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 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.

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.

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:

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.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Bibbly-Bob returns

After its exclusive media launch at the South London Comic & Zine Fair this afternoon, here is the new Bibbly-Bob the Seal comic - in which (oh no!) there is litter on the beach. Story and art by Lord of Chaos, with inking and lettering by his humble servant.

(The original Bibbly-Bob comic, created for last year's event, can be found at www.tinyurl.com/BibblyBob.)





Thursday, July 12, 2018

Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor

I really enjoyed this 90-page science-fiction novella about a girl who runs away from home to go to space university, when her ship is attacked by murderous aliens...

The novella won both Hugo and Nebula awards, and if the word of mouth wasn't already good, the cover boasts a too-die-for endorsement:
"There's more vivid imagination in a page of Nnedi Okoroafor's work than in whole volumes of ordinary fantasy epics." - Ursula K. Le Guin
A lot of science-fiction is about encounters between white Earth people and "the other" out in space. Binti, the narrator of this story, is the first of the Himba people of northern Namibia to be offered a place at Oomza University, and other humans (even darker skinned ones) treat her as exotic and strange.

The otjize paste with which she daubs her hair and skin is made from the clay back home, a physical link to her culture and history that plays a key part in the story. The texture and smell of it are part of what makes the telling so sensuous and rich.

A lot of science-fiction is also about war and conquest, the future all jostling colonial powers. Binti feels like it's going to be some typical invasion, but is more about what it takes to bridge the gap between different groups, whether human or otherwise. In doing so, Binti becomes someone, something, else. That willingness to reach out, to leave home and migrate, to embrace the strange, is a defiant, heroic act.

Her story continues in Binti: Home (2017) and Binti: The Night Masquerade (2018), which I hope to get to shortly.

Thursday, July 05, 2018

Eleventh Doctor Chronicles cover

Our next month is Doctor Who - The Eleventh Doctor Chronicles, with this tremendous cover by Tom Webster:


I've written one of the four stories: The Top of the Tree, starring Jacob Dudman and Danny Horn, and directed by Helen Goldwyn.
On one of their annual jaunts, young Kazran Sardick and the Doctor find themselves in trouble when the TARDIS is tangled in the branches of a very strange, very large tree.
They emerge into a habitat where myriad species fight for survival: an ecosystem of deadly flora and fauna, along with a tribe of primitive humans.
This is a mystery which can only be solved by climbing. But what will they find at the top of the tree?

Wednesday, July 04, 2018

The Good Immigrant, edited by Nikesh Shukla

This book of 21 essays is, in the words of the editor's note, "a document of what it means to be a person of colour now."

While "the universal experence is white", we're presented with "21 universal experiences: feelings of anger, displacement, defensiveness, curiousity, absurdity - we look at death, class, microaggression, popular culture, free movement, stake in society, lingual fracas, masculinity and more." It's insightful, funny, surprising and harrowing, and has got me thinking about my own assumptions and behaviour, that of the industry in which I work and society around me.

It's an excellent, wide-ranging book and I recommend it to anyone.

Tediously, I read it on the recommendation that it included something about the 1977 Doctor Who story The Talons of Weng-Chiang. What follows is some thoughts about that, though I'm still mulling it all over. (And you might like to watch my 2011 documentary related to this subject: "Race Against Time", included on the DVD of the 1972 story, The Mutants.)

Daniel York Loh's essay, "Kendo Nagasaki and Me", is about his response as a child to a particular wrestler on ITV's World of Sport, and the rare sight on mainstream TV in the 1970s of a "fellow 'oriental'" - as he puts it on p. 46. It's a heartfelt account, and he admits at the end that he may have muddled some of the historical details, but the point is not about the accuracy of his memory so much as what the relationship meant and still means to him.

