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.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Foundation, by Isaac Asimov

A chum tweeted about Foundation this summer, prompting me finally to read it.

It's a short, breezy book covering events over a hundred years. In the first section, 'psychohistorian' Hari Seldon is arrested for predicting the future - and the inevitable ruin of the Empire of which he's a subject. We gloss over the exact process by which he comes by this prediction, or how it's shown to be chillingly accurate. But the authorities are convinced he's right - so place him under house arrest.

Obviously, there are parallels here to the fate of Galileo, but it also made me think of the Drake equation - a clever attempt to quantify the unquanitifiable, marshalling the known unknowns involved to best estimate the number of live, chatty alien civilisations in our galaxy. I wondered if the equation had influenced Asimov, but it turns out the equation was conjured a decade after the book.

In fact, Asimov is ahead of the game quite a lot. On page 8, there's an ingenious device that sounds almost contemporary: a ticket that glows when you're heading in the right direction. Then, as a result of Seldon's predictions, a project is established to gather the Empire's knowledge in the hope it will survive. Sections are book-ended by excerpts from the book this results in, the Encyclopedia Galactica - mocked in The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy in the 1970s, and a precursor of the internet.

It's influence on science-fiction is also evident. Back in my academic days last millennia, I wrote for the journal Foundation. I assume Han Solo being Corellian is a nod to the Korellians here, and Hardin in Doctor Who story The Leisure Hive a nod to the character in the book. Maybe the Doctor Who story Terminus owes a debt to this as well.

Then there are things that seem so much of an ancient past: the smoking of cigars (I initially read "a long cigar of Vegan tobacco" (p. 47) as meaning it was free of animal producrs), the news printed on paper, the merchant who offers tech-fashions to women but tech-weapons to men. A key element in the story is different groups' access and understanding of nuclear energy - "atomic power can be conquered only by more atomic power" (p. 164) - which feels very 1951,  when such energy was a pretty neat idea.

If we're not told how psychohistory actually works, Asimov at least places limits on the super-science to keep things dramatically interesting. Seldon predicts a series of crises, and those that follow him are left to guess how to meet such challenges without making the impending Dark Ages worse.
"I quite understand that psychohistory is a statistical science and cannot predict the future of a single man with any accuracy." (p. 21)
"Because even Seldon's advanced psychology was limited. It could not handle too many independent variables. He couldn't work with individuals over any length of time; any more than you could apply the kinetic theory of gases to single molecule. He worked with mobs, populations of whole planets, and only blind mobs who do not possess foreknowledge of the results of their own actions." (p. 97)
It's also all told in short, punchy chapters and sections - one chapter is barely three paragraphs long. We often jump forward years, and having to catch up on the monumental events we just skipped. There's an awesome scale and a sense of playing an active part in making sense of the bigger picture behind all these fragments.

Asimov occasionally makes sly comment on the politics presented:
"Korrell is that frequent phenomenon in history: the republic whose ruler has every attribute of the absolute monarch but the name. It therefore enjoyed the usual despotism unrestrained even by those two moderating influences in the legitimate monarchies: regal 'honour' and court etiquette." (p. 172)
But in large part the pleasure comes from smart, compassionate men (they're all men) who use that intelligence and compassion to avoid conflict and stick to Seldon's plan. It's an alluring idea, but I can't help feeling that it would be a more rewarding read if it didn't all go as predicted. It's a book that couldn't have been written after the Bay of Pigs or Watergate.

In fact, in 2002 David Langford spelled out a rather fine conjecture about Foundation influencing a real movement that has shaped so much of the 21st century.

I'm now keen to read Alex Nevala-Lee's new book Astounding: John W Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A Heinlein, L Ron Hubbard and the Golden Age of Science-Fiction (Dey Street Books, 2018).

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Doctor Who Magazine #532

The super new issue of Doctor Who Magazine is out tomorrow - but reaching subscribers already. Among the treats inside, I've interviewed costume designer Ray Holman about the current "TARDIS team", with tips for cosplaying the Doctor, Ryan, Yaz and Graham.

