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.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Doctor Who and Rose, by Russell T Davies

Last night I was again the guest of the Hastings Writers' Group to give feedback on and announce the winner of their science-fiction short story competition. The 19 2,000-word stories all brimmed with brilliance, and gave us plenty to talk about. Mike Gould then read his beguiling and original winning entry, "Up There And Far Away", and we had time for a couple of the runners-up, too. An enthusiastic, talented and supportive group - it was a pleasure to sit among them.

Reading those stories and some research for work things has meant little time for books, but there have been moments for Rose, Russell T Davies' glorious novelisation (he prefers "novel") of the episode that, back in 2005, brought Doctor Who back from the dead. Doctor Who rose, do you see?

I've shared my immediate reaction to seeing Rose before, and the book largely follows the events seen on screen but adds three things:

First, Russell ties the events and characters into stuff we learn in later TV episodes - there are references to Rose's dad from the 2005 episode Father's Day, Mickey's gran from the 2006 series, Rose's chat with the Tenth Doctor in The End of Time part two (2010), and all sorts of bits about the Time War.

The past is also up for grabs. Most notably, when Clive shares with Rose evidence of the Doctor visiting key moments in history, the TV version has him show her pictures only of this incarnation. That made sense for a brand new series looking to appeal to an audience who might never have seen any old Doctor Who. But with the series - and regeneration - now better established, he can have Clive present all the Doctors, in order, including some future ones.
"'He's not the final Doctor in sequence, have a look at this next one ... And how about this one?' said Clive. 'He's more your age.' Rose saw a man with a fantastic jaw, dressed in a tweed jacket and bow tie. Then Clive kept the sequence going; an older, angry man in a brown caretaker's coat, holding a mop; a blonde woman in braces running away from a giant frog in front of Buckingham Palace; a tall, bald black woman wielding a flaming sword; a young girl or boy in a hi-tech wheelchair with what looked like a robot dog at their side..."
Russell T Davies, Doctor Who - Rose, pp. 78-9.
In the same way, we learn Clive's father died in the 1960s in some kind of Doctor-related event. Some of us will recognise the details from Remembrance of the Daleks (1988).

Just as more Doctors appear here than in the TV episode, there are a lot more people generally. Wilson, mentioned and murdered off-screen on TV, has his life story detailed in a prologue - a life so rich and tangled that it's worthy of its own TV drama. When Rose returns home after meeting the Doctor, her flat is filled with people. Mickey also has a gang of mates - Mook, Patrice and Sally - who again could front their own series. The Auton attack on London is bigger, wilder and involves more people.

Russell fills the space afforded by a novel that wasn't practical on screen. We get Mickey's first sight of the interior of the TARDIS, and a chance for Rose to do what many of her successors have down, and gaze down on the Earth from space. Clive's wife gets more to do, and I long to know what happens to her afterwards and her quest for revenge.

The scale is spectacular, but the success of the book and the TV episode still rest on the small and ordinary stuff: it's all real, recognisable, relateable. For all people are selfish, difficult or weak, there's a great warmth in the writing, too, a delight in our foolishness and foibles. Russell is determinedly inclusive - not just in the sense of writing in new gay and trans characters, but also in making us welcome. The joy of this book, of his writinng, is not the aliens, but the humanity.

I look forward keenly to Russell's new TV drama, A Very English Scandal, which begins this Sunday. See also the new profile of Russell T Davies in The New Statesman.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

The Engineer in Wonderland, by ER Laithwaite

This was research for something I'm working on at the moment. It's the book version of the Royal Institution Christmas lectures delivered in December 1966 and January 1967 by Eric Laithwaite, professor of heavy electrical engineering at Imperial College. 

These were the 137th Christmas lectures in the series for a "juvenile auditory", or children aged between 10 and 17, begun by Michael Faraday in 1825. Until recently, it was thought Laithwaite's were the first to be televised, in a tradition that continues today, but Rupert Cole reveals that Royal Institution Christmas lectures were broadcast, in some form, in 1936 and 1949

Laithwaite gave each lecture between 3 and 4 pm, and the broadcasts were between 5 and 6 pm the same day. I like to imagine some poor runner racing with the fresh, unique 2-inch videotapes from the Royal Institution in Albermarle Street to TV Centre in under an hour, but suspect it wasn't quite like that...

My version of the book, sourced from Abebooks where I spend too much money, does not look as splendid as the stock image of the dust jacket above. It's a battered, jacketless copy once owned by the University of Bradford library, loaned out 35 times between October 1969 and March 1998.