Doctor Who - "my favourite TV programme in the world" (p. 52) - gets four and a bit paragraphs, an extended aside. Compared to today's version, the Doctor Who he grew up with "was populated almost entirely by white people ... For a remit with the whole of time and space as a pallette this is a bit crap frankly." He describes The Talons of Weng-Chiang as a,
"handsomely mounted Victorian Sax Rohmer homage", but with "one of the very worst examples of yellowface as a gang of silent, sinister and inscrutable (it's amazing how easily and often those words flow together) goons (the only appropriate description) appeared, led by an English actor called John Bennett sporting ridiculous false eyelids that looked like you could sit on them, skin made up yellow than a lump of cheese and speaking in a hopelessly mishmashed Chinese/Japanese hybrid accent that would had had Henry Higgins completely stumped. Not nearly so much as the fact that the BBC still carries a website page somewhere that heaps lavish praise on Mr Bennett's staggeringly silly turn, opining that, unless they knew, the viewer might be hard-pressed to tell that the English thesp wasn't in fact Chinese. Not unless they were under the impression that Chinese people had eyelids made from recycled skateboards and talked like Yoda in Star Wars when he's been on the ketamine, I think." (p. 53)
My immediate response to this is to want to defend the story - which I enjoy and admire in many respects - and Doctor Who more generally, and even the BBC. For one thing, that praise for Bennett, on an old part of the BBC website, is clearly labelled as a quotation from a book. And yet, on checking, it still says:
"John Bennett is faultless as the inscrutable Li H'sen Chang, and his performance and make-up are so convincing that it is difficult to believe that he is not actually Chinese."
Doctor Who - The Talons of Weng-Chiang: in detail
That it is quoted from a book is no excuse. The quotation is from Doctor Who - The Television Companion, first published in 1998 by BBC Books, the cover proclaiming in large letters that it was, "the official BBC guide to every TV story." That is pretty authoritative, and the website repeats the book's assessment of the story in full, without comment. The book was republished as recently as 2013, and though that wasn't by BBC Books and without the authority of being an "official" publication, it still shows that this isn't merely something from the distant past.

I don't mean to criticise the authors of the book or the editors of the website; I might well have written or quoted something similar without thought. That's the point: The Good Immigrant challenges bias and prejudice we might not even be aware of in ourselves, whatever our intentions and however much we want to believe that racism is something other, bad people do. It chimes with my recent reading of The Blunders of Our Governments. How do we address a white blindness we're not even aware of?

Criticism of The Talons of Weng-Chiang is not new, nor the defensive response. It's been argued that Doctor Who was better than other programmes made at the same time - but surely not all of them. And that doesn't negate the issues there anyway.

Or it is said the story itself critiques racist attitudes. Yes, this isn't simply Doctor Who trotting out the stereotypes of Sax Rohmer. For all Bennett's performance owes something to the version of Fu Manchu played by (the also white) Christopher Lee in the five films made in the 1960s, Chang is, ultimately, a rather sympathetic character, his motivation clear - the opposite of the "inscrutable". At the same time, the Doctor counters some of the prejudice shown by the Victorian Londoners in the story. But it's still bound up in racial and class-based assumptions, and the Doctor is visiting London anyway to educate his "savage" companion - an adjective with racist associations.

Or there's the argument that the BBC were required to only use actors who were members of Equity, which limited the number of Chinese or Chinese-descended actors who might have taken this particular role. That didn't mean there weren't any; I find myself imagining the story with Burt Kwuok playing Chang. But the casting of Bennett is also surely part of a - no doubt unconcious - tendency to have Chinese and East Asian characters played by actors of Jewish origin. Think also of Martin Miller as Kublai Khan in the 1964 Doctor Who story Marco Polo, or, more notably, Joseph Wiseman as Dr. No. Then recall the criticism above of villains who are,
"silent, sinister and inscrutable (it's amazing how easily and often those words flow together)".
There's also the cumulative effect when actors of particular ethnic backgrounds do not get the same opportunties as their white counterparts. They don't develop their skills, so they're seen as less able than their white counterparts, so they miss out on further work, so they don't develop their skills...

It remains an issue, as described by young actor Paul Courtney Hyu, interviewed by Wei Ming Kam for "Beyond 'Good' Immigrants", another of the essays in the book. Hyu says that with so few opportunities for "East Asians" in film and TV in the UK, another actor, Elain Tan, has gone to America where she is "working her arse off."