As Ray and I were talking on the phone about the practicalties of the Doctor's new costume, Lady Vader (or "Pting" as her brother now calls her) took it all to heart. Soon she was insisting I zip up her favourite princess outfit which she wore with owl backpack and wellington boots. The interview over, I then had to take her out for adventures, splashing in puddles while looking 100%.
Time for an adventure...

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

The Sky at Night Book of the Moon, by Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock

BBC Books (who, I should declare, publish stuff by me) sent me this fun new volume from TV's Dr Maggie, which she herself describes as, "a voyage that has explored the physical, mental and emotional impact of the Moon on all of us."

Much of the collected material is familiar from her BBC Two documentary, Do We Really Need the Moon?, detailing the history of our relationship with the Moon and how it benefits us. For example, its relatively large size stabilises Earth's orbit; it has slowed the spin of the Earth to the 24-hour cycle we're used to; the tides it creates may have played an essential role in the development of the very first life.

There's a lot more science, too - including updates on the latest efforts to return humans to the Moon - but also a selection of favourite Moon-related poetry, art and stories, and an exploration of the oldest Moon-related artefacts. I was captivated by the entry on "En-hedu-ana: Astronomer Princess of the Moon Goodess (c. 2354), who is,
"the first female name recorded in history and the first poet known by name too." (p. 65) 
On the next page, we're told that at least one of the numerous depictions labelled as En-hedu-ana shows her with a "substantial beard."

I read the book as research for a potential project, and now I have another one...

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Worthing Wormhole and Gallifrey

I will be a guest at Worthing Wormhole this Saturday, signing copies of Doctor Who: The Women Who Lived with co-author Christel Dee.

Christel and I have also been announced as guests at Gallifrey One in Los Angeles in February. (By exciting coincidence, I first met Christel the last time I was at Gallifrey, in 2016.)

And here's a picture of my tired old head this morning at the BBC... 

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Searching for the Lost Tombs of Egypt, by Chris Naunton

I first met Egyptologist Chris Naunton around the time he was working on his BBC Four documentary, The Man Who Discovered Egypt, which included the Dr as a shrewd talking head. Chris then advised me on the Egypt bits in the first chapter of The Science of Doctor Who and a timeline in Whographica - he wrote his own account of working out when exactly the Daleks invaded Egypt.

When the esteemed published Thames & Hudson approached Chris about writing a book on Tutankhamun, he argued instead for a book answering the question he and fellow egyptologists get asked all the time - what is there still to find?

The result is a fascinating, comprehensive and carefully weighed assessment of the chances of tracking down some of the most coveted tombs in history, those of: the great architect Imhotep (the one whose name was co-opted by the horror movies); Amenhotep I; Nefertiti and the other Amarna royals related to Tutankhamun; Herihor whose tomb, it has been claimed, would make "Tutankhamun look like Woolworths"; the pharaohs of the much disputed Third Intermediate Period; Alexander the Great; and Cleopatra.

It's a little like Richard Molesworth's book, Wiped!, which details the loss and recovery of episodes of Doctor Who - at times tantalising, fascinating and utterly frustrating. Along the way, Chris supplies plenty of fascinating history - of ancient Egypt and of modern archaeologists, not all of whom come out of it very well. He is good at putting the claims of some enthusiasts and attempting to weight them against evidence fairly. 

There's plenty that I didn't know - Alexander the Great had a sister called Cleopatra - and I particularly like a quotation from Howard Carter's 1917 report, "A tomb prepared for Queen Hatshepsut and other recent discoveries in Thebes", in which he feels the need to accent and italicise the exotic, foreign word "d├ębris".

Monday, November 05, 2018

Antimatter in buckets

Radio Times spoke to me and science writer Giles Sparrow about antimatter and its potential use in powering spaceships as seen in last night's episode of Doctor Who, The Tsuranga Conundrum.

I really enjoyed the episode, not least because the monster causing all the havoc could well have been based on my two year-old Lady Vader causing havoc. She's not watching the series, but the Lord of Chaos is. He found last night's one very frightening, but not nearly as terrifying as the spiders last week - which he's attempted to watch twice and given up on both times.


