama Doctor Who Redacted has just finished its run. All these things are covered in the new issue of Doctor Who Magazine.

As well as all this, there's a new "Sufficient Data" infographic from me and Ben Morris, this time on the ages and ages of the actors playing Doctor Who.

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

CERN: Science Fiction and the Future of Detection and Imaging

I've had the most amazing few days in Geneva as a guest of Ideas Square at CERN. It's the first time I've been out of the UK in three years, and I was jangly with nerves for a good week before setting off; I'll be jangly with excitement about it all for some time to come.

During lockdown, my friend Dr Una McCormack roped me into some online sessions where sci-fi writers (hello!) were brought in to help / hinder the work being done by students from round the world in attempting to imagine the future impact of technology. This week, a bunch of us assembled in person, got a tour of the Large Hadron Collider and other CERN bits and bobs, and had lots of really interesting chat about, well, everything really. There was high-end physics, and high-end gossip, and high-end physics gossip.

I've returned home with pages and pages of notes in my notebook - bits of new ideas, lists of things to read or look into, random bits of detail. For example, one thing that boggled my brain was that work on constructing the CMS detector (one of a number of detection instruments located round the Large Hadron Collider) was delayed by the discovery of Roman ruins on site which then had to be painstakingly excavated. I'm taken by the Nigel Kneale-ish thought of ancient ghosts being picked up by the sensitive detectors...

Then there was the fact that when building this underground facility the team had to dig through a subterranean river. To do so, they dug down to the level of the river, then froze it and dug through the ice, constructing a concrete-lined shaft through the middle before letting the ice thaw. Ingenious!

And how extraordinary, how liberating, to discover that in visiting the CMS we had crossed the border into France without a moment's thought, let alone all that mucky business with passports. Coming home, there weren't enough ground crew to let us off the plane so we sat stewing for 45 minutes. There must be a better way of doing things, I thought. Which was exactly the sort of thing these few days have been about.

Here are a few pictures...

View of mountains from CERN hostel

Geneva tram, for my father-in-law

More mountains, plus v hot writer

Tour of the CMS facility;
photo of detector like a gothic rose window

Going underground

Warning signs to give one pause

The LHC creates a magnetic field;
look at its effect on these paperclips!

Doctor U and her plucky assistant

New hat / cool museum

Hot, hot evening, and yet snow on the mountains

Marie Curie clearly delighted to meet me

Very heavy lead,
so dense it would shatter to dust if dropped
Arty reconstruction of CMS, using mirrors
 (cf Maxtible in The Evil of the Daleks)

Old-skool, pretty wiring in old device

Where the web,
and so much of my life, began

Cool retro tech in a garden

More cool, retro tech

The Champions
(ie me, Una McCormack and Matthew De Abaitua)