Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Dickens and the dinosaurs

The online new issue of medical journal The Lancet Psychiatry (vol 5, iss 8, August 2018) features "Dickens and the dinosaurs", a review of  the exhibition Charles Dickens: Man of Science, running at the Dickens Museum in London until 11 November.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Doctor Who Figurine Collection

I've been working for a while on the partwork Doctor Who Figurine Collection, my job to write 1,200 words on the costumes of particular characters from the whole history of Doctor Who, as assigned to me by editor Neil Corry.

It's fun and fiddly, involving lots of research and the tracking down of people to interview, as always in the hope of unearthing new detail or insight. For my own record, here are the issues I've done. (I'll try and keep this list updated as we go...)

100 - The Master
Specifically, the significance of the Nehru suit worn by actor Roger Delgado for the Master's first appearance in the opening scenes of Terror of the Autons (1971).

113 - Robot SantasThe modified design from The Runaway Bride (2006), rather than the originals from The Christmas Invasion (2005).

114 - Ice Queen IraxxaFrom The Empress of Mars (2017), including interview with writer Mark Gatiss. I also spoke to Gary Russell and Lee Sullivan about the design of the female Ice Warrior, Shssur Luass, seen in the Doctor Who comic strip published in Radio Times in 1996.

115 - Auton
In blue overalls, from Spearhead in Space (1970).

117 - Omega
From Arc of Infinity (1983); I try to uncover why he looks nothing like he did in his previous story, The Three Doctors (1972-3).

118 - Spacesuit Zombie
From Oxygen (2017), including interview with actor Tim Dane Reid.

119 - Emojibot
From Smile (2017), including interview with writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce and SFX producer Kate Walshe.

120 - The First Doctor
From The Doctor Falls and Twice Upon a Time (2017), including interview with costume designer Hayley Nebauer.

121 - Truth MonkFrom Extremis, The Pyramid at the End of the World and The Lie of the Land (2017), including interviews with actor Tim Dane Reid, SFX producer Kate Walshe and costume designer Hayley Nebauer.

122 - Eliza
From Knock Knock (2017), including interview with sculptor Gary Pollard and SFX producer Kate Walshe.

125 - Silurian
From Warriors of the Deep (1984), including excerpts from correspondence from writer Johnny Byrne to fan Sarah Groenewegen in 1983.

126 - The Second Doctor
Specifically, the costume from his first story, The Power of the Daleks (1966).

127 - Winder
From The Beast Below (2010), examining an earlier version of the script.

132 - The Fourth Doctor
Specifically, June Hudson's redesign of the costume for The Leisure Hive (1980). I spoke to Hudson, and also to Ron Davies from Angel's Costumiers, who cut the coat.

Companion set 1 - Amy Pond and The Eleventh Doctor
Covering their costumes between The Eleventh Hour (2010) and The Angels Take Manhattan (2012).

Thursday, August 09, 2018

Journey up the Nile, the Egyptian Diary of Marianne Brocklehurst

Last week, I visited the West Park Museum in Macclesfield as research for my forthcoming Radio 3 documentary, “Victorian Queens of Ancient Egypt”, to be broadcast early next year.

The museum was the idea of Marianne Brocklehurst (1832-98), the well-off daughter of silk manufacturer, banker and Liberal MP John Brocklehurst (1788-1870), and I’m investigating Marianne’s own politics and why she, and the industrial north more generally, might have felt an affinity for the Pharaohs.

Marianne apparently made five trips to Egypt, and the museum has many of the artefacts she acquired along with her drawings and paintings. In 2017, the museum published “Journey Up the Nile”, a transcript of Marianne’s diary from her first trip. It’s a nice, hardback edition on glossy paper, including many illustrations and photographs, and an introduction by honorary curator Alan Hayward that helps set the scene. (The only thing lacking is a map, so I referred to the one in Alan’s 2013 pamphlet, “The Story of the Collection – How West Park Museum Got Its Ancient Egyptian Objects.”)

The diary begins on 11 November 1873, as Marianne sets off from Macclesfield with her travelling companion Mary Booth (1830-1912), Marianne’s young nephew Alfred and manservant George Lewis. The entries are mostly short, single paragraphs, the detail in the accompanying sketches. But there’s a sense of fun and adventure, Marianne seeming to relish the small hardships.