Saturday, October 20, 2018

The Bird's Nest, by Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson's 1954 novel The Bird's Nest is extraordinary. Elizabeth Richmond works in a museum, the wall beside her desk removed during renovation, so that she sits beside an open chasm. If that were not sufficiently unsettling, she's getting anonymous hate mail. And then there are her Aunt Morgen's accusations of her wanderings in the night...

The basis for the malady suffered by Elizabeth - Lizzie, Beth, Betsy and Bess - is spelt out on pp. 57-8, when Jackson quotes directly from Morton Prince's The Dissociation of a Personality (1905):
"Cases of this kind are commonly known as 'double' or 'multiple personality', according to the number of persons represented, but a more correct term is disintegrated personality, for each secondary personality is a part of a normal whole self. No one secondary personality preserves the whole physical life of the individual. The synthesis of the original consciousness known as as the personal ego is broken up, so to speak, and shorn of some of its memories, perceptions, acquisitions, or modes of reaction to the environment. The conscious states that still persist, synthesized among themselves, form a new personality capable of independent activity. This second personality may alternate with the original undisintegrated personality from time to time. By a breaking up of the original undisintegrated personality at different moments along different lines of cleavage, there may be formed several different secondary personalities, which may take turns with one another."
I'm writing an article about the book, and Jackson, and the psychoanalyses of her time. More to follow...

Saturday, October 06, 2018

The Story of Doctor Who

The nice people at Doctor Who Magazine have published The Story of Doctor Who, a shiny, comprehensive guide to the 55-year history of the series. It's perfect for those joining or returning to Doctor Who with Jodie Whittaker's Doctor - and has plenty to delight those of us who think they know it all backwards.

I've written the pieces on the Second, Fourth, Sixth and Twelfth Doctors, and dug out all sorts of stuff that was new to me. In fact, quite a lot of my work right now is looking for new things to say about Doctor Who, with a lot of dogged detective work to make sense of conflicting accounts of how particular bits of the series were made.

My knowing-it-backwards has also informed my watching of Jonathan Creek, which I never really saw when it was on in the 1990s but we're enjoying now on Netflix. The major revelation is how much it owes to Sherlock Holmes, which I'll write something about another time. But the Sixth Doctor is the first person killed in the series; in the first episode of the second series (produced by Verity Lambert), the Fifth Doctor walks under a broken-off piece off the TARDIS. Then, in episode 2.5, when the police arrest Alistair Petrie they also confiscate his VHS of Doctor Who and the Two Doctors.



(That Doctor Who story saw Patrick Troughton return as the Second Doctor, accompanied by Frazer Hines as his companion Jamie McCrimmon. A couple of years ago, I wrote an audio Doctor Who story, The Outliers in which Frazer played Jamie and also recreated Troughton's Doctor, both of them battling a smooth management consultant in space, played by Alistair Petrie.)

Anyway. I am giddy with excitement about new Doctor Who tomorrow. Amid all the flurry of promotion going on, I recommend catching up with this morning's Saturday Live, in which Richard Cole quizzed m'colleague Christel Dee. She talks candidly about growing up in care, how Doctor Who helped her to come out as gay, and her obsession with Ace. I'm a big fan of Saturday Live and a bit thrilled to have got a mention.

Have I mentioned that we wrote a book?

Thursday, October 04, 2018

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson

Straight on from her Dark Tales, I've ploughed through Shirley Jackson's final (and greatest, says the back cover) novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962).

It's told by 18 year-old Mary Kate Blackwood, known to everyone as "Merricat", a strange, scared girl with much to be afraid of. To begin, we follow her on an essential, regular trip into town to shop for food, where she must endure the mostly passive tyranny of ordinary people. It's incredibly effective, a threat that feels horribly real. Only once we've experienced and felt it does Jackson reveal why: almost all of Merricat's family died six years ago, poisoned by arsenic intentionally put in the sugar bowl.

Merricat now lives in the old family house with her agarophobic elder sister Constance - acquitted of the murder but still generally thought guilty - and her uncle Julian, who survived the poisoning at some cost. Wheelchair-bound and mentally disturbed, he's determined to uncover what really happened that night... Merricat is the only one to ever leave the family home, and her head is full of strange thoughts about magic ways to protect the house and also journeys to the Moon.

