Sunday, June 23, 2019

The Secret Life, by Andrew O'Hagan

I was given this 2017 book after chatting with a friend about Andrew O'Hagan's 60,000 word essay on the Grenfell fire, which brilliantly conjures the lives so awfully lost and then not-so-brilliantly identifies heroes and villains. This book is subtitled "Three True Stories" and in two of them O'Hagan trails in the wake of extraordinary individuals, reporting on what seem to be pivotal movements in history. In between these instalments, he charts his own experiment in matters of identity - and it's altogether different.

First, there's "Ghosting", his account of being employed to ghost the autobiography of Julian Assange, the efforts involved to produce a 70,000-word manuscript, and then why that never got published. It's all really peculiar, and few of the people involved are very likeable, but O'Hagan is good at the small but telling details:
"During those days at the Bungay house I would try to sit [Assange] down with a new list of questions, and he'd shy away from them, saying he wasn't in the mood or there were more pressing matters to deal with. I think he was just keen to get away from [his then residence] Ellingham Hall. I had the internet. I made lunch every day and he'd eat it, often with his hands, and then lick the plate. In all that time he didn't once take his dirty plate to the sink. That doesn't make him like Josef Mengele, but, you know, life is life." (p. 34)
That casual sense of other people being there for Assange's convenience illuminates much of the story. The sense is of Assange talking big and then not delivering, or at least not caring about details, or how that lack of care might affect and damage other people. O'Hagan signs off with his last meeting with Assange, when the book is clearly not going to happen.
"It was a Friday night and Julian has never seemed more alone. We laughed a lot and then he went very deeply into himself. He drank his beer and then lifted mine and drank that. 'We've got some really historic things going on,' he said. Then he opened his laptop and the blue screen lit his face and he hardly noticed me leaving." (p. 99)
His involvement with Assange leads to him being recommended to Craig Wright, the man who, under the alias Satoshi Nakamoto, invented bitcoin - or did he? In "The Satoshi Affair", O'Hagan recountsWright's efforts to go public and then decide otherwise - just like Assange. Again, it's a fascinating account of what seems a major moment, one that raises issues about identity, our relationship to technology and the truth, and O'Hagan has a ring-side seat throughout. As with Assange, there's a lot of money at stake and a rather glamorous, showbiz lifestyle being lived - but Wright is another sad, trapped figure racked by indecision and doubt. We'd sympathise with his predicament if we didn't see what it costs everyone else around him.

Between these two accounts is "The Invention of Ronald Pinn." It begins in Camberwell New Cemetery, O'Hagan remarking on the number of young people's graves. He identifies one, Ronald Alexander Pinn, who died in 1984 aged 20, but otherwise roughly O'Hagan's own age, and decides to use the dead man's birth certificate to create a false identity. In doing so, he's inspired by recent revelations about undercover policemen from the Met's Special Demonstration Squard using such identities:
"In several of the cases, officers kept their fake identities for more than ten years and exploited them in sexual situations. To strengthen their 'backstory', they would visit the places of their 'childhood', walking around the houses they had lived in before they died, all the better to implant the legend of their second life." (p. 102)
So that's what O'Hagan does, touring the places Pinn would have known, researching his life, speaking to people who knew him - and then using that to build up an alternative life. He then wants to see what can be done with such a false identity, and goes on to buy white heroin, cannabis and Tramadol, and counterfeit money. He investigates but apparently doesn't buy guns, as if moral scrupples stop him going that far. But who was he paying for the drugs and fake money, and in giving them money what else was he tacitly financing?

These are not victimless crimes. Living in south London, I'm very conscious of the links between the drug trade and knife crime, the lives of children blighted - and ended - by the supply chain. As a bereaved parent, I had a visceral reaction to what O'Hagan did with the name of some mother's son. He's an unapologetic tourist, blithely enjoying a stroll through other people's misery and grief.

At the end of his account, he finds the mother of the real Ronald Pinn and we realise that she must have provided much of the biographical detail given earlier. But it's telling that this is where his account finishes - we don't hear what her son's death did to her, or what she thinks of what O'Hagan has done with her son's name. O'Hagan is, like Assange and Wright, caught up in the thrill of his own story and seems to spare no thought for those hurt along the way.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

The October Man, by Ben Aaronovitch

The outrageously named Tobias Winter and Vanessa Sommer are two cops teamed up to investigate a peculiar death - the victim consumed by the noble rot used in making some kinds of wine. Winter, who narrates this case, is the German equivalent of Peter Grant, the narrator of the other Rivers of London books - smart-talking, shrewd and a junior wizard.

Having only read Lies Sleeping last month, I'd hoped this new instalment would pick up where that ended but this is more of a side-step - apparently, Peter isn't even aware of Winter's existence. I can see that the German police would want to recruit someone very like Peter, but if there's a criticism it's that they're not more distinct in attitude and patter. If I were editing this, I might suggest Vanessa - the non-magical sceptic - should narrate it.

But for that small concern, how brilliant to explore another part of the same world. How thrilling to get some more tantalising detail about what might have happened in the Second World War that Peter's boss, Nightingale, will only allude to - and from a German perspective. It's surely prood of the strength and richness of the world Ben has created that such a side-step is conceivable, let alone done so well.

This is a typically fast-moving, slick murder mystery, full of wry observation and stuff that feels totally real, grounding the magic so we take it in our stride. It's 20 years since I took my higher certificate in wines and spirits (yes, really) but the viticulture all seems right. Ben knows London intimately, so it's quite an achievement to suggest the same confident command of Trier. The novella ends with the case resolved, but suggesting there's more to come. I hope so. 

Monday, June 17, 2019

Home Guard cover

Here's Tom Webster's amazing cover for Doctor Who - The Home Guard, an audio adventure I wrote that's out in November. 

"It’s the middle of the Second World War and Ben Jackson has returned to visit his married friends Polly and Jamie in their quiet English village. But they can’t quite shake the feeling that something’s not right..."

Saturday, June 15, 2019

The Tombs of Atuan, by Ursula Le Guin

The prologue to The Tombs of Atuan (1971) is barely a page long and utterly devastating. In a valley of blossoming apple trees, a mother calls one of five children in from outside, and the little girl's father chides his wife.
"Why do you let your heart hang on the child? They're coming to take her away next month. For good. Might as well bury her and be done with it. What's the good of clinging to one you're bound to lose? She's no good to us. If they'd pay for her when they took her, that would be something, but they won't. They'll take her and that's an end of it." (p. 175) 
The mother can't help herself, and the father, too, is grieving for the loss to come. Their bravery, their acceptance, is awful.

The girl has been identified as the reincarnation of Arha, the priestess ever reborn. In the book proper, we follow her in her new role, carrying our rituals and devising painful death for those who have broken the rules. She has a rival in the temple, and a friend who - shockingly - is not a believer. Arha also explores the labyrinth under the temple: a complex system of tunnels in total darkness, reliant solely on memory if she's not to get lost or fall into traps. We feel the strangeness of it, the danger she's in by exploring ever further. Pushing on into the darkness is as haunting as that prologue.

Then, in chapter 5, Arha is startled by a light in the darkness, cast by a mysterious man. We quickly realise this is Ged, the Wizard of Earthsea from the first book in the series. From Arha's perspective, he's dark-skinned - a detail I missed in the first book but mentioned several times here. Having been given one half of a magical ring or bracelet towards the end of that book, Ged has come to look for the other half, sneaking into the labyrinth and all set to steal it.

