Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke

Piranesi chronicles his exploration of a "labyrinth" of halls full of statues-with-meaning, the place liable to epic floods and the occasional albatross. Only one other living human shares this space - aptly named The Other - but there are the remains of 13 bodies, suggesting a history of travellers through this peculiar realm. And then there's someone else among them - and the tantalising prospect that Piranesi's own detailed journal entries are not telling the full story...

Ironically enough, I was captivated by this strange, beguiling, beautiful tale of a man trapped in a fantasy domain. As with Clarke's brilliant Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, the magical fancy is fused with the entirely mundane, so that even the most outlandish elements feel credible.

One particular joy is that we're sometimes ahead of our narrator, who can be slow to make sense of the evidence presented. When he scoffs at such ridiculousness as "Manchester" and "police stations", we know he's missed something important - and true. I think that then prompts us to read his findings extra carefully, sifting for additional clues. We become active participants in the tale.

It's difficult to say more without giving away some of the mystery - and if you've not read the novel, then stop now. 

I think it's brilliant that the ending is not about some lost eden, forever out of grasp. Instead, Piranesi - if he is still Piranesi - is helped by an amazing character to take charge of all that has happened, and then he helps others do the same. Among the literary and scholarly references, on page 165 there's mention of "Timey-Wimey: Steven Moffat [and] Blink", and there's the same satisfying intricacy and resolution. As with Blink, there's violence and loss, but what could so easily be (effective, moving) tragedy is in fact a joyous liberation. It's beautifully, deftly done - this whole puzzlebox of a book deceptively simple, and perfect.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

The Emperor's Feast, by Jonathan Clements

About once a month from 1991 until I left home, my grandfather would treat my family to dinner at the Golden House, a Chinese restaurant a short walk from his house, on the far side of town from where I grew up. He'd usually order the same things for us all - wonton soup followed by crispy duck and pancakes - and I vividly remember the first time I was allowed a glass of beer as well, or when Grandpa made known his approval of my then girlfriend by inviting her to one of these meals.

I now think there was something else going on. Grandpa was born in Shanghai in 1914, his father a bank manager at HSBC. In a memoir he wrote for us, Grandpa remembered his parents entertaining guests there or in Hong Kong with "marrow bones wrapped in white napkins" (which he thought over-rated), and the time, "A party of officers from the 'Hawkins', then China flagship, called for tea one day with their pet honey-bear. It raised a tantrum at not being given enough cakes and swept about a dozen pots to destruction." I think taking his grandchildren for dinner recaptured some of that mayhem.

My friend Jonathan Clements begins his new book with his own childhood memories of a Chinese restaurant where his dad worked as a drummer in a band, and where impressionable young Clemmo "ate all the time." From this, he tells the history of China through its food, the impeccable research peppered with his own experience of living and working in China. It's fascinating, funny and full of great detail. The very idea is intoxicating: a nation marches on its stomach, as Napoleon didn't quite say.

A lot of the book is about authenticity - or the lack of it - in the staples we recognise: "Peking" duck really derives from Nanjing; Zuo Zongtang (1812-85),"is unlikely ever to have tasted anything like" (p. 167) the dish later named after him and known to us as "General Tso's Chicken"; "Sichuan Alligator" (p. 200) is just the most egregious example of dishes erroneously claiming links to Sichuan. In this quest for fidelity, there's plenty on the origin of names and problems of translations. For example, trying to order a Big Mac from the McDonalds at Yangyang International Plaza, Jonathan had to describe it sufficiently for his server to give him the Chinese name: "Immense Tyrant Without Compare (ju wu ba)" (p. 195).

"There was me thinking that writing a book about Chinese food would be an excuse for endless 'research' banquets. Instead, I found myself pursuing the strangest possible cul-de-sacs on menus all over the world, not least in Edinburgh, Scotland, where I felt obliged to order the Haggis Spring Rolls on the menu at Bertie's Restaurant. Much like the cheeseburger spring rolls of Detroit, they seem to me like a pointless gilding of the lily, a clickbaity tricking out of a local food purely for Instagram shares and talking points. That's the only explanation I can think of. I love haggis, and I certainly don't mind cheeseburgers, but by what perverse contrariness would you want to wrap them in pastry and deep-fry them?" Jonathan Clements, The Emperor's Feast (2021), p. 201.

Authenticity is at the heart of his compelling final chapter, charting a series of health scares and scandals involving milk powder and milk, and then food standards more generally. This leads into discussion of the supposed origins of COVID, in the "wet markets" of Wuhan, and a culture that silences whistle-blowers and complaints. That, and some thoughts on how COVID might change Chinese dining culture - and the shared plates of food - is fascinating, full of expert insight that I've not seen addressed elsewhere.

Ironically, COVID has meant Jonathan hasn't been able to dine out while writing, and his book ends with memories of his final meal in Soho just before lockdown and dreams of the Chinese restaurant from his childhood. Like him, I am haunted by thoughts of meals anywhere other than home. A particular joy of this book is that it's like dining out in his company. I'll have wonton soup to start.

Tuesday, April 06, 2021

Scourge of the Cybermen trailer

The trailer for Doctor Who: Scourge of the Cybermen is now online, with Jon Culshaw reading from the six-hour audio novel I've written and Steve Foxon providing the atmospheric score. When the full thing is released in July, you'll also get to hear Nicholas Briggs as the voice of the Cybermen.