Into this unsettling space comes cousin Charles, who soon casts a spell over Constance and threatens the whole household. But he's just one of many tensions: the townspeople are never far away, and Merricat is herself bound by all kinds of rules - things she seems innately to know she is not allowed to do. The immaculate, ordered domestic space is a place beset with danger.

As in the Dark Tales, Jackson makes this strange situation so credible. In her afterword to the Penguin Classics edition, Joyce Carol Oates speaks of Jackson's own agoraphobia and says:
"Jackson's difficulties with her fellow citizens in North Bennington, Vermont are well documented in Judy Oppenheimer's harrowing biography, Private Demons (1988): the suggestion is that Jackson and her husband, the flamboyant 'Jewish-intellectual' cultural critic Stanley Edgar Hyman aroused resentment, if not outright anti-Semitism, in their more convention neighbours." 
Joyce Carol Oates, afterword to We Have Always Lived in the Castle, p. 152.
I think Jackson drawns on more than her own experience of real horror, too. There's repeated mention of a figurine, an object that survives a fire in the house. It's surely significant that it's always described as the "Dresden figurine", conjuring images of another conflagration.

The fire involves the most chilling moment of the whole novel. We know the townspeople are antagonistic to the Blackwoods, but in a moment of crisis the local men rush to help put out the fire. Only then, emerging from the house to the expectant crowd, the head of the men picks up a stone and throws it back at the building to smash a window. It gives licence to the mob, who stampede on the house...

Whatever the strange and murderous qualities of the household, it's the ordinary people outside who are most to be feared. 

Friday, September 28, 2018

Dark Tales, by Shirley Jackson

I've read loads since completing Space Odyssey - chapters of various mates' works in progress and all sorts of material for work, including a sizeable chunk of Amelia Edwards' 1878 travelogue, A Thousand Miles Up The Nile. Then there's Shirley Jackson.

Dark Tales is a collection of seventeen short stories by a writer who really ought to be a household name. One is a ghost story, one involves psychic abilities, one involves a painting that's like something out of MR James. But the rest are unsettling stories of very human monsters, the tyranny of ordinary snobbery, pettiness and meaness, of social conventions and small communities. They all take place in the modern day, in settings busy with people getting on with everyday life. The best of them are at their most disturbing because they're psychologically real. Women are usually central.

"The Good Wife" is about a jealous husband who incarcerates his wife. The twist ending reveals that the husband is more monstrous than first supposed, but what lingers is the awful detail of the wife's gradual acquiesence - having clearly tried to resist him to no effect, she now presents nothing but sweetness in the vain hope he will relent. In "The Honeymoon of Mrs Smith", a young bride accepts her imminent murder rather than make a fuss. In "Home", a woman learns better than to speak of the ghostly experience that almost killed her. The horror is not only of passivity, but of the ways these women are rendered passive.

In the brilliant "The Possibility of Evil", a respectable old lady notes the strains affecting her neighbours, before we discover that she's been sending them all anonymous, poisonous letters. Yet there's real tension when this malicious creature unwittingly risks being exposed. Jackson has deftly make us sympathise with the monster.

I'm keen to know more about Jackson and what shaped her extraordinary vision. It's surely no coincidence that her first story, "The Lottery" (not included in this anthology) was first published in 1948, in a post-war world lacking moral certainties - though some readers felt strongly otherwise, and she received death threats in response. I feel something noirish, something Hitchcock, in her stories, something haunted by the Holocaust and the Bomb, something deeply ill at ease with "ordinary" life.

It all feels so very contemporary, but not overtly political. In the final story in the collection, "The Summer People", there's mention of degeneration and inbreeding (p. 183), but the story is about the growing anxiety of an old couple when the local shops are out of groceries and oil. It's so relatable, the horror is horribly real.

I'm keen to see the new film version of We Have Always Lived in the Castle once I've reread Jackson's novel and adore the 1963 film The Haunting (based on The Haunting of Hill House), which first got me reading her stuff in my teens. I've also got a biography of Jackson - so more of this to come.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Big Issue #1326

Out today, issue 1326 of the Big Issue features an exclusive interview with Jodie Whittaker about being the new Doctor Who. Lurking alongside that is a small piece by me and Christel Dee about our new book, Doctor Who - The Women Who Lived.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Doctor Who Magazine #530

Doctor Who Magazine #530 is now available in shops and online. It includes my interview with musician Christian Erickson about how 1984 Doctor Who story The Caves of Androzani inspired his new album, The Caves - which I've been listening to a lot over the past few months.