Arha, outraged, traps him - but she's also intrigued. She wants to know who he is, what he wants, how he casts his werelight, but the longer she keeps this heretic intruder alive, the more her own position is at risk. Ged also tells her that they're not alone in the darkness; down here, they are prey for evil somethings related to the shadow he battled in the first book.

Arha's predicament is compelling and whatever decision she makes will come at terrible cost. Le Guin is brilliant at making nothing too easy or neat in this simple-seeming story. At one point, Ged is attacked by a character close to Arha and we totally understand why. Ged defends himself and the character is lost to one of the labyrinth's traps. We feel the shock of it, the horror to Arha of losing this loyal figure and her remorse for how she treated them before. In this labyrinth of horrors, with a wizard at her side, it's completely, terribly real.

Without giving away the ending, I felt a pang for the girl's parents. She barely remembers them and doesn't spare them a thought. But surely they'd soon hear of what happens in the story, to the daughter they lost all that time ago. They'll have lost her again, because no one has thought to tell them the truth.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Life Drawing, by Jessica Martin

In the midst of yesterday's deluge, a brave postman swam our street to deliver Life Drawing: A Life Under Lights, the autobiography of Jessica Martin told in comic-strip form.

I've know Jessica for years through comics and Doctor Who things (she played an alien werewolf in The Greatest Show in the Galaxy (1988-9)), and have read her previous comics work. It Girl (2013) and Vivacity (2014) are biographies of real Hollywood stars, and Elsie Harris Picture Palace (2015) is a fictional story about a Hollywood writer. Her own story continues the theme - a love of cinema's golden age weaving through her life.

I thought I knew Jessica's story, from her first appearances in TV sketch shows doing impressions, then on Doctor Who, to being in the huge stage hit Me and My Girl with Gary Wilmott - which my grandpa took me to see. Her account of her time in Doctor Who, and of producer John Nathan-Turner, didn't tell me anything new. But her book is full of illuminating detail, such as when she was in the pantomime Cinderella alongside a future Doctor Who co-star...

Peggy Mount, as seen in
Life Drawing by Jessica Martin

She's honest too about her own vanity and ambition, and how what she calls "erratic eating" affected her work. But this is much more than a series of showbiz anecdotes. It's not just that old Hollywood and muscials excite her, they inspire her to press on.

For all the breezy, straight-forward style, I loved how Jessica conveys the tangle of relationships and her love for people without condoning their actions. Early on, her dad pulls an "ornamental bull whip off the wall" during an argument with Jessica's mum, and we later learn that her parents were never married as he already had wife. He's a difficult figure, and yet we feel for him when Jessica's mum leaves him and in his estranged relationship with Jessica's half-brother, and in his final days.

The book ends with her sharing her drawing and comics with people who encourage her. Comics is a new chapter in her life, but she faces it with typical determination, passion and energy. That's what radiates from this book. It's inspiring.

Monday, June 10, 2019

A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K Le Guin

To the horror of many wise friends, I've started this famous book several times but never finished it until now. It charts the early life of Ged - or Sparrowhawk, or Duny - who, while training as a wizard, unleashes a sinister shadow-thing that then pursues him. As Ged hops from island to island round Earthsea to escape his creation, the monster comes ever on.

The first chapter, in which young dorky Duny first learns some magic and then saves his village from invaders, is brilliant but his subsequent mentoring by stoic old wizard Ogion and squabbles with other pupils at wizard school never quite connected with me before. Having read the whole book, that's all cast in different light. Sneering fellow student Jasper isn't really Ged's worst enemy - it's his own impatience and pride. He must learn subtler arts than spells: using historical research to best a dragon, and not using magic to turn the tables on the shadow.

As with the Le Guin I already know (The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness) there's lots on the way words shape our reality and have their own innate power. Knowing a person or thing's secret, true name gives you power over that person or thing, a simple basis on which to build a complex framework of magic and a richly realised society. Ged's best friendship is defined by them condfiding real names, and when he learns the true name of a young woman it immediately suggests a strong link between them. That distinction between public persona and private, true self seems all the more pertinent today with the lives we live online and IRL.

I didn't realise the "werelights" conjured by Peter Grant in the Rivers of London books came from here, and assume Le Guin also inspired the name of my friend's band:
“As a boy, Ogion like all boys had thought it would be a very pleasant game to take by art-magic whatever shape one liked, man or beast, tree or cloud, and so to play at a thousand beings. But as a wizard he had learned the price of the game, which is the peril of losing one's self, playing away the truth. The longer a man stays in a form not his own, the greater this peril. Every prentice-sorcerer learns the tale of the wizard Bordger of Way, who delighted in taking bear's shape, and did so more and more often until the bear grew in him and the man died away, and he became a bear, and killed his own little son in the forests, and was hunted down and slain. And no one knows how many of the dolphins that leap in the waters of the Inmost Sea were men once, wise men, who forgot their wisdom and their name in the joy of the restless sea.” (pp. 117-8)
I've ploughed straight on into the second book, The Tombs of Atuan, which opens with a scene I think more haunting than anything in the first: a man chiding his wife for doting on the young daughter they know will shortly be taken from them, the man already grieving.

Monday, June 03, 2019

TV Years: Classic Children's Television

The new issue of TV Years magazine, from the makers of TV Choice, is devoted to classic children's television. I've written a feature on Play School (1964-88) and interviewed creator and first producer Joy Whitby and presenters Carol Chell and Carol Leader.

Sunday, June 02, 2019

La Belle Sauvage, by Philip Pullman

Last week, a long car journey through half-term traffic was made infinitely less taxing by Michael Sheen's reading of the first volume of The Book of Dust.

Set within the same fantastic universe as the His Dark Materials trilogy, the heroine of that story - Lyra - is here a new-born baby. She's being looked after by some nice nuns in a priory, and across the bridge from them is a pub run by the parents of 11 year-old Malcolm Polstead. Mal is a hard-working, concientious nerd, with a love for new words and bits of gadget such as screws that only turn one way. Chatting to pub customers, eavesdropping and watching, he starts to spy a conspiracy building round the baby...

Just as with His Dark Materials, Pullman conjures a vivid, rich world so near and yet so far from our own. Malcolm's borrowed books include A Brief History of Time but he's also accompanied by his shape-changing demon, Asta. The etiquette of demons - that it's rude to touch someone else's demon; that demons can change shape until their human reaches adulthood, when they settle in one form - is all subtely conveyed: a world of strange wonders that yet feels real.

This world is populated with memorable characters, and Pullman is good at making us warm to the nice ones and bristle at the villains. For all the villains are hissable, there are plenty of characters we're not quite sure of, or good people we can't quite trust. Kudos to Michael Sheen for expertly voicing such an enormous cast.

The book is in two parts, and the first is easily the strongest as Malcolm uncovers the plot against the baby and encounters various sinister organisations linked to the Church. I found the chapter where one group addresses his school utterly terrifying, children encouraged to turn on their teachers and parents and friends.
"Malcolm's headmaster Mr Willis was still away on Monday, and on Tuesday Mr Hawkins the deputy head announced that Mr Willis wouldn't be coming back, and that he would be in charge himself from then on. There was an intake of breath from the pupils. They all knew the reason: Mr Willis had defied the League of St Alexander, and now he was being punished. It gave the badge-wearers a giddy sense of power. By themselves they had unseated the authority of a headmaster. No teacher was safe now. Malcolm watched the faces of the staff members as Mr Hawkins made the announcement: Mr Savery put his head in his hands, Miss Davis bit her lip, Mr Croker the woodwork teacher looked angry. Some of the others gave little triumphant smiles; most were expressionless." (p. `147) 
If the Church are the baddies, there are plenty of good and kind Christians, such as the nuns in charge of Lyra. Yes, the politics are a little laid on with a trowel - but then that's true of our own world at the moment.