You can order Doctor Who: Scourge of the Cybermen direct from Big Finish.

The amazing cover art is by Claudia Gironi. Cybermen and sunflowers - what's not to love?

Thursday, April 01, 2021

Doctor Who Magazine #563

The new issue of Doctor Who Magazine boasts an interview with Ninth Doctor actor Christopher Eccleston, and lots of other Ninth Doctor related goodies. That includes the second instalment of Sufficient Data, the back-page column I've written with Steve O'Brien, illustrated by Ben Morris.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Cinema Limbo: Smoke (1995)

The latest episode of film podcast Cinema Limbo is about Smoke (1995), a favourite film that I inflicted on host Jeremy Philips. It's directed by Wayne Wang and written by Paul Auster, and stars Harvey Kietel, William Hurt and loads of other people.

Friday, March 05, 2021

Doctor Who Magazine #562

The thrilling new issue of the official Doctor Who Magazine features two things by me.

First, in "Moonbase 3" Rhys Williams and I have scrutinised recently discovered studio floor plans for 1967 story The Moonbase, focused on the ingenious way designer Colin Shaw maximised limited space. The CGI recreations of the studio set-up for episode 3 are by clever Gav Rymill. I also got some insight into the kind of person Colin Shaw was from his friend and colleague (and my old boss) John Ainsworth. Thanks to researcher Richard Bignell for alerting me to the discovery of the floor plans and helping my poor old brain make some kind of sense of them.

Secondly, "Sufficient Data" is a new regular column by me (and, from next issue, Steve O'Brien) illustrated by Ben Morris and exploring numbers and concepts in Doctor Who in what we hope will be a fun and surprising way. This issue we're all about the number 13. Steve, Ben and I previously worked together on the book Whographica, which is still available in bookshops.

Thursday, March 04, 2021

Tintin - The Complete Companion, by Michael Farr

After I read all* of Tintin last year, a kind friend sent me this excellent, comprehensive companion, full of details about the writing of the books, the development of the character and the stuff going on in creator Herge's life. I'm struggling to read much beyond work stuff during lockdown, my attention skidding off the page, but this had been an ideal volume to do in fits and starts.

A lot of it is about the differences between versions of the same story, the way Herge and his editors continued to redraw, edit and revise the books, and in doing so responded to criticism or the dictats of particular publishers. For example, there's The Crab With The Golden Claws, originally serialised 1940-41 and then redrawn for the 1943 book version, all while Herge was living in Nazi-occupied Belgium
"As the first Tintin adventure since Cigars of the Pharaoh [serialised 1932-34] to have kept unequivocally clear of politics, it posed no problem for the Nazi censor. However, years after the war when the question of its distribution in the United States arose, it fell foul of American censors who objected to Haddock's alcoholism and the presence of blacks--mixing races was deemed unsuitable in children's books." (p. 96)
In responding to this, as Farr says, Herge replaced a black gang member with one of "arab appearance" (sic), though the original dialogue remained, Haddock still referring to him as a "negro". Farr is good at detailing Herge's own developing consciousness and regret about the racism in his books, and provides some nuanced and fascinating context, but it doesn't really excuse things to say that other people were worse. My sense is there's a fan's instinctive response here, defending a text so cherished from childhood rather than acknowledging inherent problems. 

Farr is best when showing the influences woven into the stories. We are often treated to photographs from Herge's own archive next to panels of his artwork, and there's some great stuff on the real-life people and historical research then ended up in the stories - my favourite this gem about The Secret of the Unicorn worthy of a film of its own:
"The character of Red Rackham [the pirate] came to Herge from a page of Dimanche-Illustre of November 27, 1938, which told the steamy story of the English "femmes pirates" (women pirates) Marie Read (born 1680) and Anne Bonny, and their compatriot Jean Rackam (sic), pirate captain and scourge of the merchant marine and the high seas. Rackam flew a Jolly Roger depicting a skeleton brandishing a cutlass in one hand, a bottle of rum in the other, striking terror in the hearts of his victims.

"According to Maurice Keroul's torrid tales, Bonny, despite being Rackam's mistress, falls dangerously and hopelessly in love with Read who had joined the pirate band in the guise of a man. Read in turn is attracted to Rackam. Before the complicated triangular relationship resolves itself, the pirates are finally cornered, outnumbered, defeated and captured. They are all sentenced to hang. However, Marie Read has her sentence commuted to life imprisonment. On November 20, 1720, Rackam and Bonny are strung up on the yard-arm of their ship in Port Royal, Jamaica. A few days later Read commits suicide." (pp. 108-9)
If there's a criticism, often whole paragraphs are direct quotations from Tintin's adventures, telling us stuff we already know. That's odd because Farr's book is clearly intended to be read with the adventures close to hand: his examples often give page references rather than providing the relevant illustration himself.

It also ends rather abruptly, with a shorter-than-usual chapter on Tintin and Alph-Art suggesting where the unfinished story might have gone next. I'd have liked a bit more summing up, even some sense of Herge's legacy. As it is, the book is all about Herge and his creations as figures of their time but doesn't address Tintin's enduring appeal.