The issue also includes a preview of The Women Who Lived, my new Doctor Who book which is out this week, and a nice review of The Eleventh Doctor Chronicles, which includes my latest Doctor Who audio play.

This issue of Doctor Who Magazine is also available as a deluxe edition exclusive to WHSmith, the goodies including a Doctor Who audio adventure from Big Finish (I'm afraid there's a risk you'll end up with one of mine) and a postcard of Lee Binding's cover art for The Women Who Lived.

I'll be signing the book later this week - at Forbidden Planet in London on Friday evening from 6 pm and at Forbidden Planet in Bristol on Saturday afternoon from 1 pm - along with my co-author Christel Dee and some of the artists involved.

And you can win a copy of the book by paying careful attention to this interview with me and Christel conducted by Phil Hawkins:

Thursday, September 06, 2018

John Ruskin's Eurythmic Girls, reprise

At 9.15 pm tonight, Radio 3 are repeating a documentary presented by Samira Ahmed and which I produced, John Ruskin's Eurythmic Girls, which will then be iPlayer thereafter.

Listen out for the scene-stealing role played by my then baby daughter. As we set up to record that, the conversation round the table led to an idea that's become our next documentary, which ought to be broadcast in February. More on that anon.

The blurb for tonight's one goes like this:
Perhaps you did music and movement at school. There was a time girls across the country learnt to dance as if they were flowers. At the start of the 20th century, Jacques-Dalcroze developed Eurhythmics to teach the rhythm and structure of music through physical activity. But the idea had earlier roots, including an unlikely champion of women's liberation. 
John Ruskin - now derided by feminist critics as a woman-fearing medievalist - was at the centre of a 19th-century education movement that challenged the conventional female role in society. Amid concerns about the health of the British Empire he looked back to the muscular figures in medieval painting and the sculpture of the ancient Greeks, in their loose-fitting clothes. Perhaps the Victorians needed to shed their corsets and free their minds for learning. In Of Queens' Gardens he set out a radical, influential model for girls' education. 
Samira Ahmed argues that Ruskin was an accidental feminist. To understand where his ideas came from, how they were enacted and what survives in the way girls are taught today, she ventures into one of the schools set up on Ruskinian principles, tries on the corsetry that restricted Victorian women's lives, and gets the insight of Victorian scholars. 
Contributors: Matthew Sweet (author of Inventing the Victorians); Dr Debbie Challis (Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL); Louise Scholz-Conway (Angels Costumes); Dr Fern Riddell (author of A Victorian Guide to Sex); Dr Amara Thornton (Institute of Archaeology, UCL) and Isobel Beynon, Dr Wendy Bird, Annette Haynes, Dr Jean Horton, Diane Maclean, Aoife Morgan Jones and Natasha Rajan at Queenswood School. Readings by Toby Hadoke. 
Presenter Samira Ahmed
Producers Simon and Thomas Guerrier
A Whistledown Production for BBC Radio 3.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Two Eleventh Doctor things

Michael Pickwoad
I was very sad to hear of the death of Michael Pickwoad, Doctor Who's brilliant production designer between 2010 and 2017. I've posted my interview with Pickwoad for Doctor Who Magazine in 2014, and hope it conveys his intelligence, warmth and eagerness to help.

I'd been a fan of his for years, and pestered then editor Tom Spilsbury to run a feature on him, whether or not I got to do it. Pickwoad readily accepted, and invited me to the studio at Roath Lock in Cardiff where the series was busy being made - insisting I close my eyes as he led me through a room full of designs for the forthcoming Series 8.

Also, Hero Collector have published a timeline of companion Amy Pond, which I wrote to accompany my feature on her costumes for the first of the Companion Sets from Doctor Who Figurines Collection.


Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Space Odyssey, by Michael Benson

A couple of years ago, I praised a jaw-dropping exhibition of images of the Solar System which were on temporary display at the Natural History Museum. I said Otherworlds was, “brilliantly curated by Michael Benson,” so I eagerly anticipated his new book on the making of the film 2001 to mark its  50th anniversary.

Space Odyssey is excellent, detailing the minutiae of each stage in the creative process, from director Stanley Kubrick first making contact with writer Arthur C Clarke to the film’s premiere four years later, its immediate aftermath and the fates of these two men. It is fascinating, insightful and profound – just like the film.

It’s a thrill to follow, step by step, the development of iconic moments – who suggested what and when, and how Kubrick marshalled, encouraged and ran ragged the team around him. Most surprising is how late some of the decisions were made – even deep into cutting, the film almost had a narration and a specially composed score (rather than using pre-existing tracks). On p. 394, we’re told Kubrick even considered getting the Beatles to provide the music. Indeed, the film we know now and I have on Blu-ray is a cut-down, improved version of the one that premiered in New York in April 1968 to such a negative response – effectively, Kubrick was still revising the film after it was finished.

Several of the many, many people Benson interviewed refer to Kubrick as a genius, but the overall impression is of a brilliant, difficult and rather cowardly man. When a real leopard was filmed for the Dawn of Man sequence, Kubrick was the only member of the cast and crew to be inside a protective cage. Worse, we watch in horror as Kubrick insists that stunt performer Bill Weston do longer and longer takes in a spacesuit that Kubrick has also insisted have no holes to prevent the build up of CO2. Weston is rendered unconscious, as has been only too inevitable, and though he recovers Kubrick then avoids him.

There are other things: that Clarke was treated unfairly in contract negotiations, which led to him not getting royalties on the film, and suffered delays in getting the book version approved that didn’t help the delicate state of his finances; the special effects team done out of an Academy Award by Kubrick taking credit for their work.  And yet it’s difficult not to admire this difficult, selfish man for his dedication. His approach, his care, his achievement are remarkable.

I found a lot of it funny, such as when (p.91) Kubrick, unsure how to realise the apes in the Dawn of Man sequence, wrote to noted actor Robert Shaw about playing play the lead, unspeaking ape – because he felt Shaw already had simian features. No response is recorded.

Likewise, in the papers drawn up to greenlight the movie, there’s a list of contingency directors. David Lean seems an obvious choice (he hadn’t directed science-fiction before, but then neither had Kubrick), but others are more surprising:
“Try to imagine 2001 – A Space Odyssey directed by [Billy] Wilder, the man who made Some Like it Hot.”
Michael Benson, Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C Clarke and the Making of a Masterpiece (2018), p. 90.
The same page also picks out a detail in the contract referring to jurisdictions – the rights to the movie covering not just different countries but extending into space.
“The boilerplate had coincided with the destination.”
Ibid.
Benson is an expert guide, though I kept wanting to add prepositions to his wry, dry US journalese. He also feels the need to explain the abbreviation “NB” (p. 66) and that “George the second” was “the eighteenth-century monarch” (p. 224). But then that’s me assuming these things are readily understood, and Benson’s perspective as an outsider gives him a telling insight into the British film industry of the time:
“The British class system was as quietly rigid and unquestioningly enforced at Borehamwood as elsewhere. Offspring of the lower classes were expected to aspire to union cards from the trades; they might become sparks (electricians), chippies (carpenters), plasterers, grips, drivers, and the like. Upper-class kids, on the other hand, could jostle for positions in management and leading creative positions: assistant directors, camera assistants, producers in training.”
Ibid., p. 225.
This is exemplified in the role of posh boy Andrew Birkin – brother of Jane – who starts out as the production’s tea boy and is soon in charge second-unit shooting in Scotland for the Star Gate sequence, taking command of the camera from operator Jack Atcheler, who found the low-flying aerial photography too perilous. (And not without reason; Birkin tells Benson that their helicopter pilot was killed on his next movie (p. 245).)