When we stopped for lunch, I asked Lord Chaos how much he understood what was going on in this sequence - and he did, and told me he wouldn't have worn a badge. But it also didn't resonate with him as much as it did with me. But he was on the edge of his seat for the end of part one, and the thrilling things happening in the midst of a huge flood.

Part two is fine and full of strange, arresting events but lacks the thrill of the first half. It details the journey made by Mal's boat - the Belle Sauvage of the title - and stop-offs along the way. After all the conspiracy and intrigue of the first part, I didn't really feel it advanced the plot. There's plenty of excitement, especially in the villainous Bonneville, and the prolonged chase affects the relationship between the protagonists, but I got to the end feeling it hadn't changed much else. That's a shame given the strength of the opening.

The second book, The Secret Commonwealth, is published later this year and set 20 years after the events here - and after those of His Dark Materials. I'm very much looking forward to it, and to the BBC's adaptation of His Dark Materials. You might also like this recent chat between Samira Ahmed and Philip Pullman on how he found his voice.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Doctor Who Magazine 539

The new issue of Doctor Who Magazine marks my debut as compiler of the "Time Team" - the regular feature in which a group of 20-something fans watch old episodes of the series with a connecting them. 

This time, the theme is "Is Doctor Who a kids' show?" - something I've been thinking about a lot over the last year as I've watched my son and his school friends get caught up in the adventures of Jodie Whittaker's Doctor. So, I set Beth, Christel and Luke watching The Web Planet (1965), Full Circle part one (1980) and The Caretaker (2014). We were also joined by Ariana - who has never seen an episode of Doctor Who before.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Seurat and the Science of Painting, by William Innes Homer

Seurat and the
Science of Painting
by William Innes Homer
At the turn of the 20th century, work by Max Planck on the odd properties of light led to a revolution in physics called quantum mechanics. But a generation before him, artists showed an understanding of light no less revolutionary.

I've been interested in the overlap of science and art for a long time, as I posted here after a visit to the National Gallery's 2007 exhibition, "Manet to Picasso". Some of that thinking was rekindled by reading The Pinball Effect last month, which cited the influence on Seurat of the chemist Michel Chevreul. An endnote directed me to Seurat and the Science of Painting, published in 1964.

Sifting through Seurat's surviving papers, accounts of his contemporaries and other sources, Homer pieces together the influences on two particularly famous paintings: "Une Baignade, Asnières" (usually translated in the plural as "Bathers at Asnières") from 1884, and "Un dimanche après-midi à l'Île de la Grande Jatte" ("A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jette"), painted 1884-86.

"Une Baignade, Asnières" by Seurat (1884)

"Un dimanche après-midi à l'Île de la Grande Jatte"
by Seurat (1884-86)
The key idea is that Seurat followed the colour theories of Chevreul and Rood, among others. Those theories weren't exactly new. Chevreul had experimented with colour while director of the Gobelins tapestry works in Paris, publishing his conclusions in 1839 - 20 years before Seurat was born. Nor were he and the Impressionists the first to use these theories in painting. Homer shows that Delacroix was well ahead of them; he died in 1863, when Seurat was not yet four.

The theories are fairly simple to grasp. In trying to make dyes brighter and more arresting, Chevreul found that it was less effective to mix colours physically than to place threads or fabrics dyed in contrasting colours next to one another. From a distance, our eyes do the mixing optically but to more dramatic effect. The contrasts shimmer and fizz.

Homer provides a range of different diagrams explaining colour contrasts and harmonies, as understood by different theorists. Take the three primary colours: yellow, red and blue (or, in some cases, blue-violet). The direct contrast to yellow is the mix of the other two, i.e. purple. Red then contrasts with green, and blue (or blue-violet) with orange. But that's just the start. Homer then details how the theories incorporate gradations of tone and hue. There are a lot of diagrams.

On one spread, radiating spokes are presented three times to show how the same basic idea passed from person to person - the last of them Seurat. There are also circles, grids, stars and triangles to demonstrate connections of colour, the spokes labelled variously in English or French. It's extraordinary that these diagrams explaining colour in such meticulous detail are all in black and white. We must imagine the connections. The colour plates offer just four small images, each a detail of one of the paintings under discussion. The paintings themselves are also shown in black and white.

Diagrams in Seurat and the Science of Painting (1)
Diagram in Seurat and the Science of Painting (2)

The result is that this academic study was all the more hard-going for this reader of limited brain. Homer goes into great detail but (I felt) repeats himself, giving ever more examples of the same basic idea. There's also little on what other science influenced these painters: the invention of photography, the development of new kinds of paint. And I think purists might question how "scientific" some of these theories really are - surely some of the conclusions are more a matter of taste.

But for the most part this is dizzyingly absorbing. The irony is that Seurat's work isn't realistic, yet that stylisation is based on direct observation, recording the strange, real effects of light - such as the colouring of shadows. The brushwork is surely also on to something ahead of its time. Previous generations of painters used delicate strokes to hide their artistry but Seurat favoured spots and strokes, discernable dabs of individual colour. 

It is light conveyed in discrete units, packets - quanta.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Living with a black hole

The June 2019 issue of medical journal the Lancet Psychiatry includes my review of the film Out of Blue.
"Detective Mike Hoolihan (Patricia Clarkson) has always felt safe working in homicide. However, the shocking death of astronomer Jennifer Rockwell (Mamie Gummer) poses difficult questions. While Hoolihan pursues three murder suspects, she also finds herself increasingly affected by the dead woman's work on black holes and unsettling conversations about quantum mechanics and Schrödinger's put-upon cat. She comes to doubt herself, as do we..."

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Lies Sleeping, by Ben Aaronovitch

A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since my holiday in Salonica in January 2011 where I read my friend Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London, but I recently listened to the audio version of that first instalment and it all came flooding back. Peter Grant is a cop who can do magic, investigating weird shit in London...

Lies Sleeping is the seventh novel in the series - there's also a novella and a spin-off comic series. Here, there's the usual mix of streetwise wit and procedural detail, grounding the investigation in real life and science and history. Ben's gift is to make it feel authentic.
"... me and Guleed ended up in a corridor at UCH guarding [a suspect]'s hospital room, along with a reassuringly solid member of Protection Command in full ballistic armour and armed with an H&K MP5 machine gun. Her name was Lucy and she had three children under the age of five.
'Compared to them,' she told us, 'I don't find this job stressful at all.'
You use Protection Command people for this kind of job because unlike SCO19 they're trained to do guard duty. You want a certain kind of personality who can stand around in the rain for eight hours and still be awake enough to shoot someone in the central body mass at a moment's notice." (pp. 14-15).
There a big, diverse cast of characters, and many now feel like friends. Then there's eye-popping action stuff, some of it read with your heart in your mouth.