But then Hyu addes "in a satisfied tone" an example of a UK show doing better than the rest:
"And she is the main person in our episode of Doctor Who [2015's Sleep No More]. So there are two Chinese in it, and she's got a Geordie accent, and pretty good too, I have to say. And I do my Yorkshire accent." (p.93)
As a Doctor Who fan, I take some pride in that - but also know it's a rare example.

Himesh Patel mentions, on p. 64, watching Doctor Who while a teenager - one of the things he followed closely with his (white) peers so as to fit in, while they showed no interest in Bollywood music or films.

Anyway, all this has got me thinking - informing my perspective on old episodes as I watch them on Twitch and research them for the various magazines I write for, and challenging some assumptions in the script I'm late on at the moment. An aspect of a character has just been revised because this book made me realise an aspect of my own blindess, and pointed the way to do better.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Revisiting Sunnydale: a Buffy podcast

I was the guest / breakfast of Kahmeela and Marcella on episode 77 of the Revisiting Sunnydale podcast, for a lively natter about my book Slayer Stats - The Complete Infographic Guide to All Things Buffy (co-written with Steve O'Brien and illustrated by Illaria Vescovo).

Among the topics covered are where I am wrong, the representation of minorities (ie British people) in the series and what I think about the new Doctor Who.

My bit starts at 34:32 - before then, Kahmeela and Marcella review season 4.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Apollo, by Fitch, Baker and Collins

This new graphic novel about the Apollo 11 Moon landing is illustrated by Mike Collins who a) shares his name with the Command Module pilot of that mission and b) I know through Doctor Who things, so I declare my interest in what follows.

The comic begins in the moments before launch, and concludes with the Command Module on its way back to Earth. It seems largely told from the freely available NASA transcripts of the flight, and a number of books - including those written by Aldrin and Collins (the astronaut) about their own experiences. We also hear from witnesses at various levels of remove - Armstrong's wife, Aldrin's dad, soldiers out in Vietnam - and skip back in time to formative moments in childhood and the catastrope of Apollo 1.

In addition, there are the astronauts' dreams and nightmares, and I wondered if these were based on things the astronauts themselves reported, or are the invention of the writers. Really, what I'd like are exhaustive endnotes detailing every source, in the manner of Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell in From Hell.

The halftone colour, provided by Kris Carter and Jason Candy, suggests the feel of comics from the period, too. Pulpier, less glossy paper and design might have better suggested an authentic artefact of the Apollo age. But this is a sumptuous physical object - which is hardly a criticism, is it?

The comic is good at underlining the dangers involved at each stage of the mission, and reveals plenty of telling detail as the story unfolds - Aldrin's efforts to be the first on the Moon's surface, Nixon's realisation that he'd be remembered as president if the mission failed, Kennedy if it succeeded. There are maybe some things that might have helped with that: Nixon actually recorded the speech mentioned here, to be broadcast in the event that a failure left Armstrong and Aldrin to die, stranded on the Moon's surface (it's included in the amazing documentary, In the Shadow of the Moon). That message may - I've not been able to find enough hard evidence - have been recorded just as Nixon was preparing to make a live phone call to the two astronauts as they bounced around in the moondust. No wonder Nixon was sweating during that call...

That's a minor quibble; this is an absorbing, detailed and arresting account that manages to bring something new to the so thoroughly picked over story. I shall be sure to pick over it again during the coming 12 months, in the lead up to the 50th anniversary of that first Moon landing.

Monday, June 18, 2018

The Blunders of Our Governments, by Anthony King & Ivor Crewe

On 18 July 2017, Lord Horam gave a speech in the House of Lords during a debate on the EUC report Brexit: Trade in Goods. At one point (col. 1563), the noble Lord mentioned what sounded like a good read:
“If you look at that admirable book by King and Crewe, The Blunders of Our Governments, you will find endless episodes of Governments, for internal reasons, simply taking too long to make decisions. Of course, the private sector must pick up the pieces.”
Having (finally) read it, it strikes me that Lord Horam conceivably missed something of the point. One chapter is devoted to the importance of deliberation and not rushing ahead. In another chapter – returned to repeatedly afterwards – King and Crewe explain how at least £2.5 billion and perhaps as much as £20 billion to £30 billion was wasted on the public-private partnership meant to upgrade the London underground network. They refer to the “some would say prejudices” of those behind the scheme, not least the belief that the private sector “was almost always more efficient and effective than the public” (p. 202). After a lot of time and money had been given over to this assumption, the public sector stepped in to take over the mess – and the underground has been in pretty good shape ever since. I raise this not as a pop at Lord Horam, but to show how easily instinctive bias can creep in to decisions of policy, more of which below.