They pass through France and Italy, losing some of Alfred’s luggage along the way, recovering it, then losing track of time – presumably because of so much travelling by night - to arrive at Brindisi a day early for their boat across the Mediterranean. There are comic sketches of people falling over themselves during the very rough crossing, which leads to their boat ending up a hundred miles off course.

Although they reach Alexandria on 28 November, it’s another day before they’re cleared to land – 18 days after setting off from home. Stuck on board for that last evening, Marianne and Mary – the MBs, as they were known – meet other tourists, including novelist Amelia Edwards (1831-92), who will follow much of their course down and up the Nile on another, grander boat.

Edwards would later establish the Egyptian Exploration Fund (now Society) and provide a legacy for the first professorship of Egyptian Archaeology – awarded to Flinders Petrie – so she’s a significant figure in the discipline. This is from before all that, but she’s hardly a young girl. She’s a well-established professional writer, and in her early 40s – as are the two MBs.

In 2016, Historic England Grade II listed the grave Edwards shares with her long-term companion Ellen Drew Brayshaw, noting its importance in LGBT history. The MBs were also long-term companions who would be buried together. What can we read into that?

“We should not take a modern attitude to two women living together,” says Alan Hayward in his 2013 pamphlet, “for in those days, when a woman’s role was to raise a family and run the home, it was the only way for independently minded wealthy women to ‘do their own thing’.”

I scoured the diary looking for anything that might hint at something more. At no point does she tell us what their relationship is – but then she also doesn’t spell out her relationship to Alfred (her nephew) or George (her servant). The assumption is that her readers will know, because this diary was likely passed between friends and not intended for publication.

She is candid about certain things, describing at some length and with much excitement how she and Mary smuggled a mummy case out of the country, bribing officials along the way, and noting the very serious punishments those involved risked by helping her. Yet she is coy about exactly how much she paid – something less than a £100 but a “good round number in sovereigns” (p. 91).

So we’re left to interpret what is left unsaid. Can we read anything into the moment that Mary “smokes a pipe over the oil can” (p. 36) with the sailors, which seems rather unladylike, or the delight the MBs take in “paying our baksheesh like a man” (p. 69)?

Other details are more sure. The four-month trek down and up the Nile is a well-established journey, the river busy with other tourists, some of them friendly and respectable, others – such as Cooks’ excursionists and some American Christians – behaving badly, carving their names in the monuments and leaving their rubbish behind them. Some things have not changed in a century and a half - just like the MBs, the Dr and I struggled to find the carving of Cleopatra on the wall of the temple at Dandara.

In other ways it's another world. There's the pith helmets and formal wear of the tourists in the pictures. There’s the risk of crocodiles, and thieves, and Marianne’s compassionate response when a trusted sailor turns out to have stolen from them.
“Let us not be hard on his memory considering that, like the rest of the sailors, his pay was only thirty shillings a month for three or four months at the most and then nothing to do or to get until the next season began.” (pp. 86-7)
There is a great deal more, but I won’t share all my notes here as they’re for the documentary...

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

The World of Doctor Who

In shops now, The World of Doctor Who is the latest - and 50th - special edition of Doctor Who Magazine, and examines the past, present and future of fandom.

I've written three features:

'Calling all Doctor Who fans...' The Doctor Who Appreciation Society was launched in 1976. Paul Winter, the current Co-ordinator, explains how its role has changed over the years.

From humble beginnings in the early 70s, fan productions have grown increasingly sophisticated, nurturing careers and featuring numerous stars from television Doctor Who.
(I spoke to animator Lucy Crewe from Creative Cat FX, director Kevin Jon Davies, Den Valdron who wrote The Great Unauthorized Doctor Stories, producer Keith Barnfather, puppeteer Alisa Stern and the team behind Devious - Ashley Nealfuller, David Clarke, Stephen Cranford and Mark Jones.)

What began in a church in London in 1977 has now become a crucial part of many fans' social calendars. This is the essential guide to Doctor Who conventions.
(I spoke to Dexter O'Neill at Fantom, Oni Hartstein of (Re)Generation Who, and fans Prakash Bakrani, Jennifer and Ed Comstock, Yashoda Sampath, Jenny Shirt and Andrea @TARDISParrot.) 

Saturday, August 04, 2018

The Princess Diarist, by Carrie Fisher

The friend I borrowed this from got it for Christmas in 2016, and was 33 pages in when news arrived that Carrie Fisher had died. My friend had not been able to read any further.