It's obviously difficult to write about this book without spoiling earlier instalments, but it's been a real pleasure to bathe in this world again. I especially like how it's a satisfying, standalone story in its own right, but full of stuff pushing forward so that nothing can be the same.

The Waterstones edition includes a bonus story, "Favourite Uncle", told from the perspective of Peter's 15 year-old trainee, Abigail and is a nice bit of Christmas whimsy, never quite going where you'd expect.

Thursday, May 09, 2019

The Science of Storytelling, by Will Storr

I'm reviewing this new book elsewhere so can't go into too much detail here, but this has been a fascinating read. Storr uses lots of recent psychological and neuroscientific studies to explain how our brains respond to stories and what we can do to make those stories more effective. There's everything from devising character and plotting to the construction of sentences.

My own criticism is the sometimes glib, even crass, tone. He illustrates a point about how people justify their own bad behaviour with a real-life example of a Nazi who killed children. But the actual example is so visceral and vivid that it's haunted me for days.

Friday, May 03, 2019

Doctor Who Magazine 538

Robert Allsopp's first work on Doctor Who was to make the question mark handle for Sylvester McCoy's umbrella in 1987. He's worked on the series on-and-off ever since - his workshop supplied the mechanical version of the Dalek creature hugging poor Charlotte Ritchie in this year's episode, Resolution.

I've interviewed Rob about his career for the new issue of Doctor Who Magazine - out now.

Thursday, May 02, 2019

Autism, by Jessie Hewitson

I learned about this book in December when the author was a guest on the (brilliant) 1800 Seconds on Autism podcast, and was particularly struck by the subheading: "How to raise a happy autistic child."

It's full of useful advice, explaining the myriad ways autism can manifest and the torturous process of fighting for support. Hewitson has talked to a lot of experts, lots of similarly struggling parents and - most importantly - lots of autistic people themselves. As well as the practical tips and details of where to turn to for help, the book underlines that this can be very difficult but not impossible. You are not alone.

If there's one message here it's to be proactive and to fight on. Hewitson says she hopes the chapter on support in education will "empower parents to know some of their rights and help people with less money and privilege to navigate this complex system."
"Some local authorities are good, but many of you who have already embarked on the quest to get your council to stump up will know it is those who fight hardest and play the LA at their own game who get most support. The poorer kids, or the kids who don't have the capacity for the fight, are gettinng less support or, increasingly none. Meanwhile, the children of the middle-classes are getting provision because their parents can understand and can play or afford to play the system." (pp. 208-9)
It's not just knowing how to play the system, it's also having the means. Many of the therapies suggested here cost money and also take time. You need time to battle the system and go to all the appointments. You need time to chase the things promised that haven't been done. Then, after all that battling, you're offered a course - or more than one - at short notice, an hour a week for however many weeks that effectively writes off half a day when you're already struggling to stay on top of things. Being freelance has helped me be flexible but all that time eaten up has its effect, from the constant missing of deadlines to never earning enough.

So I read Hewitson's accounts of various private therapy sessions with envy. But we battle ever on.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Costume design in Doctor Who

The new issue of Doctor Who Magazine Special Edition focuses on costume design - an often neglected aspect of a series that has otherwise been studied exhaustively.

Running through the special is a decade-by-decade history of costume in the series written by Piers Britton, co-author of the seminal academic study Reading between Designs: Visual Imagery and the Generation of Meaning in The Avengers, The Prisoner and Doctor Who (2003), and its full of gems like the way Sandra Reid had to find plausible ways to put companions from Earth's past into more contemporary clothes.
"Her solution for Victoria, in the character's second serial, The Tomb of the Cybermen (1967), was especially clever. Details of Victoria's original crinoline, with its ruffled bodice, were echoed in a demurely knee-skimming mini-dress, made from a very similar sprigged material but embellished with knife pleats, rather than ruffles, running from shoulder to belt." (p. 8)
The special also includes interviews with costume designers and actors from the series. I spoke to four of the Doctor's travelling companions from contemporary Earth: Anneke Wills (Polly, 1966-7); Katy Manning (Josephine Grant, 1971-3, 2010); Sophie Aldred (Ace, 1987-9); Jackie Tyler (Camille Coduri, 2005-6, 2008, 2010). I also spoke to fan Tim Wearing, who happens to own his favourite costume from all of Doctor Who.

This all dovetails with my ongoing work for the Doctor Who Figurine Collection, where I'm writing 1,200 words for each of the characters I'm assigned from the whole history of the series - as well as longer pieces for the Companion Set issues focused on Doctors and their companions. Here's a list of the issues of Doctor Who Figurine Collection I've written.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

The Pinball Effect, by James Burke

Rowland Hill, inventor of the postage stamp, uncovered a parliamentary scandal:
“For several years, at his own expense, Hill investigated the postal system. In the course of these inquiries, he found that government officials and members of Parliament were using their free franking privileges to send private packages through the mail. Some of the less-conventional contents included a pair of hounds, a cow, some sides of bacon, two maidservants and a piano. These and other fraudulent postal practices were costing the British Treasury the princely sum of a million pounds a year.”
This magnificent detail comes from page 14 of The Pinball Effect, or How the Renaissance Water Gardens Made the Carburetor Possible – and Other Journeys Through Knowledge, a 1996 book by the science historian James Burke. The premise is familiar from his other work, ranging from the 1978 TV series Connections to this year's Web of Knowledge for Radio 4: following connections through the history of multiple disciplines to show the unexpected ways in which things change.

In his introduction to The Pinball Effect, Burke refers to the Internet - capitalised because in 1996 it was still a neat, new idea - and the way interconnectedness will change how we think about knowledge and educaton.
“In the near future it will be necessary for everybody to be able to use this information superhighway with the same casual familiarity with which we approach books, newspapers and television. Electronic information sources will become as ubiquitous in our future landscape as the telephone is today.” (p. 5) 
That prediction has turned out to be right, of course, but I'll return to something that Burke missed. For the present, it seems that the Internet inspired the format of The Pinball Effect. In the margins of most pages are a series of three numbers, one of 314 "gateways" in the 286 pages that can jump you backward or forward through the text. The idea is you don't - only, anyway - read the book sequentially but hop about following threads.

It's embedding a book with hyperlinks, though Burke's gateways can appear mid-sentence, diverting us mid-thought to some new thread or insight. Even so, the effect is like following links deeper and deeper into Wikipedia - which wasn't created until 2001, five years after this book. Burke's book is from the same year as Geoff Ryman's 253 website (published as a book two years later). It also reminds me of the CD-rom Oliver Postage produced (with assistance from my mate Mark Wyman) to accompany the 2001 paperback edition of his autobiography, Seeing Things. That CD-rom offers the text of printed book riddled with embedded links to additional content in different media (including a chance to hear the author say the word "fuck"). All three titles attempt to apply the innovations of the Web to the traditional printed word.

So, Burke is attempting to embody change as well as to chart it, making a plea on the last page of the book that the form is crucial to understanding the content:
"I hope the reader will try the exercise [of using a gateway] at least once, to get a feel of the crazy way the pinball of change works its magic, bouncing here and there across time and space. There is no single, correct pathway on the web [of knowledge], or in life. Mistrust anybody who tells you so." (p. 286) 
Again, I'll return to that last sentence, but first the content.