PPP is just one of the many examples of blunders made by Governments between 1979 and 2010, among them the poll tax, the mis-selling of pensions, child support payments, exiting the ERM (rather abruptly), the Millennium Dome, tax credits, IT projects… The authors lay out what counts on page 4:
“We define a blunder as an episode in which a government adopts a specific course  of action in order to achieve one or more achievements and, as a result largely or wholly of its own mistakes, either fails completely to achieve those objectives, or does achieve some or all of them but at a totally disproportionate cost, or else does achieve some or all of them but contrives at the same time to cause a significant amount of ‘collateral damage’ in the form of unintended and undesired consequences.”
Then, having spent half the book detailing many, many blunders, they attempt to identify linked causes and to suggest solutions. The result is an extraordinary history of recent times, perhaps even a psychology of the nation, by turns boggling, depressing and insightful.

Along the way, they puncture common myths:
“Many Scots were subsequently to claim that English ministers had wilfully chosen to inflict the poll tax on the downtrodden people of Scotland, that the Scottish people were being used as guinea-pigs in some nefarious English experiment. But that was not so. The Conservative party’s Scottish ministers had, of their own volition, inflicted the poll tax on their fellow countrymen and women.” (p. 51)
There are plenty of fun details:
“Macmillan, whose grandchildren often played at Number 10, also caused a notice to be posted reading ‘No roller-skating on Cabinet days’.” (p. 340)
And there are pithy, witty insights from the authors and the people they spoke to:
“Someone who watched [the consultants on PPP] working on the scheme described them as ‘very bright people who know nothing’.” (p. 209)
In all, it’s a brilliant, rich and revealing book, achingly timely in our current fudge over Brexit. I hope I don’t detract from that achievement by setting out some reservations.

First, on p. xiv of the introduction, the authors say that, “As feminists, albeit male ones, we would like to have used gender-neutral language consistently throughout” – and then sadly don’t leave it there. For all the reasons given for favouring “he” throughout, I’d argue it’s more than prejudice, it’s an example of the “cultural disconnect” the book later devotes a whole chapter to, where the male authors can only imagine other people – those pursuing or affected by policy, perhaps even those reading the book – as being just like themselves. It’s most jarring when they speak of non-specific Prime Ministers as “he”, given who is now in that seat.

I also suspect some prejudice in the way the book describes heroes and villains. They say witheringly, on p. 264, that “If a man as clever as (Nigel) Lawson thought the poll tax was a batty idea, it just possibly was”, and on p. 327 refer to William Waldegrave’s “formidable intellect”. I might have overlooked similar praise for the wisdom of those from other political parties. (In fact, I don’t know the politics of the authors; these compliments could perhaps be more of that withering wit.)

They certainly don’t argue that one party is more prone to blunders than others. The book is critical of Nicholas Ridley, from the same party as Lawson and Waldegrave, for pushing ahead with full implementation of the poll tax rather than running pilots or trials. It strikes me that Ridley is not named in the acknowledgements as one of the people the authors spoke to. Neither are Gordon Brown or Shriti Vadera, who also get a hard time. (We’re twice told, on p. 260 and p. 343, that Brown would, if he could, make those who said no to him suffer in their careers, and that this prompted a culture around him with “a certain lack of incentive to tell the truth”. Even the quote is repeated.)

But the late Patrick Jenkin did speak to the authors, and his involvement in the formation of the poll tax is much more gently picked over. It’s not overt, just a feeling, a suspicion of bias in favour of those the authors spoke to in person. But given all the authors warn about bias and prejudice in coming to conclusions, I found myself wondering what methods they used to guard against it themselves.