There's the foxy smell of school textbook, as the compounds in the paper have broken down over the last 50 years. Passages are underlined or marked by the various students who've been here before me. I especially like the old-school but trying-to-be-chic-and-futuristic university logo in the inside front cover, and the pouch still containing the punched paper card for old-skool computers:


The book itself is broadly a transcript of the lectures - complete with brackets telling us what was happening in the room as Laithwaite spoke. His lectures were repeated in the summer of 1967 - "on BBC Channel-1", as the Royal Institution informed its members - and then the tapes were wiped, so this, with its photographs of the lectures being given and close-ups of the various models and machines, is the nearest we can get to reliving them.

Laithwaite is quite the showman, his lectures full of demonstrations of things apparently breaking physical laws - objects levitating, darts shooting through tubes, that sort of thing. The sixth and final lecture starts with one hell of a promise: demonstrations of experiments never previously performed, with Laithwaite not knowing the results in advance. If I struggled with some of the technical explanations (yes, aimed at kids aged 10 to 17, shut up), I wholly got the excitement of this live theatre.


(The above image was also used on the cover of the programme of the lectures. Note the threepenny bit in the lower right, to give scale.)

Laithwaite was best known for his work on linear motors and levitation systems - think the fast-moving tray that cuts the head off a dummy in Q's workshop in The Spy Who Loved Me (using a system Laithwaite helped to develop). His lectures basically explore the science of these things, but are more about imbuing the audience with less a sense of wonder, more a sense that they can play with this weird, cool stuff, too.

The book goes further - most chapters are followed by notes explaining how schools might build the models demonstrated. I'm only slightly completely bloody horrified by the instructions in the first lecture for a wire that gets so hot it can be used to cut plastic - "but be careful not to burn your fingers" - and models that plug directly into the mains.

In fact, there's something thrillingly reckless here. Lecture two begins with Laithwaite trying out ideas suggested by children in the audience of lecture one, two days earlier. Besides the hasty rewriting, restructuring and basic accomodation of this, there's then the result:
"The experiment was tried ... but ... the volunteer suddenly let go the thick ring as it was burning his fingers."
ER Laithwaite, The Engineer in Wonderland, p. 31.
That's burning a child, almost live on air. On page 125, he describes timing the moment to switch off a linear track at just the right moment so that a rotor riding along it didn't fly off into the audience. There's a fascinating preface to chapter six in which Laithwaite details the preparations and testing for the never-before-tried experiment, with safety as a paramount issue.
"Alan Sleath [BBC producer] offered to put the whole experiment in a cage, with lecturer and assistants inside. This would certainly have added to the spectacle if not to the comfort of those performing the experiment."
Ibid., p. 143.
As a sometime producer for the BBC on a freelance basis making documentaries for radio, I find all of this extraordinary and thrilling, a risk assessment form expanding in my head as I read eagerly on. No wonder these lectures made such an impact and established the series on TV. Laithwaite was invited to give Christmas lectures again in 1974 - but that's another story.

More than anything, these lectures are about practical experimentation, using your own evidence to challenge the things we take for granted. It's an intoxicating challenge, and I'd like to know how influential it was on getting children into STEM subjects and engineering in particular.

But there are moments where Laithwaite is more philosophical. He claims that a hundred years ago (that is, 50 years before his lectures) the all-important factors in machine design were efficiency in power. At the time of his lectures, he argued the key factors were cost and the amount of power gained from a given weight. But what of the future? Laithwaite's prediction is fascinating, forged in the shadow of the "white heat" of technological revolution, famously spoken of by Harold Wilson  in 1963. Here's what Laithwaite predicted:
"Your homes are becoming more and more littered with gadgets, both electrical and mechanical. A family possessing a car, bicycles, a washing machine, a refridgerator, a vacuum cleaner, an electric razor, a hair dryer, a television set and transistor radios is not regarded as anything out of the ordinary. Washing-up machines, waste disposal units, automatic food mixers, electric carving knives and the like are regarded as somewhat more luxurious, but the average number of gadgets per home is increasing each year. When they all work, they are fine things to have, but we soon learn to rely on them to such an extent that when they fail we are terribly upset, and as the number of gadgets increases, so does our annoyance with them and the liklihood of a repair man of one sort or another coming in almost ever day! - unless the reliability is increased - and we will be prepared to pay a bigger and bigger price for reliability. If your car or the train in which you are travelling breaks down only once a year, it is once too often, and if you were asked, as a regular traveller, to pay £50 a year more for your fares or petrol with a guarantee that your transport would never break down, I think most people would be prepared to pay it even now."
Ibid., p. 74.
Yes, a 21st century built by engineers on the basis of reliability. I finished the book on a train to London Bridge, late after the one I'd meant to catch had been cancelled. That £50 fee - as much as a week's Oystercard - is a tantalising utopia.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Doctor Who and the Day of the Doctor, by Steven Moffat

A long time ago when I was not so broken and old, I made a point of finishing every book begun, enjoyable, insightful or not. These days, amid the noise of work and childcare, I'll try and give a book 100 pages and then dump it if it's not delivering.