Burke's history of change is dizzying, lively and full of fun detail. He delights in the odd and unexpected, especially when a consequence is felt in an entirely different field. For example, there's the massive increase in coal consumption in the 19th century to feed the expanding railroads. A by-product of the coal-coking process was coal gas, and a use was quickly found for this waste product: burning it for light.
“The new gaslight stimulated more leisure time reading in general and triggered the birth of the evening class (and unintentionally, perhaps, was the genesis of the educated, professional woman).” (p. 29) 
I particularly enjoyed learning that celluloid - and thus the consequent film industry - was developed by John and Isiah Hyatt as an alternative to ivory (p. 38), and had never heard before of the Port Royal experiment (p. 71). I've previously written about the history of cybernetics, but hadn't connected that Norbert Wiener - who coined the term - was pioneering systems to help anti-aircraft artillery.
“In 1944 the new system [based on Wiener and Bigelow's algorithms] first appeared in the form of the M-9 predictor: and during the first weeks of its use against incoming V-1 missile targets along the English Channel, it was a resounding success. In the first week of the final month of German missile attacks, 24 percent of the targets were destroyed. On the last day of missile raids, in which 104 rockets were launched, 68 were destroyed by Wiener’s cybernetically controlled guns. Britain was saved.” (p. 90)
Speaking of artillery, Burke explains how Napoleon used smaller, more standardised cannons to make his horse-drawn artillery much more agile and effective. From this, we're told that in 1799 Napoleon led his army through Switzerland on his way to battle the Austrians - but some of the Swiss objected. A battle in the canton of Unterwalden left lots of Swiss dead, and the resulting orphans were taken in by a former farmer and novelist (he failed in both lines) called Pestalozzi.

With no money for books or equipment, Pestalozzi developed a radical new kind of schooling for his charges, which he wrote up in the 1801 textbook, How Gertrude Teaches Children: An Attempt to Give Directions to Mothers How to Instruct Children. Burke's summary makes it sound very progressive: all about independence and hard work, the children teaching each other from direct experience. It's fascinating in itself.

But years before, in 1797, Pestalozzi had met and become friends with a German academic, Johann Fridrich Herbart, who in 1809 (Burke says "by 1808", but checking elsewhere suggests otherwise) succeeded Kant in the chair of philosophy at the University of Königsberg. This made him an influential advocate of Pestalozzi's theories on teaching. In Pestalozzi’s ABC of Observation, Herbart extended his friends ideas by looking at how learning from experience modifies and moulds a person, forming personality. The "apperceptive mass" of experience is how the individual understands the world. Any subsequent experience is either similar to previous experience and at one with the existing mass, or it is different and so crosses what Herbart called the "threshold of consciousness" to be recognised as new.
“Herbart thus established the formative nature of this threshold and effectively turned psychology into a science.” (p. 254)
There's something extraordinary in the science of psychology emerging as a by-product of Napoleon's campaigns - though I now need to return to what Burke didn't spot about the way we (would) use knowledge on the Internet.

Burke's "select biography" runs to six pages, and is full of fascinating-looking books. But The Pinball Effect has no footnotes or endnotes with which we can check the provenance of his ideas and interpretations. We must take Burke at his word as authority. As Wikipedia would say, "Citation needed." In fact, my seven year-old son will repeat by rote the lesson drummed into him at school: because anybody can change Wikipedia, it's a useful starting point for finding things out but you have to check everything claimed.

On the last page of The Pinball Effect, Burke almost acknowledges this issue of authority - as we've already seen.
"There is no single, correct pathway on the web, or in life. Mistrust anybody who tells you so." (p. 286) 
He's so nearly there, but the change isn't quite what he expected.

Tuesday, April 09, 2019

Noughts & Crosses, by Malorie Blackman

This, the first in a series of acclaimed young adult novels, is set in a segregated world very like our own but where white people are an oppressed underclass. 

I've seen something like this before. It was done in Fable, a 1965 episode of the BBC's anthology series, The Wednesday Play. There's also something of the same idea in MP Enoch Powell's notorious 1968 speech where he quoted one of his consituents - "a decent, ordinary fellow Englishman," according to Powell - who was convinced that, "In this country in fifteen or twenty years time, the black man will have the whip hand over the white man."

Fable and that speech were responses to legislation on race relations being put through Parliament at the time, but Blackman's novel is less about specific policy as it is about showing how privilege and prejudice shape the way we see the world.

We alternate between chapters narrated by rich black girl Sephy, whose racist dad is high-up in the government, and chapters narrated by Sephy's friend Callum, who is white. At the start of the novel, Callum has - with Sephy's help - passed an exam to be allowed to go to school, where he'll be one of a handful of white students. On his first day, there are protests outside the school to prevent him getting in. We follow Sephy and Callum through their school days and beyond, as they become ever more politicised by the unjustice and cruelty of their world - and face inevitable doom. 

Blackman makes the unfolding tragedy utterly devastating. We often see the same event first through the eyes of one of our narrators, and then completely differently when viewed by the other. We understand their disagreements and fights from each perspective, and continually learn why other characters behave in what seem mean and spiteful ways. Most haunting, I think, are the handful of characters struggling against insurmountable odds to change, to improve, the system. 

Along the way, the plot covers alcoholism, terrorism, violence and totalitarianism - in appropriate terms for the young adult reader, but not shying away from the moral dilemmas or profound questions involved. Blackman unfolds the story in short, emotive chapters, the prose immediate and straight forward. But the simplicity is deceptive: this is a rich, powerful and affecting novel. It underlines, too, that half a century after that race relations legislation was passed, there is still a long way to go.

Wednesday, April 03, 2019

Doctor Who Magazine 537

Doctor Who Magazine #537 is in shops from tomorrow, and includes my interview with Samuel Oatley, the actor who played terrifying teeth monster Tzim-Sha - or Tim Shaw - in last year's The Woman Who Fell to Earth and The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

The Moon - A celebration of our celestial neighbour

In July it will be 50 years since the first crewed landing on the Moon and this book accompanies the forthcoming major exhibition at Royal Museums Greenwich - where I did my GCSE in astronomy all those years ago. Full blurb as follows:
Official publication for the Royal Museums Greenwich major exhibition The Moon, marking the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s ‘small step’, with the Apollo 11 Moon landing. Written by the Royal Observatory’s leading astronomers and moon experts, this landmark work explores humankind’s fascination with our only natural satellite.

Highly illustrated with 180 fascinating colour and black and white photographs this book is a treasure trove for all amateur and professional Moon watchers.

Sections include:

A constant companion

Learn how we started to observe the Moon, how we used it to mark time and navigate, how lunar lore developed across the world, how the Chinese developed calendars and predicted eclipses. See how the Moon has influenced African art, and also acted as a muse for artists in other parts of the world in a variety of media.

Through the lens

Once the telescope was invented the Moon was observed, drawn and mapped and highly detailed artworks were also created. When photography came along the Moon was an early target until we eventually landed on the Moon surface in July 1969, 50 years ago. Today we can process images of the Moon to show it in extraordinary colour.

Destination moon

We have travelled to the Moon in stories for a long time, using fantastical machines and strange substances. When film arrived we transferred the stories to that medium and the space race was on long before we ever made it in person.

Nevertheless, we have satarized our satellite, we have reported fantastical events in our newspapers and artists have used it as a subject in many different styles of artwork. The Moon and space programmes have also influenced fashion, toys and culture.

For all mankind?