In the second half of the book, the authors quote Irving Janis on groupthink and the ways to prevent or mitigate against it. Among the solutions is a “second-chance meeting” in which critiques are invited once a policy has been agreed. They say that Irving’s “last and (probably) unserious suggestion is that any second-chance meeting should be lubricated by alcohol” (pp. 265-6). This isn’t a new idea – they cite precedents in Herodotus and Tacitus – but again there’s a prejudice showing. What happens when your team of policy-makers includes those who find boozy debriefings awkward or impossible? They might have religious beliefs, or alcoholism, or commitments as parent or carer, or whatever else… As a manager, you wouldn’t necessarily know which team members might find it difficult, and they wouldn’t necessarily tell you. You could – I’ve seen it – end up in splitting your team into two, and favouring the lively, gossipy boozing over the “quiet” ones. It’s worse if you don’t have (or realise you have) such people in your team: your group is too homogenous anyway, and more prone to the “cultural disconnect” that also gets its own chapter.

The point is that it’s all too easy to exhibit bias, and bias can badly skew your analysis and policy – at considerable cost in both money and effectiveness. A lot of the lessons learned are transferable to other walks of life, but the authors address the closing chapters of the book to Parliament in particular.

Chapter 24, “Accountability, lack of”, explodes the myth that Ministers no longer resign on principle after blunders made on their watch; with plenty of examples, King and Crewe show that they didn’t in the past, either. “Lord Carrington’s resignation as foreign secretary for his part in failing to forestall Argentina’s invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982 is remembered only because it was so unusual, all but unique” (pp. 347-8).

Their point is that this lack of consequence, personally, for Ministers guilty of a blunder means there’s no incentive to consider options more carefully at an early stage. Instead, the incentives resulting from regular Cabinet reshuffling, the attentions of the media, and a host of other things listed, is for Ministers to be ambitious, hasty, ruthless, overly confident when facing questions.

They propose two linked solutions to this, a stick and a carrot. First, they suggest a review of legislation after five or ten years, assessing long-term effectiveness and value for money, naming names where blunders were made. A Minister might therefore think, when first working on a new policy, “How will this look in ten years?” They then suggest rewards and even cash prizes for those found to have down well.

It all sounds very sensible, until (on p. 359), they therefore suggest awarding £500,000 to Norman Tebbit for the changes made in the 1980s to the legislation relating to trades unions. It is just possible that such an award might meet with some negative response. Likewise, the authors nominate Margaret Beckett for her work in bringing in the minimum wage. Yet just six pages earlier, they name Beckett as one of very few examples where responsibility for a blunder can be put down to a sole individual, “in the case of the muddled payments and non-payments to English farmers”. Would the award and censure then cancel out? The authors admit they’re not being entirely serious about the proposal, but it would require a little more deliberation before being rolled out.

For all the personal failings, prejudice, and lack of accountability, and the authors’ real beef is with the structures of governance, the methods by which legislation is made. A system led on party political lines, with policy forced through by whoever has the majority of seats, with few amendments actually being made to a Bill as it passes through both Houses, “almost guarantees the passage of bad legislation” (p. 369). They encourage less partisan work, more sharing and discussion. (My feeling, after years of working in the House of Lords, is that it generally worked best when it worked on non-partisan lines, based on experience, compromise, consent.)

In the epilogue, dated July 2014, the authors address the then-current coalition Government and list what the future might look back on as blunders. What policies might have been founded on  prejudice, hurried through into law, with little deliberation or critique allowed? The reforms to the probation service, the new Personal Independence Payment, the cuts to the Armed Forces, Help to Buy, the bedroom tax, HS2, and Universal Credit have all been contentious, but it seems like a glittering golden age when that was all we had to worry about...

Friday, June 15, 2018

The Essential Doctor Who - Adventures in the Future

Out now, the super splendid Essential Doctor Who - Adventures in the Future (from the makers of Doctor Who Magazine) has a couple of things in it by me.

I got Subhadra Das, curator of UCL Science Collections, to watch 1977 story The Face of Evil - the only Doctor Who story to mention eugenics by name. We discuss race (which is quite timely), colonialism, the philosophy of science and the wonder of Tom Baker...