Even while Fishe was alive, this would have been an uncomfortable read. It's based on diaries she kept in 1976 and subsequently forgot about, detailing her thoughts while filming the first Star Wars film in London, and having an affair with her married co-star, Harrison Ford. The "diaries" - they're more a series of thoughts and poems - make up the middle third of the book.

The first third sets the scene, detailing how she got to be in Star Wars, her background and expernece of show business, and her lack of self-esteem, and then how the affair began. She's withering, witty and honest, with a brilliant, sometimes filthy turn of phrase (describing Ford at one point as "the snake in my grass"). The effect is that she's addressing us, the reader directly, and challenging us to question her actions and motives.
"But though I do admittedly lay bear far more than the average bear, before disclosing anything that is possibly someone else's secret to tell, I make it a practice to first let that person know about my intention. (Aren't I ethical? I thought you'd think so.)"
Carrie Fisher, The Princess Diariest, p. 51.
That would seem to mean she consulted Ford prior to publication, though it's never stated as such and he's not mentioned in her acknowledgements.

The account of how she and Ford got together is funny, revealing much about them both, and she picks out details in retrospect that better explain how things happened. I'd read some of this before in a newspaper, and it's heartfelt, sweet and desperately sad, grief for a life and love long since past.

The last third is more about the love affair that followed the release of Star Wars, the affect her character had on the public. In a long chapter, she details the experience of being a guest at Comic Con, the doubts she has about this kind of "lap-dancing" for cash.
"It's certainly a higher form of prostitution: the exchange of a signature for money, as opposed to a dance or a grind. Instead of stripping off clothes, the celebrity removes the distance created by film or stage. Both traffic in intimacy."
Ibid., p. 211.
"I need you to know I'm not cynical about fans ... I'm moved by them," she assures us (p. 223), "For the most part they're kind and courteous" (p. 224). She's shrewd, too, about the appeal of Princess Leia, and why Star Wars can mean so much to people, which they want to share with her. Even so, it's daunting, exhausting, just to read about having so much significance projected on to you - not you, someone who looks like you used to.
"I wish I'd understood the kind of contract I signed by wearing something like that [metal bikini], insinuating I would and will always remain somewhere in the erotic ballpark appearance-wise, enabling fans to remain connected to their younger, yearning selves - longing to be with me without having to realize that we're both long past all of this in any urgent sense, and accepting it as a memory rather than an ongoing reality."
Ibid., pp. 228.
That's really struck me: the desperate futility of holding on to past love. The sadness of the book, and of the loss of Carrie Fisher, is a grieving for ourselves.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Illuminae, by Amie Kaufmann & Jay Kristoff

This brilliant novel had me hooked from its first pages - in which a school is attacked by a huge spaceship. In the heart of the maelstrom are Katy and Ezra, a couple of teenagers who just broke up. We follow their desperate efforts to survive...

From its thrilling opening, Illuminae builds and builds, with twist after shocking twist. The teenagers are smart and funny and brave, so we're totally with them every step, and share every agony they go through. And there's a lot of that - more than once I muttered, "No!" as I was reading. It's hard not to say more without spoiling the delights.

As well as the exceptional plotting and characterisation, it's an epistolary novel, made up from a stash of emails, analysis of CCTV and other recordings. That's done really well and sustained throughout - no mean achievement in itself - which adds to the intimacy and realism as we look over Katy and Ezra's shoulders.

There are two further books in the same series - Gemina and Obsidio - and the authors are working on a new series, beginning with Aurora Rising next year. They are all added to the reading pile. Illuminae is hugely recommended.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Doctor Who: The Women Who Lived

BBC Books have announced an exciting new volume, Doctor Who: The Women Who Lived, to be published in September.

Written by Christel Dee and me (as her plucky assistant), it features profiles of more than 75 women from the whole history of Doctor Who, including friends who've travelled in the TARDIS, recurring characters and some one-off people we particularly like... There's an extended entry on the new, Thirteenth Doctor, and details about her new friend, Yasmin.

The cover is by the amazing Lee Binding, and the illustrations inside are by a team of brilliant women: Jo Bee; Gwen Burns; Sophie Cowdrey; Lydia Futral; Kate Holden; Bev Johnson; Dani Jones; Sonia Leong; Cliodhna Lyons; Mogamoka; Valentina Mozzo; Naniiebim; Lara Pickle; Emma Price; Katy Shuttleworth; Natalie Smillie; Rachael Smith; Raine Szramski; Tammy Taylor; Emma Vieceli; Caz Zhu