Scientists have investigated what it is made of, how its craters were formed and its origin and great steps have been taken since the Moon landings. Meantime in cinema and television Moon topics continue to appear. Poets have long been influenced by it and this continues today, science fiction is still flourishing. Artists also continue to use new media such as video and others have created a series of works. The Moon has not escaped geopolitics with various treaties being signed in relation to space debris.

Friday, March 08, 2019

The Once and Future King, by TH White

This extraordinary, sprawling retelling of the Arthurian legend (especially Malory's version) was written between 1936 and 1942, in the run-up to and during the Second World War. It directly refers to the Austrian agitator threatening Britain at the time it was written, and the black-shirts and Fascism at home. With Brexit looming, and portents of national catastrophe, its time has surely come again.

The version I read was first published in 1977, more than a decade after White's death. It comprises five novels, four of them published during his lifetime in forms he then revised. In fact, the last book ends with White addressing the myriad ways Arthur's story has been told through the ages, the warping of the legend to suit different ends.

It all begins with The Sword in the Stone, originally published in 1938. As in the Disney film from 1963, an awkward boy called Wart is schooled by the eccentric wizard Merlyn, whose lessons involve being transformed into various kinds of animal. This Merlyn is brilliantly conjured, at once wise and ridiculous. The delightful conceit is that he's living his life backwards through time, hence his knowledge of events to come - all a bit mixed up because he's so many centuries old.

Merlyn schools Wart - and sometimes his adopted brother Kay - and much of that education is based on a deep love of the natural world. Clues here and later in the book suggested Merlyn might once have been a school teacher in his youth, ie in the 20th century, and that suggests White modelled him on himself. The back of this edition has JK Rowling calling it "Harry's spiritual ancestor", and it's easy to see the influence of White's Merlyn on not just Albus Dumbledore but the whole wizarding world around him. There's the same silliness and sorrow, the incongruity of everyday objects and a long-suffering owl.

Surely the influence is wider than that. Gandalf - first seen in The Hobbit published in 1937 - seems to have been a simultaneous creation rather than one being inspired by the other. But the notable difference, I thought reading this, was how funny Merlyn is from the off. Gandalf is more grave and portentous. In the book of The Fellowship of the Ring (1954), he insists on making Hobbit children wait until Bilbo's birthday before he unleashes his fireworks. In the 2001 film version, the more amenable version played by Ian McKellen sets off a few early, and is clumsy and smokes too much weed. I wonder if the screen version owes something to White's Merlyn. Perhaps there's something of Merlyn in Catweazel, another "scientist" of the Middle-Ages. And surely he's there in what I consider the definitive Merlin, played by the great Nicol Williamson in Excalibur (1981). When he falls over in the river or whispers advice to a horse, there's the ghost of White.

Wart enjoys amiable enough adventures under Merlyn's tutelage. The mythic, English past is full of dangers - at one point, Wart is out in the woods and someone shoots at him with arrows for reasons that are never explained. I was also confused about when the novel is set, but towards the end of this first instalment, the king dies and we're given his dates: "Uther the Conqueror, 1066 to 1216" (p. 216). That over-writes the Houses of Normandy, Blois and Anjou - though White makes various references to some of those canonical kings, too. He clearly delights in none of it mattering, as he demonstrates when addressing the reader a few pages later:

"Perhaps, if you happen not to have lived in the Old England of the twelfth century, or whenever it was..." (p. 222). 

In other versions of Arthur's story, the death of the apparently heirless Uther leaves England without a king and, thus, facing crisis. White has already included other kings in his story, such as Wart's friend King Pellinore, but he also seems rather wary of this king business altogether.
"They [the people] were sick of the anarchy which had been their portion under Uther Pendragon: sick of overlords and feudal giants, of knights who did what they pleased, of racial discrimination, and of the rule of might as Right." (p. 230).
The idea seems to be that through his studies of - and living within - nature, Wart can be something different, even the animals recognising his majesty as King Arthur.

The Witch in the Wood, first published in 1939, follows the early struggles of the new King.
"Arthur was a young man, just on the theshold of life. He had fair hair and a stupid face, or at any rate there was a lack of cunning in it. It was an open face, with kind eyes and a reliable or faithful expression, as though he were a good learner who enjoyed being alive and did not believe in original sin. He had never been unjustly treated, for one thing, so he was kindly to other people." (p. 244).
That made me think of Peter Davison's Doctor Who, described by writer Terrance Dicks in his novelisations as having a "pleasant, open face." But it's odd to read this description of the guileless Arthur so soon after The Sword in the Stone because he was unjustly treated - and repeatedly - by his foster brother, Kay. Kay teases Arthur about his parentage, leaves him to deal with a wayward hawk that Kay himself unleashed, and lies about taking the sword from the stone himself.

More perintently, that disbelieve in original sin reads here like a noble quality in the boyish king. But  biographer Sylvia Warner Townsend explains in her afterword that White was inspired to write the story by a rereading of Mallory (on which he'd already earned a First Class with Distinction in English). As she says, "The note in which he summarized his findings may be his first step towards The Once and Future King:
'The whole Arthurian story is a regular greek doom, comparable to that of Oriestes.'" (p. 847) 
But the warring factions are more than Arthur being punished for the sins of his father. White speaks often of "racial discrimination", meaning differences between the English and the Celts (in Ireland and Scotland) - though he uses several different terms to describe the two groups. The chief antagonists are Arthur's wider family based in Orkney - his half sister, with whom he unwittingly has a son.

Merlyn has little time for such squabbling. When asked about the reasons for the present conflict, he lists a number of intermingling causes, and then makes his conclusion:
"The present revolt ... is a process of disintegration. They want to smash up what we may call the United Kingdom into a lot of piffling little kingdoms of their own. That is why their reason is not what you might call a good one." 
He then goes on:
"I never could stomach these nationalists ... The destiny of Man is to unite, not to divide. If you keep on dividing you end up as a collection of monkeys throwing nuts at each other out of spearate trees." (p. 256)
From this, he delivers a vehement anti-war lecture - and remember that Merlyn lives backwards, so was "young" in the future, ie at the time White was writing.
"When I was a young man ... there was a general idea that it was wrong to fight in wars of any sort. Quite a lot of people in those days declared that they would never fight for annything whatever." (p. 257)
He concludes that war can only be justified to curb other war-makers, a conscientious objector (as White was) accepting the moral argument for battling the Nazis - even if not part of that battle himself.

This discussion, for all it seems to allow White a soapbox, is about making Arthur think harder about the sort of king he will be, and the kind of regime he'll endeavour to instil. White is playful about the fact Merlyn is about to leave the story, destined to be imprisoned in Cornwall by the woman he loves. Yet Merlyn's last lesson is serious.
"You have become king of a domain in which the popular agitators hate each other for racial reasons, while the nobility fight each other for fun, and neither the racial maniac nor the overlord stops to consider the lot of the common soldier, who is the person that gets hurt. Unless you can make the world wag better than it does at present, King, your reign will be an endless series of petty battles, in which the aggressions will either be from spiteful reasons or from sporting ones, and in which the poor man will be the only one who dies." (p. 261)
Arthur comes to his own conclusion: that might is not right, and he must use his power - his privilege as king - to protect the oppressed. The code of chivalry, the equality represented by the famous Round Table, are all then a stand against Fascism. White makes that clear in the last pages of this book, referring directly to "an Austrian" who embodies all the things Arthur stands against. Merlyn, the wizard of old, pagan magic, even invokes Christianity to underline his point.
"Jesus did not turn the disciples into storm troopers, burn down the Temple of Jerusalem, and fix the blame on Pontius Pilate. On the contrary, he made it clear that the business of the philosophers was to make ideas available, and not to impose them on people." (p. 297)
It won't be easy. We already know Arthur and his knights will struggle to live up to the principles of Camelot. White is writing tragedy in the traditions of the ancient Greeks, but I was also struck by how much Arthur has set an impossible task. Gawaine, for example, is one of the better knights, the one to forge links between Arthur and the rabble-rousing lot in Orkney. But Gawaine is also impulsive, and violent.
"It was curious that when he was in one of these black passions he seemed to pass out of human life. In later days he even killed women, when he had been worked into such a state - though he regretted it bitterly afterwards." (p. 307)
Its an England of toxic masculinity, fragmenting on nationalist lines. For all the beauty of Arthur's noble ideas, the sense is of darkening skies.