I also spoke to writer Stephen Gallagher candidly about the bold vision and troubled production of his two 1980s Doctor Who stories, Warriors' Gate and Terminus.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

The Deep, by Tom Taylor and James Brouwer

Recording here each book I finish reading, I've skipped the stuff read to my children because the Dr does shifts with bedtime books so I've only partly read Harry Potter, the Famous Five or Michael Morpurgo's The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips. But The Deep was all me, so here we are...

The Lord of Chaos loves the TV version of The Deep, which he progressed to from Octonauts - once such a constant of our lives. It's a daft, exciting adventure cartoon about a family who live on a huge submarine.

The six-issue comic version from 2011 has been collected in one edition (previously in two: "Here be Dragons" and "The Vanishing Island"). It's a little different from the TV verson - most notably, the Nekton family seem to be darker skinned here. The supporting cast are also different: the trash journalist Trish is a great, funny character. But it was clearly the blueprint for the TV version, which has the same look and feel.

The comic looks amazing. James Brouwer's artwork is sumptuous and rich, for all the simplified look of the characters. The writing is also excellent. The book covers two distinct adventures, linked by an arc that extends beyond the end - the Lord of Chaos doesn't approve of it ending on a cliffhanger when there's no second volume to follow. But the mysteries are intriguing and the resolutions simple but satisfying, in exactly the way to delight the younger reader. The dramatic moments are thrilling, even scary, but there's a lot of funny stuff, too - including running gags that take time to pay off. It's all so exhilarating and fun.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Doctor Who and the Top of the Tree

Big Finish have announced details of The Eleventh Doctor Chronicles, including one by me:
The Top of the Tree by Simon Guerrier
"On one of their annual jaunts, young Kazran Sardick and the Doctor find themselves in trouble when the TARDIS is tangled in the branches of a very strange, very large tree.
They emerge into a habitat where myriad species fight for survival: an ecosystem of deadly flora and fauna, along with a tribe of primitive humans."
The fiendishly talented Jacob Dudman narrates and plays the Eleventh Doctor, and Danny Horn returns as young Kazran Sardick from 2010's A Christmas Carol. It's directed by Helen Goldwyn.

The set, including three other stories by people who aren't me, is out in August. 

Thursday, June 07, 2018

The Girl From the Other Side: Siúil, a Rún vol 1, by Nagabe

The nice people at Gosh! recommended this when I said I was after something to intrigue the Lord of Chaos, in our efforts to get him to read for himself. I'd already picked up The Deep: Here Be Dragons - the graphic novel that led to the TV series he loves - and asked for something similarly gripping, intelligent and not about bickering heroes.

So, under wise instruction, I looked through a few things and settled on The Girl From the Other Side: Siúil, a Rún, with story and art by Nagabe, and translated by Adrienne Beck. The first instalment (there are, to date, four) looked suitably goth and strange to appeal to the Lord's mother, too, and I thought reading it front-to-back and right-to-left would grab his Lordship's attention. But I thought I'd better read it first.

A small girl lives in a house in the forest with a monstrous-looking but kindly guardian - who she cannot touch. The guardian, apparently a teacher, has contracted a curse that is passed on by contact. Anyone with this curse, or suspected of having it, is killed by the terrified, ordinary people on the other side of a cordon. So the girl really should know better than to wander off on her own...


It's a beguiling and beautifully told story, a lot of it told without words, and what dialogue there is minimal anyway. As a result, we must more carefully study the pictures - the comics equivalent of Scandinoir holding our attention because we have to follow the subtitles. The gentle wimsy of the girl and her relationship with the teacher - doing chores, burning a cake but trying to eat it anyway - plays off chillingly against the threat of the "insiders" who wish these two nice people dead.

From his Lordship's perspective, the main issue will be that - just as we're getting into the story - it ends on a bit of a hook. So I've used the excuse of his potential interest to order the next volume...

Thursday, May 24, 2018

The Shed

It has taken months and been painfully more expensive than expected, but I now have a shed/office up and running, and my daughter no longer needs to share her bedroom with my rubbish. Here, for those who've asked, is the whole saga...