Oh dear, did Simon not get on with the new novelisation of 2013 Doctor Who episode The Day of the Doctor, written by his friend Steven Moffat? And to the extent of then writing an angry post about it, to be read by whole single figures of people? Or is this merely an attention-grabbing prelude?

I got to page 136 of Ann Radcliffe's 1794 gothic novel The Mysteries of Udulpho -

Hah, thought so. 

- and things were just starting to occur. After pages and pages of picturesque travel through Gascony, our heroine Emily is orphaned and forced to live with a ghastly aunt, surrounded by her aunt's ghastly friends. They engineer malicious gossip about a nice young man Emily has taken a shine to, and her prospects do not look good...

But the plot and I were making such slow progress, the prospect of another 596 pages was hardly a thrill. And then the five new novelisations of TV Doctor Who stories arrived. I selected Steven Moffat's one at random to read on a trip into town. 

And blimey. It's frenetic. I tore through it in very few sittings - which feels all the more remarkable because the book is packed.

Steven retells the events of the TV episode from the point of view of the Doctor, which is immediately tricky because it all happens out of chronological order, and to several incarnations of the Doctor at once. So we start with chapter 8, then chapter 11 and then chapter 1. Between each chapter, a narrator comments on the reliability of the sources - apparently in real time as we're reading. 
"(By the way, these pages should be appearing in italics . If not, just give three light taps on any verb, and the page will reboot. And if you don't like any aspects of my prose style, give the book a good shake. That should help you work of your irritation.)"
Steven Moffat, Doctor Who - The Day of the Doctor (2018), p. 3.
It's all very clever, or infuriating or fun, depending on your tastes. Steven packs his book with metatextual jokes - references to Doctor Who books that haven't been written yet, teasing us to look for a chapter that's gone missing, and the idea that the narrator can see us as we're reading. One page is apprently written in our own handwriting.

While the narrative largely follows the events - and dialogue - of the TV episode, Steven has added all sorts of stuff. Each incarnation of the Doctor gets a heroic moment and to go for tea. There are appearances by River Song (in the bath with the Tenth Doctor), the Brigadier and Sarah Jane Smith, and even the Dr Who movies starring Peter Cushing - including what the Doctor thinks of them.
"He loves them. He loaned Peter Cushing a waistcoat for the second one, they were great friends. Though, we only realised that when Cushing started showing up in movies made long after his death."
Ibid., p. 144.
Again, your delight or dismay at this sort of thing may vary, but I found the Brigadier and Sarah bits quite moving - not least because the much-loved actors who played them died in 2011 and so couldn't be part of the TV version. The TV version did achieve a coup of a cameo, and the appearance by an engimatic curator of the National Gallery still provides goosebumps in print (though sadly doesn't confirm my own evidence-based theory that the National Gallery is, in fact, a TARDIS).

But really that's all distraction from the crux of the story, in which the Doctor faces, again and again, the worst moment in his long life - when he must destroy his own people to save the universe as a whole. This, its effect on him, and the intervention by his friend Clara, is what makes this particular adventure so sad and yet joyous, so effective and even profound.

Steven goes beyond the TV version, which rests on the Doctor restating the promise implicit in his name, that he endeavours never to be cruel or cowardly. The book turns out to be a more fundamental exploration of that promise, and of exactly who the Doctor thinks they are.

It ends on a battlefield in the future, with the Doctor in conversation with two women from her past, quoting words from a TV episode that, long ago, promised the adventures would never end. So this novelisation of old Doctor Who - in more ways than one - is ultimately a witty / optimistic / clever-clever look to the future.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Isle of Dogs

In January, I took the Lord of Chaos to see the Pixar film Coco at the cinema. It held him transfixed, but I'd already given my heart to a trailer before it started. As always, there had been the cloyingly awful previews of films aimed at children and their poor parents - and then an astonished gasp from those sitting round me in the darkness. And from me as well.

'What the bloody hell was that'? people asked. 'Can we go see that?' I pleaded to my son.


Finally, this morning, we got to see Isle of Dogs, and I sat in stupefied wonder. It looks and sounds and feels amazing - a tale of a small and wounded boy doggedly searching for his lost dog, in a desolate and often cruel landscape. It had just the right mix of tension and jokes to keep his Lordship entertained, too - he enthused to his mum about it later.

I was getting a strong Kurosawa vibe already when the brilliant soundtrack (mostly by Alexandre Desplat) then included Hayasaka's "Kanbei & Katsushiro - Kikuchiyo's Mambo" from The Seven Samurai.

It could do with better, more prominent roles for female characters, and I'd have cut at least one of the couples pairing up at the end - it's all a bit male and straight and, looking at the cast, white. But it's an astounding film, even more so to see it on the big screen with that sound. It's been a long time since I've left a cinema so elated.