First published in 1940, The Ill-Made Knight then switches perspective to follow the life of Sir Lancelot, from a child in awe of the new king to his most illustrious champion. Of course, the main part of this is the forbidden love between Lancelot and Arthur's queen, Guenever, which White really makes us feel. Just as it's easy to see Merlyn as a version of White, it's all too tempting to read into the moral quandary of this love affair something of White's own personal life. In her biography of White, Townsend Warner quotes from his diary, where White admits falling in love with a boy he refers to as "Zed": "All I can do is behave like a gentleman."

Whatever the case, there's perhaps more of a sense of the kind of teacher White was, or how his pupils responded to him, in the edication of Lancelot by his gruff uncle:
"Sometimes Uncle Dap was tantalized into beating him, but he bore that also. In those days they did." (p. 363).
There's no sense given of what Lancelot might have done to warrant these beatings - the feeling given is rather that Dip hit him anyway. And the implication is surely not that Lancelot grew up in a crueler period of history, that White and his contemporaries knew better than to beat children. Surely the implication is that the children of White's time no longer put up with it in silence.

There's more on the conflict between children and their elders later in the book when, shockingly, Arthur's half-sister is murdered by her own sons. They catch their old mum with a much younger man. White namechecks Freud elsewhere in the book, and doesn't shy away from the implications here.
"The murder of Queen Morgause had not been done on purpose. Agravaine had done it on the spur of the moment - in his outraged passion, he said - but they knew by instinct that it was from jealousy."(p. 484) 
The Candle in the Wind was the last instalment published in White's lifetime - in 1958 - and feels like a definite end to the story and the legend. We're still with the ongoing intrigue between Lancelot and Guenever, but now there's much more about Mordred - Arthur's son with his half-sister. Mordred is a fascist, he and his followers dressed all in black with a distinctive red logo. It's painful stuff, watching him needle and poison and spoil things, and force Arthur - who is sworn to abide by his own laws - to banish Lancelot and send Guenever to be burned at the stake. It's never spelled out, but it seems as if Mordred also murders his own brothers, who have gone to stand against Lancelot but without armour on, to frame the most-noble knight.

This is where the tragedy really sets in, and again it's as much about the world in which White was writing as it is the distant past - a cloud descending on England and threatening to blot it out. It's gripping, as Lancelot walks headlong into a trap, and full of moral quandaries and situations from which we can't possibly see how our heroes might escape. But I also liked the peppering of details from the period, White delighting in its riches and strangeness.
"In Silvester the Second, a famous magician ascended the papal throne, although he was notorious for having invented the pendulum clock." (p. 601) 
He goes on to list other great "scientists" of the age: Albert the Great, Friar Bacon, Raymond Lully, Baptista Porta who "seems to have invented the cinema", according to White (p. 603), and the monk Aethelmaer who dabbled in aircraft.

The book ends with Arthur going out to meet his destiny in a final battle with Mordred, just an ordinary old man going to war rather than all the magic and legend. The candle in the wind of the title is the idea Arthur has sparked - of valour, of equality, of justice. A small boy is sent away from the battle to spread the story, to share that flickering light. With that done, Arthur goes wearily to his fate. It's a powerful conclusion to an epic tale, and I can see why White's editors weren't quick to publish the fifth volume, though it had already been written.

The Book of Merlyn was first published as part of the collected The Once and Future King in 1977. It picks up from the end of the previous instalment with Arthur postponed from going to his doom by the return of Merlyn. There's no explanation for how Merlyn escaped his incarceration, or why he now feels that Arthur requires further schooling. Together, they meet many of the animals who helped educate young Wart and argue about what conclusions to draw.

It is odd. An editor's note tells us that White took passages from this - namely, Arthur's time with the totalitarian ants and with the utopian geese - and inserted them into later versions of The Sword in the Stone, including the version in this book. The repetition is jarring, but very little of The Book of Merlyn offers anything new. Merlyn is angry at the world, at humanity, but his arguments wander. At the heart of his argument are the geese, who Wart once spent a lifetime with and who seem to offer the same perfect way of being as the horses in Gulliver.

The key factor, for Wart and Merlyn and White, is that the geese are migratory and thus have no concept of national boundaries. That is why they never go to war, geese on geese, in the way so specific to humans.
"It is nationalism, the claims of small communities to parts of the indifferent earth as communal property, which is the curse of man." (p. 811)
At the end, Arthur still goes to his fate and White concludes by noting the different ways his story has been told over the centuries. He then signs off in the same manner as Malory. We leave with a pang for Arthur and his light, and for this eccentric author.

Wednesday, March 06, 2019

Doctor Who Magazine 536

The new issue of Doctor Who Magazine reveals a lost Dalek story from 1966 - in my feature on how Eric Laithwaite, professor of heavy electrical engineering at Imperial College, was nearly Doctor Who's first scientific advisor. I had a lovely time working with Dr Rupert Cole at the Science Museum to uncover the story.

The magazine also includes word of my latest effort for Big Finish, part of The Early Years box-set to be released in November:
"[In] The Home Front by Simon Guerrier, the Second Doctor and Jamie McCrimmon (both played by Frazer Hines) will reunite with Polly (Anneke Wills) and Ben Jackson (Elliot Chapman) to face off against the Master (played by James Dreyfus)." 
ETA: In fact, it's called The Home Guard and there's a blurb up on the Big Finish site. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Monday, February 11, 2019

Good in a Room, by Stephanie Palmer

I dared to ask a writer whose work I admire for advice about something I'm working on, and they recommended this book by Stephanie Palmer, subheaded "How to sell yourself (and your ideas) and win over an audience."

It's a simply, straight-forward guide to meeting and maintaining relationships with people who might buy your work, full of practical tips and suggestions. A lot of it is new and immediately useful to me - thinking of meetings as having a "structure" to them, and the ways you identify when to say "no". Some of it also seems painfully obvious - don't get cross at the people you want to employ you - and some of it crystalises stuff that I've sort of been thinking about for some time. 

More than a decade ago now, I was a producer for Big Finish and had writers pitching at me. Some of them were brilliant - three writers I was already a fan of accorded me all respect, like I was the established professionl and they were just starting out. Other writers were less so.

There was the one whose pitch was basically slagging off everything in the range I oversaw. Another pitched an idea we'd just sort of done, and when I said so decided that I should come up with the story they could write. Another, I remember distinctly, behaved as if they'd just read some book on making sales. You could almost see it in their eyes when I said I'd already commissioned everything for my current spaces: "Chapter three techniques haven't worked, so now on to chapter four..."