The original plan was to convert the old, World War Two bomb shelter at the end of the garden, which had been used for storing the lawnmower and old pots of paint. I was really keen to keep the bomb shelter, not least because of its place in history. This part of London was heavily bombed in the war - the pub round the corner, my daughter's nursery and the swings we go to all the time are all built in place of houses that were lost.

Although the shelter looked large and imposing from outside, the very thick brick walls meant it was pretty small inside. Those walls would make it difficult to add a window or electricity. And the heavy-set concrete roof was leaking, which would be complicated to fix.

Exterior of World War Two bomb shelter
in our garden in January
Interior of World War Two bomb shelter
in our garden in January



The compromised roof, letting water in
So, in January, and a little guiltily, we arranged for builders to come and unbuild it. It took two of them, all day, with a huge pneumatic drill and sledge hammers, just to take the roof off.

Day 1 of demolition

Day 2 of demolition
It was exhausting work. The builders got through at least one pneumatic drill, and would retire wearily at 3 pm each evening. It took longer than expected, so they were then off to other jobs, coming in when they could to destroy another section.

By the end of the first week, we'd also hit a snag: the back and right-hand walls of the bomb shelter were supporting the walls behind them, so would have to stay. There was also the issue of how low the bomb shelter sat in the ground, which had meant there was always a problem with damp.

End of second week of demolition
The builders suggested using some of the rubble they'd cleared as the base for a platform on which the shed could sit. It saved money to use the broken bits of brick - but was still an expensive addition to the plan. We tightened out belts, and as well as the platform they installed panelling to tidy the whole thing up, too.


Construction of platform for new shed 

Our cat, Stevens, supervised the construction of a step up to the platform. The crappy weather may also have done something to the concrete mix - the edge of the step is already beginning to crumble. So we might have to have another go later in the year.

Paw prints in the step

After three weeks, the builders finished with the platform complete.

Platform completed, February

With them done and gone, I was ready to order the new shed from Woodside Timber. It would not arrive for another month - in March - so we had time to tidy the garden a bit, and attempt to book in an electrician for the next stage.

The Dr, in a tiara, tidying.
A nice electrician we'd used before came round and established it would be really tricky getting a cable out to the shed, as it would need to go under the floor in our kitchen, through the back wall, under the patio and then under the garden. Not one of these things would be easy.

But by happy coincidence, she was due to be working in the next few days with our old friend, the nice bloke who fitted our kitchen and converted our loft, who we'd booked to insulate and board the inside of the shed. She said she would talk to him about exactly what could be done. I heard from him soon after, and they'd talked through who would do what. We were go - in principle, or so I thought.

In March, while I was talking at the Bath Taps Into Science festival, the shed was put up by the nice people from Woodside Timber - exactly fitting the platform for it. Hooray!

The new shed, in March
I was then on holiday - at a wedding in Vietnam, and then with the family in Majorca - and we hit the Easter holidays. So we were well into April before the nice bloke was free to put in the insulation and board. As agreed with the electrician, he put the wiring in - but didn't connect it up to the mains - and got a cable running from the shed to the house. It helped that he fitted our kitchen all those years ago and knew where everything sat. But it was still a fiddly job.

Then we hit another snag. Yes, the electrician had discussed with him what needed to be done. But she'd not actually quoted for the job because she knew she was too busy to take it on. Me and the nice bloke had both thought she'd given each other the go ahead. Oops. So I had to dash round looking for another electrician. More time lost. The soonest anyone could come just to quote for the job was now May...

In the meantime, I got on with painting the inside of the newly boarded shed, with the Lord of Chaos helping when the mood took him. Once the paint was dry, he also decorated it, on the theme of an aquarium - with added monsters.

Lord of Chaos at work
 Lady Vader also wanted in on the action, though her work is more abstract in nature.

Lord Chaos and Lady Vader at work
Towards the end of April, I made a whistlestop visit to Winchester for the christening of an old schoolfriend's new son, and was able to steal some off-cuts of carpet from my parents.

Shed now with some carpet
Then there was the matter of burying the steel wire armoured cable running from the shed to the house. This had been the bit of the job the electricians and nice bloke were all keen to dodge. So on a rainy day at the end of April, muggins here just had to get on with it, with spade and fork.