There are odd omissions, too: for all Benson details the relationship between Kubrick and young effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull, there’s no mention of Silent Running (1972), mentioned recently by critic Mark Kermode in his series Secrets of Cinema:
“Trumbull said that he made the unashamedly sentimental Silent Running as a response to the inhuman sterility of 2001 – a film in which the most sympathetic character is a homicidal computer. In Silent Running, Trumbull set his hero [Freeman] alone in space with only three worker drones for company. The drones are robots who, during the course of the movie, come to exhibit strangely human characteristics, or perhaps to reflect the human characteristics which Freeman projects on to them.”
Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema (BBC Four, 2018) 1.4: Science Fiction
And although Benson talks about the influence of 2001 on subsequent science-fiction films, there’s little on the wider cultural impact. I was struck by a small comment when referring to the success of Clarke’s novel of the film.
“His other work benefitted as well, with three new printings of Childhood’s End in 1969 alone.”
Benson, p. 435.
It’s in this context that Childhood’s End influenced David Bowie’s 1971 song “Oh! You Pretty Things”, which in turn part-inspired the TV series The Tomorrow People. There’s no mention, either, of the conspiracy theory spun out of the technical excellence of 2001’s visual effects: that Kubrick then helped to fake the Moon landings.

One thing Benson does mention is of great interest to something I’m writing at the moment. Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975) won an Academy Award for its cinematography, which included interior scenes,
“illuminated almost entirely by candlelight. The result was the first accurate representation of what eighteenth century interiors looked like before the advent of electricity, giving the film the remarkable aspect of a period oil painting come to life.”
Ibid., p. 438.
This, says Benson, was achieved through the use of fast Leiss lenses with extremely wide apertures, developed for the Apollo programme to photograph the far side of the Moon.

It’s this sort of connection that makes the book such an absorbing, astonishing read. But I think the detail that most lingers is a quotation from Clarke’s 1960 essay, “Rocket to the Renaissance”, in which he draws a parallel between space travel and something from history – not the Wild West or even Homer’s Odyssey, but life emerging out of the oceans.
“We seldom stop to think we’re still creatures of the sea, able to leave it only because from birth to death we wear the water-filled space suits of our skins.”
Ibid, p. 51.
See also: Me on the death and legacy of Arthur C Clarke

Doctor Who post script
I’m intrigued by the one reference in the book to Doctor Who. Benson tells us that in the autumn of 1965, in the weeks leading up to the start of filming on 30 December, the spacesuit backpacks, front manoeuvring controllers, button panels for the arms and the space helmets were produced either inhouse at the studios in Borehamwood,
“or by AGM, the London company also busy manufacturing ‘Daleks’: the cylindrical alien cyborgs seen in Doctor Who, the cult BBC-TV series.”
Ibid., p. 123.
Pre-production and the start of filming on 2001 overlapped with the recording of the 12-part The Daleks’ Master Plan on television. We know the team on 2001 contacted director Douglas Camfield a few days after the broadcast of episode 5, Counter Plot, on 11 December 1965 to find out how he’d achieved the space-travelling and molecular dissemination effects.

Yet I’d never heard of AGM, so checked with Dalek expert Gav Rymill. “Autumn of ‘65 would have been just before the enormous batch of props made for Daleks Invasion Earth 2150 AD,” says Gav. The Dalek props – for the TV series and the two films – were supplied by Shawcraft, but it’s possible AGM supplied some of the sets or other props used in both TV and films. We shall do more digging...

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 Santas 
The modified design from The Runaway Bride (2006), rather than the originals from The Christmas Invasion (2005).

114 - Ice Queen Iraxxa 
From 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 Monk
From 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.

135 - Pig Slave
From Daleks in Manhattan and Evolution of the Daleks (2007).

136 - Koquillion
From The Rescue (1965). I'm especially pleased about this as Koquillion is a favourite monster - so much so that I named another of my blogs after him.

138 - The Thirteenth Doctor
Including interviews with Jodie Whittaker and costume designer Ray Holman.

141 - Pirate Captain
From the 1978 story The Pirate Planet.

142 - The Third Doctor
In the costume worn during his debut series (1970).

144 - The Master
As played by Anthony Ainley in the costume first seen in the closing moments of The Keeper of Traken (1981).

145 - Sutekh
From 1975 story Pyramids of Mars, including an interview with Egyptologist John J Johnston.