As a result, I'd been wary of reading this sort of book myself, and of applying these "cheats" on would-be employers. Surely they see through that. But I'm glad to say that's what Stephanie Palmer thinks, too. There's a whole chapter called "Stop Networking Now" for exactly that reason.

Thursday, February 07, 2019

Doctor Who Magazine #535

Out today, Doctor Who Magazine issue #535 includes my interview with Feifei Ruan, the illustrator and visual storyteller who created the extraordinary images used to promote Doctor Who in China.

I'm also a page 3 model, with my photo and short biography carefully placed to scare off readers of a nervous disposition. The Dr and the Lord of Chaos were commissioned for the special photo shoot, which included this dramatic moment.

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Scratchman, by Tom Baker

I knocked through this delicious new Doctor Who novel very quickly, revelling in its fun and invention. It's based on a movie script Tom Baker - the fourth Doctor himself - worked out with co-star Ian Marter in the 1970s. Now Baker and my mate James Goss have turned it into a novel.

I knew the basic story from an old feature in Doctor Who Magazine (issue #379, cover date 28 February 2007, since you weren't asking.) But the novel is a revelation, full of wit and life that didn't quite come across in a dry synopsis. Partly, that's down to the first person narration - a Doctor Who story told by the Doctor, and in more than once sense, too.

After a prologue in which the Doctor is, yet again, put on trial by his peers - here is Tom Baker reading that prologue - we start with a picnic, the Doctor playing a ukulele to the despair of his friend Sarah, while Harry is keen to play cricket on the beach. But the three friends are watched by sinister scarecrows - including the brilliant mental image of a scarecrow policeman on a bike - and the scarecrows turn out to be linked to Scratchman or, as we better know him, the Devil himself.

In the late 1970s, the proposed film had a director attached: James Hill, who'd later oversee the TV series Worzel Gummidge. I tried to imagine the events of the novel in the same bleak pastoral style, all on film, the scarecrows beautifully realised. That series terrified me as a kid because it seemed so uncannily real. (Not helped by it being shot near where I grew up.)

Scratchman's scarecrows and its depiction of ordinary, village life with its squabbling egos, would suit that kind of production. But as I read the book, I imagined it more in the style of The Android Invasion - a 1975 Doctor Who story about weird goings on in a village, a mix of location recording and studio sets. That story, the last to feature Ian Marter as Harry, is the jolliest of the stories overseen by producer Philip Hinchcliffe, the one most unlike the rest of his tenure. It was directed by his predecessor, Barry Letts, which might account for some of that. But for all the scares and deaths in Scratchman, that's the tone I felt it had. This isn't to criticise the tone - I really like The Android Invasion - but it may explain why Hinchcliffe turned down the proposal to make this for TV.

A few small things also stood out to this tragic fan. On page 92, Sarah sees a picture of herself, "posing while happily hitting her android duplicate with a lump hammer." Surely, the implication is that Scratchman is set after the events of The Android Invasion - with Harry rejoining the TARDIS for more adventures we never saw on TV. Sarah herself was in only four more stories before leaving the TARDIS, so my head has been busy trying to sort out when these new adventures of Harry fit in.

On another occasion, the Doctor lights a cigar from a monster's burning head - a macabre joke, but one that seems out of character for this particular hero. Indeed, on the 1978 story The Stones of Blood, where the Doctor faces execution, Tom Baker changed a line asking for a "last cigarette" to a "last toffee apple." Today, the "rules" about these things are carefully watched over by benign guardians at the BBC, and I imagine they - in their infinite patience and wisdom - made a special exemption here.

Elements of the story also seem familiar from things that have come after it. An awful moment where we learn the life story of one of the scarecrows just before it's destroyed reminded me of things done with the Cybermen in a couple of stories. The Doctor and his friends caught up in a giant game of pinball that then gets mixed up with chess has echoes of the first Harry Potter. Of course, this story was devised first, but we're coming to it new.

The scarecrow with the sad life story is just one of many deaths, many of them involving characters we've come to like, even if we don't always know their names. In fact, a point is made of that when the Doctor claims to remember all those who have died - a scene I thought really powerful. But the emotional impact of the book is more personal and profound. Scratchman wants to know what scares the Doctor, and for all it is played for laughs that is a penetrating question. We get a sense of what it feels like to be the Doctor, to face so much danger and terror, and to carry so much loss. That loss includes himself - the "deaths" of his former selves, and his own impending replacement. There's some fun with this - Baker can't resist a pop at his immediate predecessor not tipping a cab driver, and there's a lovely cameo by one of his future selves where this Doctor tries to be brave about his future. The trial sequence concludes setting up stuff we've since seen on TV involving his successors. 

But the most powerful bit is a PS from the Doctor at the almost very end. Here, surely, is not only the Doctor ruminating on his fears, on what it's like to be him, but Tom Baker, too. He concludes with a beautiful blend of pathos and mischief, and it's hard not to think that Baker is 85. He's quite open in interviews that he's a little fragile now and might not be around too much longer. So this ending ties together the boggling ideas of the book but it also feels like goodbye. It's a perfectly judged sign-off and it completely got me. It made this broken old man cry.

Thank you, Doctor. Thanks for everything. Happy times and places to you, too.

Monday, February 04, 2019

Astounding, by Alec Nevala-Lee

Astounding is extraordinary, a rich, incisive and constantly shocking history of the science-fiction magazine of the same name, and through it a biography of the "golden age" of SF told through the lives of four luminaries of the genre: John W Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and L Ron Hubbard.

I grew up devouring Asimov's stories and a fair bit of Heinlein, and wrote my MA dissertation on the claims made by Campbell and others about the quality - and value - of "real" science in SF. That was all a long time ago, but I thought I knew this story. Not a bit of it, it turns out. And some of my heroes were appalling people.

I'm going to write more about that in a review for someone else, so I'll be brief here. I really admired how Nevala-Lee involves women whose voices have otherwise been lost, reminding us of their presence and underlining their influence. Kay Tarrant, for example, was always at the next desk from Campbell when authors came to visit, so would have had a ring-side view of many of the battles described here. When she had a heart attack, we're told, it took five people to carry out the tasks she'd quietly got on with for decades. We get just an impression of her, but it's a strong one, and important.

The book is also unflinching about the shortcomings of authors - not just the four main subjects - and their sometimes downright awful behaviour. "Asimov, who described himself as a feminist, casually groped female fans for years," we're told (p. 12) - and he's the one who comes off best. But there's effort to understand if not condone them, and we can also glory in their work and their influence.

It's prompted me to read a bunch of Asimov's robot stories again, and I remembered robopsychologist Susan Calvin as a pioneering character - a competent, professional woman getting on with her high-level job. But I think that view must have come from Asimov himself, introducing the stories in his jokey, self-effacing way - as he remarks on his own progressive brilliance,
"You will note, by the way, that although most of the Susan Calvin stories were written at a time when male chauvinism was taken for granted in science fiction, Susan asks no favors and beats the men at their own game. To be sure, she remains sexually unfulfilled - but you can't have everything." - Isaac Asimov, The Complete Robot, p. 327.
I'm keen to look again at Heinlein, and have been eyeing The Pleasant Profession of Robert A Heinlein by my friend Farah Mendlesohn, perhaps (as a kind tweeter advised) after a read of the Expanded Universe collection.