Garden before the trench
The official recommendation was to bury the wire at a depth of 600 mm, which is a lot of digging. It didn't help that very soon I was digging through broken brick and glass and tile - as if the house had been built on a rubbish tip. It was knackering.

Garden with trench
Meanwhile, with progress being made, the Dr was keen to get all my stuff out of what had been my office and is now Lady Vader's bedroom. That mean lugging the enormous desk downstairs and out. I called in a favour, having helped some friends move house over Christmas.

Desk in old office, in sight of the new shed

Desk and chair now in the shed
It was all done in time for the electrician to arrive the next day to give us a quote, as they'd need to see the trench. Job done - but I was a little sore and damaged.

A writer's hand after some real work
Lord Chaos was fascinated by the spoil heap I'd created, which meant a house full of mud. But he also diligently uncovered all sorts of treasures. We cleaned up the bits of broken tile and removed the bits of glass so he could take it all in to school for an accomplished show and tell.

Treasures from the garden
There was then a bit of back and forth with the electrician - he missed the day he was meant to come to quote, then couldn't do the actual work before the end of May. He also recommended a whole new fuse box for the house, rather than just grafting an extra bit on. It made sense, so we gritted our teeth and said yes. It might all be done by June...

At the last minute, he was able to come on the first Bank Holiday Monday, so we were suddenly ahead. I had to dash to the local DIY warehouses to pick up switch sockets and lights ready to be installed. I do not recommend this on a bank holiday weekend. It took almost for ever.

On the Monday, the electrician and his colleague worked quickly through the sunshine. They also signed off the trench I'd dug as being adequate, so - having put down a warning scroll about their being an electricity cable underneath - I could fill in the trench. That was on a very hot day, and probably harder than the original dig. The Dr felt I failed to emulate Poldark.

Not Poldark
After all that toil, I was granted a night out in the pub with some friends. Which was when the Dr discovered our downstairs lights had not been reconnected. The apologetic electrician was back the next day...

With the cables in, the nice bloke came back to fix a few last bits and pieces, and fitted the shelf brackets I'd also purloined from my parents. They had been the shelves in my bedroom in my teens, home to my run of Doctor Who books, most of which I'd long since given away... Putting up the brackets proved fiddly, because the sloping roof created an optical illusion where the middle bracket never looked right. After much swearing and use of a spirit level, we got a shelf up.
The middle bracket is at the same height as the other two
With the brackets fixed, my parents then came to babysit while I was off on a job. They arrived with my old shelves, cut to six feet exactly as I'd asked, and more off-cuts of carpet to fill the remaining gaps.

With shelves done, I began ferrying boxes of stuff over to the shed, in between trying to keep up with the work I'm behind on. Much of it was boxes of stuff that I'd hardly been able to get into in the seven years we've lived in this house. There was a happy afternoon just putting 25 years of Doctor Who Magazine in order, which will speed up a lot of the stuff I'm currently writing...

On Friday, we visited the British Heart Foundation shop in central Croydon looking for some kind of armchair or sofa that would a) fit the limited space and b) suit comfortable reading. We found the perfect thing and - miracle of miracles! - they delivered it that same afternoon. Lady Vader and her Dolly approved.

New old sofa meets Lady Vader's approval
With Lord Chaos off school with chicken pox, we've had a couple of days this week to concentrate on the shed - because he objected to me ignoring him by working on my laptop. Yesterday, we went to collect the box shelves Homebase were meant to have delivered 10 days ago. They apologised for not having a driver available in all that time and generously refunded the £3.95 for delivery.

Lord Chaos enjoyed using the gentle IKEA drill to put in the screws, and fixing the little white round things that hide the screwheads on top. He then contentedly watched me fill the shelves with all my rubbish. Last night, the Dr was delighted to see there was space for my Doctor Who DVDs, too - finally exorcising her house.



There are still bits and bobs left to do: things to unpack, a fan heater to buy, so much of it to reorganise. But it's a snug and cosy space to work in, and I'm now ripping through the stuff that for so long I have been late on. It has been well worth all the effort.