147 - The Chief Clown
The villain from The Greatest Show in the Galaxy (1988-9).

149 - The Ghost
As seen in 2016 Christmas special The Return of Doctor Mysterio. I interviewed costume designer Hayley Nebauer, prop maker Rob Allsopp and actor Justin Chatwin.

150 - The Valeyard
I spoke to actor Michael Jayston about being an evil, future version of the Doctor, see in The Trial of a Time Lord (1986).

151 - Tzim-Sha
As seen in 2018's The Woman Who Fell to Earth and The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos. I interviewed costume designer Ray Holman, SFX producer Kate Walshe from Millennium FX, actor Samuel Oatley and prop maker Rob Allsopp.

153 - Kerblam Man
For the postmen and team-mates in 2018's Kerblam! I spoke to costume designer Ray Holman and prop maker Rob Allsopp.

154 - Broton
As seen in 1975's Terror of the Zygons.

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

Companion set 2 - The Tenth Doctor and Rose
Using material from my previous interviews with costume designer Louise Page.

Companion set 3 - Sarah Jane Smith and The Fourth Doctor
Covering their costumes between Robot (1974-5) and The Hand of Fear (1976). I spoke to Lee Bender of Bus Stop about why Sarah Jane was dressed for the disco.

Companion set 4 - The Twelfth Doctor and Bill PottsI spoke to costume designer Hayley Nebauer.

Companion set 5 - The Ninth Doctor and "Captain Jack Harkness"
Including an interview with actor John Barrowman.

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:

SHOW YOUR APPRECIATION
'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.

THE FAN SHOWS
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.)

CONVENTIONAL WISDOM
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


Friday, July 20, 2018

Comics bought from South London Comic & Zine Fair

As well as handing out copies of our new Bibbly-Bob comic, I bought a bunch of things from the stalls at last weekend's South London Comic & Zine Fair. There was a wealth of exciting stuff on offer, but herding a seven year-old meant I had to actively steer past anything that looked too adult. Things browsed and bought were dictated by what appealed - and wouldn't terrify - him.

Plastic by Nick Soucek is a small, square 48pp comic with one panel per page, telling the history of the oil that becomes the plastic that becomes a bottle of water, from the age of the dinosaurs on. It's a brilliantly simple, and quite caught his Lordship's imagination - and mine.

The Boy & the Owl is a rectangular comic the same height as Plastic, with art by Sabba Khan illustrating a poem by Paul Jacob Naylor. It's a sort of goth fairy-tale, and we bought it because when his Lordship picked up Sabba's Bob the Goldfish - which seemed so much just his thing - I was quickly, discreetly warned that he might not like the ending...

Lord Chaos ran to Gary Northfield's stall, having loved Gary's Garden which we bought from him last year. This time, his Lordship went for Teenytinysaurs, even if it ate up all his pre-agreed budget in one go. I've not had a chance to look through it much as his Lordship keeps it close.

The Great North Wood by Tim Bird immediately caught my eye - a handsome graphic novel in blue and orange and pink telling the history of the part of south London in which I live. It covers a lot of ground, and includes some marvellous details - such as the story that Honor Oak Park owes its name from Elizabeth I getting drunk at a picnic - while showing the traces of woodland still evident in the streets I walk every day. 

In exchange for a copy of Bibbly-Bob, Tim also gifted us his Rock & Pop, a simpler, more traditional zine, with each single page devoted to a particular song of significance to him. The result is an intimate autobiography, full of warmth and wit.

Lord Chaos, meanwhile, was chatting to Andy Poyiadgi, delighted by the simple silliness of A Cup of Tea Will Sort You Out (which we bought) and the various origami and other intriguingly folded creations (which we didn't). 

I also picked up an anthology of work by Dalston Comic Collective - a group of adults who meet once a month to make comics - and was delighted to find it included work by my old mate Dave Turbitt, and then sad to discover we'd missed him at the fair.

Finally, there was Ocular Anecdotes number 3 by Peter Cline, a visually striking comic the size and heft of a newspaper, described on Cline's website at "pictographic literature". It looks amazing, and I've puzzled over it again and again - but am still not quite sure what it is or what it's about.